In the company of giants: Limpopo’s Champion Trees
The moist undergrowth beneath my feet flattens with a wet squelch as I slip-slop along an overgrown forest path. In seconds the green carpet rises up again, erasing all tracks while I amble further into the dense forest. Above me giant trees ascend into the mist, their collective canopy just visible beyond a puff of white. I see a doily of leaves in the sky.
I’m in search of what is claimed to be the world’s tallest planted tree – a 97m-tall Eucalyptus saligna (or Sydney bluegum) rumoured to be firmly rooted in Magoebaskloof, Limpopo.
My investigation, or rather my chats with residents from nearby Haenertsberg village, has steered me in the direction of the Woodbush Forest Reserve, the second-largest indigenous forest in Africa.
'Some guys from Department of Forestry spent the past week or so measuring up the giant pines and those massive bluegums up on the mountain,' Graham McComb, owner of Bali Will Will Guest House and life-long Haenertsberg resident, tells me earlier.
I later come to understand that ‘the mountain’ is the term locals use to describe the hilly landscape that stretches from the village to past Modjadjiskloof and into Tzaneen.
'Some of the tallest trees in the world are up there, you know. It’s not something most people know about, but it's helluva interesting to see, if trees are your thing,” he adds.
As fortune would have it, they are. There’s very little I love more than meandering through a forest, gulping in the mossy air.
And lucky for me, the Woodbush Forest Reserve isn’t hard to find. Wedged between the ruins of Limpopo’s last Long Tom cannon and the Hans Merensky Dam, the woodland is a mass plantation of indigenous trees, planted trees and just about everything green sprouting up in between.
After a 5km or 6km foray into the forest I see a sign, ‘Magoebaskloof Triplets. Planted in 1906 by AK Eastwood. Champion Trees’, with an arrow pointing left.
Standing below them I imagine that I look like a small child, a miniature me dwarfed by nature’s gigantic doorway.
I follow the path and arrive at the foot of a brown trunk that is at least 3m in diameter.
If it wasn’t obvious enough, a sign standing in front of the tree reads, 'World’s Largest Planted Tree'. And by golly it is.
The damp trunk reaches up into the heavens, shining in parts like strips of silver the higher up it goes.
I have to lean backwards to try to see the top. I can’t really. The trunk fades into a patch and then emerges again as a leafy top.
The two other bluegum siblings aren’t far away.
Planted next to one another, the 80-odd-metres-high twins form a pillared entrance into the next phase of the forest. Standing below them, I imagine that I look like a small child, a miniature me dwarfed by nature’s gigantic doorway.
Each easily over a century old, these gargantuan trees have been awarded 'Champion' status by South Africa’s Forestry Department: they are specially protected because of their remarkable size and age, as well as their historical and tourism value.
According to the Department of Forestry website, the first individual to be declared a Champion Tree was a historic English Oak, a remnant of the old Sophiatown that was destroyed in the 1950s by the apartheid government. Other trees have since been listed, and today – by law – these trees may not be cut, disturbed or damaged.
Next on my must-see tree list are the ‘Three matrons’ – a trio of colossal Mexican Pines planted in 1914.
With my camera at hand and my poor choice of footwear as unreliable as ever, I squelch back to the forest path, elated at having hugged the tallest tree I’ve seen. Ever.
Despite their reported height, the three pines aren’t as easy to find. I traipse up the path, then decide to turn back after about a few kilometres. Did I miss them? I follow the route back to the original signpost ... yes, I did turn right like the sign says. I walk back, past the bluegums again and further along the path than before. After about an hour of scouting, I finally give up.
I concede that this time, I’m not going to see them. How three pine trees each over 80m-tall can camouflage themselves in a forest I’ll never know. But they did.
As I head back to the main road and towards my awaiting car, I smile to myself. 'Next time,' I say quietly. 'Next time.'