Saturday, August 2, 2008

Yellowwoods, Elephant Poop and Exhibitionist Whales

Yellowwoods, Elephant Poop and exhibitionist Whales

Another super exiting weekend trip brought me to the small costal town of Sedgefield near George, about 500 km east of Cape Town. I headed out during the early afternoon, to visit with Ann and Al McGregor, Ann being another of Betty’s fabulous friends. Reg, Ann’s brother hitched a ride along, and I drove the same N2 I had done a few weeks earlier the other way. The traffic is a joke, and the road is gently rolling through cultivated fields of wheat, with the ocean some 30 km to the right, and an endless chain of bare blue-tinted looking mountains not far to the left. (I learned today that the tree line descends from several thousand to a few hundred meters the further you go from the Equator towards the poles).

The last leg of the drive was in darkness, and finally we arrived just in time for dinner at the lovely ‘Center Court’, a simple but well laid-out summerhouse, hidden behind dense thickets of vegetation. Ann had prepared a typical cape dish, "Potjiekos", a (lamb) stew that she cooked in a cast-iron pot over open fire, which needs to be prepared slowly to get the delicious result we enjoyed.

Next morning we got up early to meet above Knysna with members of the Mountain Club of South Africa South Cape Section. Fred van Berkel led the 16km walk, partially crossing through dense indigenous forest. This is part of the largest surviving remnant of a 200 km long, but narrow swathe of the Knysna and Tsitikamma Forest, stretching along the southern coastal shelf and the adjacent mountain slopes. We proceeded from the small settlement of Gouna for about 10km in a north-easterly direction, botanizing and birding all along. The tallest trees here are the Yellowwoods, Podocarpus falcatus, reaching impressive sizes of about 60 m here inside the forest. Also found throughout is the Ironwood, which is easily recognized by the very dark black patches of resin staining the trunk wherever the tree is injured. Diospyros dichrophylla, Ebenaceae carried it’s soft densely haired fruits, and Old Man’s Beard, a Usnea, a lichen species, draped over most of the taller branches. But now I am actually only showing off that I do remember 3 1/2 of the 500 hundred different species found here, and this is considered a low diversity compared with the surrounding Fynbos!

Diospyros dichrophylla

We passed an idyllic spot on a river, where the rocks form natural swimming basins (Gumpen auf Bayerisch), but we all declined a swim as the temperatures in this dense forest did not amount to much despite of cloudless skies.

Then the highlight of the day:

I was walking with Fred who was telling me about the forest and the animals living in it, including the very elusive Knysna Elephant. And near where the Outeniqua Trail crossed our path, looking down on the path, there it was: ELEPHANT DUNG! The africanometer went all the way to the highest reading looking at quite a few of these shit heaps. Not too fresh, and quite agreeable in smell, this is as close as one could hope to get to the elephants, as not many people have ever seen them at all! (a little side note from someone who currently works at a DNA lab; elephant poop contains very usable DNA, and by analyzing it they have learned more about the number and family relations, then by trying to spot and observe them)

These elephants, they estimate the number of individuals being around 8, are the last of the southern most ‘free’-living animals. Survivors of large herds, hunted down to virtual extinction, they are now confined to stay inside this dense forest, surrounded by more and more development. I was told that as late as the 80’, a particular thorough German head of forestry, actively pursued all larger animals in these woods, due to the alleged damage they do to the trees!

This is a informative and a little odd link to learn more about the elephants, it reminded me strangely of the grizzly man in the Werner Herzog film/docu.

After leaving the indigenous forest behind the flora changed in an instant and we reappeared in newly planted pine plantation, at the high point of the walk, 555 meters above sea level. The steep decent down to the Knysna River was swift, and we heard the baboons and a Knysna Turaco bird in the distant doing their funny calls. It is very strange to picture these exotic animals in this very northern pine monoculture, and I realized that the indigenous forest that is left is truly not much more then an island.

Down at the river Stewart and Jenny were waiting with an open Jeep to take us back, but before another guy from the group led us upstream to some superb bushman paintings on the sandstone cliffs of the Knysna River.

The ride back in the 4x4 was great, as I did not have to share the small back of the truck with the other 13 hikers, but had the privilege of sitting next to Jenny in the front seat. I got a whole other set of views of the forest canopy enriched by the woman’s intimate knowledge of the trees and other plants, and we spotted the very endemic Faurea macnaughtonii, a protea found only right here.
After the group disbanded Ann, Reg and I drove back through more woods on unpaved roads, where we actually did see a large group of baboons crossing the road in front of us. 

We made it just in time for the sunset at the Heads, the very narrow entry through enormous sandstone cliffs into the Knysna lagoon.

The spot is a quite magical place, but the lagoon is rather spoiled by recent overdevelopment. It looks like New Jersey suburbs plugged into the idyllic scenery of the Cape – utterly ugly. After a brief walk through the equally soulless newly developed harbor complex (again, think South Street Seaport or any shopping mall), we found a nice and funky bar on the piers where we enjoyed a yummy draft and I sampled some very tasty oysters; two farmed in the lake, and two wild ones from the coast right there. I don’t need to tell you which ones were sweet and intense with flavor... Back at the house my first braai (BBQ) with a sampling of the local meat (ostrich and lamb) made an appropriate finish to the day.

