Yes that’s right, a hot winter’s day. Yesterday’s high temperature of 28°C intensified the season’s dryness as we found when we ventured forth from suburbia for a walk in the Drakensberg mountains.
Just under two hours’ drive away is Kamberg Nature Reserve where we spent the day with a friend in celebration of her birthday. On the way there we drove through early morning mist heralding the hot day ahead.
We drove through farmlands planted with exotic trees rendered spooky in the early morning mist. Even in a hot dry winter the mistbelt still manages to yield a misty morning or two
The bare trees looked like the ghostly apparitions of many a clichéd storybook
As the sun rose higher the mist dissipated and by the time we started on our walk only a slight haze remained over the dry mountains. Giant’ Castle can just be seen in the background
Near the reception office a Buddleja salvifolia in flower signals imminent springtime
There had been a brief shower of rain the previous week – probably the first rain since May – and possibly even this small amount of rain contributed to the new growth that was erupting through the black ashes of burnt grasses and plants. Many of the plants are fire adapted and regrow in the spring. It is hard to say what effect the mild-to-warm winter (so far) this year has had on plants that are usually dormant through what should be the cold months of winter.
An easy walk lay ahead with only a few short steep or rocky sections as the path meanders through a recent burn from a fire in the reserve
Countrywide, firebreaks burnt in early winter (before 31 July) are used as a management strategy to protect forestry and farmlands and the uncontrolled spread of fires. Fire is also used in the management of different types of natural grasslands including in conservation areas, with ongoing research as to what are the best management strategies for biodiversity and grassland maintenance. However, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s 2012 “Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site: Integrated Management Plan” includes among its guiding principles that a patch mosaic of burnt and un-burnt areas should be maintained and that complete burns should not be the objective (p.90).
I do not know if this fire at Kamberg Nature Reserve, which burnt a large area of the park, was part of an annual or biannual managed burn or if the fire resulted from lightning or from arson
A section of the park that has not been subjected to fire so far this winter
Regenerating through the ashes is this tiny Yellow Fire Lily, also known as a Wild Crocus (Cyrtanthus breviflorus). Its bulbs lie underground and so survive the heat of fire
This tuberous grassland plant known as the Lesser Yellow Head (Gnidia kraussiana) is another plant that may flower prominently after a burn. In the photo only one flowerhead is in flower so far. Other stems producing buds are developing and will soon also be in flower. This plant is widely distributed across Africa
The first flowers showing up in the burnt areas were predominantly yellow. These yellow daisy-like plants are gazanias, most probably Gazania krebsiana
Still standing after the fire are the blackened stems of small protea trees. Most protea species are resistant to fire
Singed and dry from being licked by fire this Silver Protea/Sugarbush (Protea roupelliae) is identifiable by the fine silver hairs on the leaves
Growing near a stream these two Grassland Tree Ferns (Cyathea dregei) are also able to withstand fire
On one of the burnt slopes a high percentage of the rocks had been moved revealing flattened patches of unburnt grass matching the shape of each rock. I have been reliably told that baboons foraging for food move or roll over the rocks to find any invertebrates that might have taken refuge underneath during the fire. But what puzzles me is that grass grows underneath the rocks in the first place!
Our destination was this waterfall just visible in this photo within a small ravine where a small forest patch maintains its refuge from fire
This photo was taken when I was looking down into the clear waters of the mountain stream just below the waterfall while we were enjoying coffee and a snack. The stream water is good to drink too – probably the best water I have ever tasted
Looking up from our coffee we watched vultures soaring overhead
Mostly we saw Cape Vultures (as in this photo) but we saw a few White-backed Vultures too
It was very unusual for us to see so many vultures. In one fly-past, we counted a total of 43 vultures, the most we have ever seen in one place. Despite this impressive showing in the relative safety of the mountains, Cape Vultures are listed in The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as endangered and White-backed Vultures are listed as critically endangered.
We also saw a solitary Bearded Vulture soaring overhead and then skimming along in flight along the edges of the krantzes, but too far off to get a usable photo. When last assessed in 2016, the status of the Bearded Vulture was listed as near threatened.
After our restorative coffee and break we returned along the same path, looking down through the protea trees to the stream flowing below
At the end of our walk, we had a picnic lunch at a small fishing dam just below the Kamberg Nature Reserve hutted camp
We were the only people at the picnic site
I couldn’t resist taking abstract photos of reeds in the sparkly water
And, turning away from the dam, I photographed reeds blown by the wind with a mountain backdrop
As the afternoon wore on a haze returned to the mountains. We heard baboons calling unseen from a nearby krantz, but it was time for us to leave and head back home
On the way home we crossed the upper reaches of the Mooi River. The isolated mountain in the background is the Kamberg. “Kam” refers in Afrikaans to a cock’s comb, which the shape of the mountain resembles
Driving through the nearby farmlands we saw a pair of Wattled Cranes looking for food among the dry mealie stalks. The status of the Wattled Crane is vulnerable. One of the most important causes of egg failure and chick mortality of these winter breeding birds is the winter burning of wetlands. Other winter breeding species can be severely impacted too. Clearly, using fire to manage eco-systems is complex. The timing and frequency of burns needs careful consideration informed by available data in order to try to minimise unintended consequences
Boon, Richard. 2010 (2nd ed.). Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa. Durban: Flora & Fauna;
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. 2009. Extract from “Guidelines for the in situ Management of Ecosystems in KwaZulu-Natal, according to Biodiversity Conservation Principles”. KZN Biodiversity Stewardship. Report No. L02952/140209/01. https://www.midlandsconservancies.org.za/documents/fire/Ezemvelo%20KZN%20Wildlife%20Stewardship%20wetland%20burning%20guidelines.pdf;
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. 2012. “Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site: Integrated Management Plan”. http://www.kznwildlife.com/Documents/ApprovedProtectedAreaManagementPlans/ukhahlamba_drakensberg_park_whs_imp_f_14062013.pdf;
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Kamberg Resort. http://www.kznwildlife.com/Kamberg.html;
IUCN. 2019. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. https://www.iucnredlist.org/;
Pooley, Elsa. 1998. A Field Guide to Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust.
Posted by Carol