When one first visits the bush, it is generally the bigger animals that interest you the most. The lions, leopards and elephants thrill first time visitors, and so they should. The more one immerses themself in this environment, however, the deeper you tend to delve into the smaller stuff, the bricks and mortar of the environment. Birds become fascinating and the vibrant colours of a lilac-breasted roller never cease to give me a thrill. More and more these days though, I find it is the sedentary denizens of Londolozi that get me excited; the trees.
Trees can be fascinating for a number of reasons. Their beauty, what they can tell you about the soil and geology of an area or even the microhabitats that they form for smaller creatures are all factors that contribute to their appeal. Throughout the Londolozi property are scattered a number of my personal favourites, from the Sausage tree downstream from the Mhangeni lookout, the enormous fig keeping watch over Makhotini dam, or the Natal Mahogany above the beach at Finfoot crossing. Each have their own aesthetic appeal, yet the one tree that I love more than any other, ironically, is dead.
It is an enormous old leadwood, Combretum imberbe, that once grew near the Maxabene riverbed, but now stands as a silent sentinel, its long-dead skeleton providing a home for tree-squirrels, dwarf mongooses and scorpions alike. Many visitors to Londolozi who have seen it will have heard of this leadwood being referred to as the Hobbit Tree.
When I think about it I have no idea why it is called this, as it resembles an Ent, not a hobbit, but be that as it may, the tree is still my absolute favourite on Londolozi, and I have been fortunate enough to view a wonderful array of creatures on, in or around it. The Tu-Tones male leopard I have seen walk under its stately boughs, the family of tree squirrels that currently call it home are usually to be found sunning themselves on a chilly morning, and the area is a favourite for white rhino, who find the termite mound next to the tree as a wonderful source of nutritious grazing.
Few trees in the bush lend themselves so well to photography as dead leadwoods. The gnarled, twisted bark is full of intricate detail and textures, and the lack of foliage or excess twigs provides a clutter-free arena which suits both the antics of the rodent inhabitants as well as the cameraman him/herself.
Be they small or large, leafy or sparse, trees hold more and more of an appeal for me these days. Whether for their own beauty or the important yet often unappreciated role they play in the environment, I find myself ever more in admiration of them and their kind. And while there are probably more than twenty trees scattered across Londolozi that I have vowed to see a leopard in before I leave this place, there is only one I find myself going back to time after time, the Hobbit Tree.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell