Unveiling the Enigma of Namibia’s Mysterious Fairy Circles

Unveiling the Enigma of Namibia’s Mysterious Fairy Circles

The fascinating fairy circles of Namibia found in the vast expanse of the Namib Desert, dot the landscape, captivating the imagination of scientists and travellers alike. These enigmatic circular patches, devoid of vegetation and ranging from a few feet to several meters in diameter, have puzzled researchers for decades. While the origins of these fairy circles have long been shrouded in mystery, recent scientific discoveries are shedding new light on this captivating natural phenomenon. The first scientific mention of these fairy circles was made in 1971 however it is likely that these have been around for much longer.

The Fairy circles are found about a 100 km’s inland from the Atlantic ocean along the Namib Desert from the south of the country and stretch all the way up to the north-west of Namibia. Some of the accommodation establishments in this area offer day trips to view these mysterious circles.

Theories Through Time

Over the years, scientists have proposed various theories to explain the formation of Namibia’s fairy circles. One early hypothesis suggested that termites might be responsible, creating the circles as a result of their underground activities. Another theory suggests that toxic substances released by plants themselves could be causing the barren patches.

One of the more widely accepted theories centred on competition for water among plants. According to this view, the vegetation surrounding the circles competes for limited water resources, leading to the formation of these distinct patches. The plants on the periphery draw moisture from the soil, creating a barren zone around the circle.

Recent Discoveries Unveil New Insights

In recent years, a team of scientists led by Dr. Norbert Juergens has made significant strides in unravelling the mystery of fairy circles. Their research, published in the journal Nature, presents a novel explanation for these natural wonders. Contrary to earlier theories, the team suggests that fairy circles are the result of self-organization processes driven by competition for water and nutrients.

The researchers conducted fieldwork in the Namib Desert, collecting data and analysing the soil and vegetation within and around the fairy circles. Their findings indicate that the circles are not caused by external factors like termites or plants’ toxicity but rather emerge from a complex interplay of environmental factors.

According to Dr. Juergens, the fairy circles are self-organized vegetation patterns that arise due to the competition for resources in the harsh desert environment. The vegetation inside the circles facilitates water infiltration into the soil, creating a feedback loop that enhances plant growth within the circle while inhibiting growth on the periphery. This self-reinforcing mechanism leads to the formation and maintenance of the distinct fairy circle patterns.

Intriguing Facts About Fairy Circles

Beyond their formation, fairy circles harbour several other intriguing aspects:

  1. Distribution: While Namibia’s fairy circles are the most famous, similar phenomena have been seen in other parts of the world, such as Australia and South America. This global distribution adds to the fascination surrounding these natural formations.
  2. Duration: Fairy circles can persist for decades, with some remaining unchanged for over fifty years. This longevity underscores the stability of the self-organizing processes that govern their formation.
  3. Wildlife Haven: Despite their barren appearance, fairy circles play a crucial role in supporting desert wildlife. They provide sheltered microhabitats for various organisms, including insects, reptiles, and small mammals, contributing to the desert ecosystem’s biodiversity.
  4. Cultural Significance: In local folklore, fairy circles are often associated with supernatural beings or spirits, adding a mystical dimension to these already captivating features.
  5. Aerial Views: From above, the fairy circles create mesmerizing patterns that are visible even from aircraft, adding to their visual allure and making them a popular subject for aerial photography. One of the best ways to experience the fairy circles from above is to take a scenic flight or go Sossusvlei hot air ballooning.

Myths about Fairy Circles

The Himbas that inhabit the north-western region of Namibia believe that these round barren patches of sand were caused by the spirits or gods. The original ancestor of the Himba, Mukuru, is believed to be responsible for the fairy circles, or that they were made by the footprints of gods.

Another myth that has surfaced over the years is that a dragon’s poisonous breath caused the death of the vegetation and the fairy circles developed.

The Himba are known to use these fairy circles for agricultural purposes. These fairy circles support grasses in an otherwise sandy, barren land and sometimes they will place a wooden fence made of sticks and branches around these fairy circles and place their cattle inside of these temporary structures to protect them against predators.


Namibia’s fairy circles continue to captivate scientists and laypersons alike, offering a fascinating glimpse into the intricate workings of nature. While the recent discoveries regarding their formation provide valuable insights, these enigmatic circles remain a testament to the wonders and complexities of the natural world. Whether viewed through the lens of science or folklore, fairy circles remind us of the enduring mysteries that await exploration in our planet’s diverse landscapes.

If you are travelling through Namibia on holiday on a guided tour and want to see this natural phenomenon make sure you inform your guide to make time to view the fairy circles.

For more tourist information on Namibia visit our website. 

Image credit: Dr. Stephen Getzin

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