Why haven’t I been here before? That’s how I feel about the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve in the Little Karoo. This 10 000-hectare CapeNature reserve is south-west of Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape. Although it is relatively small, this secretive sanctuary hosts an ecological diversity that dwarfs far bigger reserves.
The Gamkaberg lies between the cool coast of the southern Cape and the hot, arid plains of the Karoo. There are four distinct biomes that meet in these mountains – forest, fynbos, subtropical thicket and succulent Karoo. Each of these hosts several thousand different species of plants and animals, so if you’re looking for diversity, Gamkaberg is the place for you.
Reserve manager Tom Barry and field rangers Cornelius Julies and Jan Oransie drove us to the top of the mountain, to sleep overnight in a shelter called Oukraal which has been built for adventurous souls (there are also three semi-luxury tented camps at the base of the mountain for less intrepid folk). Oukraal has panoramic views south to the Outeniqua mountains and the Langeberg, and north to the Swartberg.
Tom has lived on the reserve for 18 years, yet his enthusiasm and energy is undiminished. “Whenever I visit another nature reserve,” he said, as we bounced up the gravel track on the back of the bakkie, “I ask myself if it’s more interesting than Gamkaberg. I’ve yet to find a place which can rival it.” Once at Oukraal, we dumped our sleeping bags and food then set off for a short walk along the nearby ridge. We were hoping to find the rare and endangered Cape mountain zebra. Gamkaberg was originally proclaimed in 1974 to protect the last few animals of this species. Colonial hunters had shot most of them, and today there are only a few places in the Cape where they can be seen. But Gamkaberg has one of the bigger populations – there are more than 50 zebra here, up from just seven in 1975.
As we walked, Cornelius led the way, which somehow seemed appropriate. His Khoisan ancestors were the original inhabitants of this land and his family has a rich legacy of conservation.
Cornelius told me how his dad Willie was also a field ranger in the Gamkaberg, and was responsible for the discovery a new species of protea, Mimetes chrysanthus.
Cornelius took us to the edge of a cliff above a stream. A herd of eland and hartebeest dotted the small valley. And, bingo – a group of rare mountain zebra emerged from the thicket. They picked up our scent so they trotted away from us, up the opposite ridge. The eland followed, all in single file, their hooves syncopating on the rocky surface.
We walked back to Oukraal, and prepared for the night. There are some wooden bunks in a shelter, rain tanks for drinking water, a fireplace and an undercover cooking area. It was perfect.
We slept on the wooden bunks outside under the stars, but Tom and Cornelius slept inside the shelter. “It’s warmer in there, but there are also plenty of leopards here,” Tom joked, only half-heartedly.
The Cape Leopard Trust has documented at least 30 leopards in the area, some weighing as much as 80kg – far bigger than the average Cape leopard. Tom has only seen three, while Cornelius has yet to see a single leopard in 16 years of service. It’s easy for a leopard to hide here – the Gamkaberg is full of caves and crevices.
Tom woke me at sunrise. A herd of mountain zebra had come to investigate our presence. Half-asleep, I managed to take a few photos. Tom stuck a cup of steaming rooibos tea in my hand as the sun rose over the blue Outeniqua mountains. “Not a bad wake-up call, eh?” he smiled.
The next day we hiked down the mountain, following the spectacular Tierkloof. This narrow gorge and its surrounding mountains form part of the 350 million-year-old range that was once as high as the Himalayas.
The temperature soared as we descended the kloof. But the cool forests along the river gave ample shade. We stopped at a cave where 2 000-year-old Bushmen paintings adorned the sandstone. On the last stretch back to camp, we saw it: evidence of a resident leopard – a spoor imprinted in the damp soil. “This is a leopard’s highway,” Tom said proudly. Clearly, the Gamkaberg is still a very wild place.