A morning walk following the Tierkloof Hiking Trail through a narrow gorge between towering sandstone cliffs was a highlight of our recent stay at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve in the Little Karoo region of the Western Province.

Dry stream bed at Tierkloof trail at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

The dry bed of the stream that makes its way through the Tierkloof gorge

The trail is along or alongside a rock-strewn stream bed so hikers have to pick their steps carefully and watch out for loose rocks. Looking down one’s attention can be taken up by the varied and subtly coloured rocks, by small plants, animal spoor in the sandy patches, and insects and the occasional reptile along the path. Looking up one is overwhelmed by towering and craggy sandstone cliffs, decorated with lichen and a diversity of plants that manage to take root in crevices on sheer rock faces.

Sandstone cliffs at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

Impressive sandstone cliffs tower on either side of the gorge 

Baboons on rock face at Tierkloof gorge, Gamkaberg

This photo is a bit of a cheat. On this trip we only saw baboons in the distance, so I include this photo taken in Tierkloof on our visit in 2016. It was fairly early in the morning and we saw several baboons taking naps, including the large baboon on the right who is fast asleep 

Tierkloof trail at Gamkaberg

One side of the gorge still in early-morning shadow as we commenced our walk

In the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve there is a marvellous array of vegetation typical of succulent karroo and subtropical thicket biomes, and in deeper sections of the Tierkloof gorge one walks within the cover of evergreen forest remnants.

Botterboom and Spekboom at Gamkaberg

Many of the smaller shrubby plants are brittle and grey and appear to be totally desiccated. In the above photo, a Botterboom is to the left and to the right is the green of a Spekboom.

The thick-stemmed and succulent Botterboom (Tylecodon paniculatus) is one of the eye-catching plants encountered along the trail. Naturally occurring in the dry western parts of southern Africa, the Botterboom (literally ‘Butter tree”) conserves its energy by dropping its leaves in summer – it is able to photosynthesise during the summer months through its yellowy-greenish stems. Not discernible in the photo, this plant is just starting to produce flower buds that will bloom in early summer at the time when it drops its leaves.

Flowers on a Spekboom, Gamkaberg

A Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) in flower, which is not something we often see

Dry seed pods of a Chinese Lantern Tree, Gamkaberg

Another striking dry-region plant is Nymania capensis, known as the Chinese lantern tree on account of its decorative papery seed capsules. In Afrikaans it is known as a Klapperbos, with ‘klapper’ referencing the rattling sound when dry seeds are shaken in the seed capsule

Yellow-flowered herb in the Gamkaberg

Smaller in scale and growing in protected shaded areas near the stream bed are more tender plants such as Pelargoniums and this low-growing yellow-flowered herb, which I think may be a Hermannia

Rocks in a dry stream bed in the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

The rocks in the stream bed appear to be predominately white, but after a while one’s eyes adjust to the palette of pale colours

After about 7 km of walking, I decided to turn back, leaving my two companions to walk on to a large overhang about 2 km further on, freeing me to be able to dawdle and pause to take photographs as much as I liked, and freeing them from frequently stopping to wait for me to catch up!

View up the Tierkloof gorge at Gamkaberg

This photo was taken by my husband further up the gorge than I ventured

Pretty butterfly at Gamkaberg - one of the Browns

While retracing my steps back down the gorge, pausing to look at the multitude of rocks and pebbles, I spotted this lovely butterfly – one of the species of butterfly known as Browns


As I walked slowly along the gorge this hoverfly flew up alongside me and hovered at just below my eye level, giving me time to snap this photo!


One of the many interesting rocks on the banks of the stream bed


Although the stream was mostly dry, we did come across water in one rock pool near a small weir

On returning to the rock pool on my way back, I sat down on the ground concealing myself behind a buddleia bush, to wait to see if anything may come along to drink. After a while Cape Siskins and Rock Buntings came down to drink and also two incredibly large and iridescent wasps that sounded like small airplanes when they flew. It was lovely to sit quietly and listen to the coos of the Speckled Pigeons echoing across the gorge.

Cape Bunting drinking at a rockpool in a stream, Gamkaberg

A Cape Bunting, half-aware of my presence, coming down to the rockpool to drink

Continuing on my way back to camp the gorge widens out and at times the path diverges out onto a sandier route, revealing more insects and more interesting rocks (the photographs of which I am not including as this post is getting to be way too long!).

