Circles in a Forest hike: Exploring Knysna Forest
The Circles in a Forest hike in the Millwood section of the Knysna Forest, which is named after one of author Dalene Matthee’s well-loved books, follows either a 3km or a 9km route. By the time I left the cool green shade of the trees, I was entranced.
At first the air was so fresh and clean that I struggled to breathe it in. My eyes had to adjust to the dim, green light, and the silence was louder than the bustle I’d left behind in Knysna.
She met plants like old friends, introducing them one by one to me and a small group of hikers as we wandered down a corridor of branches that intertwined far above our heads.
Soon, though, I couldn’t breathe deeply enough; the greens became a nuanced tapestry of shapes and textures and the silence slipped into me as stillness, rather than the absence of any sound.
I began exploring this new world of trees, shrubs, bushes, ferns, flowers, vines, creepers and fungi with forest guide Meagan Vermaas. Ecologically, the forest is distinguished by a range of species that don’t occur in other forests, and it seemed like Meagan knew them all. She met plants like old friends, introducing them one by one to me and a small group of hikers as we wandered down a corridor of branches that intertwined far above our heads.
'This is a "kalandar", or Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus),' she said, stopping at a distinctive giant tree. 'Baboons love them; you’ll see the bark comes off in clumps, not strips ...'
Next we paused at a quar tree (Psydrax obovata). 'Look at its rough bark. It means you get a lot of tree orchids growing on them,' she explained, pointing out a healthy specimen that was clinging to the trunk of the tree. 'The orchid opts out of the competition on the crowded forest floor and gets its nutrients from the air.' The old woodcutters liked these trees for the same reason: they could climb them to escape the elephants that used to roam the forests in much greater numbers long ago than they do today.
In fact, the Circles in a Forest path probably started out as an elephant trail before the woodcutters began to use it, but we didn’t see any signs of the pachyderms as we walked. There was ample evidence of other animals, though – bushpigs, baboons, duiker, and if you’re lucky, leopard. There are dozens of bird species, too. We heard the ‘caw caw caw’ of a Knysna turaco and I caught a flash of red above me as it moved from tree to tree.
The balance of life in an afro-temperate forest is delicate and intricate, although looking at the giant trees, the most prolific of which is the ironwood (Olea capensis subsp. macrocarpa), it was hard to reconcile how vulnerable this ecosystem is with how timeless and established it seems. Scientists are constantly monitoring the forest in order to learn its secrets, and we saw trees marked by yellow tags for research purposes. There were also remote cameras watching to see how life unfolds as we moved from the margins, right into the forest’s heart.
Later, we looked at the intricate twists of a monkey creeper thicker than my arm – 'It found a sapling and waited patiently for it to grow,' said Meagan, who invited us to feel the temperature of two trees nearby. One was an assegai tree (Curtisia dentate) and the other a Cape plane tree (Ochna arborea). They grow side by side, but the first was warm, the second cold. Apparently felt colder because the outer bark is so incredibly thin and papery that it's constantly flaking off and leaving the inner bark exposed; the coldness is because of the moisture exchange that is happening without the insulation of outer bark.
It's winter and Meagan pointed out a forest elder (Nuxia floribunda) that was blooming, much to the delight of forest foraging bees. There was also a stinkwood tree (Ocotea bullata) nearby. 'When it fruits, it attracts just about everything that lives in the forest,' said Meagan. We saw a kamassie tree (Gonioma kamassi), which produces a poisonous milky latex and is 'extremely toxic if you use it as firewood', and a wild gardenia (Rothmannia capensis), distinguished by its cross-hatched bark.
During the walk, we paused where the giant branch of a yellowwood had fallen and made a wind gap. Meagan showed us some trees that adopt the vascular system of the old tree, saving themselves 100 to 200 years of growth while other saplings that start their life at ground level fight up towards the light. I counted about a dozen kinds of fungi growing on and around the fallen boughs, marvelling at how the forest feeds on itself in a constant cycle of, growth, death, decay, new life…
Meagan identified a turkey tail fungus, and the ground was littered with Japanese parasols, tiny, perfect red mushrooms the size of a pinhead. We also saw something called chicken of the forest and another large specimen known as an artist’s pallet mushroom, plus more with names I don’t remember. There was moss and lichen everywhere and the ground was springy and moist.
At the end of the trail, I noticed the extra glow to Meagan’s skin and the sparkle in her eyes that seemed directly linked to her communion with the forest; she’s half a forest creature herself.
We paused at the Dalene Matthee monument erected at Krisjan-se-Nek, one of her favourite spots in the Knysna Forest and her final resting place.
I now have a better understanding of the world that inspired and nurtured her. It’s fitting that the almost-900-year-old yellowwood tree that watches over the monument is now known as the Dalene Matthee Big Tree – guardian of the mysteries of the forest and keeper of secrets it will never tell.