SA's Big Trees: In Search of the Kings of the Knysna Forest

"Like a mighty king, it stood towering above the white alder and mountain saffron, stinkwood, assegai and hard pear. As if God had planted it long before the others. Its giant roots anchored it to the ground like giant arms..." - Dalene Matthee - Circles in a Forest, 1984.

Many of the landscapes in South Africa serve as reminders that Mother Nature was here long before we were. And regardless of how powerful we feel or think we are, Mother Nature will continue long after we are gone too. 

The legacy of age-old wonders created by Mother Nature is something to admire and protect, which is luckily what South African National Parks is doing in the iconic Knysna Forest in the Garden Route National Park. 

This is one of the best places in the country to admire the 'Kings' of centuries pasts. 

Contrary to many travellers' thinking, there aren't only a single Big Tree in the Garden Route forests. Almost every tree in those magical woods, in fact, has a history dating back  further than most of our lives. 

What Big Trees are concerned, however, there are four official Big Trees in the Garden Route National Park, including the Dalene Matthee Big Tree. Here's a guide to exploring these Biggest Trees of the Knysna Forests...

The Woodville Big Tree

The Outeniqua yellowwood tree in Woodville is a huge, tall tree that is about 31 meters. It is believed to be over 800 years old.

One of the best ways to see this Big Tree is by walking a clearly marked path which leads into the forest, crossing a stream several times. 

Many of the other trees on the route are labelled so one can identify them. 

This is a circular trail extending about 2 km. There is a designated picnic area with ablutions and wheelchair-friendly walkways through the forest. 

How to get to Woodville Hiking Trail with Big Tree from the N2: Take the Hoekwill turn-off just outside Wilderness on the Knysna side. This road becomes the old Knysna-George road. Follow it to the turn-off to the picnic site on the left, about 16 km in total from Wilderness.

A photo posted by Sumesh (@sumeshy) on

Tsitsikamma Forest's Big Tree

Located only a short way west of the Paul Sauer Bridge along the N2 is the Tsitsikamma Forest's Big Tree, which stretches its distinctive Yellowwood leaves skywards, towering over the other trees in the canopy. 

This tree is estimated to be between 600 and 800 years old and is 36.6 meters high with a trunk circumference of 9m – a giant among giants.

You can explore the area on a 10-minute walk through the indigenous forest, as a 500m wooden boardwalk stretches through the forest to the Yellowwood giant. 

The Ratel Nature Walk follows on from this Big Tree. This trail offers either a 2.6km or 4.2km walk through a wet part of the high forest. Both options are relatively easy. 

How to get there: The well sign-posted 'Big Tree' is situated just off the N2, east of the entrance to Storms River Village. From here, walking to the tree takes about 10 minutes. 

The tree is accessible by vehicle for those with limited mobility, by special permission. 

A photo posted by Eduan Naude (@eduanaude) on

The Dalene Matthee Big Tree

The giant Outeniqua Yellowwood Tree at Krisjan-se-Nek was named after Dalene Matthee at the unveiling of the memorial. 

This tree is some 880 years old and 40 meters tall. 

From the tree and memorial, you can also do one of the Circles in a Forest hiking trails. Two trails start at Krisjan-se-Nek - one trail of 3 km (about 1,5 hours) and one of 9 km (about 3 hours). 

The effort level ranges from easy to moderate, making these trails accessible to anyone over the age of 5. 

This route was previously known as the Woodcutter's Trail but was named after Dalene Matthee during the unveiling of the memorial. Hence, these routes are now known as the Circles in a Forest trail. 

This route takes you to the heart of this indigenous forest, past Outeniqua Yellowwood trees that have been growing there for hundreds of years, tree ferns that are over 3 meters tall, babbling streams and exquisite fungus. 

How to get there: Follow the N2 from George to Knysna. Take the Rheenendal turn-off 15 km before Knysna. Continue along this road for about 20 km until you reach Rheenendal. Take the Bibby's Hoek and Goudveld turn-off just past Rheenendal.

Turn to the right here and follow the dirt road until you reach a four-way stop. Continue straight on until you reach the access gate and pay point. Krisjan-se-Nek Krisjan-se-Nek is about 4 kilometres further on.

A photo posted by Christelle (@stelcrochet) on

The King Edward VII Big Tree 

Perhaps the most famous Big Tree of the Garden Route, this tree is also known as the King Edward VII tree or the Diepwalle Big Tree. The famous landmark and visitor attraction near Diepwalle Forest Station is an Outeniqua yellowwood.  

It is close to 40 meters high and about 9 meters in diameter.

It is more than 800 years old, and one of the few giant trees left after the unsustainable method of tree harvesting was stopped in 1939.

Around the Big Tree, there is a short 450m circular forest walk following a wooden boardwalk, which is wheelchair and baby push car friendly. 

The 8km (circular) White Elephant Hiking Trail also passes through here if you want to do a longer trail.

Water, bush toilet, tables and braai areas (take your own braai grid) are available on the premises. 

How to get there: From Knysna take the N2 towards Plettenberg Bay. About 4km from Knysna take the R339 Uniondale turnoff to the left and follow this road for 15.8km and take the turnoff at the control boom to the left.

If you're in the area, it's also worthwhile to see the Forest Legends Museum. 

The museum sits at the Diepwalle Section of the Garden Route National Park and tells forgotten stories of the hardworking Woodcutters, the mighty Knysna Elephant and of a forest with secrets which are still well kept.

The massive, intact elephant skeleton and timeline of the lives of the Forest Giants is an eye-opener. 

Bird life around these trees is spectacular and rare indigenous birds live off the yellowwoods for food and shelter, including and not limited to the Cape Parrot, the Knysna Turaco and African pigeon. Mammals found around the trees are monkeys, bush pigs, bats and rodents.

NOTE: There are boardwalks under the big trees providing easy access.

Entry fees to see the trees range from R17 for adults and R9 for children. During SA National Parks Week, entrance is free to all South African citizens.

READ: SANParks FREE entry week dates announced

Yellowwood trees are protected under the National Forests Act of 1998 and may not be cut, damaged, destroyed or disturbed without a licence.  

Want to visit the Garden Route?

What to read next on Traveller24

Forest Fairy: New historical route launched in the Knysna forest

SANParks FREE entry week dates announced

WATCH: Elusive Knysna elephant captured on camera

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