When the Estate was acquired in 1997 it was overgrown with old Gum plantations and wild wattle groves that had completely obscured the views and filled the gullies with these inappropriate trees. It was obvious that a programme to eradicate these alien trees was to be the first priority.
These many acres of trees had already attracted the attentions of another blight on the landscape, namely the charcoal and pulp merchants, who were keen to help us with this task; in fact they even said that they would pay us for the privilege of chopping them down.
These crooks with chain saws rustled up a crowd of no doubt illegal labourers who encamped in nasty tin and scrap hovels erected in the bushes, with women and children in tow. They started to hack, cut and chop at the bush, reducing the landscape to barren earth. They stripped the bark and loaded the timber into huge piles of tree skeletons to be removed for some other avaricious buggers to transform into ladies’ magazines and cheque-books.
Great piles of twigs and rubbish remained. It turns out that only about 10% of the tree is useful, and the rest was kindly left on the exhausted land for us to dispose of, which we did with a handy match, sending vast plumes of smoke into the atmosphere! Not as green as one would like. Furthermore the intense heat of these fires was very destructive to the already abused earth, turning it into grey and black dust that looked very, very dead.
Within weeks we were left with devastated acres of bare earth and blackened stumps that seemed to be suitable only for the wattle that sprang up like grass! This was not good and though the progress of the tree cutters was impressive – indeed it helped little – they were creating a bigger problem behind them. We watched this process with trepidation and distress; the place looked a lot better with the trees, which as I mentioned, were growing back with startling vigour.
Acting swiftly, the first thing we did was fire the chainsaw merchants. This gave us a chance to consolidate our position, dig in and defend, by golly.
We bolted off to the local farm kit supplier who cheerfully supplied us with a large bottle of an appropriately labelled substance called Death To All (or was it Kurdish Mist), anyway something with instructions that were printed in tiny weenie type that was almost illegible but seemed to indicate that it should be treated with some caution. I was assured by the supplier that it was very safe; one could drink the stuff if one was so inclined, with no ill effects, but it would make short work of my wattle problem.
Cool, thinks I, and from the bushes I shook a large crowd of raggedy people to spread it about. They, however, needed to be kitted out with all sorts of gear to attend to the task; from sprayers to bush cutters, to pangas, the list was endless. They had to be accommodated, fed and watered; we were haemorrhaging treasure! I was spending every waking hour charging around keeping them in water to spray, sharpening their knives, hoes and implements of destruction, which required me to struggle up and down the hillside with heavy loads, all of which was a massive drain on the pocket of my long suffering partner.
This realisation came as a slow dawning, as country tides are wont to do. The sheer size of the problem was a nightmare, with endless logistical problems on an agricultural, nay, a planetary scale. In retrospect it is all blindingly clear, but at the time it came upon me so slowly that only after I was well out of my depth, halfway up the cliff, standing alone in the devastation with no friends, did the truth dawn. And then it was too late, I had to go forward.
I had cheerfully attacked these trees, thinking that they would just disappear and the old grasses would come back, but all that I had achieved was to awaken a sleeping dragon. The battle lines had been drawn, the challenge given and accepted, the trees so recently chained, sawed and burnt to the ground rose up like a gathering wave and grew back at a rate that was simply inconceivable; far faster than my small team of Wattle Warriors and I could fight back.
Let me paint you a picture of what confronted me. I had cut down say, 50 hectares of tree, burnt the leftover rubbish and there before my eyes was the stark results of my actions. It looked like a napalm bomb had hit the place; fiveassegaislandrestorationdevastation is not an exaggeration. The hillside was hard as concrete, baked to a biscuit by 50 years under trees that had sucked every drop of water out of the ground and killed all life below them. Furthermore, this poor suffering land was pierced by razor-sharp, fire-blackened stumps which denied us all access by any form of rubber-tired vehicle.
After much discussion in the roadside school of deep wisdom with various overweight farmer types, the way forward was disclosed to me. It made depressing contemplation.
My raggedy band and I would have to first spray the re-growth, then, by hand mind you, plant seed to get the grass to establish itself before the whole farm was washed away!
Not an easy or quick job and many, many acres to cover. My Wattle Warriors and I had our hands full and I had no idea what I was doing, this was new territory, full of hidden costs and unforeseen problems. Daily we went forth on the tractor to these fields of shattered dreams.
I soon realised that this was also a very seasonal thing, and of course when the time came to do something like spray or plant there would arise a circumstance to prevent this. I do not wish to even try to imagine the difficulties of actually growing things – plant slaughter is hard enough. I grew to be intimate with subjects whose existence I had never even suspected!
The wonders of bush cutters and chainsaws became a routine occurrence, the cost and intricacies of various herbicides and grass seeds were meat and 3 veg to me. Dealing with a 3 metre high re-growth of hedge-thick vegetation on a 45 degree slope was just another day in the office; and over and above all this I became a big player in the garden glove and gum boot business.
