“This Ironwood tree is probably close to a thousand years old” Dennis Carlisle told me as my family and I stood transfixed with our necks craned upwards towards the forest canopy.
We had joined Bhejane 4×4 safaris on their “Secrets of the Knysna Forests” dirt road day tour; an exclusive concession which traverses approximately 30 kilometres of limited access tracks between the coastal town of Knysna and the old forest mountain outpost of Diepwalle.
Above our heads, a profusion of dazzling green Touraco birds and butterflies flitted through mossy branches whilst in the distance a troop of baboons could be heard barking in alarm at something unseen. Perhaps a leopard or maybe one of those secretive elephants that are rumoured to roam these parts.
Crickets and tree frogs chirped cheerfully; earthy smells wafted up our nostrils, and dappled sunlight danced across the leafy floor like disco beams.
The only thing missing from this enchanting scene were some forest elephants and perhaps a gang of olden day woodcutters with mud stained shirts and overgrown beards.
“The Knysna forests are all National Park now and the woodcutters are long gone” said Dennis as we walked along a forest trail back to where we had parked our vehicle on the Petrus se brand pad.
“History, politics and a need for conservation erased them and their way of life many decades ago, but the elephants remain. Or at the very least one of them does”
“Will we see him?” asked my somewhat Naïve 6 year old son. We had after all just taken him to nearby Addo National Park where elephants are as common as inept politicions.
But Dennis broke the news to him softly that nearly all of them are now dead.
“Hunting, persecution and habitat loss have made almost mythical beasts of them”
A bit like a sasqwach or the Loch Ness monster. People tell stories, people swear they see family groups, but photographic and scientific evidence is thin on the ground.
“Despite their rarity” continued Dennis “We have more chance of spotting one here on this seldom used road than almost anywhere else in these 45000 hectares of forest”
No one really knows how many elephants remain in the woods above Knysna.
Officially its just one.
“Last year” Dennis told me whilst we slowly drove through an obstacle course of overhanging ferns and puddles full of tadpoles “We encountered one right here”
He stopped the car again and pointed to an area of thick jungle which had a sort of hole in it where the elephant had gone.
“This is where she crashed off into the trees and vanished as if by magic”
Coincidentally, a broken bough was blocking the road right at that point, signifying perhaps, that an elephant had just passed by that morning.
As Denis and I dragged the branch off to the side of the road, my son and daughter commenced to flitting around the tree ferns like a pair of forest fairies.
“Look daddy” cried Mia excitedly “I’ve found a shongololo”
She had a big grin on her face, as the large, snake like, millipede crawled up her arm and across the back of her neck.
“It tickles daddy” she giggled
After about an hour of very slow driving (not because the road is in bad shape but because there are so many fascinating things to see in a forest that to drive fast would be a great shame) we suddenly emerged into blindingly bright sunlight.
Abruptly the forest had ended and we found ourselves driving through a large open space dominated by fynbos plants.
“This is Klein Island” Dennis told us as we stopped for a snack “It’s a circle in the forest that could be well over a century old.”
He then went on to explain that the forests were once teeming with poor white woodcutters who lived an almost hand to mouth existence beneath the shady trees.
“They cut these clearings to protect themselves from elephants.” He told me “And they probably grew sweet potatoes here and built themselves a wooden shack or two in which to raise a family. But it wasn’t an easy life. They were exploited badly by the timber merchants. They had no unions. Elephants squashed them and the damp in these forests made them sick”
The first woodcutters (Dutch settlers) probably showed up in the area during the 18th century and quickly set about chopping down trees, but the sheer size and density of these woodlands (which stretched almost from Mossel Bay to Humansdorp) prevented any real damage from occurring.
The Garden Route was a true wilderness back then, and stayed that way for many, many decades due to the difficult nature of the terrain. Sheer gorges, steep mountains and impenetrable forests hampered the building of roads and the establishment of sizable colonies, but at the end of the day; South Africa needed timber for her oxwagons and towns and railways and ships.
It was inevitable that a human tide would arrive. And arrive it did.
