Into the whispering wood
Be careful of those forest people,” my dad warned me over the phone, tongue-incheek of course. He grew up in Knysna in the 1950s and knows a thing or two about this part of the world.
Cape Town dropouts, eco-greenies, rastas, elephants… What really goes on in those dappled spaces beneath the canopy?
The landscape around Knysna is full of back roads and dots on the map with evocative names like Rheenendal, Karatara and Millwood. On this visit to the capital of the Garden Route I’m going to forego the usual oysters and sunset lagoon cruises and head to those places instead.
Dalene Matthee, I hear you saying. Yes, Dalene is to Knysna what Che Guevara is to Cuba, but I don’t want this trip to be a nostalgic literary tour either.
Although Circles in the Forest was our set work in matric, I only finished reading the book a few months after the exam.
It’s impossible to give Dalene a miss, though. She’s a mythical figure in the Knysna Forest and always seems to weasel her way into conversations.
The forest is full of tall tales: facts, fables and fabrications coexist peacefully. It’s a place where the old adage applies: why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
When the water snake gets thirsty
The road to Rheenendal, about 20km northwest of Knysna, climbs up into the hills.
The Phantom Pass, apparently named after swarms of white moths that appeared like ghosts in front of passing ox-wagons, joins up with this road.
There’s forest everywhere but the trees have been cleared in parts to make way for agriculture. I drive past a few guest farms, a place that sells earthworms, a nursery and a restaurant. In the distance the Outeniqua Mountains rise up like the teeth of a giant wood saw.
Last year, Rheenendal made headlines when a terrible bus accident claimed the lives of 14 schoolchildren and the bus driver.
I visited two months after the tragedy and there were wooden crosses and flowers at the accident site, next to the names of the dead:
Cheswin, Antonio, Lisa, Michael…
The children who survived still travel this way to school every day. It’s a sobering thought and it gives the pretty scenery a darker edge.
My base for the next few days is the Homtini Guest Farm, next to the Homtini Pass. I get chatting with Lizel Malan, one of the cleaners, and she tells me all about her grandmother, Lydia Sas. Old Mrs Sas would tell Lizel stories when she was growing up, like the story about the big snake with a diamond on its forehead that sometimes blocked the road in the Homtini Pass.
“My grandmother always said when the mountain glittered in the sunlight it was the snake removing its diamond to drink water,” Lizel says.
In the 1800s, most of this district was owned by British settler Henry Barrington, who lived in a stately mansion called Portland Manor, now a guesthouse.
Portland Manor also features in Lizel’s stories. “A man from overseas once lived there with his slaves,” she tells me. “They had long arms and they were very hairy. The owner locked them underground and forced them to work all day.”
Lizel says that a woman called Lenie, who also worked at Portland Manor, fed these hairy slaves every day and fell in love with one. She taught him new words and later they got married and had children. Lizel tells me that Lenie’s descendents still live in the area, and some say the women are so strong that they can single-handedly carry a castiron stove.
“It’s easy to recognise them,” Lizel says. “But it’s not something we speak about.”
Tarzan’s last hurrah
The Homtini Pass is only 5km long but it’s narrow and bendy. “Homtini” comes from the Khoi expression for “difficult passage”.
Down by the river I meet a few guys from Keurhoek, a township outside Rheenendal.
Ivan Laminie is a taxi driver and his friend Brian a gardener. Ivan’s cousin Edward (“He was a Tarzan; built like a Tarzan.”) ran into the forest years ago, never to be seen again.
Brian remembers that day well: “Edward was wearing denim shorts. He was possessed.
He ran out of Keurhoek, past the waterworks, down Homtini. People chased after him, jumped from taxis to stop him…”
Ivan chips in: “Some people say it was witchcraft. Maybe someone spiked his drink? We all have our time. Nature pulls you in unknown directions; it can just take you away.”
The community consulted a witch at Bibby’s Hoek about Edward’s disappearance.
“That witch ate our money,” Brian says. “You should never listen to a witch.”
But Edward isn’t the only person to have vanished in the Knysna Forest. The most famous case is Rosalind Ballingall, a student from Cape Town. She joined a sect called Cosmic Butterfly and “got lost” in the forest in 1969 after a drug-fuelled party. She hasn’t been seen since.
Suddenly the forest, friendly in the summer sunlight, seems impenetrable and full of secrets.
Former“saw doctor”Warren Cooper lives with his cat Benji in HighwayWest near Rheenendal.Warren is always keen for a chat, if Benji approves of course…
On the stoep in Legoland
Warren Cooper, a retired handyman who lives in Highway West, is not only a raconteur of note, he’s also Knysna’s version of the Marlboro Man in his cowboy boots and Stetson hat. Benji the Biter, his ginger cat, watches me with a wary eye while Warren gives me a history lesson over a few cups of coffee.
We dip into life in the forest: the first settlers, the short-lived gold rush at Millwood in the 1880s, the Italian silkworm farmers who just couldn’t catch a break, Thomas Bain’s passes, Dalene Matthee, the woodcutters and of course Henry Barrington’s Portland Manor.
He also tells me about the Great Fire of 1869 when most of the forest – from Swellendam to Humansdorp – burnt down.
“It was a very dry year,” Warren says. “A filthy berg wind was blowing, a north-westerly wind. A fire broke out and came through here – the entire forest burnt. It all went up in smoke.”
Barrington, who was blamed for the fire by some, lost everything. His beloved Portland Manor, which took nine years to build, was in ruins.
Warren quotes Barrington’s diary entry from 10 February 1869: “My God, to what a state we are now reduced.”
“He started rebuilding his house the next day,” Warren says. “There’s a story about a bloke that settled in China and started to build a house. The local children warned him that he was building on a dragon’s eye and that’s bad luck. I always think that Portland Manor was built on a dragon’s eye.”
