Johan van Wyk
Reserve manager, Blouberg
“Our tree diversity is hard to beat. One of the hotspots is around the fig forest, where the concentration of tree species is just spectacular, even by Bushveld standards. On the floodplain next to the Brak River, the weeping boer-bean and monkey thorn are very beautiful, too.
“I started here in 1992. Except for a short stint at another Limpopo reserve, I’ve been here ever since. My wife Michelle and I live on the reserve, and our two daughters grew up here. One is still in high school; the other is finished with school. Career-wise, it won’t make sense for me to move from here. It’s isolated, but the lifestyle is great.
“The reserve has its challenges, sure. It’s a bit like farming: You need to maintain your infrastructure like roads and fences, and the animals must have water. Luckily people like Friends of Blouberg often come to our rescue. Just recently, they tidied up the bathrooms at Molope campsite and they put up some new route markers in the reserve.”
They circle like cargo planes against a blown-out November sky. Johan van Wyk and I have our binoculars trained on hundreds of white-backed vultures about 400m above us. They don’t seem to be heading anywhere – maybe they’re just flying because they can, and who wouldn’t? They stay close to the top of the cliff, where pale blotches on the rock face indicate nest sites.
The colony at Blouberg is home to about 1230 breeding pairs, which makes it the biggest colony anywhere of these endangered birds. In the 1990s, the population had dwindled to just 500 pairs, Johan tells me. He has been here since then and has witnessed their recovery first-hand.
Blouberg is an inselberg with sometimes densely wooded slopes. It stands 15km west of the westernmost point of the Soutpansberg, and its highest point – usually marked Blouberg Peak on modern maps – is 2051m above sea level. On older maps, the peak’s proper name remains: Ga-Monnaasenamoriri, which means “the man with the bald head” in Sepedi, a reference to its bare rock dome. The mountain is roughly 30km long from east to west, and if you want to drive a circle around it, you need to set aside a full day. The best place to launch such an expedition from is the 9320-hectare Blouberg Nature Reserve, a provincial reserve proclaimed in 1983, adjacent to what was then part of the homeland of Lebowa.
In a way, time has stood still since then. The people who live in the settlements around the base of Blouberg – Indermark, Senwabarwana (formerly Bochum), Buffelshoek – still struggle to make a living. There is very little development and the big highways like the N1 (east of here) and the N11 (to the west) bypass the area completely.
This is both good and bad for the vultures. Good, because it means they can mostly mind their own business. Bad, because a vulture is worth something if you sell it to a muti dealer. The village of Indermark lies directly in the flight path of the vultures and sometimes, especially on a rainy day, a young, inexperienced bird might rest for a while on the ground near Indermark, where it can easily be caught.
Johan and his team have come up with a simple countermeasure. Years of awareness campaigns have taught the people of Indermark that if they find a stranded vulture, they can catch it and deliver it to Blouberg Nature Reserve where they’ll be given R200 as a thank you. In this way, an average of 25 vultures are rescued annually.
The cliffs where the vultures breed are on the southern side of the mountain, which receives more rain – 1000mm per year, compared to the northern side, which receives a more typical Bushveld rainfall of 400mm per year. Good rain means good plant diversity, and Blouberg Nature Reserve is famous for its trees. As we drive over Rampanyane’s Nek – a short pass that takes us from the southern to the northern side – Johan points out white seringa, tamboti, knob thorn and wooden banana, named for its woody, banana-shaped fruit. (No, you can’t eat it!)
All four camps in the reserve are named after trees. My tent is pitched at Molope for the night – the Sesotho word for the weeping boerbean. Tomorrow I’ll camp at the wilderness campsite, Modumele, which refers to a giant white seringa that stands there. Reading the tree tags reveals the names of more obscure trees and shrubs, all of which help to form the thick bush: caterpillar-pod, mallow raisin, red bushwillow, velvet-leaved corkwood…
At the wild fig forest, a reserve highlight, you may get out of your car and walk a short trail to see the tall, graceful figs up close. Elsewhere, a few big baobabs stand sentry.
Because of the thickets, game can be hard to see. Except at Buffelspan, where an underground hide has been built – the perfect spot to lie in wait with your camera. Bring your flask of coffee and settle in. The animals will come to drink soon enough: a young kudu bull, a small herd of buffalo cows and calves, slow-motion giraffe, jittery zebra, dusty warthog, a flurry of doves – even three crested guineafowls.
Buffalo are the pride and joy of Blouberg, but they got here via a detour. The original herd was moved from Addo in the Eastern Cape to Willem Pretorius, a small provincial reserve in the Free State, in the 1970s. From there, they were transferred to the Percy Fyfe Reserve north of Mokopane, and in 1996 a herd of 30 was finally brought to Blouberg where they have since increased in number to about 230.
The next day, Johan and I set out on a drive all the way around Blouberg. We follow the tar road from the reserve entrance to Indermark, and then south to Avon. At Avon, we turn right, onto a gravel road that crosses the Brak River. The Brak also forms the southern border of the reserve for a short distance, and it illustrates why it’s so important to get the reserve’s neighbours involved with conservation efforts. If the inhabitants of Indermark become part of a vulture rescue effort, it means that more vultures will make it safely into the Limpopo sky. If there are more jobs for people in these villages, there will be less poaching in the park. And if the water in the Brak River’s catchment stays unpolluted, a cleaner river will run through the reserve.
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