in the Beginning …

On the southernmost shores of the African continent lies a region of exceptional beauty, a land of majestic mountain ranges, shimmering lakes, a myriad of fruitful rivers and a rugged coastline alternating with pristine beaches. This is the setting for the largest complex of indigenous afro-montane and sub-tropical forests, relics of ancient tropical forests that once covered the eastern parts of the continent from central Africa to the Cape Peninsula. South Africa is blessed with many things, but it has always been short of both water and natural woodlands. And yet of about 250 000 hectares of indigenous forest which grew into the Southern Cape in the mid 1700’s, only about 65 000 hectares remain.

As the climate gradually became drier and the ancient forests receded, enclaves such as the southern Cape forests were preserved in more sheltered and well-watered areas. It took the forces of Nature millions of years to shape the character of the land, but man has
left his mark in the span of a few centuries.

The earliest traces of modern man found anywhere in the world were discovered in the Southern Cape at the Klasies River mouth. People have been living in this region for more than a hundred thousand years. Semi-nomadic Khoikhoi people, in particular the Outeniqua clans, inhabited the Outeniqua region for many centuries. These clans, due in part to their small number and nomadic life-style, lived in harmony with Nature. The coastal plains and forests teemed with wildlife, including large numbers of elephant and buffalo. A thinly scattered population known as Strandlopers (Beachcombers) lived in caves along the rugged coast.

The first Europeans began to settle in this region in the late 1700’s, eventually to displace the Khoi clans when woodcutters’ posts were established at George and Plettenberg Bay. In 1804, George Rex – the man they call “the founder of Knysna” – settled here with the express intention of exploiting the forests, and in 1817 the Naval Commissioner at Simonstown wrote that the Knysna forests contained “a sufficient quantity of fine timber to build a whole navy.” A naval dockyard was therefore established at Knysna in 1820, although it was burned down twice before even a single ship was built and it was closed after just 5 years. During World War 11, however, a local boatyard, Thesen & Co., was contracted to build ships for the British Navy. Fortunately for the Knysna forests, though, these vessels were built from imported hardwoods, although the boats knees, which held the ribs to the thwarts, were made from indigenous milkwood.

Knysna’s first harbour facility, the wooden ‘Government Jetty’, was built in 1883 and the brig Ambulant was its first visitor. She came to load a typical cargo of the time: 3000 railway sleepers cut from indigenous yellowwood.

Harvesting continued throughout the 19th century and was responsible for much of the destruction of the forests, although encroachment and the Great Fire of 1869, which burned from George to Humansdorp, also contributed. The first Conservator of Forests was appointed in 1874 as a direct result of a Government enquiry into the fire, but indiscriminate exploitation was only finally stopped in 1939, when the forests were closed to independent woodcutters.

 We give thanks for the relentless work of pioneers in forest management and nature and wildlife conservation, who have fought for the preservation of the forests and their diverse inhabitants.

Information sourced from:  

  • South African National Parks
  • Wilderness & Lakes Environmental Action Forum (Waleaf)
  • World Wildlife Fund
  • Izak van der Merwe, Disa Environmental cc
    Chief Directorate: Forestry
    Department of Water Affairs and Forestry
    Published by Tafelberg Publishers Ltd