Could be, because Barrington had terrible luck. He tried his hand at everything: sawmills, honey, mulberry trees for silkworms, apple orchards, tobacco… you name it. But he had no success. Since his death in 1882, Portland Manor has had a slew of owners, none of whom has been able to turn the place around.
“These days the house looks beautiful and the food they serve is excellent, but it just won’t fly,” Warren says.
The woodcutters of the area are especially close to Warren’s heart. In 1939, the remaining 258 were relocated to live outside the forest.
“You could recognise those men from a mile away,” Warren says. “They lived a hard life. They were thin but phenomenally strong, they were made out of biltong.”
He tells me about Michiel and Hendrik Zeelie, direct descendants of the first woodcutters, who live in nearby Bibby’s Hoek:
“They’re the last two I’ve seen around here.
To think that once upon a time you could shake a tree and two Barnards and a Fransen would fall out.”
Warren suggests that I chat to Michiel and Hendrik about the old days. “And take a drive through Karatara,” he says. “Speak to the old people leaning on their fences.”
I followWarren’s advice and drive to Karatara, about 20km west of Rheenendal. If you look at the village from the sky on Google Earth, it looks like Legoland: 120 houses, all the same size, in neat rows.
There was a forestry station here for a long time and many of the woodcutters were relocated to Karatara to work in the surrounding plantations. Today it’s a quiet village with a church, a school, a post office and two shops.
In Karatara, at any time of the day, sitting on a stoep counts as doing something. Soon I find myself on the stoep of 70 year old Ben Zeelie.
“Many people from here act like they have never heard of this place, but I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else,” Ben says. “Our children are just as bright as those in the big cities. They become preachers, doctors, teachers…”
Ben’s wife Mol peeks through the front door and adds: “I’ve said it many times, the newspapers always say we’re arme kaalgatte; we’ll show them a thing or two.”
Ben worked in forestry for most of his life, with bowsaws and crosscut saws before the chainsaw came along.
“It was a struggle but those were the good days,” he says. “Not this hurried life where people are always losing touch with each other.”
Michiel and hendrik Zeelie arewoodcutters to the marrow. Their ancestors, the people who inspired dalene Matthee’s series of Knysna novels, lived and worked in the Goudveld Forest.
A Stoney for a story
Unlike Henry Barrington, luck seems to be on my side: I bump into Michiel and Hendrik Zeelie in Rheenendal. I can’t help thinking of those faded blackandwhite photos of the first woodcutters when I see these sweettempered but bewildered men standing in front of me as I prepare to take their picture. They’re both about 60 years old with huge hands, rough and scarred from decades of manual labour. They’ve just finished a full day’s work and they’re about to embark on a 10km walk home.
I offer them a lift and we stop halfway to buy some ginger beers. As we drive, the brothers point out the places where they’ve fixed a roof or chopped down a tree. We stop at their sparsely furnished house near Forest Edge, where many woodcutters have been buried.
Michiel and Hendrik’s ancestors grew up and lived in the Goudveld Forest. There they felled giant yellowwood and stinkwood trees and transported the logs to the sawmills in Knysna by oxwagon.
Sometimes all they got in return were food items like flour and sugar. “I know how to yoke oxen,” Hendrik says. “Most people my age don’t know how to do that anymore. Or how to plant a sweet potato.”
Michiel remembers sleeping in a grain bag next to the fire and sinking into mattresses of straw in winter; the karrie (a honey beer) that they drank on Saturday nights and how his father would play the concertina and tell them about a man called Pienaar who tried to shoot an elephant with a muzzleloader, only to be catapulted backwards by the rifle’s tremendous recoil.
The Zeelie brothers want nothing to do with Knysna – “the city” as they call it.“If I’m in the city for half an hour I’ve had enough,” Hendrik says.
“I’ll stay here until the day I die.”
Things in the forest
Speaking of ghosts…
Portland Manor looks like a film set. I expect Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant to appear at any moment, ready for the next take of Sense and Sensibility.
The 200-hectare citrus and game estate is impressive, with sprawling gardens, a dam and even a few zebras. Debbie Corne, the friendly hostess who renovated the house with her husband Denis, shows me the first mulberry tree that Barrington planted. But the bad luck struck again: the gardeners who were tasked with pruning the historic tree did such a thorough job they almost turned it into a bonsai.
And last year, the estate’s resident hippo, Hubertha, died after being bitten by a puff adder.
We sit down to chat in the elegant dining room of the manor house. The floor and ceiling are made from indigenous wood and a portrait of Henry Barrington hangs on the wall.
“He tried everything but nothing worked out,” Debbie says. “It’s a sad history, but even though this place has never prospered I don’t see it as a curse.”
When things go wrong in the old building, like when a light bulb blows, Debbie has been known to mutter aloud:
“Come on Henry, give us a break!”
Our conversation inevitably turns to ghosts. Debbie hasn’t seen a ghost with her own eyes but she’s heard the rumours:
“A staff member was once showing a guest around when the man asked, ‘Who’s that little boy on the stairs. He’s asking for Annie.’ A woman called Annie once worked here as a nanny years ago, but here’s the thing: there was no one on the stairs.”
I watch Debbie in the rear-view mirror as she closes the big gates of Portland Manor.
Judging by what I’ve heard, I can’t help feeling sorry for Henry Barrington. May the dragon turn a blind eye and may Debbie have better luck with his mansion in the future.
I drive and drive, away from the forest and back to the N2, with stories swirling around my head. Try as I might, I can’t sift fact from fiction. But does it matter? Dalene Matthee, who knew this duplicitous world best, sums it up: “Between man and the forest lies but a thin veil. Like a cobweb. Like an invisible mist through which you can see if you could open your eyes wide enough.”