Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve in the Eastern Cape is renowned for rare species and beautiful fynbos
Words and Pictures: Pat Sydie
GALLOWS, suicides, ghosts, dwarfs, a lady’s slipper – they sound like the ingredients for a gory novel, but they are actually all connected with a floral treasure called the Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve.
If you are heading down the N2 from Port Elizabeth, intent on savouring the attractions of the Garden Route, you might be unaware of the missed opportunity as you speed over the infamous bridge that spans the awe-inspiring gorge which is part of the reserve. Take the turnoff just before the bridge about 40 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, head into the 600ha reserve and you will be treated to a feast of flowers and sights to easily rival the wonders of the Garden Route. Be warned, though – don’t be a car potato. You must disembark and put on those boots made for walking through fynbos or forest.
The flowers here are shy and, although you can see them from your vehicle on the circular drive through the reserve or one of the subsidiary roads, they will show their full beauty only to those who take the trouble to wander along the walks and trails. A laid-back stroll is the 15-minute, 500m Fynbos Ramble, where you are quite likely to see magnificent specimens of the king protea (Protea cynaroides) and many other fynbos beauties. There is also a pond where you can do a bit of bird watching.
With that under your belt, climb into your car if you like and head across the bridge over the N2 towards the Arboretum, a former nursery that has been turned into a short, 600m walk, where you can see some of the oldest trees in the reserve. If you are feeling energetic tackle the 4km River Walk that runs along the contour of a small tributary of the Van Stadens River and provides good views of the Van Stadens Mountains. But don’t do what we did and go off on the wrong path. We walked right down to the river, climbed over fallen trees and puffed up the other side only to be confronted with an ominous sign warning that we were on private property. We had to trudge all the way back, down and up the steep slopes and by the time we got up to the top were so hot and out of breath that we didn’t feel like going any further.
Without following the 6km Forest Walk down into the gorge, there is no way you can fully appreciate trees such as the forest nuxia (Nuxia floribunda), Cape wing-nut (Atalaya capensis) or the Cape star chestnut (Sterculia alexandri), which is endemic to a limited area around Port Elizabeth. Armed with a booklet on the forest trees, animals and birds compiled by the Friends of Van Stadens, you could easily spend days on the trail and still not exhaust its possibilities.
The Forest Walk used to be separated from the rest of the reserve by the N2, but has now been linked to the short Bridge Bundu Bash and takes you under the stunning engineering feat which spans the gorge. Take a minute to rest with the underside of the bridge just above your head and listen to the eerie clunk of vehicles passing over. There is also a breathtaking view of the bridge and the gorge from the Bundu Bash.
Experienced hikers can tackle the 11km Van Stadens Hike that combines the river, forest and bridge walks and takes about three hours. The reserve, proclaimed in 1951 and one of the oldest in the country, is owned by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality. It is home to several rare and threatened plants found only there, such as Cyrtanthus staadensis, named after the reserve.
The Friends of Van Stadens, a dedicated group of volunteers, spends much time helping to protect these treasures by eradicating alien species and keeping facilities such as picnic spots in good order, among other things. The group is considering ways to attract more visitors, such as mountain bike trails and guided tours. Funds are raised by running a nursery where they grow local plants for sale to the public at very reasonable prices every October.
But what about those gallows? In the 1700s, some travellers passing through the area carved their names on a tree. A while later, another waggish wayfarer carved a gallows above the names and the area became known as Galgenbosch (Dutch for Gallows Wood). Why the name changed, or who Van Stadens was, remain mysteries. The Lady’s Slipper is a rocky outcrop on the Van Stadens Mountains, which allegedly looks like the footwear, but it takes a good bit of imagination to see the resemblance.
Suicides are tragically connected to the Van Stadens Bridge – since its completion in 1971, close to 90 people have jumped to their deaths from it into the gorge 140m below.Hopefully the new barriers being constructed will end this gory chapter in its history. An impressive view of the bridge from the bottom of the gorge can be had by going down the Van Stadens Pass on the old Cape Road, which you get onto by turning right out of the reserve.
Another lofty bridge is the one that used to carry the famous little Apple Express steam train across the gorge. At about 77 metres, it is the highest narrow-gauge railway bridge in the world. Sadly, the train is no longer running, but moves are afoot to get it back on track so that it can give delight to local and international tourists once again. Ghosts and dwarfs? The ghost is actually the critically endangered Hewitt’s ghost frog and the dwarf is the endangered Smith’s dwarf chameleon, neither of which was anywhere in sight when we visited the reserve – hopefully they will be about next time.
Maybe we will spot them on the River Walk – if we can find it.