The hike in Newlands Forest today was beautiful but challenging. At least 80% of the trail was on rocks and many were large boulders – making it challenging going uphill as well as coming back down. It would have been difficult without sturdy hiking boots and poles and I had to keep my eyes focused on the trail, not the spectacular scenery.
We climbed Woodcutter’s Trail following a rocky creek bed most of the way. Hikers can bring their dogs on the trails so we shared the hike with dogs of all sizes and shapes. Many of them took a dip in the creek along the way, so the rocks in the spots where they shook themselves dry were wet and slippery.
At the top we had a divine picnic in the thick of the lush green forest. Several people were picnicking and some shared Table Mountain hiking stories with me and my hiking companions – Annabel and Ann.
I’m learning what a large mountain it is and that there are many trails of all levels. Hiking guides lead Table Mountain trips that last from days to weeks. You can pay others to arrange for food and camping or carry your own supplies. I’m smitten and anticipate spending many days exploring this incredible landscape which seems comfortable and somehow strangely familiar.
Newlands Forest is a conservancy area on the eastern slope of Table Mountain. It’s owned and maintained by the Table Mountain National Parks Board and the Cape Town City Parks Department. The area includes a fire station, nursery, and reservoir. Fire fighting helicopters take off and land at a Newlands Forest Heliport.
Newlands Forest is a “natural transition zone” between endangered indigenous plants – Granite Fynbos and Peninsula Shale Fynbos. At one time, the area supported large indigenous forests, but in the late 1800s most of the fynbos was felled to make way for commercial pine plantations.
Peninsula granite fynbos is an endangered vegetation type but it’s still found on the southern edges of Newlands Forest. The ecosystem is endemic to Cape Town and occurs nowhere else in the world. The striking silver tree with its giant protea flowers grows in this vegetation only. Other indigenous trees include stinkwood and yellowwood – both used for construction and furniture making.
“The Khoi-khoi (Xhosa) Tribe originally inhabited the area. They migrated and herded their cattle over much of what is now Cape Town. Jan van Riebeeck (the first Dutch governor of the Cape Colony) discovered extensive indigenous forests on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. By the late seventeenth century there was over-exploitation of the local afrotemperate forests due to the need for timber. The colonial government issued a series of (largely ineffectual) laws to protect the forests. However, by the end of the eighteenth century there were no more forests left on Table Mountain except a few pockets on the steep upper slopes.”
As indigenous wood supplies declined, the authorities cleared the eastern slopes of Table Mountain for commercial plantations. The plantations imported pines from Europe and America and gums (eucalyptus) from Australia. These two species supplied wood for the growing Cape timber industry. They grew fast, had quality wood, and produced straight uniform growth which made them easy to harvest. The imported trees rapidly spread and became invasive. Today, pine and eucalyptus trees are category 2 invasive weeds and rapidly seed into the surrounding indigenous forests and fynbos.
The two World Wars created a boom in the timber industry and the size of the imported forests grew. After the wars Cape Town’s logging industry declined. Removal of some of the tree plantations allowed for the return of the original natural fynbos vegetation. In Newlands Forest the last crop of imported trees stayed unharvested. The area took on a new function as a recreational area.