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.

Knysna history – European settlement

The first Europeans arrived in the area in 1760, and the farm Melkhoutkraal (literally translating from Afrikaans as ‘milk wood kraal’) was established on the eastern shore of the Knysna Lagoon. Stephanus Terblans, the first European farmer to settle in the area, was given a loan permit to farm here in 1770.

Upon moving to Knysna George Rex, a British-born entrepreneur credited as being the founder of Knysna, acquired the loan rights to Melkhoutkraal in 1804 and later, in 1816, to the farm Welbedacht, which he renamed Eastford. He gave 80 acres (32 ha) of Eastford to the Colonial Government, on which the Royal Navy established the township of Melville. Rex’s properties were sold when he died in 1839.

In April 1817, the transport brig Emu, belonging to the Cape Town Dockyard, was the first European vessel to enter the Knysna heads. She struck a rock, now known as Emu Rock, and was holed. Her crew ran Emu ashore to prevent her sinking. In late April HMS Podargus arrived to render assistance. After surveying the area, Podargus sailed safely into the Knysna and retrieved Emu’s cargo.

The next major settler in Knysna was Captain Thomas Henry Duthie, who married Caroline, George Rex’s daughter, and bought a portion of the Uitzigt farm from his father-in-law which Rex had named Belvidere. The construction of a small Norman-style church was commissioned by Duthie on his property, and was consecrated in 1855. The settlement’s population grew slowly, and Englishmen such as Henry Barrington and Lt. Col. John Sutherland, who established the settlement of Newhaven on a portion of purchased land, settled in the area. At the time, Knysna was a field cornetcy of Plettenberg Bay within the Magisterial Division of George. In 1858, Knysna became a separate Magisterial Division, new stores and accommodation facilities were opened, and Knysna became the new commercial centre of the region.

On their way to New Zealand, the Thesen family who were travelling from Norway fancied the little hamlet of Knysna so much that they decided to stay, bringing with them their knowledge of commerce and sailing. Soon, timber was being exported to the Cape from the vast areas of forest surrounding Knysna, and a steam sawmill and small shipyard were established. Later, these were relocated to Paarden Island, later known as Thesen’s Island.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Things to do and see

Angling
Musselcracker are prolific in Mossel Bay. Along the entire coast elf, kob and leervis run in autumn and winter and off the cliffs are many big rock feeders. Knysna lagoon offers sport for the fisherman with light tackle – galjoen, hottentot, roman, grunter and kob.
Plettenberg Bay is a favourite of fishermen. Gillies – or guides – can be hired. Large rock feeders are common. In autumn there are shoals of elf and notably large yellowtail. Big catchers are often taken.

Canoeing
The rivers of the Garden Route are ideal for canoes. The upper reaches simply lose themselves in forest. The Kaaimans waterfall can only be reached by canoe. The chain of lakes between Wilderness and Knysna is linked by serpentine waterways.

Camping and caravanning
There are caravan and camping grounds within easy access of all towns listed in this section.

Diving
Marine plants are rich along the coast, matching the beauty of the flora on shore. Small fish are numerous and many sea-horses live in Knysna lagoon.

Rail journeys
A pleasant way to see the wonders of the Garden Route is from the windows of a train. The line from George to Knysna passes through marvellous scenery. The trip from George over the Outeniqua Mountains to Camfer and Oudtshoorn includes one of the grandest railway passes in Africa, with tunnels, cuttings and tremendous views.

Surfing
The waves at Victoria Bay are majestic, especially in winter. There is also surfing in Mossel Bay and Buffalo Bay.

Swimming
The beaches at Plettenberg Bay are particularly safe. Mossel Bay also has fine swimming beaches with little trouble from sharks. The rivers of the Garden Route, free of the parasites of tropical rivers, provide excellent fresh-water swimming.

Walking
The whole Garden Route is memorable walking country. The walker sees the best of it. One of the most rewarding of all South African wilderness trails is the Outeniqua Trail. It takes 7 to 14 days to complete. The Otter Trail in the Tsitsikama national park is a 3-day hike.
Exploring any part of the high forests by foot takes the walker along scenic paths, silent, solitary, cool and lovely.

Mystery of the hideaway elephants of the Knysna forest

The elephants of thee Knysna forests are the remnants of a famous, once numerous population. They are large specimens of their kind. It has been suggested that living in a high forest area stimulated their growth, while the elephant community of thee Addo bush, further east, were slightly stunted because they lived in an area of low shrub.

The Knysna elephants, unfortunately for themselves, carried excellent ivory and were systematically hunted. Sportsmen, too, were attracted to the forest by the size of the elephants, and, using the local inhabitants as guides, the hunted the big bulls and carried away their heads, tusks and tails as trophies.

