A loud crash stopped us in our tracks. It could only mean one thing – elephants. We’d already seen evidence that the almost mythical pachyderms that inhabit the Knysna Forest had been in the area. Near the Diepwalle trailhead was a broken gate and rubbing post, and a signboard close to the Big Tree had been ripped out and chucked into the forest.
“Sounds like a falling branch,” said our guide, Hardy Loubser, nonchalantly. “The forest giants are suffering from the drought of recent years, and shedding their limbs. But you never know,” he continued, smiling. “There are free-roaming elephants in the Knysna Forest. Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to catch sight of one.”
An ethos of community
Having arrived at Diepwalle the previous evening, our small group was following the Diepwalle/Nature’s Valley route of The Plett Glamping Trail. Short of time, we had foregone the full five-day trail – which includes a couple of nights at Nature’s Valley and three more iconic hikes – for a condensed two-day journey, spending both nights ‘glamping’ at Diepwalle Forest Station.
After our first night in the safari-style Diepwalle canvas tents that Hardy and his co-guide Ian Pletzer erected on Diepwalle’s tent platforms, I decided I could easily get used to such luxury camping. Although the ablution block was communal we had plenty of creature comforts – stretcher beds with quality bed linen, towels and toiletries, electric lighting and a couple of deck chairs overlooking the dense forest, where we could enjoy some downtime.
In the morning we were woken by the distinctive, growling ‘korr, korr’ of the Knysna Turaco (Knysna Lourie). “Such a pretty bird, not such a pretty call,” said Ian, as he pointed to the tree in which the elusive creature was perched.
It had drizzled all night and the birds were clearly celebrating, the surrounding forest resounding with their calls. Not a bad way to start the day, we agreed, as we enjoyed coffee and rusks on the deck. Then it was into the tearoom for a slap-up breakfast prepared by local ladies Clara Stuurman and Spaas Wildman. Central to the ethos of the trail is to involve the community, and give guests the chance to appreciate both the natural and cultural diversity of the Garden Route.
After studying the map, we walked down to the start of the Fisantehoek Trail. It was cool and dark under the forest canopy, with old man’s beard draped from the branches and epiphytes nestled in forks of the trees. We admired elegant, fluted fungi, sniffed vile-smelling red devil stinkhorn and discovered how elephants self-medicate by eating bracket fungus (Ganoderma applanatum).
Towering Outeniqua yellowwoods
Initially, we made slow progress. There was just so much to see and take in. I began to recognise some of the bird calls and stumbled on the remains of a Turaco, and pocketed a beautiful red feather to take home as a souvenir.
An infrequent forest visitor, I’d never managed to get a hold on all the indigenous trees, and was grateful that many of the species were labelled. It helped reinforce the diagnostic features and snippets of interest that Hardy threw our way.
“This was the most expensive indigenous wood,” he pointed out as we studied a stinkwood. “It’s very durable in water so was used to build ships.” Ironwood, a favoured wood for constructing the axles on ox wagons during the Great Trek, was also used to build bridges, he explained. It’s an interesting wood that ‘bleeds’ if damaged, excreting a dark tar-like substance (which helps to get rid of impurities) through pores on its bark.
Equally fascinating were the stories about the woodcutters and prospectors. I had brought Dalene Matthee’s Circles in a Forest with me and was enthralled by her evocative descriptions and insights. Under the forest canopy I felt disorientated, and couldn’t imagine how the woodcutters found their way. It came as no surprise to discover that, even recently, people have disappeared into the forest without trace.
Along the trail were several towering Outeniqua yellowwoods – the giant kalanders. “They’re like elephants,” Hardy observed. “Massive, but you can walk right past them without noticing.” He pointed out the difference between Outeniqua and real yellowwood and bid us touch the bark of the Cape plane, a hardwood that was used to make axe handles and farm implements. I was astounded by how cool it felt.
I’d walked many of Diepwalle’s shorter trails, including the better-known Elephant Walks but never the 16-kilometre, linear Fisantehoek Trail, part of the multi-day Outeniqua Trail. It was a treat to discover a new area and not worry about the logistics. Ian would be waiting to shuttle us back to the start at the end of the day.
