Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Fynbos and Forests: Reporting on Fynbos Forum 2014

Looking up into the canopy in the heart of the Knysna Forests
Last week saw one of the largest gatherings of people working in the landscapes of South Africa's Cape Floristic Region. I was lucky enough to attend. The annual Fynbos Forum conference brings together everyone from academic researchers, students, conservation managers, landowners and numerous others from all over the world together in a friendly and welcoming space to exchange ideas, knowledge and progress in all connected fields. It is run by a dedicated team of volunteers and hosted in a different town within the CFR each year.

This year the Forum was held in the town of Knysna at the heart of the Garden Route, known for its beautiful and sheltered lagoon, delicious oysters and the ever elusive Knysna elephant. Its name is thought to be derived from a Khoikhoi word meaning 'fern'. The conference was attended by 188 delegates, representing organisations from Yale University to the Eden to Addo Corridor Initiative.

The centre point of the conference was a four day series of talks, from full length to five minute 'lightening' talks. A symposium and panel discussion was also held on fire, biodiversity and climate change. Sessions included ecology, sustainable indigenous plant use, community participation in conservation, urban ecology and biological invasions. Poster presentations allowed delegates to interact with colleagues and network with those interested in their work. In addition there was a series of exhibitions with representatives from various community-based environmental organisations, from the Southern Cape Fire Prevention Association to the Nature's Valley Trust.

We learnt about sustainability indicators in the honeybush and rooibos tea industries, the role of citizen science in bird pollination research in the fynbos of the Tsitsikamma and urban ecologies of the city of Cape Town. New research findings were presented on effects of heat treatment on seed germination in Critically Endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos completed in collaboration with RBG Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, one of the world's largest plant conservation initiatives. Workshop outputs from a variety of stakeholders on finding solutions to conflict between baboons and people at the urban edge were also presented.

Several excellent short documentaries were also presented. This included work by an intern from the Groen Sebenza programme in documenting use of medicinal plants from the West Coast town of Mamre. The work of Cape Town's Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation and their "Herbanisation" project showed us how street gardens can be used to bring plants that are important for traditional medicine closer to the communities that use them. The documentary 'Stepping stones - Through Fragmented Environments' informs about the work of Bongani Mnisi in working with local schools to establish a series of gardens to assist avian pollinators in traversing the Cape Flats between nature reserves. Bongani was presented with the Theo Manuel Award by the UCT Plant Conservation Unit for this excellent work.

No Fynbos Forum conference is complete without its usual diverse variety of highly informative fieldtrips led by various local experts. The more adventurous and energetic among us went canoeing up the Touws River in the Wilderness section of Garden Route National Park. One could learn about Knysna's Rastafarian culture, visit an elephant dung paper making factory or learn more about the region's endangered butterflies. A large group of us headed off to explore the Gouna section of the nearby Knysna forests, hiking through dense stands of tree ferns and vast towering yellow-wood trees (Afrocarpus falcatus) while learning about the ecology of this extraordinary environment which is home to mammals from leopards to elephants. We were treated to hearing the calls of the numerous birds that also inhabit these forests including the iridescent green and red Knysna Lourie.

It was with great reluctance that we made our way back to Cape Town at the end of the trip, our knowledge all the richer and with fresh inspiration from all those of the Fynbos Forum community. Thanks to all involved, no matter how large or small their role, in making such a wonderful conference happen. Long may the tradition continue for another 37 years.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Learning the Art of the 4x4

Tackling one of the trickier slopes on the course into an old quarry at
Melkbos 4x4 course. Photo: Trevor Knutsen (Allterrain 4x4)
"Ah isn' IS....catch it...quick! Before it disappears!". Nothing like the sight of a tick trundling across the inside of the windscreen to bring a person sharply to their senses first thing in the morning. Clearly there was a small stowaway that got away after our research group's bakkie's latest field trip. With some highly professional multitasking my colleague dispatched our resident blood-sucking beastie and calm was restored once more. It was very early on a chilly Cape Town winter morning and we were heading north to the West Coast suburb of Melkbosstrand to do a 4x4 course.

Now the work of us botanists does have a tendency to take us off South Africa's beaten track into some fairly remote places and on all manner of roads. I've been shaken and not stirred up mountain and down kloof with all manner of cavernous potholes and dongas, slithered perilously across soggy clay mud and nearly been stuck never to be seen again down a sandy track in a hidden corner of Namaqualand. We've certainly clocked up adventures aplenty in the name of research, conservation, knowledge and exploration.

