Plaatbos forest and Storms River Pass

The Tsitsikamma is one of my happy places. It is where I go to recharge my soul and get close to nature and that is what we as a family did a couple of week ago. It wasn’t a comprehensive charge, but a quick visit one just to breath in the fresh Tsitsikamma air and get away from lockdown at that stage.

One of our stops for the day was the Plaatbos Forest section of the Garden Route (Tsitsikamma) National Park next to Storms River Village. The nice thing about Plaatbos is that it’s right by the village so you can take an easy stroll from your accommodation, it offers free and easy access, and there are various beautiful walks in the indigenous forest. 

You can either follow the different marked trails (green – 5km, red – 7.5km and yellow – 8km) through the forest or just walk along the historic Storms River Pass. 

The Tsitsikamma (or Zitzikama as it was known back then) was first surveyed by the famous pass buyilder Thomas Bain in 1879. He found it consisted of almost impenetrable forests and steep gorges eastwards of Plettenberg Bay, but he followed the ancient elephant trails through the forests to find the best way to traverse these gorges. Using convict labourers, the pass through the Storms River gorge was completed by 1884. By then the village was surveyed and laid out around the Duthies of Knysna’s hunting lodge which became an inn for travelers using the pass and still exists as the Tsitsikamma Village Inn today.

Walking through Plaatbos is more than just enjoying the indigenous forest with its trees and streams. If you keep your eyes open you will spot the little things. New growth on a fern, a little frog in a stream, fungus and mushrooms growing under a dead branch, a butterfly making its way from flower to flower or a Knysna loerie overhead in the treetops.

Suddenly I feel like hopping in the car to go and plug in my soul.

Exploring the old Storms River Pass

I have a special connection with the Tsitsikamma forest.  It is where I go to plug in my soul for a bit of a recharge.  It doesn’t even have to be an extended recharge.  Just a couple of minutes sitting in the forest next to a stream taking in the forest with all my senses is enough.  There are various ways to explore the forest with trails being the most effective way to leave everything behind.  One of these “trails”, the biggest one actually, is the old Storms River Pass starting from Storms River Village.

The Tsitsikamma (then known as Zitzikama) area was first surveyed by the famous pass builder Thomas Bain in 1879.  He found impenetrable forests east of Plettenberg Bay with access made even tougher by deep gorges.  During the planning process of building a pass through the Storms River gorge, Bain followed the ancient elephant migratory routes down to the river and as elephants find the easiest way down, decided to build his pass along those routes.  Labour for this difficult task was provided by convicts and some of their graves can still be seen on the outskirts of the Village.  The pass itself was completed in 1884 and until the N2 and Storms River Bridge were built in 1955 was the only way to get through the gorge.  Today the road is closed for traffic and can only be access on foot, bicycle or on Storms River Adventures’ Woodcutters Journey tour.  
 

The Woodcutters Journey takes one down the pass in a small truck with a guide telling you more about the history of the area as well as the ecology of the forest.  The tour tops quite often for the guide to point our specific trees or plants and explains the role it plays in the forest and those who have lived in it in the past.  The tour also allows for you to hop off if you want and walk a section of it.  
I had been down the old pass a number of times, but on this specific trip the guide showed us something I have never seen.  He took us along a path next to the road and showed us some of the original stonework done by Bain and his workers.  In this case a small tunnel under the road to channel water away.
At the bottom of the pass the forest opens up and while the guide unpacked a picnic lunch, we took a walk to the low water bridge over the Storms River.  I’m sure I was told at some stage that the bridge were built by soldiers after the first World War, but please don’t quote me on that.  I can’t seem to find any info on it on the internet.

The trip down the Storms River Pass really is an alternative way to explore the forest and learn a bit more in the process.  I need to be alone to recharge though and the batteries are starting to run low.  I think a return visit is just about in order.

10 not to miss activities, restaurants and accommodation in the Tsitsikamma

Ahh, the Tsitsikamma…..  My favorite Sho’t Left destination for a couple of days’ breakaway.  Beautiful indigenous forests to sooth my soul, mountains on the horizon, streams running past ancient indigenous trees and forest giants to a rugged coastline where the blue ocean crashes as white waves on black rocks at the foot of sheer cliffs.  This part of the Garden Route must be one of the most beautiful places in South Africa.  Truly paradise.  The Tsitsikamma is a lot more than natural beauty and scenery though.  Its also a place of activities and adventures, some adrenalin filled and others a lot more relaxing.  I am fortunate that I work in the travel industry and the Tsitsikamma is one of the areas that I get to visit quite often both for work and play.  I decided to compile a list of 10 activities, restaurants and accommodation establishment (in no particular order) that I got to visit in 2014 and that is not to be missed.  Not that there isn’t more, because there is.  It’s just that I have had first hand experience of these.  
 