“In its heyday” Said Dennis after we had left the sunny clearing and plunged once more into the dark and earthy forest “There were thousands of families living here. There were towns and communities and even a narrow gauge railway that transported passengers and timber from the forests to Knysna harbour. In fact we are driving along where the railway line used to be”
I was utterly amazed that this wild and tranquil jungle was once a very different place.
We were driving through a tunnel of ancient looking trees surrounded by lush ferns and mushrooms. Bush pigs had torn up the sides of the road in their search for grubs and tubers, and other than the road itself, there was no evidence that people had ever been here.
“It would have been very busy here” said Denis “There would have been children playing; men working on logs, homes and houses, gardens and a noisy steam train loaded up with tourists, timber, locals and goods”
In this ever changing modern world, we are all to familiar with watching places of natural solitude vanish beneath developments. Its quite unusual to witness the reverse in action.
Dennis pointed out of the window towards a piece of rotting wood poking out from the damp leafy soil.
“That’s one of the sleepers right there” he told me. The last remnant of a bustling location that has now been reclaimed by the trees.
Eventually, after 30 kms of flow forest driving, we emerged once again into sunlight at the old Diepwalle station high up in the mountains above Knysna on the main public road to Uniondale.
Formally a logging outpost it is now, perhaps ironically, the administration center for SANParks, a conservation organization that now protects most of the Knysna forests from any kind of exploitation.
“As I said earlier, all the loggers are gone” said Dennis as we took one last detour to see the magnificent King George yellow wood tree. “And an era of forest felling has finished. Now though, the process of renewal can begin and these rare but magnificent giants will slowly make a comeback.”
It was a cheerful thought, and one which I took with me the following day as I explored yet another one of Bhejane Adventure’s local concessionary routes. Only this time I wasn’t in a forest. I was in the fynbos on one of the Western Cape’s oldest, most historical yet little known passes. The Duiwelskop Pass.
Before the advent of the woodcutter era, the Garden Route forested coastal belt was sparsely populated due to, ironically, too many trees. It was just too darn hard to get anywhere, and as such, the eastward marching settlers of the early 18th century first put down roots in the Klein Karoo and the Langkloof just to the North.
The first record of the Duiwelskop pass (or Nannidouw as it was known by local Khoi) came from a note entered in the journals of the Governor’s son, Hendrik Swellengrebel Jnr in 1776; the same year that a woodcutters post was established in nearby George..
It was probably little more than a foot path before then. A route used by farmers from the Langkloof who wished to collect timber for themselves or to go fishing in the region’s rivers and lakes.
It was a likely migration route for those elusive Knysna elephants too.
But the pass was soon to gain popularity, and by 1786 the Duiwelskop had become a notable and important oxwagon route between the coast and the agricultural settlements on the other side of the mountains.
Its heyday was short lived though due to the difficulty of traversing this steep and sometimes treacherous route. So, when the much ‘easier’ Montagu pass from George and the Prince Alfred pass from Knysna were built in the mid nineteenth century, the Duiwelskop became obsolete.
In 1813 John Campbell (a Scottish Missionary) wrote of the Duiwelskop
It was nearly impossible to prevent the wagon being turned over the precipice, which must have dashed it to atoms. The remains of two wagons were lying at the bottom of this cliff, which served as a warning to us to beware of the danger
Another entry was made by the adventurer Andrew Steedman in 1835
I proceeded on horseback to the Knysna, a long day’s journey from the farm , over one of the most frightful passes in the colony, called the Devil’s Kope
These appraisals (and many other just like them) were foremost in my mind as we made our way up the Outeniqua mountains in low range on the roughly hewn Duiwelskop pass.
Precipitous ledges and the occasional lost traction had left me with sweaty palms, but Douwe Vlok (my guide and a 4×4 driver of note) wasn’t worried in the slightest.
“It almost inconceivable that people did this route with oxwagons isn’t it?” he said as we bumped and lurched our way upwards.
And I couldn’t have agreed more.
“Look here” said Dowe, pointing to a barely discernable stretch of smooth steep rock that was slightly to the left of the track.
