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Circles inside a Forest

Circles inside a Forest

Justin Fox escapes the Garden Route crowds and slips into the wildness of Knysna Forest and the leafy world brought to life by Dalene Matthee…

Knysna_0016Knysna Forest has achieved a mythical place in South African literature through the novels of Dalene Matthee. I set off to trace the paths of her most famous book, Circles in a Forest, looking to explore the places that had so inspired her.

Just east of Knysna, I turned off the N2 onto the R339 and headed into deep, subtropical forest. After half an hour of climbing along a rough road, I reached Diepwalle Forest Station, which has a SANParks camp set in the heart of the Knysna Forest. The accommodation, such as it is, has raised decks, each with a lean-to eating area, braai facilities and a platform on which to pitch a tent.

Diepwalle is great for hiking and there are five excellent trails in the area. I went walking with ranger Wilfred Oraai, who’s lived in the forest for 27 years and has the face of a Khoisan hunter-gatherer. He slipped through dense foliage ahead of me, his footfall making no sound.

Suddenly, he held up his hand. “Bosloerie,” he whispered. Above us on a bough sat a Narina Trogon, its scarlet and green body haloed in a leafy dapple. “Hoot-hoot, hoot-hoot,” it cried, and with one beautiful beat of its wings it vanished. On we walked.

Through Wilfred’s eyes, I started to notice the details of my environment – the texture of bark, the leaf colours and forms, the small creatures of the forest floor. Wilfred paused to allow a millipede to pass, then helped a dwarf chameleon onto a branch.


“Look here, elephant spoor,” he said, pointing to a soggy indentation beside the path. He spoke of the elephants of yore and his many encounters with a female pachyderm that frequents Diepwalle. On one occasion, he bumped into her on the road at night, as he was walking to Knysna. “She just mos stood there and I just stood there and neither of us said a word. Then she stepped back into the forest. As I continued down the road, I heard her in the trees beside me. You know, I think she was escorting me, watching over me.”

In Circles in a Forest, it’s the relationship between the hero, Saul Barnard, and an ancient elephant bull, Old Foot, that is at the heart of the story. Matthee was a passionate conservationist and her book is, in part, a lament for the loss of the great elephant herds that once roamed the forest. Today, only a handful remain.

That evening, I sat on my deck reading Circles once again. The low sun added dusty columns to the forest architecture. I lit a fire. A vervet monkey eyed my chips and meat but, on careful reflection of my brandished braai tongs, decided against a raid. Hadeda Ibises clattering about in the trees overhead sounded as though they were moving furniture.

Greater Double-collared Sunbirds tweeted shrilly from all sides; distant choristers echoed from the woods. I’d already worked my way through the better part of a bottle of red juice of the grape, and was singing along to their calls, “And the coloured birds go, “Doo do doo do doo do do doo…” As one does when alone in a very big forest.

I remembered how Matthee eulogised the solitary camper. She writes in Circles, ‘Peacefulness comes to a man when he sits by his own fire and rakes out his own sweet potatoes from under his own ash. As if something inside opens up slowly… Your eyes see things you did not see yesterday: the gossamer-fine moss twining round the blue buck rope… the specks of mauve in the feathers of the Grey Cuckoo-Shrike… Then one day, sitting in front of your shelter, you suddenly realise that the old leaves do not fall from the forest roof – they fluttered to the ground in a slow twirling flight like wings without bodies.’


Outings from the camp at Diepwalle took me to Knysna town, where I wanted to retrace Saul Barnard’s footsteps and see the historical sights. Millwood House Museum on Queen Street was a good place to start. It pays tribute to the abandoned forest town that features prominently in the novel. Gold was discovered near Millwood in 1876, but yields soon diminished and the mining town was abandoned. The structure that houses the museum was built in Millwood during the gold rush, then dismantled and re-erected in Knysna.

Today, hardly anything remains of Millwood town, but the museum preserves artefacts and photographs from that heady period of gold rush. The complex has a number of buildings, each presenting an aspect of Knysna history and featuring the gold mines, timber industry and the town’s enigmatic founder George Rex.

