It wasn’t the wind or disease, they say, that pushed her, but simply old age.
No one knows exactly how long the gum tree next to the “monkey house” on the Oppenheimers’ Parktown estate had stood, but the best guesses are that it was well rooted before gold was found on the Reef and before the randlords began building their mansions along the ridge that now runs alongside the M1 highway.
But finally, on February 25, a Saturday morning, the oldest tree in Joburg, a 60m-high eucalyptus, came crashing down onto the roof of the “monkey house” in the Brenthurst Gardens.
“When she stood it took four people holding hands to cover the circumference of her trunk,” said the former Brenthurst head gardener, Dawid Klopper.
On examining the tree, no sign of disease was found, and it was alive when it toppled over.
Local historian Flo Bird mused that the old exotic could have been 160 years old, and planted by the farmer who settled on the land in the mid-19th century.
“They were used at the time for shade,” she said. “Boers planted them as well as other trees like pepper trees” for themselves and their livestock.
Later, eucalyptus trees were used for timber in the mines.
There are still a few gum trees scattered around the city that are regarded as predating Joburg itself. One is at Wits University.
A photograph taken in 1904 shows the “monkey house” gum tree already a tall, mature specimen.
But the mystery of its age is likely to be soon solved. Plans are in place to move the tree early next week, a difficult task considering that half a metre of the massive trunk weighs 680kg.
The rings of the trunk will then be counted, with each ring indicating a year’s growth. “It is desperately sad that this tree has to die for us to know its history,” said Bird.
Once the tree has been removed and inspected, it will be cut into planks, which will be stored until a use is found for them.