South Africa's forest conservation efforts started as a response to fears the slow-growing forest trees were being wiped out for ship timbers and building materials 200 years ago. Now, while fragmented in parts, South Africa’s forests are preserved as a national treasure.

Did you know?

South Africa's national tree, the true yellowwood, grows as tall as 35m.

The magic of South Africa's forests has its concentrated essence in the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park.

Here rocky cliffs drop to the Indian Ocean and inland stretches a narrow band of giant evergreen yellowwoods, mountain cypresses, wild pears, stinkwoods, Cape chestnuts and the unmistakable ironwoods. Below them, a world of ferns, lilies and witch hazel and the pale velvet-soft, fragrant Boesmans Kooi.

South African forest conservation was one of the very first environmental efforts in this country.

During the early 1800s, the towering forest trees around the coastal town of Knysna were exploited for ship timbers, building materials, carts and wagons. Concerns that the slow-growing trees were being wiped out led to the planting of commercial forests − mainly pine and blue gum. The largest losses of forest were along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline.

South African forest vegetation is mostly conserved now, with a few trees carefully harvested every year, and a careful trade in forest ferns.

Forest conservation safeguards fascinating plants. The blackwitch hazel, for example, is a natural air conditioner. The hairy undersides of the leaves hold moisture and gradually release it during the heat of the day, keeping the forests moist and cool.

Then there's the malleblaar (crazy leaf), which has some sweet leaves and other bitter leaves. It confuses the animals that eat it, and they leave the tree alone.

The conservation of forests protects the Outeniqua yellowwood, the signature tree in the area. Its leaves, with their bitter tannin, stain the local rivers a dark tea colour.

But while the evergreen coastal forests that you find in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are the flagships for South African forest conservation, these near-rainforests are by no means the only kinds you’ll find in this country.

There are also intriguing clusters of charismatic trees and plants in other parts – like the fever tree forests in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the Modjadji Cycad Forest, the quiver tree forests of the Northern Cape and more.

Most forests are best enjoyed by walking through them, but some forests offer other ways. The Dlinza forest outside eShowe in KwaZulu-Natal has an aerial boardwalk which offers splendid views of the canopy and attendant birds, including the rare and shy narina trogon.

You can also enjoy a more adrenalin-fuelled tree canopy tour on cable slides in the Tsitsikamma (Eastern Cape), the Drakensberg and Karkloof (KwaZulu-Natal), Magoebaskloof (Limpopo) and the Magaliesberg mountains (Gauteng).