From Millwood, I took a walk around town looking for Circles locations. Just up the street was Woodmill Lane shopping centre, site of the town’s original sawmill. I recalled Saul’s shock when he first saw the mountains of wood, stacked and ready for shipping. The forest he so loved was being siphoned out through this terrifying timber factory.

In 1984, after more than a century of sawmilling, the operation closed and the buildings were converted into shops. Scattered throughout the complex I found old machinery – a giant crosscut saw, a geriatric generator – all brightly painted and recycled as sculptural items. Dinosaurs all.

On another day trip from Diepwalle, I signed up for a forest walking tour. Parking beside the Dalene Matthee Big Tree Memorial, I joined a group of hikers led by Meagan Vermaas. She’s a talented guide who uses Circles in a Forest as inspiration for her walks.

Knysna_0001We stood beside the grey, pedimented memorial, erected soon after Matthee’s death in 2005. “Dalene often came here to Krisjan-se-Nek to replenish her soul and gain inspiration for her wonderful stories,” said Meagan. “This is where she now rests. The tree behind you is 900 years old and was one of Dalene’s favourite kalanders (yellowwoods).”

We crossed a tea-coloured stream, the water gurgling over polished boulders. The banks were overhung with boughs, tall ferns filtered the light. Meagan showed us old furrows that led from the river to sluice boxes for extracting gold. I thought of Saul panning in the icy water until he was blue with cold. Sometimes days would pass with not even a speck of gold clinging to the corduroy.

At the end of a narrow kloof, we came to a waterfall that stepped down in two cascades. “Elephants sometimes bathe here,” whispered Meagan, as though the Big Feet were listening. I pictured the creatures splashing about in the pond, rolling in the mud – a bathing ritual in the forest’s heart. I thought, too, about how elephants were still the spiritual guardians of this place, even if their numbers were tragically reduced. They remained the forest’s apex mammal, its totem.

On my last afternoon at Diepwalle, I took a walk into the forest and sat beneath a giant Outeniqua yellowwood, enveloped in its flying-buttress roots. The sun was low, sending dusty shafts through the branches. A fragrant muskiness leaked from the soil. I sensed the forest breathing, as though it were one enormous creature. I could feel it growing: all that upward yearning to reach the light of the canopy. This was a perfect, fully evolved system. It needed nothing more, nothing less. Only man could destroy its harmony. A golden softness settled over the forest. If I wasn’t careful, I might lose myself completely in its leafy embrace.

Knysna_0004Where to Stay

  • There are 10 camping decks and a clean ablution block at Diepwalle Forest Station (starting from R190 a person a night). Bring your own food, bedding and tent (or one can be provided for an extra R410). There’s a tearoom on site. www.sanparks.org.

Where to Play

  • There are good walking and mountain-biking trails, bird watching and picnic sites. Visit the Forest Legends Museum at Diepwalle which gives the history of forest dwellers, especially woodcutters, as well as information on indigenous flora and fauna (don’t miss the elephant display).
  • Do a walk with guide Meagan Vermaas that uses Circles in a Forest as inspiration. Starting at the Matthee memorial, it follows the Jubilee Creek Trail. Meagan’s accounts are fascinating. www.forestguidedtours.co.za
  • Millwood House Museum, Knysna
  • Visit the remains of Millwood ‘town’, the gold-mining settlement that flourished briefly in the 19th century before being abandoned and swallowed by forest. Andrew Aikman runs informative tours of the old mines on foot and by game-drive vehicle from Mother Holly’s Tea Room.

Dalene Matthee

  • Matthee was born in Riversdale in 1938. She began her writing career with children’s stories and short stories, but is best known for her four forest novels: Circles in a Forest, Fiela’s Child, The Mulberry Forest and Dreamforest.
  • Her close relationship with Knysna started when she first hiked the area in 1978. Over time, she developed an intimate connection with the forest and was a strong advocate for its preservation.
  • Circles has become a South African classic, much loved, translated into many languages and much prescribed for school syllabi.


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