Story & Images: Andrea Abbott
Edited by Niki Moore
The husband and I wanted to get high.
No, not that type of high, but literally high – we were yearning for the rarified air of the higher altitudes. And of course I knew just the place to go: a mountain in the privately-owned Karkloof Nature Reserve in the Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands, that a friend had spoken, er… highly of. So we packed a picnic, scraped the crusted mud off our hiking boots, which hadn’t seen the light of day for ages, and headed for the hills about an hour from our home. We arrived at a sensible hour, mid-morning, and started up the mountain. Within a few paces, we were half dead. Not, I hasten to add, because we’re unfit – walking is my thing! – but because the gradient went from level to perpendicular in a few short breaths.
But we pushed on, both breathlessly and breathtaken. You see, the trail – which ascended the southern slope of the mountain – took us through a mystical, pristine Midlands Mistbelt forest whose towering trees seemed to touch the sky.
One of several forest types in SA (the others are Montane, Coastal, Scarp, Sand, Mangrove and Swamp, and Riverine) Mistbelt forests occur inland from the Eastern Cape to northern KZN and are generally cool, damp, and tall. In addition to the KZN Midlands, they’re found in places like Eshowe (Nkandla), Vryheid (Ngome forest ) and Umtata (Kambi forest.)
As with so much in Nature, Mistbelt Forest is under threat. Back in the day, forests of this type would have been far more extensive, some occurring contiguously across regions. Rich in biodiversity and flush with endemic plant and fauna species, they’d have been chock-full with mighty Yellowwoods (Podocarpus) of all three types: P. falcatus; P. latifolius; and P. henkeli. The now rare Ocotea bullata (Black stinkwood) would have been likewise abundant. But from the 1800s to around 1940 rampant exploitation of the forests for timber took its toll. Remember the beautiful yellowwood window frames, floors and doors, and yellowwood and stinkwood furniture in Grandma’s home? In their proper incarnation, they once furnished forests.
If the plundering wasn’t bad enough, those ancient forests were also considerably reduced in size to make way for agriculture and exotic plantations. Unfortunately, with our appetite for wood, paper, and the like, we are all complicit in this monoculture that is the antithesis to biodiversity (Although, to be fair, forestry companies like Sappi, are working to mitigate the damage.) So, for us to be in that rare forest was to go back in time, to when humans left only footprints, like we were doing now as we trod as lightly as we could on the floor of ferns and fallen leaves.
Prime real estate and clean up crews
All around us, old-growth trees rented out cavities to serve as homes or shelter for creatures such as hornbills and other birds, spiders, and bees.
We clambered over massive dolerite boulders and fallen branches. The latter serve as an important cog in the biodiversity wheel, functioning as a smorgasbord for detritus feeders that are efficient members of Nature’s clean-up teams. In turn, they find themselves food to hosts of other animals perched on the next rung of the pantry ladder. (Next time a branch falls in your garden, leave it and watch the unfolding trophic cascade.)
Dressed to impress
Every tree was dressed by Moss & Lichen, some wore their hearts on their trunks, and many showed their age in time-worn wrinkles, creases, and crumbling faces. Sporting its conspicuous patched bark of cream, mauve, white and pink, the Cape Plane or Coldbark tree (Ochna arborea) did its best to attract our attention but its icy trunk gave us the cold shoulder.
Other trees were too tall, their leaves too high in the canopy for us to be able to identify them with any certainty. But two were unmistakable, despite having their heads in the clouds. Halleria lucida (Tree fuschia), often a mere shrub in gardens or sunny spots but a giant in this forest, displayed clumps of their tube-shaped flowers like rows of medals on their trunks.
Fungi of many colours adorned trees like brooches.
The social life of trees
Branches curled round each other, as if in an embrace. This is not a far-fetched notion because trees in forests are a true community. Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, describes trees as social beings that connect to one another through their roots, exchange nutrients, look after weaker individuals and are “reluctant to abandon the dead”. What’s more, beneath our feet, concealed to all but the underworld, fungal networks – mycelium – work in partnership with trees and, as Wohlleben writes, makes those fungi “something like the forest internet”.
Despite all the social goings-on among the trees, the tranquility there was balm to the human soul. While tropical forests are said to be clamorous places, resounding with a million sounds of creatures big and small, Mistbelt forests are more discreet, their inhabitants keeping largely to themselves. Once, we glimpsed a shy Blue duiker and though we heard Crowned eagles, turacos, starred robins and one or two others, they kept out of sight. Porcupines made their presence known, but only in their abundant droppings and a few quills.
Emerging into a different world.
Two hours after we’d begun our climb, we saw daylight up ahead. One last steep haul and we emerged from the shadows to find ourselves on top of the world and in an altogether different place – a vast grassland plateau dressed in its golden winter best; a big sky place; a land of grand views; a place where you could feel your own world view expand; and a place with a promise of spring for already, tiny forbs like the delicate Natal Crocus (Apodolirion buchananii) were stretching their petals.
Cairns and secretive standing stones
Cairns placed here and there attested to other hikers who’d made it to the top – we added rocks to them as is the custom. These are also traditional to Zulu culture, they are called ‘isivivane’ and they mark trails – it is expected that each bypasser adds a small stone.
Mysterious standing stones held secrets yet untold. But for now, they held our picnic lunch.
The descent was as unforgiving as the upward trek, and although we followed the same route, in reverse everything was different. Especially our legs which now relied on a different set of muscles to get us down the slope. It was tough going, the steepness and gravity intent on sending us crashing to the ground in a similar way to the trees that had once been felled. But arriving at the bottom two hours later we were on a high. Because, as reports such as this in Yale Environment 360 indicate, that’s what being out in unspoilt, wild nature does for you.
Want to get high in that forest too? Book a camp site or cottage at Bushwillow Caravan Park.