11 December 2010 by Julienne du Toit

Guiding Light

I was deep in Plaatbos indigenous forest near Tsitsikamma recently, walking with a guide.

He’d recently qualified through the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) and his sense of wonder was infectious. He opened my eyes to the intricacies of forest ecology.

We walked past black witch hazel, a nondescript, leggy plant that was suddenly elevated in importance for me when I heard it cools down the forest by releasing copious amounts of water vapour through its leaves.

We heard the ringing call of a Knysna turaco, and saw its bright scarlet wings. My guide explained to me why it tended to scuttle like a rat from branch to branch instead of flying - it’s to avoid the predatory attention of the big bad forest buzzard.

I learnt about short-lived pioneer trees like the pretty, pink-flowering keurboom tree.

The seeds live for 500 years and lie dormant until a fire or any other devastation disturbs the soil. Then the plant leaps into life. Its growth covers the soil and creates the right conditions for the greater, longer-lived trees that eventually take its place. A short life, but a useful one.

At the bottom of the forested valley ran a small stream, stained the colour of rooibos tea. Why the dark colour? It’s because the fallen tannin-rich forest leaves stain it.

I learnt about the intricately co-ordinated ways of plants and pollinators, about bracket fungi and a lichen called Old Man’s Beard, about the job descriptions of millipedes.

As we spoke, two tourists came along the path from the opposite side and clattered past us, unguided, and utterly blind to where they were.

I doubt they’ll even remember this walk. As for me, I’ll never forget it.

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