In consequence, to ensure safety in our endeavours, we were set the challenge of completing an introductory 4x4 course. It was with great excitement and a touch of nerves that we headed northwards to learn out high range from low range and diff lock from traction control. We were to be put through our paces and taught the ropes while under the highly experienced supervision of Trevor Knutsen from All Terrain 4x4. Our trusty steed was our research group's bakkie which travels all over the country during fieldwork with various members of the team.

My Namibian colleague was cool, calm and collected with plenty of experience under her belt and keen to learn more about the 'whys' behind the 'dos and don'ts'. I with little experience of all terrain driving was a little more nervous and not quite sure what to expect. Health-related coordination problems meant that getting my driving licence was a challenge, proving wrong my first instructor who said I was "too disabled" to learn to drive. It was with a little fear and trepidation that day that I was standing up for the challenge to move my skills as a driver to the next level.

We met Trevor and began the theory part of the course over a good strong cup of tea at Melkbosstrand Padstal. Our welcoming committee were a pair of white mallard ducks, who pottered confidently around visitors' feet among the delicious culinary goodies in the hopes of a few leftovers dropping from the heavens. After a good introductory grounding without further ado we headed out to Melkbos 4x4 trail to put theory into practice. The 4x4 trails here were the perfect training ground, offering everything from deep sand to clay, dongas, standing water, slopes and cambers aplenty to test our skills and build confidence on a variety of different terrains.

We started from the bottom upwards, with some practical guidance on getting the right tyre pressure for the right terrain and then we were off on the course. Under Trevor's watchful eye and calm and patient guidance we learnt how to tackle various different obstacles, starting first with driving through thick sand, how to get your vehicle out when stuck and then building up to driving up and down steep, rocky and undulating slopes. At times only three wheels were on the ground, which was a little scary for the uninitiated, but it is extraordinary the stability and flexibility of the vehicle to deal with the terrain. I took a while to adjust to the capacity of what the car could do and what was not possible, but as the day went on we learnt to understand how it moved over difficult terrain and how to choose the right 'line' through an obstacle.

It was with great satisfaction that the day ended, both of us proud of what we had achieved and now with new found skills to take with us on our fieldtrips and other future travels. I look forward to what will come next.

For more details on the 4x4 course we took check out:

Saturday, 14 June 2014

A mushrooming we will go.....

Pine Ring Mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus) harvested from Tokai Plantation
Last weekend I went foraging in the forest for my dinner. Inspired by my adventure, this week we will be taking a leap from the Plant Kingdom to the far lesser-known but equally fascinating world of fungi. I was lucky enough to be one of the first participants in a new mushroom foraging course run by the Cape of Good Hope Nurseries. In the capable hands of Ismail Smith, local artist and mushroom hunter extraordinaire, we spent a wonderful and highly informative Sunday morning exploring among the pine trees of Tokai Plantation in Cape Town in search of edible mushrooms to fill our baskets and cooking pots.

Contrary to popular belief, mushrooms are not plants. They were placed in a seperate kingdom to plants in 1969 in recognition of their evolutionary differences. In fact, with regard to their biology fungi actually have more in common with animals than they do with plants, despite their superficial similarities. It is thought that there are between 700,000 and five million species of fungi on earth but to date only around 100,000 have been described by scientists. It is likely that the Fungi Kingdom is more than six times more species diverse than that of plants.

What is visible above the surface of the ground is but the tip of the iceberg in the secret life of fungi. The mushrooms themselves are actually just the 'fruiting' body of the organism. Below the ground surface this is connected to a mycelium with a maze of tiny filaments known as hyphae. These hyphae are usually found within the organic matter on which many fungi feed and can spread more than 1 km per day under optimum conditions.

Fungi fulfil a plethora of useful purposes to people as well as the ecosystems in which they reside. Yeast which is used in brewing beer and bread-making is a type of fungus. As a food source edible mushrooms are rich in protein. Several widely used pharmaceutical drugs including statins and penicillin are based upon natural chemicals produced by fungi. In their natural environment fungi play a critical role in facilitating decomposition processes as well as forming mutualistic association with plant roots to aid uptake of water and nutrients.

