Destinations, Feature Trips, South Africa, South Africa Tourism, twoOregonians Tour the Cape

Half a World Away from Stumptown: Visiting the Knysna Forest

September 13, 2012

Oregon = forests. Timber industry history shaped many a town and family tree. Ted’s great grandpa was a logger, and we know our beautiful canopies and leaves and bark and needles (almost) like the back of our hands. (Though that whole “Oregon Pine” thing left us a bit flummoxed at first.)

South Africa’s forests and woodcutters, on the other hand? We drove down the N2 highway through the Garden Route’s “Knysna Forests” and didn’t understand what we were seeing. Our foreign eyes couldn’t make out the distinctions and our shallow knowledge of South African history left us without context. Four hours (guided! thankfully not lost in the woods) changed all that…

Ted and I met Dennis, our guide, at the Harkerville filling station off the N2, just beyond the city of Knysna, climbed into his trusty Toyota 4×4, and set off for a visit to a beautiful patch of remaining indigenous forests.

Over the next few hours, we rode through the filtered light making its way through the thick canopy. Dennis has a permit to take small groups into the protected woodlands; we drove along a locked-up road that used to be an old ox wagon route generations ago. Dennis narrated our journey, stopping the vehicle from time to time to give us up-close lessons on the giant web of forest life.

Surprise, surprise: the lichen on the left is the same species as the lichen on the right!

One by one, Dennis pulled in stories from woodcutting families of yesteryear or trivia on wildlife or tidbits on the health of the forests.

Soon we were learning history of the early European settlers who eventually set out eastward from the cities of the Western Cape; the families who retreated into the forests set up an isolated life and made their hard-earned living from the land. The complex web of history includes Xhosa dwellers and Anglo-Boer conflicts. Enough context to make our heads spin!

Displays at SANParks’ New Legends of the Forest Museum

Dennis explained the rate of decay so deep in the shade: slow, slow, slow.

Too slow to outpace the the ever-changing balance of life in forests, settlements, and cities. Only 2% of the original Knysna Forest remains: woodlands that stretched from west of George clear 200 kilometers east to Humansdorp are now reduced to small tracts and pockets.

At one point, over 5,000 woodcutting families lived in the woods: each responsible for their own small operation, each quite isolated from one another. It was not a civilization of partnership or community; it was each for himself. Education neglected, isolation high, the children of woodcutting families often remained in the same trade, tied to the unfair prices and treatment of the outside world for lack of better knowledge. Eventually, commercialized timber projects replaced family operations, stripping much of the land and reducing it to plantation forests.

Colorful forest life…blink and you’ll miss it, look closer and you’ll marvel.

The remnant preserves are precious ecosystems, supporting lichens and fungi, witchhazels, ironwoods, yellowwoods and the near-mythical Knysna Forest Elephants.

Dennis could tell us the exact date when he’d last seen one of the pachyderms: December 16th, 2010. Ted kept his eyes peeled hopefully, but as Dennis said, it’s a rare sight indeed to lay eyes on the large creatures who’ve adapted to the life inside the trees.


In the northwest, we’ve seen a heritage of timber industry shape a population. So many of the Oregon towns up and down the state were founded as outposts during the logging days. Portland itself, nicknamed “Stumptown” for all of the cut trees. Ted’s great grandfather Theodore was a logger. My grandpa was an engineer who worked often on papermills in Oregon and around the world. One of my friends, Sarah, works for the Bureau of Land Management overseeing timber sales and interacting with Oregon’s present day logging and land management. Renewable resources are precious; they deserve attention, care, and respect.


We took a mid-morning tea break out in the fynbos islands: naturally occurring forest clearings where the beautiful foliage and blooms of the shrub and heathland found only on the Western Cape put on a grand display.

Our cheery guide, Dennis, of Bhejane 4×4 Adventures

Blooms in the Fynbos Island

Over the hours, the colors of green shifted, like a camera coming into focus.

We could recognize the difference between real and false yellowwood species. We could see tree ferns rising high and millennia-old trunks rooted into the clay soil.

Dennis revealed the stinkwoods and wild pomegranates and wild mulberry trees along with companion tales of immigrant silk-empire dreams. (Sadly: turns out the wild mulberry was a false mulberry; all the imported silk worms died, and the starry-eyed Italians met with a dismal fate…but the story has a happy ending. You’ll have to ask Dennis how it shaped his family tree.)

Our forest tour concluded with lunch at the community-run tea room nestled out in the forest near the SANParks Legends of the Forest Museum at the Diepvalle Forestry Station.

Our traditional woodcutters lunch of fried bread and mince meat and home-brewed ginger beer boasted flavor over flair.

Satisfying, and unexpectedly delightful.

A true taste of history, deep in the heart of the Knysna Forests.

Typically, Bhejane offers self-drive guided safaris. We were overly-protective of our little road-trip rental car, so we rode with Dennis instead, but guests typically drive their own 4×4 vehicles from point to point, keeping in contact with provided hand-held radios.

If anything, our forest adventure whetted our appetites for one of Bhejane Adventures’ multi-day, all inclusive, fully-catered journeys through Southern African routes including South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, and Lesotho…

“Bhejane” is the Zulu name for Black Rhino and the animal’s conservation success story is the inspiration behind Bhejane 4×4 Adventures…Our objective is to involve everyone in the ecological, historical, cultural, ornithological components of the areas we visit.
Bhejane Adventures: Guided Self Drive 4×4 Safaris in Southern Africa 

Secrets of the Knysna Forest
Tours available daily in high season and by appointment during low season.
Cost: Adults R380.00, Students R190.00, Scholars R90.00

Our Recommendations:
Wear warm clothes! It’s cool and shady all year round underneath the forest canopy. Come with a curious mind and a love of nature and history – you’ll be rewarded.

This post is part of our €œtwoOregonians Tour the Cape€ series featuring quintessential and offbeat South African experiences, one-of-a-kind accommodations and beautiful B&Bs, respectful wildlife programs, social service projects, and landscape photography from the South African Cape. As always, all opinions, photos, and stories are our own; many thanks to our kind hosts and partners along the way. It was our pleasure to experience such genuine kindness and hospitality

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  • Reply Judy Loucks September 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Now, those are some big ferns!!!!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm


      I love them. : )

  • Reply Andrew Buck September 22, 2012 at 12:09 am

    It reminded me of exploring the ravine behind the house. The close ups of the individual plants are spectacular. : )

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