The Baviaanskloof (“valley of baboons”) is a narrow valley in the Eastern Cape about a hundred kilometres inland from the southern coast of South Africa. To get here, I drove from Plettenberg Bay on the coastline of the Indian Ocean, over Prince Alfred’s pass through the Outeniqua Mountains.
It was rainy in Plett, and the pass was covered in mist and fog. As soon as I passed over the Outeniquas however, the sky cleared. And the landscape changed too. From the moist forests on the coast, the land becomes much drier, a result of the rain shadow. It’s tempting to think of the Baviaans as a hot, arid place, and at first it certainly appears so. But there’s so much more to it.
It’s why the Baviaans is so special. It is a meeting point of several different climatic zones. It lies at the border of the winter and summer rainfall patterns, receiving some winter rain from the Cape, but mostly summer rain which characterizes the eastern and northern parts of South Africa.
Then, the landscape. The valley itself is long and narrow, bordered with high mountain ranges which lie in a west-east direction. These ranges are then incised with very narrow kloofs (called “slot canyons”), which lie in a north-south direction.
As result of the complex topography and its geographical position, the relatively small Baviaanskloof hosts seven out of eight of South Africa’s biomes, something which is unparalleled in the country (and maybe elsewhere in the world?): Fynbos, Sub-Tropical thicket, Nama Karoo, Succulent Karoo, Grassland, Savannah and Afrotemperate Forest.
The Baviaans is a World Heritage Site, because it forms one of eight protected areas making up the Fynbos biome, the most diverse plant kingdom on earth, per square kilometre. 32% of the plant species in the Baviaanskloof are found nowhere else on earth.
The Baviaanskloof Reserve itself is run by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, and it lies in the east of the valley, in some of the most mountainous and wildest land. But most of the Baviaanskloof forms part of a mega-reserve, which incorporates not only pure conservation land, but also private farmland which is managed in line with naturally-sustainable agriculture. In the west of the valley is a narrow lowland surrounded by mountains, and it is here that most of the farmers live, alongside the perennial river which gives the valley its name.
I am heading into the reserve tomorrow, but for the past few days, I have been staying on two different farms: Kamerkloof and Zandfontein, two beautiful properties lying close to the entrance of the reserve. It really is a good way to introduce yourself to the region, and the locals are charismatic, friendly and welcoming.
I went for a walk on Kamerkloof farm with owner Nick Reyneke, and one minute we were walking through hot sub-tropical thicket with beautiful sweethorn trees, then we entered a narrow shaded canyon called Dam se Kloof, and immediately there was closed canopy forest of fig and stinkwood trees. There were rock pools and streams, frogs and birds – Nick says that there are Knysna loeries in these narrow ravines! Who would have thought! Usually these birds are only found in the moist coastal forests on the Indian Ocean coastline, and when I hiked the Otter Trail in November last year in the Garden Route National Park, I saw several loeries. But I would never have thought that you’d find them here in the Baviaans – it seems too dry, but then there are these beautiful kloofs which have completely different climates.
Many of the families have been living here for several generations, going back to the early 1800s. There are just 13 farms in the whole valley, and there is a strong sense of community. But times are changing, and farming is becoming increasingly difficult. More and more, the farmers are working to restore the land from overuse and degradation. At the heart of the matter is water – or lack of it.
For more than 200 hundred years, the farmers have exploited the alluvial soils, growing crops and letting their goats and sheep graze the natural veld. The river was artificially channeled to control water supply. For a long time, it was a productive farming area. But slowly farming became more and more marginal, as the veld was overgrazed, and the ground water diminished. Most of the alluvial fans disappeared, and erosion worsened because of the river’s channeling. No longer did the water soak into the soils, releasing slowly during the year. The river’s speed picked up, and most of the water in the valley disappeared too quickly.
