An index to this trip appears on the first post.
March 24, 2016
For my friend Alan, who is a friend of the big trees
At long last, it was time for me to visit the fabled “Garden Route.” After months of almost unrelenting dry weather, I would visit one of the greenest playgrounds of my new country! My drive to Knysna along the N2 would run alongside the Tsitsikamma National Park, pushing across bridges that spanned great gorges, and I’d even see some proper trees.
I was concerned that I would run into rush hour for Port Elizabeth since I left the hostel at 6:45 AM on a Thursday morning, but I need not have worried. Even though I drove past the N2-Settler’s Way junction and through a construction zone, traffic barely slowed, and in fifteen minutes I was west of the city. At first the N2 followed the coast, but it cut inland at Jeffrey’s Bay, an area that the hostel spoke of with reverence for its lovely surfing. Heavy clouds in Port Elizabeth had become a sprinkle. Since I was low on petrol, I decided to stop at Humansdorp, but I missed its exit. That put me in a pickle, since my map didn’t show any towns for some distance along the N2.
I decided to take a bit of a detour into an inland valley on the R62. I wouldn’t say that I heard banjos playing, but my visit to the hamlet of Kareedouw was a firm reminder why citizens are migrating out of smaller towns and the countryside. I turned off of the R62 when I saw a sign for a local clinic, thinking that might mark the business district. Instead, I was driving on mud in no time flat. I encountered a group of kids clustered around a convenience store. Shouted directions made it clear that my route was back on the main road. One kid insisted on detailing those directions at my car window. Then he said he could wash my car for me (he was standing in the rain, at the moment). Then, since I didn’t hand over money at that prod, he fell back upon “I’m hungry.” I don’t doubt that he was. I handed him a two Rand coin and got my car turned around. I found the gas station just a block further down the R62, and I had a nice chat with the attendant. I followed the signs back to the N2 via a road over a pass, and then I drove just a bit further, and soon found myself surrounded by signs advertising Tsitsikamma tourist attractions.
I had vaguely remembered reading about the significance of the Storms River bridge, and so I stopped at a tourist area at the N2 bridge over the river. The map from the tourist information center revealed that the mountains over which I had driven from Kareedouw were the Tsitsikamma Mountain Range! I had already passed through Whites Peak, and now I was in the Storms River Village area. A walkway led out to the N2 bridge, so I trundled my camera over there. I am glad I did, despite the rain. The gorge down to the Storms River is amazingly deep. As one looks toward the coast, he or she sees a succession of rock walls with a cleft down the middle, as though the river has serially worn its way through these barriers. With the camera strap securely around my neck, I extended my camera over the railing and pointed it straight down. The trees look pretty odd when viewed from the top. The river was so far away as to make me feel like I was in an airplane.
To be clear, this is not the famous bridge over Storms River. That bridge is at the mouth of the Storms River, inside the National Park, and it’s only for pedestrians. Now that the drizzle had picked up its intensity, the idea of paying to get into a park that was mostly hiking trails seemed somewhat less enjoyable. As I continued my journey, I was allowing a car to pass when I had to slow abruptly for a family of baboons. I want to clarify that baboons are a much heavier build than the vervet monkeys I had seen in the Addo Elephant National Park. One of the adults looked daggers at me and continued to usher his family off the shoulder of the road. I continued on my way. In no time at all, I had reached my destination.
I had decided to visit the Big Tree. As I left my car, I briefly considered putting on my hiking shoes. Why bother, I thought? The big tree isn’t much of a walk, not even a kilometer inside the park. I also chucked my water bottle back into the car as so much extra weight. Once inside the park, I learned that I would pay R36 for admission, and I saw that I could see a few different big trees if I added the 2.6 km yellow hiking trail to the 1.0 km green hike. Off I went! The drizzle did not abate, but the walk to the first big tree was very easy, and the park had constructed a boardwalk that led under the forest canopy right to its foot.
The tree itself seemed a bit of a let-down. Certainly it has a massive trunk, more than 8 m in circumference. Anyone who has seen a redwood, though, is likely to assume that a tree more than 1,000 years of age would be incredibly tall! In actuality, the big tree was no taller than some in my backyard when I was growing up in the Midwest of the United States. Another big tree , immediately behind the first, was also substantial, but it was also pretty squat.
After I took in the fallen tree view nearby, I came to the moment of truth. Would I take the yellow trail? First, could I find the yellow trail? After turning myself around, I saw that the yellow trail left at a steep upward slope, without the easy boardwalk of the green route. I began bounding upward.
Before too much time passed, I began asking myself a few questions. Why did I leave the water bottle behind? Why didn’t I change into my hiking shoes rather than my worn sneakers? Does it really matter that the brown hiking shoes would have clashed with my black leather belt?
Within a few more minutes, my questioning became a bit more strident. What if I were accosted by that family of baboons? Is it better to charge, freeze, or run if encountering primates in the forest? What if I slipped and broke my leg? Why didn’t I bring something to eat? Why hadn’t I given some consideration to the presence of poison ivy or sumac along the trail?
I did find a moment of comfort, though, when I heard a small creature rejoicing about the rain. Was he a bird? A frog? A baboon? Was he a she? I’m not sure, but I am glad for the song (this is a link to a short MP3 sound recording).
On I plunged, kilometer after kilometer. I found the big Outeniqua Yellowwood during the first part of the yellow track, but the second big tree eluded me. Soon, I realized that I must venture onto the red trail for a minute in order to find the big hard pear tree. I paused for a moment in front of it. Was I at my goal? The map merely showed that I had to walk a little bit down the red trail. What about that tree just a few feet back? Was its trunk larger or smaller than the two trunks of the hard pear? If you’re a tree competing for the title of “Big Tree,” are you cheating if you rely on a split trunk?
Standing in the forest, I would have been glad to see a little number tag on the tree, something to indicate that I had found the right one. Do I know what a wild hard pear looks like? Do you? Once my adventure was over, I asked the park ranger about the missing identification documents for the tree. She said that the tags were being produced, so in the meanwhile I would just have to rely on my own judgment. To return to the moment when I was standing in front of the tree, though, I must report that this is the moment that the full fury of the rain storm let loose. Since I was at the farthest point into the hike, I began my trudge back to the parking lot.
The scenery continued to be beautiful, despite my earlier panic. Feeling better now that I was headed out, I paused to photograph a bubbling brook. I fumbled, and the lens cap dropped through the boardwalk bridge into the mud below. I attempted to use my best chopstick technique to retrieve it, but that was never going to work. I changed my methods. Instead, I poked the lens cap along the mud until it was close the side of the bridge. I lay down on the ground and reached my arm under the bridge, ignoring that living things might be unhappy about my strategy. My fingers closed on the lens cap.
I hurried back to the entrance. When I reached the information booth, I looked like a drowned rat.