Kings of the Kalahari
In the wildlife-rich lands in South Africa’s Northern Cape and Limpopo are camel thorns. At first you’ll hardly notice them. A thorn tree is a thorn tree, right? But gradually you will find yourself paying them more and more attention.
In so many ways, they make life possible, especially in the dry, hot Kalahari.
Growing up to 17 metres high, with spreading crowns, camel thorns offer dense shade in this hot land. Their earlobe-shaped grey pods (hence the Latin name Acacia erioloba) are high in protein and eaten by all kinds of animals, from buck to baboons.
Their leaves are ardently adored by giraffe, and this is where their English and Afrikaans names come from. In Afrikaans, a giraffe is called a kameelperd (literally “camel-horse”), so a camel thorn is called a kameeldoring. You’ll often see a cluster of giraffes around a single camel thorn tree, their tender lips and long tongues somehow stripping the fine leaves from between the barbed wire-like thorns.
A camel thorn will survive where nothing else can, and the secret is in its root. A full-grown tree can have a taproot stretching down nearly 50 metres, nearly 3 times its surface height. In fact, a tiny sapling hardly a metre high will have a tap root searching down 5 metres or more, and it simply won’t really grow until its roots have found a constant source of moisture.
You’ll often see a cluster of giraffes around a single camel thorn tree, their tender lips and long tongues somehow stripping the fine leaves from between the barbed wire-like thorns.
When it does grow, it doesn’t mess about. Camel thorns boast some of the densest wood around. Those eerie-looking trees you see at Namibia’s Dead Vlei among the red dunes of Sossusvlei? Those are ancient camel thorns that grew here once when there was water. They died many hundreds of years ago, but there they are, still standing.
Anyone who loves braais (barbecues) in South Africa will tell you that camel thorn wood is the best you can get. Not only does it make hot coals that last for hours, but it somehow imparts a beautiful smoky flavour to the meat.
And this is part of the trouble. So popular are camel thorns as firewood that too many of them are chopped down. Even harvesting the dead wood has an impact. The old skeletons, even the fallen ones, are full of life. They protect seed grasses, and provide food for insects and the birds that eat them. They support sociable weaver nests weighing tons.
Camel thorns, living or dead, nurture life in the desert.