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The Big Tree

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The Big Tree in Tsitsikamma on South Africa's Garden Route (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

With every new mile, South Africa continues to surprise me.

One minute I am watching a thousand black-feathered ostriches kicking up the pink dust of the dry Karoo. The next, I see the ocean, wild and white, thrashing the immense sand dunes along the coast, and then, just as the road sign welcomes me to the Eastern Cape—I see trees. A million green trees, and a forest like I have never seen before.

This is not the oaky English woodlands, or America’s eastern forests, or the dripping wet Amazonian jungle. This is an African forest, temperate, alive, fecund and green, with vines and plants and tall tree trunks that reach skyward with shouting branches.

Somehow, talk of “The Garden Route” instilled my imagination with pictures of radishes in a row, or pregnant watermelons on twisted vines and cheery farmers’ markets with wooden pails of heirloom onions.

Wrong garden—I mean, you can find the farmers’ markets and vegetable patches, but the “garden” of the Garden Route is a garden of the Earth—South Africa’s forested Garden of Eden, intense with yellowwood trees.

Real yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius) is distinctly South African, and should you ever admire some antique piece of African furniture, it’s likely that the golden-hued craftsmanship was built from a yellowwood.

But to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “We kill what we love most,” and the aggressive cutting of South Africa’s yellowwood led to its near eradication. Today, however, the tree has been declared South Africa’s national tree and is protected. It is illegal to injure a yellowwood tree in any way—they are very slow-growing, but left to live their natural fullness, yellowwoods can flourish to amazing heights.

The “Big Tree” of Tsitsikamma National Park stands 120 feet (36.6 m) high, with a 30 feet (9 m) circumference around the base of the trunk. Craning my neck from the path below, it’s hard to fathom the upper reaches of the high branches. The dappled green and yellow forest light is disorienting, but like anything huge, the Big Tree makes me feel very small—like a tiny field mouse standing next to a Greek column.

Nobody knows the tree’s exact age. Some estimate only 600 years old, others more than a thousand. Standing next so close to the aged bark, velvety with green moss, I reached out and touched the big tree—and I felt like I was touching time. Centuries of silent life in the midst of a forest at the very bottom of Africa.

Like a standing timeline, I imagined back through the centuries—past the first Dutch settlers and the English ships offshore, past the Xhosa settlements, and beyond to the Khoi San and the earliest humans who walked under this same cooling shade. Time machines are fiction, but trees are real, and for me, touching the Big Tree was magical, offering a transcendent vision beyond the political boundaries of today’s Republic of South Africa. Instead, I saw the eternal story of this place in the world—trees that grow nowhere else, a forest where secret elephants once walked, and the unwritten log of human visitors this tree has watched, over the centuries.

And I am amazed at how, in the strange math of the universe, this one tree kept growing against all odds (and lumberjacks), so that it became “big”—big enough to warrant its own sign on the N2 and its own parking lot and restrooms and boardwalk and hiking trail and brochures. That is the real miracle of the big tree—and that is why, when you are driving through the greenest corner of South Africa, surprised by this unexpected forest, you must stop—you must park and hike and pay homage to the big tree, and stare back into the true age and spirit of this country.

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Standing over 120 feet high, the Big Tree of Tsitsikamma is one of the largest remaining yellowwood trees in the great forests near Knysna, South Africa (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

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