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.

The Magic of the Garden Route

From Mossel Bay to the Storms River is a necklace of bays, beaches, cliffs and rocky capes strung together along a line of pounding white surf. The mountain ranges crowd close to the shoreline and, with a rainfall of around 2 500 millimetres on the peaks, bring a plentiful water supply to the narrow coastal terrace. Here every square metre of soil seems to nourish jumble of trees and flowering plants that a cultivated garden would pale into insignificance in comparison.

The 227 kilometres of this coastline is the Garden Route, a region of eternal freshness and greenery.

The climate is mild and equable. Rainfall is scattered throughout the year, most of it falling at night. A blight of most of the African continent is thus avoided – rainfall concentrated into a short season of floods followed by months so dry that rivers become sand and the vegetation so dead that it is simply a fire waiting to be started.

From the time of its first discovery by man this coastal terrace has delighted visitors. The French explorer, François Le Vaillant, passed this way in the 1780s, and the description he has left might well apply today: “The land bears the name Outeniqua, which in the Hottentot tongue means ‘a man laden with honey’. The flowers grow there in millions, the mixture of pleasant scents which arises from them, their colour, their variety, the pure an fresh air which on breathers there, all make one stop and think nature has made an enchanted abode of this beautiful place.”

Seldom cooler than 20°C, the coastal waters teem with game fish. Divers find a magic world of brilliantly coloured sea plants, molluscs and vast shoals of little fish. Suddenly, a rocky shoreline will give way to a secluded, sandy beach. Victoria Bay is renowned as one of the world’s best surfing beaches. The rivers, deeply stained with the amber colour of the soil have lovely stretches navigable by small boats; the wild flowers and the high forests offer long, cool drives down tunnels of shade beneath the trees; there is a mining ghost town to explore, and gold still to be panned in several steams.

Along the Garden Route is little to harm man other than his own folly. For the continent of Africa this is indeed a rare pleasure. There are no malarial mosquitoes, no bilharzia worms in the rivers, no crocodiles or other predatory animals and save leopards which keep to themselves in the mountains. A few elephants still survive in the depths of the Knysna Forest, but are seldom seen.

At some time or another, nearly every South African with the means to go on holiday spends some time on this coast. For visitors to the country it is one of the highlights of a complete tour. The region is excellently served by roads and has a delightful branch railway from George to Knysna still (and it is hoped for years to come) worked by steam locomotives. The region has numerous places of accommodation, caravan parks and camping grounds.

In the heart of the Garden Route is a quaint little town called Brenton-on-Sea. This small town lies on the edge of the shoreline a few kilometres from Knysna. For more information to buy vacant land or a house, please call Sophie Joubert on 082 572 2729.

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.

Timber industry

By 1880 over 1000 people had settled in Knysna. In 1882, the settlements of Newhaven, Melville and the wedge of land between the two villages were amalgamated to form the municipality of ‘The Knysna’, named after the Knysna River.

Knysna’s timber industry peaked when George Parkes arrived from Britain and saw the opportunity to use the hardwoods of the Knysna Forest for export to elsewhere in the country, and even overseas. He established the Knysna Forest Company, later renamed Geo. Parkes and Sons Ltd, which is still trading to this day.

Millwood House Museum

In 1878, an important discovery was made in the area. A gold nugget was found in the Karatara River, near Ruigtevlei. Soon fortune hunters from all over the world arrived at the Millwood Forest in search of gold, and Millwood grew into a bustling town. Millwood was declared a gold field, the very first in South Africa. However, soon not enough gold was being recovered to sustain a growing town, and the mining industry in the area collapsed. Some miners relocated to Knysna, bringing their little homes with them. One of the houses, known as ‘Millwood House’, now functions as a museum.

Pledge nature reserve

Before Knysna was officially named a town, it was made up of small settlements, one of which was Newhaven, just east of today’s Long Street – the long straight road that intersects the town and runs down to Thesen`s Island. To the west was Eastford, a large farm that formed part of the extensive estates of George Rex. The”Founder of Knysna” In 1820 Rex gave 40 morgen of Eastford to the Admiralty. Some of this land was used by the Admiralty to set up a small boat building yard on the edge of the lagoon. The rest of the 40 morgen was used as commonage. In 1825, permission was given for the village of Melville to be built on the common. The village grew slowly at first, and by mid-century only a handful of simple houses had been erected. It became evident, however, that as the settlement of the Cape Colony increased, and the demand for the timber resources of the Knysna area grew rapidly.

As the area flourished, the settlements of Newhaven and Melville experienced their first “housing boom”. Woodcutters, furniture makers, coastal traders and related service providers settled in the area. It was to feed this boom and the subsequent demand for the kiln-dried bricks, those brickfields sprang up around the edge of the settlements, where there was abundant raw material and firewood available. One of these brickfields, on the northern edge of the town limits, as they were then, was an area called Bok-se-kloof. It is here, today, more than 100 years later, that the Pledge Nature Reserve lies, being restored, where possible, to its original natural beauty.

Just when Bok-se-Kloof brickfield closed down, is not known. Certainly, by the 1920’s, the area was known as “the old brickfield”. Daisy Eberhard, whose family was among the pioneers of the area, took over the “Brownie” movement in 1927 and, wanting a suitable meeting place for her group, she approached the Knysna Town Council to allow her to use a portion of Bok-se-Kloof.

In 1929, in support of her application, 500 yards of fencing was built on the hillside and the valley floor for her use. The area was adjacent to the old brickfield with a clear stream flowing through it. It was here that, under the guidance of Daisy Eberhard, generations of Knysna’s youth first discovered the diversity of the Cape`s botanical heritage.

Daisy Eberhard’s stream did not remain clear for very long. Ravaged by urban encroachment, the stream silted up and stopped flowing regularly. However, with its banks bare and sterile, it would flood after heavy rain. This caused silt and urban rubbish to be dumped into the fragile Knysna lagoon. The land itself, being part of a valley and largely unsuitable for housing, escaped major development. But it was left as waste ground — an informal dump, where invader vegetation soon took root and was spreading at an incredibly high rate. In 1988, Kito Erasmus, a local forest officer and a town councillor, encouraged the idea of getting the public involved in the eradication of plant invaders as an Arbour Day project.

His proposal received the full co-operation of the local branch of the Wildlife Society, under the Chairmanship of Margo Mackay, who inspired public interest and organised hacking parties. Their attention was focussed on the Bok-se-Kloof valley which by then was infested with 14 different exotic invader species.

The following year, the Department of Forestry received notice of an offer of sponsorship for a non-commercial forest conservation project in the Southern Cape. The Wildlife Society agreed to adopt Bok-se-Kloof as an environmental rehabilitation project for the Branch and a project presentation was drawn up which resulted in a generous grant from S C Johnson & Son whose range of household products include Pledge furniture care range.

The Community Project that became Pledge Nature Reserve received widespread publicity through popular environmentalist magazines and radio and TV programmes. This culminated in the project receiving M-Net’s Nature Foundation Award in 1991.

The Reserve has also received praise from botanists and environmentalists alike. An officer of the South African Botanical Society pointed out that Pledge’s situation so near to the Town’s centre made the Reserve both exceptional and of high value to Knysna that it should never be underestimated.