Who are Melissa and Francois Krige and why Reforest Platbos?
February 18, 2017
Platbos Forest Reserve: Africa’s Southernmost Indigenous Forest -by Melissa Krige
Africa’s Southernmost Forest
At the foot of Africa, just a little inland from the fishing village of Gansbaai, grows Platbos: a tenacious remnant of the extensive forests that once covered much of the continent.
Botanist HC Taylor writes that when he first came upon Platbos Forest in 1948, he could scarcely believe his eyes. He found it so interesting that he spent his weekends exploring the forest, seeking a solution to the problem of its origin. Typically, the few indigenous forests that remain in the Western Cape occur in the protected ravines of the Cape Fold Mountains where they find refuge from fire and the desiccating sun. Here Platbos is the exception to the rule. In contrast, it grows on an exposed, north-facing sand dune with neither a river nor spring to sustain it. The average rainfall of the area is just sufficient to support a forest biome. To find forest here is so unlikely that few Over strand locals are aware of it. Upon entering the forest and seeing the trees, inevitably they exclaim: “But who could expect to find forest here!” And when you stand beneath the aged trees, gazing into their branches festooned with “old man’s beard” lichen, it is easy to imagine yourself in the forests of Knysna.
The owners of Platbos, Francois and Melissa Krige, came upon the forest quite by chance in 2004. As an arborist and tree lover, Francois recognized its uniqueness instantly. The canopy make-up of the forest occurs nowhere else: it has the elements of coastal forest – milkwoods (Sideroxylon inerme), sea guarrie (Euclea racemosa), pock ironwoods (Chionanthus foveolata) and wild olives (Olea africana)– unusually combined with Afromontane forest elements: the white stinkwood (Celtis africana), hard pear (Olinia ventosa), white pear (Apodytes dimidiate), wild peach (Kiggelaria africana) and bladdernut (Diospyros whyteana). It is the hard pears, white stinkwoods and white pears that give the forest its special character. The origin of the subtropical white stinkwoods in the forest date back to a time when this was a summer rainfall region: it is unusual to find white stinkwoods so far south. To find an old-growth indigenous forest for private sale is itself a rarity: forests cover less than 0.05% of the Western Cape Province, and only 0.5% of the entire land surface of South Africa is forested today.
Described by cartographer Peter Slingsby as a “National Treasure”, the Kriges have devoted their lives to raising awareness of this special forest and the need to preserve and protect it. Its uniqueness and importance on the landscape have been recognized by Cape Nature who have awarded it ‘Contract Nature Reserve Status’ – this will ensure that the forest is legally protected for perpetuity. One hundred years and more ago, the extent of Platbos was far greater than its present 70 hectares or so. Large areas of forest was felled for agriculture and later left fallow, only to be invaded by alien vegetation which out compete the indigenous plants and create a serious fire hazard for the forest. In 2008 the Kriges initiated the Platbos Reforestation Project – a pioneer of its type in the Western Cape. Since then, large areas of aliens have been cleared and processed into wood chip. Each year in Spring, the Platbos staff harvest the newly germinated forest seedlings from the forest floor and rear them in the forest nursery. After 2 years, they are ready to be replanted to expand the forest. Most of this re-planting happens during the annual “Greenpop Reforest Fests” held over two weekends in March which sees hundreds of green-hearted souls getting their hands into the earth and planting thousands of Platbos trees back into the lands where they once grew.
The project’s slogan “Plant a Tree – Grow a Forest” captures the essence of this project for when one sponsors a tree at Platbos one is really sponsoring a square metre of forest canopy and the myriad of life forms that this supports - from mosses, lichens, birds and bees, to bush buck and honey badgers. The planting method mirrors the way that the forest regenerates naturally and the young trees are planted densely together so as to achieve canopy cover as quickly as possible. This cools the soil and prevents the alien invasive seeds from germinating.
To date, over 30 000 trees have been planted in these rehabilitated lands. The month of May, which marks the start of the winter rains in the Overberg, is thus a time of great celebration for the forest and the myriad of creatures who rely upon it for their survival. The Platbos Conservation Trust, a registered NPO with SARS, was established to raise funds for the tree planting and preservation of this forest gem.
Platbos is open to the public: The forest trail is laid out in a series of loops so visitors can walk from half an hour to over three hours – most of the walk is under the canopy of the forest, making this a perfect destination for hot windy days. Winter is also a glorious time to visit Platbos – emerald green mosses decorate the trees and the “resurrections ferns”, growing on the tree trunks, spring back to abundant life with the first rains. The forest labyrinth, made from mother of pearl sea shells, is a great attraction too. The trail is physically undemanding so only a medium level of fitness is required.
Both guided and self-guided walks are offered. Visitors are welcome to bring along a picnic and they can also purchase the African Tree Essences of Platbos Forest by appointment (please see www.africantreeessences.co.za for more on these therapeutic products from the forest).
Best yet is to stay for a weekend or more in one of the rustic forest accommodation units offered to guests at Platbos; each is set exclusively within the forest reserve beneath a majestic tree or two. Pure bliss. Pure air. Pure ancient forest. And your stay helps to sustain the preservation of this local and national forest gem.