Next time you speed along the N2 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 along the nearby coastline every day in the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area, the oldest in South Africa.
As you drive, try to 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 Garden Route National Park encompasses some of the most diverse habitats in the country, stretching 160km over 148 000 hectares, from 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 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 here and in the Swartvlei and Keurbooms River estuary – and 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 SA. Drive through Knysna, turn left on to 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 Johannesburg 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 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.
I wanted to get a better idea of the complexity of the Garden Route National Park, and so I took to the air on a tandem paraglider with Cloudbase Paragliding. Mias de Klerk was my pilot, and we took off above the town of Wilderness.
“Whatever you do, don’t drop your camera!” Mias shouted above the whirl of the wind.
From above, the beauty of the Garden Route National Park is even more pronounced. The Outeniqua Mountains loomed high in the sky, covered in resplendent fynbos. The lakes below glistened as a flock of egrets took off under our feet. The forests are thick, dark green and mystical. The gorges are deep and mostly pristine. The beach at Wilderness extends seemingly forever, all the way to Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley and Storms River.
But it’s also obvious that we humans are taking as much as we can from the earth, leaving very little buffer space to our natural brethren. As we soared over the N2, trucks roared underneath, within metres of the Touw River and its delicate lake system. The dunes on Wilderness beach were covered in fancy holiday homes, with little room to spare. High on the ridges of the gorges, private homes with many storeys cut into the forest canopy, leaving huge gaps where ancient trees once stood.
From the air, it’s clear to see that the park is actually not very big in the greater context. And that man has changed the face of our planet for a long time to come. Dick Pitman, one of southern Africa’s hardest working conservationists, once told me how he took several days to drive along a bad jeep-track over the Zambezi escarpment. The next time he flew a small plane, and it took him 20 minutes to cover the same distance. “When I drove the route, it seemed like a huge area,” Dick said, “but actually it wasn’t.”
As impressive as our national parks can be, they are still relatively small patches of land and ocean among a proliferation of people and exploitation. And incredibly in the Garden Route, animals as diverse as elephants and seahorses still live nearby, perhaps waiting patiently in hope for us to change our ways.