Recently, our team spent a relaxing weekend at the 1000 year old Platbos Indigenous Forest, near Gansbaai. We slept in huts made from wood and canvas, and heated up the geyser by making a fire beneath it.
Discovering the southernmost remnant of the ancient Afromontane forest which once covered almost the whole of Africa was a journey to our roots in a series of significant ways. Platbos forest near Gansbaai is virtually invisible from the road. It’s only once you’ve turned sharp right to follow a small sign, that you are suddenly surrounded by the grandfather trees the survival of which remain a riddle today. In this rare and endangered ecosystem, the trees are estimated to be over one thousand years of age.
Melissa and Francious Krige, the owners of the land on which this forest exists, personally took us on a tour through the forest, and taught us about the different flora and fauna that can be found there. They also shared their great understanding of the history of the forest. It was a truly eye-opening experience for us.
A botanical mystery
Since the 1960’s, botanists have puzzled over the very existence of Platbos Forest. Other relic forests survived the gradual temperature increases by retreating into the moister mountain ravines (kloofs) and riverbanks. In stark contrast however, Platbos Forest occurs in deep sandy, alkaline soil on north-facing, gently undulating terrain. No river course feeds the forest and the relatively low rainfall of the region (600 to 800 mm per annum) is generally not considered sufficient to support a forest. The occasional coastal mists which blanket the forest in the early hours of the hot summer months are critical for not only sustaining the forest´s moisture levels, but also for the epiphytes and mosses that festoon many of the trees. The fact that the forest can survive on this tiny supply of water, is a botanical mystery.
For many years, Michelle and Francious shared a dream, which was to live gently on the earth’s surface. They became the owners of Platbos Forest in 2005, in realization of this dream. They live off the grid, and power their forest home from solar and other renewable energy sources. They also initiate activities and projects in the forest, to show others how to work in harmony with nature.
Over 1000 years old
We were lucky enough to be taken on a guided tour of this magical forest by Michelle and Francious. They took us on a gentle, undemanding walk through this relic forest, with specimen trees estimated to be well over 1000 years of age. We sat on the benches situated along the forest trail and absorbed the scents of tree blossoms, earth, mosses and leaves. They also provided us with a “Forest Information Sheet”, which supplied a wealth of knowledge about the forest ecosystem. We even spotted a bushbuck grazing in the cool depths and enjoyed the sight and sound of birds flitting between the ancient trees.
As this is a privately owned forest, the number of walkers at any one time is limited to minimize impact on the forest’s ecosystem. It is enjoyed by tree and bird enthusiasts, and the gentle terrain and sheltering canopy make it a suitable destination for young and old alike. Visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic, or contemplate the peace of Platbos at the forest’s beautiful labyrinth.
White stinkwoods down south
To find forest in South Africa covered by such sandy alkaline soils is rare. The canopy make-up of the forest occurs nowhere else: it has the elements of coastal forest – milkwoods, sea guarrie, pock ironwoods and wild olive – unusually combined with Afromontane forest elements: white stinkwood, hard pear, white pear, wild peach and bladdernut. It is the hard pears, white stinkwood and white pears that give the forest its special character. The origin of the sub-tropical white stinkwoods in the forest date back to a time when this was a summer rainfall region: it is unusual to find white stinkwoods so far south.
“Platbos is uniquely special and should at all cost be conserved and protected for future generations.” (Professor Eugene Moll and Dr. Bruce Mc Kenzie)
Refuge for the endangered
There is at least one red data (endangered) species at the forest: the Leopard toad. Its
namesake, the shy and seldom seen leopard also finds refuge at Platbos Forest.
The Leopard Toad (below) is endangered due to a combination of habitat loss and vulnerability during the breeding season when they move en masse over roads and other obstacles to rivers and wetlands.
The moist and shady forest floor is a safe haven for these endangered amphibians. Platbos is also a refuge for the Cape leopard and caracal. In addition, the forest is the source of an abundance of prey such as buck, franklins, baboons and porcupines, to mention but a few.
Signs of these shy, magnificent creatures – spoor, droppings and claw marks – have been found in and around Platbos.
A number of scientific studies have been conducted at Platbos and more are welcomed: there is much to be learnt from this unique and ancient forest ecosystem.
Birds nest and roost in the treetops
Forest birds – such as paradise flycatchers, Cape robbins and Cape batis – collect moss and old man’s beard lichen to make their nests in the forest canopy. The olive woodpecker hunts for insects and grubs hiding out in rotten tree trunks.
Platbos is also home to the Cardinal and Knysna woodpeckers. All of the forest tree species produce edible berries that are enjoyed by numerous forest birds, baboons, rodents and even genet and bat-eared foxes. Barn owls and Cape eagle owls perch in the tree tops and keep a sharp eye out for moles and mice. The distinctive calls of a fish eagle pair can be heard as they soar above the forest canopy.
The forest floor provides seasonal foraging for countless vertebrates and invertebrates.
