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The Story of a Grassland

The Story of a Grassland

Thanks to the efforts of a farmer’s wife in the Karkloof Valley, a threatened mistbelt grassland is now a wildflower spectacle…

Words and Pictures: Andrea Abbott

Flower tourism KwaZulu Natal 14You’ve got to love the feistiness of Nature. You’ve also got to love the diversity of our country’s landscape. On International Biodiversity Day, the Endangered Wildlife Trust issued a statement that reminded us of what we have in our back garden, so to speak. In respect of plants, ‘South Africa occupies only 2 per cent of the world’s land surface area and yet is home to 10 per cent of the world’s plant species’.

All those plants attract a lot of flower-seeking tourists, and the most popular destination is surely the Cape Floristic Region, a World Heritage Site and one of the six floral kingdoms in the world. According to CapeNature, the region has the highest concentration of plant species on the planet. But what might be less well known is that, here along the eastern side of the country, we have fabulous wild flowers too.

In the introduction to her Field Guide to Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region, author and acclaimed botanist Dr Elsa Pooley writes that three of the world’s Centres of Plant Diversity lie within this region – Maputaland, Pondoland and the Drakensberg Alpine Region. ‘With over 10 000 species of plants, the region is one of the richest floral regions in Africa’.

It’s a statement borne out by the seven centres of plant diversity named in Southern Africa by World Conservation Union, with the criteria that as a centre these sites must be species rich and have high levels of endemism. The other four Southern Africa Centres of Plant Diversity are the Albany Region, Cape Floristic Region, Succulent Karoo and Drakensberg Afromontane Regional system.

Flower tourism KwaZulu Natal 11Following a few begrudging spring showers, fellow wildflower enthusiast Anno Torr and I went in search of more of these 10 000 or so species. We headed for the Midlands mistbelt whose grasslands, according to BirdLife SA, are noted for their diversity of flowering plants and high level of endemism. It’s a critically endangered grassland type with just a fifth of its original extent remaining, much of it highly fragmented. A sad case then of catch it while you can.

Our destination was Gartmore farm in the lovely Karkloof Valley. Gartmore is famous for the bird hides sited at the edge of wetlands, where visitors can spot all three crane species. There are also many other grass- and wetland-dependent birds that thrive there thanks in large part to the low-impact, no-till farming methods of owner, Charlie McGillivray, chairman of the Karkloof Conservancy.

Also within the farm is an expansive stretch of mistbelt grassland, the site of monthly walks that Charlie’s wife, Robyn leads to Yarrow Falls during the flowering season. Anyone who loves flowers will find these walks a treat: Gartmore grassland stages a botanic beauty pageant that continues throughout the season, different species parading as the weeks wear on.

On the day we visited, the pageant included beauties called cartwheels and hooded meadow-stars, eulophias, the red-brown Gladiolus woodii, false gentians, watsonias, pink and white gerbera, the red indigo bush, red catkins, hermannias, blue cress, the bugle plant, wild violets, helichrysums, fire lilies, star flowers, pentanisias, Wahlenbergias, lotononis, pelargoniums, wild fuschias, polygalas, ledebourias and other bulbs.

It was impossible to make a list of the full bouquet. Crouching down to absorb all that delicate beauty felt a bit like being in a poem; you know that one by William Blake about seeing heaven in a wild flower. But there was a time when this Gartmore paradise was lost, the flowers absent and the wild creatures in peril. Returning to the farm a few months later, I learnt the story of how that paradise was regained.

Flower tourism KwaZulu Natal 10The story begins just over a decade ago. Robyn McGillivray’s daughters had left school and she found herself with more time on her hands. “I began to take more notice of my surroundings and was appalled to find cruel rat traps hidden among dense stands of invasive bramble.” The traps were intended for francolins. “They suffered an agonising death,” Robyn says. She also discovered that poachers were setting snares for porcupines and antelope along the fence line. “Those traps and snares were the catalyst that made me realise I had to be a steward of my environment.”

At that stage Robyn knew nothing about indigenous flora. Nor had she any experience in eradicating invasive alien plants. “I knew only that I had to clear the bramble, wattle, bugweed, camphor and others to improve visibility. The waterways were most important because the poachers moved along those corridors.”

Thus began a colossal project that Robyn describes as initially soul destroying. “We seemed to be getting nowhere.” But she and her right-hand man, Sgixi Makhathini persevered. “It was a case of how to eat an elephant.” Gradually, as the aliens were removed, Robyn noticed the river flow improving. But the biggest surprise was the wild flowers that started emerging. “I mentioned this to people in our conservancy and also to members of the Midlands Conservancies Forum. They came to see what I was talking about and were amazed at what they found.”

Out of that grew the idea for regular walks which, in the five years they’ve been operating, have become popular with experts and lay people. One of many spinoffs, Robyn says, is that the regular presence of people helps deter poachers. “I can’t remember when last I saw a snare here.”

The rehabilitation of Robyn’s mistbelt grassland has been a huge learning curve for her and is “a lifelong project.” The rewards, though, have been considerable. “It’s given me great purpose and it’s thrilling to see habitat recovering,” she says.

A habitat type, it should be stressed, that is among the scarcest in the country. “The biggest surprise is how robust it is even in its fragility.” Robyn adds that she has always loved the fauna and knowing they no longer have to run the gauntlet is one of the best outcomes of the project. Another big personal reward is that she has discovered a love for the flora. “I’m in awe of the new things I see every season,” she says. “If I’m having a bad day, I just have to look
back and say, I did this.”

Top Ten Wildflower Hotspots in KZN

  1. For self-guided trips, head for the Drakensberg where there are alpine grasslands in nature reserves or private resorts like The Cavern. 036 438 6270, 083 701 5724, [email protected] www.cavern.co.za
  2. The Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve in Howick is in a beautiful mistbelt and offers a range of accommodation. 033 330 3931
  3. Gartmore Farm Walks to Yarrow Falls. First Wednesday of the month 09h00 to 11h00. 082 802 8949
  4. Curry’s Post Conservancy Walks: Third Sunday of the month 09h00 to 11h00. 076 578 2941
  5. Mbona Private Reserve Walk, Karkloof: Third Friday of the month 09h00 to 11h00. 082 574 1958
  6. Beacon Hill Walk, Howick. Last Sunday of the month, 09h00 to 11h00. 082 872 4333
  7. Annually in November, Elsa Pooley guides a Wild Flowers Weekend at The Cavern Resort. 036 438 6270, 083 701 5724 [email protected], www.cavern.co.za/wild-flowers-weekend/
  8. Sani Pass and Lesotho Wild Flower Walk with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa takes place over the last weekend in January every year. Sani Lodge Backpackers 033 702 0330, 083 987 3071, [email protected], www.sanilodge.co.za
  9. Umtamvuna Nature Reserve in Pondoland has more than 1 400 flowering species including many endemics. There are a number of trails. 039 313 2383, www.kznwildlife.com
  10. iSimangaliso Wetland Park stretches from Mapelane in the south to Kosi Bay in the north, a huge area of Maputaland. This well-managed, immensely biodiverse World Heritage Site contains more than 2 000 seed plants, of which 65 are orchid species. 035 590 1633, www.isimangaliso.com

Did You Know?

There are only six floral kingdoms in the world:

  1. Holarctic (North American west coast and Central Asia)
  2. Paleotropical (Central Africa)
  3. Neotropical (South America)
  4. Australian
  5. Holantarctic (tip of South America)
  6. Capensis (Western Cape, South Africa)

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