There are several different edible varieties of mushroom that grow on the Cape Peninsula, with numerous different fungi species being found in the arboretum and surrounding plantations at Tokai forest. Many different fungi were introduced as spores along with various alien tree species that dominate the area. However, mushroom collecting needs to be approached with great care. It is critical not to mistakenly collect and eat any species you cannot positively identify as a case of fungi consumption after mistaken identity can result in anything from hallucinations to liver failure.

In consequence, under Ismail's watchful eye we focused our collecting efforts on collection of Pine Rings (Lacterius deliciosus). This species is fairly easy to identify with knowledge and experience and after a morning of hunting we left with baskets groaning under mushroom weight. Wild mushrooms have a distinct favour and a variety of different culinary uses, from delicious pasta sauces to an accompaniment to venison in a decadent stew. As part of the foraging course we were provided with plenty of recipe ideas to take home and try.

I made an enormous pot of warming mushroom soup from my pine ring haul that went down with great joy and happiness on a chilly June winter afternoon. I'd like to thank Ismail Smith and the Cape of Good Hope Nurseries for organising such a pleasant and interesting morning. No doubt now equipped with the skill to identify pine rings with confidence I will be back for more for my cooking pot this season.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

What is Fynbos?

Protea compacta flowering in fynbos at Lucerne Farm in the Akkadiesberg
Mountains, Overberg Region, South Africa

Erica regia

This week I'm going back to basics to tell you a little more about  fynbos: that brown-looking scratchy vegetation that clothes the mountains and lowlands of the Cape, aiming to address several burning questions: What is it? Where can I find it and why is it important? Why should we care?

Fynbos is an evergreen, hard-leaved Mediterranean type shrubland that occurs on nutrient-poor soils derived from predominantly quartzitic sandstones and limestones. The name is derived from the Dutch word Fijnboch which when literally translated means 'fine bush'. This vegetation type is distributed in an arc-shaped belt northwards from the Cape Peninsula as far as the Bokkeveld Plateau above Vanrhysdorp and eastwards to the city of Port Elizabeth.

Leucospermum oleifolium
Fynbos is also characterised by the presence of an enormous diversity of species from several key families: Restionaceae, Proteaceae, Ericaceae, Rutaceae and Iridaceae. The species diversity of fynbos is one of the main things that makes it so special. Table Mountain alone has more species of plants than the whole of the British Isles. The Fynbos Biome is home to one of the world's richest floras, with more than 9,000 species of plants occurring within an area the size of Malawi or Portugal. Two thirds of these species are endemic to the region, thus meaning that they occur nowhere else on earth. In addition, when looking at diversity at the macro-scale within fynbos vegetation, it is home to between 150-170 unique species per 1,000 km thus making it two to three times more species diverse than the world's rainforests.

Nivenia stokoei
This region is considered to be one of the world's six floral kingdoms and is the only one that occurs within a single country. The area encompassed by the Fynbos Biome is known as the Cape Floristic Region (CFR). The Cape Floristic Region is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its rich and diverse flora as well as levels of endemism. It is also considered to be one of the world's thirty Biodiversity Hotspots. The vegetation of both the Fynbos Biome and the Cape Floristic Region comprise not only fynbos but several other vegetation types that deserve mention. There is also another type of Mediterranean-type shrubland known as renosterveld as well as areas of indigenous forest. Both of these equally important although perhaps less well-known vegetation types will be introduced and profiled in future articles on this site.

Haemanthus coccineus
Scientists have debated for decades about why the vegetation of the CFR is so biodiverse and have to date failed to come up with a definitive answer that is accepted by all. It is particularly extraordinary that such a diverse flora and vegetation has evolved to occur on such nutrient-poor soils. The majority of fynbos soils are derived from quartzitic sandstones and are consequently not dissimilar to glass in their composition. Various theories have been put forward to try and solve this mystery. One is that slightly differing ratios in soil nutrients have created the presence of numerous different micro habitats to be occupied by a greater diversity of different species. Secondly there is the possibility that the diversity of microhabitats brought about by variations in topography and microclimate within the CFR are also a contributory factor to the evolution of the Cape flora. Pollination biologists have also suggested that the diversity of plants is as a result of evolution through a diversity of different pollinators, from insects to mice. The debate continues to this day.

In common with vegetation from several other Mediterranean type ecosystems, Fynbos is both fire-prone and fire-adapted. The vegetation needs regular fire at an interval of between 10-14 years in order to remain in optimum condition. It is a critical part of nutrient cycling in fynbos, it prevents excessive build up of pathogens and rejuvenates old and senescent vegetation. There are also some fynbos plant species that only grow and flower immediately after fire and chemicals from the smoke during a burn are a critical driver of fynbos seed germination post burn.

