One of my favourite spots in the Outeniqua-area is without a doubt, Millwood; an old gold mining area from the 1900s. It’s also part of the Outeniqua Hiking Trail (another favourite) and marks the halfway mark (about) of this magnificent trail. I don’t know what exactly made it one of my favourites: maybe it was because of Dalene Matthee’s novels, maybe because of serene lush forests or maybe because I discovered from an early age that this area silently whispers a history deeply buried in the valleys, the rivers and in every majestic tree that has been standing tall for so many centuries.
Millwood used to be an old mining town. Europeans tried their luck with the gold, forest workers went from chopping down Yellowwood trees to sifting through gravel and sand in the streams and forest in search of wealth to have a chance at a new life. The hustle and bustle of Millwood quickly faded as the gold rush passed, Europeans went back and forest workers returned to their lives of searching for the perfect tree just to survive. When you visit Millwood today the past is overgrown by Pine trees and ferns, as if the forest is safely keeping the secrets of the past.
There is only one building left of this mining town which serves as a coffee shop today. When you are driving a bit further up you still see signs of a previous life here with a graveyard and a few street names, covered with moss, barely still hanging on to the wooden poles. The mines are restricted and became the home of hundreds of bats shrieking into the depths of the unknown. Besides the one building that is left you can still see the massive mining implements that they used during that time. They come from a time before cranes and trucks simplified our lives and must have been a headache for ox and man alike.
Mother Holly’s Tea Room (the only building still left) also serves as a small museum with one room displaying artifacts of the past like pieces of cutlery, parts of books and so forth. It also has a section dedicated to the one which should not be named, the elephants of the forest. It gives a brief history of the Knysna elephant and displays cut outs of newspaper articles every time someone spotted an elephant in the area. From what I can recall, the last time someone spotted an elephant (or the last article of date) was in 2010. No one knows how many elephants are left in the forest and the only reason to believe that they are still roaming about somewhere, are the tracks and dung being spotted from time to time. They are shy and maybe they are also desperately trying to forget the past when people from all over the world came trophy hunting. Somewhere along the line people realised the uniqueness of the Knysna elephant and finally put a stop to it.
About two months ago I visited the small museum (literally only about 4m x 3m big) for probably about the 10th time. I’ve never been a big fan of history but for some reason the history of the Outeniqua–area never gets old. I saw children, about 7 or 8 years old, running around and couldn’t help but wonder what a loss it must be for them not to understand where they were standing at that moment. Even the foreigners with their typical European accents who were there had no idea. They were looking at things in the museum, reading a few pieces of paper, without knowing what they are reading and how rich this place actually is. Rich, not because of the gold, but rich in stories that have never been told, lives that have never been celebrated, elephants that to them, only seemed as a myth. For some it’s just a day out in the sun, a short drive off the N2, a quick ‘oh, this is a mine’ or a joke about the ‘so-called’ elephants.
But the truth of the matter is: it is so much more than that.
It’s a forest with parts that have been stripped for money, a forest that man tried to preserve but actually destroyed. It’s a road that carried people’s hopes and dreams, roads that echoed desperate hooves and feet. It’s a tree that has been climbed in the escape of a mighty elephant, trees that were the bread and butter of many. It’s a fern richly slurping up the shadows, ferns lusciously growing. It’s an elephant being feared, elephants defending their honour.
The forest is filled with secrets. Small paths cover the footsteps of unsung heroes. Rivers wash away the heartaches and desperate future of the past. Waterfalls plunge into the blackness. Novels give us a glimpse of what happened, museums make the myths real, yet still the secrets silently fall into the darkness and even though it is long forgotten the heart of the forest lives on forever in a dream-like state of what once was and forever will be.