About clouds and dead trees

Sabi Sand | January 2017

Why do people come to Africa on safari? What is it that they want to see? In many cases, it would be lions, elephants and giraffes. Or the “Big Five.” Perhaps hippos, crocodiles and zebras. Some may say “lions, tigers and bears,” but I would hope that in most cases this would be a humorous use of an old cliché, rather than a genuine hope that they would encounter all three of those magnificent animals on the same part of the globe.

Not too many people, I suspect, when looking forward to their first trip to Africa, would have dead trees and clouds high on their list of things that they are looking forward to seeing. I would hope, however, that
by the end of their safari they would have noticed and grown to appreciate these features. As a guide, I certainly notice and appreciate dead trees every time I am out on a game drive or walk, and even on days or nights when there are no clouds at all, I love the African sky and watching how it changes.

Let us first consider the dead trees that we encounter in this part of our beautiful country. The most prominent ones that feature in many panoramic views of our landscape are undoubtedly the dead knobthorn trees (Acacia nigrescens), of which there are literally thousands to be seen. Almost all of them died from the same cause, namely from being ‘ring-barked’ by elephants. It is not the removal of the outer woody bark that kills these trees, but rather the stripping off of the complete cambium layer somewhere along the circumference of the trunk. The cambium is the layer that holds the vascular bundles of xylem and phloem (remember your old biology class days?), and without this layer, water, minerals and nutrients cannot be distributed through the plant, which is therefore doomed to die. A tree whose cambium layer has only partially been removed can continue to survive for a long time, although the exposed parts are vulnerable to fire and insect damage.

But the dead knobthorn trees are by no means lifeless skeletons. No, not at all! They are actually great hubs of activity, and provide resting places, food, homes or protection for a great variety of organisms, ranging from fungi to termites, scorpions to squirrels, woodpeckers to vultures. They are used by wallowing animals as rubbing posts after a mud bath, and even animals that do not wallow in mud, often need to relieve an itch: what better way than using a dead tree, kindly provided by Nature?

I personally have a great fondness for the way that dead trees can enhance a skyline, and I often use them in composing photographs of sunsets. If a sky is completely cloudless, looking for good opportunities to capture a decent sunset photograph will frequently involve finding suitable dead trees, and creatively ‘placing’ them somewhere in the photograph. Different people have different tastes and opinions regarding composition of sunset photographs, but it is generally accepted that for good balance, a feature such as a dead tree should be off-centre.

Knobthorn wood is hard and fairly durable, so it probably takes an average of well over a decade before the decomposing forces of Nature cause a dead knobthorn tree to collapse to the ground and disintegrate. Hence the great number of standing dead knobthorn trees on our landscape. We can briefly compare these with two other species of dead trees that you are sure to encounter, namely dead marula trees (Sclerocarya birrea) and dead leadwood trees (Combretum imberbe). The marula tree is composed of relatively soft wood, and once a marula tree has died, it is very quickly invaded by various wood-boring insects, fungi and more, and usually within a few years of dying, the tree has collapsed to the ground and been converted to a pile of natural fertiliser to return nutrients to the soil. Leadwood trees, on the other hand, are so incredibly hard and dense, that after a leadwood has died, it is likely to continue to stand, like a beautiful sculpture, for many decades, with termites and other weathering agents having virtually no impact at all. It is no secret that I have a great love of leadwood trees, and the fact that I particularly love the dead ones should not give you undue cause for concern about my state of mind!

What about clouds? A whole book could probably be written about clouds, but that is not my mission right now. This is not going to be a meteorological lesson either, as I would rather leave that to the experts in that field. All I wish to do, though, is to share my appreciation of some of the spectacular clouds that we often see, whether they are the wispy, feathery cirrus or stratus clouds that appear to have been painted across the sky with an artist’s brush, or the dramatic, brooding cumulo nimbus clouds that seem to billow and grow like angry giant mushrooms of cotton wool. A Lowveld thunderstorm brewing in the late afternoon is truly a marvellous spectacle to behold, and I am always left in awe of the tremendous energy and power that is being displayed. No two clouds are identical, and this is why I love any sunset featuring clouds. That sunset is absolutely unique! Never again will another sunset exactly like that one be seen by anyone! I encourage my guests to delight in that fact, and to look at each cloudy sunset as their own, and to savour and celebrate its uniqueness.

I really hope that guests who arrive here hoping to see lions, elephants and giraffes get to see them and enjoy their great beauty. They certainly are iconic parts of what Africa has to offer. But I also hope that the vast majority of visitors leave with a much greater appreciation of our beautiful dead trees and our spectacular skies. At the end of the day, these are all part of Nature, and we as humans need to realise how small and insignificant we are individually. As mankind, we have a massive responsibility to preserve what is left of what we did not create.