On my way to Baviaanskloof, I stopped over in Knysna to chat to some of the SANParks scientists who work in the Garden Route National Park.
After chatting to them, I realise how complex the situation is. The Garden Route National Park encompasses some of the most diverse habitats in the country, stretching 160kms over 148 000 hectares, from the town called Wilderness in the Western Cape to beyond Kareedouw in the Eastern Cape,
“This park includes mountains, forests, beaches, oceans, rivers, lakes and estuaries,” SANParks scientist Rod Randall told me yesterday at his office on the edge of Rondevlei, one of the five beautiful lakes which make up the internationally-renowned Ramsar birding site. “There’s a wonderful diversity of natural life.”
But the Garden Route is also one of the fastest-growing areas economically in the country, and nature is under threat from development. The park sits cheek by jowl with roads, townships, villages, commercial plantations and industrial areas.
A few months ago, the sewerage works in the town of Knysna sprung a leak, and several tons of effluent escaped into the estuary, which is part of the park and is home to the Knysna seahorse. This creature, the size of a thumbnail, is found only here and the nearby Swartvlei and Keurbooms River estuary – nowhere else in the world.
In the town of Wilderness, park management is required to open periodically the mouth of the Touw River, to prevent flooding of homes that have been built too close to the lakes. This regular interference with the natural system has meant a proliferation of reeds, which clog the waterways. A long time ago, hippos used to clear the channels, but they were shot out by colonial hunters during the 1800s.
All along the national road, villages and townships compete for space, water and air. Speeding cars kill all kinds of animals, including otters and honey badgers. “The N2 is a real killer,” Dr Randall told me.
Remarkably, it is in this park that one finds the last wild, free-roaming and unfenced elephants in South Africa. Drive through Knysna, turn left onto the road to Uniondale, and one also finds Nekkies, a densely-populated informal township of people who have come to look for work from the wealthy who flock from Joburg and Cape Town during holiday season.
Continue driving from Nekkies, and one will soon enter the thick, dense forests, famous for the most-southerly elephants on the African continent. SANParks ecologist Lizette Moolman is now studying these famous creatures, and suggests there could be as many as five elephants, but cautions that “it’s impossible to say for certain”.
The thick forests and centuries of harassment have forced the elephants to be ultra-wary of humans. What is certain is that the construction of the N2 road through the forest has cut off one of the traditional migration routes that the elephants used to follow.
So next time you speed along the N2 road through the Garden Route, think of elephants, leopards, honey badgers, otters, caracals and bush pigs. They all live within a few kilometres of the national road.
Think too of great white sharks, dolphins, whales and turtles. These denizens of the ocean swim past the nearby coastline every day in the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area, the oldest in South Africa.
As you drive, try spot one of the many huge yellowwood trees, some more than 1 000 years old, which stand guard over the largest tract of contiguous forest in Southern Africa. Think too of the emerald loeries, the pitch-black oystercatchers and soaring fish eagles which thrive in the forests, on the beaches and on the lakes.
The photos of the elephants below are from Hylton Herd from SANParks.
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