Feline surprise

It was around 7h00 on a fresh spring morning in Mashatu Game Reserve in south east Botswana. We were travelling in our open game vehicle along the dry bed in the Majale river. This is usually a wonderful place to see wildlife crossing the riverbed on its way to its feeding places. The diurnal wildlife is going to its feeding grounds, and the nocturnal wildlife is looking for a place to sleep. The cathemeral wildlife, which is active both in the day and at night, are wandering around looking for opportunities.

A few hundred metres in front of us we saw a young leopard crossing the riverbed.

“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” ~ Heraclitus

The young leopard climbed up the far bank and disappeared into the crotons. Undeterred, we found a route for our vehicle up the steep river bank and started to look for the young leopard which we expected to be mobile and hunting. To our surprise we saw her up a dead tree looking down at the ground in front of her.

What she, and we, did not realise is that there were two fully grown lionesses lying in the shade of a bush close to the dead tree. This leopard must have climbed the river bank and walked straight into the two sleeping lionesses. Instinctively, this leopardess climbed the tree out of danger from the two lionesses.

Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask, act. Action will delineate and define you.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

This young leopardess settled down for what looked likely to be a long wait. She kept her eyes on the lionesses all the times.

Every now and then this leopardess looked up, very alert because she was assessing whether the lionesses were sufficiently fast asleep for her to descend the tree and make her escape.

Alert, wary and patient.

The lionesses seemed to not have seen her and rested peacefully never looking up at her, high up in the tree about 30 metres away. The leopardess was caught up a dead tree with no protection from the rising sun which was getting hotter by the hour.

Eventually we decided to leave the stand-off and go and look for a little more action. About two hours later we decided to go back and see how the stand off was developing. It was now really hot, the young leopardess was no where to be seen. The lionesses were lying peacefully in the shade. The stand off seemed to have ended happily for all concerned.

“Take a chance! All life is a chance. The man who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.” ~ Dale Carnegie

The young leopard obviously got a big fright walking straight into sleeping lions. Her instinctive reaction was to climb the nearest tree to get out of harm s way. The intensifying heat from the rising sun must have forced her to take a calculated risk and come down the tree and escape to a cooler or shady secure place.

But life inevitably throws us curve balls, unexpected circumstances that remind us to expect the unexpected. I’ve come to understand these curve balls are the beautiful unfolding of both karma and current.” ~ Carre Otis

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

Have fun, Mike

Thwarted kill

It was just before seven in the morning in Mashatu Game Reserve in south eastern Botswana. We were on our game vehicle looking for a cheetah family, comprising a mother and her four almost adult cubs. We were looking in the area they had been last been seen the night before.

“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.” ~ John Muir

Cheetahs do not usually move at night which is when the lions, leopards and hyaenas are all active. We therefore knew that were in the area. After searching for a while (in the right area) we found the cheetah family on the move.

There were three sub-adult males and a female with their mother. They were walking through the bush with intent. We followed from a distance so as not to interfere with their search for food. When cheetahs sweep the bush like this anything can happen.

“Let go of all your thoughts and concerns. Immerse yourself in the moment. Look and listen, and nature will slowly reveal herself to you. It takes time and respect for you to tune in. Only then will you begin to truly see.” ~ Mike Haworth

It did! An adult male Steenbok broke its cover and bolted.

It was a astounding how quickly that Steenbok dashed up and over the rise on the stony terrain.

In an instant, one of the young cheetah males took up chase. It was impossible to get both quarry and predator in the same image because there was such as large gap between the two when they came past us. The cheetah’s acceleration was breathtaking and it was quickly in the chase.

We lost sight of the two as the eternal dash of life and death played out. We could only see where the two had run to from a game vehicle which had stopped on the main Mashatu road. That vehicle must have had a prime sighting of the cheetah actually catching the Steenbok.

Unfortunately through ignorance or otherwise, one of the guests stood up on the game vehicle, which must have been quite close to the cheetah with its kill. In the midst of strangling its prey, the young cheetah got a fright when the person stood up (in the game vehicle), scaring the young cheetah and it ran away leaving its half dead Steenbok catch.

