In the landscape where Mad Max: Fury Road was filmed, a scientist is trying to understand a natural phenomenon that has eluded explanation for decades.
One evening earlier this spring, German naturalist Norbert Jürgens strayed from his expedition in the Namib Desert. He walked away from his campsite beside Leopard Rock, a huge pile of schist slabs stacked like left-over roofing tiles, and into a vast plain ringed with red-burnished hills. He had 20 minutes of light left before sunset, and he intended to use them.
This next part may sound like a reenactment from a nature documentary, but trust me: This is how it went down.
Off by himself, Jürgens dropped down to his knees. He sank his well-tanned arms in the sand up to the elbows. As he rooted around, he told me later, he had a revelation.
At the time, I was watching from the top of Leopard Rock, which offered a bird’s-eye view of both Jürgens and his expedition’s quarry. Across the plain, seemingly stamped into its dry, stubbly grass, were circles of bare ground, each about the size of an aboveground pool. Jürgens, a professor at the University of Hamburg, was digging—and pondering—in one of these bare patches.