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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.