Explore the Ancient Trees of Africa   Giant Tree Climbing expedition

 By Leon Visser

Lindani, Stellenbosch

June 2013



Tallest planted tree in the world

Imagine spending a whole month climbing giant trees – many of them for the first time.. This is what a group of 5 international tree climbers and I did in January 2013 as part of an initiative to create an awareness of the incredible heritage we have in our South African giant trees.

 Did you know for example that SA has the tallest planted tree in the world? It is an 81.5m tall gum tree in Magoebaskloof near Tzaneen climbed and measured for the first time on the trip. We also have the biggest, oldest baobab in the world– the magnificent Sagole tree in northern Limpopo. Its stem is so huge that it looks like a mini cliff face.




                                                                                          The cliff - like Sagole baobab

All 20 trees climbed were SA champion trees, which mean they are officially protected.  Every tree climbed was measured using a tape – so there were some that had to have their estimated heights adjusted. The tape never lies! The climbing techniques used were strictly according to international standards with special rope-saving devices to protect the branches from being damaged by rope and no climbing spikes were used as this would hurt the trees. We were at pains to leave the canopies of the old growth forest trees intact and careful not to disturb any part of the ecosystem.


The expedition was the first of its kind in the country, partly research and plenty of excitement. It was initiated by David Wiles, a British arborist who spent his early years as a kid in Zimbabwe and who had a longing to come back to Africa. He got a team of 4 other climbers together – Steve Fry and Geoff Pugsley from the UK, Drew Bristow from New Zealand, Vince Jolin from Canada, and of course myself, the only South African. It took a whole year to get permission to climb these trees and organise logistics/sponsorship.


The fun started in Cape Town early January 2013 at the famous Ardene gardens where there is a truly massive Alleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) and a huge Ficus, one of the biggest trees by volume in the country.  These were climbed and measured in a day.


The next stop was Stellenbosch where everyone was able to scamper up the stately 200 year old Kweekskool Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) at the top of Dorp street – a 45m beauty and the tallest of its kind in the country.

The plan was to climb some giant coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) at Grootvadersbosch in the mountains behind Heildeberg but alas, the wine tasting at Vergelegen was just too good and by the time the lads got to the forest, the day was basically gone.


A few hours further along the N2 is the indigenous forest of the Southern Cape – home to some truly majestic yellowwoods. The next few days were spent climbing 4 of these. The photos do not do justice to the grand old trees and the unique canopy view that we were rewarded with after making our way to the top.


The Woodville yellowwood tree just outside George proved to be a challenge in the rain.. and quite dodgy due to the large rotten section in one part of the crown – not a tree to be climbed in a hurry again.


The Dalleen Mathee yellowwood on the Rheenendal road near Knysna was simply incredible as it towered above the rest of the forest canopy, as did the King Edward VII tree in Ysternek just north of Knysna, deep in the forest. Although this was the third time I had climbed the King, it still proved to be magical getting to the top. The yellowwoods have a really ancient and gnarly feel about them – quite different to the planted exotics like the gums which are more open.


 High in the canopy of Daleen Mathee yellowwood, Knysna indigenous forest

 The most amazing yellowwood was the Tsitsikamma Big Tree– a tree that receives approximately 90 000 visitors a year! We added 3m to the height given on the information board, making it the tallest yellowwood at 39.6m. Interestingly, our indigenous trees seldom if ever exceed the 40m mark. Exotics like the eucalypts (gums) easily reach 50-80m in height.



 The Tsitsikamma Big Tree – SA’s tallest yellowwood at 39.6m



 Steve Fry hanging in the Tsitsikamma yellowwood

 I drove back to Stellenbosch at that point while the rest of the guys drove the once-in-a-lifetime –will-never-do-that-again trip to Natal via N2 through the Transkei. Goats, cattle, potholes, mist and dark roads made for a truly memorable experience and nearly and end to the trip. The lads nearly packed it in!

 A week after Tsitikamma while they visited Kruger and did some sightseeing, I flew up to Johannesburg and drove up as fast as I safely could to meet up in Tzaneen. The rain put a bit of a dampener on things, but there was no way we were going to just sit around looking at each other – instead we drove/skidded through muddy rivers and slippery roads all the way to the Ga-Ratcheke baobab situated in a small village many kms west of Tzaneen. Not wanting to get our climbing gear drenched, we opted for free climbing the tree. To our disappointment, we found little respect given to this ancient specimen – its hollow centre had been made into a rubbish dump with rotten food, stinky nappies and all manner of other trash piled in. I cannot imagine the stink it must be on a hot day! Hopefully the local community will have caught a better vision for this tree from our enthusiasm to see it preserved.

The next day we packed up and rode north, eventually coming to the largest baobab on the planet – the famous Sagole tree.



