Tend­ing Na­ture’s Gar­den

South African Country Life - - In This Issue -

Get­ting the Unesco Gar­den Route Bio­sphere Re­serve into tip-top shape


When the wise folk of Unesco had to de­cide whether to add the Gar­den Route to the in­ter­na­tional list of bio­sphere re­serves, all they needed to make up their minds was to look at a ge­o­graph­i­cal map of the re­gion.

It’s a gi­gan­tic gar­den of moun­tains, gorges, val­leys, lakes and beau­ti­ful stretches of coast­line. Stand­ing out from its abun­dant plant life are deep forests in which strands of moss droop like beard from enor­mous trees. Be­side a tow­er­ing yel­low­wood stands a memo­rial to Da­lene Matthee, who brought to life the magic of these woods in her ac­claimed for­est nov­els.

Along the moun­tain slopes, be­tween grass­land and shrub­land, are patches of fyn­bos that fill the air with the scent of sea­sonal changes. A va­ri­ety of creep­ers cov­ers the coastal dunes.

At one end of the scale, its an­i­mal life has a small group of ele­phants mov­ing se­cre­tively in the forests. At the other is the Knysna sea­horse that changes colour and moves its eyes in­de­pen­dently of each other like a chameleon. It is only in this small cor­ner that the quaint lit­tle fel­low oc­curs.

The ele­phants, rem­nants of once mighty herds, are so elu­sive as to have some peo­ple doubt their ex­is­tence. As for the sea­horse, there is no un­cer­tainty. A few spec­i­mens can be seen in a fish tank in the foyer of the SANParks build­ing on the Knysna Wa­ter­front.

The Unesco pan­el­lists had be­fore them an ap­pli­ca­tion of more than 8 000 pages of in­for­ma­tion pre­pared by lead­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists, listing the re­gion’s at­tributes and threats. “As it hap­pened,” says Julie Carlisle, one of the au­thors of the sub­mis­sion, “they got it right the first time.” Nor­mally it takes two or more at­tempts for the no­to­ri­ously fas­tid­i­ous judges of the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion to give such ap­proval. The hu­man fac­tor came heav­ily into it, as the pur­pose of a bio­sphere is es­sen­tially to pro­mote har­mony be­tween peo­ple and na­ture.

The 698 363-hectare sec­tion of the south­ern Cape coastal land­scape, stretch­ing from Groot Brak River near Ge­orge in the west to Jef­frey’s Bay in the east, has a pop­u­la­tion of about half a mil­lion peo­ple. It’s a rich cul­tural mix, which you no­tice when walk­ing the malls and streets of towns like Ge­orge, Wilder­ness, Knysna and Plet­ten­berg Bay.

You see it when trav­el­ling the coun­try­side, which switches from high-end eques­trian es­tates, lodges and dairy farms to small­hold­ings

and the sadly in­evitable pock­ets of poverty. Here and there you come across a cot­tage where arty types lead a bohemian life­style.

Many of the place names re­veal this cul­tural blend. Some her­ald far back in time, as ap­pears from their mean­ings given in the Dic­tio­nary of South­ern African Place Names. Among the moun­tain ranges there is Outeni­qua, thought to be named af­ter a Khoi group who lived there. The Kam­manassie range has a river by the same name that is the Khoi word for ‘wash­ing wa­ter’. The Kouga range also takes its name from a river, one that is Khoi for ‘many hip­pos’. Tsit­sikamma means ‘wa­ters be­gin’, which is the Khoi ref­er­ence to the rivers spring­ing from the moun­tain.

Knysna is taken to be Khoi for ferns. Plet­ten­berg Bay and Ge­orge her­ald back re­spec­tively to a Dutch gov­er­nor and Bri­tish king of early colo­nial times. Sedge­field, Na­ture’s Val­ley and Storms River make their own state­ments about the re­gion’s nat­u­ral fea­tures.

In one part of the for­est is a ghost town named Millwood, where for­tune seek­ers from far and wide de­scended in droves in the 1880s to dig for gold along the banks of Ju­bilee

Creek, named in hon­our of Queen Vic­to­ria’s ju­bilee. It is now a favourite pic­nic spot. A na­ture trail along the creek is one of many that criss-cross the re­gion and which, along with its lakes and beaches, con­trib­ute to its rich ar­ray of eco­tourism at­trac­tions.

