Exploring the enchanted depths of the high forest

Stretching for 177 kilometres between the mountains and the sea, the high forest of the Garden Route is one of Southern Africa’s richest botanical treasures. Slanting shafts of sunlight lance down into magic glades where trunks of ancient hardwoods rise like cathedral columns. More than 80 kinds of trees grow here, from venerable giants soaring towards the sky to exquisite small shrubs with dazzling blossoms and haunting perfumes. Many of the trees produce valuable timber used in building, the making of furniture and craft work. Elephants, leopards, monkeys and many birds have their homes in the forest’s enchanted depths. It is a place of beauty, mystery and, for those who wish to delve deeply into its secrets, a place to learn.

The high forest of the Garden Route is the largest indigenous forest in Southern Africa. Originally it covered more than 110 000 hectares, but fires and the predations of man have reduced this to around 40 500 hectares. This area of naturally growing trees is greatly enlarged by softwood plantations of pine and gum trees.

The name “high forest” refers to the height of the trees rather than the altitude at which they grow. The giant among them is the common Yellow-Wood, which can reach up to 50 metres and live for 1 000 years. In several areas, the forestry department has constructed special paths which take visitors to particularly impressive specimens. One of the most famous is a Yellow-Wood known as King Edward’s Tree, which is 46 metres high with a girth of 9,5 metres and thought to be about 700 years old.

The timber of the common yellow-wood, hard and handsomely coloured, is much in demand for furniture. Selected trees are auctioned before being felled and carted away by the buyers. The hard, pale timber of a slightly smaller species, the real yellow-wood, is also highly prized.

Many a pioneering railway has been laid on the hard, durable sleepers produced from another forest giant, the Black Ironwood tree. Today, railway sleepers are usually made of concrete, but Ironwood is often used for flooring and veneers. In March, the blossoms of the ironwood spread a creamy canopy over the forest.

South Africa’s history also owes much to the Stinkwood tree. Its timber was used to build the trek wagons, surely among the toughest vehicles ever built. This tree takes its name from the characteristic pungent odour of the wood when it is first cut.

Some of the smaller trees, while not so highly valued for their timber, nonetheless enhance the beauty of the forest, displaying attractively coloured foliage and sweetly scented flowers. Among these are the Keurboom, with its fragrant pink blossoms, the Wild Pomegranate, with its clusters of red flowers, and the mauve-flowering Cape Chestnut.

One of the best places for exploring the forest is an area known as the Garden of Eden, 16 kilometres from Knysna along the trunk road on the way to Plettenberg Bay. There is a picnic site with paths branching into the deeper parts of the forest, and many typical tree species are identified by numbers. The Garden of Eden is also a favourite haunt of elephants.

Wild pigs and small forest antelope such as the Blue Duiker can also be seen.

Because of almost permanent dampness of the forest floor, however, most of the wild life consists of tree-dwelling species, including monkeys, leopards, tree hyraxes, snakes and birds.

Many varieties of ferns and creepers decorate the forest, and the Dale of Ferns, is a happy hunting ground for specialists in this field. For all its marvels, Southern Africa has always been short of rain and the regions where forests flourish are comparatively few. This makes the great forest of the Garden Route more precious – a place of rare wonder.