The forests of Knysna, with their giant yellowwood trees, abundance of birdlife, and elusive elephants, hold a magical appeal for travellers. Enchanting walkers, cyclists, 4×4 enthusiasts, birders, and families, many visitors travel to the Garden Route to experience their ethereal beauty.
The forests actually extend way beyond Knysna, covering a total area of 300 000 hectares, and are home to various animals, including the tree hyrax, Samango monkey, blue duiker, giant golden mole, honey badger, and the long-tailed forest shrew. Caracal and leopards have even been spotted in the forests.
Join us as we discover a little bit more about what you can expect from the great forests of the Garden Route.
The Knysna elephants
At the end of the 18th-century elephant herds with numbers in the hundreds used to roam these forests. Unfortunately, their numbers have dwindled over the years and at one time it was thought they must be extinct in the area. Evidence suggests however that at least one, and possibly four or five, of these great beasts, still live in the forests. A photograph was even recently taken of an elephant poking out from behind the trees!
As one would expect, the Knysna forests were historically important for their natural timber resource. The first shipment of timber left this area in 1788 and ever since the sprawling forests of the Garden Route were drastically reduced as their trees were used for fuel, construction, the building of wagons and boats, heating, furniture, and more. With the support of the British settler and timber merchant, George Rex, Knysna became a shipping port in 1818, giving easy access to its extensive forests of hardwoods such as stinkwood, yellowwood, and hard pear. In the 1890s Knysna’s timber industry was the main income source for the town. Visitors can still see some of the equipment from the old Thesen sawmill and boatyard on Thesen Island today.
Mining in the Knysna forests
The Knysna forests were the site of the first Gold mining boom in South Africa. Although the boom was very short-lived. Once word spread that an Ostrich farmer had discovered gold in the area, the town of Millwood sprung up pretty much overnight with six hotels, houses, and shops. Today, travellers to Knysna can pay a visit to the Millwood House Museum.
The Museum, which is set in a house built in the 1800s, gives a glimpse into what life would have been like in one of many mining villages in the forest. Here you can learn more about gold mining in the forests, see some of the actual equipment that was used, and hear all about the intrepid people that made the area their home. You can also follow the old mining trails at Jubilee Creek, stopping to take a look at the old mine shafts and tunnels hidden in the forest or to relax by the river with a picnic.
A magical tale in the forests
The Knysna forests rose to fame in recent years thanks in large part to Dalene Matthee. This South African author set her Forest Novels in the Knysna forests. These Afrikaans tales, which include legends like Kringe in ‘n bos and Fiela se Kind, have been translated into fourteen languages and sold over a million copies have been sold worldwide.
Matthee’s stories also include a tale about the ill-fated Knysna silk industry started by Henry Barrington. Barrington brought over a whole community of specialist Italian silk farmers, complete with their cocoons, only to abandon them in the forest when it turned out the indigenous ‘mulberry tree’ was not suitable. They were rescued by the woodcutters who lived in the forest. Many ended up marrying and starting a new lineage who live in Karata, a forest community in Knysna, and still carry their Italian surnames. You can read more about this tale of misfortune in Matthee’s Moerbeibos.
Protecting the forests
In 1974 the Minister of Forestry proclaimed the forest as protected, declaring that no tree could be harvested without a permit. While some small pockets of sustainably harvested trees still exist, The Garden Route National Park encapsulates most of the remaining Knysna forests and provides protection for these remaining wild spaces.
The forests today are home to some magnificent sites including 850-year-old yellowwoods. Visitors can still enjoy their magnificence through a wide range of activities including canoeing, mountain biking, ziplining, hiking, and more.