Thus did five long years go past, hectare by hectare, over rocky bits and steep bits and then steeper bits, hauling water and bodies around the place from early morning till late at night, a never-ending struggle against the elements, crooked wood cutters, bad weather, the seasons and the trying attitudes of underpaid and deeply deprived worker all conspired with the perennial lack of funds to keep me wedded to the land.
I learnt mechanical fundamentals such as the fact that diesel motors do not have spark plugs, and a number of other equally useless snippets that will only be deployed should I try a similar project in the future – and really, life is definitely too short for that to happen.
There were many compensations, it is true. As the trees fell, vistas opened before me that blew the brain away with their majesty. I felt like an impressario pulling aside a green curtain to amaze and boggle. The marvels that were revealed behind the trees were and are truly more than I had ever dreamed possible. Time drifted past and the wounds of past sins were slowly and gently healed and the land seemed, to my romantic eyes, to actually appreciate the work I was doing. I felt like a little fish on a whale, cleaning out the great gentle creature’s wounds and laying a dressing of grass over the exposed flesh.
Mind you, these wattles did not just roll over and die, they are rather like terrorists; you stop them here and they spring up there. The seeds seem to be almost immortal and live hidden for years waiting for a moment of distraction to spring back. The truth is that even after all the toil done, should the estate be ignored for just a couple of years, all that work would be lost. Every two years the whole estate will have to be gone over with spray, panga and fire to prevent a recurrence.
Like diabetes, it is a manageable complaint but miss one treatment and all is lost. This realisation raises one’s enthusiasm for the work the government is attempting with their ‘Working for Water’ programme; the size of the plague and the difficulty of removing the trees and keeping them so, makes it seem an impossible goal to achieve. And then the plantation boys go and plant more and more of these exotic trees with nary a care, it is immoral and we are bequeathing a desert to our children’s children.
When the wild wattle was finally ground down in abject surrender under my iron fist, I turned my gimlet eyes to the blue gums planted some 30 years ago. Once again I was in negotiation with the timber crooks who had managed to extract large amounts of wood from these persecuted lands without paying the sainted land owner, and again my matches did their ting leaving me with nothing but trouble and strife. At this point I thought that I knew all there was to know about killing trees, but killing the wattle is not the same as killing the blue gum, not by a long chalk.
Your wattle tree will die when cut but then, as I have said, a signal to all the seeds that have been hiding under its skirts, sending a veritable blanket of them to avenge their mama. The blue gum is a less invasive creature than the wattle, but damn, is this a hardy tree or what? Nothing eats either, nothing can live in or on or under these selfish trees, but the blue gum can also take any abuse you can dish out.
They seem to actually enjoy the saw, and the stumps spring back with greater vigour than before. Although we had applied some chemical to the stumps on cutting, this had a very low percentage success rate and only killed about 15% of the stumps; the ‘Spawn of the Devil’ juice seemed however to do the trick, but fate and exotics had more in store for us. Although the leaves faded and died with satisfying swiftness after an application of Devil spawn, I was distressed to find that the next season they sprang back with even greater strength. It seemed that a dose of this particular chemical did nothing to the actual life of the tree.
I also noticed that this spawn I was spreading around with such gay abandon killed everything it touched, without discrimination, except the blue gum – in fact they seemed to enjoy it. Everything else died, creating a wasteland around the blue gums.
At this stage in the proceedings as you may imagine, I had become inordinately friendly with the local chemical candy man, he was a regular visitor, with his pick-up full of pricey bottles, stuff that not in my wildest dreams had I ever thought existed or I would ever want, who prescribed an even more expensive substance than before but one which would only kill the offending party.
First we went at them with some stuff appropriately called Chopper, as each stump had to be chopped at to get the stuff in, which did the trick, but as every stump required 20 minutes’ serious toil by some poor peasant, and thousands to destroy, even at slave wages that still came to many piles of dosh and so that plan was swiftly abandoned.
Finally I was able to access the forces of the state. The powers that be had been less than obliging about my travails even though they were sending teams all over the place to rid us of these pests. The combination of my inability to deal with the authorities at the best of times, and the centralised, socialist inefficiencies of the government were sufficient to keep us apart. However I did find a chap down in Barberton who had some connection with ‘Working for Water, who suggested that I use his juju juice, and as he was willing to supply it for free his argument was irresistible. Let the candy man rot, says I.
Curtis Malaso, for that was his unlikely moniker, is a saint in my eyes and seemed to have unlimited supplies of mortality-in-a-bottle for the likes of myself to spread about, with, it seemed to me, no control whatsoever. I just called the fellow, chased him around the countryside for a few weeks and then basically cornered him and got as many bottles as I needed, for free. At 3 grand a bottle this was a blessing indeed, especially as I could also use it on the wattle re-growth that still came up through the grass we had planted, meaning that I no longer had to burn to keep the buggers at bay. For the first time in my life I had experienced the hand of a helpful administration; it felt good. VIVA ANC Viva!