As it happened, an adult Black-backed jackal was close by and witnessed the take down. It saw the young cheetah leave the half strangled Steenbok unattended. Needless to say after watching to see that the cheetah did not return, the jackal seized the half dead victim. The jackal bit into the back of the Steenbok’s neck in an attempt to finish off the strangulation. It worked.

Once the Steenbok had stopped breathing, the jackal tried to pull the dead antelope away from the glaring view of the spectators.

The Black-backed jackal clearly could not believe his luck.

This jackal kept on looking around to check that no other predator had seen what was going down. Every now and then he looked to check that the Steenbok was actually dead.

“If you chase perfection, you often catch excellence. ” ~ William Fowble

The jackal eventually managed to cut into the Steenbok’s hide and began to feed. Strangely the jackal did not gorge itself. Perhaps the final killing and dragging was too strenuous a task, and after feeding briefly the jackal backed off about twenty metres from the kill to rest. After a while we left the jackal and its kill and went looking for the cheetahs again

The cheetahs having lost their prey slowly made their way back to each other and regrouped.

The cheetah involved in the chase was still breathing deeply.

“Stop chasing what your mind wants and you’ll get what your soul needs.” ~ Anonymous

The most amazing aspect of the whole sighting was that the chase must have lasted just a few seconds and took place over probably 400 metres. It also took place over very uneven stony ground with gullies and thorn bushes everywhere.

The one, among many, impressive aspects about wildlife is that there is no apparent animosity over the loss of the kill. Acceptance is swift and the predator moves on. Within twenty or so minutes the family had reunited and stopped to rest in the shade of a shepherd’s bush, alert for the next opportunity.

The thrill of the chase is beyond description. It is fresh and cool, early in the morning. There is the sound of birds everywhere. You are watching the cheetahs quietly making their way through the bush. Then, in an instant there is action. A chase is underway with the sound of hooves and pads on the stony ground and in a flash there is just wisps of dust swirling in the air.

“I would rather have an mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.” ~ Gerry Spence

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

Have fun, Mike

Leopard hour

We spent a wonderful six days in Mashatu in mid September. Mashatu is a game reserve in the south east of Botswana in the Tuli Block area.

“As one who has often felt this need, and who has found refreshment in wild places, I attest to the recreational value of wilderness.” ~ George Aiken

Mid-September was the start of spring in this part of the world. The evenings were cool but the days hot. It was very dry and there were just a few small pools of water remaining in the Majale river, which is the main river coursing through Mashatu.

Our routine was to get up early and be ready for a cup of coffee and a rusk at 5h30 at the time the first light was starting to paint the eastern sky with pastel tones of blue, apricot and pink. The spurfowl were calling as were the turtle doves. Those of you who have had the opportunity to spend some quiet time listening and watching the bush wake up to a new day will know how serene and transcendent it can be.

“Cherish sunsets, wild creatures, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!” ~ Stewart Udall

It was about 6h00 and we were driving along the Majale river searching for anything interesting. From the back of the vehicle one of our guests, Jack, quietly told us to stop as there was a leopard in the tree above us just on our left. There, on the bough of Jackalberry tree,was a young female leopard keenly watching something on the top of the river bank above us.

She decided that what she had spotted was worth investigating. After a good stretch to loosen up, she effortlessly made her way down from her high arboreal lookout.

“The reason that I keep writing is that all my most powerful messages about the fates of wild places that I care about need to have words as well as images.” ~ Galen

This lithe leopardess lightly made her way down the tree onto its roots. This time there were no squirrels, vervets, baboons or spurfowl to give her position away.

Down the tree along a fallen log and onto the sand bank. She climbed up along a gully in the river bank and moved out of sight on top of the bank.

We drove around to get on top of the river bank and only then did we see what had caught her attention. A pair of steenbok. These are small but very alert and agile antelope. Once close enough, the young leopardess made a charge at the steenbok but they were too quick for her and both of them evaded her.

