The fynbos of the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve MzansiBride

Winona Griggs

The Incredible Fynbos of Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

Welcome to the breathtaking Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, where I invite you to explore its unique landscape. As I venture into this remarkable part of Gamkberg, the absence of shade is immediately apparent. The hills stretch out for miles without a single tree in sight. This scarcity of rainfall leaves the landscape bare, only allowing the resilient acacia thorn trees to thrive in the valleys below. Surprisingly, this arid terrain is in stark contrast to the lush coastal forests found just 60 kilometers away on the southern Cape coast.

Despite its proximity to the Indian Ocean’s vibrant shoreline, Gamkaberg finds itself shielded from the nourishing rain showers by the mighty Outeniqua Mountains. Acting as a formidable barrier, these mountains redirect the moisture-laden sea air upwards over their peaks. As a result, most of the rain is released before it ever reaches the reserve, leaving the Gamkaberg with significantly less rainfall compared to the coastal forests.

When I explore the Gamkaberg, one thing that really stands out to me is the diversity of its landscapes. It’s fascinating to see how the environment changes as I move from one area to another.

At the very top of the mountain, it’s a whole different world. The rainfall is scarce, but that doesn’t stop the beautiful fynbos from thriving. The vibrant colors of the proteas, restios, ericas, and geophytes really catch my eye. I can also find lush forests in the valleys, fed by natural springs.

But as I descend to the northern plains of the mountains, everything transforms once again. These open plains remind me more of the Richtersveld or the arid West Coast. Here, I encounter a plethora of delicate succulents, bravely surviving in the harsh conditions of the scorching hot and stony ground.

This is where I come across Tom Barry, the Reserve Manager of Gamkaberg, lying on the rocky terrain with a big grin on his face. He’s always at home in this arid landscape. “I just love this kind of environment,” he says. His admiration for the small succulent plants is evident.

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I can’t help but be captivated by his excitement. ‘Hey, look at this!’ he exclaims. ‘This little plant right here is a perdetand. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can find it, except right here.’

Tom points to a plant that looks like a small stone or a horse’s tooth, which explains why it’s called a perdetand. This amazing plant has a unique survival strategy: when the days get extremely hot and dry, like they often do in this part of South Africa, it retreats underground. But when it finally rains, even just a little, the plant emerges about three centimeters out of the ground to make the most of the moisture.

I take a look around and notice that the hill is covered in white quartzite stones. And among those stones, there are numerous little succulents growing. ‘The white stones reflect the heat, making this place cooler,’ Tom explains. ‘And the plants really appreciate that.’

Did you know that there are so many different species out there? Some of them have really interesting names like “boesman pieletjie” (which means “bushman willies”), “gaansmis” (which means “goose poo”), “baba boudjies” (which means “baby’s bottom”), and “skoen veter” (which means “shoelace”). It’s amazing how they can survive in such a tough environment!

When you look at this place, you might not realize how special it really is. It’s easy to overlook the beauty of the plants here. But let me tell you, this place is extraordinary. It’s called the Succulent Karoo, and it’s one of the most diverse arid ecosystems on the planet.

Believe it or not, there are over 7,000 different plant species in the Succulent Karoo. And here’s the really amazing part – more than 2,500 of those species are found nowhere else on Earth! That’s right, they’re unique to this place.

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Now, you might be thinking, “Why is this important?” Well, let me explain. The Succulent Karoo is a special and fragile ecosystem. It needs protection to survive and thrive. But here’s the thing – less than 1% of the Succulent Karoo is formally conserved. That means that most of it is not protected.

This is where people like Tom come in. Tom is a conservationist, and his job is to make sure that places like the Gamkaberg, which is part of the Succulent Karoo, are protected and looked after. It’s a big responsibility, but someone has to do it.

So, the next time you see a beautiful plant or hear about an amazing ecosystem, remember that there’s more to it than meets the eye. There’s a whole world of incredible biodiversity out there, waiting to be discovered and protected. And if we don’t take action, we could lose it forever. It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.

That’s why we, Tom and his team at CapeNature, have been working hard to secure funds in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. We want to buy the land where these fragile plants survive, just like what we did with the property formerly known as Groenefontein. We’ve also acquired other farms with high conservation value and sold them to private buyers who have agreed to manage the land following conservation principles. This way, we can keep generating funds to buy more land for conservation,” Tom shared.

When I first arrived at the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve 18 years ago, I quickly realized that its size wasn’t sufficient to sustain its ecological systems in the long run. “For natural processes to thrive optimally, they need ample space,” Tom explained.

The Gamkaberg Conservation Area is now part of a much larger UNESCO Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve, spanning over 3.2 million hectares. It’s astonishingly vast, Tom mentioned. But it’s not just about the size; it’s about the significance.

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Such mega reserves can be found all over the world, each unique but sharing a common goal: sustainable development. The aim is to benefit the local communities, agriculture, and conservation endeavors. Tom stressed that it goes beyond simply protecting nature. The well-being of the people and the farmers is just as crucial. After all, they deserve to reap the rewards of conservation, and they already are.

When I first started working here 18 years ago as the reserve manager, my team and I used to spend most of our time in the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve itself. These days, though, we devote 90% of our time to managing the new areas of the Conservation Area and building relationships with local farmers and communities. It’s fascinating to see how many people in the area are connected to the success of this project.

Many of the farmers and landowners around here are playing a part in their own unique way. Some have dedicated their entire land to conservation, while others are adjusting their farming practices to be more conservation-friendly. This is especially important because a lot of the land is not well-suited for intensive agriculture.

Personally, I find it incredibly inspiring to see this initiative taking hold. Not only is it protecting a diverse ecology, but it’s also nurturing a rich cultural community. Just think about it… here in this region, we have leopards, aardvarks, hartebeests, Cape mountain zebras, aardwolves, and porcupines roaming freely. There are thousands of bird species, along with a wide variety of plant life including forests, fynbos, and succulents. And let’s not forget about the breathtaking mountain landscapes that surround us. All of this is encompassed within the 10,000-hectare Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, making it an absolute paradise for nature enthusiasts like you and me.

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