Tending Nature’s Garden
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.
Garden Route Biosphere Reserve
Committee Errol Finkelstein 072 443 2900 firstname.lastname@example.org
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)