All images © Christopher List Photography
Just off the coast of Gansbaai (the shark cage diving capital of South Africa) on the slopes of the Baviaanspoort Hills en-route to Stanford lies a little-known green wonderland called Platbos Forest.
Proudly known as Africa’s southernmost forest, Platbos tries its very hardest to blend in with its surroundings - to the untrained eye all you can see is a flat green belt of fynbos or alien vegetation.
Perhaps it’s this very surreptitiousness that has ensured that such a large part of this forest has remained intact.
Despite massive agricultural development from as far back as the early 1930s and the relentless encroach of alien trees - a legacy of cleared lands abandoned for potato crops when farmers realised the land was not fertile enough - this ancient forest has survived against all odds.
When Francois and Melissa Krige bought Platbos in 2005 it was, and in fact still is, on official forestry maps as degraded forestry land.
As part of the original Swartkransberg Forests (lowland forests of the fynbos biome), what makes Platbos Forest unique is its position on the landscape; while most forests in the Western Cape are found in moister kloofs, ravines and riverbanks, Platbos is situated on a gentle northfacing slope with sandy, alkaline soil and only 650 mm rainfall per year - an amount considered just enough to sustain a forest.
What’s in a name?
Platbos, as hinted by its name, means flat forest or bush, which perfectly describes the forest’s low canopy, which helps hide it from unknowing passersby. And with only 13 main tree species forming this 10 metre high canopy, it’s the combination of trees that makes Platbos Forest unusual - more coastal thicket trees such as Milkwood, Wild Olive, Sea Guarri and Spike Thorn merge with trees common to Afromontane forests, such as White Pear and Wild Peach, White Stinkwood, Hard Pear and Bladder Nut.
Platbos Accommodation: Forest Camp and Old Olive Cabin
Nestled in amongst these eons-old gnarled and twisted trees, the eco-friendly and off-the-grid Platbos Forest Camp is a relatively recent addition to the forest’s magical melange.
Situated around a clearing with a fully-equipped outdoor kitchen, two safari tents and a tepee blend with the surroundings.
An outdoor shower open to the back offers uninterrupted views into the dense thicket without compromising on privacy.
An open fireplace with log seats and large wooden table completes the wholly inviting picture.
Each tent is fitted with a double bed or two single beds and a bedside table with candles for light. It’s easy enough to heat shower water in the old-fashioned donkey boiler - powered by alien wood, which also keeps your campfire going.
For those with less time on their hands, a two-plate gas stove can be used for cooking.
There’s also an odourless compost toilet built out of alien wood a short stroll from the camp, with majestic views of the milky way above if taken at night.
If the rates charged are any indication, it’s clear that Francois and Melissa are not profit-driven. To rent the entire forest camp costs only R700 per night for 6 people, while bigger groups are welcome to bring along their extra tents for R75 per tent.
Old Olive Cabin
For those wanting a less in-nature experience - the Old Olive Cabin is also for hire at R550 per night if booked for 2 nights or more, or R700 per night. Targeted at couples or families of four, the cabin is also off-the-grid, running on gas, solar and a donkey-boiler for heating water. Fully-equipped, it also features an open-air shower and compost toilet.
Discovering Platbos Forest
Visitors can go on a guided tour of the winding forest paths or take a map and explore this ancient forest for themselves.
Naturally, I chose to do both. Discovering the 1000 year old milkwood, a viewing deck and a labyrinth made of mother-of-pearl sea shells - often in disarray thanks to playful baboons - walking through the venerable forest was an intensely serene and almost spiritual experience.
Melissa also took us on a guided tour of Platbos Forest, explaining how to discern the difference between a milkwood and a stinkwood - Milkwood has rugged brown bark and dark green leaves whereas Stinkwood has smooth greenish bark with lighter green leaves.
She pointed out the Epiphytic fern -common in rainforests, they harvest nutrients from the surrounding elements including air, rain and falling leaf litter without doing any harm to their ‘host’ tree. These ferns die down completely in summer and come back to life in winter.
Melissa points out how dense and interlinked all the trees are. She tells us that it’s called facilitation - when an old tree dies or falls over, it decomposes, trapping moisture and becoming like a nutrient island. Other trees can then grow in this space - an adaptation that has only been observed in desert systems.
Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia, discovered that trees and plants are connected by an underground web of fungi that links trees and plants together and transports carbon, water and nutrients between trees to help one another survive and thrive.
In fact, the big trees that dominate forests, known as ‘Mother Trees’ were subsiding younger ones through fungal networks, without which, most seedlings wouldn’t make it. “It’s an incredible model for humanity”, Melissa said passionately. “We have this amazing connection with forests because we evolved from forests; we can definitely learn from them”.
Animals of Platbos Forest
Walking through the forest, the cheerful sound of birds tweeting, the bark of baboons and the hum of unseen activity brings the fauna of Platbos Forest to life.
From snakes such as boomslangs and cobras to Aardvarks, baboons and honey badgers, Melissa tell us that Platbos forest is home to numerous mammal, bird, reptile and invertebrate animal species.
