The Waainek Wildflower Reserve

This reserve, established by Philip Erasmus on the Bosberg, is an excellent example of a private initiative in biodiversity conservation, writes Cameron McMaster.

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Philip Erasmus farms on Charlton, a farm on top of the Bosberg above Somerset East, a beautiful area of gently rolling grassland, blessed by a fairly dependable summer rainfall of around 600mm a year. The area is well suited to sheep and cattle grazing.

My association with Philip goes back as far as 1973 when I became involved in the establishment of his Dohne Merino stud, an enterprise that has taken me back to the Bosberg on a regular basis. The road to Charlton is quite awe-inspiring. After passing through the verdant and historic Glen Avon Valley, the narrow road abruptly climbs a winding pass through thicket vegetation, to emerge 10km later into open grassland at an altitude of 1 400m.

There are endless views from the top of the pass. The steep, forest-clad, south-facing mountain slopes plunge down to the left with the spectacular Glen Avon Falls at the head of the valley, and endless ridges of Karoo hills and mountains stretch away to the horizon in the north, to Cradock and beyond.

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I was first alerted to the botanical importance of the grassland on the Bosberg when my attention was drawn to some large and spectacular heads of Brunsvigia grandiflora, flowering in April one year in the wide road reserves on the south-facing slopes at the top of the pass. Even then, almost 30 years ago, my interest in wildflowers led me to explore further and I discovered a wealth of floral diversity almost unequalled in the Eastern Cape.

An ecotourism opportunity
At the highest point at the top of the pass there’s a narrow strip of grassland between the road and the steep forest-clad cliffs. Exploring the area I found interesting plants each time. It was a challenge at that early stage in my wildflower career to identify and assess the importance of species. I soon discovered that as well as being extremely rich in species, the area contained some very rare endemics.

I would tell Philip about my discoveries and we looked into the possibility of creating a reserve for them. The concept of a wildflower reserve fitted in well with other tourism enterprises Philip was developing on the property, including a large and rambling farmhouse converted into comfortable self-catering tourist accommodation and hiking trails and trout angling facilities.

An area of roughly 500m long and less than 100m wide between the road at the top of the pass and forest cliffs on the edge of the Glen Avon Valley was set aside and named the Waainek Wildflower Reserve, after the property on which it’s situated.

For 15 years or more, Philip and I have discussed the management of the reserve. He has undertaken the regular burning necessary and the clearing of alien pine seedlings that sometimes grow from seed blown in from nearby windbreaks.
The two most important endemics in the reserve are Haemanthus carneus, found only in the Bosberg, and the poker, Kniphofia acraea. The only other known population of this species occurs in the mountains of the Mountain Zebra National Park, about 40km to the north.

Because the reserve includes the ecotone between the grassland and the Afromontane forest on the steep slope down to the valley, interesting plants in both biomes occur here. Over the years we’ve made an intensive study, recording species like Cyrtanthus macowanii, Cyrtanthus tuckii, Disa crassicornis, Lachenalia campanulata, Gladiolus mortonius and Eucomis autumnalis.

Another very significant plant in the reserve is a massive multi-headed female specimen of the rare cycad, Encephalartos cycadifolius. This cycad occurs in the Baviaans River area on the east side of the Fish River. It’s the only specimen I know of on the Bosberg and because there are no male plants in the vicinity, the seed cones it produces regularly are all infertile. A few hundred metres west of the reserve, on land belonging to Dr Pieter Botha, there is a small population of another rare endemic, the hairbell Dierama grandiflorum.

This extremely rare plant has been recorded only here and on the Oudeberg near Graaff-Reinet. So far, an appeal in the local press for landowners to look out for other populations has been fruitless. Another remarkable discovery on Dr Botha’s property, not more than 100m from the reserve boundary, was a population of the very rare green bearded disa, Disa lugens. I’ve discussed the possibility of linking these populations to the reserve with Dr Botha, and he has so far modified his grazing policy to permit the flowering and seeding of these two rare plants.

A plan for the future
On a visit to the area in November 2008 I found 30 plants of the Dierama in full flower. The ideal solution would be to consolidate all these populations in an extended reserve – the contribution these two landowners would make to wildflower conservation would then be enormous. The Waainek Wildflower Reserve is visited regularly by botanists and plant lovers from all over the world. It’s an excellent example of how landowners can contribute to conservation and benefit from the ecotourism spinoffs.

Anyone interested in visiting the reserve should call Philip Erasmus on (042) 243 3561 or e-mail [email protected]. Great self-catering accommodation is available.Contact Cameron McMaster at [email protected].