■ Leon Visser, Komatiland Forests and the Dendrological Society of South Africa
Magoebaskloof boasts two new world records after a successful tree climbing expedition in the Kloof on the 8th of November. This tree climb took place in a stand of exotic Saligna gum trees (Eucalyptus Saligna) which were declared as national champion trees more than a decade ago.

These trees were planted by forestry pioneer AK Eastwood in 1906. They are located on the Magoebaskloof State Forest, managed for commercial plantation purposes by the forestry company Komatiland Forests (an affiliate of Safcol). The Champion tree project is managed by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to list and protect trees of exceptional national conservation value.

Eight years ago Leon Visser, an arborist who serves on the Champion Tree Evaluation Panel of DFFE, climbed one of a group of three trees at Magoebaskloof State Forest thought to be the tallest, and measured it at 81.5 metres tall. It was then labelled as the tallest tree in Africa, as well as the tallest planted tree in the world. Since that time another tree of 81.5 metres tall were found in a remote valley of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This tree is a mahogany (Entandrophragma excelsum) discovered by Andreas Hemp, a researcher in plant systematics. There has been another claim for the tallest planted tree in the world, namely a mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) in the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in New Zealand. Its height was measured in 2018 at 82.25 metres.

Earlier this year a privately funded tree climbing expedition was organised to remeasure the gum trees in Magoebaskloof. It was thought that these trees would have grown taller since their last measurement. Leon Visser led a team of four tree climbers, including Cameron Brand, Kyle Brand and Tarl Berry. Anton Opperman, a photographer, joined the team. The Dendrological Society of South Africa assisted Visser to raise the necessary funding.

The three tallest trees formerly measured in this tree compartment became known as the Magoebaskloof Triplet. Because of the extreme height of the trees and their proximity, it was difficult to determine which of the tallest trees hold the height record, and there had been a suspicion that an even taller tree might be lurking among them. During the recent visit of the 8th of November, a climbing attempt was therefore made on another tree standing next to the triplets. This tree proved to be the king and was measured at 83.7 metres. 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 former record-holding triplet trees.

The climbing technique used is by catapulting ropes over the high branches, and then from there over even higher branches. Ascending the Fourth Kin from the ground was almost impossible as its upper branches are hidden by plant growth lower down. The technique followed was to get a rope into the Triplet trees first using a Big Shot (which is a very big catapult). A thin weighted line is shot up about forty meters high and then the climbing line pulled through an anchor point.

The climbing team ascended in two teams with the first advancing to a point where they could install long fixed lines for the other two climbers to ascend. Each of the climbers trailed their own 60 metres climbing lines so they could advance to the top of the Triplets. Measuring the height was done by pushing a tape attached to an extension pole through the last four metres to the top leaves of the canopy and dropping the rest of the tape to the ground so that the ground crew read off the height.

The Fourth Kin had to be accessed by throwing a weighted line into the upper branches across from the Triplet, installing a second anchor point and then traversing at a height of around 70 metres. Brand and Berry moved across while Visser stayed in the Triplet to provide visual aid to the measurement process. In addition to this they had the benefit of drone coverage to record the event. The fourth climber, Brand (Kyle) had in the meantime abseiled out of the Triplet, and pulled out the two, 100-meter lines which were then sent up to the top of Fourth Kin and tied together to enable a single, long 75m abseil for the three climbers.

One of the benefits of this exercise is to highlight the tree heritage of South Africa, and especially giant trees. Planted over a 110 years ago, these trees at Magoebaskloof State Forest are a legacy for generations to come enjoy. A hiking trail winds its way through this stand of trees, and many weary hikers have stared up at their tops in awe.

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