The Verlorenvallei Nature Reserve outside Dullstroom bursts with colour in summer.
Words and Pictures: Leon Marshall and Frans Krige
Mijnheer F H van Achterbergh must have been terribly tired and homesick when he got his first impression of what was to become Dullstroom. It is ‘one huge mass of rock, shrouded in eternal mist, ravaged by everlasting cold, without any natural beauty’, he wrote in Pretoria’s De Volkstem newspaper of June 1889.
The area’s winter landscape does tend to be drab and become shrouded in swirling mist, even though that is exactly what many a visitor nowadays goes there for. Fireside drinks and hearty meals are very much part of the town’s attraction in winter.
But a romantic weekend getaway was not the old-timer’s reason for being there. He was a member of a Dutch party, whose sea voyage from Europe around the Cape of Storms to Durban would have taken six weeks or more. Then followed a train trip to Ladysmith. Thereafter came the bumpy ox-wagon ride over the Drakensberg and across the vast Highveld grasslands to that spot, a full 2 100 metres above the sea-level existence they were used to back home, where dykes were needed to keep the surf at bay.
They were recruited by the Kolonie Maatskappy, a society in Holland that collected money and sent out settlers to help the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek recover from the losses it suffered during the Anglo-Boer War in 1880-81.
Some of the money was later used to buy the Groot Zuikerboschkop farm on which the Dutch immigrants settled, and which in 1892 was proclaimed as Dullstroom, so named after Wolterus Dull, the Dutch company’s chairman. Had the travel-weary newcomer given it just a bit more time, he might have gained a different impression.
He would have felt the exhilaration of spring’s fresh mountain air on his face and seen the area’s rich bird life spring into action. He would have watched the treeless mountain folds and valleys exchange their cheerless winter coats for a wash of green. And there before his eyes would have been a burst of colour from a multitude of flowers, big and small, springing to life across the countryside in ways that might have reminded him, perhaps even surpassed impressions, of his beloved tulip fields back home.
It is indeed surprising to what extent these very same floral riches have remained so hidden a charm behind Dullstroom’s development over the years, from an obscure roadside village to a bustling tourist town, where visitors these days pour from cars and buses into an array of eateries and curio shops.
But this is about to change. An initiative is in progress to bring this natural treasure to wider attention and turn it into a far more potent tourist attraction. One of the leading figures behind it is Elsa Vermeulen, a founding member of the Dullstroom Wildflower Club that went dormant for a while but is now back in business. She explains, “There are many of us who realise the importance of the area’s exceptional plant life. We want to create awareness of it. We want to make people understand that Dullstroom is not only about eating, fishing and fireplaces. There is much to do. The club in the past arranged flower competitions for schools, and that is just one of the activities we want to get going again. Another is to give new life to the town’s annual flower exhibition in January. Planning for it has to start well ahead of the flower season. We want to attract many more visitors.”
She offers guided walks around the edge of town during the flower season, and also takes visitors to the Verlorenvallei reserve – which is open to the public – about 13 kilometres north-west of the town, the epicentre of the region’s floral wealth. The 5 890-hectare reserve spans low mountains enfolding a valley that contains a cluster of wetlands fed by mountain streams. Unlike much of the surrounding area, where exotics like black wattle, pine and eucalyptus were introduced over the years, it has remained treeless, and the landscape is much like when those first settlers arrived. It was proclaimed in 1983 for the very purpose of protecting its exceptional plant life, and in 2003 earned the additional distinction of being declared a Ramsar Wetland, to put international weight behind the protection of its wetlands.
The park offers a feast of beauty during the height of flower season from November to March. It is then that the valleys and mountain slopes are painted in a wash of colours, while at closer range the pretty flowers peep from mats of grass and keep taking on different hues and shapes with the changing terrain. Along sections of the rough track leading through the park, sweet fragrances waft in from the veld.
Frans Krige, a scientist and expert on flowers, who was the manager of Verlorenvallei from 1993 to 2003, says its floral treasure includes 55 orchid species alone. Many of these have reappeared as a result of the park’s protection from grazing, and the introduction of a proper rotational veld-burning regime, on which most such plants depend for their propagation.
“In earlier times it used to be lightning that regularly set the veld ablaze, which kept going the flower species that depend on fire to germinate,” says Frans. “We are now using the same lightning principle of regular burns, and it is paying dividends.”
He had exciting support recently for his belief that more orchid species will over time get added to the region’s already impressive list. He tells how, 19 years ago, he and a friend came across a beautiful purple orchid that was new to him. The strong fragrance from the sample flower he kept in water in his office attracted a female Malachite Sunbird, which got so taken by its nectar that it kept returning for more, even though he was catching it by hand to put it out of the window.
Orchid specialists identified the plant as a very rare Disa zuluensis. They told him that, contrary to its name, it had never been found in KwaZulu-Natal. They thought the botanist who identified it about 150 years ago probably forgot where he found it and named it incorrectly.
Now, after all these years, Frans has again come across the species, this time in a wetland close to town. These days, as a consultant and campaigner against harmful development, he is delighted. “After so many battles against unsustainable mining and resort development, discoveries like these are true gifts from heaven,” he says.
He is even talking of getting the Disa zuluensis name changed. If he has his way the spectacularly beautiful flower will be renamed Disa rolene strausii, in honour of Miss World, Rolene Strauss. He is working on convincing his fellow scientists of it.
The growing appreciation of their region’s floral riches has so enthused conservation-minded locals that more and more farms are being earmarked for proclamation as protected areas. Krige says about 10 000 hectares of farmland, mostly neighbouring Verlorenvallei, are likely to go this way. The aim is ultimately to have a territory of about 200 000 hectares shielded by national legislation from destructive development, the most constant and ominous threat of which is mining.
“We have already had notable success in pushing back the mining threat. Getting the additional defence that proclamation as a protected area offers will be of great further help,” he says.
A noticeboard outside one of the older buildings in town, which had been acquired to become a heritage centre, gives the reason for the region’s abundance of flowers. It says it is due to its sub-Alpine climate, regarded as unique in South Africa, combined with cool daytime temperatures in summer and an average rainfall of about 800mm.
The heritage-centre plan in itself is an act of self-discovery by residents, who believe their town and its surrounds have so much to offer. The intention is to put on display the history of all sections of the community, black, Indian and white.
The building, next to the Dullstroom Inn and opposite the historic Hervormde Kerk, will house the wildflower show. It will be held some time in January 2016 when the flowers are at their best. Notice of its timing is put out to the local hospitality industry and shops.
“A great deal has happened in and around Dullstroom over the past years,” says Norman Durrant, a leading member of the town’s newly-formed Heritage Society. “It makes perfect sense that every one of the population groups and their history should be represented in our exhibits. We want it to give the full picture.”
Verlorenvallei Nature Reserve
- The reserve is 13km outside town along a gravel road that turns off the R540 to Mashishing (Lydenburg).
- It has no accommodation or catering facilities and is open to day visitors only.
- The track takes visitors on a circular route through the reserve. It is rough going in places, and high-clearance vehicles are recommended.
- The best time of year for flowers is summer. The reserve has only a few antelope species, but is a birder’s delight.
- Flower excursions: 072 593 7587, [email protected] or [email protected]
- Verlorenvallei Nature Reserve: 013 254 0799