The long road to Tzaneen
On a Sunday morning, before sunrise, two busses were on their way from Stellenbosch to Bloemfontein, a long drive especially if the bus is limited to 100km/h! As the busses went from town to town, more were picked up along the way and every time someone hopped on, the bus would come alive with chatter about the holiday. The buzz on the bus would never truly die for the two weeks, as friendships and bonds got stronger and time and sleep were exchanged for memories.
After a long day, we finally arrived at Bloemfontein where a fire was started, and we made supper and chatted around the fire as if we had not spent an entire day together until the fire went cold. This would become the evening norm for the entire tour with more and more classmates becoming friends.
The next morning, on our way to Tzaneen, a phrase stuck and was used for the entire duration of the tour, although neither the exact meaning nor the origin of the phrase is known. It was used as a means of agreement, the infamous “Heyy Heyy Bloemfonteeein".
Then finally we arrived at OR Tambo International Airport where we met up with the rest of the students and left for Tzaneen. On the way emails about rewrite results were received, somehow all who took the rewrite were in the same bus. Some were hesitant to look but before long everyone could not wait anymore and had a look. Luckily everyone passed and it had to be celebrated right then and there, in the controversial student manner. After many stops for bathroom breaks, we eventually made it to Tzaneen.
The tour officially starts
On the first official day of the tour we visited the Merensky Mill where eucalyptus saw logs are processed, for most of the students it was a first time in a mill that processes something other than pine. The tour of the facility was very informative, and the staff were friendly and passionate about what they do. We also visited the nursery and got a lesson on tree breeding and visited a planting operation.
For lunch we went to a braai facility near a stream under large indigenous trees, with the people working for Merensky, we got to know them and in the end all of us felt reassured about the field of study we chose. The beauty of our surroundings surprised those who had never been in the area before.
The second day we visit the SAFCOL in Tzaneen which has a very big plantation. It has the highest planted eucalypt tree and good conservation areas with waterfalls. Driving around, visiting all the sites it become obvious the foresters most likely work in the best environments.
The next day of the tour we drove to Sabie and stopped at various scenic points, like God's Window and Blyde River Canyon.
When we arrived in Sabie there was still some daylight left so some decided to play a bit of stinger. This made for some nice bruises the next day and become a tradition.
We also visited SAFCOL in Sabie and we saw where they monitor fires and what computer programmes, cameras etc they use as fires are a huge threat. We learnt that the planted species have changed from P. Patula to P. Patula x P. Tech Hi/Low, because P. Patula is affected by fusarium. We found out that the planting of these and other hybrid species are a research project the SAFCOL is working on with other companies, like Sappi.
There were no official plans, so we explored our surrounding waterfalls, tourist attractions, rested and those who lived nearby visited their homes. There were 2 birthdays celebrated on the Sunday.
The final week
On Monday morning we visited the York Timbers sawmill and plywood mill in Sabie. As this is the only plywood mill in South Africa this was also a first for all of us. All the people giving the tour were alumni so they were very friendly and answered all the questions we could possibly have had. That afternoon the we were treated to a supper by York Timbers at Ligna Lodge, and we mingled with the alumni.
The next day we went to Sappi Sabie where we visited some of their plantations, got a lecture on tree breeding, learnt some of their trials and walked away with new hard hats and safety vests, excited to visit their sawmill and see the next step of processing, two days later.
On Wednesday we drove from Sabie to the Ngodwana mill of Sappi, first we visited the nursery of where they produce millions of seedlings for some of the plantations, this was very well presented and the scale of operations was impressive, after this we had a lecture about the mill and received a bus tour of the mill. The incredible size of the operations at the Ngodwana mill were very impressive as well as the massive loads of logs, mountains of chips and the huge buildings.
After this we drove to York Timbers in Chrissiesmeer where we spent the last two nights.
The next morning, we went to see some of the York Timbers plantations in the area, we also saw a mechanized harvesting and mulching operations.
At the end of the day two of the people that worked for York visited us as we spent our last night of the tour together around a fire, so we also got to know them a bit better. The next morning, we drove from Chrissiesmeer to Johannesburg dropping off some of the students and then continued until finally reaching Gariep and had one last supper together.
The next morning, we drove back to Stellenbosch, everyone was tired after the tour, but the little sleep was 100% worthwhile as the memories made and the friendships formed and strengthened will last a lifetime.