January’s heat saw us seeking the shady trails of Newlands Forest rather than being out on the peaks of Silvermine, where the fynbos is only knee high. Setting out at an early 8am, we pictured ourselves winding along paths thick with shed pine needles under the towering conifers that make up a large portion of the forest. But no, our intrepid leader led us onward and ever upward along a sometimes narrow and stony track – and even at times without any sheltering trees!
There were mutters and mumbles, whingeing and whining as we tramped on through territory we all swore we had never seen before. It is not for nothing that Newlands forest is renowned for the criss-crossing paths that confuse and mislead. As we looked up at the cliff face above us, our suspicions were confirmed. We were on our way up to the top contour, an elevation of 360 metres and hence one of our highest climbs. Many rest stops were called, even without the usual excuse of my holding everyone up while taking a photo of a tiny flower or a fungus clinging to a fallen log.
At last we came to a gate with a stile next to it, which we recognised from a hike a few years back from the other direction. At this point we turned left, having almost reached the King’s Blockhouse above Groote Schuur Hospital, and continued upward. By now we had long left the pines behind and found ourselves under the canopy of part of the last remaining Afro-montane forest on these mountains – the rest having long succumbed to the intrusion of Man and fires over the centuries. The contour was reached and the path levelled accordingly.
What an enchanting forest! Bird calls echoed from the trees, up in the ravines the streams tinkled over moss-covered boulders, the variety of indigenous trees a sight to behold. Forgotten were the ills of the uphill as we stopped to admire bracket fungi, delicate green fern fronds, the glossy leaves of the rooi els. Lovingly laid stonework stretched in front of us, paths from a bygone era to ease our access to these wondrous mountains of ours. A modern wooden boardwalk gave us a spring in our steps as we meandered from ravine to ravine, a sheer drop on the left and buttresses of layered shale on the right. Enormous saffron trees clung with mangled roots to rocks that sometimes gave up trying to support these giants, and freshly cut up trunks lay along the side of the trail as evidence of their last gasp.
It took around four hours to work our way back to the cars, two of them tortuous and two making the entire exercise so unbelievably worthwhile!