Limpopo’s Blue Mountain High

As a safe nesting site for the world’s largest Cape Vulture colony, Limpopo’s Blouberg is one of our most valuable nature reserves.

Words: Leon Marshall

Pictures: Leon Marshall, Johan van Wyk and Barry Fourie

During the rainy season water cascading down the rocks is a common sight.

There was no road sign pointing to Blouberg Nature Reserve. I was directed there by a policeman sitting in his patrol car on the side of the road. We were in Vivo, the hamlet in northern Limpopo between Polokwane and Musina, on the R521 that skirts the western extreme of the Soutpansberg. “At the garage, turn right, and when you get to the citrus farm, that’s where you’ll find Blouberg.” He smiled and pointed towards the west.

I should have spotted the reserve a long way off. From the flat country stretching west to the Kalahari there rose a mountain so all by itself it seemed to have been dropped there by mistake. It was so blue in the late-afternoon sun that it brought to mind a sweet Afrikaans folksong about the sun setting behind the blue mountains, and wanting to go there to find your sweetheart. I wondered if that was the mountain that inspired the song. But what came to trouble me about Blouberg over the next few days was the mismatch between its official treatment as a Limpopo provincial park and its value as a nature reserve and a tourist destination.

The eroded section of road shoulder leading to its entrance gate said as much about the inattention from the authorities in Polokwane as having a citrus farm serve as its marker on the map. The entrance was passable and the gatekeeper seemed pleased enough to wave us through.

Already on the road winding to the reception office I sensed a certain atmosphere about the park. It was an impression that kept growing over the next few days as we criss-crossed it, edging along four-wheel-drive routes up and down the mountain and crawling along paths through bush and plains.

Eventually it was Michelle, wife of reserve manager Johan van Wyk, who summed it up. “The animals are great to see but there is just so much more to Blouberg. There is something new every time you travel through it, a shapely tree here, the way the sunlight falls on the grass, the shades. I have been living here for some years now and still cannot get enough of it.”

The blue mountain that defines Blouberg Reserve.

The park is only 9 320 hectares, but for its size it must count as one of South Africa’s most precious protected areas. Its defining feature, also the main reason for its proclamation as a reserve back in 1983, is a breeding colony of Cape Vultures (Gyps coprotheres) along the inselberg’s soaring southern cliffs. The species is seriously endangered, and one of Johan’s main tasks as reserve manager is to monitor them. This includes doing counts three times a year of the vultures and their eggs and chicks.

It has to be done by telescope as the terrain makes it practically impossible to get close. His estimate is that the number of breeding pairs has grown to more than a thousand, which heavily underscores Blouberg’s national, indeed global, worth as a reserve. There are only about 6 000 vultures left worldwide.

A photo taken by camera trap of vultures at one of Blouberg's water holes.

A road over the mountain neck, passable by off-road vehicle only, takes visitors to the southern section of the park, where the white patches marking the vulture roosts can be seen high on the cliffs, and their comings can be watched in the late afternoon, their goings at dawn. With luck you will get a closer look at them at waterholes.

The old Transvaal administration may well have had several more reasons for proclaiming Blouberg a reserve. Its animal life includes an extraordinary range of spiders, at least 23 bat species and a rich variety of butterflies, all of which make it a wonderful research laboratory. It has buffalo, giraffe, kudu, impala, bushbuck, mountain reedbuck, klipspringer, steenbok and the like. It also has gemsbok, which are shy and hard to spot in the foliage.

Just north of Blouberg is another reserve called Langjan that was proclaimed for the very purpose of protecting the most easterly naturally occurring herd of the graceful gemsbok. It had a smart new entrance gate when I called, but there was nobody to let me in. Oddly, I was informed afterwards by the Limpopo government that the 4 774-hectare park was not marketed as a tourist destination and was managed mainly for conservation reasons.

Of all its attributes, it is Blouberg’s birdlife hat is its biggest attraction, and not only by reason of its vulture colony. Ernst Retief, BirdLife South Africa’s regional conservation manager, told me that a weekend visit can reward birders with up to a hundred species. For us the quality of birding was pointedly made by the sight of a Kori Bustard marching majestically across a bare patch as dusk fell.

A giant baobab guards over the bushveld landscape of Blouberg.

The key to Blouberg’s extraordinarily biodiverse plant and animal life is the mountain that runs through it. Its slopes are covered with an assortment of trees and brush. It divides the landscape into a southern part with thorn trees, riverine bush and flood plains, and a markedly different northerly part with grassland, sandveld and woodland that has at least two giant baobabs positioned sturdily among the bushveld trees.

For all this, it is a reserve in obvious need of tender loving care. It has a land claim weighing down on it that is no different to so much of rural South Africa. But its lot also fits with that of other parks in a province that boasts extraordinary ecotourism and job-creating potential, yet does not have nature reserves as a budgetary or administrative priority.

I asked Limpopo’s environment and tourism department about it. The response I got from its acting senior general manager, Annemie de Klerk, underscored the dilemma. Blouberg, she said, offered a joyful experience and had the potential to become a tourist destination, but it was one of 43 provincial reserves that require maintenance and development. Because of “limited resource allocations, the department is currently not in a position to develop and manage the reserve to its full potential”.

From what she said, there are reassessments going on and plans to improve the province’s reserves, also through public-private partnerships. What this holds for Blouberg, is hard to say.

Happily there has been help at hand from an organisation called Friends of Blouberg. It is the brainchild of Johan van Wyk and Barry Fourie, a Soutpansberg protea farmer. It has farmers, business people, academics and others from all walks of life and from far afield as members, which shows just how close to the heart the park is to those who know it.

