A walk in the woods
I can honestly say that on a recent trip up the Garden Route, one of the best things I did was go for a walk in the woods. Mark Dixon, who runs a guiding business called Garden Route Trail, suggested a short circular route near the Woodville Big Tree behind the hamlet of Hoekwil.
There are several big trees in these forests, all Outeniqua yellowwoods (Podocarpus falcatus) that were once favoured for the making of furniture and floor beams.
As we park, another person pulls up in a car and walks to the big tree with us.
The Woodville Big Tree is estimated to be about 800 years old. It's 33m high and has a circumference of 12m, an eco-system in its own right offering shelter and food to birds and animals.
Our new companion leans in to touch the tree and says: 'If only our ancestors knew what they were doing.'
She's referring to the loggers who all but decimated these forests.
Mark explains, as we walk, that you can tell how long ago different parts of the forests have been logged by what remains. In some areas, only small saplings prevail while in others, which were presumably more inaccessible, there are the larger trees like this one.
He's a veritable mine of information, pointing out interesting fungi growing on dead wood and where a bushpig was digging for food the night before, and explaining the intricate ecology of the forest along with all the Latin names of the plants and trees to match.
Some trees, he explains, are self-cleansing, shedding their bark to rid themselves of potential disease. Others trick birds into dispersing their seed through a changing chemical reaction that makes the birds stop eating their fruit for a while so that they can fly off and deposit the seed elsewhere.
Sometimes, the forest grows so old and dense that a large tree may fall over and let the light in for new growth. But this is no act of suicide. Instead, the old tree will re-sprout and grow again, while new seedlings grow up around it.
We talk a bit about the Knysna elephants and how many of them might remain in these forests (estimates vary and research is ongoing) and the other animals that roam these woods.
'This [the Garden Route National Park] is the only national park you can walk without an armed guide in the presence of two of the Big Five,' says Mark. Of course, there are leopard here too.
And just before our walk ends, we pause to observe a bird party moving through the forest. We can hear them but not see them, but Mark is able to identify at least 10 species from the sounds and calls they are making: sunbird, woodpecker, cuckoo-shrike, terrestrial bulbul...
By the end of our stroll through the woods, I am transfixed.
It's as if I'd been offered only the smallest taste of what these beautiful forests have to offer.
As we drive back down the winding road to the town of Wilderness, I make a mental note to come back with my friends and family for one of Mark's multi-day trails through forest, lake and beach.
That would be just awesome!