Date Palm Riddle in the Fish River Canyon - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection
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Date Palm Riddle in the Fish River Canyon

Avatar of inke inke - 14. October 2016 - Discover Namibia

The shady palm trees in the Fish River Canyon, a popular rest spot for hikers.

How did the date palms at the sulphur springs in the Fish River Canyon get there? Many a hiker will have pondered this question on his way through the canyon. It is after all the only spot in the canyon where one finds palm trees. To date a conclusive answer hasn’t been found, but there are several theories. 

The first story about the origin of the date palms dates back to 1914. The ‘old Southwesters’ tell it like this: a German cancer patient in great pain descended into the canyon, determined to stay at the sulphur springs until he would either be cured or dead. He lived on fish from the Fish River and on what he bagged when hunting. He bathed in the sulphurous water every day and after nine months returned home with his health restored. Legend has it that he had brought dates with him into the canyon, and that the palm trees grew from those pits. 

Another story claims that the palm trees in the Fish River Canyon were ‘planted’ by German prisoners of war. On a foggy night in June 1916 four men escaped from the POW camp at Aus, where they had been taken the previous year after the surrender of the German Schutztruppe to the South African army. Their equipment consisted of three revolvers and ammunition plus some hoarded food rations. They intended to remain in hiding until the war was finally over. After walking for about three weeks they reached the Fish River Canyon through the Konkiep River. One of the men knew of a warm and dry cave near Vogel-Strauß-Kluft which would make an excellent hiding place. They stayed at this cave for around two months, went hunting, caught fish and finished their rations. 

The fugitives possibly passed the sulphur springs on their way to the cave and might have left the date pits to which we owe the palm trees. There is however no proof for this assumption, it is mere speculation. Ernst Ludwig Kramer writes about the escape from the POW camp in his book “Wir kommen wieder” (We will be back). He says that the men brought tinned meat, rice, coffee, tea and ‘many other things’ with them. Dates are not mentioned, but they would have been quite a suitable provision. The high sugar content makes them highly nutritious and at the same time makes it possible to store them for a long time without preservatives. Dates therefore rank high among the staple foods in North Africa and the trees and their fruit have many uses. 

The soggy ground at the sulphur springs provides ideal growing conditions for palm trees. “Its roots in the surge of water, its crown in the fire of the sun”, goes an Arabic proverb about the most important oasis plants which are mainly grown in dry, hot countries. Date palms can reach an age of up to 200 years. They produce the highest yield when they are between 40 and 80 years old. 

Since the date palm is androgynous and only the female plants bear fruit, usually just one male tree is planted on plantations for every 30 to 50 female trees. The trees’ flowers are then pollinated manually in spring, a cumbersome and time-consuming task for plantation workers who have to climb every single tree.   

In May 1965 a group of 60 nature lovers from Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz embarked on a hike through the canyon on a similar mission. According to their theory the palm trees at the sulphur springs do not bear fruit because it is likely that all of them are of the same gender. With date pits in their baggage the group set out on the arduous hike into the Fish River Canyon where they planted the pits at the sulphur springs, hoping that new trees would sprout from them and that one day palms at the spring would bear fruit.  

It is unclear whether their hope was fulfilled. Despite numerous inquiries not even those well acquainted with the canyon have ever reported seeing dates on the palm trees at the sulphur springs. Since there are no other palm trees further downstream it is safe to assume that the trees at the sulphur springs did not disseminate.

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