Hanging about in the tree tops

What do you do if you’re passionate about trees? You climb them of course! If they’re trees the size of the one in this post, you are going to need mountain climbing gear and some serious climbing skills though.

Two years ago Leon Visser – a Cape Town based tree-surgeon – visited our area to climb the huge Karri gum trees in one of the local plantations. Karri gums are not indigenous to South Africa (they are Australian trees), but are grown here commercially. The purpose of that visit – besides the chance to climb a big tree – was to determine the heights of the largest trees in South Africa for the South African Champion Tree Project. You can read all about that visit (and how serious tree climbers climb these giants) in the post What do tree surgeons do on their day off?

Last week Leon was back again with a group from the 2013 Explore: The Ancient Trees of Africa expedition.

From the team’s mission statement . . .

South Africa has some of the most diverse range of habitats on the planet, and has incredibly rich levels of both biodiversity and endemism. The team plan to travel overland from Cape Town in the South, all the way up to the Limpopo province in the North East of the country, a journey of roughly 4000km.

South Africa is the fastest developing country in Africa, increasingly bringing humans into conflict with nature. Forestry and mining activities, as well as many other issues, are contributing to the devastation of once pristine habitats at an alarming rate. Unfortunately these activities are also South Africa’s largest source of income and as such unlikely to stop any time soon.

Working together with official government departments in South Africa, we aim to climb and record some of the country’s key champion trees as well as begin the hunt for new noteworthy specimens. Some of these trees are beyond 80m tall and others such as the Baobabs are believed to be up to 4000 years old! By filling in gaps in official tree data, and by potentially finding and adding new specimens to South Africa’s champion tree register, we can help get these trees protect by law and aid in the conservation of invaluable habitats at risk of being lost.

Read more . . .


This is the expedition photographer hanging near the top of the tree. Willie took this photo – so yes, that means that Willie was also hanging about near the top of the tree! ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com

The Big Tree they were climbing this day, was a huge Outeniqua Yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus). These giants tower above the canopy of the surrounding mature indigenous forest, and are easily visible if one flies over the forest. This Yellowwood can be found just outside the town of Knysna in the Southern Cape. It is a short distance from the road, so is a popular stop for tourists.


The statistics of the tree that they were climbing. Height = 39 metres (128 feet). Circumference of Bole = 7 metres (23 feet). ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com

While they were up there, the tree climbers measured the tree. In its old age it has shrunk a little, down to 36 metres (118 feet)


The spectators at the bottom of the tree give you can idea of the size of the tree trunk. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


Sadly, a necessary sign. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com

Going up . . . This is one of the climbers using the ropes already attached to the top of the tree to pull himself up. Yes, he’s climbing the rope itself. One of the reasons for using this method, is not not to damage the tree. I can imagine that this would require some serious arm muscles and strength. [To read more about the process go to this article.]








Guide ropes around the base of the tree.  ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com



After me telling Willie to stay with the other spectators at the bottom of the tree and not feel the urge to climb the tree too, he naturally had to get up the tree! The tree climbers had brought with them a small motorised winch and harness, which could zip inexperienced tree climbers to the top in a couple of minutes. So Willie says he “did not technically climb the tree”! Yeah, right . . . Although he did get some beautiful photos from the top. [Watch the video at the bottom of the post to see the winch in action.]








“Old Man’s Beard” lichen hangs off some of the top branches. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


“Standing” against the top branches of the tree. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


The surrounding indigenous forest. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


The photographer dangling at the top of the tree and changing his camera lens. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com




Posing on top of the tree. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


Peek-a-boo: Another climber in a different part of the same tree’s canopy.©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


Looking down. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


Tree Addict or crazy person? 🙂 ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com


The Expedition Logo. ©WMB/notesfromafrica.wordpress.com

Video: The winch in action.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Nature/Environment, Photography


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at https://notesfromafrica.wordpress.com and http://southerncape.wordpress.com (my photoblog)


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24 Comments on “Hanging about in the tree tops”

  1. Madoqua
    January 22, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    Lucky, lucky Willie!!!!
    I have see this beautiful tree a few times and can’t get over it – it is absolutely awe inspiring. I would have loved to be able to go to the top and look out. What a treat!
    One question – how did they get the ropes up into the canopy at the start?

    • January 23, 2013 at 7:21 am #

      It is an amazing view from up there, isn’t it? They use a big catapult to shoot the first ropes into the tree canopy and then climb up to secure all the ropes. You can see more about tree climbing in this post: http://wp.me/pXfHY-8F

  2. January 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    this is such a beautiful post! i loved every photo and was there in spirit scrambling around those impressive branches. the views from the top were amazing, but wow, i loved that straight-down view!
    thanks so much for this post!

    • January 23, 2013 at 7:32 am #

      Thanks for your kind comments! 🙂 Yes, the looking straight-down view is interesting.

  3. January 22, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

    What a great old tree. It must be an incredible feeling being that high up!

    I’m curious now. How does a tree shrink? Does it get heavier, thus sinking deeper into the ground or is it because of the top’s exposure to the elements as it reaches so high?

    Great photos Willie! Also like the one “looking down”. That’s a bit scary.

    • January 23, 2013 at 7:36 am #

      Willie laughed at your question! 🙂 The tree probably didn’t really “shrink”, but was measured incorrectly the first time. Possibly because they never actually climbed the tree to measure it? There is also the possibility that a higher branch was lost at some stage.

  4. Estie
    January 22, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    Lucky Willie! Wow.

  5. Eha
    January 23, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    A totally awe-inspiring post! One to file and look at again and again! Just love the photo ‘Looking Down’ 🙂 ! What majesty!!!

    • January 23, 2013 at 7:38 am #

      Thanks Eha! Interesting that people pick out the “Looking down” photo as a favourite. I have a fear of heights, so prefer not to look down.

      • Eha
        January 23, 2013 at 11:13 am #

        Nope, I have little head for heights myself, BUT photographically it is such a well-balanced shot, and perchance seeing the ropes hanging down [which may ‘spoil’ the ‘purity’!] actually enhance our feeling of security 🙂 !

  6. January 23, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    OMG, Lisa, that’s one hell of a tree!

  7. January 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    Wowza! I cannot imagine the exhilaration Willie must’ve felt hanging up in the tree tops like that. He’s lucky they took him up! The photos are unbelievable – congratulations to Willie. 😀
    I’m not comfortable with heights and can barely look at the photo taken from the top looking down and the one of the photographer changing lenses and just hanging there made my stomach all queezy…

    I’m really glad to see that they didn’t actually climb the tree with crampons into the tree trunk.

    • January 24, 2013 at 7:12 am #

      Yeah, I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about Willie going up the tree . . . The winch, harness and ropes aren’t that sturdy looking to me. In the short video at the bottom of the post, the young woman going up has a light build – it looks quite different when one of the bigger guys uses the winch. The professional tree climbers are experienced climbers, so I guess are used to dangling off high objects.

  8. January 23, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

    What a fascinating post, Lisa! I wouldn’t be climbing up that tree either – that photo looking down from the top made my stomach lurch! Willie is a brave man indeed.

    I am curious – how do they get the first rope up to the top in the first place? This is something I have always wondered about… surely they can’t throw it? Or is a rope left in place for the next time?

    • January 24, 2013 at 7:14 am #

      I would prefer for Willie to be less brave! 😉

      They use a big catapult to shoot the first ropes into the tree canopy and then climb up to secure all the ropes. You can see more about tree climbing in this post: http://wp.me/pXfHY-8F . There’s an explanation and photo of the catapult about half way through the post.

      • January 24, 2013 at 7:27 am #

        I don’t know how I missed that – a giant catapult… wow… And if they can’t get up the one tree, they climb up the nearest tall one and then winch themselves across… They make it sounds so easy – I don’t know how many people would have the skill or the courage to attempt something like that.

        Yes, I quite agree with your sentiments on wanting Willie to be *just a little* less brave. I think we always feel like that about the ones we love! 😉

    • Willie
      January 25, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      A game tree climbers play – to amuse themselves the tree climbers enter / climb up in one side of a grove of trees and then traverse across from tree to tree and exit the grove on the other side.

      • January 25, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

        Oh, awesome – like Tarzan!!! 😉

  9. January 24, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    Fascinating… and wonderful photography and the project sounds very worthwhile. I’m a fan of Thomas Packenham’s books on trees. Great our venerable trees are being documented 🙂

    • January 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

      Some of the team are scientists or conservationists, so they’re able to combine their work interests with their fun interests on this project. Thomas Packenham’s tree books are wonderful.

  10. January 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    Beautiful shots. The looking down made me sick to my stomach.

    • January 26, 2013 at 8:31 am #

      Thanks Emily – if you had seen the video that Willie shot as he was coming down (and spinning around) you would have got really queasy! A lot of people seem to like the “looking down” shot. I prefer the ones at the top looking over the forest canopy in the distance.

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