Barry, who is also the organisation’s chairman, told me how surprised he was at the response immediately after he had put the idea to the Soutpansberg Bird Club in 2012. “Before we knew it, we had people from Johannesburg, Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Polokwane and all over signing on.”

Help has been equally quick in coming. Barry told me how funds had been collected, among others through fun gatherings in the park with treasure hunts and all. So when the park tractor’s wheel burst, its ‘friends’ replaced it. When the state of the road over the mountain made it impossible for Johan to get to his vulture monitoring, an engineer ‘friend’ had his construction company patch it with cement slabs. When workers deployed under the government’s extended public works programme turned up, it was the ‘friends’ who provided them with spades, saws and such. They even had a proper map drawn and printed to guide visitors.

“All this makes it just so much easier to lure specialists to the park to carry out their research,” said Barry. “There remains much work to be done, but we Friends of Blouberg look forward to turning this into a kom kyk (come and see) reserve in our province.”

From a high rock Erika Marshall enjoys the vistas offfered by the Blouberg.

Where Vultures Dare

Blouberg’s global worth as a nature reserve becomes especially clear when seen against the plight of vultures the world over. BirdLife International says they are now one of the most threatened bird families on the planet.

Blouberg Nature Reserve in Limpopo is listed by BirdLife South Africa as an Important Bird Area very much because more than 1 000 breeding pairs of Cape Vulture (fittingly called the kransaasvoël in Afrikaans) nest on its cliffs. This makes it home to about a third of what is left of the global population of this one species. Other vulture species also share the mountain.

So parlous has the state of vultures in general become that BirdLife International says they could in our lifetime become extinct across Europe and Africa. In India, Pakistan and Nepal they are almost wiped out, mainly through a drug called Diclofenac, which farmers use to treat inflammation in their livestock. In a global appeal for help to save the species, Birdlife International notes that there are even countries in Europe that are still using the drug.

Gerhard Verdoorn and his favourite raptor, the Cape griffon.

Dr Gerhard Verdoorn director of the Griffon Poison Information Centre and a former chief executive of BirdLife South Africa, says Diclofenac has never been registered as a drug in South Africa. Here the biggest threat to vultures, as in the rest of Africa, is their incidental death resulting from the poisoning by farmers of livestock carcasses to kill jackal.

A shocking recent example is the 48 Cape Vultures and one White-backed Vulture that died from poisoned lamb carcasses on a sheep farm in the Swartberg region. The purpose of Verdoorn’s organisation is to reduce such deaths by working closely with farmers, communities and the industry.

There is also that galling phenomenon that has emerged in recent years of putting out poisoned carrion to kill vultures for use of their eyes, in the belief that these could make people see the lottery numbers, or for use of their body parts in other muti. Collision with power lines and habitat loss are taking their toll as well.

Gerhard is known for his deep care of vultures, notably the Cape Vulture, which he prefers to refer to by the old name of griffon. He has many bite marks to show from nursing injured and poisoned birds back to health and helping crash-landed fledglings to have better luck when next they try out their flying skills.

His admiration for the Cape Griffon is boundless. “I have often been astounded by their strength and zest for life. They are highly intelligent, quite humorous, fearless and some of the best flyers in the bird world. I have seen them virtually dead and, after being rehydrated, ready for a good fight.”

He values Blouberg for its varying landscape and rich plant and animal life. But it is its service as a safe nesting site for the world’s biggest Cape Griffon colony that, to his mind, makes it rank right up there with the most valuable of South Africa’s nature reserves.

What makes the Blouberg mountain cliffs so ideal for the birds, he says, is that they rise so high and are south-facing, away from the heat of the sun. Griffons prefer cold cliffs for breeding as it is easier to keep an egg or nestling warm than to keep it cool.

There are also many breeding ledges to accommodate the large number of vulture pairs, which stay together for life. Deeper into the mountain there are many crannies, and it is in one of these that he believes a pair of the exceedingly rare Egyptian Vulture might be breeding. But to get to these recesses of the mountain is not easy.

Gerhard says he was one of the lucky people who, in 1995, witnessed the first recording of Rüppell’s Griffon in Blouberg. The bird lives in East Africa and is a rare visitor to Southern Africa. Three were spotted at the reserve’s vulture restaurant. Later a male was seen mating with a Cape Griffon, leading to the belief there might be hybrids living in Blouberg. Also seen in the park are Lappet-faced-, Hooded-, White-backed- and White-headed Vultures. Other raptors regularly spotted are Bateleurs, Martial- and Tawny Eagles, Brown- and Black-chested Snake Eagles and Fish Eagles.

Stay at Blouberg

  • Modumele Wilderness Camp offers cleared areas to pitch tents, and basic facilities like a bucket shower, pit toilet and braai area. For the rest, guests must look after themselves.
  • Molope Bush Camp offers five camping sites under big weeping boer-bean and mashatu trees, with a communal ablution block that has hot-water showers and flushing toilets. Each campsite has a braai area.
  • Tamboti is a tented, self-catering but serviced camp set among bushveld trees. The camp has an ablution block and an equipped kitchen as well as a braai area. A gas fridge, gas water heaters and solar-powered lighting are provided.
  • Mashatu offers four fully equipped and serviced cottages for self-catering. The cottages have a main bedroom for two adults, a kids bedroom with two bunk beds, a lounge/dining room, a kitchen and a braai area. All cottages have electricity.
  • The road over the mountain to the park’s southern section is passable by high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles only. Most other roads are passable by sedans.
  • The park has leopard, cheetah and buffalo, and unguided walks are not permitted.
  • Book through KuneMoya, 078 869 5240, 082 874 6132, [email protected]

Blouberg Nature Reserve

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