For visitors to SA’s nature reserves, paradise comes in many forms, writes Scott Ramsay. SA is the world’s third-most bio-diverse nation, after Brazil and Indonesia, and its eco-systems vary from deserts to coral reefs, grasslands, indigenous forests, bushveld, mountains and beaches.
The Garden Route in the southern Cape is among the most diverse of all regions in our country. Although much of it has been transformed by forestry, urban sprawl and agriculture, there are four reserves that represent the impressive natural ecology that once dominated the whole region. This month I focus on Garden Route National Park and Goukamma Nature Reserve, and next month on Robberg and Keurbooms nature reserves.
Garden Route National Park – marine marvels
This is the country’s fourth biggest national park, covering about 150 000ha. It comprises a largely fragmented, unfenced collection of land that surrounds urban and rural areas. Mostly there aren’t gates or fees, and day visitors can enter many parts of the park free, except at some of the more spectacular areas.
Driving east along the N2 from George, you will encounter the languid waters of the Wilderness lakes (a Ramsar birding site) and then the Knysna estuary and indigenous forests, where the last few free roaming, unfenced elephants in the country occur. Researchers are not sure how many remain, but there could be five.
Past Plettenberg Bay, and just after Nature’s Valley, the spectacular Tsitsikamma coastline begins. It includes the oldest marine protected area in the country, dating back to 1964. (The name Tsitsikamma is a Khoi word meaning “place of sparkling waters”.)
If you’re travelling in this area, be sure to visit the Storms River Mouth rest camp in the marine national park, about 55km east of Plettenberg Bay.
Dramatically located on the shore between forested cliffs and the pounding surf, the wooden cabins, campsites and restaurant at the mouth of the Storms River gorge, is one of the best kept secrets of the national parks.
The elegant suspension footbridges over the river make for an adventurous short walk. The main bridge, 77m long, was built in 1969, and extends right across the mouth.
If you want to explore the river and shoreline, sign up with Untouched Adventures for either the boating and kayaking trip up the gorge, or go scuba diving in the marine protected area.
Tsitsikamma’s marine protected area stretches 57km along the coast. It is full of natural life, including small wonders such as soft corals, sea anemones and nudibranchs. In the late winter and spring months you could see Southern Right whales, and all year round it is frequented by bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, stingrays and several species of shark.
“Most inquisitive of all are the Cape clawless otters,” said guide Marthinus van der Westhuizen. “They sometimes swim up to divers and nibble on our flippers!”
But the marine protected area is noteworthy not only for its adventure activities. It’s also a critical nursery ground for “chokka” – sold as calamari in restaurants – and endangered, endemic fish species such as red stumpnose, red steenbras, musselcracker, white steenbras and dusky kob.
Many of these species are slow growing, and have been fished to near extinction in other areas. Tsitsikamma is the largest “no-take” coastal zone in the country, so no fishing or exploitation of any kind is allowed.
Back on shore, hikers can enjoy several short walks from the rest camp through the coastal forest. The 17km, three-day, fully-catered Dolphin Trail starts at Storms River, while the more famous and strenuous 42km, five-day Otter Trail follows the coast to Nature’s Valley.
Even if you’re not hiking the Otter Trail, visitors are allowed to walk the first hour of the route to a 30m-high waterfall that plunges into a huge rock pool, often pounded by thunderous waves.
Just up from the entrance road to Storms River mouth on the N2 is “The Big Tree”, an appropriate name for one of the tallest trees in the country – a 1000-year-old Outeniqua yellowwood that soars 40m above the forest canopy. There are several other huge yellowwoods in the vicinity.
These arboreal grandfathers were common before woodcutters chopped most of them down in the early 1900s. Today the indigenous forests are protected, and a great way to explore them is to take the Tree-top Canopy Tour. You will be strapped into a harness before sliding from tree to tree along sturdy cables.
Contact: Camping at SANParks (www.sanparks.org) from R300 per site (for two people) and from R485 for accommodation (Forest Hut, sleeping two people); kayaking with Untouched Adventures (www.untouchedadventures.co.za) from R399 per person; Tree-top Canopy Tours (www.canopytour.co.za) from R495 per person.
