THE EXPERIENCE : FLORA AND FAUNA
Over 800 plant species are represented on farm 215, including 34 species of the Protea family, over 30 Erica species, more than 20 Orchid species, 16 moraeas, 15 Gladiolus species and 50 “red data species” (species listed on the IUCN red data list to reflect that their continued survival in the wild is threatened). Peak flowering times are spring and autumn, but there are always many species flowering all year round. Due to the different habitats animals and birds are abundant in the reserve. A large tribe of baboons spends the night at the foot of the waterfall. Six different “bokkies” (antelope species) are resident or regular visitors. Bat-eared fox, genet, honey badger, cape clawless otter, caracal, porcupine and mongoose regularly leave visible traces and the movements of leopards in the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy is monitored. The rare Cape eagle owl and Black harrier both have raised chicks in the reserve for several consecutive years. The Black eagle keeps our hyrax population in check and a plethora of sunbirds and sugarbirds hop from Protea to Erica. Of the reptiles, you cannot fail to see the Rock agama, present in huge numbers between the rocks. When you are lucky, you may spot a snake (there are over 10 snake species in the reserve).
From far, the hilly and mountainous lands of the fynbos reserve look clean, accessible and kind of bleak. When you start walking however, things become bushy and colourful and you realize immediately why the Southern Overberg is sometimes called “The Heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom”, the smallest but richest of the 6 floral kingdoms in the world.
The beauty of the Cape Floral Kingdom is most strikingly apparent during spring and autumn when most of the protea species show their colourful, big and bulky flower heads. Nevertheless every day of the year there are always several fynbos species flowering. Apart from the floristic wonders that have created themselves on this rocky and nutrient-poor soil, several smaller and larger creatures, some of which are endemic to this area, thrive very well.
It is especially the rich bird life from the large Blue Crane, South Africa’ s national bird, to the smaller Cape Sugarbird (endemic to the Western Cape), that brings people from far to this area of the Southern Overberg.
In spite of their abundance in the Cape Floral Kingdom, the land-animals are mostly too shy to advertise their presence. The baboons in this area are still naturally wild and keep a safe distance from men, the six species of antelope, the presence whereof has been confirmed in the fynbos reserve, retreat to thick bush during the light of day and the presence of caracals, honey badgers and genets is sometimes established by a quick shadow but mostly on the basis of the very down to earth art of analyzing faeces. That the Cape leopard is here as well, we only know from claw marks in a tree, but he or she will – no doubt – see us.
The tortoises, mongooses and various reptiles at least have the decency to show some land-animal visibility in the Cape Floral Kingdom. And since we are talking about tortoises, please drive slowly when you take the turn of to the fynbos reserve of farm 215. The library on farm 215 has an extensive book-collection on all the natural features of the Western Cape and the Overberg in particular.
The Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the earth’s six plant kingdoms. Though the Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest of them all (more or less the size of Portugal compared to the Boreal Plant Kingdom that occupies more than 40% of the world’s land surface), it has the richest variety of species of all Kingdoms.
To illustrate the enormous biodiversity of the Cape Flora, we cannot get around using some numbers. The Cape Floral Kingdom contains close to 9000 plant species of which 5800 are endemic (i.e. they occur nowhere else in the world). The British Isles (almost four times as big) in comparison, host 1500 plant species of which only 20 are endemic.
The fact that 71% of the 740 Erica species in the world, 60% of the world population of 160 gladiolus species as well as 60% of the 112 Proteas in the world occur in the Cape Floral Kingdom pictures the exceptional biodiversity of the Cape Flora that even outranks that of the richest parts in the Amazon.
Fynbos, the major biome of the Cape Flora is a shrub land largely made out of tall, large-leaved Proteas, (proteoids), heaths (ericas / ericoids), reeds (restioids) and bulbous plants (geophytes). The fynbos biome is adapted to the specific situation of the Western Cape: hot and dry summers, a lot of wind and sandy (even acid sands in the case of farm 215) soils of low fertility. Fynbos is furthermore a fire biotope. It depends on fire at intervals of 15-20 years for its rejuvenation. Without fire, fynbos will perish. The fynbos biome is threatened by urban and agricultural expansion, by too frequent fires (the slowest growing shrubs are not able to produce sufficient quantities of seed) and alien vegetation. As a result, over a 1000 species in the fynbos biome are listed in the Red Data Book (rare and/or threatened). Of these so-called red data species, several occur in the fynbos reserve of farm 215.
The Southern Overberg, home of farm 215, has a flora of an estimated number of 2500 species, of which 300 are endemic. As a result of local circumstances (different soil types, wetlands, scree-covered slopes, flats etc) allowing for a high degree of biodiversity, the fynbos characteristics in the reserve are extremely varied. Over 700 species are represented on farm 215, including 33 species of the protea family, 22 ericas, over 20 orchid species, 15 species of moraea, 11 species of gladiolus, 9 species of watsonia, over 30 so called “red-data species” (vulnerable or endangered).
