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A roundabout visit to South Africa's natural forests

A Walk In The Woods

By J.F. Kloppers

Its sort of a fact that scientific research basically just confirms what we already know by nature or by sheer common sense.

Walking in the woods (or “forest bathing”) for health is one of those things. After all, who doesn’t feel better after a nice hike in the great outdoors, surrounded by trees and singing birds?

During the Soviet-era over in the now Anti Gay Russia, a scientist named Boris Tokin found that trees and other plants release chemicals called phytoncides that protect plants from harmful organisms. In recent years, Japanese scientists connected Boris’ studies with a finding that walking in the woods or the forest has significant health benefits around these areas for humans as well.

The irony is that humans are probably trees’ biggest threat, but I’m thankful phytoncides are good for us too! Apparently, breathing in phytoncide-rich air has positive immunological effects. One Japanese study tested the levels of natural killer cells (NK) in subjects after they spent three days in the forest and found that the subjects’ NK activity increased by 50%. NKs are one of the immune system’s main mechanisms of defense against cancer and viruses. Time in the forest was also associated with an increase in inter-cellular, anti-cancer proteins.

The really good news is that the NK boosting effects of spending time in the forest lasts for about a month – a great excuse to take a monthly trip to your local forest for camping and hiking!

There is also reason to believe that living in heavily forested areas is associated with a decreased risk of early mortality and cancer.

Researchers compiled data from several major cities in Japan and found that populations that lived in areas with more trees had a decreased rate of several different types of cancer.

South Africa’s forests take many forms, although they make up one of the smallest ecosystems in the country.

Within classic evergreen forests, usually hugging the southern and eastern coastlines, there is massive diversity. But you’ll also find mangrove forests, quiver tree forests, and then there is of course... the Modjadji Cycad Forest.

Many forests of South Africa are confined to the coastal provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape, although hundreds of smaller forests are tucked into the many valleys and gorges of its mighty mountain ranges.

A large proportion of South Africa's forests are renowned for their incredible biodiversity and beauty, with special emphasis on unique flora and abundant birdlife.

KwaZulu-Natal’s Dlinza Forest boasts an aerial boardwalk, where you have canopy-level access to its gloriously rich birdlife, or you could visit Ndumo Game Reserve to appreciate up close its unique and rare fever forest. Then there’s the equally amazing Mkhuze Fig Forest, set in a World Heritage Site. If cycads interest you, these prehistoric plants proliferate in the Ongoye Forest, in company with the green barbet, a bird found nowhere else in the world.

Other forests found in this province include: Hawaan, Hlatikhulu, Karkloof, Ngome, Weza, each with its own endemic plant and animal species that set it apart from its surrounds.

Along the famed Garden Route in the Western Cape province you’ll discover the 'place of clear water', the Tsitsikamma Forest – truly spectacular and the last rare coastal rainforest in South Africa. The Grootvadersbosch near Swellendam is another one of the forests in South Africa that has enormous cultural and natural value. Its habitat includes rare fynbos vegetation and walking trails that wind around massive trees.

However, the most mysterious of the country’s forests has to be Limpopo province’s Modjadji Cycad Forest. The oldest cycads in the world grow here and are inextricably linked to the magical culture of Modjadji (the rain queen) and her people, the BaLobedu.

The deep gorges and ravines that characterise the rugged Eastern Cape are home to forests such as the indigenous Afro-montane Hogsback, Kologha, Longmore, Plaatbos, Storms River and the fynbos biome of Witelsbos.

There you have it, there's no reason not to go take a walk in a forest this weekend. Its fun AND healthy at the same time.

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