#1 Woodcutters Journey

I have a very special place in my heart and soul for an indigenous.  It’s somewhere I can go to unwind.  Somewhere I can sit in silence and allow all my problems to flow away from me, even if its just for a short time.  I like to go for a walk on any of the short trails through the forest around Stormsriver Village, but there is another way to explore it and learn at the same time.  The Woodcutters Journey is a guided tour down the old Storms River Pass is a specially designed vehicle.  The pass follows the old elephant migratory route down to the river and on the way passes tree ferns, stinkwoods, yellow woods and many other tree species.  The guide tells you more about the history of the area while pointing out the local flora and fauna. At the bottom of the pass the tour takes a break next to the river for a light lunch or tea and cake.  This is the ideal tour for older visitors or those who would like to learn more about the ins and outs of the forest.

#2 Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour

How about gliding through the indigenous forest like the elusive Knysna Loerie?  Experience the forest from above.  The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour has become a iconic activity in the area and consists of 10 platforms and 10 zipline slides.  The tour takes about three hours and is more than just an adrenalin rush.  The guides aren’t just adventure guides, they also tell you more about the forest and what you see along the way.  I had the great opportunity to do a Canopy Tour with the family and it was something the KidZ have been talking about over and over.  Something I won’t forget quickly was getting ready to push off one of the platforms 30 meters up when suddenly two Knysna Loeries swooped up from below and took the lead for me to follow.  An experience you won’t forget that quickly.

#3 Tsitsikamma Segway Tour

One of my absolute favorite activities in the area is the Tsitsikamma Segway Tour.  A Segway is a personal transporter that is easy to handle and another perfect way to experience the forest.  You start off with a 15-20 minute training session on their training course where the guides make sure you know exactly how to handle your Segway safely before setting off.  The 1 hour Segway experience takes you on a journey through the quaint Stormsriver Village and follow one of a selection of routes among cool pine forest, the indigenous forest, or to the historical Witteklip bridge.  It also takes you through the local township.  The 2 hour tour, the one I went on, goes through Stormsriver Village, and into the cool pine forests.  From here we entered the ancient indigenous Tsitsikamma Forests and made our way along the paths to the famous and majestic 1000 year old Tsitsikamma Big Tree and back to the village.  Once you do it, I promise you won’t want to stop.

#4 Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures

How about flying over a river gorge, across a waterfall and along the river itself? You can do it at Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures.  The experience includes eight slides of which the longest is 211m.  It zigzags across the river gorge, sometimes as high as 50m above the water.  Because its open and you aren’t amongst the trees, you get a better idea of height which gives you the opportunity to really take in the views and your surroundings as you go along.  Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures is situated on the N2 about 10 minutes east of Storms River Bridge and takes about an hour and a half which is ideal if you haven’t got that much time in the area.
 
Because I have done both Tsitsikamma Falls zipline and the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour, I have had a lot of people ask me which one is better.  It’s really impossible to say because other than the fact that they are both guided zipline experiences, they don’t have much else in common.  They use different zipline “setups”, the one is a full on tour while the other is more seen as an adrenalin activity, one takes it easy which is more time consuming while the other is a much shorter experience, one involves the forest and the other a river gorge and so I can go on.  It really depends on what you want and what experience you’re looking to have.  If you have the time and your budget allows, I would say you have to do and experience both.

#5 The Big Tree

The Big Tree is as part of the Tsitsikamma as the Tsitsikamma National Park down on the coast is.  Probably the second most visited spot in the area by tour groups (don’t go and quote me on that now).  The forest around this 1000 years old tree (I’m sure when I was still guiding 7 years ago the signs still said 800 years) forms part of the Tsitsikamma National Park which now is a sub section of the Garden Route National Park.  The Big Tree is a great leg stretch stop if you are just passing through or something to go and do early morning or in the afternoon to take your mind off all the other things you can do in the area.  From the parking area it’s a nice easy 500 meter walk along a boardwalk to the tree.  Americans seem to be disappointed when they get there, but it is because they are used to Redwood Trees back home.  She is a biggie though and stand 36.6 meters tall with a circumference of nearly nine meters and a canopy spread of about 33 meters.

