Plant Wonders of the Kalahari Desert

Most of Alicia Simcox’s young life was spent traveling and now she records her time exploring the nature in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Kalahari Desert.

  • The author's father, botanical explorer Joseph Simcox, encouraged her to take this trip with him. Here he's shown admiring a gemsbock cucumber (Acanthosicyos naudinianus).
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper
  • The author sunbathes next to a pile of gemsbock cucumbers.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper
  • It took the expedition team two days to prepare their vehicles and equipment for the trip.
    Photo by Fotolia/Carl Ruysenaar
  • During the author's time in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Kalahari Desert, she found the spikey gemsbock cucumber (Acanthosicyos naudinianus),the boroboloho (Coccinia sessilifolia), Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), the "diet plant" (Hoodia Gordonii), and more.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper
  • Joseph Simcox excitedly identifies a cluster of gemsbock cucumbers.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper
  • Studies in Europe and North America have confirmed the efficacy of Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) in relieving inflammation and even the pains of arthritis.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper
  • Indigenous San people explained to the exploration team how to cook some of the gathered plant specimens.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper
  • Mature marama bean tubers, which can weigh up to 500 pounds, hold enough water for the plant to survive up to three years without a drop of rain.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper
  • Gemsbock cucumbers are traditionally buried in a fire's ashes to cook, and then they're cut open so the cooked pulp can be slurped out. The author reports it tastes like a stewed, juicy zucchini with more flavor.
    Photo courtesy
  • The flowers of the diet plant (Hoodia gordonii) smell like rotten meat and are usually pollinated by flies.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper

The trip from Rome was long, first to Paris and from there 12 hours straight to Johannesburg, South Africa. I was coming down to join my father and my uncle on a three-week expedition. Two continuous years living in Rome was enough, and I was excited to get out of the place and get back to nature. My dad met me at the airport with tears in his eyes and welcomed me back to the “good life” as he called it. The road is pretty exciting, I have to agree.

Most of my young life was spent traveling. By the time I was 19, my dad had taken me to more than 70 countries. His life was all about travel and tales, and still is. We kids had grown up hearing about amazing plants. He told a lot of stories about the strange and wonderful plants of Africa. We heard about the monstrous tubers of the Marama Bean (Tylosema esculentum), the ones that were portrayed in the 1980 South African comedy film The Gods Must Be Crazy. He told us about the Methuselah of leaves: the Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) with its two leaves that keep growing for up to a 1000 plus years! My dad raved about the Nara Melon (Acanthosicyos horridus) and dreamed of taking us there to eat it, and he was obsessed about the strange succulent “diet” plant, Hoodia Gordonii. This expedition promised to bring to life many of the stories my father had told us as kids about the African flora. For this trip I had dreams of digging up Marama tubers and sinking my teeth into the Kalahari Desert melon, the Nara. These were my thoughts upon arriving in Johannesburg; there still was a lot of road between us and them.

We would be working with a seasoned film team to record the expedition. My father had organized collaboration with Natural History New Zealand productions and Aquavision productions of South Africa to film the trip. The Aquavision team was handpicked by Phil Fairclough from NHNZ, and it was a world class lineup of talent. Greg Nelson, famous for his nature films, would be head cameraman; Carl Ruysenaar would be the expedition tech man, and Jan Lampen was signed on as Director. Our own “team” flew in from all around the world. My Uncle Patrick and his fiancée Danielle flew in from Australia. My “Uncle Jake,” Jason Piper flew in from Colorado, and my dad from Washington D.C. With so many people and so much equipment, there was a lot to do.

 It took us two days to prepare our vehicles for the trip. The road ahead would be desolate. We would drive through most of northern South Africa into Botswana and then cross over into the majestic country of Namibia. We had to shop for supplies for the road—among them canned beans and peas, beef jerky, water, juices and practical essentials like toilet paper. We tallied our collecting equipment: Ziploc bags, sifters, buckets to wash seeds, and newspaper for drying them. After two days of preparation, our checklists were complete and we were ready. Each team member had an assigned vehicle based on his or her skills. The film crew had its own stuff to do, and it seemed that their equipment checklist was ten times longer than ours. We loaded and unloaded the equipment, trying to arrange it and the people. Finally we were ready; everyone took their assigned places, and our mini-convoy joined the traffic jams and started winding its way out of Jo-burg into the country.

The first of our destinations was a camp in the Northern most part of South Africa. This was only a night stopover before we continued on to Botswana. All I can remember about it was that we roasted a lot of meat on an open pit fire (the film team members were serious carnivores) and ate and went to bed in conical thatched roofed stone huts. The next day we made good time covering several hundred kilometers before we crossed into Botswana and made our way to a national park to camp. This park was known for its wild lions; it was pretty exciting as well as scary, since at any moment a wild lion could have appeared at our camp site. Veterans of safari travel, the film crew took things in stride. Carl and Jan just took a plastic mat and went to sleep in the grass. My uncles took advantage of the tents on top of the vehicles. Greg set up a tent on the ground.

My father was so concerned for our safety that he obliged me to spend the night with him inside the only open building, the public bathroom. We blocked the doors against lions entering (supposedly), laid our sleeping mats on the dirty floor and tried to go to sleep. It was one of the worst nights of my life. We were eaten alive by ferocious mosquitoes; I had to put socks on my hands to protect them from the blood thirsty little devils. At dawn everyone else claimed to be well rested, but not us! So much for the lions getting us; what we really had to fear was the insect!

7/7/2018 6:52:46 PM

Hi Alicia, by reading your wonderful sequence of events, I was like travelling with your group, in the nature. Superb. Very knowledgeable; Proud of your Beloved Dad; Er Ashok Bhalla Surrey, Canada



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