04 March 2013 by Kate Turkington

Under milkwood

The Wilderness area, in the Western Cape, has some of South Africa’s best beaches, indigenous forests, lakes and estuaries ... and centuries-old milkwood trees.

One of the lovely Wilderness beaches

So I’m sitting under a giant milkwood tree beside the rolling breakers of the Indian Ocean holding the skull (it’s heavy) and the tusks (even heavier) of a hippo that roamed here about 40 years before William the Conqueror decided to invade England in 1066.

These hippo bones are nearly 1 000 years old

My host’s father, then the local attorney in Wilderness, in the heart of South Africa’s famous Garden Route, dug these bones up in the late 1970s when he was laying a water pipe here at Leentjiesklip, where there has been a family home for almost a century. When he took the bones to the local museum, paid the then-princely sum of R500, and got them carbon dated, they were immediately put on show as ‘Hippo skull, bones and teeth, carbon dated to +/- 1040 AD.’

It’s no surprise that hippos once roamed this land of forests, lakes, rivers, estuaries and beaches. Wilderness, in the Western Cape, has to be one of the loveliest areas along a superlatively lovely coast.

The Garden Route National Park encompasses the Knysna forest, the Wilderness lakes area, Nature’s Valley and the Tsitsikamma rainforest, but it’s Wilderness that I’m exploring.

I don’t see another hippo – living or dead – but I see great beauty everywhere and fantastic bird life.

Miles of golden unspoiled sands, the warm ocean, the backdrop of thick, indigenous forest and the moody and magnificent Outeniqua mountains have made this little village and its surrounds famous throughout the world.

Once upon a time a legendary steam train, the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, operated along this coastline – now alas, fallen into ruin and disrepair.

A swim and a beach walk are essential, then it is off to Dolphin’s Point off the N4 highway (which cuts the village in half but somehow hasn’t managed to spoil it) for the spectacular views: beaches, breakers, dolphins – and in season, the great southern right whales.

The old Outeniqua Choo Tjoe steam train bridge at Wilderness

The beautiful rambling beach house I am staying in at Wilderness was built by my host’s grandparents, who also built Sølyst in the village in 1919, the very first holiday home in Wilderness, named after the original family home in Norway.

There’s plenty to do in Wilderness. You can try your hand at swimming, kayaking along one of the rivers, fishing, mountain biking, paragliding, or just check in and chill out at one of the most beautiful and tranquil rest camps of any national park in South Africa – the Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp, adjacent to the five Wilderness lakes and the Touw and Serpentine rivers.

I don’t see another hippo – living or dead – but I see great beauty everywhere and fantastic bird life.

Come and see for yourself.

Centuries-old milkwood trees

Category: Attractions


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