While I was building up my portfolio as an aspiring landscape photographer, I spent a lot of time admiring the work of certain American photographers. There was that one ecology in their portfolios that I had never seen in South Africa. Not with my eyes, in print or on the Internet. It was an element of nature that had a great attraction to me and I craved to experience and capture it. Rain Forest. Utopias of towering hardwood trees covered in moss that rise from a carpet of ferns and undergrowth. Branches draped in lichen and populated with Epiphytes like small villages living in the air, hanging above a network of bubbling mountain streams. Flora thriving at it’s full potential with unlimited resources and doing so as it has for thousands of years without the interference of man.
Unfortunately for me, South Africa doesn’t really have much temperate rainforest. If you say Forests to a South African, the first word that pops into their head is Knysna. That is about the average South African’s knowledge on where to find an indigenous forest. Apart from such common knowledge, even in many scientific articles on forests in South Africa, there is no mention of the place where I eventually found my Eden. Up until writing this I was also in belief of the common statistic that the European colonists destroyed more than 95% of the forests that existed prior to 1652. One article with a lot of substantiating facts tells a very different story, but I’m not writing about what used to be…this is about my quest for what still is.
So where do you start if you’re looking for forests in South Africa? My starting point was my wise old father, who has a great knowledge of botany in South Africa. Unluckily there’s a very big gap between what the average person calls a beautiful forest and a photographer’s understanding of what will produce the shot he/she is looking for. While we (me and the old man) have made great progress at bridging that gap, he just gave me the typical Knysna answer and also said there’s great forests along the wild coast. Then it was on to the Internet and books, which also just yielded Knysna. After hearing that place’s name so many times, I was so irritated I didn’t even want to go check out the most obvious place!
I was on a trip in Mpumalanga in 2008 when my father randomly told me that a colleague of his lived in an old forestry station near Tzaneen. This colleague knew the area’s forests well and they had talked about these lush forests with thousands of Clivia as my father’s hobby was cultivating the flowers. Since Knysna had been drilled into my head and I had never heard of any forests near Tzaneen, I brushed off the suggestion and forgot about it.
Over the following three years I visited both the Knysna and Wild Coast forests and in both I wandered off the path and into the odd gorge/valley in search of proper green…without success. Even here at home I properly explored the valleys of Jonkershoek with some reward. I discovered the lesser known Tweede Waterval gorge. A narrow twisting tunnel that leads to a waterfall concealed by two large cascades. I found a few other worthwhile streams and forested valleys high up the slopes of the Jonkershoek Mountains, but they all lacked that magical green.
I might not have explored 2% of the forested valleys in the country, but I did do a fair amount of research and I did explore the results that my research yielded. Short of becoming a bushman and going to live in the Knysna forests for a year, I gave up on my search and added Oregon/Washington’s Colombia River Gorge to an already lengthy bucket list.
Then late in 2011, thanks to the source of all procrastination; Facebook, I had a breakthrough. One of my Facebook friends from the photographic industry had gone on a hike in Limpopo…near Tzaneen. As much as any other South African, he had not expected serious photographic potential and he only took a point and shoot camera along. He posted some photos from the hike and those snaps taken with a point and shoot revealed a secret I had stubbornly ignored 4 years ago. The photos showed typical Afromontane forest, but the elements that were missing in all the other locations were there. Thick green undergrowth, lichen hanging from tree branches, moss covered trunks, all enveloped in thick mist. I immediately contacted him to find out where it was and made it a top priority to get there.
Late in May this year I was finally on my way to Limpopo after a very dusty week at Khubu Island. I had done some research on the area prior to leaving the Cape two weeks earlier, but I had 7-10 days there so I had a lot of time to explore the area.
Someone had told me that there’s a very scenic 4×4 route through the forests and on my first morning I took a slow drive up the mentioned kloof. I saw the well-known Debengeni Falls and witnessed patchy bits of that magical green I was looking for along the drive. The end of the road brought me atop the escarpment again and I decided to explore the maze of forestry roads. The amount of turns, road forks and times that the scenery changes from plantation to forest are impossible to keep track of.
