Knysna elephants: Giants on the Garden Route

The Western Cape’s Garden Route is a 300 km stretch of coastline that begins in Mossel Bay and ends at Storms River near the boundary of the Eastern Cape, and includes popular tourist towns like George and Knysna. As the name implies, the Garden Route is an area recognised for its natural beauty – the forested slopes of the Outeniqua Mountains in the west and Tsitsikamma Mountains to the east reach down to an often steep and rocky coastline characterised by large bays, prominent headlands, numerous estuaries and an abundance of marine life.

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The Garden Route around Knysna in particular is incredibly scenic and a tourism hotspot. Knysna plays host to a number of annual food and lifestyle festivals that are complimented by its spectacular scenery, the most iconic of which are the Knysna Heads – large sandstone cliffs that create a dramatic passageway from the sea into the vast protected waters of Knysna lagoon.

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Exploring the coastline

Bevan and I spent some time exploring the coastline of this western section of the Garden Route. First up was Goukamma Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area – 16.5 km of coastline and 2500 ha of coastal forest and bush as well as the Goukamma Estuary and Groenvlei Lake. This reserve has a mixture of rocky and sandy beaches with some interesting sandstone formations that we checked out.

Goukamma Nature Reserve
The coastline of the Goukamma Nature Reserve.
Fynboson the Garden Route
Fynbos in the Goukamma Nature Reserve.

We also made it just in time to Sedgefield beach to go for a sunset walk to Gericke’s Point. The fossilized dunes that are visible here are the highest in South Africa and extend from Kaaimans River to near Brenton on Sea. At sunset these sandstone cliffs were lit up in rich golden hues which was quite spectacular. Although we didn’t have too long to spend here, the rocky ledge at the point is worth exploring at low tide for the marine life that can be found in the rock pools, and humpback dolphins are frequently spotted in the bay.

Sedgefield Sunset
One of the best sunsets we’ve seen over Sedgefield.
Fosilized dunes in Sedgefield
Incredible fossilized dunes in Sedgefield.

The last of the Knysna forest elephants

As well as the Amatole forest which we explored during our time in Hogsback, the Knysna forest is South Africa’s largest individual forest. This afromontane forest is largely protected, and is characterised by giant Ironwood, Stinkwood and Outeniqua Yellowwood trees amongst others. The forest is home to an endemic reptile, the Knysna dwarf chameleon and near-endemic birds that include the Knysna turaco, Knysna warbler and Knysna woodpecker. For us though, the most special natural inhabitants of the Knysna forest are its forest elephants.

Knysna Elephant sign
The sign optimistically points the way to the Knysna Elephant.

This forest is the last remaining place in South Africa where unfenced elephants roam free. It is thought that until the 1900s up to 1000 elephants were found in the forests and surrounding habitat. Competition with farmers and ivory hunting however quickly reduced their numbers. By 1870 it was estimated that only 400 individuals remained. By 1970, this was down to 14 and 2016 estimates are that between one and five elephants remain in the forest. A female elephant named “Oupoot” was spotted on 9 March 2016 (video below) by a SANParks ranger on patrol. Interestingly, five young elephants were translocated from the Kruger National Park in the 1990s in an effort to bolster the forest elephants’ population, however these animals did not adapt to forest life and were only found feeding in the fynbos or in the forest fringes, and so were later returned.

Bevan and I spent a few nights in the forests of the Diepwalle section of the Garden Route National Park. Our hope was to spot a forest elephant, or at least the tell-tale signs of one. The Diepwalle section has a number of hiking trails that cover its rolling terrain, crossing small streams and winding their way through the verdant indigenous forest.

Sunlight knysna forest
The Diepwalle forest near Knysna.

One of the highlights of this area is viewing the Big Tree – an 800 year old Outeniqua Yellowwood that towers overhead. Although Bevan and I used all our bushcraft and tracking skills from our time on foot in the Kruger, we were not able to find any signs of the Knysna elephants no matter how imaginative we may have been! Still, it is pretty special to think these animals remain free to roam as they once would have done.

The big tree Knysna Forest
Bevan at the Big Tree in the forest.
Knysna Forest Canopy
The Knysna Forest canopy.
Jill at the river in the Knysna Forest
Jill inspecting the tannins in the forest river.

Find a place to stay in Knysna

Knysna is an awesome little holiday town and a great place to base yourself for trips into the surrounding forest areas. Use the booking.com tool below to check out available accommodation in Knysna.


Not done with the Garden Route just yet…

The Garden Route has plenty more to explore and is definitely not a route to rush through. Up next we are going to be spending some more time exploring the eastern section of the Garden Route, focusing on the area around Plettenberg Bay. Hiking, whale watching and suspension bridges are up next and we are, as always, looking forward to more time on the beach!

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