#6 Regyne Protea Farm

Did you know that the biggest commercial protea farm in the world can be found in the Tsitsikamma? No?  Well it is.  About 8 or so years ago I used to visit the farm on specially organized tours with British tourists, but Dewald Niemann of Oudebosch Farmstall now offers groups regular tours to the farm.  During a visit you don’t just get to see the proteas growing in the fields, but also how they pick, sort and pack them for export.  The warehouse isn’t that big, but it’s an amazing sight walking into the cold storeroom and seeing the whole place full of flowers waiting to be shipped out.  The tour also includes the protea nursery where Hanli Viljoen may just take you around to show off all her babies.  This is another of the activities in the area that I got to share with my family this year.  Bookings can be made through Oudebosch Farmstall and there are minimum numbers so give them a call in advance to check if there is a tour going.

#7 Marilyn’s 60’s Diner and #8 Oudebosch Farmstall

I’m combining #7 and #8 in one heading as they are both restaurants. 
 
Visiting the village of Stormsrivier, you would never expect to find a place like Marilyn’s 60’s Diner there.  It’s all neon and chrome with lots and lots of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and 60’s memorabilia.  This is also where you would find the annual Elvis Festival Africa. Very cool indeed.  Marilyn’s is great for a burger and chips lunch stop, because burgers and chips is what you eat at a place like this.  Their milkshakes also go down like a dream after a walk in the forest while a midmorning coffee between activities is also an option.  Right next door there’s also a new micro brewery, but that I’ll keep for next time after I have had a chance to try it out.
 
One of the most popular stops in the area is Oudebosch Farmstall on the eastern side of the Tsitsikamma.  Oudebosch is more than just a regular farmstall.  It has three main components to it.  There is the supermarket servicing the surrounding farming community and tourists heading to Eersterivier and a curio shop where you will find mostly South African crafts and gifts.  The main reason people stop here though is the restaurant / coffee shop.  Oudebosch has a full lunch menu which is very popular but they are truly famous for their mouth watering roosterkoek made right there in the restaurant on the coals. 

#9 Tsitsikamma Village Inn

The Tsitsikamma is truly blessed with a wide range of excellent accommodation establishments starting with camping and self catering in the Tsitsikamma National Park to backpackers hostels, B&B’s, guesthouses and hotels.  My favorite place to stay is the Tsitsikamma Village Inn, right in the heart of Stormsriver Village, where the main building dates back to 1845.  The hotel has 49 free-standing rooms and is laid out like a village with each cottage individually styled, themed and decorated to match specific colonial building styles found on the Garden Route.  Facilities include the De Oude Martha Restaurant, the Hunters Pub and Cafe Bacchus.  I prefer to have dinner in the Hunters Pub just because its a lot more cosy than the restaurant, but the food is great no matter where you eat.  The hotel is also very centrally located allowing one to explore the village and surrounding forest on foot without having to take your car.  I know I should try out some of the excellent guesthouses nearby, but I’m always drawn back to the hotel thanks to great hospitality by owners Chris and Irma.  Plus they always invite me back so how can I say no?  
 

#10 Eersterivier

Eersterivier is one of the secret gems of the Tsitsikamma.  The village is hidden away right on the coast close to Oudebosch Farmstall and consist of privately owned holiday homes.  Accommodation at Eersterivier is on a self-catering basis in these holiday homes and can be booked through  Tsitsikamma Seaside Accommodation.  Eersterivier offers a serene seaside holiday experience.  Days are spent on the beach, doing hikes along the coast or through the surrounding fynbos, doing shore based whale and dolphin watching or playing golf at the nearby Fynbos Golf Course.  Either that or just grab a good book and enjoy the magnificent coastal views from the deck of your house.  We spent a weekend Sho’t Left in Eersterivier recently and the KidZ just loved the area. 
As they say in television infomercials, “BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.”  These are just the ones I did in 2014 so watch this space and I will report on more Tsitsikamma activities, restaurants and accommodation in 2015.  Right now I’m compiling my list of things to do so I won’t mention names just yet……. 

Forest scenes and senses from the Tsitsikamma

The Tsitsikamma is famous for its stunning scenery, magnificent forests and exciting adventures.  I often wonder how many people visit here and marvel at the big things but totally miss the little ones.  Ferns with new leaves opening up, soft moss growing on a rock, bracket fungus on the side of a log, the sound of a forest stream slowly flowing through the underbrush and over a little waterfall and the call of baboons in the distance.  What about the sound of the wind in the trees, the breaking of a branch falling down, the smell of the moist forest and the red flash of a Knysna Loerie overhead followed by it’s ko-ko-ko call.  Suddenly I yearn to be in the forest, somewhere I go to feed my soul and always leave behind a piece of my heart.  