In common with the diversity of plant species within the fynbos of the CFR, there are also a plethora of different pollinators. Just within the context of insects there are long-tongued flies, butterflies, moths horseflies and many more. Numerous Cape species are adapted for pollination by avian visitors comprising the nectar-feeding sunbirds and sugarbirds. A total of 4% of fynbos species (around 430 species) are adapted for pollination by rodents. There is a diversity of different flower colours, forms, scents and nectar to match the diversity of available pollinators to facilitate reproduction. Next time you look at a flower ponder on who else might be visiting it.

So there you have the fynbos of the Cape Floristic Region in a nutshell. Keep reading for future articles with more information on what is outlined in this introduction here. Most importantly I implore you to go and and explore and find out for yourselves exactly what makes this globally important vegetation so special. Climb the mountains of the CFR, explore lowland fragments and protected areas on your doorstep. Take custodianship, raise awareness and take part in the conservation of this vital component of South Africa's natural heritage.

Serruria aemula

Chondropetalum tectorum

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Of Mice and Mountains: A Swartberg Roadtrip

View looking northwards from the Swartberg Pass

Protea lorifolia
Last week was a whirlwind. On Monday I was in the green and gently rolling hills of Dorset, England in the beautiful old Victorian house where I grew up. It was early summer, the buttercups were flowering and even the sheep were smiling. I left with great reluctance after a break that was all too short. By Tuesday night I was curled up on the floor sleeping in a small frozen heap in Doha airport in Qatar in the Middle East. Wednesday night brought me back to a cold and wintery Cape Town. Exhausted I was thrown headlong into the chaos of the Department of Home Affairs where the international residents of South Africa go in their hundreds crowded like cattle for visa applications and renewals. By Saturday I was on the road again for the weekend in the name of pollination biology research. Our destination was the Swartberg Mountains, a little more than 400 km east of Cape Town. This rugged range towers high over the small ostrich farming town of Oudtshoorn to the south with the wide open, sparsely populated semi-arid plains of the Great Karoo extending northwards.

We three made good progress eastwards along Route 62 squished inside the 'Jimny': a tiny underpowered box on wheels carefully disguised as a 4x4. Immediately after driving under the stunning rock arch of Cogman's Kloof near Montagu I spotted a huge snake crossing the road and we quickly u-turned and stopped to make sure no motorists ran over it. Mr. Snake was one of the largest puff adders I've ever seen at nearly a metre in length and we watched carefully as it continued its journey safely into the grass at the verge. Puff adders have highly cytotoxic venom and are responsible for more deaths on the African continent than any other snake. That said, encounters with this beautiful snake are rare and a privilege at a safe distance where they will not feel threatened or cornered and be likely to strike. They should be treated with the respect any living creature deserves and are a vital part of the ecosystem to which they belong.

Orange-breasted Sunbird
After a long drive west we overnighted in the small Karoo town of Prince Albert before an early morning start for the main business of the trip. We were there to collect some camera traps from high in the Swartberg Mountains placed as part of a pollination biology research project. Camera traps are movement triggered cameras that automatically take pictures of any living critter that happens to walk past them. They have a variety of different applications in biological research and can provide valuable information to scientists on everything from population distribution to behaviour of mammals and birds. They are particularly useful when stationed in remote or inaccessible areas and generate footage easily without the disturbance caused by the presence of a human researcher.

Lower reaches of the Swartberg Pass

In this case we were collecting cameras which had been placed to monitor and provide new insights into pollination biology of altimontane Proteaceae species. The species being studied grows high up in the Swartberg and is thought be pollinated by mice. However to date unsurprisingly nobody has been crazy enough to sit up there through rainy days and chilly nights to confirm this 'educated hunch' and camera trap film footage promises to provide new ecological insights into exactly who visits this species during its flowering season. This is thought to be one of a number of Protea spp. which are adapted to facilitate rodent pollination. Other examples include Protea humiflora and Protea amplexicaulis. Rodent pollinated Proteaceae can usually be distinguished by their low hanging flowers and often yeast-like odour.