Goukamma Nature Reserve – back from the brink
The little-known Goukamma Nature Reserve and its marine protected area – just 65 square kilometres – is hidden away between Knysna and Sedgefield. But the photogenic reserve became the centre of attention on 8 August 2013 when the 182m Kiani Satu cargo vessel ran aground in heavy seas off Buffalo Bay and Goukamma’s beaches.
The German-owned ship was carrying 15 000 tons of rice and 300 tons of fuel oil. About 50 tons of oil leaked out, blackening the beaches of the reserve and marine protected area, which extends one nautical mile offshore.
On 21 August the vessel was towed 110 nautical miles out to sea and sunk in 1000m of water.
Fortunately, several winter storms passed through the area. Heavy wave action broke up the oil on the beaches, making it easier for the cleanup teams to remove the remaining pollution.
“When the oil first hit the beaches, we could smell it on the shore,” said reserve manager Keith Spencer. “It was that sharp, petrol-type smell you get when you fill up your car.
“There was a line of black all along the beach, and we were expecting the worst. Fortunately, nature played along, and the stormy seas helped to clean the beaches.”
The ship’s insurers paid for all cleaning and emergency operations, and will continue to do so until the reserve is restored to its natural state.
This protected area includes one of the healthiest spawning populations of red roman fish, which has been seriously threatened by overfishing elsewhere along the coast. In Goukamma, scientists have proved that a marine reserve is hugely beneficial to the recovery of these fish, which often spend their whole lives in an area of about 300m in extent.
During the oil spill the mouth of the Goukamma River was closed off with a boom to prevent oil from entering the estuary, and the river system was mostly spared.
“Oil stays on the surface of the ocean, so it’s unlikely that any fish or subsurface marine life will suffer,” said Keith, “but you never know what the long-term effects will be.”
Goukamma was not the only place affected by the spill. Ocean currents carried the pollution 300km east to the Cape gannet nesting colony on Bird Island, off Addo Elephant National Park. This is the world’s largest Cape gannet colony, and one of only a few remaining. Nearby is the small St Croix Island, home to the largest colony of African penguins.
So while the insurers are ready to pay out for financial expenses incurred in cleaning up the latest mess, what price the damage to endangered species like the penguins, gannets and fish?
Is it time for a sizeable fines to be imposed on the owners of ships that pollute the coastline, to cover the “cost to nature”, over and above any cleanup fee? The money could be used to expand protected areas and train conservation staff, for instance.
As environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan writes convincingly in his book, Wild Law, nature and animal species should have legal rights, too, even if South African law doesn’t currently acknowledge them.
For now, Goukamma is on the mend. When I visited, it was hard to believe there had been a recent oil spill. The beaches were clean, apart from a few isolated spots, and the emerald sea lured me in for a swim.
I photographed several pairs of oystercatchers feeding in the rock pools — surely a sign that the reserve is back to its beautiful best.
To enjoy the area fully, visitors should walk the beaches or the fynbos trails on the dunes, all the way to the gorgeous Groenvlei — a natural body of fresh water that has no inflowing or outflowing rivers.
One morning I borrowed the reserve’s little boat and drifted along the edges of this sparkling lake. A pair of otters poked their noses above the surface, and a fish eagle swooped to land on one of the thousands of milkwood trees.
Self-catering accommodation includes three stylish thatched cottages on the estuary, and two rustic bush lodges overlooking Groenvlei. The best one is Fish Eagle Loft, a two-bed semi-luxury eyrie that has high views over the river and sea.
Contact: Accommodation at Goukamma (www.capenature.co.za) from R630 for two people (Fish Eagle Loft) and R840 for four people (cottages) and R1080 for four people (Mvubu Bush Lodge and Otter’s Rest Lodge)
* We’ll be posting the second part of Scott’s trip along the Garden Route soon.
Year in the Wild, 2013-14
Following on from his first Year in the Wild, photojournalist Scott Ramsay is travelling from July 2013 to October 2014 to some of the same parks (but in different seasons) as well as many new parks and nature reserves in SA and the transfrontier parks in southern Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Again, his goal is to create awareness about protected areas, and to inspire others to travel to these natural wonders.
Partners include Cape Union Mart, Ford Everest, Goodyear and K-Way, with support from WildCard, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Globecomm, National Luna, Outdoor Photo, Safari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.
For more information, go to www.yearinthewild.com.