Today, the last of these animals live in the depths of the forest and are seldom seen.

They are silent, elusive creatures, occasionally looming out of the shadows and surprising foresters, hikers and campers. Motorists see them crossing the roads and relate exciting tales of charges and narrow escapes.

With the habits of these elephants confining them to deep forests, they are difficult to photograph and little is known about their numbers, or whether they have, in their isolation, developed different characteristics from those of Savannah elephants in the rest of Africa.

In former years, elephants were found as far south as the Cape Peninsula, and up the west coast as far as the Olifants River and the verges of Namaqualand. These elephants of the far south of Africa were blood-brothers of the Knysna elephants.

There was no way elephants could have crossed the more arid Karoo areas or Namaqualand – they could only have migrated down the watercourses to the Orange River or the well-watered Garden Route, or retreated up it when pressed by hunters from the settlement at the Cape.

The elephants of Knysna are therefore the last of a most interesting branch of their kind, they belong to the same species, Loxodonta Africana, as all the bush or Savannah elephants of Africa, but their life-style has modified their habits, causing them to resemble those of one of the two sub-species of African elephant – the forest elephant, Loxodonta Africana Cyclotis, whose habitat is the equatorial forests of West and Central Africa.

In appearance, however, the Knysna elephants are identical to the bush elephants. Both have curved tusks of excellent soft ivory, easily carved, unlike the brittle ivory of the forest elephants.

Left to themselves, these Knysna elephants will linger on in their forest home for an indefinite period. The have a rich food supply and ample water. Excessive dampness is their greater enemy, inflicting them with rheumatism.

They breed quite regularly, but elephants are not fast breeders. Breeding starts when they are about 12 years old, and their prime is between 40 and 50 years. The gestation period is 22 months.

Life in the high forest also has special hazards for calves, they can be trapped in mud, catch a cold or be pinned by falling trees.

At Sophie’s Properties we take great pride and care for these majestically creatures dwelling in our forests. Would you like to move closer to nature? Brenton-on-Sea is a small coastal town surrounded by nature reserves and overlooking the Indian Ocean. Contact Sophie on 082 572 2729 to view upmarket houses and vacant stands for sale.

Millwood

In the late 1870’s alluvial gold was found in the forest streams west of the Knysna River. It took a while to assess the value of the find but by 1887 the rush was on. Where once there had stood only a small water-powered sawmill in the forests, suddenly there appeared a town with six hotels, three competing newspapers, over twenty shops and banks, and a population estimated at more than 700 fortune-seekers.

There was gold, both alluvial and reef gold, but not very much of it. After a few exciting years the mines began to close, the diggers moved on to the Witwatersrand and the site of the short-lived boom town returned to nature. Today it is almost impossible to believe that a town once existed here. What was once its main street is just another track through the forest.

To explore the old goldfields, take the Rheenendal road and immediately after passing through the village turn right onto a gravel road signposted Bibby’s Hoek. This brings you to the shady picnic site of Krisjan-se-nek in the heart of the indigenous forest. Driving on from here, keep left where the road divides, and at the second fork go left again. This road leads down into Jubilee Creek, an attractive picnic and braai area and one of the streams where alluvial gold was found. A footpath leads upstream along the right bank, bringing you eventually to several old mine openings and a small pool at the foot of a waterfall.

When you drive back from Jubilee Creek turn left at the first fork. After about 4 kilometres you reach the site of Millwood, passing on your right a road to the old town cemetery, and then reaching a fork. The road leading left here, merely a forest track now, was once Millwood’s main street. If you take the road leading right, and at the next fork go right again, you will eventually reach the boiler of an old steam engine in a clearing on your left; this was the site of the stamp battery for the old Bendigo mine.

A sign her points downhill to the opening of the main Bendigo tunnel, which you can reach most easily by driving back the way you came and taking the first turn to your left. The tunnel reaches 200 metres into the hillside but is too dangerous to explore.

How George Rex became the uncrowned King of Knysna

The romantic, enigmatic and forceful personality of George Rex is part of the folk-lore of Southern Africa. He arrived in the Cape in 1797, at the time of the first British occupation. A man of distinguished bearing, he was well-educated and obviously well-connected.

In Cape Town he was appointed marshal of the vice-admiralty court, notary public to the governor, and advocate for the Crown. He met Johanna, the beautiful young widow of a well-to-do merchant, and settled down with her and her four children.

When the British occupation ended he remained in the Cape and in 1804, at the age of 39, he purchased the farm Melkhoutkraal, on the shores of the Knysna Lagoon.

