Stumbling into heaven

By Time of article published Apr 21, 2012

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I may have found what I’m looking for. Mkhambathi Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape is one of the most photogenic and pristine places I have been to so far. There is much to admire about this relatively small 7 000-hectare reserve on the northern Wild Coast.

The reserve lies about 60km north-east of Port St Johns, protecting some of the most spectacular sub-tropical shoreline in SA. Calm inlets shelter sparkling beaches, offering respite from the booming waves. Emerald grasslands roll down to the shores, where eland and hartebeest graze with the blue Indian Ocean as a backdrop.

Pockets of thick coastal forest echo with Knysna turacos, while kudu antelope hide away in the blanket of greenness. The reserve falls within the Maputo-Pondoland-Albany “hotspot”, one of the world’s centres of biodiversity.

The most extensive forest lies in the north-west of the reserve, in an area known as the superbowl. Here, an amphitheatre of sandstone cliffs surrounds several hectares of luminous high-canopy forest. A river cascades 30 metres down on its way into the gorge below. It’s a breathtaking scene.

The three main rivers of the reserve from south to north – Msikaba, Mkhambathi and Mtentu – cut deep gorges through the sandstone bed rock. A sizeable Cape vulture colony thrives on the cliff faces of the Msikaba gorge.

But it’s the waterfalls which make this reserve extra special. Within the space of a few hundred metres, the Mkhambathi river tumbles down several precipices into deep, dark plunge pools. The last waterfall cascades directly into the ocean, a fitting climax. Here you can drink straight from the crystal clear river. How many places in SA these days can you quench your thirst from a river at the end of its journey to the sea?

Schools of fish move up and down the estuaries and rivers, and along the coast. Fishing is controlled, and the Pondoland Marine Protected Area has done much to conserve the abundant marine life. But enforcement is difficult. The reserve needs more staff. There is just one rubber duck to patrol one of the largest areas of protected ocean in SA, stretching 90km along the coast and about 15km out to sea.

Nevertheless, it’s still a largely untouched place. It is probably what most of the east coast of SA looked like a few hundred years ago: plenty of wildlife sharing their space with local people, living a life deeply connected to the rhythms of nature. Pastoralists and fishermen receiving everything they needed – all the food, water and health they require. Today, the local Pondo community owns the reserve and leases the land to Eastern Cape Parks & Tourism Agency.

But like many of SA’s pristine areas, Mkhambathi is under threat. The curse of unchecked commerce and development is lurking. For several years the Pondo people and organisations like Sustaining the Wild Coast and Wild Coast Project have been fighting mining companies which want to strip the sands and soils of its titanium. However, the Pondoland community, under the leadership of King Mpondombini Sigcau, has forbidden any mining.

I spent a weekend with environmental activist and educator Nonhle Mbuthuma while she was conducting an environmental workshop for local kids at Mtentu, on the northern border of the reserve. “Mining will destroy the rivers,” Nonhle said, “and destroy the grasslands for our cattle.”

Additionally, Nonhle elaborated, the mine is estimated to last for just 20-odd years, but it will ruin the aesthetic value forever. If the mine went ahead, the income generated from nature tourism would – like the rivers – dry up immediately.

“Most of the mining jobs will be for outsiders, and most of the money will end up in the bank accounts of a few individuals,” Nonhle explained.

Another threat is the N2, which the government wants to extend through this part of the Wild Coast. As Nonhle told me, its expensive funding could come from companies who want access to the mining rights.

There’s no doubt that Mkhambathi and its marine protected area could be one of SA’s flagship reserves. For a small reserve, this would be no small feat, yet – incredibly – Mkhambathi’s long-term preservation is uncertain. I challenge anyone to come here and then tell me that SA’s authorities should not do everything to conserve this unique reserve and its surrounding oceans.

For travellers, be sure to drive a vehicle with high-ground clearance, as the roads are in a dire state. The challenge is worth it, because once you’ve arrived at your rondawel at Gwe-Gwe beach, you’ll think you’ve stumbled into heaven. - Cape Times

l Ramsay is a photojournalist, travelling for a year to 31 of the country’s nature reserves. See For Mkhambathi, see, or call 043 701 9600.

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