The simplest way to access the wonder of Woody Cape is to do the Tree Dassie Trail.
The 7km trail loops through the forest beginning and ending in the area of the SANParks reception. Woody Cape is of course part of the Addo Elephant National Park and there is a park ranger manning the office who will supply you with a map and answer questions.
Having packed water and snacks in a light backpack, my oldest son Ben and I set out early from the guesthouse and within a few minutes we were embraced by the forest.
Trees of every description welcomed us in, powerful and physical but somehow friendly, a crowded mosaic of textures, shapes and sizes overlain by white and goldenbrown lichen, draped with old man’s beard and monkey ropes, clenched and tunnelled through by python-like vines.
We could identify only a few but there were endemics among them I knew from my reading, like Cape chestnuts and Cape wing-nuts.
There were also milkwoods, boxwoods, coral trees, knobwoods, Cape teaks, bush boerbeans, coastal guarries, bush guarries, white ironwoods, white stinkwoods and red ivories.
Giant yellowwoods towered against a palette of blue sky.
Endemic to the Eastern Cape, the forest at Woody Cape is “Alexandria Forest”, an extremely vulnerable type in conservation terms. Most of our Alexandria Forest has been lost to planted pastures and only 5% is formally conserved.
Along the trail, the trunks and roots of the trees were wrapped in blankets of moss, and strange-looking toadstools sprouted from the deep layers of leaf litter. We spotted an orb spider web set back from the path in a shaft of sunlight. Birdcall was omnipresent: tweeting, whooping, rasping, croaking, pinging. Now and then for no apparent reason the cicada beetles would launch their zinggging song – and then just as suddenly stop.
That afternoon we were privileged to enjoy a drive over the dunes and down to the wild Woody Cape shoreline with veteran ranger Sgt Lungile Somyali.
Criss-crossed by the spoor of birds and animals like jackals, bushpigs and pygmy hairy-footed gerbils, dotted with ancient strandloper middens and mysterious wetlands in the dune slacks, this is the largest dunefield in the Southern Hemisphere. Stretching 50km from the Sundays River mouth to Woody Cape, it has been growing for 6 500 years since the end of the last Ice Age. This is also the route of SANParks’ legendary Alexandria Trail, a 32km hike with an overnight stop in a hut on a dune cliff above the sea. It’s a magnificent hike but a tough one by all accounts and one option is to do an extra night on the trail with the first at Woody Cape Backpackers & Nature Lodge before accessing the beach there.
At the SANParks guesthouse where we were staying swallows had built a mud nest under the roof in the corner of the veranda and it was a delight to watch these birds and their companions sailing above the house in the evening and early morning snaffling insects.
On our last night we were given the opportunity to transfer to one of the Langebos Huts which have been beautifully renovated and made available again to the public.
There are just two of them situated a kilometre into the forest up a dirt road so you feel wonderfully private and independent.
There is electricity and all the conveniences for cooking inside but also a big braai area out front which kept my boys chopping, burning and otherwise captivated for some time.
In the hut we were in they have designed the building around a large tree that grows between the bathroom and kitchen with a raised walkway leading between the two.
We were at the end of a week’s holiday feeling grubby, hungry and tired of sleeping bags so it was a great luxury to have a good shower, to cook up all remaining provisions and tuck ourselves into crisp bedclothes.
Outside in the forest that night the tree dassies shrieked but we slept like babies.
– Guy Rogers