The sub­mis­sion to Unesco had as its lead au­thor Vernon Gibbs-Halls, an en­vi­ron­men­tal spe­cial­ist with the Eden Dis­trict Mu­nic­i­pal­ity, who has since moved abroad. Julie Carlisle was one of two lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tants he used. The other was Mary Jane Waite.

Meet­ing the re­quire­ment of a core area for such re­serves did not present a prob­lem. Much of the forests, fyn­bos, and lakes (al­ready listed as a Ram­sar Site) form part of the Gar­den Route Na­tional Park. The Ma­rine Pro­tected Ar­eas of Rob­berg, which juts out as a penin­sula from the pop­u­lar hol­i­day town of Plet­ten­berg Bay, and Goukamma, which sits be­tween Knysna and Sedge­field, take care of stretches of the seashore that are of par­tic­u­lar eco­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, not least as breed­ing grounds for vul­ner­a­ble fish species.

Meet­ing the Unesco re­quire­ment of a buf­fer zone are ad­join­ing ranges of con­ser­van­cies, farms and small­hold­ings, where de­vel­op­ment is low and the in­hab­i­tants gen­er­ally favour con­ser­va­tion.

It was the third cri­te­rion, that of a tran­si­tional area, which proved the most dif­fi­cult, says Julie. “With Unesco ab­so­lutely in­sist­ing on proof that there is buy-in from the com­mu­nity for such a re­serve, it had us tra­verse the re­gion back and forth, hold­ing meet­ings and talk­ing to peo­ple to win them over. For­tu­nately, the pub­lic in­ter­est was great. In the end we were able to add stacks of re­ports and let­ters of sup­port from in­di­vid­u­als and groups to our sub­mis­sion.”

The bio­sphere re­serve spans the bor­der of the West­ern Cape and the Eastern Cape. Its steer­ing com­mit­tee has as its chair­man a char­tered ac­coun­tant and livewire nat­u­ral­ist named Er­rol Finkel­stein. He also chairs the West­ern Cape Bio­sphere Re­serve Fo­rum, an um­brella body for the prov­ince’s four other bio­sphere re­serves – Ko­gel­berg, Cape West Coast, Cape Winelands, and the Gouritz Clus­ter that ex­tends partly into the Eastern Cape.

Er­rol’s in­volve­ment with the Gar­den Route goes back to the 1970s when, on hol­i­day vis­its to Plet­ten­berg Bay, his con­cern about harm caused to the Keur­boom’s ecol­ogy by in­creas­ing boat­ing had him ap­pointed an honorary CapeNa­ture ranger. As such, he helped to en­force reg­u­la­tions in­clud­ing speed lim­its to re­duce the wakes that dis­turb the river­side. The chal­lenge he and his col­leagues face to give ef­fect to the bio­sphere re­serve’s pur­pose is a tough one. Iron­i­cally, he says, it is the re­gion’s very beauty that is part of the prob­lem.

“The en­vi­ron­ment is a mag­net. It sucks in peo­ple from all over. We are bounded by moun­tains in the north and the coast in the south. Peo­ple need houses, schools, hos­pi­tals… Busi­ness and in­dus­try keep ex­pand­ing… Where do we fit these in? We bump up against na­ture. It is this that keeps me awake at night,” he ex­claims, clasp­ing his head be­tween his hands.

On top of the de­vel­op­ment co­nun­drum come fur­ther chal­lenges, such as cli­mate change and the large-scale in­fes­ta­tion of the re­gion by alien trees, no­tably black wat­tle. Sep­a­rately, the two fac­tors each cause a headache of their own. On the one hand, there are the crit­i­cal wa­ter short­ages brought on by weather shifts. On the other there is the dam­age to nat­u­ral habi­tat by the spread of ex­otics.

To­gether they demon­strated their de­struc­tive power last year, when cli­mate change’s symp­to­matic, ex­treme weather con­di­tions of drought and high wind, and the highly flammable alien in­va­sives, helped fuel the firestorm that dev­as­tated parts of the re­gion.