To reach this farm, Rex made a coach journey on a grand scale. His wife and her children rode with him in a coach bearing a coat of arms and drawn by six horses. Riding alongside the coach was a retinue of friends.

To the awed locals thee journey resembled a royal procession – and the name of the man, George Res, conjured up images of royalty travelling incognito.

Stories spread that Rex was the son of George III of England and Hannah Lightfoot, daughter of a Wapping shoemaker.  Modern research does not confirm this belief, and there is no record of Rex ever having made any such claim. But his life-style and grand manner convinced the residents of the Cape, and especially of Knysna, that the man in their midst was indeed of royal descent.

Rex rebuilt the homestead of Melkhoutkraal, which had been destroyed in a Xhosa raid, and created a beautiful, rambling home for his family – now there were eight children. The farm was expanded. There was a watermill, blacksmith’s shop and spinnery producing silkworms fed on thee leaves of groves of mulberries. The lagoon occupied the full attention of Rex. He started a fishery, built boats from the timber of the forest and persuaded the British admiralty to develop Knysna as a port.

On 11 February 1817, the first vessel to enter the lagoon, the naval brig Emu, came to grief on a sunken rock and had to be run ashore to save it from sinking. For Rex and the people of Knysna watching from the shore, this was a sad spectacle, but it was not the end of the venture. The navy sent up a second vessel to salvage the first and this, the Podargus, had no difficulty in entering and leaving the lagoon in May 1817.

From then on Knysna was established as a port for medium-sized vessels.

Rex built his own 127-ton vessel, the Knysna, on the shores of the lagoon, and used the ship for trading along the coast.

Rex never returned to Britain. He died on 3 April 1839 after a full and rewarding life.

One of the best-known of his descendants is the celebrated clown Stompie.

The Old Road through the Passes

Before the modern highway was built along the coast, anyone wishing to travel between George and Knysna had to take the old inland road that led through almost impenetrable forests and had to negotiate no fewer than seven difficult river-valley passes. This old road can still be and it offers modern explorers a way to see the back country – a rural world of farms and forests, where life is lived at a far slower pace.

To get onto this old road you drive out of George on the N2 for Knysna and almost immediately turn left for Saasveld. After a few kilometres you pass the Saasveld Forestry School on your left, and then you drive through the first two passes, crossing the Kaaimans and Silver rivers. The turn-of-the-century stone bridges over the rivers are national monuments (as are the passes themselves). After crossing the Silver River you continue straight onto gravel for Knysna, then cross the Touws River on an iron-Girder bridge and come to a T-junction with a tarred road, where you turn left for Knysna.

After about 3 km a gravel track on the left leads to the Big Tree picnic site (with the convenience of braai places, picnic tables and toilets) and from here a short path crosses a wooden footbridge over a forest stream to bring you to the Woodville Big Tree – a massive Outeniqua yellowwood estimated to be roughly 800 years old. A short forest walk starts at the Big Tree and will take you through an attractive area of indigenous woodland.

Back on the main road, you continue your journey on tar for a few kilometres and immediately this ends you cross the Diep River, and thereafter the Hoogekraal, passing through a valley richly blanketed in forest. After crossing the Karatara River and then the Homtini you reach the bottom of yet another deep valley covered in a great expanse of indigenous forest. Shortly afterwards the road surface reverts to tar. (A turn-off here to Bibby’s Hoek leads to the Millwood goldfields of last century and makes a fascinating excursion, both in the historical sense and in that you are taken deep into the heart of typical Knysna forest). Soon after passing through the little country village of Rheenendal you catch your first glimpses of the Knysna Lagoon and the Knysna Heads and then reach a T-junction with the N2, where you turn left to wind down from the hills into the valley of the Knysna River. The more adventurous can reach Knysna via the steep Phantom Pass.

Beer tasting

An absolute must visit is Mitchell’s Brewery, here you can discover all there is to know about brewing fine natural ales. The tour guide will enlighten and excite you with terms such as Mash Tun, Whirlpool and Grist Hopper. After your tour you will be taken to the sales area for a tasting and a chance to purchase some of the ale to take home.

Since 1983, Mitchell’s Brewery have been brewing small quantities of craft beer in Knysna, using only natural ingredients; water, barley and locally sourced hops which makes them the original South African craft beer. Perfected over time, their range of beers are full bodied, refreshing and tasting better than ever.

Mitchell’s Brewery is also known for its tastings, tours and their restaurant. Make a booking at 044 382 4685 and enjoy pure natural beer!

Properties for sale

Brenton-on-Sea is a small coastal town about 15km South of Knysna. The town offers upmarket houses and beautiful landscaped vacant land for sale.

To purchase your next home, contact Sophie Joubert at 082 572 2729 right now!