“Life is not measured by the number of breathes we take, but by the moments and places that take our breath away.” ~ Unknown

After her short but unsuccessful steenbok hunt she went back down to the Majale river where she scent marked against a gnarled tree trunk in the rich saturated early morning sunlight.

After marking her territory she crossed the dry river bed to the other bank where she climbed up and walked west along the crest of river bank. Her spotted and rosetted coat blended beautifully with the winter’s fallen leaves laying like a confetti of orange, browns and whites on the river bed and river bank.

Every now then she would stop when she heard something. Just assessing where it was and what it was.

After about half an hour of wandering along the edge of the Majale river she lay down to rest, but even then she perked up whenever she heard something. All of us were dead quiet on the vehicle but we could not hear what she heard. Her ears turned in different directions assessing which way the sound was coming from.

As she wandered through the trees and croton bushes along the river she walked through light and dark patches created by the deep shadows and early morning rays of sunlight.

I have never seen a leopard doing this before. She lay down next to some eland dug and proceeded to rub her head and neck in it. This was presumably to mask her scent

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” ~ Helen Keller

Needless to say the eland dug dirtied her face and neck though she seemed quite pleased with herself.

It was fascinating to watch this independent, confidence and alert predator on her early morning wandering.

Ever the opportunist, this leopardess saw a tree squirrel and made a dash for it. The squirrel darted into this small bush. No matter how much the leopard stretched up into the bush she could not flush out the squirrel. As soon as she was not looking, the squirrel jumped out of the bush and made a lighting dash for the nearly crotons and managed to get away – shaken but unscathed.

After missing her second target of the morning, she wandered on further away from the river looking for something she could catch.

Eventually, thankful for the privilege of spending about an hour with her, we left her in peace to find her meal.

Presumably, she would within a hour or so have gone back to the river to find a large well leafed tree to sleep in where she was cool and away from danger.

“It is in the wild places, where the edge of the earth meets the corners of the sky, the human spirit is fed.” ~ Art Wolfe

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

Have fun, Mike

Mara wildebeest crossing

The Wildebeest migration has moved into the Masai Mara. The inbound migration from the Serengeti Park to Masai Mara takes place around June or July. The annual migration includes more than 1.5 million wildebeests, zebra, topis and Thompson’s gazelle The return migration follows around August or September each year but the exact timing depends on the rains.

“Every creature was designed to serve a purpose. Learn from animals for they are there to teach you the way of life. There is a wealth of knowledge that is openly accessible in nature. Our ancestors knew this and embraced the natural cures found in the bosoms of the earth. Their classroom was nature. They studied the lessons to be learned from animals. Much of human behavior can be explained by watching the wild beasts around us. They are constantly teaching us things about ourselves and the way of the universe, but most people are too blind to watch and listen.”
~ Suzy Kassem,

This first image gives a sense of the serene landscape along the Mara river in the Masai Mara. This is one of the crossing points adjacent to Paradise plain. At this point the river makes a wide “S” bend and is a place favoured by hippos and crocodiles alike. The river breaks into gentle rapids just after the bend due to all the rocks in the river bed.

“Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is clam.” Malayan Proverb

On this particular morning the crossing started with one intrepid wildebeest while the rest of the herd stood on the bank above watching, probably to see where the crocodiles would emerge.

Not long after the first brave soul made its move, the herd moved down and started to amass at the water’s edge. The problem for the front animals is that pressure builds from the back pushing them into the water.

Once the crossing starts some of the animals panic and take massive jumps into the boiling mass.

The river bed at this point is uneven and deep in some places and relatively shallow in others enabling the terrified wildebeest to jump out of the water.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” ~ Henry Ford

As the numbers of wildebeest swell there is no longer space on the rock shelf at the edge of the water and more and more animals start to cross from inside the bend which takes them on a course through the rapids.

It is clearly exhausting trying to swim against the current and find purchase on the rocks in the river bed. Wildebeest legs and hooves are certainly not built for swimming.

Again with the pressure and lack of access due to all the animals at the main crossing point, some wildebeest decide to cross the river down below the main crossing point. The water deeper in places and is flowing faster.

