In our Karen suburb of Nairobi, the Australian eucalyptus or ‘blue gum’ has become a scourge in the landscape, just as the infamous leylandii tree has terrorised the Home Counties in England.
For some reason blue gums were planted willy nilly in Nairobi. They grow very tall, very fast (up to 40 meters) and drink a lot of water. Then they get some nasty invisible sickness or rot in the heart of their trunks and snap in half or fall over. When we moved to our house we had about forty of these 150-200 foot trees towering over us. Pushing the baby’s pram up the drive, was a test of nerve as these giants creaked and whined high above us. Then on a sunny afternoon, quite inexplicably, the top half of one of the trees lining our drive fell down with the most earth shattering boom. Panicked I screamed the children’s names hoping that they were nowhere in the vicinity. Thankfully we were all safe, no buildings or cars had been hit either, but we were stuck at home with a huge tree lying across the drive awaiting the nearest chainsaw wielding fundi (specialist).
Anyway, it wasn’t difficult to see that the lot of them had to go. The first batch was taken down a few years ago and we carelessly let some more at the bottom of the garden get too big, so have had to call the tree cutters in again. One large specimen near the staff housing has recently been dropping saturated branches ominously for the last few (rainy season) months. Poor Gladys, our ayah, said she lies awake at night fearing that she might get crushed by the unstable tree at any moment.
A band of men arrived to cut down eight trees with one chainsaw, hundreds of meters of rope (tied together with Heath Robinson style knots) and a few pangas (machetes). They are all from a tribe heralding from the wooded terrain of Western Kenya and are obviously particularly brave, fit and possibly immune from vertigo. They remind me of the black and white photos of the American Indian steeplejacks who put up New York’s sky scrapers in the 1950s. No hard hats, no measuring equipment, no safety harnesses, no cranes.
I watched the whole process of taking a eucalyptus tree down this afternoon with butterflies in my stomach in a toe curled and terrified fascination. The six men take it in turns to heroically scale the trees unaided with the strength of an acrobat. It’s incredible to watch. Barefoot they shimmy up the wide trunk securing a rope further and further up as they go. Systematically they lob off ancillary branches with a panga. The next stage is to throw down the panga and sling the rope over a branch to pull up a dangling chain saw. The ‘climber’ will then chain saw off the top section of the tree, hoping it doesn’t fall on his head, or anyone else’s. If it is possible the tree is sometimes left whole and the climber will continue to chop off branches until he reaches the top, leaving a shorn trunk with only branch stumps for footholds, swaying in the wind. Then a stronger rope is hoisted and fastened to the top of the offending tree. This will be used to guide the trunk if it starts toppling the wrong way. After speedily descending the rope like a fireman on a greasy pole, the task of cutting wedges out of the base of the trunk begins. Then before you know it; ‘TIMBER!’,a deafening crash and the tree is mathematically felled into a clear space, presumably having judged the height of the tree and the stretch of land below ‘by eye’.
Well, that’s what is supposed to happen. What actually happened is that we happily waved off the tree cutters until tomorrow when they come to finish the job, then went to the bottom of the garden to find that we lost a few indigenous trees into the bargain, a wood store (flattened) and a chain link fence. At least we won’t be short of firewood for a while?!
All this and today our entrance gate rusted off its hinges too. Trying to find a long enough extension cable so that it can be re-welded has been a nightmare.