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The sacred legacy of the Gamkaberg nature reserve

The sacred legacy of the Gamkaberg nature reserve

Looking up at the rugged peaks and densely vegetated gorges of the Gamkaberg, I imagine that life for the early inhabitants of this rugged mountain in the Klein Karoo must have been tough. It is a remote and inhospitable place, some 35 kilometres west of Oudtshoorn and squeezed between the Swartberg and Outeniqua ranges, that suffers from climatic extremes.


Asanda Mbuti at the first of 12 information boards along the heritage trails.

I am in the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve to explore the newly opened heritage trails that celebrate both a natural and cultural inheritance. More than a millennium and a half ago, Khoisan people worshipped and hunted here, and the reserve is home to about 40 rock art sites. The trails begin at the interpretation shelter, which is designed to incorporate some Khoisan symbolism and folklore, reserve conservationist Ntokozo Tembe explains.

The floor of the shelter is a full circle, representing the sun, while the fire hearth was the central social point in Khoisan culture. “This is where the stories were told and people were healed; where music was made and dances took place; food was cooked and people were warmed. And of course the fire kept wild animals at bay,” Ntokozo says. The eland, regarded as chief among all the animals by the Khoisan, guards the entrance to the shelter, and its power is transferred to the people who enter in good faith, he tells us.

The reserve is part of the newly proclaimed Cape Floral Region Protected Area World Heritage Site and one of CapeNature’s best kept secrets. It was established by the Department of Nature and Environmental Conservation in 1974 to conserve the Endangered Cape mountain zebra and the unique, rich biodiversity of the area.

The reserve has expanded from its initial 10 000 hectares to 50 000 hectares, thanks to efforts by WWF South Africa and private landowners who set their land aside for conservation. It is a superbly managed and uplifting wilderness destination, I discover during my visit.

Armed with a trail map, the Gamkaberg Bossie Identification Guide from CapeNature, and a bird list, we set out on the 4.1-kilometre Pied Barbet Heritage Trail. The reserve’s natural and cultural heritage is documented on information boards along the path, as well as the 20 most common and interesting plant species.

“We launched the heritage trails in September last year, adding boards along the 2.5-kilometre Mousebird and 4.1-kilometre Pied Barbet walking trails, with information gathered from various sources, including interviews with the Zoar community cultural leaders,” says reserve manager Tom Barry. “Now we’re busy putting together a business plan to train guides from the nearby Zoar and Amalienstein communities.”

The trail is named after the near-endemic Acacia Pied Barbet, we learn as we walk accompanied by birdsong through the sweet thorn thicket of the valley floor. Incorporating three distinct biomes – fynbos, succulent
Karoo and Albany thicket – the reserve supports a diverse array of birds. Visitors are encouraged to hand in a checklist at the end of their stays for monitoring purposes.

This is Pappea capensis, otherwise known as the indaba tree,” field ranger Abraham Lottering tells us, as we rest in the shade of its canopy. “The tree was traditionally a meeting point. Its fruit is edible and oil from the seed was used to lubricate guns.” From the board nearby I glean more information, including about three other major floral species in the reserve, gwarriebos (Euclea undulata), sweet thorn (Acacia karroo) and spekboom (Portulacaria afra).

Like Tom, who’s managed the reserve for 26 years, Abraham has been working at Gamkaberg for more than two decades.

“I love its tranquillity,” he says. Much of his job involves maintenance, which gets him into untouched wilderness. Massive floods swept through the reserve two weeks before our visit, badly damaging some of the trails. Despite extensive repair work, the effect of the deluge is still evident. As we walk, Abraham quietly removes fallen branches and replaces stones that animals have dislodged.

Gamkaberg heritage hike
At our second stop, we discuss some of the rock art in the reserve, which is depicted in perspex panels that explain the techniques used and give interpretations of the paintings. “Most of the rock art sites are deep in the ravines and mountains, and therefore inaccessible,” says Abraham. Other displays show some of the artefacts and Stone Age tools found on the reserve.

Asanda Mbuti and Esethu Mxoli, two nature conservation students from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University who are spending their practical year at Gamkaberg, are walking with us. A keen hiker, Asanda’s enthusiasm is infectious. “Waking up to the beauty of Gamkaberg is exciting,” she smiles. “It’s not like going to work. I’ve already learned so much and am inspired. I realise how much more we could do to improve the area around my home town of Mthatha.”

“Gamkaberg takes its name from the Khoikhoi word xami, which means lion,” explains Esethu as we approach the fauna information board. The Khoi and San held this big cat in awe, but hunters in the area were brave. They would chase the lion off a kill and then take a portion of the meat for themselves.

