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Eight-year-old Miya Pretorius gets treated to a close encounter with a young crocodile by Agatha Crocodile Ranch tour guide Sam Bopape.

In search of symbols of prehistoric elements


A healthy bout of imagination is advisable when encountering splinters of myth and folklore emerging from the mist that rolls in over the mountains when on visit to the Tzaneen area, in search of signs of ancient elements.
When planning the odd road trip for Friday, there was the option to do the usual touristy stuff. But with the main focus generally on the out-of-the-ordinary, there were traces of dominant ingredients that somehow pre-determined the itinerary. References to somewhat of an erstwhile prehistoric presence of yonder years is captured in website upon website and guided road trippers in the direction of crocodile keepers, bonsai masters and monstrous baobabs.
Big croc viewing
Interest in the primordial form of the crocodile was sparked by Agatha Crocodile Ranch tour guide Sam Bopape who shared knowledge of the Nile crocodile, a species represented by 220 male and female reptiles on view by local and international visitors Mondays to Sundays between 09:00 and 16:00.
An excited Miya Pretorius, a young Tzaneen resident with a penchant for the Big 5 and crocodiles too, was excited about having chosen a visit to the development 9 km out of town to mark her eighth birthday. Being educated on the reptiles alongside her parents and a group of Dutch tourists, the brave little one did not hesitate when put on the spot with an offer for holding a cold-blooded one-year-old croc.
Eventually the opportunity arose for getting closer to alpha male Rufus, estimated to be 40 years old at an impressive 4,5 metres long. His co-habitants in the communal pool basking in the winter sun didn’t pay a batch of dead chickens much attention while in hibernation. Slow-moving Rufus did make an appearance after all, affording curious outsiders no action but merely a grimace that could indeed send shivers down a human spine.
Visit to a bonsai master
The ride back to Tzaneen was short-lived in the snazzy bright blue Renault Megane GT, which delivered Polokwane Observer’s road trippers to the door of bonsai expert Hennie Smit. Overpowered by the sight of 650 trees in his tranquil garden, in addition to 14 000 more at his nursery outside town, it was a memorable introduction to a world of miniature versions of species he tends and a collection of imported vessels containing trees that each boosts their own story. Revered as South Africa’s baobab bonsai king, Smit’s story revolves around his nurturing of, among others, a bonsai version of the giant species endemic to Limpopo in particular and shaped by a master adhering to an age-old Japanese practice.
He attested to a burning passion for bonsai, which he was exposed to when watching The Invincible Boxer at a drive-in screening more than two decades ago, and as a youngster thought of it as a “totally overseas thing”. Pots with bonsai trees that featured in the then film instantly triggered his interest. Years on he was instigated to enter into a hobby when by chance passing the garden of Willie Erasmus in Phalaborwa and purchasing approximately 15 trees from him. Smit relayed that Erasmus had become his bonsai master.
He engaged in the Chinese style of penjing from which the art reportedly originated and dictated the shaping of a tree true to its natural form, Smit explained. He, however, had no qualms about recovering big trees and making a bonsai feature out of it. He admitted to feverishly collecting trees, roots and bark from locations all over the country which resulted in him having driven a distance of some 1 300 km in one such instance in search of species. That, he said, remained the most pleasant part of bonsai.
Each of the trees had a unique story, he emphasised. As he proceeded among his trees, he stopped at a minuscule Adansonia Digitata Baobab with an S-shape root which landed him a certificate of merit at an international bonsai show in 2009.
While keeping a lively conversation, Smit remained forever busy with a pair of pruning shears that he never put down.
Giant baobab
Addressing the disparity between miniature and grotesque transferred Polokwane Observer to the massive Sunland Baobab. This animate being of the forest is situated on a farm some 3,5 km from Ga-Kgapane. According to information the big tree, which can be viewed on weekdays from 07:30 to 16:30, was classified as the biggest recorded baobab on the planet as well as the biggest broadleaf/angiosperm tree and has made it to the front page of the Wall Street Journal. In a summary of the phenomenon it is mentioned that the Big Baobab is estimated to be 1 100 years old.
Sole proprietor of the farm, Douglas van Heerden, referred to the one main branch having collapsed on 12 August last year while they were not home and the next around the first week of April this year. He likened the second occurrence at approximately 04:00 that day to the sound of a jet plane tearing through their farmstead, which is situated in close proximity to the tree.
Nowadays the tree measures about 15 metres in height as opposed to an initial 22 metres and 46,8 metres around the base.
Van Heerden indicated that they received some 200 to 300 monthly visitors, who are required to pay a fee of R25 per person, of whom some returned. They also have an accommodation facility adjacent to the attraction, known for housing a bar.
Soon it was time to tackle the return trip taking one past golden grasslands waving in the afternoon sun, cattle returning home and hanging gardens before the landscape pans out into a flatland prior to the sudden adjustment to city commotion.

Story and photos: YOLANDE NEL

The inviting tranquillity of Hennie Smit’s inner-town garden.

Agatha Crocodile Ranch residents bask in the sun.

Hennie Smit in his garden.

A giant that has partially fallen.

Alpha male Rufus (right) partially rises from the water to welcome visitors to his kingdom.

A woman with a bundle of timber against the backdrop of aloes on the mountain drive en route to Haenertsburg.

A charming miniature baobab from Hennie Smit’s collection.