“That’s where the wagons would have gone by all those centuries ago”
Once more, just like in the Knysna forests, I felt amazed that this empty and majestic wilderness would have once been a busy and bustling location.
Where once, great caravans of wagons weighted down with planks and logs and men and produce, had made their way through this precipitous landscape, there is now only flowers and grasses and hard termite mounds.
The road upon which we climbed resembled a rocky river bed on some of the steeper sections, and as such, it was pretty slow and hard going, even with a modern 4×4 vehicle.
To tackle such terrain in a wagon would have been almost impossible.
“But they did it” said Douwe with a intake of breath “They were tough and determined people back then”
Despite whatever hardships these yesteryear folk endured to collect some wood or catch a fish or two from the coast, one thing is for sure, they most certainly would have enjoyed the views along the way.
The Duiwelskop route is absolutely magnificent.
As one ascends in the early morning from the Bergplaas forestry station at the foot of the Outeniquas, one is treated to a series of viewpoints and lookouts of the most superb caliber.
Facing North, one looks up at the magnificent Outeniqua peaks (Duiwelskop being one of them) Big colourful proteas decorate the landscape whilst ericas add splashes of pinks and reds to an environment already rich in natural splendor.
To the south lie the pastoral lands of the Garden Route, swathes of Indigenous forests and the lakes and coast for which the region is rightly famous.
It takes quite a few hours to travel the less than 20 kilometers to the top partly because the road is steep and slow and partly because it just so lovely that you need to alight often to smell the fynbos and listen to the sounds of nature.
And once you reach the summit, you will be treated to 360 degrees of awesomeness.
To the east and west stretch the mighty Outeniqua ranges, dominated as they are by the looming monolith of George Peak, whilst to the north lies the fertile yet often arid Langkloof with its backdrop of jagged Kammanassie and Swartberg mountains.
The journey down the other side to the historical little farm of Louvain is not nearly so rugged as the trip up, mostly because the road is comprised of hard soils and shale. However, if it were to have been raining (or have recently rained) there is no doubt that the going would have been slippery and slow.
When, after 30 kilometers of enjoyable scenic driving the tour finally came to an end, I felt privileged to have retraced the routes and lives of some of South Africa’s earliest pioneers. But I also felt heartened that whatever environmental damage they had done with their passing (the logging, the hunting, the plowing and the burning) mother nature had claimed it back.
All that remains now is for those elusive Knysna Elephants to make a comeback, and once again there will be true wilderness in the Garden Route. A wilderness in which we can, once again, travel into and feel a little like the pioneers of yesteryear.
Do I need a 4×4?
The Secrets of the Knysna Forest Tour takes you along easy non technical logging roads. Any car with a bit of clearance will do.
The Duiwelskop Pass requires a 4×4 vehicle with good clearance due to its steep and rocky nature.
Where does the tour begin?
Both routes are private concessions, meaning you can only visit in your vehicles by booking onto an official tour with Bhejane 4×4 adventures.
Knysna Forest Tours begin at the Garden of Eden, next to the N2 (about 10 km from Knysna and about 12 km from Plettenberg Bay).
The Duiwelskop tour starts at the Hoekwil village store which is 5 km north from the N2. Take the N2 Hoekwil turn off which is 3.5 kms east of Wilderness or about 20 km west of Sedgefield.
How long does it last?
Both tours start early morning and end in the afternoon
What can I do after the Tour?
The Knysna Tour ends conveniently near many forest attractions including the Diepwalle forest station (where there are plenty of hikes) There is also a nearby lookout point to which you can drive. The Prince Alfred Pass can be reached from Diepwalle and makes for a beautiful extension to your day in the Knysna forest.
The Duiwelskop Pass finishes at the Louvain guest farm where there are a series of 4×4 trails to explore. If you need to journey back to the coast, you might want to consider taking the historic and scenic Montagu pass (a well graded dirt road) back to George rather than the main Outeniqua pass highway.
Where can I stay ?
The accommodation options close to Knysna are virtually limitless. It is after all the heart of the Garden Route .
Guest cottages and rooms are available at Louvain guest farm at the end of the Duiwelskop pass
Tel 044 535 9257;