Fortunately, Platbos’ snake residents are very slow and non-aggressive, moving off when they hear you coming. Puff adders, known to be more aggressive, are fortunately rarely seen, preferring to keep to the fynbos. There’s also the much more friendly bushbuck, porcupines and even ten types of snails - including carnivorous ones.
Just recently, Melissa discovered a Leopard print in the ground and subsequently leopard spoor has been found in different parts of the forest. Caracal sightings are also a regular occurrence, and of course numerous birdlife call the forest home.
© Image supplied
The forest is also an important habitat for the endangered, red-data listed Leopard Toad. And with the surrounding natural environment increasingly giving way to agriculture, alien invasive vegetation, and grazing fields for cattle, Platbos Forest’s importance as a habitat for these diverse animal species is paramount.
African Tree Essences
It turns out that I wasn’t the first guest to exclaim how peaceful and healing the energy of the forest is.
Melissa explained that the old-growth forest grows within an archaeological treasure chest - rock art dating back some 70 000 years and stone artefacts estimated to be over 120 000 years old suggest that the southern coast of Africa is the ancient homeland of all humans alive today - and holds the clues to discovering our cultural and spiritual origins.
Melissa, who has long had an interest in aromatherapy and working with plants for healing, told us that all trees have medicinal properties. Through being in the forest she became aware of the energies of different trees. She would find herself drawn to particular trees at different times and started recording this.
Based on her discoveries, Melissa began making homeopathic flower essences called African Tree Essences. These are vibrational remedies made from the flowers and leaves of the thirteen main species of trees from the forest, restoring balance to the mental, emotional and spiritual bodies.
Essence of Stinkwood, for instance, is for the crown chakra - for unity, clarity and connecting with your life purpose, while Milkwood addresses the root chakra. Wild peach, which is the tree of courage, provides an essence that helps you to be centred in yourself and connected to your personal sense of power, good for path finding and speaking your truth.
Interestingly, Melissa dowsed us and wild peach was what we needed for our journey.
Melissa now offers Practitioner Training Courses at Platbos for therapists who’d like to use African Tree Essences in their practice, while those who’d like to learn more about connecting spiritually with trees are welcome to join.
A commitment to conservation
With Platbos Forest’s eco-friendly status, it’s no surprise that custodians Francois and Melissa Krige are dedicated to conservation. Melissa, a trained horticulturist and Francois, a tree surgeon with a practice in Cape Town put all the income earned from guest accommodation towards conserving the area, reforestation and increasing biodiversity.
To this end, they launched Trees For Tomorrow programme, which aims to plant thousands of trees, all young saplings from the Platbos Forest Tree Nursery. In fact, Melissa tells me that she wants to change the name to Forest for Tomorrow - because ultimately the aim is to recreate self-sustaining forests.
Only trees endemic to the area are planted, which ensures they are adapted to the low rainfall conditions of the area. To date, they’ve planted over 5000 trees, all sponsored by companies or individuals.
Naturally, clearing of invasive trees also plays a predominant role in their forest management strategy. With aliens such as rooikrans and myrtle (which burn much more easily than indigenous trees) surrounding Platbos, the forest is very vulnerable to fire, making it increasingly important to maintain the forest edge.
Fortunately, the funding for a 30 metre firebreak was donated by a family from Elandsberg through the Platbos Trust (registered with SARS so you can claim bax any tax charged) though clearing of aliens remains a constant battle. They also run tree appreciation workshops, have hosted a Greenpop Reforestation Festival, and guests can even sponsor a tree for just R100 (an extra R40 gets you a forest greeting card with personalised message).
The influence of climate change
As the earth heats up, forests have increasingly retreated to kloofs and ravines with higher moisture. Nowadays, Melissa tells us, there is fragmentation - when the forest edge is disturbed by fire, the aliens (whose whole seed bank is stimulated by fire) move in. Over time, the indigenous forests have become even more marginalised.
But perhaps the biggest indicator of climate change is the presence of the white stinkwood in Platbos Forest; a subtropical tree, the white stinkwood dates back to a time when the area enjoyed summer rainfall. Today, the forest goes into drought stress during summer. “It was so dire we had to water the trees with hosepipes”, Melissa told me.
Indeed, Africa is regarded by experts as the continent that will suffer the worst effects of global warming and climate change.
As Director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, Donald Johansen, stated:
"Right now we are hurtling towards self-destruction because we have forgotten that we are a product of the natural world and that we depend on it for our survival. This is extraordinarily dangerous and there will be very serious repercussions for the human species unless we find it in ourselves to rapidly restore our reverence for the natural world".
And with reforestation representing the cheapest and fastest way to slow climate change - deforestation accounts for up to 18% of all carbon emissions (equal to the world’s transport sector) - the work that Melissa and Francois are doing is increasingly urgent.
Accommodation Enquiries or Bookings:
Contact Melissa Krige: firstname.lastname@example.org
Call: 082 4110448
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