Walking on the Outeniqua Trail through a cluster of towering tree ferns between the Rondebossie and Diepvalle huts I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched. Not by someone, but rather by something big, something ancient and most definitely reclusive. Stopping beside a large Ironwood tree, I scanned the forest with all my senses but after half and hour I had to concede that my desire to see Knysna’s forest elephant was not going to be rewarded. At the time the consensus was that there was only one remaining matriarch in the forest.
Recently the media has been fill with speculation of the number of elephants with two distinct schools of thought, SANParks adamant that one matriarch is all that remains and Gareth Paterson (of working with lions fame) claiming a minimum of 5 elephants, possibly 8. SANParks works from photographic evidence and Gareth employs DNA analysis of fresh dung collected in the forests. So the myth of the Knysna Forest Elephants hovers between imminent extinction or possible struggling survival
There are a number of places to see evidence (spoor, droppings or broken foliage) of the Knysna Elephant, but my favorite is between Diepvalle and Rondebossie. Setting off on any of the elephant walks from the parking area, careful inspection of trees lining the path and on game trails sometimes revels rub marks about 2m above ground. The most obvious indication of elephant has to be dung balls, often seen in the region.
My most memorable elephant ‘experience’ was while guiding a corporate group on two of the elephant walks. Punctuating a forest walk with a forest lunch, all but two of the group decided on the soft option of getting a lift from the lunch site back to Knysna to sleep off the effects of the previous evenings dinner.This left two gents to share an adventurous afternoon in the forest
Ten minutes into the walk after bidding their colleagues farewell, the discussion turned to the topic of the forest elephants. Relating some of my findings, their focus flowed from interest to disbelief followed by a challenge to find evidence of an elephant. Approaching a hot spot of tracks the odds were in my favor, but the recent rains would have washed all old spoor away unless there had been a recent passing of elephants.
Not finding fresh spoor or even old dung, there was an air of disappointment until we reached a patch of tree ferns. This was the bonanza – fronds lay on the ground, ripped from the 2m stems, paths pushed into the undergrowth, and foliage was stomped down. All this indicated that at least one elephant had had a meal here. From the viscosity of the sap flowing from the broken stems, it was recent, possibly even disturbed by our approach. Needless to say I was unable to curtail the group’s excitement as they inspected every frond and attentively followed some of the paths crashing into the undergrowth. As a practice I always carry water, rain jacket and a torch when setting out on a walk. As it would happen I did not have a torch this time. In our enthusiasm to get a sighting of an elephant we delayed our departure from the forest, and ended up leaving at dusk using the light from our mobile phones screens to light the way back to the car, which only added to the adventure of being close to the forest elephants. This was a rare moment shared by appreciative guests. To date I have not seen an elephant in the forest, but enjoy the thrill of looking for them when ever I get the opportunity.
For details of guided day walks in the Garden Route and our coastal walk visit www.gardenroutetrail.co.za