If you go down to the woods of Knysna today you could be in for a big surprise - this part of South Africa is home to a population of forest elephants
Stepping through cloaking forest, where the sky can be hidden by thick canopy, vines wrap around trees and the distant screech of squabbling baboons punctures the silence, offers its own adventure appeal. Throw in the prospect that the world’s southernmost elephants could be roaming exactly the same woods, and it adds a whole other level of excitement.
The lure of a possible sighting will certainly keep you on your toes when you step through the richly dense woods of Diepwalle, just over 20km northeast of Knysna on South Africa’s Southern Cape, home to one of the world’s few forest elephant populations. These are the country’s only remaining unfenced elephants, roaming an area of 500 square kilometres that includes the distinctive fynbos-covered mountains.
Sightings have, however, been scarce. Ivory hunting in the late 1800s decimated the population and by 1970 it was estimated that only 11 remained. Recent studies have tested the DNA of dung found in the forest and identified five females, indicating that a small elephant population still exists.
But there’s no guarantee of seeing one. Your guide will make this very clear. This is a wild landscape and there are no certainties. Instead, he will help to train your eyes to start looking for the visual clues that might suggest the elephants' presence. You look for marks on trees where they might have rubbed an itch, the signs of dung and even trampled ground and broken leaves. Tuning your eyes and ears into this gives the walk an added sense of intrigue as you delve further into the foliage. Every rustle amongst the closely packed bushes and overhanging trees will have you stopping dead in your tracks.
Three different walks on well-marked trails allow you to explore this striking Afromontane forest, which also boasts some of the country's largest trees, including King Edward's Big Tree, a 600-year-old towering giant yellowwood. There’s also a host of colourful birdlife, like the indigenous hoopoe and Knysna loerie, flitting in the branches above.
Further into the forest, huge ferns wave in the breeze, their giant interlacing fronds sometimes almost hiding the path from view. They part to reveal the Gounarivier, an ambling river where the brown bubbling water is almost the colour of cola.
If the elephants remain elusive, you can always track some down at the Knysna Elephant Park. Located between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, this is a sanctuary for orphans from the country’s various national parks. It was born out of the struggle by the elephants in the Knysna Forest. Their dwindling numbers stepped up conservation efforts and the park was formed. Here it is possible to take an evening or morning stroll with the animals, ensuring close encounters of the elephant kind.