Tuesday, 21 December 2010

In Search of Cedars

The most famous tree of the Baviaanskloof must surely be the endanged, endemic, Willowmore Cedar. Like most cedars, this tree grows very slowly. It is one of the few representatives of the 'pine' branch of trees in South Africa. It was harvested heavily by the early colonists, and now only exists in the most remote kloofs and canyons. During my first trips through the Baviaanskloof I failed to find one. I saw my first one in a garden at one of the farms, but like seeing a leopard in a zoo, it didn't have the amazing WOW factor of seeing one in the wild.

So I decided to head to one of the most remote gorges of the Baviaanskloof to see if I could find these trees in their natural environment. I had identified a spot on our Slingsby's map of the Baviaanskloof that looked promising, a hidden valley with no road access. It was clear that we would have to embark on a multi-day hike. Backpacks loaded, myself and friend Bob Elliot started a long hike up into the mountains. As it was a sunny (and thankfully breezy) day the views from the spine of the Kouga mountains were spectacular. Our route took us through an area that had been burnt, and colourful flowers distracted us from the hard task of slogging with full packs through the rocky landscape. Occasionally Black Eagles and Rockjumpers would also give us an excuse to lower our loads and admire the landscape long untouched by human hand.

Carrion plant

After many hours and water running low, eventually we crested the last hilltop for our first views of the Sipres Valley. It is guarded by a sentinel, who being in benevolent mood, let us pass.

But there was no river. After making our way through Proteas and Restios we can across a small pond with several frogs. We filled up a bottle of frog pee just in case, and continued to navigate down the boulder strewn river bed.

 In the distance I could make out the shapes of trees on rocky cliffs. Was this the Willowmore Cedar? Suddenly a nasal whistle alerted us to the presence of Klipspringers, and this was quickly followed by the barking of baboons. It was clear that there must be water nearby, and sure enough we came across an amazing cliff and plunge pools with water. And on the cliffs around the pools were Cedars of all shapes and sizes – big, small, straight and twisted. We'd reached paradise.

Eight hours hiking meant we crashed early. But that meant I was fresh to explore the next morning. I navigated my way down the cliffs and down the valley. Eventually I was picking up more pools and water. One pool even had fish in it, and this pale frog – possibly the endemic Ghost Frog?

I finished my hike at a cave, visible from the plunge pools where we had camped. The cave had at some stage been used as a kraal, so there were only faint signs of rock art on the walls. A rock-walled ruin close by was probably used by settlers during the 1800s or early 1900s. But there were no more Cedars. It was clear the cedars are found now only on rocky outcrops, and one twisted form I found showed clear damage from fire. It must only be on these rocky outcrops that they escaped the axes of modern man and the fires that came with him.

Back at the pools, Bob had made a more impressive discovery of a hidden rock shelter with better preserved rock art. Amazing to think that the trees that towered up through the gorge nearby had probably been there when the original people that painted them had taken shelter there. All in all, we felt lucky to have made it to this hidden valley.  

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