With September marking spring and Heritage Month, we celebrate the importance of our trees with National Arbor Week until 7 September 2018. Where better to mark the occasion than in the shade of one of South Africa’s most iconic specimens, the Diepwalle Big Tree in the Knysna Forest?

National Arbor Week is all about recognising the critical importance of our approximate 2,100 tree species. Not only do they provide shelter and food for thousands of wild creatures, but also oxygen for an ever-growing human population.

In 2018 the Tree of the Year is the yellowwood (Podocarpus genus). South Africa is home to four species of Podocarpus, found from Table Mountain and along the coast up to the Soutpansberg. These forest giants were so prized for their wood, they were nearly felled to extinction and all yellowwood species are now protected. The real yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius) is South Africa’s national tree.

The Knysna Forest is arguably the best place in the country to see impressive yellowwoods. With tree fever in the air, Wild Card traveller Claire Fordred ventured to Garden Route National Park’s Diepwalle Forest Station – situated in the park’s Knysna Lakes Section – to soak up the splendour of its Big Tree.

Claire writes:

For our most recent road trip we set our sights on the ever-so-beautiful Knysna with one goal in mind: visiting the Diepwalle Big Tree. Already surrounded by enormous trees, we were left wondering just how big this Big Tree could really be…

Outside the air was clean and cool and the sense of tranquillity was palpable – the silence was only broken by birdcalls and the rustling of leaves. There is something magical about being in the Knysna Forest: sunshine filtered by leaves fell onto moist vegetated ground. You can almost taste the earthy damp as you breathe in the fresh forest air.

Knysna-Big Tree-Diepwalle-Claire Fordred (4)-min

From the Diepwalle gate we followed the marked path to a cleared glade where signs provided us with various options: have a picnic, embark on a variety of hiking trails deeper into the forest, or visit what we so desperately wanted to see – the Big Tree.

How big is the Diepwalle Big Tree?

En route to the famous tree, also known as the King Edward VII Tree, information boards provided insights and fascinating trivia. The Diepwalle Big Tree, an Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) is more than 800 years old, stands some 40 metres tall and boasts a nine-metre diameter. Although the forest is home to four noteworthy giants, the Diepwalle or King Edward VII Big Tree is especially well known. [The others are the Dalene Matthee Big Tree, Tsitsikamma Forest Big Tree and Woodville Big Tree.]

Knysna-Big Tree-Diepwalle-Claire Fordred (5)-min

Knysna-Big Tree-Diepwalle-Claire Fordred (8)-min

In 1924, forester John Phillips was tasked with entertaining a visiting British parliamentary association group in Diepwalle Forest. As a result, the tree and its surrounds were selected as the official picnic area for the proceedings and named in honour of Edward VII. He was king of the United Kingdom from 1901 to 1910.

Walking on a wooden boardwalk – once an old elephant trail – it’s almost impossible to see the top of the tree towering above the forest canopy. After viewing the colossal tree, choose from one of the many walks to see and experience the smaller wonders that nature has created. The vivid colours of flowers, mushrooms and fungi growing on and around fallen trees brighten the dappled forests.

Knysna-Big Tree-Diepwalle-Claire Fordred (6)-min

Knysna-Big Tree-Diepwalle-Claire Fordred (7)-min

In such a peaceful place, I couldn’t help but wonder how amazing it must have been to explore these woodlands in Phillips’s time, never knowing if you might catch a glimpse of Knysna’s forest elephants. Or perhaps a forest fairy, as recorded in folk tales of old. As Roald Dahl once said: “Those who don’t believe in magic, will never find it.”

Go in search of the Diepwalle Big Tree to add this natural wonder to your #HowWildIsThat tree list.

Pictures by Claire Fordred