A pebble with a dull sheen, a shimmering vein of yellow quartz and a mining folly — Wild ventures into the Goudveld and Millwood forests and discovers more than indigenous trees in the Garden Route National Park. By Ron Swilling
The car in front of me braked and two gangly teenagers leapt out. “Is something wrong?” I called to the group I had spent the last few hours with exploring the old gold mining town of Millwood. “We want to place a flower on the memorial,” they shouted back. I strolled over to the flower-bedecked memorial to Dalene Matthee, the famed author of Circles in a Forest. It was an auspicious day, being the tenth anniversary of her death. She had brought the story of the Knysna Forest, its centuries-old Outeniqua yellowwood, the woodcutters and the decimation of the forest elephants into people’s living rooms and hearts. Kneeling in front of the memorial, the young woman placed her flower among the bright collection at its base. It was an emotional moment.
We had crossed paths a few kilometres further into the Goudveld Forest on the Millwood mine tour. It was there that I also met Garth van Reenen who organises the mine tour and runs Mother Holly’s tea room and museum. Garth’s roots run deep in this area, where his family has lived for the last century. His great-grandmother, Florence Eleanor van Reenen, opened the Rheenendal country store in 1922, a store which is still operating and moving with the times. Garth established the Rheenendal Ramble in 2014 to keep the history of the area alive and to benefit the whole community. It incorporates guesthouses, farm stalls, activities and craft shops.
Amongs his ideas for the next few months is to initiate a series of cycling events to get youngsters in the area off the streets and onto bicycles in the great outdoors.
I had to leave Garth and his many plans to involve and uplift the community as we squashed into the quaint Mother Holly’s tea room and museum, a building that dates back to the late 1800s. Initially built as a house, the structure was later used as a shop and office from which to issue prospecting licences. Surrounded by sepia photographs we listened to guide Julian Muhlhauser relate how the short-lived gold rush swept through the forest, how the small town sprang up, and how men toiled in the mine shafts and spent long hours panning the Karatara and Homtini rivers.
Just as quickly, they left, following the next wave of gold finds in the Witwatersrand when they realised that Millwood wasn’t the rich pot of gold they had been hoping for. After more than a century, the forest has crept in and reclaimed its land.
Julian stopped the game vehicle next to dense forest to allow us a moment to imagine people cutting through the thick foliage. Most of the main paths originally used were animal tracks, particularly those frequented by elephant, resulting in the many elephant encounters over the years. At the next stop we were slip-sliding down a muddy path to a mine shaft that ended after a few metres in puddles and a flap of bat wings. The Bendigo mine proved to be more of a walk as we made our way in our brightly coloured hard hats down its 250-metre length and into the ink-black shaft that had consumed the lives of the diggers for nearly two years. Hardly an ounce of gold was found and when the miners reached hard dolerite, the shaft was abandoned.
A collection of century-old steam engines, jaw crushers and stamp batteries has since been found abandoned in the area and airlifted to the site as a type of outdoor museum. The equipment would have been shipped through the Knysna Heads and conveyed by ox wagon to Millwood.
The history seems to hover in the cool air of the forest. This was when I discovered that I was among a school group who were reading Circles in a Forest. They had come to the forest for the weekend to read the final dramatic chapter in the place where it was inspired, now preserved and celebrated for its rich fauna and flora. Long may these pockets and slivers of indigenous emerald forest live on.
Explore Goudveld Forest
- Picnic at popular and historic spots like Jubilee Creek.
- Explore through mountain-biking trails, self-guided hikes and guided forest walks.
- The Outeniqua Trail passes through Millwood. A slack-packing option is available for hikers not wanting to shoulder a heavy pack.
The guided Millwood Mine Tour begins at Mother Holly’s and includes a walk through the Bendigo mine. The 5.6km meander can also be walked as a self-guided trail, following the roads and yellow mine route markers.
Two short trails, the Circles in a Forest walks, begin at the memorial site and ancient yellowwood. One is a 3km stroll that should take about 1.5 hours, the other a 9km or three-hour walk for those with more time on their hands.