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If You Go Down to the Woods…

If You Go Down to the Woods…

Sep 2014

Words & pics David Shreeve

If you go down to the woods… you’ll meet a couple so passionate about trees they bought a forest.

In this case, it was a 50-hectare spread of indigenous trees called Platbos, between the villages of Stanford and Gansbaai in the Western Cape’s Overberg. Melissa and Francois Krige were smitten. 

Not many people know about Platbos. Somewhat isolated, it is surrounded by alien vegetation and farm land, but it contains 13 species of indigenous Afromontane and coastal forest trees like those found around Knysna (the Outeniqua forests have some 87 species) – white stinkwood, wild olive, rock alder and white pear. 

Intriguing about Platbos is that it flourishes in an area not really suited to forests at all. Those few remnants of the vast indigenous forests that covered the Western Cape many millions of years ago are mainly to be found today in kloofs and ravines, where there is plenty of run-off water and they are protected from the harsh summer sun, runaway fires and the salt-laden coastal winds. 

The trees of Platbos grow on an ancient sand dune that is calcareous – containing plenty of lime – and extremely porous, unable to retain water and nourishment. So how does this soil sustain a forest?

Melissa explains, “The trees of Platbos have adapted to their present location. It is known as a ‘dry forest’, with an average annual rainfall of about 350mm. In the Knysna and Tsitsikamma forests it is well over 18 000mm.

“Here they have adapted in various ways. In ‘normal’ forests, trees maintain a reasonable distance from one another so that their canopies remain a little distinct from each other. This is called ‘crown shyness’. Platbos trees grow in close-knit clumps that form a denser canopy. The experts call this ‘facilitation’. It helps to keep the hot sun off the ground and reduces the evaporation from the forest bed after it has rained.”

These trees have even adapted to drought, and Melissa describes them as the “toughest of the tough”. She and her husband have committed themselves to preserving them by protecting the forest edge from the invasion of alien species and runaway veld fires, and an admirable reforestation project. Without this the forest could disappear.

“Some of the trees here are well over a thousand years old and most come from ancient rootstock that dates back even further,” says Melissa. “It is our duty and not just our passion to protect them and ensure their survival.” 

It has been no easy task for the Kriges to give up a comfortable living in Cape Town and move into a dense forest with a young family and little official backing. Francois runs an arboricultural business based in Cape Town, which includes the management and felling of city trees and stands of aliens. Using wood from these activities, he built a timber house in the forest and installed a solar-powered electricity supply. The children attend local schools and Melissa runs the tree nursery, the public awareness programme and the campsites. She also finds time to produce and market indigenous tree essences and mist sprays.

The tree nursery is a sight: hundreds of tiny trees, all carefully harvested from the forest floor, are laid out neatly in temporary containers, as they wait to be planted out in the reforestation sites. They are the hardiest of the Platbos forest tree species – milkwoods, pock ironwoods, wild olives and hard pears. 

Perhaps the most serious threat to the forest is the spread of alien plants, such as rooikrans. Acacia cyclops, or red-eyed wattle, is native to Australia and was introduced to South Africa to help with dune stabilisation, where it flourished far and wide. It is particularly suited to the windy, sandy conditions of the Western Cape and is very fast growing, so it smothers the slower-growing indigenous plants and takes over vast tracts of land. When a veldfire occurs, rooikrans burns very hot and destroys whatever vegetation has survived around it – even the fire-resistant fynbos that would otherwise thrive after less serious fires. 

A major part of the reforestation programme, therefore, is clearing rooikrans and other alien plants – back-breaking and costly work. The brushwood is machine-chipped branch by branch and these wood-chips are dug into the soil as mulch and to provide the new saplings with nutrients. 

Much of the actual planting is carried out by volunteers during the Platbos Reforest Fest. This is held at least once a year in partnership with the Cape Town-based Greenpop organisation, which is involved in creating green awareness through projects such as tree planting. 

The festival brings hundreds of volunteers to the forest area where they camp and plant saplings, under the watchful eye of the Platbos staff. In the fest’s first year, hundreds of saplings were planted, a figure that has risen over the years to thousands. The target this year was 8 000 new trees, but the final tally was a magical 10 000, which brings to more than 22 000 the number of saplings planted to date.

Most of these activities are financed by Krige Tree Services, Francois’s Cape Town business, but the Kriges have also established the Platbos Conservation Trust, a registered non-profit organisation dedicated to ‘protecting and extending the forest habitat and biodiversity’. Income from the campsites created by the Kriges, plus from the magnificent forest walks for both day and weekend visitors, joins the donations in creating funds that will see a rare treasure not only protected but expanded. 

After years of wading through red tape, the Kriges have managed to get the Platbos forest, the southern-most forest in Africa, rezoned into a Contract Nature Reserve. The NPO encourages companies and individuals to sponsor trees, which Francois explains is not just about paying for a tree to be planted.

“When you are good enough to agree to a sponsorship, you sponsor more than just a sapling, you are sponsoring a square metre of forest canopy and the rich biodiversity this supports: from mosses, lichens, birds and bees, to bushbuck and honey badgers.”

Melissa sums it up by saying, “When you look at one of these huge, stately, ancient, magnificent, gracious trees you cannot but feel humbled. And it is our collective responsibility, both locally and globally, to protect what remains of the world’s old-growth forests.”

Source: Country Life

Platbos Forest Trail

Country Life