But then it is the very pur­pose of bio­sphere re­serves to face up to such chal­lenges. They are es­sen­tially de­signed to make pro­tec­tion of na­ture and up­lift­ment of com­mu­ni­ties a co­op­er­a­tive ef­fort. The pri­or­ity now is to get a proper man­age­ment struc­ture and a firm strat­egy in place to do just that.

“It’s a sys­tem that works from the bot­tom up, start­ing with the peo­ple and their so­ci­eties,” ex­plains Er­rol. While also in­volv­ing the lo­cal, pro­vin­cial and na­tional gov­ern­ments, it is ba­si­cally left to op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently. The strat­egy needs to cover the en­tire spec­trum, from the pro­vi­sion of pub­lic ameni­ties and com­mu­nity and busi­ness de­vel­op­ment, right through to tourism and con­ser­va­tion.

“Al­ready,” he says, “a start has been made

with projects in­volv­ing lo­cals in re­cy­cling, the erad­i­ca­tion of in­va­sives and the prop­a­ga­tion of in­dige­nous plants. Gov­ern­ment-spon­sored op­er­a­tions like Work­ing for Wa­ter, Work­ing for Wet­lands, and Work­ing on Fire, are in­volved in alien-veg­e­ta­tion erad­i­ca­tion and fire man­age­ment.”

But ul­ti­mately it is go­ing to be a slow­mov­ing process. Take the case of alien-in­vader erad­i­ca­tion, as Er­rol says. The seed of some alien trees can last in the ground for 80 years or more be­fore ger­mi­nat­ing. And get­ting the bet­ter of this could be a job that spans gen­er­a­tions.

Handy Con­tacts

Gar­den Route Bio­sphere Re­serve

Com­mit­tee Er­rol Finkel­stein 072 443 2900 er­rol@gar­den­route­bio­sphere.org.za

Gar­den Route Na­tional Park, SANParks 044 302 5633, Nandi.Mg­wad­lamba@sanparks.org www.sanparks.org/parks/gar­den_route/

RIGHT: The 698 363ha Unesco Gar­den Route Bio­sphere Re­serve. (Map cour­tesy SANParks)LEFT: Julie Carlisle, joint au­thor of the bio­sphere re­serve ap­pli­ca­tion toUnesco, on the Hark­erville For­est Trail be­tween Knysna and Plet­ten­berg Bay. BE­LOW: The 77-me­tre sus­pen­sion bridge at Storms River Mouth. (Photo Dale Mor­ris)

The wilder, less-pop­u­lated and splen­did Keur­booms Beach that runs east to­wards Na­ture’s Val­ley. (Photo Dale Mor­ris)BE­LOW: The iconic Knysna Heads stand guard on ei­ther side of the la­goon’s gate­way to the sea. Homes along the Eastern Head to the left have mag­nif­i­cent views.

FAR LEFT: Er­rol Finkel­stein, chair­man of the Gar­den Route Bio­sphere Re­serve steer­ing com­mit­tee, at the boat club on the Keur­boom River.LEFT: Storms River is an ad­ven­ture hotspot that of­fers a kayak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence down the gorge to the mouth. BE­LOW: The uniqueGreen Mile of the Gar­den Route Na­ture’s Val­ley Beach. (Photo Obie Ober­holzer)

ABOVE: Un­der the canopies of the Knysna For­est, you’ll find a car­pet of ferns, and ex­cel­lent gravel roads and hik­ing trails that might have you spot­ting the elu­sive Knysna Tu­raco and the even more elu­sive Knysna ele­phant.

ABOVE: Nandi Mg­wad­lamba, SANParks’ re­gional communications man­ager, and Lindi En­gel­brechtWil­bra­ham, in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer at the SANParks build­ing on Knysna La­goon where the en­demic Knysna sea­horse can be seen. BE­LOW: Com­mon along the Gar­den Route, a Greater Dou­ble-col­lared Sun­bird drinks a toast to all the good things to come in this area. (Photo Dale Mor­ris)

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