“Castles in the air” is a good way of describing the rare, optical phenomenon known as a Fata Morgana. A Fata Morgana is a far superior mirage than the ‘distance pool of water’ on a hot tarred road or the illusions of water in the desert. By Shane Saunders

Fata Morgana?

“A rare optical illusion resulting from a temperature inversion, where the interface between warm air over colder, dense air below acts as a mirror, to reflect surface features (producing upside-down, fairy-like, ever changing images of the topography below). The phenomenon was first described in English in 1818 in the translation of an Italian document that referred to such a mirage that had been witnessed between Calabria and Sicily in the strait of Messina. Fata Morgana was the Italian version of the name “Morgan le Fay”, the shape-shifting fairy that was half sister to King Arthur.” (See image and text by Adrian Brink in the kitchen of unit no. 4, Kielie Krankie, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park).

The Fata Morgana effect

On 7 January 2012 at around 06:40 from the Kij Gamies view site on the lower dune road in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, we had the privilege of witnessing the Fata Morgana phenomenon described above. What first appeared to be mist on the horizons turned out to be what seemed a wall above the dunes on the horizon. What made this even more spectacular was that it was continuous around the horizon in a full 360 degrees with a perfect flat top.

The first three images show the full reflection (Fata Morgana) of the topography below. The remaining images show the slow disappearance of the phenomenon. During this time, when viewed without binoculars, it certainly does look like buildings (or “castles”). The final image shows the break up as viewed towards the sun, hence the lack of detail in the reflection.

Next time you visit the Kgalagadi, more specifically, the lower dune road where the dunes seem to be highest in the park and, thereby, allowing a 360 degrees view, look out for this phenomenon.