Within a few decades of Europeans arriving en masse in the Cape, most of the slow-growing indigenous forests had been felled for timber. Some of the largest trees on the continent - giant outeniqua yellowwoods, ironwoods and stinkwoods - had lorded over the south of Africa for centuries.
As so-called civilization spread into the interior, the lumberjacks sought out the few remaining pockets of decent timber that grew only in the gorges of the fynbos-clad Cape fold mountains.
The last remaining forests of Cape Town can be seen at Orangekloof near Hout Bay and Skeleton Gorge in Kirstenbosch. But these are small and token examples.
To experience the true impact of a sizeable Cape afrotemperate forest, head to Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve – and Boosmansbos Wilderness Area - between Swellendam and Heidelberg.
Perhaps the only reason these pristine woods in the kloofs of the Langeberg mountains still stand is because of a brooding hermit who once roamed the crepuscular gorges.
This “boosman” – or “angry man” – escaped early 19th century society, and possibly the law, to live his life away from the rapidly changing world. Perhaps the timber men were wary of his pugilistic reputation, or maybe the kloofs were just too steep and remote. Whatever the reason, the forests still stand.
And so we left Cape Town on a recent Friday morning, with an approaching cold front in our rear view mirror, to get away from the traffic and Twitter of early 21st century and to retrace the hermit’s path into the Langeberg.
Grootvadersbosch is a three-hour drive east on the N2 from Cape Town, 25 kilometres north-west of Heidelberg. Just 500 hectares, this CapeNature reserve is surrounded by the much larger 14 000 hectare Boosmansbos Wilderness Area.
We arrived mid-afternoon and set up camp on the lawns at Grootvadersbosch. An extensive forest is just a few minutes walk away, and a network of well-marked paths makes it easy to explore. This is a magic land of tall trees, ferns and amber streams.
We felt we were being watched, and we probably were. There are 200 odd bird species including crowned eagle, Narina trogon, Knysna woodpecker and wood owl. There are rare dwarf chameleons, emperor butterflies and a rare subspecies of Cape ghost frog.
Reserve ranger Llewellyn Michaels – a veteran of 18 years service – told me he once saw a leopard stalking a bushbuck in the forest. It’s the only leopard Llewellyn has actually seen in 18 years of foot patrols, but camera trap photos, spoor and dung prove they are regularly present.
That night we were the only people at Grootvadersbosch, braaing and sleeping under the stars. A crescent moon illuminated the high cirrus of the cold front that had already hit Cape Town.
The next morning we set out into Boosmansbos, to hike the two-day wilderness trail. Proclaimed in 1978, this mountain area has nothing man-made within its borders, except for two basic stone hiking huts near the top of Grootberg (1 637m).
The circular hiking route is 27 kilometres, 14km on the first day (6 hours) and 13 kilometres on the second (5 hours). The renowned hiking author Mike Lundy considered the Boosmansbos Trail one of the finest in the country.
“It’s difficult to imagine how I overlooked this gem for as long as I did…I discovered what is arguably the most breathtakingly beautiful mountain scenery outside of the Drakensberg,” he wrote in his excellent Weekend Trails in the Western Cape.
The views of Grootberg and Horingberg (1 498m) are always present on the trail. The gorges are thick with indigenous forest and the slopes are covered with more than a thousand fynbos species, of which about 160 are found nowhere else.
We walked through dense stands of ericas (look out for the spectacular orange Erica blenna), while crimson Mimetes cucullatus and shuttlecock sugarbushes blazed in the sunlight like flaming torches. Sunbirds and Cape sugarbirds divebombed from the sky onto the technicoloured tapestry below.
That night we took refuge in the stone shelter as the cold front finally hit. No fires are allowed in the wilderness area, so we warmed ourselves up with some whiskey, cooked pasta on our camping stove, ate chocolate, drank hot buchu tea and more whisky and then fell asleep on our hiking mats, listening to the rain pelting the tin roof.
It started snowing the next morning. We walked through a wonderland of fynbos sprinkled with icing. And so we did what seemed natural – we howled a few barbaric yawps from the mountaintops.
After several kilometres of easy walking, we came to the steep Duiwenhoks River gorge. After descending we had lunch on the banks (another great swimming spot!), then made the steep climb out the other side onto the ridge, and ended up back an hour later at Grootvadersbosch camp site.
This CapeNature reserve – and the adjacent Boosmansbos Wilderness Area – is a must-visit for tree fans, fynbos fundis, birders, hikers, photographers, adventurers, mountain bikers - and hermits wanting to escape the modern world.
www.capenature.co.za or tel 028-722-2412. Grootvadersbosch has 10 camp sites, each with electricity and water point, and communal ablutions. R300 to R370 for 6 people. Boosmansbos trail permit costs R60 per person. There are no toilets in the wilderness area, so remember to take a trowel, and be very careful burning your toilet paper during summer to avoid starting fires. Be sure to carry out all your rubbish.