“These are the four that are never content: that have never been filled since the dew began- Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the kite, and the hands of the ape, and the eyes of Man.”
~ Rudyard Kipling

One adult wildebeest was clearly exhausted. It could see the massive crocodile approach it from its left hand side but just stood there. Seeing what was about to happen, the wildebeest close by quickly moved away from the danger zone.

The Nile crocodile grabbed the wildebeest by the head. You can see how big the crocodile was from the size of the wildebeest’s head.

The wide eyes of the wildebeest show how terrified they were. Those who have crossed this river before know what lurks below the surface of the water.

The sheer mass of wildebeest together with the noise and dust make this an unforgettable spectacle. The sheer intent and wide-eyed terror that the crossing entails is spell-binding.

“The time has passed when humankind thought it could selfishly draw on exhaustible resources. We know now the world is not a commodity.”~ Francois Hollande

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

Have fun, Mike

Wildebeest migration revisited

It is that time of the year again when one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth arrives in the Masai Mara, in Kenya. The exact timing and the number of migrating wildebeest depend on the quantity of rain and where it has fallen.

“The visual spectacle is indescribable. Every sense is swimming. Your eyes stretch over unimaginable numbers of animals. Dust is everywhere. It is hot. The wildebeest grunts and groans surround you. The tension in the air is palpable as the masses build on the far bank of the Mara river.”~ Mike Haworth

The website Herdtracker indicates that the herds have arrived at the border of the Serengeti and Masai Mara National Park. The herds are travelling north into the Mara Triangle and Mara north where they will feed for about two months before starting to trek south again from October travelling down to Ndutu in the south of Serengeti to calf the frequency of which peaks around February each year.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes deep and permanent, in the ideas of the mind.”~ Miriam Beard

I have included a series of images taken during two wildebeest crossings at the Mara river Figtree crossing a couple of years ago. Around August-September, the wildebeest usually arrive from the Serengeti travelling into the Masai Mara in Kenya and you can see tens of thousands of them coming across the plains and down the hill slopes towards the Mara river.

As the numbers of wildebeest grow they start pushing the front animals towards the edge of the river bank which in some areas is an earthen cliff with drops of five to six metre down to a very steep embankment.

This drop is especially difficult for the calves being so much smaller than the adults. Amazingly, we never saw one animal break a leg coming down such a treacherous drop.

Once down, there is a strong compulsion to follow the others and the wildebeest launch themselves off the steep bank into the deep and fast flowing Mara river.

There is no particular leader in these group crossings, whoever plucks up the courage goes first, be it a calf or an adult bull.

Many of the wildebeest have crossed this river many times and know what danger lurks below the surface. The experienced ones have a really good look to try and locate the crocodiles. The river at this time of the year is normally carrying a lot of sediment making it a muddy brown colour so the wildebeest often cannot not see the crocodiles.

Once the leaders start crossing there is an overwhelming compulsion to follow on mass.

As the numbers of wildebeest crossing the river grows so more and more dust is stirred up and as you can see at times it becomes quite dark.

“We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know it for the first time.”~ Thomas Stearns Eliot

You can imagine the terror. These wildebeest are used to wide open spaces with clear air and all of a sudden they are pushed into an place which is darkened by thick dust. There are other wildebeest diving into the water all around you and you know there are massive Nile crocodiles waiting to ambush you as you cross.

Looking at the thin legs of the wildebeest, it is hard to believe they can swim effectively through the fast flowing Mara river.

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”~ Thomas Stearns Eliot

There is a huge advantage to individual animals crossing in a crowd. The chances of an individual being singled out by the crocodiles is substantially lower.

When the crossing begins it is every animal for itself. For most of the calves it would be their first crossing. It is hard to fathom the terror these youngsters must go through in this mad dash.

These adult wildebeest are swimming hard to cross the Mara river but the fast flowing current is pulling them down river. Often this means they end up on the other bank at an unintended spot which is difficult to exit.

