Wonderboom, 2.0!

by | Dec 26, 2020 | Parks/Nature Reserves, Pretoria | 24 comments

Happy Boxing Day, everyone. It’s the height of summer in South Africa and Christmas trees (at least real ones) aren’t really a thing here. But in recognition of the holiday spirit I am writing a post about a different kind of tree, which is festive in its own way: The Wonderboom!

Heather in front of the Wonderboom tree
The Wonderboom and me. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)

The Wonderboom is an evergreen fig tree, Ficus salicifolia, in northern Pretoria, which has been carbon-dated to more than 1000 years old. This particular tree has grown in an unusual way — both for its own species and for trees generally. The original tree grew so large and wide that its branches touched the ground and re-rooted, creating a circle of “daughter” trees around the mother tree. This cycle repeated until there were three circles of daughter trees, creating an entire forest that is technically all one tree.

The Wonderboom, which is now a national monument and surrounded by a City of Tshwane nature reserve with the same name, plays a significant role in South African history. The Ndebele people believe a powerful chief is buried beneath the tree’s roots, accounting for its massive size. The tree was “discovered” (as in, discovered by white people) by Voortrekker Hendrik Potgieter during the Great Trek in 1836, and Potgieter is the one who gave the Wonderboom its name.

At that time, the tree was said to be large enough to shade 1000 people and 22 ox wagons. The Wonderboom has since greatly diminished in size, due to a fire in 1870 and a parasite that affected the tree in the 1980s.

Wonderboom inner circle
Inside the Wonderboom forest.

Just over ten years ago, a few weeks after I moved to South Africa, Jon and I drove past a sign for the Wonderboom Nature Reserve. We visited spontaneously and I blogged about it. For a while that post was one of the most-read posts on 2Summers, mainly because there is a rock band called Wonderboom and people googling the band often arrived at my blog by mistake.

Wonderboom 2010
My photo of the Wonderboom from 2010.

That post is really old now, and I’ve been thinking about going back to see the Wonderboom again for years. This nature reserve is a such a cool Gauteng tourist destination and hardly anyone seems to know about it. Also I’ll take any excuse to write the word Wonderboom! Especially with an exclamation mark afterward.

Recently I visited the Voortrekker Monument, which is in southern Pretoria, with Thorsten. Just as we were getting into the car to leave, I remembered the Wonderboom and mentioned it. “Let’s go!” Thorsten said. So we did.

Wonderboom Redux

The nature reserve looked exactly as I remembered it. The tree-forest, surrounded by a low fence, is right in front of the parking lot. There is a wooden walkway leading inside the Wonderboom, where you can walk around the original tree trunk (which is now a circle of several smaller trunks) and look out at the daughter circles. A series of signs provide useful information about the tree, its history, and the surrounding environment. Beside the tree is a stone hiking trail leading up the adjacent koppie (hill). The ruins of a 19th-century fort, Fort Wonderboompoort, are at the top of the koppie.

There were very few other people in the reserve. Thorsten and I walked inside the Wonderboom and had the place to ourselves.

Side view of the tree-forest
Side view of the tree forest.
Wonderboom walkway
Walkway to the inner circle.

It’s cool and quiet inside the tree, with no sounds except bird calls and swishing leaves and branches. Thorsten immediately decided to lie down, which he admitted was not very comfortable.

Thorsten lying down inside the tree
Thorsten lying down.
Fig leaves
I didn’t lie down. But I did spend some time looking up into the branches from a standing position.

While he was lying down uncomfortably, Thorsten mused about how much nicer it would be if there were seats we could sit on while looking up into the tree branches. Because Thorsten is an architect and likes to ponder such things, he started sketching his idea.

Thorsten sketching
Sketching.
Thorsten sketching some more
The beginnings of the tree sketch.
Seat under the tree sketch
An idea is born.
Thorsten tree sketch
Completed sketch #1. I like this one because I’m in it.
Tree seat sketch
The seat concept. I think it’s pretty good…Who has connections with the City of Tshwane?

If you want to see more interesting sketches like this, I recommend following Thorsten on Instagram.

Thorsten also decided he wanted to try eating the “figs” — they are actually more like tiny fig berries — from the Wonderboom. We googled first to make sure the figs aren’t poisonous, which they aren’t, although we were warned to beware of wasp larvae (!) inside the fruit.

Thorsten picked one, broke it open, and it did indeed look exactly like a very tiny fig. We couldn’t see any larvae. I ate one, warily, only after Thorsten swallowed a couple and showed no ill effects. It tasted like a milder version of a regular fig.

Thorsten picking figs
Thorsten did not want me to include this photo at first. But I think he has accepted that if he wants to accompany me on 2Summers blogging missions — which it’s looking like he will continue to do — images like this are compulsory.
A tiny fig
A very tiny fig from a very large tree.

We took a short walk up the trail, which is made of the most beautiful natural stones. But alas, same as ten years ago, I was wearing sandals that weren’t good for hiking and also it was hot. So we didn’t make it to the old fort ruins. I will be better prepared the next time we go — maybe in another ten years.

