In 1893, Sammy Marks appointed a German horticulturist, Otto Brandmuller, to begin the afforestation of Maccauvlei. Brandmuller had ranged over Africa capturing wild animals for zoo’s in Europe, so he was familiar with African flora and fauna. But he got a new perspective on his arrival by coach at Vereeniging. He asked to be directed to Maccauvlei and was told ‘when you reach the place where the frogs croak the loudest, you will know you have arrived’.
The magnificent oaks planted by Kwaai Augus gave Brandmuller all the encouragement he needed and, urged on by Marks, he proceeded with ambitious plans to clothe the area in forests. He wrought a remarkable transformation of the property. In one year alone, he planted 100 000 trees, the first grown from acorns taken from Pistorius’s oaks. The timber was used by the mines and in building construction.
In 1905, the appearance of the Vaal River was changed irrevocably when Thomas Leslie constructed a weir across the river to impound water for irrigation and the further development of the plantations and farmlands at Maccauvlei. By the turn of the century some six million pines, oaks and eucalyptus trees had been planted at Maccauvlei. A small section of the resultant oak forest bordering the golf course on the east still stands today, but it is now slowly giving way to increased mining activity.
Encouraged by Vereeniging’s first mayor (Thomas Leslie) and Sammy Marks, Otto Brandmuller began, on his own initiative, to beautify the banks of the Vaal River. He planted willows and poplars which helped to make Vereeniging one of the most popular inland scenic pleasure resorts in the country.
The forest became a haven for wild life, but not all efforts at game management were successful. As far back as 1904, Isaac Lewis had sent from England a shipment of 200 pheasants. They were initially caged at Maccauvlei but became a nuisance, and were set free in the forest. Unaccustomed to Africa, they roosted on the ground and were wiped out by wildcats.
In 1913, Brandmuller introduced fallow deer to the forest. In a deal with the Pretoria Zoo, he exchanged 100 bags of acorns for two does and a buck. Unlike the pheasants, they adapted very successfully, and at one time numbered over 300. They were often to be seen at the fence bordering the golf course. Victor Long, the Secretary after Frank Grey, regularly fed them and they became quite tame.
Apple orchards blossom into big business
When Otto Brandmuller retired, his son Ernest took over as forester and horticulturist. Ernest had worked closely with his father at Maccauvlei. He was responsible for planting over 4 000 acres of forest, and was also in charge of the orchards department of Vereeniging Estates.
In yet another of Sammy Marks’ diversifications, Ernest planted 28 000 apple trees in a large orchard beyond what is now the 14th hole of the golf course along the river. They grew very successfully and the area became known as the “apple belt”, with Vereeniging holding the distinction of being the premier apple growing area of South Africa. The harvesting season was a period of great activity and the fruit was exported to London’s Covent Garden. In a single year, the apple yield alone amounted to eight pounds a tree. A sought after gift from Vereeniging in those days, was a case of the beautiful red apples, known as “Rome Beauties”.
Tony Youell recounts a story by his late father, Graham. Youell senior was a member of the Usco rowing fours who trained on the river in the late afternoons, rowing past the golf course. On their way back they used to stop at the water’s edge opposite the orchard, fill the boat with apples and row home. The noise of the apples, rolling to and fro, in the boat was a dead give away as to their bountiful haul.
Long snouted pigs were introduced to feed on the pupae of caterpillars that infested the forest. They thrived, eventually numbering over 1000. Sadly, the orchards were eventually abandoned to the pigs, which in turn were poached and trapped. The last of the boars is thought to have been seen in 1967. These game ventures had a sequel at Maccauvlei many years later.