Depending on the time of year, there is an array of geophytes such as arum lilies, lachenalia and chasmanthe that provide tasty meals for porcupines. In return, the porcupines disperse the bulbs throughout the forest. This is an invaluable service, since the forest floor is generally too shady to allow for flowering and thus the seeding of these bulbs.
Natural forests create and maintain clean air
Numerous swarms of the Cape honey bee nest in the hollows of the ancient trees. For much of the year, one or more of the forest tree species are in flower. The bees forage on the spring flowers and fynbos species that grow on the forest edge. Mole rats – who are in turn preyed upon by mole snakes and caracal – feast on roots and bulbs beneath the soil. A pair of black eagles have been sighted hunting mole rats in nearby fields.
Usnea “Old Man’s Beard” grows all over the world. Like all lichens, it is a symbiosis of a fungus and an algae. Being extremely sensitive to pollution, usnea is an indicator of clean, oxygen-rich air. At Platbos these tree beards can grow to almost a metre in length. The only epiphytic fern of the Cape Peninsula – “Pleopeltis macrocarpa” – occurs in the forest.
Referred to as the Resurrection Fern because of its survival strategy of going brown and dormant during dry spells, as soon as the rains arrive, it springs back to vibrant life. Dense mosses and patchworks of colourful lichens cover the tree trunks.
Forest soil and a cooler climate
The forest floor is rich with humus created from fallen leaves and old, decaying tree trunks. Turning over an old log will reveal a hive of activity: beetles, centipedes, slugs and an assortment of snails – some visible, some almost microscopic.
Their activities break down fallen trees and recycle them into fertile top soil. Thus they add to and support the biodiversity of the forest. Platbos has about ten different species of indigenous snails – some are carnivorous and feed on the other snail species.
The forest canopy shades the earth and keeps it moist. It insulates the environment from temperature extremes. Indigenous forests are intimately involved with the water cycle and their extensive root systems bring up minerals from deep within the earth. The forest stores carbon in the soil and in the timber of the trees.
As has happened to forests the world over, large areas of the greater Platbos Forest was cleared for cultivation. The Italian prisoners of war were put to work at Platbos and neighbouring forests in the 1940’s. In addition, large areas were cleared for potatoes, chillies and grazing for cattle. Locals felled forest trees such as the milkwoods, hard pears and white pears for their valuable, workable timber. Others were harvested for firewood.
In 1957, Botanist HC Taylor wrote: “When I first saw Uilkraal (i.e. Platbos) Forest, some nine years ago, I could hardly believe my eyes. I spent my weekends there, seeking a solution to the problem of its origins… In the past, perhaps over two hundred years ago, the forest must have been much larger than it is today. That which remains (it’s all in private ownership) must be protected – and soon.” Journal of the Botanical Society of South Africa, 1957
Where forest was felled, dense stands of invasive aliens now grow. Cleared for agriculture, the sandy soil soon lost its fertility. Subsequently abandoned, these fields were rapidly colonized by alien trees that now pose a grave fire threat to the forest.
The Acacia Cyclops “Rooi Krans” burns ferociously. During the devastating fires of 2006, two ancient indigenous forests near Platbos – one moist kloof forest and one coastal thicket – were destroyed. This is what will happen to what is left of the old-growth Platbos Forest unless fire breaks are created and maintained around the forest.
Gradual climate change over the last few centuries, alien vegetation, and a “fynbos orientated” fire management policy, all combine to make Platbos Forest dependant on human help for its survival.
In 2006, fires burnt large areas of neighbouring land and further fragmented small patches of nearby forest in the Uilkraal Vallei. With this in mind, The Trees for Tomorrow Reforestation Project was born.
The vision of this initiative is to clear the aliens that pose a fire threat to the forest, and to reforest with endemic forest trees. In this way, not only is the fire risk to the forest greatly reduced, but the forest itself, and the biodiversity it supports, is reintroduced back into the landscape. The scope of the project goes way beyond tree planting: it is about reinstating the forest canopy and the biodiversity that this supports.
The reforestation project began in 2008, after consulting Forest Ecologist Prof Geldenhuys, Botanist Prof Moll and Mr Otto Pienaar from the Department of Water Affairs & Forestry (DWAF). Trees endemic to Platbos are planted densely together, in order to recreate the forest canopy and so shade the ground as quickly as possible. With necessary permits obtained from DWAF, seedlings are sustainably harvested from the forest floor and grown at the nursery until they are ready for transplanting.
The vision of this initiative goes beyond the borders of Platbos and extends to neighbouring land that was once forested. To date, almost 3000 forest trees have been planted – sponsored by concerned individuals and corporations. In addition, 12 000 forest trees were planted under the auspices of the Platbos Conservation Trust at Farm 215.
The Platbos Tree Nursery propagates the main tree species of the forest. Maintaining the genetic integrity of the tree saplings for reforestation is vitally important. Trees grown from the parent trees of the old-growth forest are superior in all respects. In addition, they are perfectly adapted to the local growing conditions.
