19 min read

Mythical monsters of the ancient forest

<p> Photo: Don Pinnock </p>

A forest without the possibility of a monster is empty. It's always been like that.

The most fearsome of monsters was probably Grendel, who appeared one day at the great mead hall of Hrothgar, a Danish king, ripping the limbs and heads from poets and pages as he entered. Those were the days when warriors wore helms of gold and chain-mail suits – and annealed their broadswords in the blood of their enemies. But nothing stopped the steel-taloned beast – until the arrival of Beowulf from the land of Geat, across the sea.

He, so the legend goes, was the strongest man alive, mighty and noble. But he also knew a thing or two about monsters. They were difficult to find by day, deadly at night, cloaked in magic and therefore impervious to sword strokes.

Beowulf waited in the mead hall, pretending to sleep. "Came then," to quote the legend, "striding in the night, the walker of darkness; a horrible light like fire in his eyes." When Grendel reached for the hero, Beowulf grabbed the monster by his hand and crushed its bones. The monster wrenched so hard in fright, its arm was ripped from its body, and it ran, screaming into the night to die in a swamp.

When Grendel's mother, a huge matriarch, came out of the gloomy forest to avenge her son's death, Beowulf dispatched her as well. Somehow dark forests and dangerous things attracted him.

That was but the start of an illustrious career in which Beowulf ended up as king, only to die towards the end of his long life in mortal battle with a dragon. He just couldn't leave the monster business alone.

The tale gives some interesting facts about the monster's habitat. He left large footprints which, if one dared to follow them, led to a secret land of windy mountains, perilous fens, where waterfalls plunged over bluffs and ran, at times, underground.Here were dark groves of deep-rooted trees, dangerous to man and beast.

In such a place Little Red Riding Hood – known in the original Brothers Grimm tale as Red Cap – had a hungry wolf to deal with in the forest. Hansel and Gretel were captured by a witch who wanted to eat them.

In fairy tales and folklore people invariably find their way into the forest. It is there that they lose and find themselves and where they gain a sense of what is to be done.

When Gareth Patterson – a far gentler warrior than Beowulf – entered the Tsitsikamma forest, along the southern coast of South Africa near the town of Knysna, there were tales of those who had done likewise and never returned. There was also a monster far larger than Grendel – only one, and that intrigued Gareth. He knew what was to be done.

The Tsitsikamma (the name means The Water That Speaks in Khoi) is a relic of the temperate forests that once carpeted the eastern parts of Africa from Kenya to the Cape Peninsula. Today the tree cover is much reduced, stretching along the coast from Robinson's Pass west of the town of George to the Tsitsikamma River near Humansdorp – a little over 600 square kilometres.

Within the forest edge, away from the disturbance of human enterprise, a deep gloom envelopes you, even in daylight. You enter a world that transcends human understanding, a place for veneration – and uneasiness.Sometimes you sense the forest trusts you, sometimes not. It has a tangible presence, drawing in elements from air and water, from the sun, and weaving them into life.

High above, out of sight and in the sunlight, spread the branches of forest giants: Outeniqua yellowwoods up to 45 metres tall, white pear, black stinkwood, ironwood and African holly, with their leaves arranged in a light-trapping mosaic. Below them dark groves huddle, and beneath them other species stand, waiting their turn for a giant to fall, providing sunlight and a chance to grow. From them hang orchids, ferns, lichens, mosses, herbs and succulents in profusion, and down in the shadows crouch smaller ferns, wild pomegranate, black witch hazel and grasses. Under them, if you care to look, is a dank, sweet-smelling world of dismemberment and decay: gaudy-coloured bracket fungi, puffballs and mushrooms whose filaments and chemicals devour the forest from below.

Four years ago Gareth was on a chance visit to the Knysna area. He walked into the forest and felt uneasy. Something worrying was going on and he couldn't put his finger on it.

He is, it needs to be said, an unusual environmentalist, using sophisticated science where necessary, but leading with his heart and intuition. Gareth spent his childhood in Nigeria and Malawi and worked in Kenya with George Adamson of Born Free fame.

When George was murdered by poachers, Gareth got permission to reintroduce his lions to the wilds in Botswana. In doing so he ran with lions, becoming part of the pride in the process and earning the name Rra de Tau, father of lions.

In South Africa he came across canned lion hunting and exposed it, causing a furore in the hunting fraternity. When he discovered maltreatment of young elephants in the Tuli Block he exposed that too, resulting in death threats.

"I'm not an activist," he said, "but I can't abide cruelty. Someone has to make it known."

