Nature’s Valley is a small village on the Garden Route along the southern Cape coast of South Africa, tucked between the Soutrivier, the foothills of the Tsitsikamma Mountains, the Indian Ocean and the Grootrivier lagoon. It has a balmy climate and the unusual status of being surrounded by the Tsitsikamma National Park, with the exception of Platbos Reserve, which is also conservation area, albeit privately owned.
The Tsitsikamma Park is one of the most visited in South Africa, because of the pleasant climate, the beauty of the scenery, the wealth of things to do and see, and also because environmental travellers enjoy the wilderness and the biodiversity. The Cape flora found in and around Nature’s Valley and on Platbos Reserve is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A network of trails covers the surrounding hills and beaches. The lagoon offers sheltered water for sailing and canoeing, without powerboating and beach buggies. A walk along beaches and a rocky path leads to the Salt River Mouth after crossing Pebble Beach, a large area completely covered in sea-smoothed cobbles.
East of Nature’s Valley is the Grootrivier Lagoon, which marks the end of the Otter Trail, starting at Storms River Mouth, 60km further east. This 5-day trail is considered by many hikers to be the finest in South Africa, being strenuous, scenic and extremely varied. The route meanders along the coast through evergreen forest, past boulder-strewn beaches and frequently crossing tannin-stained streams. Huts are available for the hiker at the end of each day, but bookings have to be made well in advance.
There is plenty to offer the visitor to Nature’s Valley, from the many varied hiking trails to the Animal Sanctuaries next door in The Crags. It is also just a short drive to the World’s Highest Bungee at the Bloukrans Bridge and Storms River Mouth.
The Tsitsikamma forest is an ecological wonderland. It can alternately be describes as a coastal temperate rainforest or an Afromontane forest. The forest on Platbos Reserve includes many if not all of the special species of tree found here, such as Real Yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), Outeniqua Yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus), and Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata). It is beautiful inside the forest, as if you are inside a cathedral. Sounds are muted, and the call of the birds are clear and simply enchanting. The forest canopy lets through dappled light, but keeps the air moist enough to smell of earth and humus. It is this forest that is so difficult to rehabilitate. It can take hundreds of years for the forest edge to advance only meters. The fynbos prepares the way for a nurse population of trees (such as Virgilia divaricata, or Cape lilac). Only under the shelter of these fast growing trees will the trees that characterise Tsitsikamma forest grow at all.
The meadows of fynbos look and feel completely different. Fynbos consists of low shrubbery, and what makes it so special is the variety of flowers and colours. Fynbos’s most wonderful attribute is the spicy, woody fragrance. In a fynbos field like this the air is full of the smell.
Platbos Reserve is home to several bush and forest mammals, such as the shy bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus), caracal (caracal), Chacma babboon (Papio ursinus), bushbuck (scriptus) and many more.
The forest and the open fields hosts a vast variety of different bird species. If you are a bird watcher you will enjoy the exquisite and very rare tauraco, which is popularly known as the Knysna lourie (Tauraco corythaix) in the forest, and several species of colourful sunbird in the fynbos.
Since it is a wilderness area snakes, spiders and insects are also plentiful.
The area has a very interesting political, social and environmental history. Palaeontological evidence abounds of the prehistoric hominins who peopled the coastline. Archeological digs at Plettenberg Bay’s Robberg and rock art in the De Vasselot section of the Tsitsikamma National Park indicate that earlier people were what are called strandlopers in South Africa, or beachcombers. By the time European traders and colonisers arrived, in mid-1600s, the people of the Cape were mainly Khoisan and Bantu peoples.
In the 18th century the port town of Knysna became a center of timber trade, which precipitated a woodcutter period of deforestation that saw some of the oldest trees in the forest, especially the yellowwoods, cut down. The forest suffered less damage than might be expected, since the woodcutters were selective about trees, leaving the forest canopy intact, and allowing the saplings to survive.
As the area developed forested areas were occasionally cleared to make way for plantations of exotic trees like pine. Forested areas like Platbos Reserve, which were initially part of the wild Tsitsikamma forest, were privately owned at the time when South Africa proclaimed the area a protected National Park, and for several decades served as farmland for potatoes and pine plantations. The soil became degraded and the forested parts started to dwindle. The fact that Nature’s Valley and Platbos Reserve are privately owned areas inside the Tsitsikamma National Park make then hotspots for environmentally-minded individuals to attempt forest rehabilitation. As a tourism attraction, it is especially exciting for travellers interested in the environment and eco-friendly tourism.