As a barefoot tomboy growing up on a farm in the Lowveld, trees have always been more for me than a shady spot on the grass.
Our old farmhouse faced a mountain on the outskirts of Mbombela (previously Nelspruit). In front of the stately stoep was a stretch of lawn ideal for cricket games with siblings and friends. A perfectly positioned kapok tree served as the wickets. While waiting for my turn to bat, I would throw my head back and admire the behemoth’s Barbie-pink flowers.
Then there was the treehouse perched in a jacaranda, where we’d spend entire afternoons, hands stained purple after picking mulberries from another tree within reach on the edge of the property.
A common wild fig led the way to our fishing pond, where kurpers caught had to be released, and we floated on tractor tubes in the cement dam, where a couple of coral trees kept watch. My high school was named after these fiery flowers; many “mountain flames” flickered brightly on the grounds of Hoërskool Bergvlam.
I’m not the only one who has been touched by the trees of the Lowveld. This is a story about some of the area’s landmark trees, and the people who love and protect them.
Move over, highway
The late New York Times editorialist, Hal Borland wrote: “If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.” This steady progress over centuries can instil muscle in even the most peaceful people.
For about two weeks in 2011, a group of activists stood guard around a wonderboom fig (Ficus salicifolia), 10km outside Mbombela, on the N4 towards Johannesburg. The tree had been standing sentinel at the entrance to my home town for more than 200 years, a century before the town even existed, but now this living monument was going to be cut down to make way for an upgraded highway.
“I always get a kick when I drive past and there she is, still standing,” says Wendy Sippel. Wendy lives nearby and was one of the protesters who fought for the tree. “It’s a gorgeous milestone for people travelling from Gauteng to Nelspruit.”
She remembers close to 30 people gathering at the first meeting held under the fig’s wide branches. Neil Fishwick, a horticulturist and the owner of Fishwick’s Indigenous Nursery, was integral in organising the protest. “I know that tree,” he says. His nursery used to be across from the fig, on the other side of the Crocodile River, and it was his source of seed as an indigenous tree grower. “According to distribution maps in botanical books, Ficus salicifolia is recorded as indigenous to the area, but I don’t know of any specimens other than this one, and one in the Lowveld National Botanical Garden,” he adds.
The toll road company Trans African Concessions (TRAC) was planning on relocating the wonderboom at a cost of R500000. But as TRAC spokesperson Solange Soares tells me, there was no guarantee that the tree would survive in its new habitat. In the end, it was decided to rather reroute that section of the highway at a cost of about R1 million.
Now the Wonderboom separates the dual carriageway. “The Joburg-bound lane stayed the same, but they changed the angle of the bend on the Nelspruit-bound side,” Neil explains.
“The new design had to accommodate the tree without compromising road safety,” Solange adds.
Hannes de Kock was also part of the protest; he lives 5km from the tree. “We gathered thousands of signatures for our petition,” he says. “Everyone from locals to tourists on their way to the Lowveld.”way to the Lowveld.”
He thinks back fondly to the teamwork involved, and the fact that his grandchildren now greet the wonderboom as “grandpa’s tree” every time they drive past. “It was difficult to change TRAC’s mind, but when the manager at that time eventually retired, he recalled that saving the tree was one of the highlights of his career,” Hannes says with a smile.
Wendy feels satisfied when she sees the giant on her way into town. “Back then, a family member asked me: ‘What’s the point of protesting? You’re just a few people. You’re not going to make a difference. Big corporations do just what they want.’ That’s not how it turned out. It was a positive lesson in community solidarity; taking the time to stand together for a worthy cause. Because it’s a truly beautiful tree.”
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