Year in the Wild Blog

Mkhambathi’s special soul

I was sad to leave the small Mkhambathi Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape. It’s truly a special place, and it’s facing a fast-changing future, with threats of mining and unchecked development, especially the proposed N2 extension. On my way out of the reserve towards the Drakensberg, where I will be spending three weeks from today, I stopped by Tony Abbott in the nearby town of Port Edward. Tony is a retired farmer, who is also one of South Africa’s most respected amateur botanists, and it was great to hear his views on the reserve, and the surrounding Pondoland area. Tony is of the view that the mining and the national toll road may not affect Mkhambathi itself, but of course, it will have a huge impact on the surrounding area, and the reserve’s buffer zones.

But politics and controversy is not really Tony’s thing. Instead, we spoke a lot about the fantastic plants of the so-called Pondoland centre of endemism. This region is one of the world’s so-called “biodiversity hotspots”, those areas that contain most of the earth’s ecological richness, yet which are threatened because of man’s development. South Africa has three of the world’s 34 “hotspots”, including the Cape Floristic Region, the Succulent Karoo…and the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany hotspot, which stretches from the south of Mozambique all the way to the border of the Western and Eastern Cape in South Africa (and includes Baviaanskloof).

At the centre of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany hotspot, is Mkhambathi Nature Reserve, on the eastern shoreline of South Africa, the so-called Wild Coast. This hotspot probably hasn’t received as much press as the fynbos of the Cape Floristic Region or the Succulent Karoo, and that’s quite surprising, because here there are at least 600 tree species, the most of any temperate forest region in the world. In Pondoland alone on the Wild Coast, there are 330 tree species, of which 30 are found nowhere else on earth. Tony himself has discovered at least five new species!

Then consider too that across this temperate and sub-tropical region are found the largest remaining populations of wild white and black rhino, plus large populations of other megafauna, and I think it’s clear that this region should be receiving much more attention. And that’s just on land…remember too, that the Pondoland coast hosts an extensive Marine Protected Area, which is home to the largest and perhaps most spectacular migration of animals on earth, when during the winter months billions of sardines are hunted by thousands of sharks, dolphins, whales and predatory fish.

“Mkhambathi is the only piece of South Africa’s east coast that has remained untransformed by cattle grazing and farming,” Tony told me. “For that reason, you get a sense that this is how the whole east coast once was, how it’s always been. It’s unbelievably beautiful, and if you have any soul at all, you have to appreciate it. It’s humbling in its diversity of life of course, but it’s also so good for the spirit.”

I hear you, Tony. Like all special natural areas which have been conserved, Mkhambathi imparts a wisdom and sense of peace on whomever visits it. Plus – and this is important – because Mkhambathi is actually owned by the community of the Pondo people, the reserve’s sustainable development can provide income from tourists. The reserve – if sustainably and aesthetically developed further – can play a central role in the lives of the people who live in its area. Not only financially, but culturally and spiritually too.

Thank you to reserve manager Vuyani Mapiya for his warm welcome, and to the staff – especially cleaning ladies Irene and Ivy. Everyone I have met in this part of the Eastern Cape has been very friendly and kind to me, and I can’t wait to come back again. Mkhambathi…siyabonga, enkosi. I will be seeing you again soon.

Sunset over the Msikaba Gorge...with trees on the crests of the sandstone ridges

Grasslands of Mkhambathi

The pockets of so-called "swamp forests" of Mkhambathi are thickly wooded and wonderful places to explore

Kudu actually aren't naturally found at Mkhambathi, but were introduced a few years ago...their removal is now being planned by park authorities, to maintain ecological balance

The sandstone cliffs of the "Superbowl", a stupendously beautiful forest surrounded by a crescent of cliffs. It is perhaps one of the most impressive places I have seen on my Year in the Wild

The forests of the "superbowl" at Mkhambathi

A fish eye-view of the Superbowl

Hartbeest on the shoreline with Indian Ocean in background...where else in Africa can you see this?

Water lilly growing in one of the crystal clear streams of Mkhambathi

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