The indigenous forests surrounding Knysna are a remnant of a natural forest belt that once stretched from Swellendam to Uitenhage. The remaining forest patches bear many similarities to those forests occurring in the East African mountains, albeit more in structure and ecology than in species composition. As the Southern African climate became drier over the last few thousand years, much of the interior’s forested areas gave way to vegetation types better adapted to these harsher conditions. The high rainfall and moderate temperatures of the Southern Cape resulted in this area becoming the last refuge of our natural forests.
The current Knysna forests are one of three patches of the Southern Cape forests that survived both the onslaught of over a century of logging and the ravages of a devastating fire in 1869 that destroyed vast tracts of forest. Uncontrolled clear cutting and logging started in the late 18th century, most of the timber harvest being shipped to Cape Town to the Dutch East India Company and, later, to the British administration. Governor van Plettenberg, on a visit to Plettenberg Bay in 1778, reported that woodcutters were causing ‘reckless forest destruction’. The indiscriminate timber harvesting continued unchecked until the 1880’s when Commandante Médéric de Vasselot successfully introduced a forestry management system that halted the carnage. Most of the larger tree specimens in the forests had been harvested and the unique Knysna elephant herds had been decimated.
Today only some 65000 hectares of ‘relatively’ undisturbed Southern Cape forests remain in three sections, namely Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma. These highly vulnerable forests are now stringently protected. Occurring on nutrient poor soils, these forests are particularly susceptible to disturbance. Tightly controlled timber harvesting is permitted in only 20% of the remaining forests. Horses are used to haul felled logs from the forest to minimise disturbance. 55% of the forests are under ‘protection management’, the aim being to maintain the forests as healthy, functioning ecosystems – commercially viable dead trees, for example, may be removed where disturbance is minimal.
The Knysna forests are one the treasures of the area and offer exceptional recreational facilities for visitors to Knysna. Despite only half a percent of the state administered forests being set aside for recreational and educational opportunities, a number of delightful, well planned trails have been laid out. Jubilee Creek Walk (4km), Millwood Circuit (6km), Woodcutter’s Trail (9 and 3km), Terblans Trail (6.5km)and the Elephant Walks (6-9km) afford an insight into the wonder and history of these remnant patches of unique forest. Whilst the hiker is unlikely to come across the elusive Knysna elephant, a host of bird and smaller mammal species may be encountered. Taking in the magnificent tree species that precipitated the destruction of the forests centuries earlier is a soulful experience indeed. Mountain bike trails, guided or unguided, are also available in the forests.
Bamboo visitors should definitely don their hiking boots and head out into these wonderful and unique forests.