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Transforming elephant-damaged trees

Ron Crous with his Norwood sawmill set up in his backyard

African big-game hunter, safari guide and outdoorsman, Ron Crous, salvages and transforms priceless African hardwoods with his Norwood sawmill.
This is his story.

A single person, in a single moment, can change the course of your life. The course of my life’s journey was set when, on my ninth birthday, I listened to a senior conservation officer from the Cape Point Nature Reserve speak about African wildlife conservation. From that moment forward, I knew that outdoors was where I would spend my life.

African Leadwood is one of the densest hardwoods in the world. Ron moved this log using the same method used to move elephant carcasses.My working career started with wildlife management, anti-poaching and game capture and, over the past 30 years, I have been fortunate to work and hunt in some of the most beautiful areas of Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. For the last 12 years, I have focused primarily on guiding dangerous game hunt safaris.

But throughout, the trees have been what defined true wilderness beauty in my mind. Always in awe of how old, large, tall or majestic they were, I planted trees wherever I could (and sometimes where I could not). Inquisitive by nature, and about nature, I wanted to watch them grow – to see their development year after year has always given me great satisfaction.

I started cutting fallen trees into planks to see what they looked like. I was amazed by the beauty locked within each log. Harvesting one particular log took me three years – I had found a massive 20-foot (6m) log washed up on the beach where we have a holiday home on the Indian Ocean. Over the course of three consecutive vacations I managed to mill the whole thing into plank- using just my chainsaw! It was quite a saga, but I got them back home.

With the recent closure of trophy hunting in Botswana, I was forced to look for alternative means of providing for my family and this “silly” idea of cutting planks for resale kept popping up. Although there used to be two or three sawmills around 30 years ago, there is currently no sawmill industry in Botswana. The lack of a sawmilling industry is due to two main reasons: the government prohibits tree harvesting, and elephant damage. Botswana is teeming with an over-population of elephants which, in large numbers, wreak havoc on the forest. This, essentially, only leaves fallen timber and crooked timber, both of which are unsuitable for large-scale sawing operations.

A client commissioned Ron to make this live-edge leadwood tableBut what a large sawmilling corporation would overlook, I see as real potential. While they may be stunted and crooked, the timber is highly valuable African hardwood, prized for its rich colors and grains.

After considerable research on how best to maximize the potential of the local fallen and dead timber, I decided on a Norwood LumberMate LM29 band sawmill. My major concern was choosing a machine that would be up to the job. These frican species are some of the hardest woods on the planet and, what is more, they are mostly long dead and very dry. Leadwood (Combretum imberbe), knobthorn (Acacia nigrescens) and mopane (Colophospermum mopane), to name just a few, are all in the vicinity of 70 – 77 lbs/cubic foot (1120 – 1230 kg/m3).

I took the plunge and placed the order for my Norwood at the same time that I accepted a commission to build a 10’ x 4’ (3m x 1.2m) live-edge leadwood table. Wow, I jumped in at the deep end! But, as long as Norwood could ‘cut it’, I was willing to try.

I knew of a massive old log that had been cut down some years ago by Botswana Telecommunications – I had always envied who might manage to do something with that log, it was huge! Out I went with a seriously heavy-duty trailer that we used to use to remove and transport elephant carcasses. By means of chain-blocks, and some serious sweating, we managed to get the beast loaded! Getting it onto the mill was also fraught with hassles as the log, being any and every shape except round, tended to do pretty much as it pleased. So, as when out on safari, I called on my trusty Land Cruiser to add a little gentle persuasion. And, voila! On she rolled. My lovely new Norwood did the job smartly and soon I was into actually making the table.

I have got to thank the Dale family and the entire Norwood team for getting a sawmill of this quality out there for the likes of people like me who want to play – although, it is not simply a toy, but a tool capable of cutting even the hardest wood on earth!
 

February 2016 | SA Forestry magazine

Portable band sawmills in Africa

 

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