I have previously written about the tannin tinted rivers and creeks of the Garden Route of southern Africa. A bit further west from the Bloukrans Pass (described in that post), one comes across another veritable ‘Garden of Eden’, otherwise known as the Knysna Forests.
These too, have rivers and streams that are cola coloured, and they are just as beautiful.
Many consider that there are three things in particular that the Knysna Forests are famous for: elephants, gold and timber. Stories of each of these add mystique and intrigue, but they are now all associated with events in the past.
The elephants roamed the forest for many centuries and caused little (if any) permanent damage. However, relatively recent exploitation of the forests has resulted in the demise of the elephants and they are now surely gone forever. However, there is luckily still hope for the forests to regain much of their former ecological glory, albeit without the important impact of their mighty pachyderms.
The forest is stunning in that it has incredibly beautiful and tall trees as well as a wide variety of other flora and fauna. It was the trees that first attracted the attention of settlers in the local area, as the timber was of exceptional quality and an industry quickly grew to exploit it.
This history of logging continued for over two centuries. In the earlier years, timber was harvested by hand and dragged out of the forest using horses and drays. As such, it had a minimal impact on the overall forest ecosystem. However, with the advent of more efficient harvesting systems, this situation sadly changed and the forests were plundered mercilessly. Fortunately, in 1939, the forests were closed to the timber cutters and left in peace to recover and regenerate. After 70 years, the tall trees still have a way to go to become re-established, but the understorey is flourishing.
The forest was also home to gold miners for about 5 years. The excitement of finding gold in the early 1900s spread rapidly and many people made their way to a place called Millwood. The town expanded rapidly and then collapsed just as quickly when fortune hunters realised that there was not much gold and no fortunes to be made. The remains of Millwood are still evident and visitors can still see old mine shafts as well as a few building foundations.
Some of the mining machinery has apparently been recovered and can be seen in museums in nearby Knysna. I visited Millwood in the 1970s and was fascinated by the headstones in the lonely (and very overgrown) graveyard. I have often wondered about the lives those people led and the many difficulties and hardships they must have endured.
But the thing that most saddens me about these lovely forests is that the herds of elephants that used to live here are now extinct.
Apparently, when white settlers first arrived in the area, there were approximately 500 elephants. They quickly became a ‘threat’ and a ‘nuisance’ as the settlers progressively invaded their habitat and took over their forests.
Efforts were made by concerned citizens to halt the hunting of the species over the years, but the various governments of the times refused to support the legislation and the killing continued unabated. By 1920, there were only about 7 left.
As a child, I spent many hours peering into the forest as we drove through the forests, hoping to be lucky enough to see one of these remaining animals. I now understand from speaking with locals, that the herd has now died out altogether, which is very sad indeed, and a matter of great shame for humankind.
I think that the Knysna Forests are one of the most beautiful places on earth. But as I commented in my previous post, this is where I learnt to love plants and trees, so perhaps I am just a bit biased!
The forests are certainly a place to go to unwind and soak up some peace and quiet, in what has become a very busy, noisy world!