All of a quiver
With its distinctive, quirky silhouette, the quiver tree is one of Namibia’s national symbols. Photographers Ann and Steve Toon are repeatedly drawn to a forest of the trees, some of which are reputed to be 300 years old.

 

I’m not sure why, but we’re always in the middle of a heated argument when we come here. This must be our fourth, probably fifth, visit, and, once again, we’re hardly speaking to one another as we pull up, each of us slamming the car door shut as we get out. It’s been a long, hot, dusty day of driving from Walvis Bay to Keetmanshoop, the nearest town, some 14km back down the road where we just about manage to interrupt our ‘domestic’ long enough to book accommodation for the night and buy cold drinks. Why the niggling?  We’re both tired and we’re racing to beat the light, but it’s more that we have to leave Namibia tomorrow for South Africa. A visit to the Quiver Tree Forest has become our customary goodbye.


It’s not difficult to see why the place compels us. Quiver trees embody everything that draws us to Namibia.  Surreal, other-worldly, endlessly photogenic and strangely poignant. The way their sculpted, finger-like branches reach out, stretching to connect across the barren landscape, seems to reflect the sadness we feel to be leaving.  But this isn’t the time to get misty-eyed; the sun is getting low and we need to get cracking. We take the cameras and agree (sort of) on who wants what lens before marching off (pointedly in opposite directions) to explore and photograph this enchanted forest.


Quiver trees, part of the aloe family, get their name because the San bushmen used to carve out quivers for their arrows from the branches. Also known as kokerboom, (‘koker’ is the Afrikaans word for quiver while ‘boom’ means a tree) they have soft and pulpy, fibrous tissue rather than conventional wood, making the branches easy to hollow out.  The ones here, on the Farm Gariganus, have been declared a national monument. Quite often when you’re driving through the south of the country you see the odd, solitary quiver tree, like an iconic sentinel in the arid landscape, or occasionally a small stand of trees on the slope of a kopjie. Here there’s a whole forest of them bunched together as if they’re holding a convention. It’s good to see so many quiver trees in one spot, especially when you realise that, with warming global temperatures, the species is coming under increasing threat. Some ecologists forecast a 75 per cent reduction in the population over the next 100 years if there is no real expansion in their range. Even if the species does disperse, they predict the numbers will decline by as much as a third over the same period.


Wandering around, picking our way over the small boulders, and looking for possible viewpoints and angles from which to photograph the trees, we notice just how much life the kokerboom attracts in a landscape where trees are few and far between. We’re just at the start of summer here in the southern hemisphere, and some of the trees are coming into bloom with candles of canary yellow flowers. Sunbirds flit in and out of view above our heads in search of the nectar’s rich nutrients, insects and lizards bask on the scaly, textured bark, and weaver birds fly in with parched grasses to build nests and set up their huge colonies. On the ground, dassies, also known as rock hyrax, scamper about the rocks at our feet and soak up the last rays of sun before nightfall.


The warm light is beautiful now. If you want to visit, but can’t afford long, we’d urge you to come here at least for the last part of the afternoon, and to stay until after sunset. The forest glitters at this time of day. It’s as if the chunky trunks of the quiver trees have been wrapped in the crumpled gold foil you get round Easter eggs. This is definitely the time to be here if you want to get great photographs. To prove it, a small group of people on a photographic tour, plus their tripods and camera bags, move in and instantly begin clicking their shutters. It’s true you can see pictures wherever you look, but we prefer to take our time, cooling our heels a bit after the heat of the day and our argument  – calmly watching and waiting for inspiration and ideas to take hold.


We hunt about for close-ups until the sun is really low, finding hidden pictures in the shapes and folds of the textured bark. We even spot one sinuous trunk with notches that look just like belly-buttons. We stumble on a pitch-black armoured ground cricket asleep on one piece of bark and photograph him too, as well as framing images of distant quiver trees through the forked branches of those in the foreground. We point our cameras every which way, just for fun, and photograph the characteristic crown shape of the trees from directly underneath for a dassie’s eye-view of the latticework of branches. We wander off a distance and photograph a line of the trees from some way away so they fill the bottom third of the frame, end to end, like those torn paper garlands you make as a kid.


Then the sun sets and everyone is drawn to the glow on the horizon and is either enjoying a quiet sundowner or photographing classic silhouettes of the trees. We take some silhouette shots too, but we also turn our backs, quite literally, on the conventional view to photograph the softer, subtler, pastel colours in the other direction - the pinks, purples and violets that seem to us so characteristic of dusk in Namibia.


When all colour and light has gone from the scene we find we’re animatedly swapping exchanges about what we’ve photographed, and the wildlife we’ve spotted. We’ve forgotten our row and, walking back to the car, we’ve also forgotten, momentarily, that this is our last night in the country. We’re fixating instead on cold Windhoek lagers back at our hotel.

“I might try the goat stew.”

“I fancy lamb chops.”

“With chips?”

“Yeah, with lots of chips.”

 

Did You Know?

• The quiver tree is not actually a tree, it’s an aloe. Its Latin name is Aloe dichotoma. The dichotoma bit refers to the fact that the tree’s branches are distinctly forked.

• It grows in the hot, dry parts of southern Namibia and the northwest of South Africa.

• Bushmen hollow out the soft branches to make quivers, hence the tree’s common name.
• Quiver trees can grow up to nine metres tall. They grow in rocky areas and anchor their shallow root systems to the rocks.

• The trees can store water in their succulent leaves and fibrous trunks and branches. They produce a natural sunscreen in the form of a fine powder that helps reflect the bright light.
• The trees don’t flower until they’re about 20 or 30-years-old. Some say you can eat the young buds, which are supposed to taste a bit like asparagus.

• The hollowed-out inside of a dead quiver tree trunk can be used as a natural fridge to store food. This is because the tree’s fibrous tissue has a cooling affect on the air.

 

FactFile: Making a visit

• Keetmanshoop is on the B4 some 500km south of Windhoek. The Quiver Tree Forest is about 14km from the town on the Farm Gariganus. The owners say the larger trees here are thought to be between 200 and 300-years-old.
• Day visitors pay a small entrance fee (N$50) to visit the forest, but you can stay overnight and enjoy the place in the early dawn light, as well as at dusk, as there’s a range of accommodation available from camping to full board. Camping costs around N$80 per person while a double room (self-catering) costs around N$450. For more information on the options and booking visit their website at www.quivertreeforest.com.
• When you’re tired of quiver trees the farm also has an interesting collection of dolorite rock formations you can explore known as the Giant’s Playground.
A visit here is covered by the N$50 entrance fee to the forest. 
• If you don’t want to stay at the farm itself there are number of hotels and B&Bs in Keetmanshoop itself.

 

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