Story & Pix by Julienne du Toit & Chris Marais
Northern Cape 2011 – The first time I encountered Kenhardt was during the first Desert Storm rave in the desert at Verneukpan in 1996.
Neo-pagans, trippers, hippies and heavily-disguised yuppies had arrived on this flat expanse of glorious nothingness.
The days were bread-oven hot. The nights were weird.
After two days the dust had dreadlocked our hair and we began to dream of running water.
Eventually it entered our addled brains that the Kenhardt Hotel was not much more than 100km away. We booked in for the afternoon and cleaned up.
The only Kenhardt memories that remained were of a hotel bar with glassy-eyed animal trophies and a basic bedroom with a bath, soon ringed by a high-tide mark of brown desert dust.
The fact that there was an exquisite quiver tree forest not far out of town entirely slipped us by.
Sixteen years later, those golden aloes were what drew us back again.
And there was the old hotel, still with its massive broad-brimmed stoep stretching half a block. The bedrooms, while still nothing fancy, had been somewhat upgraded.
Less than 8km outside town on the Cape Town road are thousands of these shallow-rooted, photogenic plants.
In the late afternoon and early morning, they are golden sculptures on dark dolerite hills.
Go there with a camera at the bookends of the day, and you’ll experience a stillness that is quite spiritual.
In the silence, marked only by the crunch of gravel beneath your feet and the buzz of bees (mostly in late winter months), you’ll start to wonder what animals, what travellers have rested in their shade.
The biggest ones are many decades old.
Kenhardt’s quiver trees have many twisted shapes, as if they’ve been tortured by the sun and the heat.
You’ll find old grey skeletons, fallen giants with their roots blackened as if burnt.
The quiver tree has become the icon of how climate change is affecting arid regions like the Karoo and Kalahari.
Up until 2001, all the information on how global warming affected plants and animals was coming from the cool high-altitude areas of the northern hemisphere.
There was little in the south, and specifically, nothing about how desert ecosystems were being affected.
The quiver tree was chosen as a study subject for several reasons. One of the most important was that it lives long enough to show relatively long-term climate shifts.
The other handy fact is that in a world of small (but charismatic) plants, these really do stand out.
They also remain standing after death for many years, even decades, so it’s relatively easy to quantify the proportions that have died.
Wendy Foden, associate researcher at South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), set off on a trip that took her to the furthest reaches of Namibia and the southern parts of the Northern Cape.
The quiver tree populations further north, and especially in Namibia, showed greatest genetic diversity, which means they are the oldest.
But a pattern quickly emerged. Even taking into account several years of unusually high rainfall in Namibia, there was clearly higher mortality in the north.
The researchers also found that populations seem to be struggling along and close to the Orange River, where temperatures soar to extreme levels.
Instead, there were more young quiver trees in the cooler south. They were doing better on cooler heights than hotter desert valleys. It seemed South Africa had found its sentinel for climate change.
Quiver tree populations further south, in places like Nieuwoudtville, are thriving.
In effect, quiver trees are migrating southwards and eastwards, seed by seed, sapling by sapling, away from the drying northern and western climes.
That would include Kenhardt’s quivers, and certainly the small quiver tree clusters around Pella.
When in distress, these aloes shed leaves and even branches. You’ll see plenty of distressed quiver trees outside Kenhardt.
Yet, you’ll see young ones too, with their distinctive smooth white barks. It seems that this population is clinging to survival. Researchers say it’s difficult to say what the coming decades will bring.
The South African Biodiversity Institute is running an ongoing study, periodically returning to individual plants and areas to note changes.
They’ve also found that quiver trees retain their ability to surprise.
Those around Brandberg in Namibia seem to have developed an evolutionary innovation, allowing them to re-root if blown over by strong winds.
Meanwhile, these survivors of desert storms, climate change and time itself are the stately icons of the Northern Cape and its vast arid plains.
The story appears, with many others, in our Ebook series called Karoo Life. Click HERE for the Special Karoo Life Discount – and get to know your Heartland!