Thread-wasted Wasp excavating nest in the sand, Gamkaberg

One of the more interesting insects that I came across was this seriously beautiful Thread-waisted Wasp as she was busy excavating a nest before provisioning it with prey for her progeny to eat after they hatch

Southern Rock Agama basking on a rock, Gamkaberg

I was completely charmed by this Southern Rock Agama whom I first spotted under a bush next to the path. After I stopped he made his way onto a large rock and after doing some press-ups, eyeing me candidly all the while, he lay down flat to soak up some warmth from the rock. The blue colouration and the white dorsal stripe (just visible) are characteristic of male Southern Rock Agamas in the breeding season

Silver-spotted Grey butterfly oviposting on Sweet Thorn tree, Gamkaberg

A Silver-spotted Grey butterfly laying its eggs on a Sweet Thorn branch

A few bends in the path after spending time with the agama, and as the temperature started to rise late in the morning, I noticed a tiny butterfly ovipositing on a branch of a small Sweet Thorn tree. In the photo the silver thorns look like pillars, conveying how small the butterfly actually is. I think this butterfly is a Silver-spotted Grey, and in fact the Sweet Thorn (Vachellia karroo formerly Acacia karroo) is one of only three larval host plants for this butterfly.

The Sweet Thorn grows abundantly in the Karoo region occurring also across different habitats in southern Africa and as far north as Angola and Zambia. In arid areas its presence is considered to be an indicator of both underground and surface water. It was indeed sobering on our recent road trip to see Sweet Thorn trees collapsed and dead in some of the areas worst affected by the prolonged drought.

Despite the thorns, the Sweet Thorn is an important fodder tree for both wild and domestic animals. They feed on the leaves, the yellow pompom flowers (in summer) and the seedpods, thus playing a role in seed dispersal.

The Sweet Thorn gets its name from the sweet gum exuded from damaged bark. The gum used to be exported as “Cape Gum” and it was used in making confectionary. It is similar to “Gum Arabica”, which is taken from other species of trees, including other acacia species.

Cape gum on a Sweet Thorn tree

A Sweet Thorn growing near our tent back at camp had exuded gum, which had hardened into sugary looking lumps. I tasted a morsel that had fallen to the ground and found it to be so mildly sweet as to be almost tasteless

A Cape Robin-chat perched among thorns in a Sweet thorn tree

A Cape Robin-chat perched in one of the many Sweet Thorns growing in the camp

Southern Boubou, Gamkaberg

A pair of very confiding Southern Boubous hung out at the camp with its thoughtfully provided birdbath. Other birds visiting the camp included Cape Bulbul, Familiar Chat, Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Bunting and Speckled Pigeons


A view down the track that leads to Fossil Ridge and two other accommodation sites at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

Fossil Ridge Eco Lodge tented camp, where we stayed, can accommodate four people in two sleeping tents. It also has a tent housing a kitchen and dining area, and a brick bathroom block with two bathrooms, each with a wash basin and a shower (with hot water provide by a gas geyser) and each with an ingenious waterless eco-loo.

Lighting at the camp is solar powered. Staff and tourist facilities are supplied with borehole water that is clean and slightly brackish. We made sure to bring our own jerry can filled with drinking water from home. Despite the prolonged drought the borehole water supply is considered to be reliable, although of course water should be used sparingly. Each camp has a small plunge pool with a plant-filled filtration system, but because of the drought the plunge pools have been drained and each pool is covered with a net. For photographs of the camps and information on accommodation options at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve see here

The attractive accommodation at Gamkaberg is thoughtfully designed to be eco-friendly, and it is comfortable, tasteful, practical and maintained to a very high standard. The staff evidently take enormous pride in their work and they are extremely helpful and hospitable.

View over Fossil Ridge Eco Camp, Gamkaberg

We climbed the ridge alongside the camp from where my husband took this photo of Fossil Ridge camp on our first evening there, despite being buffeted by strong winds.

View towards Tierkloof gorge, Gamkaberg

Taken on our first evening, this is the view from the ridge above the camp towards Tierkloof gorge and approaching rain clouds that produced no real rain, However, that night the temperature dropped to a chilly 6°C

  Rockface at Fossil Ridge camp, Gamkaberg

The sandstone ridge above the camp, glowing in late afternoon sunshine – photo taken from outside the kitchen

Bird in silhouette at sunset, Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

As we sat around the camp fire I took this photo of a Fiscal Flycatcher silhouetted against the sunset on our second and last night at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve


Posted by Carol

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