It was almost 9 a.m. The cold morning mist had thinned, and sunlight was warming the apricot-colored dunes of the Namib Desert.
Tommy Collard, ace animal tracker, slammed on the brakes of his Land Cruiser, jumped out, tossed off his sandals and began digging into the sand.
"There's life in these dunes," bellowed Collard, 49, who wore tan shorts over tan legs. "And we are going to find it."
Most African trackers are looking for the big five -- elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and buffaloes. Collard, who works for a nonprofit conservation society, is looking for the tiny five -- head-standing beetles, legless skinks, transparent geckos, dancing spiders and sand-diving lizards.
Just by looking at the sand, he can tell whether there's small game below. .
On this morning, he stooped to inspect the evidence and spotted a jagged streak. Then he dug a little deeper, and out popped a spider's silky web. Then his quarry appeared: a dancing white lady spider. This one was hopping mad that it had been discovered, and it went into threat mode, posturing and twirling like a nervous ballerina.
"It thinks it's being attacked," Collard explained to a visiting British couple wearing matching blue shirts. They had heard about Collard -- Namibia's Crocodile Dundee of the miniature -- and joined him on his inspection tour.
The dancing lady's nemesis, he explained, is the hairy desert wasp. It flies along the surface of the sand until it captures the spider, lays eggs inside its body and uses it to feed the offspring, Collard said, eyebrows raised theatrically.
"Oh dear," said the wife, a teacher, with a horrified look.
"Horrendous, mate," agreed her husband, an investment banker.
Just then the spider, seeking to outwit its enemies, rolled up like a coin and cartwheeled down the dunes.
"And it's off, at 45 rolls per second," Collard announced, as he shepherded the couple back into his Land Cruiser.
Life in the desert is never obvious. What seems like empty space may actually be teeming with action.
Fog is the lifeline of the Namib Desert. Throughout the night, cold air swoops in from the bordering Atlantic Ocean, creating moisture that nourishes plant and animal life. Grass seeds and bits of plants are carried by the wind from the beach and onto the dunes, like soaring snack packets.
"Desert muesli," joked Collard.
He used to be a border guard for the Namibian army, making sure desperately poor Angolans didn't cross into Namibia. Without going into details, he made it clear that he had seen too much. In 1987, he became a born-again Christian and, soon after that, a missionary in Angola.
Returning to the soaring dunes of Namibia, he said, he saw evidence of God. So he became a desert tracker and conservationist.
He's a white African with a personality that is part cowboy, part scientist and part comic. He is a compact man with short, caramel-colored hair. On this particular jaunt, he wore a huge silver belt buckle he had ordered from Texas in 1973.
"The people with the thick glasses say it's the oldest desert in the world," he said proudly as his vehicle plied the steep curves. "We Namibians believe them."
It was almost 10 a.m., and Collard was driving along the base of the dunes to cut down on environmental damage. Suddenly, he spotted the tracks of the head-standing beetle, a creature he likened to a mobile, nocturnal sponge.
"At around 2 a.m. the beetle makes a headstand at the top of a dune," Collard said. Water from the fog clings to its body, adding as much as 40 percent to its body weight during the night.
Back behind the wheel, he forgot the buzz of the beetle sighting and pointed to a rusting iron engine part left over from a film shoot. Even worse, he said, were the quad bikes -- monster mopeds that adventure sportsmen ride through the dunes, ignoring the tracks designed to protect the fragile sand.
"In the '80s, I went off-road without knowing," Collard said. "But it doesn't justify what I did." Today, he said, he tries to educate visitors to stay on the tracks. Otherwise, "they can kill the life that's in the desert, along with the dunes."
Glancing in the rearview mirror, he asked his companions to turn around and look at the towering, 500-foot dunes rising behind. Some looked like huge orange waves, others like curvy red mountains. Everyone fell silent, admiring the ethereal beauty.
But soon, Collard's attention was back on the ground, as he searched in some scrappy bushes for a sidewinder snake. After 40 minutes, at 11 a.m., the snake finally appeared, then slithered off.
Next, Collard pointed out a chameleon. Its personality, he said, was dark and moody, insecure and angry, like people.
"But it can bury itself in the sand and still know what's happening," Collard said with a smile, jumping back in the vehicle. "It's a good way to be."