The world's oldest tea tree
After a long drive to the top of Da Hei Shan, aka "Big Black Mountain", we parked the car along side the neat hedgerows of a young tea plantation, and walked into the national forest reserve. The knee high undergrowth was thick and lush from recent rains. We passed a small dam, almost full to the brim, before finding the muddy & slippery track which would take us to the ancient tree. We walked for an hour, surrounded by a cool, damp, humidity, the rhythmic screeching of unseen cicadas accompanying us the entire time.
My guide gave me a machete to ward off wild pigs, who have charged & gored people here before. A long way from the nearest clinic, this would not be a pleasant way to spend the afternoon! So we slapped our machete against the occasional tree, giving the wild boar advance warning of our presence, and the chance to avoid us. Luckily we did not startle any angry pigs this time, but the path was deeply scarred in places, where the little devils had used their tusks to dig up tasty tree roots.
Along the way, we saw many wild tea trees growing in a forest clearing, about 3-4m high. Their chunky stems were tinged with red, their leaves appeared thicker than normal, with distinctive red serrations along the leaf edge. Some of them had been visibly over picked and denuded. Picking wild tea trees has actually been banned recently to protect the trees, but out here in these remote locations, there is no effective way to enforce the law.
Bud emerging from a wild tea tree in Bada, Yunnan
The older trees hosted a rich assortment of moss and lichen, clinging on wherever branch met trunk, or carpeting the shaded sections of the tree. It was amazing to see tea trees growing wild, so tall and robust, in their natural state, instead of in a plantation. I imagined this is how tea trees must've looked when they were first discovered by humans.
View into the canopy of the world's oldest tea tree, note the abundant epiphytes!
Da Hei Shan is a forest of giants. Not only does it host amazingly tall, wild tea trees, we found this giant earthworm breaching the muddy track.
Biggest living earthworm I've ever seen
Our sharp-eyed guide also found this large bunch of mushrooms growing from the base of a tree, which we promptly harvested for our lunch. We wrapped this in a giant leaf, mother nature's clingwrap.
Finally we sighted the proud old tree, surrounded by barbed wire fortifications. Four large trunks merged at ground level, but the base was hollowed out, and looking up, one could see where the tree had been struck by lightning. Grim & defiant, the king of tea trees was hunkered down for his last stand.
That's not a knife... this is a knife!
Even worse, the trunk of the tree had been defaced with tourist carvings. It reminded me of the graffiti on the Pyramids. Are our mortal lives so pathetically short that we feel compelled to scrawl our names on anything that has stood the test of time? Perhaps it's just the excitement of being given a machete.
Adding insult to injury, in the hollowed out trunk, some joker had thrown in a plastic water bottle. You would think anyone willing to come all this way, just to see a tree, would be a tree-hugging, flower in the hair type of hippie, full of awe and respect for the miracle of nature. Well, apparently not.
Perhaps then it is no big surprise, that after standing for eons, this leviathan did not survive a few paltry years after its discovery by humans. I was very saddened to hear of the death of this tree via Mark's blog The Horses Mouth but I'm glad I was one of the lucky few who got to see it whilst it was still alive.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
I wonder to whom the mantle now slips to. Perhaps this ancient tea tree in Bangwei that is also estimated to be around 1700 years old? Growing near the village, in a garden with a padlocked gate, this venerated tree should have a better chance of survival than the poor old king of Bada.
Bangwei's king of tea trees, now perhaps the one to rule them all?