Protea montana
We took the dirt road out of town towards the base of the Swartberg Pass which led us as close as possible to our high altitude field site. This 24 km stretch of dirt road ascends from adjacent to Prince Albert southwards over the Swartberg Mountains climbing to an altitude of 1,575m asl along a series of beautifully designed switchbacks. The road was engineered by Thomas Bain and built by 250 convict labourers, being opened to the public in 1888. Some paid the ultimate price for their hard work during the second winter of the construction when the roof of one of their camps collapsed under the weight of snow. Much of the road was constructed using perfectly dovetailed dry stone walls which are immaculately preserved to this day more than 120 years later. The Swartberg Pass is a National Monument and was the final road that Thomas Bain engineered in the Cape. It is also one of the greatest achievements of his career. 

As we ascended up the pass early on Sunday morning we were treated to the sight of no less than five klipspringer. This beautiful antelope stands only a little more than half a metre in height and their name when translated from Afrikaans means 'rock jumper'. Remarkably they derive all the moisture they need from the vegetation on which feed and never need to visit water to drink. As we drove slowly upwards we were rewarded with views over some of the most spectacular geology in the world where the sandstone of this mountain range is contorted into a myriad of anticline and synclinal folds more than 120 million years old. Slowly as we climbed upwards the vegetation changes with splashes of pink of the last few flowers of the year of Protea punctata being visited by numerous orange breasted sunbirds. 

Eventually we arrived as 'Die Top', the summit of the pass and the start of our ascent on foot. We made steady progress up the steep and rocky trail typical of most in the Cape mountains through stands of Protea lorifolia with their pale yellow and pink flowers. The wind was bitterly cold and scattered grey clouds flew past us at the same level as we climbed upwards. Our reward was stupendous views in all directions throughout the Swartberg range and beyond as we arrived at the research site to collect the cameras. The winding road where we started was visible far below us as we sat hunkered down beneath the rocks out of the wind. We paused briefly to take a photograph to mark our achievement before beginning the long journey homewards, with luck armed with new information about the ecology of these achingly beautiful mountains of the Cape. 

                             The long and winding road: View northwards over the Swartberg

Standing atop the Swartberg Pass buffeted by icy cold winds with the Swartberg
foothills spread out far below

Message loud and clear!

Monday, 26 May 2014

Conserving the Cape flora: The role of ex-situ conservation

The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew's Millennium Seed Bank at
Wakehurst Place in Sussex, England
This week Notes from a Cape Town Botanist is reporting from the Northern Hemisphere in order to bring you the lowdown on some of the world class and ground-breaking work to conserve the Cape flora going on in other parts of the world.

Far away from the green and pleasant land of Sussex in the south-east of England, 7,000 miles away one of the world's biggest biodiversity disasters is quietly unfolding down in South Africa's Cape Floristic Region (CFR). Rampant and uncontrolled housing development, agriculture, mining, forestry and spread of alien invasive species is leading to an extinction crisis almost unparalleled elsewhere. The statistics speak for themselves: Just within the area of the City of Cape Town 13 plant species are already extinct and a further 319 species are threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List. Given that habitats of many of these species have already been lost or are threatened imminently with destruction a multifaceted approach is required, both conserving species in-situ as well as beyond their natural habitats. This leads us to ask: what are we doing to address this challenge?

One of the main pieces of legislation aiming to coordinate targeted efforts to conserve the world's imperilled floras is the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). This forms part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which is a legal framework for the conservation of all biodiversity to which 188 countries are signatories. Key aims of the GSPC are to by 2020 have at least 75% of the world's known threatened plant species conserved in-situ, 75% of threatened plant species in ex-situ collections and at least 20% available for restoration and recovery programmes. Its a tall order but one that has been embraced by the global scientific and conservation community at a variety of different levels.

South Africa is a global leader in developing innovative infrastructure and policies to conserve its threatened plant species and their ecosystems. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) was created in 2004 to conserve the country's rich biodiversity. SANBI's network of nine National Botanical Gardens (NBGs) play a critical role in acting as custodians of the country's flora, with around 8,500 indigenous plant species held in living collections representing more than one third of South Africa's native flora. They also conserve extensive areas of natural vegetation such as the Edith Stephens Wetland Park on the Cape Flats and Tienie Versveld Nature Reserve near Darling on the West Coast as well as contributing to environmental education and awareness at both a local and global level.

