To explore the secrets of the Knysna Forest on your own, simply grab a map and set out on the new self-drive heritage route, Rooted in Time. By Romi Boom
The feather of a Knysna turaco on the ground in front of my feet is unmistakable, a scarlet plume, conspicuous against the grassy backdrop. We have just stopped at Railway Walk and Templeman Station, where visitors sign the register for their permit to reconnoitre the forest on a self-drive route called Rooted in Time, from Diepwalle to Gouna. We are standing under the canopy, trying to picture the station of yesteryear, a little train that once carried massive logs to the Knysna estuary for local and international trade.
Earlier we picked up a map from SANParks’ Knysna office on Thesen Island. “It will take about four hours, depending on how long you linger,” said Melaney Barrath, who was responsible for the development of the route. It comprises 10 stops, clearly indicated with route markers.
About 2km further is the turnoff to the 800-year-old Big Tree named after King Edward VII, who enjoyed a picnic luncheon at the tree in 1924. Even then this colossus stood head and shoulders above the other giants. It’s a poignant encounter.
The next stop is the Forest Legends Museum and Tea Garden at Diepwalle Forest Station. It is an excellent exhibit that brings to life the precarious existence of foresters, gold diggers and settlers. “The museum lies at the heart of the route. It showcases the Cultural Heritage Interpretation Plan that we have developed for the Garden Route National Park,” said Elzette Bester, Manager: People and Conservation. “The skeleton of a Knysna elephant may be the closest you’ll come to one of these elusive animals, but it is such an impressive display that you’ll marvel nonetheless. Likewise at ‘Old Suzie’, the little steam engine used by woodcutters to convert the mighty trees into transportable timber.”
As the route unfolds the forest scenery becomes totally spellbinding. A highlight is Spitskop viewpoint, which offers an unforgettable panorama at 918 metres. The summit is reached along a white-knuckle drive up a steep incline on a dirt road. Drizzle prevents us from seeing the three landmarks of the Garden Route – Mossel Bay, the Knysna Heads and Robberg Peninsula in Plettenberg Bay – but does not dampen our spirits.
In fact, the attractions get better and better. Dal van Varings [Valley of Ferns] is the perfect spot for a picnic alongside a little stream. From there it is a winding drive, with open windows, through the deepest reaches of the forest. We remain ever hopeful that an elephant might reveal its presence. No such luck! Instead we enjoy a brief encounter with loggers who explain that they are allowed to fell only trees carefully selected by SANParks.
Near Gouna, at San Ambroso Chapel Museum, which is the final route marker, we learn about the 32 Italian silk spinners whose immigration in 1881 was sponsored by the Cape colonial government in the hope that they would establish a silk industry in the forest. Alas, the indigenous mulberry is not related to the Chinese white mulberry, which is the silkworm’s only source of food, and the dream had to be abandoned. The immigrants remained and this little church was built to remind them of home.
Much more than a memorable outing, Rooted in Time is a moving experience. And as a reminder of the forest’s enigmas, a scarlet feather now adorns my hat.
Rooted in Time: The route is free, as is entrance at King Edward Big Tree is you have a Wild Card. If not, it’s R15 an adult and R8 a child.
Accommodation: The Diepwalle camping decks are situated among the treetops and allow for close encounters with forest creatures. Each three-person tent has a braai and kitchen area plus electricity. Rates start at R190 a night for two people. Diepwalle Guesthouse costs R473 for two people and R160 for an additional adult or R80 for an additional child.
Diepwalle Nursery: Trees, ferns and lilies can be purchased.
Contact: [email protected] or +27 (0)44 382 2095