The stories behind South Africa’s champion trees

South Africa is home to some of the world’s most remarkable senior citizens – nearly 100 protected trees whose roots stretch back to a time when Africa was not partitioned.

Imagine what remarkable stories South Africa’s champion trees could share about the history of our country, if only we could communicate with each other.

The current list of 93 champions protected under the National Forests Act includes some of the country’s largest, tallest or oldest living creatures, a venerable council of plant “elders” that predate the rinderpest (a bovine viral plague that wreaked havoc across the continent more than 120 years ago, wiping out more than five million cattle, buffalo and other species of wildlife in southern Africa alone).

But the historic waterline left by the rinderpest is a pretty short time span for some of the oldest champions. Take, for example, Champion Tree No. 3, the “Grandfather of Still Bay”, a milkwood tree in the Western Cape, or No. 12, the “Wonderboom”, a fig tree near Pretoria. Both are estimated to be over 1 000 years old.

That takes us back to a period a little bit before 1066, when the Normans were busy invading England after slaying Anglo-Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Closer to home, this was a time when the southern African kingdom of Mapungubwe (AD 900-1300) was approaching its zenith. Mapungubwe, a precursor to Great Zimbabwe, was part of a commercial network that stretched all the way to India and China, with ivory and gold traded for porcelain and glass.

Located in the Limpopo lowveld, Mapungubwe is now part of a new national park and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage Site. It features unique San rock art paintings and a golden rhino statue thought to have been crafted by the Zhizo people, who moved to Zimbabwe about 700 years ago.

7 March 2013: Erna Liebenberg framed by the gnarled branches of the Ilembe tree, one of the oldest trees in the country. It is in the iLembe municipality, KwaZulu-Natal. (Photograph by Enrico Liebenberg)

Topping the list

Apart from its cultural and archaeological riches, the land around Mapungubwe also supports an abundance of baobab trees. If you were to drive just over 100km eastwards towards the town of Tshipise, you would encounter Champion Tree No. 1 – the famous Sagole Baobab, also known as Muvuyo wa Makhadzi or Muri kunguluwa (the tree that roars).

The age of this baobab is unclear, though it is believed to be the largest indigenous tree in the country and probably its largest surviving baobab following the collapse of both the Sunland baobab near Modjadjiskloof in 2016 and the Glencoe baobab near Hoedspruit in 2009. (Carbon dating samples from the Glencoe tree indicate it was over 1 800 years old, while the Sunland specimen was so big that it was converted into a tourist attraction featuring a bar and wine cellar that once hosted 80 people at a party.)

Worryingly, many of the oldest and largest baobabs in Southern Africa have died over the past 15 years. In a research paper published in 2018, scientists reported that nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobabs in the region had died or collapsed since 2005, though the exact cause remains unclear. Fortunately, the Sagole tree and several other large baobabs are still standing. And late last year, another monster-sized specimen was added to the Champion Tree list. This tree, the so-called Honnet Giant, also near Tshipise, boasts the second-thickest trunk diameter of all trees nationwide.

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Much further to the south, just outside central Pretoria, is the aptly named Wonderboom (Wonder Tree). This indigenous fig tree is also believed to be about 1 000 years old and legend suggests that it draws its strength from a local chief who was buried beneath it. There are several conflicting accounts about his identity, with some sources suggesting he was a Ndebele inkosi named Musi. One of his sons is said to have later founded the Amandebele wa-KwaNdzundza or Mabhogo nation.

While African monarchs such as late Zulu King Cetshwayo and Xhosa King Hintsa are known internationally for battling against British colonists, Mabhogo’s son Nyabela fought an equally determined battle against the Boer Republic before he was finally subdued and imprisoned in 1883.

22 November 2009: Forestry professor Brian Bredenkamp and a group of youngsters dwarfed by the massive Ga-Ratjeke baobab near Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo. (Photograph: Supplied)

Drawing the lines

It was around this period of history that powerful political and commercial interests in Europe began to scratch vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines across the map of Africa, most of which endure today to the detriment of humanity and the natural environment.

One of the first straight-line borders was drawn across southern Africa in 1875 by French president Marshal McMahon to resolve a boundary dispute between the British and Portuguese. That old line (as well as a steel fence) still stretches across northern KwaZulu-Natal and the southern tip of Mozambique, cutting families from the Mabhudu-Tembe nation in two.

But the real Scramble for Africa got under way a few decades later following the Berlin Conference (1884–1885) when the major European powers partitioned Africa into several colonies. Ignoring natural boundary lines such as rivers and mountain ranges, history, religion or ethnic divisions, the European decision makers carved up the continent without the knowledge or consent of the vast majority of Africa’s people.

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The British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, put it this way in 1906: “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod: we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediments that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.”

Nearly a century earlier, at the very southern tip of South Africa, several exotic tree seeds from other continents were also starting to take root following the arrival of Dutch and British settlers. These included an English oak tree planted in Ryneveld Street in Stellenbosch in 1812 and a Norfolk Island pine tree planted in the same town in 1826, both of which are alive today.

As the colonists expanded deeper into the mainland, most of the country’s largest yellowwood trees and indigenous forests were felled for furniture, building and other development. To replace them, an increasing number of alien timber species were planted to meet the burgeoning demand for timber and pulp.

