HARARE, Zimbabwe – A century-old thorn tree with an umbrella-shaped canopy offers shade to players on the 13th hole of Zimbabwe's oldest surviving golf course. The indigenous tree is going to stay, but "foreign" trees — firs, pines and eucalyptus — that were planted by early white settlers to remind them of their distant origins are now being rooted out.
This has nothing to do with the politics of President Robert Mugabe, whose government has nationalized thousands of white-owned farms under a black empowerment program meant to reverse the entitlements of the white-led rule of the past. It is a conservation and course management program that will change the landscape of the Royal Harare Golf Club, a place steeped in history where cows and sheep grazed on the fairways in the era before modern grass mowers.
According to records, the early, mainly British, settlers were filled with nostalgia for their home regions and golf gave them solace. They planted imported trees and shrubs in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known before independence in 1980.
King George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, played on the course in 1929, bestowing the royal title on the club. But the last of the hardy, long-living foreign trees he saw are being cut down now. The first settlers felled the indigenous trees on the course and wild animals that once roamed there disappeared too.
Royal Harare club manager Ian Mathieson said a program to cut down "alien" trees and replant trees "indigenous" to Zimbabwe such as the acacia and msasa varieties is under way, and will take 20 years to complete. So far, nearly 60 gnarled and elderly "foreign" trees have been removed and more than 300 local trees and shrubs have been planted in their place.
Foreign eucalyptus, or gum trees, most of them over 100 years old, are set for the chainsaw, said Mathieson. They suck up too much water at a time when Zimbabwe faces acute water shortages, and the sinking of thousands of new borehole wells in suburbs near the golf course have already lowered the underground water table, he said.
"If we are to retain water, these trees need to come down," Mathieson said. Nearby pine trees also make the soil acidic and "there is also the threat of falling debris from the old trees," he said.
Experts have been called in for the replanting exercise that requires careful planning. Every hole has trees planted in ways to make the game more challenging, according to Mathieson.
"A player has to contend with the trees if he hits the ball out of the fairway," he said.
The purple blossoming jacaranda tree, a native of South America and Asia brought to Africa by early missionaries, will be spared at Royal Harare. It has become synonymous with Zimbabwe's "spring" season because it blooms at winter's end.
Thorn trees, a member of the local acacia species that grows in dozens of African varieties with different hues and shapes, are the indigenous trees of choice at the golf club.
"The thorn tree grows much faster than any other indigenous tree," said green keeper Fibion Chikwaya, who has tended the course for 17 years.
Duikers, a small southern African species of antelope, rabbits and guinea fowl live on the course, which is sandwiched among offices, apartments and suburban homes. The animals graze oblivious to the hazards of flying golf balls. Their young are reared mostly unseen in thickets, Chikwaya said.
"We never know when they are born and only get to see them when they are grown," he said.
He said the animals sometimes fall prey to night poachers as they have come to trust humans through contact with golfers who "can come a meter (a yard) close to them, and they won't run away because they know no harm will befall them."
The course is home to more than 100 species of birds, many of which migrate thousands of kilometers (miles) to the southern hemisphere every year, he said.
The old thorn tree on the 13th hole has remained a constant companion for many golfers. Its branches span a radius of nearly seven meters (yards) and provide a canopy of shade for spectators. Many families have carried out their dying golfing relatives' wishes of having their ashes strewn around its trunk, he said.
The tree was there when players wore the colonial dress of breeches and a collar and tie, replaced now by casual pants and T-shirts.
Akil Yousuf, a club member and former president of the Zimbabwe Professional Golfers' Association, believes the tree will survive for generations. He said the thorn tree stands on "the hardest hole on the course," the downfall of many champion golfers.
"You have to play an accurate shot," he said. "If you err slightly to the right or left, you could be staring a bogey in the face."