Do you know which is the third-largest nature reserve in South Africa, after Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park?
Would you ever guess its Baviaanskloof? I wouldn’t have thought so either, but this 210 000 hectare reserve is under rated and generally misunderstood by the public. Check where it is on Google Maps here. It’s one of the country’s most important protected areas, not only because it is beautiful, but also because it is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth (and that’s no exaggeration). Plus it is also the most important water catchment areas for the city of Port Elizabeth.
Recently I chatted with area manager Wayne Erlank and ecologist Brian Reeves from Eastern Cape Parks & Tourism, and it’s clear that the Baviaanskloof deserves a lot more attention.
“The Baviaans is one of South Africa’s last pure wilderness areas,” Wayne explained. “Some of the land dates back to the time before the Union of South Africa, when it was simply crown land. No-one has ever touched it. It’s pristine and remote. Some of the land still doesn’t have any title deed.”
After spending a few days in this geographically complex valley, I can understand why. I am sure that a lot of the Baviaans has never been hiked or accessed by humans.
There is only one road through the area, which follows the river mostly, but has to traverse the Grasnek, Holgat and Combrink passes which climb over the mountains (a 4×4 is definitely recommended!). On the north is the Baviaans Mountains, and on the southern side is the Kouga Mountains. There are numerous smaller canyons which cut into these mountains, and you’ll get to see them from the road. They are rugged, forested, rocky and seemingly never-ending – they make for a great adventure!
The Baviaanskloof lies near the centre of a region which is enormously diverse. According to botanist Richard Cowling, in his and Shirley Pierce’s excellent book East of the Cape, this part of the Eastern Cape is “perhaps the most biogeographically complex place on earth.” That’s quite a statement, and one that intrigues me immediately!
It is where seven diverse biomes meet: Fynbos, Succulent Karoo, Nama Karoo, Afrotemperate Forest, Savannah and Grassland, and Thicket. Each of these biomes are hugely diverse in their own right.
In fact, the Baviaanskloof is a World Heritage Site because it is one of eight protected areas that make up the Cape Floristic Region (which includes fynbos, harbouring more than 9 000 species of plants, and of these, more than 6 000 are found nowhere else on earth). In fact, the correct term for the Baviaanskloof protected area, as Wayne pointed out to me, is the “Baviaanskloof World Heritage Site”. It has a higher protection rating than a nature reserve, because of its special botanical importance.
Then, besides fynbos, one will also find the other six biomes. I was amazed at the rapid transition from one to the other. Along the river bed, you’ll find thick Acacia tree forests, then on the slopes, there is plenty of thicket and succulent plants. As you drive up the passes, you’ll start seeing proteas, watsonias, ericas and other plants typical of fynbos. Then on top of the mountain, you have some grassland. And in the kloofs, there are thick forests, where you’ll see Outeniqua yellowwood trees growing tall!
But the biome that intrigues me here is “thicket”. Up to now, according to experts, not much has been known about it. And this may be because thicket is not that easy to explore and study! The plants are generally thorny and dense (hence the name!) But it’s a remarkable biome. Richard Cowling writes that “no other vegetation in South Africa is endowed with such a diversity of plant life.” Hold on, you may say, I thought fynbos was the most diverse? (I did too!)
But whereas fynbos has three major plant forms (ericas, proteas and restios), with lots of species within its few taxonomic groups, thicket “has considerably more groups or genera – both ancient and young – but each is comparatively small. In short, the thicket flora has a much larger complement of distantly related lineages than the flora of either fynbos or the succulent karoo.”
There are an estimated 1560 species in the thicket biome, and 20 percent of these are endemic. At the core of thicket is the so-called “Valley Thicket”, the “biological zenith of the thicket biome”. And according to Cowling and Pierce it is in the Baviaanskloof (and Gamtoos Valley) that the diversity is greatest.
One of the most common plants is spekboom, a wonderful species that is becoming more and more important. It is remarkable for many reasons. It forms a big part of the basis of the ecosystem. When it is browsed by wild animals, it grows back readily, promoting even more growth. When a stem is broken off and falls onto the ground, it often grows by itself into another individual plant.
Spekboom also produces a huge amount of leaf litter – incredibly, as much as wet forest ecosystems! It is this massive amount of leaf litter which allows other plants to grow and thrive, in a semi-arid region where usually very little would be able to grow. The rich organic soil which is generated sustains plenty of life, including herds of buffalo (there are more than 250 in the Baviaans) and eland (and at one stage elephants, before they were shot out by colonial hunters).
In essence, the spekboom veld is able to create its own micro climate, in which thousands of other species can live. But if it is overgrazed, and the soil is damaged, it has disastrous consequences, as the whole system collapses and desert conditions will eventually prevail. The rainfall here is notoriously variable, and temperatures can soar in summer (as I have just experienced!)
This ecosystem collapse has happened on a lot of farms which border the river in the valley. Tracey Potts, the co-ordinator for the mega reserve, which includes farm land, told me that “these are the last generation of farmers that can make a living here based on traditional agriculture.” For two hundred years, the land alongside the river has been overexploited. “It’s becoming more and more marginal to farm traditionally here,” Tracey told me.
There are new ways for farmers to make money – ways that will benefit themselves and the landscape. And spekboom is one of those ways and it is why farmers, NGOs and government are trying to restore the veld, as they all realize how important the indigenous thicket is to the region. Near the Rooihoek campsite, you will see a fenced-off area in which thousands of spekboom plants have been planted. It is just one of several sites across the region which is being replanted with spekboom.
But it’s not just to restore the veld. The humble-looking spekboom has another remarkable quality: according to Pierce and Cowling, spekboomveld stores about 130 tonnes of carbon per hectare in soil to a depth of 30 centimetres. This is 10 to 50 times that of other semi-arid systems, and is equivalent to the rain forests!
Increasingly, more and more funds are available to those countries which are prepared to capture carbon from the atmosphere, to alleviate global warming. And the indigenous spekboom happens to be not only a very useful plant with which to capture carbon, but it also has plenty of other benefits to farmers and conservators.
Then there’s water. I touched on it in an earlier blog, but it needs emphasizing. According to Wayne, who did his Masters thesis on the issue of water in the region, the Baviaanskloof supplies 67% of Port Elizabeth’s water, via the Kouga Dam. He tells me that discussions are well under way with the municipality to institute a levy that will be paid to farmers and conservation for the effective management of the catchment areas in the Baviaanskloof.
If a levy of just 1 cent is added to each litre of water used by the consumer in Port Elizabeth, roughly R67 million would be paid to conservation and the farmers. This would help farmers to turn away from unsustainable agriculture, and to invest in the restoration of veld, alluvial fans and water courses.
And it’s a region that could use some money. According to Wayne, about 95% of the 2 000 odd people in the Baviaanskloof are unemployed. Farmers are struggling to make a living, and are eager to innovate. Conservation, water, veld restoration and tourism are the ways forward.
More and more farmers are now joining the so-called Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve Landscape Initiative, to manage their land sustainably, and to benefit from the new conservation economy. Already the mega reserve is 500 000 hectares in size, and at its core is the World Heritage Site, where unique plants and animals thrive. So not only do buffalo, eland, Cape mountain zebra, black rhino and hundreds of other smaller species have a bright future, but so do the people and communities. Seems like things are going in the right direction in the Baviaans.
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