Text Laurian Brown Garden Editor René Slee Photographs David Ross South African getaways are mostly blue-skied, wide-horizoned places: grassland, Karoo,bushveld, beach, fynbos, mountain. But there are other, softer landscapes, which offer an escape of a completely different and utterly fascinating kind. Enter the forest and behind you a green door swings closed on the everyday world. The dense fringes, the ranks of tree trunks and layer upon layer of branches and leaves filter out the sun, the wind, the sky, the heat of the day, all sounds, all scents but the forest’s own. Growing closely together, trees soar to great heights; the top of the canopy may be 30 metres or more above your head. Climbers twine and loop their way upwards through scatterings of saplings and understorey shrubs. The floor is a thick, spongy, crackly, slippery carpet of fallen leaves. Ferns, lichen, moss and fungi adorn trunks, roots and fallen branches. The air is cool and soft – resinously, damply fragrant with the smell of moss and bark and leaf mould. In the quiet, sounds seem amplified; birdsong in the canopy resonates as though from the roof of a cathedral. You may hear the scratchings of other birds among the leaves and, sooner or later, the sound of running water. Natural forests of any size nearly always contain streams and waterfalls. These magical environments cover less than half a per cent of the South African landscape, making them our smallest biome. Most forests are categorised as Afro-temperate (a.k.a Afromontane) and as such have many species in common, but each has its own endemics, and each is home to an extraordinary range of trees, flora, birds, insects, butterflies and other wildlife. Ever since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652, these vital sources of shelter and sustenance have been under severe pressure. Within 50 years of his landing, the demand for building materials and firewood had virtually cleared the forests around Table Mountain. In other areas – the southern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern escarpment – the onslaught came later and, although not as devastating, brought a dramatic change in the extent and integrity of the forests. For many years there were vain attempts to restrict felling, but more effective control was only made possible by the planting of fast-growing exotic trees, which began in the 1880s and ensured a steady supply of timber. In some areas these plantations of pine, blue gum and wattle replaced indigenous forests, and in others they were planted over what was regarded as unimproved grassland (now recognised as another vitally important biome). Huge water-guzzlers, they have dried up springs and streams; self-sown trees present a continuous threat to grassland, watercourses and vulnerable forest. But these much-maligned exotic plantations have benefits too. They have fed our insatiable demand for timber and so helped preserve the indigenous forest. And while they have nothing like the same richness and complexity, they do provide a pleasant, orderly refuge, much like a well-shaded park, for walking, picnicking or exercising dogs and children – hence the debate that raged over the planned felling of Cape Town’s Cecilia and Tokai forests. The controversy began when the plantations were ceded to SA National Parks (SAN Parks), who are committed to restoring areas of endangered fynbos types. But the Afro-temperate forest areas will be restored – over 50 000 trees have been planted to date – and there will also be plantings of noninvasive exotics to provide shade. ‘Our task is to strike a balance between biodiversity and recreation,’ says Brett Myrdal, national manager of environmental planning at SAN Parks. Elsewhere, SAN Parks and the Department of Forestry, which between them now manage most of SA’s indigenous forests, are making dedicated efforts to achieve that balance. Many of our major forested areas are carefully managed to protect their biodiversity, but also offer superb opportunities for R&R – ranging from six-day hiking trails to 30-minute boardwalk strolls, outings with elephants and birding tours. You might find yourself spending the night in a chalet, a log cabin, a treehouse or a tent…. Time to go and talk to the trees.
- Forests occur only in areas of high rainfall (more than 500mm a year).
- The most extensive forests are in Limpopo and areas of the southern Cape.
- Remnants of larger forests survive in inaccessible kloofs and gullies, where they are sheltered from fire.
- Most of our natural forests are protected, but some regions do not have sufficient resources for really effective control. Smaller pockets, especially, remain under threat from over exploitation or development.
- Don’t go into the forest without Elsa Pooley’s excellent little guide Forest Plants (Flora Publications Trust, 978-0-62037-012-7).
This article was originally featured in the June 2010 issue of House and Leisure. To view our guide of forest trails in South Africa, click here.