Beyond South Africa's borders SANBI is both a participant and driver of conservation of the Cape's flora through international networks with conservation focused NGOs and Botanic Gardens. One of the most notable examples is Royal Botanic Gardens Kew's Millennium Seed Bank (MSB). RBG Kew funds several staff positions at Kirstenbosch NBG in Cape Town who are responsible for collection of seed of threatened species in the wild, processing and sending them to the UK where they are stored in the vaults of MSB for use in future conservation efforts.

MSB is the world's largest ex-situ plant conservation initiative with the aim of banking seeds from 25% of the world's plants by 2020 in collaborator with a network of local partners around the world. Seeds are dried and stored at a chilly -20C in order to facilitate long-term preservation. Seeds from the collections are then used for restoration projects in degraded habitats all over the world, community-based conservation efforts of plants important for food and medicinal use and providing seeds for use in research to inform future conservation practices.

Efforts by the world's botanic gardens are by no means limited to living and seed collections. Scientists are working hard to find ways of preserving other forms of plant material including pioneering techniques for long-term storage of pollen and other genetic material of plants. RBG Kew has been working since 2000 to develop methods of preserving plant material through cryopreservation, which involves storing living material at temperatures of down to -196C in liquid nitrogen. Findings of this research show promising results in conserving threatened mosses and liverworts. Scientists from RBG Kew's Jodrell Laboratory have also been working with both the Universities of Cape Town and Johannesburg to store samples of DNA of threatened species from the Cape. This initiative has shown great promise to date and the material is in great demand for both taxonomic and conservation-focused research programmes.

Despite all this ex-situ conservation efforts do have their drawbacks and cannot be used as the only solution to conserve threatened plants and their habitats. These projects and partnerships have to happen in association with efforts to conserve plants in their natural habitats rather than only at the individual species level. Once an ecosystem has been destroyed it is gone forever and even with the best will it cannot be brought back with its original complexity and full suite of ecological processes. Efforts need to be united around the globe to ensure the world's Biodiversity Hotspots such as the Cape Floristic Region are still there for future generations.

Further Reading

Fry, C (2006) The World of Kew, BBC Books, United Kingdom

Oldfield, S (2007) Great Botanic Gardens of the World, Botanic Gardens Conservation International in association with New Holland Publishing, United Kingdom

Raimondo, D. Grieve, K. Helme, N. Koopman, R & Ebrahim, I (2013) Plants in Peril: 100 of South Africa's Highly Threatened Plant Species and the People Protecting Them, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Swimming the Tsitsikamma Trail

View over Natures Valley and the Grootrivier Lagoon towards Plettenberg
Bay and the Robberg Peninsula

Leucospermum glabrum
In early January of this year we decided to abandon the Mother City and take a long overdue holiday. What better than to hike the Tsitsikamma Trail, one of the classic trails of the Garden Route? This stunning six day 60 km hike begins in the small village of Nature's Valley, wending its way from close to the lagoon mouth up through the spectacular afrotemperate forests typical of the region onto the plateau above before weaving its way through the peaks and forested valleys of the Tsitsikamma Mountains. Sounds idyllic. What could go wrong?
Afrocarpus falcatus
The Southern Cape Coastal region of South Africa from Mossel Bay in the east to Storms River Village in the west is known as the Garden Route. The area has an oceanic climate which is known for being one of the mildest in the world after Hawaii. Temperatures rarely climb above 28C in the summer or fall below 10C during winter. The area also experiences year round rainfall. Which meant that our glorious hike along the Tsitsikamma Trail was to be rather soggy!

The rain started as we left Cape Town. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained some more. As we crawled forwards blindly along the N2 eastwards through the Overberg it was impossible to see more than a couple of metres in front of the car. Everyone around us was moving slowly forwards towards the flashing hazard lights of the car in front of them, with no other clues of where they should be going. Nine hours later we eventually arrived in Nature's Valley.

The Tsitsikamma camp site was making the very best of a bad lot, complete with crowds of soggy summer holidaymakers in soggy tents with their soggy families. Everyone was hunkered down with their hot chocolate at the campsite's lapa for the weekly movie night when we arrived. It took all our self-discipline to leave them behind and head out into the rain and the dark to the first hut on the trail, slithering with awkwardness and determination down sleep slopes and across several streams.