The next day was overcast, and after a slow start and extensive breakfast we left for the old settlement of Belvidere at Knysna. Al was driving us in his rather well aged VW van (also called combi), and sitting in its passenger seat triggered some fond and not so funny VW winter driving memories…)

The tiny, but very beautifully proportioned Anglican Church there was a pleasant stop, and we admired the stonework and botanical glass windows. But the rest of the place again was way to generic and overdeveloped for my taste.

Crossing over the hill to the seaside we reached the village of Brenton on the Sea. Now I will repeat myself: retirement and summer homes as far as one can see, and the mostly recent architecture as inspired as in Staten Island.The great thing is you can just turn your back to all of this and look out over the sea, and all is forgiven. As soon as I put my attention to the water, there I saw a huge splash in the middle of the bay – a Southern Right Whale breaching!  Well - I actually have to admit that I could even live in one of those hideous things and not care, as long as I had this view, with the blue-green Indian ocean rolling up to this pristine beach.

Al, Reg and I walked the entire beach to Buffelsbaai, where Ann picked us up with the combi. And the whole time (more then two hours) several of the whales were visible just beyond the surf, playing, rolling, splashing and exhibiting one behavior unique to Southern Right Whales, known as sailing. They lift their tails straight out of the water for long periods and seem to use their elevated flukes to catch the wind. It appears to be a form of play and one individual seemed to be especially fond of it to the point where I got concerned about it getting a bad headache, being upside down for so long!

Southern Right Whales can be up to 18m long, with a body that is stocky and fat, weighting 40-80 tons. They have a circumpolar distribution and inhabit sub Antarctic water between about 30° and 55° south, and enjoy a tentative comeback since the strict whale hunting bans.

African Oystercatcher

A stop a the bird watching shelter at Rondevlei (=round lake) Nature Reserve presented a fantastic 40 minute sunset show, featuring a androgynous Pied Kingfisher, a busy Black-winged Stilt, the Tree-banded Clover as well as Common Moorhens, Yellow-billed ducks, and a large amount of extras in the roles of Cape Shovelers, Red-knobbed Coots and Little Grebes.

After the curtain went down we all praised with appreciation the beautiful stage setting, artistic lighting and natural acting. With just enough light to walk up the hill, Ann and I managed to do some more botanizing in the Fynbos until we could not tell a pink erica from a yellow protea.

Next morning we went for a refreshing beach walk in Sedgefield, and after breakfast headed out, first over back roads along the vleis (=lakes) past Wilderness towards George. On the way we had some more exquisite, on the fly bird watching (ok, I know I am loosing a few of my readers by now). One spot with the Great Kingfisher, the Pied Kingfisher and the incredibly colorful Malachite Kingfisher right next to each other, then a Hammerkop on a phone line, and as crowning highlight a cluster of Louries, a.k.a. Knysna Turacos. These birds were chasing each other along a river, giving bright green and red flashes in flight, almost like swimming with breaststrokes through the air.

In George we met with Margaret at the Garden Route Botanical Garden, where she had worked before, and we got an interesting tour. The garden is relatively new and almost exclusively depending on volunteers who fight an uphill battle against careless visitors, dog owners, bicyclists and deer, having minimal funding and changing design and mission ideas. But it is still a garden and I believe all gardens are beautiful and important in their own rights.

Wachendorfia thyrsiflora, note the three stamens, two down and one to the right, and the stigma to the left. Other individuals have a mirrored arrangement!

Gasteria sp., it's name derives from the stomach shaped flower

Carpobrotus edulis, Sour Fig, the fruit makes a tasty jam, had it for breakfast...

After saying goodbye to Ann, Reg and I headed back to Cape Town. The first part of the drive went from George straight north via the Outeniqua pass to Oudtshoorn. Then a sharp left turn, leading through the western part of the Little Karoo. The quietness of this harsh landscape is fascinating to me, and I would really love to camp out here for a night! 

At a driving speed plants seem to barely have leaves and only a few species sparsely spread, but stepping out of the car at random spots reveals again a mind-boggling diversity with wonderful small blooms and colors.

And on some of the rocky slopes clusters of Aloe ferrox in full bloom, the red candelabra shaped inflorescence in the afternoon light like lit candles!

Aloe ferrox

Along the roadside lined up the striking Nymania capensis, Meliaceae for a while, seemingly taking advantage of the disturgbed site, and the additional run-off water from the road.

Nymania capensis

Besides these and a few ostrich farms, there is not much happening, three small towns,Calitzdorp, Lady Smith and Barrydale along the way, then another super scenic pass , the Tradouws, led south through the mountains back onto the N2. It had just gotten dark by then, and the rest of the drive really stretched along until I finally arrived back ‘home’ at Kirstenbosch by 10 pm.

Already have tons of ideas for next weekend!


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