ON THE COVER
An over-eager photographer gets some not-so-cheap thrills hunting down the easiest places to spot rare quiver trees in bloom
Obie Oberholzer took our cover photograph outside Loeriesfontein in the Northern Cape, near the Gannabos Quiver Tree Forest on the road to Nieuwoudtville.
Leopard-crawling through a forest in the arid parts of South Africa is not the same as in the Amazon jungle. For starters, you’re more likely to get bitten by miggies than leeches, and sharp stones rather than black ooze are an occupational hazard.
I realised this while sneaking around on my stomach in the Gannabos Quiver Tree Forest between Loeriesfontein and Nieuwoudtville. ‘Forest’ is rather a glorious name for one of the world’s largest concentrations of kokerboom trees on a hot, north-facing hillside in the Hantam Bokkeveld, but I was quickly getting educated.
When entering a forest, I’m used to having a leafy canopy whispering in the breeze, blocking out the harsh rays of the sun. That wasn’t happening here; the 8 000-odd regal quiver trees or kokerbome were dotted across the hillside, but not nearly close enough to touch each other’s statuesque branches. A rather stand-offish bunch, you might say.
There was no way I was going to get lost in dense undergrowth. However, you can lose stuff among the sparse Karoo bossies, as I found to my cost.
Each tree looked like a work of art, a sculpture in tones of browns, ochres, greys and an interesting shade approaching purple on their patchwork of peeling bark. They were splendid against the high Bokkeveld sky – provided you got down low enough. So there I was on my stomach, elbows spread to provide a God-given tripod. Look up, take some pix and glance around, only to spot the amazing spiky flowers at the base of the next tree.
At this stage, it seemed easier to leopardcrawl to the next tree than to get dizzy standing up only to lie down again. Besides, I had the whole glorious landscape to myself, so there was no one to snigger at my dust-covered pants. This prostrate business went on for a while, as I paid my respects to these iconic aloe trees, each one in the forest seemingly intent on enticing me to take its portrait.
After all, they are pretty rare and, like polar bears, are one of the species most endangered
by global climate change. Aloe dichotoma, recently renamed Aloidendron dichotomum to give it its proper botanical name, is supremely adapted to the arid regions of Namaqualand, Bushmanland and southern Namibia, and has the ability to photosynthesise through its bark.
They are giant succulents and store water in their trunks, leaves and branches, and can survive on an annual average rainfall of around 127mm, in temperatures rising to 43ºC. The quiver tree has a remarkable 200-year lifespan and can grow up to nine metres tall. In the ecosystem, it is a source of moisture for a wide variety of mammals, birds and insects.
They’ve been growing here for thousands of years, with the more southerly populations probably establishing themselves since the world warmed after the last Ice Age, more than 15 000 years ago. San hunters of old used hollowed-out kokerboom branches to make quivers for their arrows, hence their descriptive common name.
However, the arid western region of Southern Africa has become warmer and drier over the past 30 years and many quiver trees are now dying. Those further north are most affected, according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute Climate Change and Bio-adaptation division in Cape Town.
Researchers became aware that there were big die-offs of quiver trees about 15 years ago and began monitoring 54 sites where they grow to try to figure out what was the problem.
Living in an extreme environment, operating at their physiological limits, makes quiver trees useful as climate-change indicators, and helps us test our understanding of how desert plants are affected, says
Professor Guy Midgley, who has now moved from the National Biodiversity Institute to the botany and zoology department at Stellenbosch University.
The researchers found that most of the deaths were happening in the northern parts of the quiver tree distribution range, where conditions are hotter and drier. However, those that grew in the southern areas and at the top of mountains – both generally cooler and wetter – were growing well and reproducing, like those at Gannabos that are in a winter rainfall area.
“They are a wonder of nature,” says owner of Gannabos, Merwe van Wyk, who is used to photographers arriving to ogle his kokerbome. “Everything looked bad after last year’s drought. We had only 35mm the whole year, when the average is 160mm a year. But this year we’ve had 100mm so far and the trees are looking beautiful. Baboons are our biggest problem. They break the crowns and eat them.”
Prof Midgley says that the plight of the quiver tree offers an insight into the future impact of climate change on plants. “It highlights the problem of migration for organisms that are essentially sedentary. We’re asking sedentary organisms, which have achieved an equilibrium with the climate for thousands of years, to suddenly become able to move,” he said.
But no new populations have been found marching south to keep up with rapidly accelerating changing climate. And you forget about all these serious things when you’re crawling around in a forest full of quiver trees.
Finally, the light changed enough for me to come to my senses and I regained bipedal motion. But back at the Land Rover, I realised my camera’s expensive polarising filter and I had parted company, but it was like searching for a needle. The rare forest mocked me and refused to give up its prize.
Since the Loeriesfontein ‘forest’ is one of the most southerly, naturally occurring collections of the striking aloe trees, I went north looking for more photogenic kokerbome.
It was easy to OD on quiver trees at Goegap Nature Reserve outside Springbok. Beside the interpretation centre, the koppie was a dazzle of daisies celebrating their taller plant relatives in a rock garden of note. The kokerbome themselves were aquiver with blossom, canaryyellow against a backdrop of fluffy white
clouds in a metallic-blue sky.
West of Concordia, at Orbicule Hill, I was rewarded unexpectedly. This is a place where you see a rather unusual geological curiosity: two granitic magma separated while in a fluid state about a billion years ago. The one formed concentric internal banding and the other the matrix, leaving a rather dotty set of rocks. They’re rather rare themselves and the quiver trees feel quite at home here, and have put down roots rather more recently among the ancient rocks.
Two more stops to photograph quiver trees in full bloom in the south are a bit of a cheat. Deep in the Cederberg, at Enjo Nature Farm, where the Biedouw River has carved out an east-facing valley to let in the heat of the Tankwa Karoo, they have planted some quiver trees that are doing particularly well.
And, in Clanwilliam’s Ramskop Nature Reserve, there’s a koppie where a far-sighted gardener planted a group of kokerbome before we knew about climate change, or that these remarkable tree aloes would need to march south. This little group is doing so well there that tourists find them irresistible, and they are probably the most-photographed quiver trees in the country.
Even closer to Cape Town are the quiver trees planted in the Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens at Worcester. Another cheat, as they wouldn’t occur naturally here – but it may just provide the kind of lifeline that this climate-challenged species needs.
However, the best shot for noncheaters is still the Quiver Tree Forest near Loeriesfontein. And if anyone out there just happens to be leopard-crawling through it and spots my stray polarising filter, please let me know.
ABOVE: In the eye of the storm. Prof Guy Midgley says quiver trees are a good indicator of climate change. ABOVE RIGHT: Quiver trees’ canary-yellow flowers drip nectar and provide food for birds and baboons. RIGHT: Visitors are welcome to park at the windmill and reservoir on Gannabos Farm and to stroll in the kokerboom forest, provided they respect nature.
ABOVE: Assistant guardian of the Kokerboom Forest: Goliat, the Van Wyk’s toy pom, asks that visitors respect the natural environment on his farm.
LEFT: The iconic quiver tree or kokerboom lives in an extreme environment and because it operates at its physiological limits, this makes them useful as climate change indicators in arid areas. ABOVE: The kokerbome in the tourist hotspot at Ramskop Nature Reserve outside Clanwilliam are probably the most photographed in the country.