Heather on the Wonderboom trail
Photo: Thorsten Deckler.

Yay, Wonderboom! I enjoyed visiting you again. May you continue to expand and produce tiny figs for another 1000 years. And I hope someday we can look up at your branches from a seated position.

The Wonderboom Nature Reserve is off the R101 in northern Pretoria, across the road from the Wonderboom Junction Shopping Centre. Admission is R37 per person.

24 Comments

  1. Albert

    What a fun read. We visited this reserve on a school field trip too many years ago but it still looks pretty much the same. 🙂

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, it seems to change very little!

      Reply
  2. Thorsten

    I am now ready to share more ballet poses with the world…

    Reply
    • 2summers

      It’s a good thing!

      Reply
    • Maarten

      Thorsten you are talented so please share 🙂

      Reply
      • 2summers

        You’ll see more of his work here for sure 🙂

        Reply
  3. dizzylexa

    I haven’t been in about thirty years, used to take my kids there for picnics when I lived in Pretoria. Don’t remember there been any walkways, nice addition and love Thorsten’s idea of the seats and can think of many other places that would benefit having them.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Interesting! I guess people could just walk around under the tree before. I imagine the walkways really help protect it.

      Reply
      • dizzylexa

        Yes we would sit right under it, with my kids climbing the tree so makes sense to put walkways. These are times I wished I was into photography and had photos of the kids climbing this majestic tree. We often imagined how we would build a tree house in it.

        Reply
  4. Maarten

    I’ve been to that place a few years ago on a trip with some overseas volunteers when we also visited the Voortrekker monument and the reserve around the monument. It still looks the same and still impressive for a tree.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Such a great tourist destination!

      Reply
  5. AutumnAshbough

    Thanks for taking us to a forest! A one tree forest! That’s fascinating. I miss the greenery of the East Coast. SoCal has far more scrub than trees. We’ve planted several trees in our yard, and our kid loves climbing them.

    The first time our flight landed in New Hampshire during daylight, my awed kid turned from the plane’s window to me and said, “So many trees! So little time.”

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha. This area also had very few large trees before white settlers came in the 1800s – which makes this tree all the more interesting.

      Reply
  6. Nancy McDaniel

    what a fascinating story and amazing tree-forest. I had never heard of it before. Looks like a return trip to Tshwane/Pretoria is in my future. The last time I was there was probably close to 10 years ago when I was about to embark on a three night Rovos Rail trip to Zim. and the night before I stayed at the marvelous Moroccan House, which you would love! Be sure to go sometime if you haven’t:http://www.moroccanhouse.co.za/

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks Nancy, that does look amazing!

      Reply
  7. mrbaggins1

    Hi Heather, this particular spot figures large in the history of my family and holds many, many memories. I grew up other side of that koppie – in Wonderboom-South.

    My grandmother was a Wolfswinkel, one of eleven children. All the Wolfswinkels in South Africa are related as the original fore-bearers came from Holland way back when. My grandmother married a Smith and the family was apparently quite miffed that she married a Rooinek. But that is not the story of the Wonderboom for it is a memory about music, and dancing and huuuuge family gatherings annually on New Years day.

    The Wolfswinkels were a very musical family who could play almost any musical instrument, between the Wolfswinkel brothers and their children, Boeremusiek dear Heather. Boeremusiek. Concertina, banjo, guitar but they could never participate in the Boeremusiek competition on Television as they were not traditionalists as they also had a brass section which was verboten. Trumpet, saxophone, clarinet the works. They actually cut a record or two.

    Once a year the family, the extended family gathered at the Wonderboom to celebrate the New Year around a huge fire and danced and drank and visited catching up till the sun went down. All was welcome to join, all the visitors to the park, all comers. The original ones are all dead now and I am sure they gather around some big tree in the sky somewhere with a wailing concertina and twanging of a banjo to see in each new year keeping the devil awake.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Derek, this is such a beautiful story. Thank you.

      Reply
  8. David Bristow

    We look forward most eagerly to many more “Me and Thorsten Go Wanderings”

    Reply
    • 2summers

      You’ll get them for sure – there are several in the pipeline.

      Reply
  9. Tumtum

    My family lived in the area for a number of years, we shamefully never made time to visit the park 🙁 I love the story of the wonderboom.

    Side note: I’m intrigued by Thorsten’s “date stamp” – bottom right of his last sketch. The vertical is pretty easy to follow as yy/mm/dd, but how does one read the date format in the quadrant formation?

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks for the comment — maybe you’ll make it back there one of these days 🙂

      The numbers in the quadrant formation on the sketch represent the name of Thorsten’s architectural firm: 26’10 South Architects. 26’10 South is the latitude and longitude for Joburg: https://www.2610south.co.za/

      Reply
      • Tumtum

        Aah thank you. My brain can rest now 🙂

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Hahaha, I’m glad.

          Reply

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