Living amongst giants in the City of Oaks

The old oaks shepherd me down this famous street, their few remaining leaves shine yellow with the autumn sun. The rest, brown and fallen, now carpet a sidewalk smoothed by thousands of hurried footsteps. This is Victoria Street, the main arterial of student foot traffic in the university town of Stellenbosch.

One of the many oak leaves that grace the pavements in Stellenbosch during autumn each year. PHOTO: Aidan Jones

Stellenbosch is nestled in the Cape Winelands District and not until you’ve walked the streets here can you appreciate just why it is known as the City of Oaks, or “Eikestad” in the local Afrikaans.

Victoria Street is one kilometre long and lined with so many oak trees that it feels more like a corridor. But it’s not the only street of its kind. Take a turn down Ryneveld, Crozier, Van Riebeeck, Murray and beyond and you’ll encounter more of them.

After living in and meandering through Stellenbosch for a year, it has become apparent that its oak trees are deeply intertwined in the fibre and spirit of this place.

The logo of Stellenbosch University is the letter “s” that has an oak leaf for a tail. The university’s website explains that “the oak leaf is synonymous with Stellenbosch and its student life”. The town’s local weekly newspaper also pays homage to the oaks with its title, Eikestad News.

But it goes deeper than than logos and titles…

The oaks extend from gravel, tar and grass. Students and residents alike cannot go a day without walking beneath them. The coarse, wrinkled bark of their trunks looks like elephant skin.

And below that bark is wood used to store a substance for which this region is world-famous, wine. On the numerous farms in the surrounding valleys, winemakers are producing some of the best wine in the world and, like any good winemaker, are using oak barrels as storage.

Back in the centre of town, students laze beneath oaks on lush grass at midday, enjoying the cool shade they provide during the region’s long, sweltering summers. Even those who have fallen through the cracks of society have found a place amongst the trees. A homeless man, scruffy, dirty and thin, lodges himself between the arching curves at the base of an oak along Ryneveld Street, holding out a torn styrofoam cup to passers-by. Overhead, dozens of squirrels scuttle between the branches, tussling for their spot in the acorn-filled abode. Their characteristic leaves are strewn by the breeze like confetti, decorating the streets and sidewalk cafés.

But these acorn-wielding giants aren’t indigenous to this country, let alone this town.

In his book Dutch South Africa: Early Settlers at the Cape (1652-1708), John Hunt explains how the founder of Stellenbosch, Simon van der Stel, initiated the planting of oak trees in Stellenbosch.

Van Der Stel was the first Governor of what was then a Dutch settlement called the Cape Colony (modern-day Western Cape). According to Hunt, Van Der Stel had a keen interest in botany and commissioned the planting of some twelve thousand European oak trees in and around Stellenbosch in 1687.

He sought to take advantage of the region’s rich soil, and also made it a stipulation that everyone living in Stellenbosch had to plant trees on their property.

This is a policy that the Stellenbosch Municipality has, to some degree, upheld to this very day. Its Million Trees Initiative encourages residents, businesses and landowners across the municipality to plant trees. It is part of the reason Stellenbosch won the Arbor City Award in 2014 for being South Africa’s greenest municipality.

Piet Hamerse, Senior Foreperson for Urban Forestry at the Stellenbosch Municipality, has been working with the oaks for the past 30 years.

“There are a number of different species but most of them are English oaks,” says Hamerse. According to Hamerse, the average lifespan of the oaks is between 250 and 300 years, but many live to well over 300 years old. “I think there are even still two left from the initial planting by Simon van der Stel,” Hamerse muses.

If that is indeed the case, it would mean that some of these oaks have been standing here since Sir Isaac Newton discovered the thing that brings acorns hurtling down to the ground; gravity!

Sometimes the oak trees can be mischievous, and it’s gravity that does their bidding. It’s not uncommon to hear a hollow thud as an acorn falls from the trees onto one of the many cars that line the streets during the day. And less frequently, but all the more significantly, an acorn will find its way onto the head of a student, bestowing upon them a mark of authenticity. There is a student tradition that when an acorn falls on your head you become a “true Matie” (Matie is the term used to describe students who study at Stellenbosch University).

Michael Topkin, a third-year winemaking student at the university, says his journey to becoming a true Matie went through progressive phases. “In first year I had a leaf fall on me, in second year a hadeda pooed on my head while sitting in an oak tree, and this year I got hit twice by an acorn, once on the shoulder and the other smack bang on my head.”

Topkin says he’s always been mindful of the oaks. “I definitely think the oak trees are symbolic of Stellenbosch. We also use oak barrels in winemaking, so I’ve always had an eye for them… the bigger they are the longer they’ve been around, it’s a reminder that we are only here for a brief period, while the university will always be amongst the oaks.”

Maintaining these majestic trees is no easy feat, explains Maindren Chettiar, Superintendent for Urban Forestry at the Stellenbosch Municipality. “The drought has put the trees under major threat, over and above that because of the age of the trees, some of them are diseased. So there is a lot of internal damage to the trees and you often get tree failure where a branch will break off.”

Chettiar says pruning is done every second year. “Pruning is generally a smooth process, we use private contractors to do that work, but it is very costly.”

The oaks can also wreak havoc on the town roads with their adventitious root system, which spreads out near the surface of the ground to stabilise the tree. But in doing so they often push the tar roads up and crack them. The municipality say they work around this now: “We use bio-barriers, which we put around the root system so the roots grow vertically instead of horizontally,” Chettiar explains.

The municipality remains committed to upholding Stellenbosch’s reputation as the City of Oaks. “We do everything we can to keep them alive and healthy for as long as possible,” says Chettiar. “Felling is a last resort, but if one dies or has to be removed, we replace it with another – either a water oak or Spanish oak.”
All across the world spaces are defined in part by their trees. The cherry blossom trees in Kyoto, the olive trees in Tuscany, the pines of the Black Forest and the redwoods of California. And here in Stellenbosch, a combination of resident appreciation and municipal commitment should ensure that it remains the City of Oaks. – Aidan Jones

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