This bull had swum half way across the Mara when for some inexplicable reason he stopped and came back to where he started. He was absolutely exhausted and could not walk out of the water back onto dry land despite the threat from crocodiles.

Flying wildebeest – an iconic image of these animals launching themselves terror stricken and panicked into the fast flowing muddy Mara River in the Masai Mara National Reserve.

The wildebeest crossings are truly spectacular both in terms of numbers and intensity. You will be moved by this natural phenomenon. The sheer terror in these animals eyes is clear to see. Terror or not, they have to cross to get to new pastures to feed.

In an article in Sciencedaily in June 2017, it was reported that an average of 6250 animals drown or are trampled crossing the Mara river each year. While this is a huge number, it is small in relation to the average of 1.2 million animals making the crossing during the year. The crossings usually peak along the Mara river in the three months from July to September.

“To those who stay put, the world is but an imaginary place. But to the movers, the makers and the shakers, the world is all around, an endless invitation.”~ Unknown

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

Have fun, Mike

Marievale in May

May is late autumn in South Africa. We took a Sunday morning trip to Marievale to get some bird photography practice and just enjoy all the birdlife at Marievale Bird Sanctuary on the Highveld near Nigel about 75 kilometres south west of Johannesburg.

“Every creature was designed to serve a purpose. Learn from animals for they are there to teach you the way of life. There is a wealth of knowledge that is openly accessible in nature. Our ancestors knew this and embraced the natural cures found in the bosoms of the earth. Their classroom was nature. They studied the lessons to be learned from animals. Much of human behavior can be explained by watching the wild beasts around us. They are constantly teaching us things about ourselves and the way of the universe, but most people are too blind to watch and listen.” ~ Suzy Kassem

Most bird photographers know to get to their destination before sunrise. The Highveld, especially around Marievale, in late autumn and early winter is prone to thick mist which burns off after sunrise. The mist creates a very moody scene and some interesting potential photographic opportunities.

As the sun rises and the mist thins out so the colour starts to change introducing blues from the cloudless sky. It is cold but there is a surprising amount of bird activity at this time of the day.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” ~ Ansel Adams

The misty atmosphere creates a heavy dew which provides photographers with many opportunities for interesting and unique images. The dry grass in this next image was heavily laden with dew creating delicate detail. Spider webs make particularly attractive dew-laden subjects.

This Hottentot teal was happily swimming around in the frigid water. The water never freezes but the temperature must fall very low. The duck’s feet have no feathers so are fully exposed to the cold water. The remarkable adaptation is that veins and arteries to and from the feet are located close together and act as a heat transfer system. The hot blood carried in the arteries to the feet transfer heat to the cold blood in the veins from the feet. This ensures body heat is not lost unnecessarily through the feet and the heart is not supplied with blood which is icy cold.

Birds retain their body heat by fluffing up their feathers which acts as a insulator. Bird’s body temperatures also drop at night which reduces the temperature differential and therefore heat loss.

Teals are smaller, petite ducks characterised by short necks and short tails. The Hottentot teal is a dabbling duck which upends itself with it tail sticking vertically upwards as its head reaches down to the river bed to feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans and aquatic vegetation. These teals have a green wing speculum ( a patch of iridescent colour on the secondary wing feathers) and a blue bill with a black/dark brown crown on their head.

“Photograph: a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.” ~ Ambrose Bierce

You will find a variety of herons at Marievale. Although not abundant, you are likely to see a Goliath heron. Invariably you will only see an individual. This is the largest of the African herons. It is a wading bird with slate grey plumage with a chestnut coloured feathers on its head, neck and belly. The chin and throat are white in colour.

The Goliath heron feeds mainly on fish but will also eat frogs, small mammals and reptiles. This heron spears its prey and swallows it whole once it has subdued it. Since the Goliath heron often catches large fish it is regularly subject to kleptoparasitism by fish eagles.

In late autumn, once the mist has burned off the days can be sunny with little wind. There are old gold mine dumps in the background from the mining activties of yesteryear.

In autumn there is plenty of grass seed around which attracts queleas. We do not see the swarms of queleas around Marievale which are often seen in the bushveld or on farmlands because this is predominately a wetland area. The next image is of a male red-billed quelea in flight. It still has its breeding colours. This quelea is a small sparrow like bird of the weaver family. Queleas most often seen feeding and drinking in large flocks which form murmurations.

The Squacco heron is a small heron about 43 centimetres in height weighing around 300 grams. This small heron is uniquely coloured in tawny buff and brown feathers. It has a yellow iris and yellow legs. Its neck and breast have light brown streak and its belly and sides are white. This character was crossing the access road from the Duiker hide to the old bridge. It stooping in the middle of the road to assess what we were doing.

A Burchell’s coucal climbed up to to the higher sections of grass to get into the sun and dry out. The grass was still very wet from the dew. These coucals skulk through the underground looking for prey. This coucal is predatory and a member of the cuckoo family. It is often seen in pairs and can be heard dueting. It is affectionately called the rainbird because is it regularly heard during and after rains.

A male long-tailed widowbird in non breeding plumage. This plumage colouration is in stark contrast to its breeding plumage which is black with long luxuriant tail feathers.This widowbird retains its red-orange shoulder feathers and white trim below the red shoulder. Its beak shape infers that it is a seedeater.

A peaceful scene looking west, from the access road between the Duiker hide and the old bridge across, the wetland to the old mine dumps in the background.

“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful. An endless prospect of magic and wonder.”~ Ansel Adams

To see a black heron is always a treat. This small heron the size of a Squacco heron. Although black in colour it appears slate grey in the sunlight. Its legs are black but it looks like it stepped in a puddle of yellow road paint because its feet are bright yellow.

What makes the black heron unique is its hunting method. Many storks use their wings to cast a shadow on the water which attracts the fish and enables the bird to see into the water more easily. The black heron goes one step further, it lifts both its wings into a umbrella shape with its head underneath its wings. The fish swim into the shade and the heron has a good visual so can catch them easily. This method is called canopy feeding. The black heron is diurnal.

I have not often seen a purple heron at Marievale. This heron is so called because of its purple colouring from a distance. This heron is similar in size to the grey heron and is clearly distinguished by its reddish brown plumage. It also has a more elongated and narrow appearance with a long thin head. Its body shape and size of feet are well adapted for living among the reeds. This heron feeds mainly on fish.

The purple heron is distinctive in flight with its large feet and its distinctively chestnut to orange buff to red buff colouring on the sides of its head and neck. It has a clear black streak which runs from its eye down the side of its neck.

“Cherish the natural world because you are part of its and you depend on it.”~ Sir David Attenborough

You will always see Stonechats when you visit Marievale, they are ubiquitous. This is a female Stonechat perched on top of a dead broken reed. The male was close by but did not pose.

Spoonbills are attracted to Marievale because the water level in the wetland is usually shallow and suits their size. Spoonbills are not abundant but you are likely to see one or two each time you visit this bird sanctuary.

This was an unusual find. A common moorhen with unusual plumage. Two birds you will always see at Marievale are red-knobbed coots and common moorhens. Usually, the adult common moorhen has black body and wing feathers. Its rump is a olive-brown colour and its has white tail feathers. It also has a white stripe down the side of its body and on its shoulders. It has a red facial shield and red bill with a yellow tip. Its legs are yellow but half way up the femur it turns red.

“Nature experiments with life and celebrates diversity.”~ Willis Harman

This particular adult had all white body and wing feathers. Its primary wing feathers looked to be grey and its neck was a blotched black and white. The colouring of its head, front facial shield, bill and legs were the same as a normal common moorhen.

The lesser moorhen is much less common. It looks like a common moorhen though is a lighter black. Its legs are a pinkish colour and its bill and front facial shield are mostly yellow. The top of its facial shield is red but the shield is predominately yellow in colour. The lesser moorhen can be found in the northern part of South Africa, but I have never seen one.

“With our cameras we capture moments which remind us of how extraordinary this world is that we move through.” ~ Mike Haworth

The only bird list I have is the “to find” one.

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

Have fun, Mike

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