On the shoulder of giants

These imported aliens included a stand of fast-growing Eucalyptus saligna (gum trees) that was planted in 1906 in the Woodbush State Forest in Limpopo and now features the tallest trees in the country, and possibly Africa.

Known as the Magoebaskloof Giants, they have stretched upwards to just beyond 80m. Leon Visser, a Stellenbosch arborist, tree climber and national Champion Tree assessment panel member, is one of the very few men to have clambered to their highest branches, to measure their exact heights with a 100m-long tape measure.

Visser, accompanied by climbing buddy Charles Green, recalls a cold and wet afternoon in 2006 when he arrived at the plantation and stood at the foot of these giants, scratching his head as he pondered how he would climb them. He recalls that it had been raining and that the smooth tree trunks were as “slippery as butter”. Also, the lowest branches were 35m up, so he had to shoot ropes up to them with the help of a giant catapult.

Visser says he much prefers climbing up a tree using a rope, even though it is slow, to using spiked shoes, which can damage a tree. After ascending laboriously via a series of temporary anchoring points, Visser and Green reached the pinnacle of one of the giants late in the afternoon.

“Because we were so high up, we had to communicate with the ground crew via radio. There was still a bit of light at the top, but it was almost completely dark down below, so it was an absolute nightmare to descend with so little light.”

4 October 2014: Arborist and tree climber Leon Visser descends into the hollow trunk of an enormous Champion Tree in Nature’s Valley, Western Cape. (Photograph: Supplied)

Protecting historic trees

Izak van der Merwe, the founder and coordinator of the Champion Tree project, says the scheme has expanded considerably since the first tree gained official protection 17 years ago in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. A senior government forestry official, he received a call in 2003 from local councillor Steve Kotze, who was worried about the fate of a large English oak – one of the only trees to have survived the 1950s demolition of Sophiatown during another apartheid forced-removal campaign.

Van der Merwe was able to make use of an emergency clause in forestry law to protect the historic tree, but by the time this administrative process was completed, the Sophiatown oak had been pruned back so badly that it died shortly afterwards.

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It was this event which galvanised Van der Merwe and a panel of experts to proactively secure legal protection for trees judged to be of national importance. He says the criteria for naming a Champion Tree remains very strict and estimates that only about 10% of trees nominated by the public make it to the final list.

There has to be a definite “wow factor”, explains Coert Geldenhuys, a forest ecologist who developed the panel’s evaluation criteria. To evaluate this “wow factor”, nominated trees are ranked mainly by their size (height, stem diameter and crown diameter), stature and aesthetic value.

Geldenhuys says although the scheme was initiated almost two decades ago, it is possible that there are still some remarkable trees that have not yet been assessed for Champion Tree status. “They may not be easily accessible, hidden in a remote valley or deep inside the natural forest. Such trees could still be located and nominated.”

The Whispering Tree

Last year, however, 11 more trees were added to the list, to the delight of tree lovers such as Marietjie Coetzee, custodian of “the Whispering Tree” and owner of the Voëlroepersfontein guest house and writers’ retreat in Albertinia in the Western Cape. “When you see my tree you will take out your camera. You won’t be able to stop yourself! It is such an incredibly beautiful tree,” said the former Pretoria teacher and publisher.

“When I first bought the property in 2013, the tree was not really visible because there were so many big bushes concealing it. But when we cleared away some of the vegetation, I noticed the tree properly for the first time and thought to myself, hey, this is not normal! My sister also lives in Albertinia and she has a nursery. When I asked her to come and have a look, she agreed that the tree was very unusual – and that started off a long process which eventually led to Champion Tree status.”

As part of the rigorous evaluation process, Coetzee was also required to submit measurements of the trunk circumference and diameter of the massive Ficus burkei (Burke’s fig or common wild fig). “When I sent the measurements away, I don’t think the evaluators really believed that a tree in this part of the world could be so big. Maybe they thought I was getting a bit old and deurmekaar [confused], but I can tell you that when the evaluation team came to visit me, they went dead quiet when they saw my tree for the first time. And then they took out their cameras!”

29 November 2018: Marietjie Coetzee and the massive Whispering Tree of Albertinia, Western Cape. (Photograph: Supplied)

Coetzee is not sure how old the tree may be, but describes her garden as a secluded desert oasis where – if you listen carefully – you can hear water gushing and whispering in the ground beneath you. Is it possible that bloubok (blue buck) or quagga ever came to the Whispering Tree in search of water and shade before they were hunted to extinction in 1800 and 1883 respectively? And what about the spectacular migrations of trekbok that were once a feature of the neighbouring Karoo?

Recalling one such migration near the town of Beaufort West in 1849, Sir John Fraser wrote: “We were awakened one morning by a sound as of a strong wind before a thunderstorm, followed by a trampling of thousands of game – wildebeest, blesboks, springboks, quaggas, elands, antelopes of all sorts and kinds – which filled the streets and gardens, and as far as one could see covered the whole country, grazing off everything eatable before them … it took about three days before the whole of the trekbokken had passed, and it left our country looking as if a fire had passed over it. It was indeed a wonderful sight.”

Almost two centuries later, with the map of Africa covered with many more straight lines – steel boundary fences, tarmac roads, railways, pipelines or buildings – such events have faded away to mirage. But on this land, from the Karoo to Limpopo, some remarkable trees remain standing with their roots deep into the earth, waiting to be discovered for the champions they are.

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