Quivers and canyons

As part of our Rovos Rail trip through Namibia in May 2019 we stopped at Keetmanshoop. This is a small town in the Karas region of southern Namibia. The town was named after Johann Keetman, one of the early traders and benefactor of the town.

“The Rovos rail safari – a journey of discovery through historic and scenic areas of southern Africa from the savannahs of the highveld to the Atlantic Ocean reuniting by rail the republics of South Africa and Namibia.”

The Karas region is semi-arid and receives on average 150mm of rain per annum. In addition to the historic significance of this town, one of the main attractions is the Quiver Tree forest some 14 kilometres north of the town.

This forest is described as a spontaneous forest, a term which refers to the undisturbed development of natural forests where direct and indirect human influences are removed or forbidden.

“Ô, Sunlight! The most precious gold to be found on Earth.” ~ Roman Payne

We spent around an hour and a half walking around the Quiver Tree forest on the Farm Gariganus. This forest was declared a national monument in 1955. The large Aloe dichotoma has a common name Quiver tree. It gets its name from bushman who made quivers from the branches of this aloe as holders for their poisonous arrows.

The Quiver tree is probably the most spectacular aloe species because of its size and sculptural form. Aloe dichotoma or the Quiver tree is a species of aloe indigenous to southern Africa. It is only found in the Northern Cape Richtersveld region and the Namib desert around the South African-Namibian border. This aloe prefers well drained, rocky terain.

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. ” ~ Albert Einstein

The thick succulent leaves of the Quiver Tree grow in a rosette at the end of a long branch. The branches and trunk have a soft fibrous core which can hold a great quantity of water. This aloe has two adaptations to help it cope with the extreme heat. The first is that the branches are thickly covered in a fine white powder to reflect rather than absorb the sun’s rays. Secondly, the leaves are located at the ends of the branch at the top of three tree so as to catch each passing breeze and are farthest from the heat of the ground.

This is a perennial succulent which can grow from three to nine metres in height, and at times even reach 12 metres in height. The bark on the trunk forms beautiful golden brown scales, but the edges of these scales are razor sharp.

The crown of a mature Quiver tree has a rounded canopy composed of a mass of densely grouped repeatedly forked branches. The second part of the latin name of this species is dichotoma. (dichotomous meaning forked). The blue-green leaves are arranged in a rosettes at the end of each terminal forked branch. The inflorescences of tubular bright yellow flowers appear in June and July each year. The flowers produce a lot of nectar, which is a valuable source of food to various birds, and insects such as bees and locusts and even baboons, and so play the an important ecological role in the area.

Large trunks of dead trees are also hollowed out and used as a natural fridge. Water, meat and vegetables can be stored inside it. The fibrous tissue of the trunk has a cooling effect as air passes through it, a so-called natural fridge.

When this aloe grows to around two metres in height, the plant starts to dichotomously branch. The trunk is a massive unbranched central stem which supports dense canopies of forked branches. This stem is fibrous and has no growth rings so this aloe cannot be aged by that means. The way to approximately age a Quiver Tree is to count the number of forks from the main trunk along the longest branches. Each fork is estimated to take about 50 years to develop. This method would measure the age of most of the Quiver Trees at between 150 and 250 years old.

“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,—chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees—tens of centuries old—that have been destroyed.”~ John Muir

The aloe dichotoma is one of three species of Quiver Tree. The other two species being the Aloe pillansii (Giant quiver tree) and the Aloe ramosissima (Maiden quiver tree).

After a fascinating wander around the Quiver Tree forest we got back on the Rovos rail train at Keetmanshoop and travelled down to Holoog where the train stopped again this time for our afternoon excursion to see the Fish River Canyon which is also located in southern Namibia, equidistant between Windhoek in Namibia and Cape Town in South Africa.

The Fish River canyon consists of an upper canyon, and a lower canyon. The upper canyon is around 550 metres deep and the lower canyon is about 380 metres deep. The canyon is about 160 kilometres long varying in width to a maximum width of 27 kilometres.

“Come, see the north-wind’s masonry, Out of an unseen quarry evermore furnished with tile, the fierce artificer Curves his white bastions with projected roof round every windward stake, or tree, or door. Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work. So fanciful, so savage, naught cares he for number or proportion.”~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Fish river flows intermittently along the canyon floor. The water comes from late summer flooding. For the rest of the year, the river becomes a chain of small pools of water.

The Fish River Canyon is considered the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon in the United States. The oldest rocks of this region existed long before today’s continents were formed by the break-up of the super continent, Gondwana. The basement rocks are around 2.4 billion years old about half the age of the Earth.

Formation of the canyon began around 350 million years ago but the Fish River runs in a bed which is about 1.5 billion years old. Over millions of years, the river has cut into the Namaqualand Metamorphic Complex. The Namaqua Mountains were completely eroded about 650 million years ago leaving a vast plain. Continental rifting created an ocean trough and the plain became the Nama sea. Now it is hard to imagine this area was a sea when you look out of this dry hot desolate area. It took an estimated 100 million years to completely fill the Nama sea with sediment. Over that period heat and pressure transformed the sediments into hard metamorphic rock called the Nama Group comprised mostly of quartzite .

“By the act of observation we have selected a ‘real’ history out of the many realities, and once someone has seen a tree in our world it stays there even when nobody is looking at it.“~ John R. Gribbin

The Fish River Canyon was borne in a tectonic event. A huge block of the Earth’s crust subsided along deep fault lines forming a graben or trench. The graben was the easiest course for the ancient Fish river to follow. It was at this point that erosion took over in the creation of the canyon. The hard quartzite in the Nama group prevented the river from easily cutting into the depths, forcing it to cut sideways instead. Again hard to believe but glaciers flowed along the upper canyon about 300 million years ago carving the canyon down further. It is only once one gets a sense of this phenomenal development process over the last 2.5 billion years does the scenery and geology of this area become even more intriguing.

After an intriguing visit to the Fish River canyon we travelled back to the train waiting at Holoog for us. The next image was taken from the bus window of the sunset with a young Quiver tree in silhouette.

As with so much in nature, if one takes the time to metaphorically dig a little below the surface of what you see, does what you see takes on a whole new meaning. There is always something to see. If it is not animals, it may be birds or reptiles. It maybe unusual flora such as the Quiver trees or vast geological features, such as the Fish River Canyon, which were formed over hundreds of millions of years. Each element has a fascinating story to tell.

“The restlessness and the longing, like the longing that is in the whistle of a faraway train. Except that the longing isn’t really in the whistle—it is in you.” ~ Meindert DeJong

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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