This latest contribution to the effort was indeed a blessing as the stuff in no uncertain terms laid the toughest old gum stump to permanent rest with nary a twitch from the surrounding grasses. Joy! Well, not unbridled celebration, even this stuff only got to 60% of the stumps and it can only be applied at certain times in the year and requires a great deal of very heavy water to be carried vast distances to where the offending growth has chosen to germinate. I now truly appreciate the misery of our women who hump water.
My wattle team slowly got smaller till we were reduced to just 5, and then the one got drunk and tried to molest another, and then we were four; till one day I stepped out for an early morning stretch and casting my eye around the estate for the next battle field I realised that the war was won!
There were and always will be pockets of resistance, one can never stop, but the estate was to all intents and purposes clear of the enemy. It had been a long haul and I was reduced to renting rooms to pay for it but now I was confident the rewards would pour in. I could gaze across my hills, and where there had previously fiveassegaislandrestorationsbeen a screen of green, there was now a vista of the Komati valley. Water started to run where no water had run before, crystal clear streams down old familiar places.
The local cowboys seeing all this luvverly grass soon persuaded me to rent them my pastures for actual cash money, but best of all, the animals came back. Nature abhors a vacuum and the little critters returned to these now hospitable fields. It is a very slow process for an impatient city boy, even a converted one such as I, but my profound ignorance of things botanical is being redressed, as the beasties and foliage arrive individually and severally, giving the thick (such as me) a chance to learn their names.
When I first moved into the house there were just two doves in attendance. I now have in residence, in order of appearance, a pair of red wing starlings under the stoep, widow and red-breasted sun birds, a family of bulbuls, a pair of mocking chats, some Cape thrushes, some familiar-looking something-or-others, and most recently, a crested barbet: what a show at my bird restaurant. The doves are now prolific, and the smaller critters like bees, rats, mice, ants and others have all decided to come and stay too, which is most gratifying. I am becoming acquainted with the baboons who like to visit, and their old chief and I now have a nodding relationship based on mutual distrust – he is a very big and fearsome fellow. I have klipspringers, mountain rhebuck, porcupines, and I am sure that I saw leopard spoor by the dam the other day, very exciting!
I now roam over the estate, still, it is true, bending over every now and then to tear an offending sapling from the ground or whipping out my handy pen knife (that the converted country boy must always wear) to bark the larger trees that have escaped the Norah and Poppy, the last permanent force members of the Wattle Warriors do still get driven from their tourism toil to go forth into the wilderness to kill and destroy. We have won the battle and now I am converted to the evil and destructive regime that we are visiting upon these vast mono culture plantations.
They are a completely inappropriate form of land use, and in every way they reflect the irresponsibility of corporate ownership. The huge Sappi and Mondi plantations have destroyed vast areas of our wonderful country; much of the grassland will never recover, all in the name of corporate profit. These plantations, the green plague, these green deserts, destroy everything in their path, including human settlement and the underground water systems. For this, these vast companies take no responsibility, and seem quite happy to bequeath the ruin and suffering they create onto future generations with nary a care. South Africa now boasts the largest land area under plantation in the world, and do not kid yourself, plantations are not forests. They are silent, like graves.
Well, that is the end of my tale and I hope that you, dear reader, now realise what an intractable and dangerous thing is happening to our country, with this silent and growing man-made plague. When you are driving past endless tree plantations, do not think forest, think of the real cost that these corporate thieves are laying at your door. Think how they are stealing the future and remember too that they are well aware of their bad accounting, that they are taking our water, and the land’s natural beauty, with no thought of rehabilitation.
I know now what it would take to repair their damage, far more than the profit that is made by these companies, and I have realised that the destruction of bio diversity caused by exotic plantations can never truly be repaired. The grasslands that the plantation-wallahs portray as barren wilderness are actually the oldest ecosystems in the world, irreplaceable and uniquely necessary to the balance of nature on the continent.
The destruction wrought by these plantations reaches all the way to the sea, along the rivers, and this loss is not accounted for in the fiveassegaislandrestorationsreturn on investment from the plantations. I do not see the forestry accountants paying for the flood damage that is getting worse every year as rain just washes off the plantations into rivers and into the sea, rather than being held in the soil as the grasslands would do, yet more and more plantations are being planted!
I have done my bit now and have the scars to prove it. My estate, once a barren, impenetrable dead zone, is now a desirable tourism destination and a constant joy to me and my partners. I am no longer able to abide the plantations that cover our land, and I have once again returned to the familiar fence from whence I came, but let this be a lesson to more than just me: land used by those who care only for short term profit will be destroyed, and the suffering that this will bring to the people who come after us will be far greater than the small change that the timber merchants take to squander on their executives and shareholders. We will have to pay for our brothers’ greed, so we better add this crime to our list of things to change.