The Shifting Sands of Tanzania

The Shifting Sands of Tanzania

June 27, 2001 By Joe Morahan

The Shifting Sands in Tanzania

There is a quite unusual sight on the Serengeti Plains, several miles from the Ngorongoro Crater.Innocuously small from a distance, an apparently unremarkable and incongruous pile of blackish sand has somehow found its way to this particular piece of earth and formed into a sand dune where none other exist.But there is nothing ordinary about this sand. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year it will surely have moved somewhere else.The sand is magnetic, and moves with the wind, but the magnetic attraction between the grains keeps the sand together, an isolated dune that shifts with the winds.Markers have been set up by researchers to denote its location on a given date and one can trace its past movements over the weeks and months and years by following the trail of stakes that denote the date the dune had passed a given spot on the windswept plain.

The ‘Shifting Sands’ of Tanzania, as they are known, consist of volcanic ash that the winds have blown out of, and deposited here, from the dead Volcano, Oldonyo Lengai.Once on the ground, and in the presence of other ash, the magnetic charge of the particles has allowed the ash that continues to fall to accumulate into a sizable and growing dune.The blowing winds are strong enough to move the ash, but not strong enough to defeat the magnetic forces that keep the grains attached. Wind merely shifts the dune’s shape as it crawls slowly across the plains, at the rate of about sixteen feet per year.

Discovered and first tracked by researchers in 1969, this peculiar ‘Shifting Sand Dune’ has traveled about two kilometers over the past thirty-nine years.

Local Maasai, familiar with the moving sands, believe the shifting sands to be blessed with special powers.Decades ago, Maasai women would leave goat’s blood in a container in front of the dune, as an offering to the Gods. They would return to find the jug gone.A year later, the empty jug would reappear, apparently untouched, but empty of its contents on the other side of the dune.The Maasai legend grew that the Gods were pleased with and had accepted their offering.Hence, the gift became ritual in nature.Even today the sands are still considered a ‘holy place’ by the Maasai People.

Camera Details: Canon EOS-1D Mark II(click image to enlarge)
Shot details: f/3.5; 1/640 sec; ISO 100; 3744×5616 Pixels 
Focal Length 73mm; EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM
Camera Details: Canon EOS-1D Mark II

Joe Morahan