Wine tasting and lunch
Photographer Shaen Adey and I were hiking with a friend, Caron Watson and her 17-year-old son Liam. They’d never done a guided hike before and had been hesitant when we invited them along.
“Do I really want someone I don’t know walking with me?” Caron had questioned. But she enjoyed Hardy’s input, passion for nature and wry humour. Near the end of the trail we stopped to inspect his ‘secret garden’. As we studied the staghorn ferns and forest orchids that he was nurturing on a fallen bough, he told us the tragic story of a helicopter that had crashed nearby in 1999. Despite a three-month aerial search, the chopper was only discovered seven years later by a ranger participating in the ten-yearly in-depth monitoring of the park.
“It’s nice to have a guide,” Caron admitted. “Although the trail is marked you could easily get lost if you get chatting and miss a turn.” Despite living down the road in Rheenendal, Caron was also new to the area.
Before setting out we’d been given a choice of route options – an easy 11-kilometre, three-hour hike from the Garden of Eden to Packwood Wine and Country Estate, or the more demanding Fisantehoek Trail that we settled on. It proved long, but not too strenuous. And in terms of a forest experience there was not much missing. We wandered through groves of ferns, swam in tannin-stained pools and learnt about the different types of forest that we crossed. Passing a big up-ended tree, we observed the poor soils into which its shallow root system had spread sideways.
Near the end of the day, we popped out of the forest and stopped for a break at a conveniently located bench at Klein Eiland. There are lots of similar fynbos oases, Hardy explained, “The first settlers cleared the forest on these high but accessible spots, and kept their oxen here. There are dozens of such places – Jaapse Eiland, Petrus se Brand Eiland, Groot Eiland and more.”
After crossing the Klein Eiland River, we passed the Fisantehoek hut and continued down a dirt road to Packwood Country Estate where we kicked off our boots and enjoyed a wine tasting and wonderful lunch of fresh bread, cheese, garden salads and pesto before returning to Diepwalle for some quiet time on our private decks before supper.
Artefacts dating back 11 000 years
The following morning we were shuttled to the Keurbooms carpark, and set off down the steps to a golden beach studded with jagged rocks and flanked by dense, green thicket.
It was a glorious sunny day and the endless views, the smell of the sea and sightings of African Black Oystercatchers and other sea birds provided a complete contrast to the walk of the previous day. Squeezing through a narrow gap in the rocks we arrived at the estuary of the Matjes River, where Hardy had a surprise in store.
We followed him up through thick coastal bush to the Matjes River Rock Shelter, a national monument, which, we learned, contains artefacts dating back more than 11 000 years ago. Although poorly preserved, the shell midden outside the shelter is apparently one of the largest in the world.
Descending again to the beach we continued along the coastline, checking out the magnificent rock formations and rock pools before climbing steeply up through the privately-owned estate of Forest Hall.
After devouring our lunch packs and refilling our water bottles, it was back into the national park on the Rugpad route, which took us through coastal fynbos and forest. Colourful butterflies flitted around and we spied the spoor of bush pigs and bushbuck.
Diverse and pristine world
The forest on the clifftop was different, we observed – almost stunted and with breaks that allowed us occasional glimpses of the coast. “Yes,” agreed Hardy. “The kalanders and other familiar trees don’t reach the same heights up here because of the sea wind.”
A splendid viewpoint over the Salt River made a welcome break on the steep descent to the valley floor, where we finally took off our shoes and waded across to the other bank. Continuing on a rocky coastal path, we revelled in the spray of the sea, the gulls, terns and kingfishers and the very different environment that we now found ourselves in. Scrambling over rocks and gullies we traversed the rugged coastline to Nature’s Valley beach, stopping en route to watch a large pod of dolphins cruise past.
After lunch at the café there, we were shuttled to Bramon Wine Estate & Cellar for a wine tasting. Celebrating the completion of the trail with their bubbles was a wonderful finale, but I was sad to be leaving this diverse and pristine part of the world. Next time I’ll be signing up for the Full Monty.
Are you up to it? Best get into training for this one. The full five-day trail has some strenuous sections but different route options mean the package can be tailored to the fitness levels and interests of the group.
Best time to go The trail is offered year-round. Check the website for fixed date departures or organise a tailor-made package.
Tip You’ll stop off at two wine estates so carry money for wine purchases.
Pictures Shaen Adey