Today, many of the farmers are changing their farming practices, and preparing for the future. The long term climate trends suggest that this area will become drier and drier, receiving more winter rainfall, but enduring hotter, drier summers. Piet Kruger at Zandvontein has been here for 35 years, and he tells me this current summer has been the driest on record. Just 18mm of rain has fallen since June last year. But the winter rains up to June last year brought 400mm. “We’re supposed to get our rain in summer!” Piet exclaimed.
Today, Piet and the other farmers are working together to restore degraded veld and alluvial fans, so that eventually the valley’s ground water supplies will replenish and the fertile top soils won’t be washed away. Provincial and national government, as well as the Dutch government, are helping with the funding.
Piet told me that the farmers in the valley hope to benefit from so-called payments for eco-system services that the valley supplies to the region. Downstream of the Baviaans River is the Kouga Dam, one of the biggest in the province which supplies the city of Port Elizabeth with fresh water.
As a result of channeling of the river, and unsustainable farming practices, the dam has become increasingly silted over the years, and during rainy season, a lot of the water has to be released from the full dam because most rain that falls simply flows over the ground, not into it, a result of degraded veld. Once the veld has been restored however, the soil will hold the water through the year, releasing it slowly from the valley into the dam. South Africa is an arid country, and fresh water is probably its most important resource. Without fresh water, the cities and economy stop running.
It’s no surprise therefore to see the farmers supporting conservation. Along with restoration of natural veld come the small antelope and wildlife. In the reserve itself, buffalo, mountain zebra, eland and rhino were reintroduced, starting in the early 1990s. Piet tells me that he sometimes gets kudu and buffalo walking across his farm!
And then there are the leopards, many of which have been hunted in the past by livestock farmers. The Landmark Foundation has done some good research here, studying these apex predators and working with farmers to resolve problems that arise from having these beautiful cats living side by side with juicy, fat livestock.
Piet tells me that most farmers now have stopped hunting and trapping of leopards, and have come to realize that leopards actually provide a crucial role. The big cats keep other predators like caracal and jackal in check, stopping more livestock loss. It’s not a pure science however, and farmers still lose some livestock to leopards, but according to Piet they realize that the leopards are worth more alive than dead.
And the leopard is a major symbol for tourism, which is slowly replacing agriculture as the region’s main source of revenue. As farming has become more marginal, so the community relies on tourists who come to the valley to see not only leopard, but also buffalo, kudu, eland, bushbuck and black rhino which all now thrive in the reserve itself. There are also some beautiful guesthouses on the farms in this dramatic landscape, and these would make for a fantastic stay-over in their own right – both Kamerkloof and Zandvontein are among these.
Today I head into the reserve properly, but yesterday I had a short trip just inside the western border, hiking with ranger Klasie Kietas to a beautiful ravine called Geelhoutbos – which as its Afrikaans name suggests, is filled with yellowwood trees. Once again, it’s incredible to transition over a few metres – literally – from the hot thicket, buzzing with cicadas, into the cool, moist forest of the ravines. I haven’t really seen anything else like it so far on my Year in the Wild journey, and I can see why people rave about the Baviaans – especially if you’re a nature freak!
Klasie took me to some bushman paintings at the top of Geelhoutbos, and to me they seem very unlike any other rock art I have seen in South Africa. Check out the photos and see for yourself.
Klasie was born at Studtis, which is about 30kms west of the reserve (near Kamerkloof), and he has been working for parks board for 25 years. It was seriously hot today, and as we walked out of the forest up onto the slopes, the temperatures seemed to soar. I had to stop to drink water regularly, but Klasie didn’t touch a drop – “the more I drink, the more I sweat” he told me. His DNA is clearly attuned to this landscape and climate – and no doubt his ancestry extends back several thousand years! My ancestors spent too much time in Europe acclimatizing to the cold weather!
As much as I’ve enjoyed my time on the farms, I can’t wait to get properly into the reserve tomorrow. There aren’t many people at this time of year and I’m hoping to see some buffalo, eland and kudu – and of course, baboons! I’ve already taken a few swims in the river to cool off, and today I’ll do the same!
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