Leon Visser was doing woodwork on Christmas day six years ago when he chopped off the four fingers on his right hand. This hasn’t stopped the arborist from scaling some of South Africa’s giant trees — including a climb earlier this month that crowned Africa’s tallest tree and the world’s tallest planted tree.
“There’s some limits to what I can do but I can still climb and I do that for fun,” he says. “My crew does most of the work … and I do get in the trees a lot, especially where I can make a difference. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do that and I count my blessings.”
On 8 November, Visser was part of an expedition of tree climbers in Magoebaskloof in a stand of exotic Eucalyptus saligna, which had been declared national Champion Trees more than a decade ago. Planted by forestry pioneer AK Eastwood in 1906, the trees are in the Magoebaskloof State Forest, which is managed for commercial purposes by Komatiland Forests.
The Champion Tree project is run by the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment and lists and protects trees of exceptional national conservation value, including South Africa’s oldest, largest and most culturally significant trees.
Eight years ago, Visser, who serves on the Champion Tree evaluation panel of the department, climbed one of a group of three trees at Magoebaskloof State Forest that was thought to be the tallest. He measured it at 81.5m. It was labelled the tallest tree in Africa, as well as the tallest planted tree in the world.
The group of three is known as the Magoebaskloof Triplet, said Izak van der Merwe, a former forestry scientist at the department.
But another tree 81.5m tall was found in a remote valley of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This mahogany was discovered by Andreas Hemp, a researcher in plant systematics. Then, in 2018, there was another claim for the tallest planted tree in the world: a mountain ash in the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in New Zealand. Its height was measured in 2018 at 82.25m.
This year’s expedition was organised to re-measure the gum trees in Magoebaskloof because they would have grown taller in eight years. Visser led a team of four climbers while the Dendrological Society of South Africa helped Visser raise funds for the expedition.
The expedition was a team effort and included Cameron Brand and Tarl Berry, who did the measuring of the tree, Kyle Brand who also climbed and helped with logistics, and Anton Opperman, who was the expedition’s photographer.
Van der Merwe said it was difficult to determine which of the three holds the record because of their close proximity. “There had been a suspicion that an even taller tree might be lurking among them.”
During the 8 November climb an attempt was therefore made on another tree standing next to the Triplet. “This tree proved to be the king, and was measured at 83.7m,” Van der Merwe said. “It broke two records at once. This is now the tallest tree ever measured in Africa and the tallest planted tree on the planet.
“The competing claims from Tanzania and New Zealand can be put to rest. This tree has now been named the Fourth Kin, linking it by name to the Triplet trees,” he said.
The climbing technique involves catapulting ropes over the high branches, and then from there over even higher branches, Van der Merwe explains. “Ascending the Fourth Kin from the ground was almost impossible as its upper branches are hidden by plant growth lower down.”
They first got ropes into the Triplet trees using a Big Shot — a large catapult. A thin weighted line is shot up about 40m and then the climbing line is pulled through an anchor point.
The climbers ascended in two teams, with the first team advancing to a point where they could install long fixed lines for the other two climbers to ascend. They each trailed their own 60m climbing lines to get to the top of the Triplet trees. Measuring the height was done by pushing a tape attached to an extension pole through the last 4m to the top leaves of the canopy.
Visser says: “It’s easy to walk to the tree but then when you stand there and the first branch is 30m off the ground, then it’s like ‘oh hell, what now’.
“There are different techniques that we use … to move up to the top of the canopy. Part of the challenge, the attraction I suppose, because we call ourselves tree addicts, is to actually figure out how on earth we are going to get up here, and then to do that.”
For Visser, these botanical expeditions are about promoting South Africa’s rich tree heritage, particularly its giant trees.
Of the Fourth Kin he says: “Yes, it is [the tallest] exotic, but it happens to be the tallest planted tree in the whole world and it’s growing. They’re all still growing. Tree records are changing all the time. It’s like a moving target.
“We anticipate that in the next two years, all things being equal, these trees will be even taller if they’re still vigorous and still growing. We don’t actually know where they will top out.”
The day after their Magoebaskloof feat, the team climbed a 2 000-year old matumi at the Amorentia Estate in Tzaneen. It is home to the three largest matumis in the country, and these are all Champion Trees.
“That was amazing and a completely different experience to climb this old, ancient tree. There were a lot of different life forms in it. We were elated, not weary.”
South Africa’s 93 Champions
South Africa is home to 93 declared Champion Trees, says Izak van der Merwe, a former forestry scientist at the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment, who is now affiliated with the Dendrological Society of South Africa.
“During a sitting of the Champion Tree evaluation panel on 10 November, three more trees have been shortlisted,” says Van der Merwe, who is now semi-retired, and assists the department with the Champion Tree project.
The most remarkable of these Champion Trees are the world record breakers. “These include the saligna gum trees planted in 1906 in Magoebaskloof, which, after their recent measurements, are confirmed as the tallest planted trees in the world, and the tallest trees in Africa.
“Another record breaker is the Sagole baobab in Limpopo, which is the second thickest tree in the world at just over 10m diameter (about 33.7m circumference) after the Tule in Mexico, a Mexican cypress which measures slightly thicker at just over 11m diameter.”
The Mexican embassy has approached the department with a proposal that a “tree twinning” agreement be signed to promote awareness of these two trees and the cultures of the people living in the vicinity of each tree.
“The Champion Trees are not only listed on the basis of size, but they could also be trees of very old age or of historic significance. An example is the camphor tree lane at Vergelegen estate in the Western Cape, which were planted more than 300 years ago, and the Post Office milkwood at Mossel Bay, which served as a site where Portuguese seafarers left messages in the 16th century for ships they knew would anchor there to collect fresh water.”
Van der Merwe says the oldest natural tree ever measured is a baobab on the farm Glencoe near Hoedspruit, which was carbon dated at 1 835 years old. “This tree has partially collapsed, but is still showing vigorous growth each summer.”
Arborist Leon Visser says South Africa’s tallest indigenous trees grow to just over 40m and include the yellowwoods in Tsitsikamma (The Big Tree) and the yellowwood on the Blouberg in Limpopo. “The biggest trees in the whole country by size index is the large gum on the farm Boschendal near Stellenbosch measuring 483, and the largest indigenous tree is the Sagole baobab at 426.”
Trees do not live forever, Van Wyk adds. “Several Champion Trees have died since the project was started about 18 years ago. The most famous of these is the Sunland baobab near Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo, which had a bar on the inside.”