In Knysna he heard tales of the Matriarch, a huge, mysterious elephant that ruled the great forests but was never seen. "When I asked locals about her it was like talking about the Loch Ness Monster. It was a myth, many told me. They said the last Knysna elephants died out in the 1990s.

"I didn't want to believe that. I had a sort of intuition that I had something that needed to be done there. I felt strongly compelled to learn what I could about these elephants."

He moved to Knysna and began walking the forests, deeper and deeper, covering hundreds of kilometres. Almost immediately he found traces: footprints, dung, broken branches and scrape marks on trees....

"There was quite a lot of evidence of elephants. I couldn't believe people thought they'd entirely disappeared. Early one morning I suddenly found fresh tracks of two young elephants moving together. These were young elephants, barely in their teens, that had not been known about before, and to this day have not been seen, let alone photographed.

"That morning I even heard the elephant's feeding. It was a great moment, and I sensed there was hope, not doom, for the Knysna elephants.

"A few months later the forest guards discovered, and even filmed, a young but fully adult cow elephant. They found her lying fast asleep. With this discovery, I wondered when the footprints of a baby would be seen, and not long ago came across what looked like the footprints of a calf. But I need clearer prints for a positive ID on this. That day will come, I'm sure"

The widest part of an elephant is its flanks. When they roll in mud it rubs off onto trees as they walk. Their flanks are three quarters the height of their shoulders, so it is possible to estimate elephant size from these marks.

"Look at this," Gareth enthused as we wandered down a forest path. "High marks, medium marks, low marks. Three elephants passed here. People just aren't looking for the right signs in the right places.

"They think these are forest elephants so they look in the forest and find very little. I arrived with no preconceptions and explored surrounding fynbos [a type of grassland] areas and plantations and found plenty of evidence of elephants. That's where they feed at times, there's not much nutrition in the forest. Of the 162 dung samples I've collected, only 32 were in the forest."

Gareth later discovered the reason for his unease when he first entered the forest.In 1994 three young elephant cows had been brought in from the Kruger Park. The youngest female died and the two others spent their time in the fynbos. It was presumed they'd failed as 'forest' elephants and with no hope of breeding. They were caught and translocated them to Shamwari Game Reserve. The transfer took place on the day Gareth first entered the forest.

"I was picking up their distress, he commented. "What else could it have been? And what a shame. Now we know there's a bull in the forest and I've discovered they feed in the fynbos. A big chance to introduce new blood into the population was missed."

Gareth found it was possible to identify elephants by taking DNA samples of the mucous around their dung. He linked up with a conservation geneticist at the Smithsonian Institute in the United States, then set about collecting 35 fresh droppings. It took a few months and the results indicate nine elephants."And this forest covers hundreds of square kilometres. I've only searched a small part of it. ' Since European settlers came to South Africa it's estimated that ivory hunters and sportsmen wiped out around 100 000 elephants. In the 1870s a conservator reckoned that perhaps 400 to 600 elephants existed in the narrow 200-kilometre coastal belt between the Outeniqua/Tsisikamma Mountains and the shores of the Indian Ocean.

"They were hunted ruthlessly," Gareth commented, picking over a piece of dung to identify the plants within it."The fact that these few have survived is amazing. They should be declared living monuments or national treasures.

"These are the southernmost elephants in Africa and the only truly wild and unfenced of their kind in South Africa. People might not realize it, but they're a good lesson in the art of co-existence between humans and wild animals."

One day, deep in an ancient part of the forest, Gareth came upon a pool which indicated that elephants came there regularly to drink. He named it The Secret Place of Elephants. Sitting up the hill from the pool, he heard them feeding, then the blast of a full trumpet.

"I remembered there was an elephant path nearby straight down to where they were. Here was a chance to get something nobody had managed before: a photo of two Knysna elephants together.

"But I sat there and thought: 'I'm not going to do that.' I just watched and listened for half an hour, then walked away from the rarest elephants in the world.

"According to the odds they shouldn't exist at all. Humans have persecuted them for so long, yet they're such enormous survivors. I wasn't going to compromise them."

As we ambled back through the forest two tourists strode up, looking expectant. "Have you seen the elephant?' they asked. "We're from England and we'll be really disappointed if we don't see it."

Gareth smiled and said maybe they'd see it back there. We didn't rate their chances, but it was good to see there were some believers left.

"I sleep well at night because I know there are wild and dangerous elephants out there in the forest," Gareth mused as we got back to the road, "and that they exist and that nobody can really interfere with them. They're elephants of inspiration."

Beowulf would understand.