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Friday, 20 January 2006
The Elephant Tree

Elephant Tree

This is the famous 200 year old Elephant Tree on the Berea of Durban, or what is left of it.  The tree stood on the corner of Havelock and Ferndale Roads until it collapsed in March last year despite a 30 year effort to preserve and prop it up.  The species of tree is known locally as an umkhuhlu tree (forest mahogany or Trichelia dregena), and most local wood carvings bought at the side of the road are made from it.

This specific tree is apparently called the elephant tree because

it was one of the last remnants of the dense indigenous forests on Durban’s Berea that were once inhabited by elephant herds, lions and other wild animals.

... It’s very likely that elephants used to rub themselves against that tree as they wandered down to the Umgeni River for a drink.

According to an article in the local rag the tree was supposed to come back to life when a local academic, Pitika Ntuli, decided to carve the fallen tree into an art exhibition which could tour the country. Ntuli is quoted as saying:

my project also embodies the spirits of some of the animals which are inextricably linked to the history of Nguni people. Each and every one of us have animal totems. I have two clan names: Sompisi (the mark of the hyena) and Inhloko yemamba (head of the mamba).

If you are expecting only typically African sculptures to be produced from this you might be disappointed:

Ntuli’s idea is to transform the logs into a time-linked series of sculptures which depict historical happenings and eras between 1805 and 2005.

For example, he has chosen a uniquely shaped configuration of branches to depict the 1870s and the Berlin Conference, where major European powers carved up Africa into preferred colonies.

One log has been specially chosen to depict the Industrial Revolution because it contains remnants of the metal bolts and steel cables which were placed around some of the branches of the ageing elephant tree by the Parks Department to prevent it collapsing.

According to the article Ntuli was hoping to complete his ambitious project by the end of 2005. Unfortunately there was no sign of this when we were there at the end of December.

The local suburb of Essenwood is presumably named after the umkhulu tree, as its Afrikaans name is rooi essenhout (red essenwood).  The leaves of the tree are used in traditional medicine to treat backache, stomach problems, and as an enema.

Anne, of Routes and Roots has blogged about the tree falling down here.

Posted by bigblue on 20/01/2006 at 07:52 AM
Filed under: AfricaSouth Africa • (0) CommentsPermalinkBookmark or Share

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