Wonderboom - Pretoria's 1000-year-old wonder tree
"Onvergelijkelijk schoon en verheven boven alle andere staan hij daar als een monarch van het woud. Hoeveel geslachten van menschen en dieren hebben zich niet in zijnen schaduw verkwikt! (Incomparably beautiful and above all others he stands there like a monarch of the forest. How many generations of men and animals have not refreshed themselves in his shadow!") - Thomas Burgers, newly-elected president of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) in 1871, on visiting the Wonderboom.
The tree which excited the new-elected president to such raptures (and please forgive my poor translation - I don't really have any High Dutch so this was a bit of a guess!) has been around a long, long time - at least 1000 years, and it is indeed a beautiful sight.
The tree itself is a wild fig of the variety Ficus salicifolia and was once, before a fire drastically reduced its size in 1870, big enough for 1000 people or 22 ox-wagons with 20 oxen in front of each to shelter under its branches.
When Burgers saw it, it had already been reduced in size and the tree has since been the victim of a parasitic infestation. It remains an awe-inspiring sight.
The nature reserve and the fort
The enormous size of the tree is because of the length of the branches which then dip and touch the ground far from the "mother" tree. Where some of the branches touch the ground a "daughter" tree grows, spreading the branches further.
The effect is of a grove of trees all connected. The tree itself and the surrounding countryside have been turned into a national monument and nature reserve administered by the City of Tshwane's (Pretoria is a part of the metropole Tshwane) Agriculture and Environmental Management Department.
The Wonderboom Nature Reserve is on the northern side of the Magaliesberg range of mountains in the north of Pretoria.
At the top of the ridge behind the reserve is a fort built in 1897 by the ZAR government to protect Pretoria. It is one of four forts built around that time, two of which are in ruins, including this one. This fort was built by Krupp and Company of Germany at a cost of 49000 UK pounds. It was blown up, perhaps on the order of then Prime Minister of South Africa Jan Smuts at the beginning of World War II for fear that it might have been used as a rallying point for right-wingers opposed to the entry of South Africa into the war on the side of the Allies.
The climb up to the fort is quite a difficult one, especially on a searingly hot day, as it was when I made the climb. The beauty and tranquility at the summit though, by far outweighs the aching muscles it cost to get there!
The site of the Wonderboom is one rich in history and pre-history. Evidence has been found of early, middle and late stone age settlements, each yielding significant finds in the form of hand axes, scrapers, cleavers and arrow heads.
Then closer to the historical era members of the Kwena Magopa group of Tswana-speakers settled in the vicinity of the tree. Later they were displaced by members of the Po group of Nguni-speakers. This was in the early 19th Century.
Later Mzilikazi, the great chief, set up a kingdom in the Magaliesberg and a group of his followers, the Kungwini, settled in the Wonderboom area.
The first white visitors to the area were three hunter-traders from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, the Scotsmen William Mcluckie, Robert Scoon and David Hume (not the philosopher, I guess!). These three told Mzilikazi of the work being done in Kuruman by the great missionary Robert Moffat. Mzilikazi sent a deputation to Moffat, who subsequently visited Mzilikazi, thus starting what became an unusual friendship between the two men.
A thousand-year-old tree rich in history
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010