A thousand years in the making -The Tsitsikamma Big Tree

One of the best know attractions in the Tsitsikamma is The Big Tree, one of the giants of the forest and thought to be up to 1000 years old.  The Garden Route from the Tsitsikamma through Knysna to Wilderness is famous for its indigenous forests and precious trees, amongst them the Yellowwood.  The Outeniqua Yellowwood tree is also South Africa’s national tree which makes this particular Outeniqua Yellowwood even more special.
 
Getting to the Big Tree is very easy.  First of all there is a big parking area right next to the N2 highway where you can leave your car.  From here its an easy 10 minute walk into the forest on a boardwalk.  In total the walk is about 500 meters each way and a great way to get away from the rush of the main road and get closer to nature.  Walking along you get to see what the forest looks like inside and plaques name some of the trees you pass along the way.  Suddenly the queen of the forest looms up in front of and over you.  A magnificent tree that was spared the woodcutters’ axes during the late 19th and early 20th century.

This tree stands 36,6 m tall and has a trunk circumference of 9m.  An information board next to the tree gives all the relevant stats.  The Big Tree may not be as tall as American Redwood trees or as wide as a Baobab, but she is magestic.  I really enjoy seeing people crawl around on the path to find the best angle to try and show her size.  I kinda had to do that to take this picture above.  From the tree there are two additional trails covering 2,6 km and 4,2 km for those who would like to get in touch with the forest a little bit more.  So next time you fly along the N2 through the Tsitsikamma, why not pull over and go and pay homage?

Waterfall reflection

The Tsitsikamma is a world of indigenous forests bordered by mountains and a rugged coastline.  One of the most beautiful places there is.  At the heart of it lies the Tsitsikamma National Park.  The Mouth Trail takes visitors from the park’s restaurant area to the Storms River Mouth with its three suspension bridges.  Just after you start off on the trail there is a little waterfall on the left hand side flowing into a pool.  A tranquil spot even with tourists walking past every few seconds.  

Tsitsikamma Lily

My three favorite flowers are aloes, proteas and arum lilies.  All flowers you can see in gardens and parks but at their most beautiful when you see them out in the wild.  Aloe flowering in the Karoo, proteas in the Fynbos on a mountain side and lilies growing wild in the forest.  This lily I found next to the path on the way to Kerneels se Klip in the Tsitsikamma National Park.  I was hoping to find one in the sun but being in a forest means lots of shade.  

The end of the Otter Trail

The Otter Trail is probably South Africa’s premier hiking trail covering 5 days and 42 kilometers between the Tsitsikamma National Park at Storms River and Nature’s Valley.  On the last day when hikers reach The Point, the end of the trail is in sight but not before descending down to Nature’s Valley beach and then walking the length of it to the Nature’s Valley Restaurant and Trading Store to kick off their shoes and have a welcome cold one.

During our Sho’t Left weekend in the Crags and Nature’s Valley we climbed to the top of The Point and watched as a group of hikers came past on the trail.  About 15 minutes later they were walking along the beach towards that mentioned cold drink.

Later the afternoon we popped by the Nature’s Valley Trading Store and this is what we found.  A tree in the restaurant’s outside area filled with discarded shoes (and a couple of other items) that was well and truly tired after the long walk, left as a “memorial” of those who have competed this epic trail. 

Outeniqua Yellowwood Tree at Natures Valley

I used to travel down the Garden Route quite often while I was still tour guiding but these days don’t often get a chance to go further than the Tsitsikamma.  Driving down to Natures Valley on our recent Easter weekend Sho’t Left in the area I had to stop at one of the view points on the way down on the Grootrivier Pass.  Its not a view point as much as it’s a tree point.  The view is of a little valley next to the pass with a massive Outeniqua Yellowwood standing out above the rest of the forest.
 
The Outeniqua Yellowwood (Afrocarpus falcatus) is South Africa’s national tree.  It is an evergreen conifer that often grows up to about 45 meters tall with some known to reach 60 meters.  Some of the largest individuals occur in the Knysna, Tsitsikamma and Amatole montane forests, where some specimens are over 1000 years old.  Outeniqua Yellowwoods are protected by law and can only be cut down with a special permit.
 
Just a couple of other facts courtesy of Wikipedia – The trunk can be 2 to 3 meters wide with a gray-brown to reddish and smooth but flaky bark.  The leaves are arranged in spirals on the branches.  They are small and narrow, up to 4.5 centimeters long by about 6 millimeters wide.  The yellowwood is a dioecious species, with male and female structures on separate plants. The male cone is brown with spiralling scales while the female cone has one scale bearing one seed between one and two centimeters long.