“The last time a lion was seen in the Klein Karoo was in the 1850s, but today the reserve protects leopard, honey badger, aardwolf, aardvark, kudu, eland, klipspringer, steenbok, duiker and porcupine. The porcupine was an important source of food and medicine for the Khoi and San people. These large rodents eat a wide variety of plants with medicinal properties, so many herbal remedies were obtained from their dried stomach contents.

The porcupine’s fat, which stores cortisone from the bizarre-looking elephant’s foot plant that it eats, was used as an ointment for inflamed joints.

“Of course our key species is the Endangered Cape mountain zebra,” says Esethu. There were only five of these animals when the reserve was established, but now there are 35. An ultra-rare protea, the golden pagoda, (Mimetes chrysanthus) was discovered on Gamkaberg in 1987, she tells us. There has been extensive studies of the Proteaceae family since the early 1800s, so it was unusual to find such a spectacular and large new Protea species.

heritage rock hiking
All the staff members we meet at the reserve are enthusiastic and impatient to show off their little piece of paradise. “Tom is eager to ensure that staff and visitors have a personal connection with nature,” says Asanda.

The two students have recently returned from a CapeNature-sponsored Spirit of the Wild course at Bergplaas Nature Reserve, where they reconnected with the natural environment, learning to look, listen and trust their intuition.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that there’s a ‘Quiet Point’, with an information board that explains how a now-extinct southern San group, the /Xam, used the term ‘thinking strings’ to describe how we are interconnected with the landscape and physical environment. We are urged to sit quietly and find out if we can feel this interconnectedness.

Our tour takes us up the valley, past the remains of a herder’s hut, and we are soon near the entrance of the dramatic Tierkloof gorge, where there is an authentic rock art site. That this is the only site open for public viewing serves as a reminder that rock art is both a sensitive asset needing safeguarding, and a privilege to see.

We approach it quietly, out of respect for its spiritual significance, as if entering a modern-day place of worship.

On the steep, glossy rock-face beyond the guard rail is an assortment of images – human figures, dots and handprints that are estimated to be more than 1 500 years old. Both the art and the paint had special powers to the San. The art was made during specific rituals, using the blood and fat of eland, milk, egg white, ground ochre of various colours, white bird droppings, plant juices and charcoal. These ingredients were mixed together according to different recipes before applied with a finger, handprint, or finely crafted brushes made from animal hair.

Returning on a higher path through spekboom veld, we stop to learn about the geology and fossils of the reserve before completing the circle back to the interpretation shelter. Next to the shelter is a labyrinth. In many ancient cultures the circular shape represents nature and is a symbol of unity and wholeness. Quietly walking through it seems an appropriate way to reflect on our short, interpretive journey and allow our intuitive knowledge to kick in.


Next door to the heritage shelter is a labyrinth. In many ancient cultures the circular shape represents nature and is a symbol of unity and wholeness.

After a dip in the pool we sit out in the comfort of Sweet Thorn Eco Lodge, enjoying the sunset and far-reaching views of the Swartberg. We cook on the central fire, swapping stories in the manner of the Khoi and San under the star-spangled night sky. It is a treat to escape the rat race for this remote mountain spot.

In the morning we are up early to hike up the gorge. From Tierkloof Eco Lodge, at the entrance to the kloof, we follow the stream into the wilderness area. The trail passes through two high, narrow gates of orange rock in the sheer, folded sandstone cliffs that remind me of the tortured landscape of Montagu.

Busy little Cape Batises follow us and Southern Boubous call in duet as we meander through shady forests of magnificent wild olive, candlewood and cabbage trees until a sign to the right directs us up through groves of stately aloes to a massive overhang from where we look down on the reserve.

Sitting there, warming myself like a dassie in the early morning sun, I reflect that perhaps the natural environment of Gamkaberg isn’t quite as inhospitable as it initially appeared.


fossils and heritage
Up to it? There are trails to suit hikers of all fitness levels. The heritage trails and the short bossie trails near the office are easy, while the Tierkloof Day Trail (10.4km to the overhang and back) can be completed by any moderately fit walker in around six hours.

There’s also a moderately strenuous, circular, overnight trail (day 1 – 12.5km, eight hours; day 2 – 11km, seven hours), a 4×4 route with an overnight camp and rock-climbing routes.

When to go? The reserve is generally hot in summer and cold in winter, so spring and autumn are best for hiking.
Contact CapeNature 021 483 0190 [email protected]


Pictures Fiona McIntosh and Supplied

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