The twins that became triplets.


UntitledThe weather in the Boland was near-perfect early last week, but in the forest areas of Limpopo it was so bad that two of South Africa’s four Albatross aircraft flew into the side of a mountain. While rescue parties were looking for the crash site, two foresters from Stellenbosch, Brian Bredenkamp and Leon Visser were in the rain in the plantations of Magoebaskloof, measuring trees. Brian is Emeritus Professor of Forest Management at the University of Stellenbosch and serves on the Minister of Forestry’s advisory panel for the National Champion Tree Project while Leon is an arborist and owner of Trees Unlimited. He is passionate about climbing trees. There is a synergy with the former’s expertise in forest mensuration and the hobby of the latter. Leon climbs the tallest trees in the country and drops a tape to his ground crew, Brian, who then records the height. As Brian jokingly puts it; Leon merely holds the end of the tape while he measures the tree.

Local foresters on Woodbush Forest had discovered three huge Mexican yellow pines (Pinus oocarpa) that had been planted in 1905 and left when the rest of the stand was clearfelled some seventy years ago. The stand had not been replanted and these three now tower above the indigenous forest that has re-established itself. The trees had been reported to the Department of Forestry and the responsible official had asked Stihl (South Africa) to sponsor the measurement of the trees. Stihl had kindly agreed to cover the travel expenses of Brian and Leon who flew to Johannesburg and then travelled by road to Magoebaskloof, via Polokwane, on Sunday morning. By nightfall the first of the three trees had already been climbed and measured and the throw lines were already in the crown of the second.

On Monday morning Leon was up the 50 m tree in less than an hour despite the pelting rain and before lunch the objectives of the trip had been met. The trees had been measured and had been dubbed the Matrons of Magoebaskloof. However, this provided an opportunity!

The Matrons were only a short walk from the Twin Giants of Magoebaskloof. These were two Sydney blue gums (Eucalyptus saligna) that Leon had climbed and Brian had measured the year before. They were 78,5 and 79,0 m tall and were not only the tallest trees on the African continent, they were the tallest planted eucalypts in the world. They had been identified for climbing from satellite imagery and when Leon was up in the crowns he’d seen another tree, mere metres away, that he suspected was even taller. However, by that time it was already dark on the forest floor and there had not been an opportunity to climb the tree. Now that opportunity had arrived.

Opportunity might not be the best word, of course. Most of the day was available but it was raining continuously and the bark of adfg gum tree is a lot smoother than that of a pine tree. It would be dangerous to climb in the rain because as the roadsigns proclaim; Slippery when wet! Undeterred, Leon set off. The lowest live branch was more than 30 m above the ground and it took a while before it was possible to shoot a lead weight with an attached throw-line over it. The climbing rope was pulled over the branch by means of the throw line and then Leon set off, foot-locking his way up the rope. It took another 15 passes to higher branches and two hours before he reached the top and Brian attached the end of the tape measure to the climbing rope. Leon then pulled the end of the tape to the top of the tree and Brian read the height: 80 m! The tree is now the tallest known in Africa. There are now three giant trees in the grove and the Twin Giants of Magoebaskloof now became the Triplet Giants of Magoebaskloof.

It may be useful to think about what a height of 80 m implies. Were the tree to stand on the quarter line of the All Blacks and fall toward the Springbok line it would flatten the posts! The tallest tree in Stellenbosch, possibly in the Boland, is Helsehoogte, a sugar gum next to the old Helshoogte Pass, and that is a mere 54 m tall. Arguably the most prominent tree in Stellenbosch is the almost 200-year old Norfolk Island Pine in front of the theological seminary, a tree that is taller than the steeple of the Moederkerk. The new Triplet is almost twice as tall!