Sagole at sunset –world’s largest baobab

 This is situated in the bush about 25km south of the Zimbabwean border between Louis Trichardt (Makhado) and Punda Maria. We stopped at the gate and could see the top peeking out of the bush, but the guard at the gate refused us entry as the area around Sagole was swamped due to the heavy rains. No-one was going to climb his tree, and no-one had informed him of our arrival either. There was no way of contacting his boss who was on strike, besides which our cell phone reception was iffy to non-existent. Grown men almost came to tears – coming all this way only to be refused seeing this incredible tree nearly broke us. After much persuasion and showing him our other papers, the many trees climbed in the rest of the country, and our earnestness in looking after “his” tree, we were reluctantly allowed in. Upon approaching it we stood there with our jaws on the ground and our eyes wide open. The tree is so big that it felt like we had to pack lunch to walk around its enormous girth. It didn’t take long for us to clamber up barefoot into the lower parts of the tree – we were like kids in a candy store! It was not possible to climb safely to the top without ropes, so we all donned our gear, set our lines up and each found a spot to string our hammocks for the night. As the sun set we eased into these from which we drank in the African sunset - a truly magical experience in the top of the oldest, biggest baobab on earth. We descended and sat around the fire braaing and talking till late.

 The next day, watching the sun silently rise from the top of the tree proved to be equally unforgettable. We spent the entire day climbing, measuring and exploring this tree. Although only 20.55m high, it is 10.8m in diameter. We got the forest guard to the top using a special winch...so he now can say he has been to the top of the tree in his care!



Sagole – Drew and the park ranger



 Sagole - Dak in his hammock at sunrise

 Back in Tzaneen, we spent a day at t he well known Sunland baobab – the tree with a bar built into it. We were not very popular as our measurements did not back up the owner’s assertion of it being the biggest baobab in the world. Sagole was bigger in all dimensions – height, girth and crown spread.  Nevertheless, we were able to sleep in the top of this old giant too!

Tucked away in the mountains behind Tzaneen we were able to climb 3 ancient Matumi trees, the so called Three Queens which are close to 3000 years old. How do you describe climbing 3000 year old trees? You’re right – it’s not possible to put in words!

Our last group of trees in Tzaneen were the uber-tall 100 year old gum trees of Magoebaskloof. The entire stand has been declared a national heritage and is protected from future harvesting. These proved a challenge as expected – tree this big are rarely that easy to get into. It took nearly 2 hours for us just to set a line up, but once in we were all able to get to the top. The Magoebaskloof Triplets were first climbed in 2008 by Charles Green and me, and the Triplet again in 2011.

Geoff was the first one up the Triplet, and upon sending the measuring tape down, I waited in eager anticipation to see how the new measurement compared with that done in 2011.

“So what’s the height?” I asked with bated breath.

It felt like I was waiting to hear my test results. Was it the same height? What if it was shorter? – Surely it would have grown these last couple of years –

“79m”, radioed Geoff.

My heart sank. Had my measurement been that wrong?! It was windy and rainy then.

“So how does that make you feel?”, Michael, a local reporter who was covering the story said, microphone jabbed in my face.

“Well, to be brutally honest, I am a bit disappointed. I believe though that it was the best and most accurate measurement under those conditions – it was windy and raining...so perhaps that would account for the difference....“.

After letting me steam for awhile, eventually Geoff and Steve let the cat out the bag – they were pulling my chain.

“It’s 80.3m”, they radioed.

Buggers! – that meant the tree had grown 30cm since 2011. What will it be in 5 years time?



 Steve ascending the shorter Twin. Shot taken from high up the Triplet.

Being the oldest in the group at 51, I ascended last....but once at the top and after looking around, I could not help but notice that the tree next door was in fact TALLER – or so it appeared. Vince and Steve who were in the Twins a short distance away confirmed my suspicion.

The opportunity was right there – I just had to get across to it somehow.   Vince was using my throwline and grapple, so I shouted for Drew’s.



 Climbing the Triplet

 After about 10 throws I eventually got my line in and was able to pull my climbing line through the anchor point which then enabled me to do a controlled swing 70m off the ground into the next tree. The branches were very thin and it was decidedly dodgy moving all the way to the top. In the interest of safety, I anchored off lower down just in case the top snapped out.

The tree measured 81.5m! – this then had become the new world record.

Back at the Spur we decided on calling it “The Fouth Kin”.




Looking at the top of the Triplet from the top of Fourth Kin, the tallest planted tree in the world

Our last stop was all the way south in Barbeton. We drove the next day, stopping off to see the sights of Bourke’s luck potholes. The foresters at Satico plantation were convinced their trees were taller than Magoebaskloof, so waited virtually the whole day until we eventually got into the tallest tree there. It meant ascending a neighbouring tree and traversing across – we just couldn’t get our lines in directly. Again, I had the fortune of measuring the tree – coming in at 72.3m – not quite 81.5m. Disappointed, but happy they had a stand of impressive champions and as far as we know, until another stand may be found – the second tallest group of trees in the country!

 The trip was a huge success – a lot of media coverage, radio interview and late last year, a CNN clip all contributed to the goal of creating a better awareness of South Africa’s champion trees.