Travel – Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve: Rugged, remote jewel

2014-10-30 18:45

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If you’re looking for a bit of adventure in pristine wilderness, why not take off for Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape?

With rugged mountain scenery, yellowwood forests, giant aloes, hiking and 4x4 trails, cycling and fishing, this could be for you.

The reserve’s rugged sandstone cliffs and spectacular folds conceal over 200 rock art sites, long, luscious fronds of lichen that hang from the yellowwoods to the water’s edge, and pure mountain streams. There are buffalo, eland, caracal, baboons and leopard in the park. In fact, the reserve is one of the few remaining areas able to support a sizeable leopard population.

Driving through the park, a World Heritage Site with seven of South Africa’s eight biomes, you see the botanical changes easily – forest along river beds, thicket as you start climbing, then fynbos unfolding before you get to mountain-top grasslands.

And then there’s a special snail: the “extinct” left-handed awl snail Euonyma laeocochlis which was re-discovered in the Baviaanskloof in 2006, 104 years after its last sighting. Now that sent the experts into a spin.

Rough terrain

Part of the Baviaanskloof adventure is that you have to have a 4x4 or high-clearance vehicle because sections of the road are badly eroded. It climbs four passes in all – Nuwekloof, Grasnek, Holgat and Combrink’s – as well as crossing 98 drifts across rivers and streams.

If you want to stay inside the park for a night or two, a newly restored former forester’s cabin has just opened at Geelhoutbos, about 5km in from the western gate. Or you can stay at two very basic campsites, Rooihoek and Doodsklip, deeper in the park. But be warned: the sites offer only a couple of eco toilets, so you need to be ready for roughing it. And the baboons here are notorious thieves.

Carbon credits

In the Baviaanskloof Hartland Conservancy, many farmers offer accommodation, hikes, 4x4 trails or other activities.

Cut off from Port Elizabeth by the difficult passes to the east, they’re forced to go shopping in Willowmore to the west.

“You lose your interest in shopping. It’s such hard work,” says Magriet Kruger of Zandvlakte farm. She’s been here since 1979 – her husband Pier since 1976 – and she’s nuts about the flowers. She sends samples to Sanbi, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, and as a result, there’s been a trail of post-graduate students to the farm.

Piet has thrown himself into restoring 1?500ha of overgrazed land through a spekboom (Portulacaria afra) project. A gentle giant with hands the size of dinner plates, he takes tourists up the mountain to see the initiative. The plant’s capacity to store carbon is said to be the equivalent of tropical forests and Piet may be able to sell carbon credits one day.

“It’s all about stewardship, not ownership,” he says.

This project, too, has resulted in many graduate students staying at the farm. So really, the Krugers don’t have to go out into the world – it comes to them.

Vero’s Restaurant

Khoi and San people have lived in the valley for all time and their descendants are slowly coming

into their own. They now own roadside attractions and bee-keeping projects (the honey is exceptional – you have to buy some), do guiding, oversee caretaking and many other projects.

One of them is Veronica Meganie, a young woman who runs the locally famous Vero’s Restaurant on a bend in the road.

Her speciality is roosterbroodjies (bread made on the braai) en koffie, but mainly it’s the level of cosiness and comfort she offers from her family’s modest home that’s so appealing, along with the craft shop she runs across the road.

One of the features of the cliffs are the deep ravines or “slots” with streams running through them.

Some farmers allow tourists to explore the slots on their land.

On Boplaas, you’re guided by the farm’s dogs, Skollie, a mongrel, and Bakkies, a sheepdog, who take tourists up into the hills all the time. Best to follow them back, too.

We decided to be independent and landed up in a bit of a mess. And how many places have you been to where the dogs are left to guide the tourists around? You have to love it.

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