The Secret of the Forest

Shh… It’s a secret… Tucked away on the edge of Knysna Forest, the Rheenendal Ramble is full of surprises…

Words and Pictures: Ron Swilling

RheenendalRamble8Can secrets be shared? I mulled this over when I discovered an enchanting pocket of verdant land, just eight kilometres west of the bustling centre of Knysna. It was tempting to keep it to myself.

The 12km stretch of road is lined with leafy trees and spiced with a farm stall, a country store (or two), a daytime restaurant, a colourful and innovative tea garden and a choice of self-catering accommodation – most of them edging the Knysna Forest.

A highlight of the Rheenendal Ramble (as it’s been called) is the Goudveld Forest, a beating green heart of luxuriant trees, found along a turnoff just after Totties Country Store. Mountain-biking and walking trails entice the sports enthusiast and leisure-seeker, as does the old ghost-town of Millwood, saturated with mystery and gold-mining dreams.

What makes the ramble even more appealing is its unpretentious presence in a region of burgeoning development. This off-the-beaten track destination ticks at a much slower pace than the surrounding towns, appealing to seekers of gold nuggets and peace.

But what is a ramble?

I asked Gerhard Beyleveld at Leeuwenbosch Factory Shop and Farm Stall, the first stop on the ramble, where you will find a variety of dairy products and farm-stall fare like bread, olives, vegetables, plants and preserves.

Gerhard moved to Rheenendal in 1988 and started his dairy with just one cow. Today he has 2 000. When Gerhard’s son completed his studies at agricultural college, he took over running the farm, allowing Gerhard the time to start the cheese-processing facility. Later, when his younger son joined the team, Gerhard passed the dairy on to him and opened the farm stall.

DSC_6998_2_1“A ramble is where you can find interesting things to see and eat – and take your time about it,” he told me. “It’s a kuierplek (visiting place). That’s a ramble.” I left with a plan to return for their speciality – hot scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, served with a pot of tea.

The idea of creating a ramble along the Rheenendal stretch was the brainchild of Garth van Reenen. Unlike many of the locals who had been attracted to the area for its tranquillity, Garth has a long-standing family connection to the place. It was, after all, his great-grandmother, Florence Eleanor van Reenen (nicknamed Tottie after ‘little tots’, the name she used for her grandchildren), who named the farm Rheenendal in 1920.

Tottie was energetic and enterprising, and while Garth’s great-grandfather, Pieter van Reenen, was busy at his sawmill, she put her energy into opening a small shop behind the house to supply the workers and the Millwood woodcutters. Over time, she moved the shop to its present position and called it the Rheenendal Cash Store, steadily building up her stock for passers-by. Tottie helped run the shop until her death in 1976, at the ripe old age of 98.

Four years ago Garth and his wife Marian took over the country store, filling the shelves with locally-made treasures like rusks and preserves, jars of honey, handmade Nourish soap and wooden picture frames. Children are drawn to the bottles of bright, multi-coloured sweets on the old counter top, which preserves the country-store feel. They also opened Totties Farm Kitchen next door, decorated in colourful cottage style with sepia photographs from yesteryear and old family knick-knacks, including Tottie’s original side-saddle.

I met Garth at Totties Restaurant on a Sunday afternoon where it was was brimming with locals enjoying the generous lunch buffet. Garth elaborated on the idea of the ramble. “It was to create a collection of creative juices; a collection of history, heritage, beauty and outdoor adventures for the everyone.”

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We were joined at the table by Meagan Vermaas, the official Circles in a Forest (Dalene Matthee) forest-trail guide, and her partner, the local bee man, Owen Williams. Walking in the footsteps of the well-known author, who brought the story of Knysna Forest into people’s living rooms and hearts, Meagan leads people through the forest, describing the flora and fauna and relating the history.

She enlightened me about Knysna Forest. “It’s the largest unbroken stretch of natural indigenous forest in South Africa, covering 65 000 hectares.” I also discovered from Meagan that, unlike most of the Earth’s forests that are rapidly decreasing year by year, this heart of the Garden Route is growing. And, it felt like it.

Before the family left for a Sunday siesta, I asked Owen about his honey tours, in which he introduces ethical bee-keeping practices. He described conservation bee-keeping as putting the bees first, harvesting honey only when the bees have sufficient for their own needs. Owen’s raw Honeychild honey is both badger- and bee-friendly.

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He is working towards creating a bee conservation corridor with Conservation Global, from Wilderness to The Crags on the Garden Route, to safeguard the Western Cape bee population, which has decreased by 60 per cent in the last few years due to foulbrood disease. He explained the importance of conservation bee-keeping, “By following ethical conservation bee-keeping practices, we can ensure that bees survive and continue to be our prime pollinators.”

As natural and as local as possible seems to be the implicit motto on the ramble. It spurred me on to brave a muddy access road to meet Pauline Susman from Nourish Natural Soap, who makes her soaps with 80 per cent coconut oil and has just started a range of biodegradable detergents and laundry soaps. And later on, I made a turn at Portland Mini Market for its home-made pies and breadrolls, and its famous sausage.

Rosemary Montgomery pointed to the produce around her as she cashed up my purchases and said, “All this comes from one street. The marmalade is made on Candlewood Farm and down the aisle you’ll find honey from the forest.” She added, “Sharing the love, that’s what it’s about.”

RheenendalRamble3aAfter ambling – or rambling – through the forest, watching Knysna Turacos flit through the trees in flashes of red and green, and enjoying tea and cake at the quaint Mother Holly’s tea room, I popped into Heatherhill Herbs. Jayne and Jamie Fearon were drawn to the area from the city, and started the nursery to sell veggies and herbs propagated on the premises. They specialise in herbs not easily found in the average nursery – dandelion, St John’s wort and stinging nettle.

“Local is better,” Jayne described her plants, which are organic and acclimatised to the area. As her children grew up, she experimented with natural remedies and began to make herbal ointments and creams from herbs such as calendula and comfrey, two items she says are essential for any first aid cabinet. “It happened over time, through trial and error and research,” Jayne told me, surrounded by her plants that were glistening after some rain.

I dodged the puddles to my car and drove the short distance to the N2, popping out on the busy route that links the Garden Route towns. The Rheenendal Road disappeared as if in a dream, concealing a secret world for discovering, exploring, relishing – and yes, okay, for sharing. Shh…

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