Activities / Attractions / KwaZulu Natal

Durban’s Ancient Forest – Not Even The Locals Know About It

Updated Sunday, 9 December 2018

Jocelyn Sutherland’s hands are full of litter when she meets us at the gate to Hawaan Forest. She’s incensed by the dumping of bougainvillea on the edge of the forest’s perimeter fence, and by the litter. ‘Hardly any one local knows about this magnificent forest, ‘ she shares by way of greeting, ‘it is visitors to Durban who want to know more about it, not the locals.’

We’ve met just off the M4 at Umhlanga, one of Durban’s more privileged neighbourhoods on the north coast. The M4 divides the green forest belt in two, yet there couldn’t be two more divergent forests.

Across the M4 the forest rests on a 2 000 year-old sand dune. Sounds old enough but Hawaan, by contrast, stands sturdy on a sand dune that is 18 000 years old. It’s mind-boggling to think that something that old still exists…

Durbans Ancient Forest

Hawaan Forest, owned and managed by Tongaat Hulett, is 80 hectares of pristine coastal climax forest. The ‘climax’ part of the description, we learn, means it has reached its full potential of growth. Despite sounding as though it has reached its zenith, the term ‘climax’, in fact, refers to its capacity to reproduce indefinitely, largely due to its providing its own shade.

Hawaan is the also last of its kind. Which is why Jocelyn, as the forest’s custodian and member of the Botanical Society, is so very passionate that it remain unharmed, and that people come to understand how vulnerable it is.

That people dump alien invasive plants along the perimeter of the forest is the real issue,’ explains Jocelyn. ‘If the seeds of these plants germinate then the pristine quality of Hawaan is endangered, particularly as we have worked so hard to clear and maintain the forest.’

Hawaan is a dry-forest, which means there is no natural water source. Not even rain really affects the forest because of its density – the forest is thick with creepers – various varieties and 48 different species, we learn as we begin to follow Jocelyn along sand paths she and a group of women clear on a regular basis.

To add to the forest’s value, there are 187 different species of trees in Hawaan alone, many of them endemic to the area. When you consider that the whole of Europe has but 67 different tree species, Hawaan begins to take on legendary proportions.

Jocelyn is a font of knowledge. She regularly points out different trees and vines, like the endemic Natal coshwood that always grows in tandem with the equally endemic Natal hickory.

Durbans Ancient Forest

Other trees have names that sound as though they belong in a story about faerie folk: wild asparagus, forest fever berry, forest olive, the dwaba berry, wild grape, and white stinkwood.

By now we’ve reached a clearing in the forest that she explains is used during a bi-annual non-denominational blessing of the forest. A bench rests off to one side in memory of Alistair and Phoebe Carnegie, who up until recently tirelessly worked to maintain the forest until Jocelyn took over as custodian.

We hear the call of the Knysna Lourie and later sight a big group of crested guinea fowl. But they are so shy, and so obviously worried by our presence, that we do not manage to get terribly close.

Double-barrel vines twist and turn and we have to manoeuvre ourselves through and around them in a parody of tunnelling. Some of the vines are so thick they look more like ropes than vines.

We reach a buffalo thorn tree, which Jocelyn explains is the granddaddy of trees in Hawaan. Many of the tribes in Africa are buried with a twig of Buffalo thorn; one thorn to indicate a past life, two thorns for a future life. This particular example, she thinks, is about 400 years old. It is unusual to see buffalo thorns as tall as they are in Hawaan where they function as canopy trees.

Many of the trees in Durbans Ancient Forest have split trunks. This is a natural form of coppicing, when a tree produces multiple stems growing out of the main trunk. Often one of the stems is dead, and the tree, in a bid to regenerate, produces a new trunk.

Durbans Ancient Forest

Jocelyn points out a couple of what she calls ‘natural gaps’ in the forest. They look like simple clearings or openings in the forest canopy and have no reason for being there. The Botanical Society, and the group of students from the local university busy studying the forest whilst comparing it with other ancient afromontane forests on the coast, are busy monitoring the gaps, but neither has an explanation.

Ahead of us is a thorny elm (Chaetacme aristata) which has a classic example of coppicing from its base. Its naturally swollen bases of branches look exactly like knobkerries used by Zulu tribesmen as an attacking tool. But they also look almost impossible to remove, the wood is so hard. Birds love the thorny elm, and snakes use the bark to slough off their skins.

By now we’ve walked through a lot of forest and I can easily imagine getting lost (Jocelyn relates how, indeed, parties have found themselves walking in circles trying to find the path, which is easily covered with leaves). We have reached a part of the forest where there are bigger spaces between the trees; the sea just visible between the predominantly white stinkwood trees.

I realise how this undulating forest and its beauty have grown on me. It is a pity there is no formal way for people to share the forest’s beauty. Keeping it under lock and key, although understandable, does seem a shame.

To visit the Hawaan Forest:

Contact Jocelyn Sutherland on +27 (0)83 275-2216.

Take along:

A hat, binoculars, a sturdy pair of walking shoes and a willingness to sit awhile before seeing any birds.

Other animals in the forest:

bushbuck, bushpig, mongoose, tiny duiker, scrub hair, African rock python, dwarf chameleon, coast purple tip butterfly (endemic to KZN).

Destination links:

Hawaan Forest