The multitude, variety and beauty of all these fynbos species, combined with the enormous sense of tranquillity and space, the splendid views that can be enjoyed from the slopes and the abundance of water, make a stay in farm 215 a special experience for botanically interested persons.
True fynbos does not harbour a lot of birds. Having said that, several bird-species are strictly confined to the small area of the fynbos-biome of the Western Cape. The Cape rockjumper, Cape sugarbird, Orange breasted sunbird, Cape siskin, Protea canary and Victorin’s warbler are all endemic to the cape floral kingdom and all occur on farm 215. In the veld of farm 215 the Cape sugarbird (feeding on the nectar of proteas) and sunbirds, such as the Orange breasted sunbird, Malachite sunbird and Doublecollared sunbird (mostly feeding on the Erica species) are most conspicuous, partly because of their striking colours, partly because of their nervous jumps from bush to bush and partly because they are not shy. In the case of the Cape sugarbird, its ridiculously long tail (almost 70% of its total length) is obviously the biggest give-away. The Victorin’s warbler on the other hand, made it its mission in life to be invisible for man. It hardly comes higher than the top of the fynbos-branches and one wonders why this creature needs to fly in the first place.
Still, if you know where to go, the other endemic species can be seen as well. In one valley, nestled between rocks and close to a stream surrounded by thicket, is the text-book habitat of the otherwise shy Cape rockjumper. The reforestation site, close to the lodge is attracting more and more birds as the juvenile forest matures.
Walking through the reserve and the wider Uilkraal Valley with all its different vegetation-types from almost bear rocks to mountain fynbos, riverine thicket, indigenous forest and wetlands is also the place where one will begin to understand that there are more than 300 bird species in the Overberg. The enormous black eagle floats around looking for hyrax, its main prey. The spotted and the cape eagle owl’s silhouette can be spotted almost every night along the farm roads at night. The threatened blue crane can be seen in large groups high in the sky. And then there are cape rock thrush, cape robin, cape canary, grassbird, bokmakierie, cape batis, yellowrumped widow, burchell’s coucal, kingfishers, four different types of sunbirds, the sugarbird and numerous birds of prey, of which the fish eagle has nesting sites next to the lake and the threatened black harrier on bleak fynbos covered hills..
Six different species of antelopes and 12 other mammal species (not counting the numerous rodent species other than the porcupine) have been confirmed to occur in the reserve of farm 215. Of all the mammals, only a few allow the humans to spot them on occasion in real life. But both the Caracal and the Large spotted genet are quite regularly seen where we do not really want to see them: close to the chicken coup.
Depending on the time of the year, a big troop of about 50 Chacma baboons can be seen in the hills of farm 215. They regularly sleep in the trees under the waterfall on farm 215 or in a patch of indigenous forest in one of the kloofs, preyed upon by their biggest enemy, the Cape leopard. Of the antelopes, the small Cape grysbok (“grys” is Afrikaans for grey, though the Cape grysbok is actually kind of red) is most likely to be seen, mostly late afternoon. The cape grysbok is endemic to the fynbos biome of the Western Cape. Since both properties making up farm 215 has been changed into a reserve, a pair of Klipspringers are seen more and more on the rocky slopes behind the guesthouse, successfully raising one young each year. Of the carnivores, the large grey mongoose can fairly often be seen on roads and in other open spaces.
Some reptiles (of which there are more than 20 species of farm 215) have a higher visibility. A multitude of rock agamas has a continuous presence around the house as well as the red sided skink. Both tortoise species, the Angulate tortoise and the Parrot beaked tortoise are regularly seen and one of the roads on the farm is for some reason a favourite place for combat between Angulate tortoise males during mating season. This noisy fight can continue forever and the aim is to overturn the other. Both the smaller parrot beaked tortoise and the Angulate tortoise (up to 30 cm) are endemic to the cape coastal regions. High on rocky outcrops, too steep for any tortoise to climb, one can often find empty tortoise shells, the result of a tortoise kill by a raptor or a crow.
Over 10 species of snake crawl around on farm 215. Though some of these are venomous, participating in traffic is a much riskier activity than walking barefoot in The Overberg without looking down.
Though the first remark of many guests on their arrival is “it is so silent here”, it is absolutely not silent. Depending on the season, various species of frogs and toads chirp, click, quack, snore and bleat almost continuously. The Overberg is frog country and various species are endemic, such as the small Arum lily reed frog that is especially common in the wetlands on farm 215 and the vulnerable Rose’s toad.
Several nature reserves in the area, such as De Hoop Nature Reserve, Bontebok National Park, Nuwejaars Special Area, Agulhas National Park and Salmonsdam Nature Reserve boast a multitude of bigger animals as well, such as leopard, eland, red hartebees, buffalo, hippo, guagga, cape mountain zebra and -of course- the bontebok, endemic to the Western Cape. The coastal plains between Gansbaai and Cape Agulhas used to be the “Serengeti of the Western Cape”. Only a few hundred years ago, cape lion, and bluebuck (extinct), eland, and hartebeest shared the Agulhas Plains in vast numbers with elephant, hippopotamus and rhinoceros.