Planting seeds for the future
Words Fiona McIntosh, Pics Shaen Adey
The rugged Cederberg mountains have long been a playground for those who indulge in extreme pursuits. The dramatic range is criss-crossed by hiking and mountain biking trails while the sheer sandstone cliffs are Mecca for climbers. In fact Rocklands, at the top of the Pakhuis Pass in the northern Cederberg, is one of most famous bouldering areas (gymnastic climbing without ropes on low boulders) in the world.
A couple of weeks ago a hundred or so nature lovers gathered for a more unusual adventure, the annual planting of the Clanwilliam cedar trees in the rocky slopes above the Moravian mission village of Heuningvlei.
Now in its 13th year, the event, a partnership between Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat and CapeNature, attracted its fair share of adventurers and high profile conservationists. Ed February, a Professor in the Department of Botany at UCT and one of South Africa’s most accomplished climbers, and his wife Nicky engaged granny gear and rode their mountain bikes up the rocky jeep track from the top of the Pakhuis Pass to Heuningvlei. The RIM of Africa team laced up their boots and hiked the 12-kilometre route while the new CEO of CapeNature, Dr Razeena Omar, Vice-Chairperson of the CapeNature Board Gavin Maneveldt, Wesgro CEO Nils Flaatten and Piet van Zyl, Head of Department: Environmental Affairs and Development Planning wrapped themselves up in ponchos and hot-water bottles and joined Michael Tollman, representing the owners of Bushmans Kloof, in the lodge’s game viewing vehicles for the bumpy but scenic ride along the famed ‘Donkey Cart’ route.
The atmosphere at Heuningvlei was incredibly festive. The community was out in force; the band was playing and the growing group of participants, which included members of the Botanical Society, the Wildflower Society and the Cederberg Conservancy, was enjoying coffee and rusks as they waited for the proceedings to begin.
Patrick Lane, Conservation Manager for the Cederberg Wilderness, outlined the mission. The endemic Clanwilliam cedar tree only occurs in the Cederberg mountains but fire damage and unsustainable exploitation in years gone by has put it at risk of extinction so it’s now classified as endangered on the Red Data List. Thanks to the efforts of the Cedar Tree Project more than 1000 young cedar trees have been planted in the Cederberg area. But over 70,000 ha of the wilderness were destroyed by massive fires 15 months ago, wiping out untold numbers of cedars, so this year’s event was particularly significant.
At Patrick’s invitation a group of school children from local schools and all the other guests each planted a seed, which was then transferred to the Bushmans Kloof Nursery to be nurtured for two years. Then the serious fun began, the transplanting of mature seedlings back into the wilderness area.
Before taking on this responsibility we were given some useful tips on how to choose a good site. ‘Look at those old guys on the mountain tops’ advised Patrick. They’ve survived because the fire can’t get to them so climb as high as you can into the rocky areas that are natural fireproof zones. Southern and eastern slopes are cooler so increase the tree’s chance of survival – as does planting the sapling close to the rock which protects it from the elements and means that it derives a bit of extra moisture from run-off.’
Armed with a seedling, spade, water and a tag we headed up the hillside in search of a suitable place where ‘our’ trees might survive the elements and opportunist grazers! It was an emotional walk. On our way up the slopes we past the haunting charred skeletons of once magnificent cedars then, on the ridgelines, found healthy, spreading old trees that appeared to be growing out of solid rock. Noting their aspect and positions we sought similar, protected fireproof locations for our seedlings, bedded them down and gently watered the surrounding soil. The CapeNature field officers GPSed their location then we returned to Heuningvlei for a celebratory lunch.
And it turned into quite a party! We sat out in the shadow of Krakadouw feasting on Chicken Biryani, koeksisters, milk tart and other authentic fare as the local dance troupe, Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers, regaled us with an enthusiastic performance of Riel Dance – foot-stomping, animal impersonations and charming courtship rituals that have their origins in the ceremonial dances practised by the Khoi and San around the fire. Dressed in traditional farm workers outfits - dresses with aprons and old frontier bonnets for the girls and waistcoats and hats adorned with feathers for the boys - and kicking up the sand in their hand-made red veldskoene, the group, tutored by Bushmans Kloof Executive Chef and Assistant General Manager Floris Smith, a former professional dancer, was clearly enjoying the opportunity to strut their stuff. They had reason to show off, having just collected awards at the South African Championships of the Performing Arts 2014, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Once the performance was over the crowd was up on its feet, spontaneously joining in the merriment.
It was a wonderfully educational and fun day out in the hills and we felt proud that, by planting seeds and young trees, we had made a difference: that we had given something back. As we bumbled back over the pass to our cars I cast my eyes up towards the old guys that stood proud on the skyline and felt a lump in my throat. I hope that one day my little seedling will grow tall like them.