To our huge relief the next day dawned bright and clear as we headed upwards from Kalander Hut up onto the plateau above Nature's Valley, with the reward of magnificent views eastwards along the coast over the Grootrivier Lagoon and westwards towards Robberg Nature Reserve. This rugged and exposed peninsula is an important Middle and Later Stone Age archaeological site and was first occupied by Strandlopers no less than 120,000 years ago. These coastal communities survived by shoreline foraging and leave a legacy of middens containing remains of shellfish, pottery, whale and seal bones. During the last Ice Age sea levels were much lower and extensive grasslands dominated the landscape, grazed by giant Cape horses, giant buffalo and giant hartebeest. These prehistoric mammals became extinct approximately 10,000 years ago.

Falls below Blauwkrans Hut
As we hiked across the plateau towards the foothills of the Tsitsikamma Mountains, the rain set in and the forest closed in around us once again. We were treated to the sight of a huge leopard tortoise strolling through the trees next to the trail. These beautiful spotted beasties are the fourth largest species of tortoise in the world and can live up to a hundred years or more.

The Garden Route region is home to some of the most extensive areas of forest in the country. These afrotemperate forests are of national importance and are between 3 and 7 times richer in tree species than other temperate forests in the Southern Hemisphere. They are still home to specialist forest dwellers such as the Blue Duiker (classed as 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List), leopard and the elusive and nearly extinct Knysna elephant. It is easy to see as we tramped onwards through remote areas of forest in torrential rain and swirling mist how this wildlife is so seldom seen.

Spongebob always bringing a smile
despite the appalling weather!
It wasn't good news the next day. The morning had dawned bright and clear but with several days of heavy rain and more on the way we were advised by the trail organisers that we needed to hike out the escape route and skip a day of the trail in order to avoid the strong likelihood of being stranded between two major rivers in flood at the next hut. Apparently a previous group had ignored this advice during bad weather and were stranded for several days within sight of the next hut on the trail but on the wrong side of a raging torrent with people having to pass food to them across the river. Not an experience we planned to repeat.

After a short hop by shuttle bus along the N2 and a long plod through forestry plantations, we were back in the mountains and safely nestled in Heuningbos Hut armed with a surplus of peanuts and raisins and laughing cow cheese to get us through the next soggy day while waiting for the weather to clear. Eventually the next day our bags were packed and we were on our way again to the final hut of the trail at Sleepkloof.

Storms River Village at the end of the trail
Tired, aching and soaking wet we plodded onwards through the rain, drinking tea, nibbling cereal bars and peanuts as we went to keep energy levels and morale up without daring to open our packs to expose our last precious sets of dry clothes inside. A couple of hours later we realised the trail was taking us down towards the sound of a roaring torrent of water, the final major obstacle between us and a warm dry hut at the other end. The Witte River was deep and flowing fast, but just about passable with the assistance of the stronger members of our group in combination with an overhead rope. Holding on tightly we waded into the thigh-deep water. Luckily the current wasn't too strong and we were able to maintain our footing on the slippery rocks beneath the water to reach the other side.

We then launched into the final ascent of the Tsitsikamma Trail, winding gradually upwards towards the nek high above. A misplaced step landed me flat on my face in the mud as the rain pelted down. A few minutes later and a hand up and we were on our way once again towards the top. About half an hour later we reached the nek and collapsed among the rocks for a well-earned break. As we munched our way through our last rations of chocolate suddenly the rain stopped and the cloud cleared, to reveal stunning views over the surrounding mountains and down over swathes of forest towards the last hut and the Storms River Petroport at the end of the trail. Never in my life have I been so relieved to see a petrol station.

After several days of wall-to-wall rain the sun finally decided to stay with us as we with renewed purpose and determination hiked onwards towards the final hut on the trail. Never was the satisfaction sweeter as we passed through the last forest and crossed the last few streams past stands of huge and primitive looking tree ferns (Cyathea dregei) to reach the hut that night. Desert that night couldn't have been more perfect: brandy and melted chocolate acted as a dip for marshmallows as we looked forward in the morning to the last couple of kilometres of the trail to reach our destination and waiting car, ready to take us back to 'civilisation'.

It was hard to believe our rollercoaster ride of endless rain, ranging torrents of water and mud was almost over. Despite that I still wouldn't swap our experience of the exquisitely beautiful Tsitsikamma Trail for a week at my desk. We all agreed afterwards as we sat at Nature's Way Farmstall with purring cats on laps and enjoying well-earnt afternoon tea  that we would be back again, to experience the trail in its completeness and hopefully in a less wild mood in the future.

Landscape of the Tsitsikamma Mountains with forest down in the
kloof far below us in a rare moment when the sun emerged.