Giant Tree Climbing In South Africa

GTC3Let’s face it, rock climbing is not a mainline sport. In fact in South Africa, it would have to be classified as downright ‘fringe’. Soccer, rugby, cricket, yes, but rock climbing … is, well, different, and most people think of us as a little crazy to hang off cliff faces for fun.

But if rock climbing is a fringe activity, then giant tree climbing must be the mother of all fringe sports!  Giant tree climbing? Huh? Well, I am not talking about climbing the fruit  tree in the back yard you used to climb as a kid. No! I am talking about trees 20 storeys high. Getting to the top is as orgasmic as topping out that climb you  have dreamed of cracking, or the mountain top you spent the last few hours  slogging up. It’s a place very few people ever get to, requiring specialised skill, equipment and knowledge. First off, you want to make sure you are climbing a tree that is structurally sound and safe. Using spikes is cheating and damages the  tree. Using a rock-climbing harness will also not do as there are no solid D-rings  on the sides for attaching safety lanyards.

SA happens to have the tallest planted eucalyptus trees in Africa and indeed, as far as we know, in the world. The two particular trees (Eucalyptus saligna), aptly named the Magoebaskloof Twins, grow in a plantation just north of Tzaneen in Limpopo province and were planted in 1906. The first ascent of these magnificent trees took place in November 2008, and they were climbed by myself and fellow climber Charles Green, with the express purpose of measuring their exact heights.


They are 78.5 m and 79.0 m tall respectively, the equivalent of a 25-storey building. [The climb was sponsored by STIHL, and verified by Professor Brian Bredenkamp of Stellenbosch University and Izak van der Merwe of DWAF, who heads up the South African Champion Tree Project. That trip also included climbing one of the thickest gums in the country, a tree growing in a private arboretum in the Karkloof hills of KwaZulu-Natal.]

What an exciting time! We flew up from Cape Town on Friday, drove five hours to Magoebaskloof, miraculously got our throwlines over the first shot with a giant catty. The first branches were 40 m up, so it meant footlocking1 a LONG way before being able to advance in stages until, some 35 m later, in the light drizzle and wind, I led the climb out onto the crown of the tree.

Being purists, we did not use spikes which damage the tree, but advanced our ropes in stages, anchoring ourselves off with a GTC7second, shorter rope so that we did not fall. The wind and rain made the gum trees slippery as butter – a mistake at that height would mean certain death.

The tree we wanted to climb was actually higher, so we had to make use of a technique called skywalking: moving from one canopy to the next above ground. We did this by throwing a thin line with a weigh tied bag into a solid crotch in the next tree. The end of the throwline was retrieved; we then pulled through the thicker, second climbing line. This double anchor enabled us to move across by means of sky-walking 70 m off the deck … exciting stuff. 

After measuring both trees it was time to abseil out using the two 100 m lines we had been climbing with. By then, the forest floor was dark. This proved to be more troublesome than anticipated as the ropes and throwlines got tangled in a horrible mess in the foliage below. Fortunately we were in radio contact with the guys on the ground who, by then, had started to panic, thinking that we were stuck. In the end I managed to untangle the mess and got down in the dark – Charles followed quickly, jubilant at the feat. This was the first ascent of these giant trees.

Due to the lateness of the hour and the wet conditions, we left all the lines in place, bundu-bashed in the dark back to the vehicles and pulled everything out the next day, a Saturday. Rain and really slippery conditions prevented us ascending another tree we thought was even higher, so we packed up, drove back to Joburg, caught a plane to Durban, were picked up and drove to the Midlands, and arriving somewhere around 10.00 pm.

1st ascents redo files

Sunday we were up early and ready for the next tree, a giant gum (Eucalyptus regnans), also a champion tree topping 63 m and probably the thickest gum in the country. This tree proved to be more difficult as we spent almost an hour just getting a line up. It had huge ‘widow-makers’ (large dead wood) in it with a massive crack splitting the three towers that made up the crown. Many years before a storm had blown the top out, causing it to jam high up in the canopy. We climbed the safest of the towers with a fair bit of difficulty, led very ably by Charles. The descent was much easier as there was no wind or rain, and no tangled lines.

GTC1We had done it: the tallest trees in South Africa had been successfully climbed and measured. It’s a weekend I shall never forget. Giant tree climbing has become a lustful pastime for me. If I see a remarkable tree, I simply have to climb it. It helps being an arborist and being paid for what I enjoy. The result so far has been that all the big trees in Stellenbosch have a first ascent and the Stellenbosch Big Tree Challenge was done shortly after the weekend related above. The idea was to climb the ten most remarkable trees in Stellenbosch in a day. The total height climbed was 350 m, but that is another story.

This is not a spectator pastime, but it is hugely rewarding for the participants and does not take forever if you have access to trees nearby. You will be considered weird, so be warned!

 

TREE-CLIMBING TERMS
Throwline – a thin weighted line used to access anchor points in the tree from the ground.
Footlocking – rope ascension technique whereby the climber wraps the climbing line around his feet and literally walks up the rope
Safety lanyard – a short ‘spider tail’ equipped with snaps used to anchor oneself off when advancing in the canopy
Body thrusting – rope ascension technique
Skywalking – method of moving across a canopy using two ropes and two anchor points
Anchor point – a solid branch or crotch that can take the weight of a climber