Quiver Tree Forest to Ai-Ais

Saturday 15 to Wednesday 19 October

Not quite the red dunes of the Kalahari, however being a farm, we loved the ambience of the Quiver Tree Resort on the Gariganus Farm. We met a South African couple who had retired as a pharmacist and horse breeder and had very seriously taken up bird watching. Of 900 varieties they had identified 700 in two years.

The farm ran sheep, which we never saw. The land is so arid that they run 1 sheep per 4 hectares, for meat.

Like any farm there was a menagerie. Many birds, a greyhound, six border collies with a mix of blue and brown eyes, a couple of house dogs and a very friendly wart hog which insisted on getting as much of Bruce’s attention as the dogs. And then there were the cheetahs.

The camp site and lodge takes its name from the Quiver Tree Forest which sits within the farm’s boundaries. A tree version of the Aloe plant Aloe dichotoma takes its name from the way the plants branch in twos. These plants are endangered and protected, they cannot be moved and they grow very slowly.

The forest looked a little more like something from a fantasy movie, with tumbling rocks, stark tree shapes and rock hyrax (also known as rock rabbits) scampering around. It was late in the day and the clouds played funny light games with us.

The Sociable Weavers have also moved into the quiver trees, building their amazingly enormous ‘apartment’ nests.

In the morning we headed out to the two other attractions in this part of the South Namib Desert. Still on the farm is the Giants Playground. Dolerite rocks formed by underground molten lava some 800 million years ago, have over millennium been exposed by erosion. They now appear as rocks stacked in piles, like giant cairns. As we wandered through the rocks there were wonderful, if sometimes elusive flowers. The rock formations, different at every turn, were fabulous.

We then drove a further 20km along the gravel road. Our first opportunity to get the feel of a gravel road. The big 4WD felt very comfortable and the road, although corrugated was easy to drive. We arrived at the site of the Mesosaurus fossils but no one was around. The guide was already doing a tour but we were advised to drive through the gate and pick up on the tour. We did that and met Olaf an antique German Namibian and two young tourists.

First we were shown the dolerites with an excellent explanation of how they were formed. Molten lava that was rising through the earth rises not in a single stream as in a volcano but seeps and cools before it reaches the surface. The softer parts of the stone and the top layer of the earth’s crust eroded away, which leaves the dolerites exposed. The dolerites are between 160 and 180 million year old, and in the Keetmanshoop region cover an area of 180,000 km2.

Olaf then talked about the quiver tree, getting its name from the hollow branches that held the arrows of the bushmen.

Next were the fossils and his story of building a road on his farm while his 10 year old son was playing with the rocks. His son thought one looked unusual. When they hammered it, it opened to show the prints of a prehistoric animal. He was surprised when it was identified as a mesosaurus, an extinct alligator like animal up to 2m long. The find provided added proof of Gondwanan and the subsequent continental drift, as similar fossils have been found in South America.

The fossils we saw are mostly prints rather than fossilised bone. They were preserved in a marsh which was acidic so the bones dissolved, but their space was preserved. The result is a fragile seam in the rock that splits open quite easily. I am sure there are many more fossils in the area, but they are protected by the Namibian Antiquities department.

Back at the farm, later in the afternoon, two cheetahs appeared. They attracted a following of interested humans.

Our host appeared at 4:30pm with a bunch of maize for the warthog. She explained that the warthog was in no way restrained on the farm and was free to leave. I really don’t blame her for staying, food laid on, the run of the house and admiration from the tourists.

Then at 5:00pm our host returned with a bucket of meat. By now the cheetahs were pacing, so I was surprised when she entered the enclosure. One cheetah was given some meat and left with it.

The other cheetah was hand fed. Our host also invited visitors into the enclosure. This cheetah is 18 years old, way beyond its life expectancy in the wild of 11 years. Our host explained that there are strict rules about keeping cheetahs in captivity. They cannot be mated, therefore the other two males are kept separately. They are however actively hunted by the farmers because they take their stock, not just to feed themselves, but also to teach their cubs how to hunt.

We left the farm and under instructions changed the intended route to stop by the Naute Dam on the D545, and pop into the Naute Kristall distillery with a promise of good coffee. The coffee was good and the story interesting. The Namibian Government has set up an irrigation project using water from the Naute Dam. They have planted dates, pecans, pomegranate, prickly pear, table grapes and a vineyard for future wine making.

The distillery is located next to the farm, from which they source their fruits. They are currently making spritz from dates, pomegranates and prickly pear and a brandy from the dates. The prickly pear spritz reminded me of a similar drink we tried in Mexico. They recommended that it would make a good mojito. The date brandy was also good, quite sweet.

We were told that the dates are exported to the Middle East, while the farm is investigating markets for their other produce.

Grapes from the 3 hectare vineyard will be in production next year.

We continued south. The roads were dusty and we tried hard to keep a distance from other travellers. Southern Africa is in a drought and water has become a very precious commodity. The land is dry and arid, but apparently turns green after rains.

We stopped at the Hobas Lookout on the Fish River Canyon. The lookout was new and the facilities were incomplete. The lookout gazed over a deep canyon which had been carved through the rock over  millions of years. The Fish River was not flowing, instead it consisted of a number of waterholes. There is a five day hike along 80 km of the canyon from just north of the lookout to Ai-Ais Hot Springs.

We drove south in the same direction of the canyon but about 10km east of it until we reached the Ai-Ais springs, which was an oasis of greenery and a refreshing sight after the dry rocky landscape. The resort is famous for its hot springs, but we were also given some rather strict instructions on keeping doors and windows closed and nothing on the balcony that the baboons would be attracted to.

As at the Hobas Lookout, the river was dry with just a few waterholes. We walked along the river bed, trying to identify the many footprints in the sand. We did see a horse, families of baboons and three kudus which had scampered across the riverbed.

We left Ai-Ais and choose the longer route to our next destination, travelling south to the Orange River which marks the southern border between Namibia and South Africa. We drove a 100km of the border. It was nice to see flowing water and the green it brought both in crops and native vegetation.

We shared this stretch with some motor bike riders. The gravel road was dusty so we tried to keep some distance behind them.

We turned north continuing on the C13 road past the town of Rosh Pinal. It’s reason for being is a zinc mine. It is a closed site, no visitors permitted. We were told that they find it difficult to attract local workers so there are a lot of foreign workers. There was a lot of accommodation provided.

The road from Rosh Pinal to the intersection of the road to the coastal town of Lüderitz is one of the few paved roads in southern Namibia and we passed a truck every 10km returning to the mine.

Most of the driving in Namibia is on gravel roads. The ‘C’ roads are main gravel roads and the ‘D’ roads are district gravel roads. The roads are generally wide and well graded. Where there is corrugation you can usually pick the smoothest route through it. Maintenance does seem a high priority, although we keep wondering what condition they fall into during the wet season. It is easy to maintain a speed of 80kph, the limit in the hire car on gravel roads.

We passed very few cars in either direction, but when you do you can be assured of a dust trail up to half a kilometre long. At times the dust was so thick that it was difficult to see the road.

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