Highlands Meander Protecting a National Treasure!
The endless grassland plains that seem to stretch unhindered along the Highlands Meander escarpment are sometimes a surprise to those tourists coming to Mpumalanga for their perfect ‘African Safari’. The last thing they expect on their way to Kruger are the lush green pastures that stretch from eMakhazeni, formerly Belfast to eNtokozweni, formerly Machadodorp, which gives the Highlands Meander a Scottish feel.
Main image credit: Glenn Ramke
While the landscape doesn’t stick to the South African stereotype, it is home to one of South Africa’s national icons. A bird that is as much a symbol of South Africa as the ‘Springbok’ or ‘Protea’, a National Treasure and our National Bird, the iconic Blue Crane.
Image credit: Glenn Ramke | Image credit: Wikus
While cranes can be found on every continent apart from South America and Antarctica, the Blue Crane is unique to South Africa. It is a symbol of royalty, our national bird and an important part of our Country’s national heritage but it is also threatened with extinction and listed globally as vulnerable on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species.
So what does the future hold for South Africa’s National Bird?
Like South Africa’s two other threatened crane species, the critically endangered Wattled Crane and the endangered Grey Crowned Crane, blue cranes are found on the countries grasslands, and the wetlands they contain, for both feeding and breeding. With around 40% of these grasslands irreversibly altered, transformed into agricultural lands, forestry, mines and housing developments, South Africa’s crane population has been decimated by habitat loss.
Image credit: Glenn Ramke | Image credit: International Crane Foundation Kerryn Morrison
Luckily for the cranes, in Mpumalanga we have numerous protected areas and nature reserves that are safeguarding the grasslands that these cranes depend on. Area’s like Wakkerstroom, Chrissiesmeer and here in the Highlands Meander, where Mpumalanga’s only RAMSAR proclaimed wetland of international importance can be found.
The Verloren Valei Nature Reserve, just outside Dullstroom, was granted RAMSAR status and with a wetland network of 30 that criss-cross the reserve’s 5,800 plus hectares, it’s hardly surprising! Especially as these wetlands provide the perfect breeding ground for all three endangered species of crane and therefore could important role in their conservation.
Image credit: Glenn Ramke | Image credit: Kerryn Morrison
Found just 13km outside Dullstroom, this is one reserve keen birders have on their ‘bucket list’. The beautiful mix of open grassland and rocky outcrops are not just ‘picture perfect’ they also provide a myriad of habits for a wide variety of highland birds, including a couple of rare as well as endemic species that remain firmly on many ardent birders ‘lifer’s list’. During the spring and summer they explode with colour as hundreds of different wildflowers carpet the area in a riot of blossom.
Guided tours of Verloren Valei are strictly by appointment, which if anything adds to the experience as you will be taken to the best twitching spots in the reserve.
Other Highland Meander nature based venues you need to explore:
· Elands Valley, Emgwenya (Waterval Boven)
The Elands river cuts through the Elandsberg Mountain range and separates the towering Highveld escarpment from the subtropical Lowveld bushlands and savannas, flowing west from Emgwenya (Waterval Boven) to Elandshoek and then north to where it eventually joins the mighty Crocodile River. This section of the valley runs from eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) to the Montrose Falls.
A beautiful patchwork mix of mountains, forests, rivers and savannas, the Elands Valley is home to rare as well as endemic species along with an abundance of biodiversity. As rich in history as it is in biodiversity, the valley has been home to the Khoikoi, Basuto, Swazi and more recently Europeans. Who in the 1980s built the ZASM railway and transformed this area into a hive of activity.
Elands Valley is home to one of the highest waterfalls in Mpumalanga, the Elands River Falls. Often overshadowed by the waterfalls of the Panorama Route, this is one fall not to miss. With a unique split and plummet of 70m the Elands River Falls easily competes with South Africa’s highest waterfall, Lisbon Falls, for both dramatic setting and scenic beauty. With a wonderful wooden observation platform tucked into the cliffs that is accessed by venturing though the old ZASM tunnel, which itself is a national monument. The spectacular views are simply incredible, providing the perfect position to marvel at how the three ribbons of water make their way over the sheer red cliffs and plummet into the pools below. For the more adventurous there is the opportunity to abseil down the escarpment next to the falls.
· Rocky Drift Private Nature Reserve, near Emgwenya (Waterval Boven)
If you are looking for somewhere that best showcases the craggy mountains, lush riverine gullies and incredible wildlife that can be found around the small towns of Emgwenya (Waterval Boven) and Waterval Onder, look no further than Rocky Drift. Part of a 257 hectare enclosed valley, Rocky Drift embraces the beautiful mountain country that the Emgwenya (Waterval Boven) district is renowned for. On the banks of the Joubert Spruit tributary of the Elands River, natural spring water flows through the reserve from the crystal clear mountain fountains found along the top of the escarpment. Here you will find all manner of interesting species, from black eagles and kites to leopard, caracal, klipspringer, vervet monkeys and baboons. Keep an eye out for the odd snake or two as well! There is also a rich history, with many Anglo-Boer artefacts still being dug up on the site today.
· Field and Stream, Dullstroom
This may not be a nature reserve, but it is a fabulous spot if you are a passionate birder. With a bald ibis colony based at the waterfall below the second of their dams and black eagles periodically spotted along the river, it is the perfect place to spend a day or two if you enjoy sharing your space with our feathered friends. Especially if your visit coincides with when a pair of blue cranes set up base on the farm between August and January, or during late summer when the Gurney’s Sugarbirds make the most of the property’s many flowering Proteas.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Want to know more about Cranes?
Visit the EWT’s website: https://www.ewt.org.za/accp/accp.html They are doing incredible research and conservation work to try and save these three species of endangered South African cranes, both in Mpumalanga and across the country.
Elandskloof Valley: Check out the area on: http://www.mountainpassessouthafrica.co.za/find-a-pass/mpumalanga/item/330-elands-pass.html before heading to: http://www.sa-venues.com/accommodation/watervalboven.php for a range of great accommodation options in the area. Then enjoy the adventure!