Of course the quiver tree is not a tree. It’s an aloe, as its Latin name Aloe dichotoma, confirms. School of “the peanut is not a nut” pedantic titbits – the kind of morsel that tickles Stephen Fry’s fancy and ends up on his hilarious QI quiz show. Be that as it may, it’s a Kokerboom in Afrikaans. The English name comes from the San using hollowed out branches to hold their hunting arrows. And memorably, a canon during the Korana Wars in the northern Cape border in the late 19th century where the dramatis personae had exotic names like Donker Malgas, Klaas Pofadder and Rooi Thys (them) and Colonel Zachariah Bayly, Captain McTaggart and Captain Green of the Lillyfontein Volunteers (us).
Which is where the name of one of the islands in the Orange River comes from – Kanoneiland. According to grape farmer and font of veld knowledge Dirk Malan, when the Korana were under attack from the canons of the Cape Volunteer Artillery, they decided to build their own from the trunk of a giant quiver tree. Alas, when fired, it blew up and killed the would-be gunners and spectators. The chief, dazed and covered in blood, told his troops “if it’s this bad with us, imagine what it’s like with them” and declared victory.
Deployment as a fridge was more successful. The “wood” of a quiver tree is porous with the feel of balsa wood. When kept wet, evaporation cools the interior and it becomes a bush refrigerator. So not only is the Northern Cape the site of the world’s first restaurant, it’s also the birthplace of the kitchen appliance. Quiver trees turned out to be the Smegs, rather than the Krupps, of the Kalahari.
Another name for the quiver tree is “star tree” which makes sense when you see one with a Jimi Hendrix “afro” arrangement of leaves, below. Star Tree is the name of a wine brand the Orange River Cellars sell in the USA. It has enjoyed much success as it seems to be easy to pronounce than River’s Tale.
The best place to experience quiver trees in their prehistoric habitat is at Blocuso Trust, 10Km outside of Keimoes on the road from Upington, just before the police radar speed trap. You pay Tannie Maxi Campion at the Keimoes tourism office a deposit for the key to the gate to the reserve, which looks unremarkable from the road. But a few kilometres later, beyond the black stump, a Jurassic Park of quiver trees and succulents clinging to ancient rocks interspersed with red sand dunes is revealed.
Instead of armadas of pterosaurs you would expect according to the terrain, you may be lucky enough to see a pair of African pygmy falcons, silhouetted against the bluest African sky, perched on the inflorescence of a quiver tree, quivering slightly in the warm breeze from the Kalahari.