The nursery uses only organic fertilizers and vermicompost; no pesticides or chemicals are used in the nursery. As a result, the trees are of an exceptional quality. The nursery, office and forest home are all “off-grid” and are powered by solar energy. The nursery was established in 2006 and provides permanent employment for at least two full-time employees.
The Kriges purchased Platbos in 2005. Whilst botanical studies had highlighted Platbos’ importance over the intervening years, it was zoned inappropriately as “Agricultural Land”. For the past seven years, the Kriges have dedicated themselves to the conservation of this unusual indigenous forest, and have “put it on the map”. Since raising public awareness of the forest, Platbos has featured on television programmes such as “50/50”, “Pasella” and “Kwela”, and in numerous publications and radio shows.
Most importantly, the forest is soon to be rezoned as a Nature Reserve: The Kriges are in the process of signing a Full Stewardship Contract with Cape Nature, which involves a perpetuity agreement with the Agency to commit their land to conservation and manage it according to a conservation management plan.
“Being awarded stewardship status is not an easy task and the approval process is a rigorous one – such status is only awarded to properties with high conservation value, in terms of uniqueness, biodiversity and connectivity to the landscape. Platbos is an extremely unique forest and contributes enormously to conserving the last remnants of lowland forest in the Western Cape. CapeNature therefore supports any endeavors to raise funding for assistance with maintaining the long-term ecological integrity of this special nature reserve.” Odette Curtis, Environmental Consultant to CapeNature.
Francois Krige’s arboricultural career began in the forests of Germany where he worked for three years. In London, UK, he learnt the specialist art of tree surgery. After his return to South Africa in 1991, Francois (above) founded his arboricultural business, Krige Tree Services. Since then, Francois has built his company into one of Cape Town’s most respected, and he has championed modern tree care with his passion for old trees.
Melissa Krige is a qualified horticulturist and together, their expertise and passion for trees and forests ensures that the future of Platbos, and the biodiversity that it supports, are in the best possible hands.
School children visit Platbos to learn about the ecological importance of forests and trees. In addition, they gain practical experience of how to plant and care for trees. Each winter, Platbos donates indigenous trees for planting at local schools.
“Tree & Forest Appreciation Weekends” are held at the Platbos Forest Camp. Participants roll up their sleeves, grab a spade and add their efforts to reforesting the forest edge. These workshops have proved very popular, and people come away inspired and energized by the forest and Francois’s vast and insightful knowledge of trees. The educational Platbos Forest Trail is also open to the public.
The Platbos Conservation Trust
“The vision of the Trust is the provision of support for biodiversity conservation programs and projects. The emphasis shall be on expanding Platbos Forest, supporting biodiversity conservation, especially conservation based on community development projects, and to act as a catalyst for the protection of threatened tree species and to foster increased conservation awareness amongst the people of South Africa.”
Employment creation, skills-development and environmental education for the local community go hand-in-hand with the Platbos Reforestation Initiative. As the reforestation project expands, so too do job opportunities and community involvement.
African Tree Essences
Visitors to Platbos frequently comment on its healing, peaceful energy. Since 2006, Melissa Saayman Krige has been making vibrational remedies from the flowers and the leaves of the thirteen main tree species of the forest.
These unique remedies work gently but deeply to restore balance to the mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. The tree essences are supportive to other healing modalities.
Melissa now offers Practitioner Training Courses at Platbos for therapists who would like to incorporate the African Tree Essences into their Practice. These experiential weekend courses are also enjoyed by those who simply love trees and forests and would like to learn more about connecting spiritually to trees.
Any help welcome
When you make a donation to plant a tree at Platbos, you are helping to conserve and extend the biodiversity of the forest. Each new tree planted contributes a square metre of forest canopy and the myriad of life forms that this supports.
Whether it’s planting a tree in honour of someone special, or sponsoring tree planting to minimize your ecological footprint, your participation in the Trees for Tomorrow reforestation project is what enables the Kriges to realize their goal in conserving and rehabilitating this unique forest.
The Forest Camp is a highly recommended way to break away from the lights and noise of modern life and reconnect with the ancient rhythms of this stunning forest.
The Kriges have put in a lot of effort to ensure that this camp lives in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem. There is plenty of permanent tenting supported by wood from alien trees cleared from the forest. The open air shower’s hot water is fuelled by the old fashioned Donkey Boiler. The outdoor toilets utilise a composting technique: a handful of sawdust helps reintegrate it back into the ground and benefit the natural cycle of the forest.
At night, one can sit around the campfire and enjoy the sounds of animals such as owls and bushbuck. We even heard baboons!
There are also various lovely forest trails to explore, offering an absolute feast for the senses. Do yourself a favour, and go pull in there for a few days. You’ll emerge completely reinvigorated and content in the knowledge that your money went towards preserving such a magical place.
- Written by Lucas & Ruben Swart
- Photos by Deborah Worthington (pictured in main image), Lucas Swart and Elma Pollard, except where otherwise indicated.