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Park guide Marthinus Sky explains that Tsitsikamma is a Khoe tribe word, which translates as 'many waters', and that the area gets over 1,200mm of rainfall each year. Vegetation grows quickly here, but can be reduced to burning embers in even less time by a lightning strike. 'Nature does the work it needs to do to replenish itself,' says Marthinus. 'But the indigenous forest has its own roof, so wind and oxygen are reduced and we don't see the fires that have devastated the surrounding countryside.' Furry little dassie (rock hyrax) scurry along the forest floor - incongruously, the animal's closest relatives are elephants, though they look more like overgrown guinea pigs. Marthinus points out an arum lily, a striking white bloom known as the 'death flower' because of its use in funeral arrangements.

Storms River was once the transport hub of a booming 18th-century lumber industry. Logs were cut from the forest further inland and floated downriver, where they were loaded onto ships bound for export. Upriver here and at the Sandrift River, which runs parallel 10 miles to the east, the colour of the water is striking - imagine looking into a cup of strong, dark coffee. The shade is the result of tannin released from fynbos roots, the bitter taste of which helps to defend the plant against hungry animals. Defending the ecosystem of Tsitsikamma's 65,000 hectares is easier now that it has state legislature on its side. Just like the fynbos root, the park and all the life within it thrives.

Further information:

  • Find South African National Parks at parks-sa.co.za
  • For a guide to Tsitsikamma, see tsitsikamma.info

Side trip
Near the town and beautiful lagoon of Knysna (pronounced ny-znah) is Concordia, a sprawling township built mostly from locally grown timber. Eco Afrika runs day trips incorporating visits to a sangoma (traditional healer) and a shebeen (unlicensed bar), as well as the Grass Routes neighbourhood - the largest community of Rastafarians in the country (tours £26; eco-afrika-tours.co.za).

Where to stay: Misty Mountain Reserve
Perched atop a bluff over the ocean are a collection of individual cottages with large Jacuzzi baths. This is the perfect second-night stopover for those who wish to walk the Dolphin Trail: a not-toostrenuous coastal hike that can be spread over three days (see website for details; £95; mistymountainreserve.co.za).

Addo Elephant National Park: Best for safari

The jeep comes to a halt and all heads swivel, searching for life in the low bushes, tall grass and distant hills. Nearby dense, bright-green spekboom plants - referred to as 'elephant's food' - begin to rattle, shaking loose some of their succulent leaves. A prehistoric-looking dung beetle, its shiny black shell like armour plating, creeps past the front of the vehicle. Before it can complete its journey, three African elephants burst from the undergrowth, dwarfing the tiny creature and stealing the limelight. Our guide, Jonathan Grootboom, points to their great flapping ears - the shape of the African continent itself.

At Addo, a national park created from farmland situated only 45 miles from the city of Port Elizabeth, these two species represent a conservation success story. There are strict traffic rules to protect the beetles, endemic only to Addo, and elephants once reduced to a mere dozen now number more than 400. So successful has been their rehabilitation that park authorities are now contemplating contraceptive measures. Also roaming free are hyenas and lions, brought here from the Kalahari in 2003 to bring the kudu, ostrich and warthog populations down.

All Addo's creatures have their role to play in the circle of life. Female beetles bury elephant dung underground to eat, simultaneously fertilising the soil and allowing the abundant growth of spekboom plants - the leaves of which are the main source of moisture for elephants.

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