Somehow (after about two hours of driving) I found myself entering a section of forest with a sign stating that it is a protected indigenous forest, so I was hoping that it would be a large section. Up until that point I had only been going through patchy areas of forest left between the unsightly pine and eucalyptus aliens. Past the sign the light quickly faded as the forest wrapped around the road like a shrinking tunnel. The road descended a Northern slope and as it did I entered the mist that was hanging below the escarpment. The photographer in me got excited as I started seeing potential photographs of trees and lichen disappearing in the mist, but just as my hopes started climbing I saw (ironically) the light at the end of tunnel – plantation. My heart sank, but my eye caught a slightly overgrown road cutting away downwards into a similar dark tunnel. I followed this road and the exact same thing happened. Just before the forest turned to plantation, a road would lead off downwards into the forest again. With each of these turns, the road became more overgrown and full of spider webs. Signs that few people ever get there. I wanted to stop and shoot, but I kept telling myself I have plenty of time and that the first day is a reccy. See the whole area and shoot it systematically as the weather dictates. The ever-downward sloping road suddenly leveled out and what I had been in pursuit of for almost 5 years unfolded before my eyes. Whatever the culmination of geographic circumstances created on that small plateau on the escarpment, it created the superfluous green I wanted.
I pulled off the road where I could, got my gear and popped the polarizer on the lens to capture those amazing greens. The mist limited visibility to about 25 meters, so apart from that 25 meters in front of me I never really knew where I was headed. The main problem was that the forest was too dense. There were no open spots to take a photo and the going was slow. Every 2nd tree was bursting with a ‘colony’ of Clivia, many of which had ‘trunks’ that revealed them to be decades old. They were flourishing better than the most coddled prize winning plants, but without any of the fertilizers, special soils or hours of weekly attention that the breeders give them. Seeing these plants that I was so familiar with in the wild, instead of in a pot or in a garden was a revelation. The stopping and staring wasn’t helping my progress of finding the perfect photo, but If there was ever a time to pause and appreciate nature, this was it.
After about 30 minutes in, the slope descended slightly before leveling off. Once again, I don’t quite know what the circumstances were, but I got lucky. I had found the ideal spot. The forest looked like the interior of a building, with walls of trees leading into open chambers of lush fern undergrowth. There was the odd dead tree strewn about, covered in moss and smaller ferns. Now I had found exactly what I was looking for. Little light penetrated the mist and forest canopy…even at f/8 and ISO200 my exposure time was over a second. The wind was blowing quite strongly, but every few minutes it would die down as if catching its breath and then I had to capture the moment. When the wind slowly picked up again, it swept the mist away and the entire forest appeared out of the cold white. In an instant a gust would blow it back through the forest like an approaching wall of disguise, concealing the secrets of the woodland. For what seemed like an eternity, I forgot about my camera. I just stood frozen by the contentment of what I had finally found. Watching that mist sweeping in and out of the trees was an experience rivaled only by the view from atop the amphitheater wall.
After about 3 hours of crawling and climbing through the vegetation, the mist lifted and I headed back to my car.
Over the next few days I identified a few more spots that might produce the same circumstances and two of them paid off. Even after driving as close as possible to the potential places, getting into the heart of the forest on foot wasn’t easy. It usually required the descent or ascent of very steep slopes. ‘Wading’ through 1.5m-high undergrowth and trying not to imagine what could be hiding below it. At the time of writing this (10 weeks later) I still have bite marks on my legs from whatever lived in those forests. After my adventures I got the flu, which then turned out to be tick fever. After a blood test it was confirmed as tick fever AND malaria, caught before it started doing damage luckily.
I finally achieved my goal to photograph a properly green indigenous forest. The fact that I couldn’t find one probably escalated my need to do so and drove me 2000km away from home to go look for it. Without deliberately doing so I ‘discovered’ (within the photographic community at least) a prime photographic ecology that most people thought didn’t exist in South Africa. It took five years, over 10000km of travels and contracting Malaria, but that has made me appreciate it ten times more than I would have.
For the sake of conservation the exact location of these forests will remain with me, but there are clues within the article that can get a reader close enough. From there you will have to get lost on the forestry roads as I did and go crawling through the forests to see what I did. To those who rejoice in the surrounds of untouched, thriving nature, it will be worth it. To those who lack the respect to conserve the few patches of pristine forest in our country, it will hopefully forever remain out of sight.