The Mighty Magaliesberg

Regular contributor Leon Marshall recently fell under the spell of the Magaliesberg mountain range that has won status as a World Biosphere Reserve. He shares what makes this place so special with us.

Pictures: Leon Marshall and Kevin Gill

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About two-thirds of the way from where the Magaliesberg starts its shallow S-curve east of Pretoria, to where it ends west of Rustenburg, is a patch of high, rocky ground that offers magnificent views of the surrounding landscape. It is at the point where a rough gravel road known as the Breedtsnek Pass crests the mountain.

The route is supposed to be a shortcut between the Buffelspoort Dam at the northern foot of the mountain and the Maanhaarrand village on its southern slope, but it is challenging enough to make it a favourite of off-road enthusiasts.

Even so, when I passed along there recently, I saw several couples and small groups who had braved it so they could sit on the high rocks and peer at the Highveld’s broad sweep to the south and the hilly land to the north, with the towns of Brits and Rustenburg and the Marikana platinum mines looming in the distance.

On first stopping there some years ago, I sat in the late-afternoon sun watching a troop of baboons turning rocks and snarling at unruly youngsters, who screamed as if they were getting beaten to death, just to resume their naughtiness right afterwards. A Black Eagle glided past below the lip of the cliffs in search of dassies.

A short climb away, a stamvrug (wild plum) stood anchored between two boulders. It was a December day and chewing the juicy dark-red fruit it bears at that time of year brought back sweet childhood memories.

It was the mountain range’s emergence into the international spotlight by Unesco’s declaration this year of it as a World Biosphere Reserve that made me revisit that idyllic spot. This time I had a far better appreciation of the mountain’s true majesty after reading a book titled The Magaliesberg by Vincent Carruthers, author of several works on history and nature.

He is one of a small group of environmentalists who have for many years fought for better protection of the Magaliesberg range. They include Paul Fatti, emeritus professor of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Wits University, and Kevin Gill, a lawyer who recently published a book on the flowers of the Magaliesberg.

Another is James Clarke, renowned humorist and conservation writer, who, as The Star newspaper’s environmental reporter in the 1970s, set off the campaign with a series of articles highlighting the beauty and ecological importance of the Magaliesberg.

The purpose of a biosphere is to fashion a mutually beneficial relationship between nature and people, under guidance of a management board of interested parties. How much the Magaliesberg is in need of such harmony is clear when surveying the landscape from up high.

The biosphere includes the Cradle of Humankind situated across a valley from the Magaliesberg. It has a 58 000-hectare core protection area, the Magaliesberg part of which spans the length of its crest, taking in its high southern cliffs where Cape vultures breed. Its extensive northern slopes are interspersed with deep folds and ravines, where leopards may still be found prowling among trees on high.

It has a buffer zone largely of farms, private reserves and a wealth of retreats and lodges ranging from rustic to luxurious, and which mostly provide access to the mountain. Their proliferation and brisk business bear out the area’s attraction to folk wanting to escape the strains and stresses of city life. Beyond the buffer zone is a vast transition area in which development is expected to be sensitive to the environmental objectives of the biosphere, hemmed in by the urban sprawl and industries of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Rustenburg.

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The weekend queues at Harties Cableway near Hartbeespoort Dam show how much people enjoy the panoramic views from the mountain top. But it was when contemplating the scenery from that remote spot on Breedtsnek that, with the facts from Vincent’s book in mind, I found myself falling under the spell of the mountain.

Nearly a hundred times older than Everest, it touched something deep inside me. I tried to get my mind around how it started to take shape 2 300 million years ago, when Planet Earth was still at great odds with itself, and how it rose through tumultuous geological and seismic events from the retreating shallow sea that at first covered these parts.

I began to get a better sense of Vincent’s fascination with the mountain when he told me about its ecological aspects. “It is at the interface of Africa’s two mighty biomes, the grassland pushing from the south and the savannah reaching in from the north. There is, in fact, a war going on out there, which the grassland has been winning because of its superior ability to withstand fires and the frost and droughts of long winters.

