An over-ea­ger pho­tog­ra­pher gets some not-so-cheap thrills hunt­ing down the eas­i­est places to spot rare quiver trees in bloom

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - WORDS AND PIC­TURES BY MAR­ION WHITE­HEAD

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.

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