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The Eastern Cape nature reserve of Baviaanskloof is one of the largest, wildest and most ecologically diverse conservation areas in SA. This rugged mountainscape is situated between the towns of Willowmore and Patensie, about 50km inland from the southern Cape coast, near Port Elizabeth.
There is only one gravel road which climbs over the mountains and into the valley below (a 4×4 is recommended). On the north are the Baviaans Mountains, on the southern side are the Kouga Mountains. There are numerous smaller canyons which cut into these mountains, and you’ll see them from the road. They are rugged, forested, rocky and seemingly never-ending – they make for a great adventure.
“The Baviaans is one of our country’s last pure wilderness areas,” said area manager Wayne Erlank. “Some of it dates back to the time before the Union of South Africa when it was crown land. No one has ever touched it. It’s pristine and remote.”
According to botanist Richard Cowling, this part of the Eastern Cape is “perhaps the most biogeographically complex place on earth”. As incredible as that may sound, it’s true: the Baviaanskloof is where seven diverse biomes meet, creating a wondrous diversity of life: fynbos, succulent Karoo, Nama Karoo, Afrotemperate forest, savannah and grassland, and thicket.
In fact, the Baviaanskloof is a World Heritage Site because it is one of eight protected areas that make up the Cape Floristic Region.
One of the most remarkable thicket plants is the distinctly ordinary-looking spekboom. This large succulent bush forms a big part 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 to the ground, it often grows by itself into another individual plant.
Spekboom produces a huge amount of leaf litter, as much as wet forest ecosystems. It is this which allows other plants to 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 buffalo (there are more than 250 in the Baviaanskloof), black rhino, eland and kudu – and at one stage elephants, before they were shot out by colonial hunters.
The spekboom veld is able to create its own microclimate, 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.
Today, farmers, NGOs and the government are restoring the spekboom veld. Near the beautiful Rooihoek campsite there is a fenced-off area containing thousands of spekboom plants. But it’s not just to restore the veld. The humble-looking spekboom has another remarkable quality: according to Cowling, spekboom stores about 130 tons of carbon per hectare in soil to a depth of 30cm. This is 10 to 50 times that of other semi-arid areas, and is equivalent to the rain forests.
Increasingly, more and more funding is available to those countries that are prepared to capture carbon from the atmosphere, to alleviate global warming. And the indigenous spekboom has plenty of other benefits to farmers and conservators. Spekboom can grow on steep, stony slopes, and its roots stabilise soil, preventing erosion when the rains arrive. And water is like gold in this semi-arid region.
Almost 70 percent of Port Elizabeth’s water is sourced from the Baviaanskloof, via the Kouga Dam. Erlank explained that discussions were under way with the municipality to institute a levy that will be paid to farmers and conservation for the effective management of the water catchment areas.
This would help the Baviaanskloof 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 percent 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. Almost all the farms have accommodation for visitors. Two of the best are Kamerkloof and Zandvlakte.
More farmers are joining the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve Landscape Initiative, which is 500 000 hectares and has at its core the World Heritage Site, where unique plants and animals thrive.
l Ramsay is a photojournalist who is travelling for a year to SA’s special nature reserves.
For details visit the websites www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Also see www.ecparks.co.za, www.kamerkloof.co.za or www.baviaanskloof.com. - Cape Times