“In between are some montane forests in kloofs, where they are protected from the elements and nourished by constant streams. There are also some endemic species that evolved with the mountain over the ages. The steep southern face in particular has a wonderful plant life because of the shade where evaporation is slow,” he explained.

Kevin Gill’s beautifully illustrated field guide, Wild Flowers of the Magaliesberg, co-authored by Andry Engelbrecht, bears out the mountain’s astonishing floral riches. A striking aspect, he told me, was that many of the plants bloom in September before the onset of summer rains so that they stand out from winter’s low grass, which makes them more visible and helps with pollination by insects.

He explains how he came to author the book. “In the Seventies, I spent many days tramping the mountain and taking slides of flowers. Identification (from available books) for a rank amateur was not easy… A severe learning curve resulted.”

A klipspringer perches dexteriously on a rock to nibble at a small tree.

The mountain’s range of cat and antelope species and reptiles fits with the diverse plant life and ancient terrain. It’s also home to nearly half of South Africa’s total number of bird species, and birders would no doubt have joined substantially with botanists, zoologists, geologists and such, in adding their footprints to the paths criss-crossing the rugged landscape. The mountain, in
fact, became a favourite stomping ground of scientists from the time European settlers first set eyes on it.

An intriguing aspect that Vincent elaborates on extensively in his book, is the close connection human society has had with the mountain over the ages. Stone Age implements and rock paintings show it to be an association that goes back deep into the mists of time. Over the past two centuries it variously served as a theatre for war, conquest and development.

It was along its curve that Mzilikazi, after fleeing the wrath of King Shaka, fashioned his extraordinary chiefdom through subjugation and incorporation of the long-time Tswana settlers.

The book has drawings of the elaborate kraals in the shadow of the Magaliesberg, where he struck up his extraordinary friendship with Robert Moffat, after inviting him to visit all the way from his mission station at Kuruman.

It was past where the mountain runs its course in the west that Mzilikazi was driven to his final destination at Bulawayo in Zimbabwe when the Trek Boers joined Tswana groups in expelling him from the region.

Then came the Second Anglo-Boer War, and again it was the mountain that offered itself as a stage. The war was supposed to be coming to an end when the elusive General Christiaan de Wet and his commando managed to escape capture on the open Highveld. They slipped through the defile at Olifantsnek in Rustenburg, to regroup with the bittereinders in the bushveld, so prolonging the conflict for another – and most brutal – final year. At least 13 major battles were fought along the mountain as the curtain started to fall on that tragic episode.

It is now a happier place. You see it in the footpaths weaving between the rocks along its slopes and crest. You see it in the boats plying the waters and the anglers lining the shores of its Hartbeespoort, Buffelspoort and Olifantsnek dams. You see it in its embrace of Pretoria and Rustenburg, its fringing of the Witwatersrand metropolis, and the way it guards over towns, villages and farms along its slow curve. You then know it is deserving of the best possible care, as its newfound status as a World Biosphere Reserve aims to encourage.

World Biosphere Reserves

  • This programme was launched in 1970 under the aegis of Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). There are now more than 600 biospheres around the world.
  • Biospheres are intended to mutually benefit both nature and people. They are generally defined as being designed to conserve landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation, to foster economic and human development, which is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable, and to provide support for research, monitoring, education and information exchange related to local, national and global issues of conservation and development.
  • South Africa now has eight biosphere reserves, including the Magaliesberg and the Gouritz Cluster in the Western Cape, both recently declared. The others are Kogelberg, Cape West Coast and Cape Winelands in the Western Cape, Waterberg and Vhembe in Limpopo Province, and Kruger to Canyons which spans the Mpumalanga-Limpopo provincial boundary.
  • A major feature adding to both the biodiversity and development of the Magaliesberg range is the five rivers cutting through it. In the Pretoria area it is the Apies, Pienaars and Moretele rivers. The Crocodile River feeds Hartbeespoort Dam on its way to meeting the Limpopo River, and the Hex River feeds the Olifantsnek Dam near Rustenburg.

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