No wonder Umtamvuna Nature Reserve, the most southerly in KwaZulu-Natal, is a favoured haunt for botanists and plant lovers…
Words: Andrea Abbott
Pictures: Andrea Abbott and Graham Grieve
The KwaZulu-Natal South Coast is perhaps more associated with sand, surf and fishing, and bananas and sugar cane than with wild flowers. And yet, the region contains botanical treasure that compares favourably with the best in our country. You just have to know where to look.
Outstanding among these natural treasuries is the 3 257ha Umtamvuna Nature Reserve, a few kilometres inland from Port Edward. The southernmost nature reserve in KZN, and part of the Pondoland Centre of Endemism (PCE), Umtamvuna is a dramatically scenic place where ancient forests edge the uMthamvuna and Bulolo river gorges, and steep cliffs rise up more than 200 metres to meet an undulating plateau dressed in pristine grassland.
Those diverse habitats support an exceptional plant population. “The list for Umtamvuna contains more than
1500 species,” says Graham Grieve, co-champion of the Pondoland Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wild Plants (CREW) group. “These include many endemic and Red Data species.”
He explains that the high number of endemics – more than 100 species – is attributed to the unique nature of the soils associated with the Msikaba Formation sandstone that occurs in Pondoland and the southern parts of KZN. Like almost anywhere, though, human activity has transformed much of the land in the region so that only pockets of the natural vegetation remain.
Umtamvuna, Graham points out, is one of the few remaining undisturbed areas of grassland and forest in the PCE. Ecologically intact, the reserve is a favoured hunting ground for plant enthusiasts. And as it turns out, botanical exploration has a long tradition there.
It goes back to the early 1960s when forester and conservationist, Hugh Nicholson pioneered weekly botanical walks, starting mostly from the area that in 1971 was proclaimed Umtamvuna Nature Reserve. The amateur plant enthusiasts and professional botanists who took part in the regular Thursday walks came to be called the Nicholson Botanical Group.
An entertaining history of the walks and its participants is available on the Pondoland CREW blog written by Graham and his wife Kate, a talented botanical artist. Championed by Kate, the Pondoland CREW team has continued the tradition of the Thursday walks. These are not confined to Umtamvuna but include sites within a 100 kilometre radius of Port Edward.
A notable member of the original Thursday Group was the late Tony Abbott, a local farmer and enthusiastic conservationist, who began accompanying Hugh Nicholson in the early 1980s. Tony’s chief interest at first was trees but over time he also became an expert on the grassland flora.
Tony and Hugh’s expeditions yielded many important discoveries. Between the two intrepid plant hunters, at least nine species carry their names: Lydenbergia abbotti, Psoralea abbottii; Apodytes abbottii; Erica abbottii; Maytenus abbottii; Aspalathus abbottii; Colubrina nicholsonii; Cussonia nicholsonii and Manilkara nicholsonii. Tony was also largely responsible for establishing the Umtamvuna herbarium that contains about 14 000 specimens, including Hugh Nicholson’s private collection. The herbarium is curated on a voluntary basis by Kate Grieve with members of the Pondoland CREW group.
To explore this magical land of flowers, you don’t have to join the Thursday walks which, Graham points out, usually have specific objectives, are sometimes over tough terrain to far-flung places, and are not everyone’s idea of fun. Visitors can instead take advantage of the marked trails within the reserve. These vary in length, duration and difficulty, and start from either the pont entrance in the valley at the southern end of the reserve, or at the Beacon Hill entrance on top of the escarpment.
Another option is to join the annual Tony Abbott Memorial Walk in October. It’s a guided walk that sets out from Clearwater Café at the head of a network of cycling and walking trails traversing privately owned land, including the Abbott family farm, as well as sections of the reserve. Participants in the event can choose either the Fish Eagle Trail that plunges into the gorge before climbing steeply back up through forests, or enjoy a more leisurely meander through the grasslands above.
Fellow floraphile, Anno Torr and I took the latter route and were privileged to be in the company of renowned botanist, Dr Elsa Pooley and several of the Pondoland CREW team. In perfect spring weather and at a snail’s pace, we combed the grasslands, stopping every minute or two to identify flowers, learn from the masters among us and revel in the stupendous views.
Among the many treasures we found were Apodytes abbottii – a near-threatened species; Merwilla plumbea – formerly known as Scilla natalensis and listed as vulnerable (it’s favoured as a traditional cure for a range of ailments); the curious-looking Brachystelma australe – a Pondoland endemic; Rhipsalis baccifera – when we came across it in Umtamvuna, Elsa Pooley told me that it’s the only local cactus.
In her book, Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region, she indicates that it occurs from the Eastern Cape to Tropical Africa but is also widespread in Tropical America.
Our stroll eventually took us down a steep and rocky slope into a forest where we sat among the Clivia miniata and listened to birdsong that boomeranged back and forth between the cliffs on either side of the uMthamvuna gorge. We could have stayed in that tranquil place all day, absorbing all the beauty around us, but we’d booked lunch and so we hauled ourselves up that unforgiving slope and wended our way back to Clearwater Café, finding yet more of the reserve’s 1 500-plus species as we went.
After the official walk was over, we drove up to Beacon Hill, the highest part of the reserve. There, a profusion of flowers we hadn’t yet seen that day embellished the grassland. Gorgeous orchids, their bonnets tucked around pretty little faces, stood up straight in the swaying grasses, and several species of bright-yellow berkheya competed for the limelight with helichrysum that shimmered in the lowering sun.
I always come away from the wilderness with a deep sense of well-being. That sense is no illusion. Increasingly, scientific findings indicate that reconnecting with nature brings many benefits. For example, National Geographic recently reported on various cognitive studies, the conclusions of which reveal that time spent in the great outdoors does ‘our overstressed brains a favour’.
And so, calm-brained, we drove away from that paradise of flowers. As we re-entered the transformed world of humankind, we reflected on the visionary walkers who set forth on Thursdays all those years ago, and those who continue in their tracks today. Their dedication and knowledge have brought to light the floral treasures of Umtamvuna, making it easier for ordinary people to find and delight in such exquisite jewels.
- CREW is a countrywide volunteer project run under the auspices of the South African National Biodiversity Institute. The goal is to identify and chart the distribution of rare and endangered wild plants. www.sanbi.org.za
- To contact the Pondoland CREW group and to see what is flowering in any season, visit www.pondolandcrew.blogspot.co.za
- Flowers occur throughout the year in the Umtamvuna reserve but, as Graham points out, “the more floristically abundant time is from about late August through to end November, decreasing to March. That depends too on rainfall and which grasslands underwent controlled burns.”
- Umtamvuna Nature Reserve is open daily. No accommodation is available but picnic and braai areas are provided.
- For more info: 039 313 2383, www.kznwildlife.com
- Clearwater Café and Trails – see more on the next Tony Abbott Memorial Walk www.clearwatertrails.co.za