The Horror of Petrified Forests

23 03 2009


                          “Absolutely terrifying!”                          (Namibia)



There have been several occasions in my life when I was petrified. You know, when your blood literally runs cold, your throat dries to a sand-like texture, your stomach drops out of your knees and you just want to curl into the fetal position and melt into the ground. One came when face to face with a cape buffalo, another when caught between a mother mountain gorilla and her inquisitive infant…and a third when trapped at a women’s shoe sale. But the fear of one person is nothing compared to an entire Petrified Forest.


If I may be permitted to anthropomorphise for a bit, I would suspect that trees get very nervous during maple syrup season much the same way that most of us don’t enjoy giving blood. I would also guess they aren’t thrilled by the sight of hungry woodpeckers, lumberjacks or termites, but it must take something pretty serious to petrify an entire forest like one in northern Namibia.


In the wilds of south-west Africa, there’s a spot missed by many travellers more interested in the wildlife of Etosha or the rolling dunes of Sossusvlei. In fact, although declared a national monument in 1950, the Petrified Forest is easy to miss even if you know it’s there.


Although I had long heard of such phenomena, I’d never really given much thought to precisely what a petrified forest was…until I found myself in one. Somewhat disappointingly it was neither a forest in the traditional standing-up sense, or a collection of really scary trees from some twisted 17th century nursery rhyme written solely to torment small children. For those who don’t know, they’re trees that have turned to stone – and no gorgons were involved.


The ones in Namibia are estimated to be 250 million years old and were deposited in the area by a flood. From afar and to the uninitiated, they simply appear to be crumbling stone cylinders, but upon closer inspection they really do look like trees with rough bark, knots and age-rings. It’s impossible not to touch them and be surprised by the hardness of stone rather than the warmth of wood. A sign explained that the trees had sunk into a silica-rich soil that was completely devoid of oxygen and which had consequently prevented the wood from decaying. Instead, over the course of time tiny molecules of silica penetrated the wood, replaced its molecules and perfectly preserved the trees…as stone.


Sadly, much of the petrified wood has been pilfered by light-fingered locals and visitors, although what remains is still very impressive. Today, there are guides and parks officials patrolling the site ensuring that Namibia’s natural heritage of ancient fossils aren’t stolen and signs that warn of severe repercussions for anyone tempted to try. Penalties range from considerable fines to lengthy prison sentences – punishment that some would say is positively petrifying.



Photo and post by:     Simon Vaughan




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