No matter how you arrive in the Garden Route, whether from the west through the arid Overberg, from the east from the Eastern Cape thicket or traversing the Outeniqua Mountains from the north, the first thing that strikes you is the lush green vegetation which cloaks the region between Mossel Bay and Storm’s River.
It is in the Garden Route that the mysterious Knysna Forest abounds, a remnant of Afro-montane forest that shrouds the southern slopes and foothills of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountain ranges, representing 80% of the South Africa’s remaining Afro-montane forest, a mere 20% of what existed prior to the arrival of European settlers.
A sliver of moist closed canopy forest that extends from the ridge line of the mountains to the shore line where it is flanked by coastal thicket, this forest haven is punctuated with mosaic pockets of Fynbos islands which contribute to both the botanical and avian diversity of the region.
Endowed with 139 species of indigenous trees, the renowned botanical giants are undoubtedly the Outeniqua Yellowwoods (Podocarpus falcatus), the foundation of a traditional furniture industry which has its origins in the timber industry from which the then humble port hamlet of Knysna arose.
Despite the former harvesting of indigenous hardwoods from the forests of the Garden Route, there remains an alluring forest for nature lovers and photographers to explore. Even more enticing when visiting the area is the ability to see ancient trees that escaped the commercial onslaught of the forests and are fugitives endowed with silent grandeur, magnificent trees which have outlived the protagonists of history in this emerald corner of Eden.
Without a doubt, the most historical tree has to be the ‘Post Office’ tree of Mossel Bay. A rambling White Milkwood (Sideroxyion inerme), at least 500 years old, it is considered to be the actual tree that the Portuguese navigator Da Nova, retrieved a message from it that had been left there for him in 1501. From this original postal delivery, the tree is reputed to have maintained the service of postal tree to the ever-increasing merchant fleets during the years of the spice trade.
While the Post Office tree has historical significance in the Garden Route, the status of ‘Giant among Giants’ belongs to several Outeniqua Yellowwoods known as ‘Big Trees’. The first that you will visit after the Post Office tree would either be the Big Tree in Blanco or its contemporary, the Woodville Big Tree above Wilderness. The latter, a true giant, has a canopy spanning over 32m crowning a trunk of 30m and though not the oldest tree in the region, it is quite possibly the widest. Having survived for more than 800 years, this tree epitomises the evolutionary arsenal of longevity traits that has prevented it from succumbing to the natural challenges. Peering up from the view platform around the buttress roots supporting it, the auto-pruning bark sticks out in various stages of peeling, the natural process of preventing epiphytes like moss and lichen covering the tree that could potentially introducing a pathogen that would shorten the lifespan of a tree.
If you are fortunate as you gaze up in wonder, you may also see one of the resident Knysna Dwarf Chameleons patrolling its territory amongst the Arum and Scadoxis Lilly’s sprouting from the crook of one of the high branches.
Continuing east towards Knysna on the Seven Passes Road you can stop in at arguably the oldest Yellowwood in the Garden Route, the Millwood Big Tree which watches over the memorial of Dalene Mathee, authoress of the classical South African stories Fiela se Kind and Moerbei Bos, historical novels of the woodcutter’s lives and gold rush of the area. As you sip a cup of coffee from your picnic basket in the shade of the tree you will start to appreciate why this was a place of inspiration and relaxation for Dalene. Each time I visit I can’t avoid wondering what stories could be told should this giant be able to talk of its 900 year life; of herds of elephant migrating below it, clans of San bushman collecting honey from it, the arrival of settlers and the challenges of establishing the nation of South Africa to name but a few I’m sure.
Indeed, if you travel to the Turbine Hotel in Knysna, you can view a slice of Yellowwood from a tree felled in its prime at the relatively youthful age of 600 years, where the history of modern South Africa has been documented in conjunction with the annual growth rings of the tree. Reflecting on the rich lustre of the wood and the relative ephemeral nature of each historical event in contrast to the span of annual growth rings always instils a sense of perspective and invokes a commitment to pursue activities of merit and integrity.
Throughout history human civilization has experimented with a multitude of methods to profit from nature and the Garden Route has not been exempt. While huge profits and dynasties were forged during the period of lumber extraction in the Knysna Forest, a few people with foresight started experimenting with alternative timber species. Trial plots of Pinus species and even the giant Sequoias were conducted to test growth rates, yields per hectare and ultimately, profitability.
As you travel through the Garden Route the undulating pine plantations are testimony to which species were more profitable. Yet, tucked away in the Harkerville area east of Knysna, hikers on the Harkerville trail will be able to pause and reflect on shifting paradigms of humans in nature in the shady embrace of a copse of Giant Redwoods, approximately 70 to 80 years old.
Driving up to Diepwalle you can visit two more big trees, named in honour of royalty aspiring for historical immortality through the life of a grand tree. Yet, their mere mortal whims are relegated to insignificance by the spectacular vision of the trees as they tower above the rest of the forest, not to dominate, but to nurture through the symbiotic exchange of microorganisms and the mutual exchange of nutrients that is the true undemanding essence of the energetic exchange of a forest while the entire community perform their alchemic task of converting carbon dioxide to life supporting Oxygen.
Admiring an ancient tree and the forest in which it lives should not be the simple act of ticking off a travel sighting. Indeed, appreciation of trees can be witnessed in many communities who have intimate links with nature. In fact, even Napoleon is reputed to have insisted that each and every one of his troops had to perform the daily task of resting for no less than half an hour with their back against a tree to ‘revitalise’ their entire being.
To truly appreciate the symbiotic integrity of a forest, it is worthwhile stopping at the Big Tree west of the Storms River rest stop. Here the true succession and continuance of a forest can be witnessed first-hand. The original big tree fell over a decade ago and ripped open a gap in the canopy that let the sunshine in. This was the start of one of the magical processes of a forest. Immediately, every sapling that had germinated beneath the giant before it fell, yet could not flourish in the muted shade beneath its canopy, now erupted in a growth spurt, a race to replace the protective canopy.
Next, the gradual recycling of nutrients captured in the giant trunk and branches through chemical and mechanical processes began. Crickets, Pill Millipedes, wood boring larvae of Click Beetles and Wood Lice began chewing their way through the wood, defecating pulp inoculated with microorganisms that would release the nutrients into the humus layer for absorption by surrounding roots. At the same time the chemical processing by fungus complemented the mechanical breakdown further supplementing the humus layer, the true nutrient base of every rain forest in the world.
There are still many years of processing ahead, each nutrient released as required and absorbed only when needed, a sustained resource that will be evident for hundreds of years to come.
As you travel through the Garden Route and marvel at the refuge of unspoilt nature, it is always important to consider the sustained balance within the forest without losing sight of the wood or the trees. For, within the balance that each natural forest is imbued with, lies the answer to our future survival. Hopefully when you return to your everyday lives you will reflect on the silent lessons offered by the magnificent Trees of the Garden Route.