Nature in South Africa

South Africa

Nature in South Africa is a world in its own right; biodiversity is very high. For this reason it’s not easy to do a general survey. In the most simple representation, at least 4 biomes or ecozones should be discerned. The south-west has a Mediterranean climate, with winter rains, and the vegetation is very special there. It is called Fynbos,Dagga in South Africa with its famous representative the Giant Protea* (more about this later on). Going north, precipitation gets less, and we arrive in a semi-desert: the Karoo. To the north-east we ascend to a plateau with a predominantly grassy vegetation; the Highveld. Continuing to the north-east we descend into the Limpopo valley, which is the border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The vegetation here is called the Lowveld, and it starts to look like a tropical savannah (this is where the Kruger Park is).

But we should immediately differentiate this first classification. Not just the amount of precipitation is important, also in which season it falls. There’s a borderline running from south to north through the Karoo; west of it, what little precipitation there is, falls in local Dagga in South africawinter (July-Sept.), and east of it in summer (Jan.-March). This led to very different vegetation types: in the west with many succulents, and the famous blooming desert in September, and east of this line there’s a more grassy vegetation, which is of course favourable to grazing animals, like antelopes and ostriches. Also, we did not mention the Drakensberge yet; the mountain range which is the south-eastern and eastern border of the plateau. Vegetation here resembles the grassy Highveld for the most part, but there’s more rain in places, and a milder climate closer to the coast, short, a complex mosaic of micro-climates, including forest and bushveld, often with unique plant and animal species – for instance the Crane Flower*.

And we should of course not forget the marine ecozone: two oceans meet here, with penguins*, whales, etc. Also the mangrove*, locally along the eastern shore, is a biotope in its own right.

Thus we already named 8 ecozones. May this story illustrate that nature in South Africa comprises much more than the Big Five mentioned in most tourist folders (lion, leopard, rhino*, elephant and buffalo*). A Great Green Ten* is of course just as big a simplification, but a welcome addition anyway 🙂


The Mediterranean climate in the south-west of the Western Cape province led to a matching type of bushveld: what’s called «Maquis» in France and «Chaparral» in Mexico, is called Fynbos in the Cape. This Afrkaans (Dutch) word entered the English language (and international terminology) as such, and could be explained as “fine bush”. The plants may have taken a shape similar to other regionsDagga in South africa with a Mediterranean climate (bushes that will survive the occasional bush fire, resting period in the dry summer) – but they are totally unique species. And there are no less than 8700 of them, with 75% endemism (growing nowhere else). Because of this high biodiversity, botanists elevated the flora of this region to the status of a floral kingdom: Capensis, or the Cape Floral Kingdom. This puts little Capensis on equal foot with the other 5 floral kingdoms in the world, such as Holarctis (the northern hemisphere) or Palaeotropis (the combined tropical regions of Africa, Asia and the Pacific). The species richness in this rather small area does however mean than there are many species with a very limited distribution area; for instance growing only on one particular mountain. Such species are of course very vulnerable, and a relative high percentage is in fact listed as threatened species. So it was not a minute to soon, when the Cape Peninsula National Park (CPNP)* was created in 1998, at the initiative of Nelson Mandela.

A characteristic genus is Protea, with the Giant Protea or King Sugarbush* as best known species, but there are 450 species of this family here. The Proteaceae are a typical family of the southern hemisphere; also present in Patagonia and Southeast Australia. They illustrate how the Cape Floral Kingdom has more in common with those two distant regions, rather than with neighbouring Palaeotropis. This would refer to a time when there was one big southern continent: Gondwana. Antarctica was the green heart of it (it was not in its current polar position yet). Today, all that remains of this flora are some isolated patches on the southern tips of the current continents. The Cape Floral Kingdom is also the centre of the genus Erica*. Heathers occur in Western Europe too, but the Dagga in South africafynbos has no less than 722 species, 700 of which endemic. It is referred to as an evolutionary explosion, but it could just as well have been an implosion: species being pushed together because of their shrinking climate region. Just a few managed to escape, and top-hopping through the mountains of Eastern Africa (Kilimanjaro, Ethiopia), they reached the Mediterranean. The mild climate along the Atlantic coast of Europe (Gulf stream) made it possible for some to reach the British Isles and even the Baltic. What a journey, but well, they had 100 million years time for it. The plant family with most species in the fynbos is the Daisy family (Asteraceae)*. This is not very surprising as such, because it is one of the largest families in the world, and mainly represented in temperate and subtropical climates. But, here again, we see a high percentage of endemics, and many look a bit different from what we’re used to: they are generally known as herbaceous plants, but in the fynbos there are many woody species in this family: bushes, and sometimes the leaves changed to stiff scales.

The term fynbos may almost coincide with the term Capensis, but there are a few more vegetation types in the Cape Floral Region, than just this kind of bushland. Like grassy areas with dwarf bushes, which are called Renosterveld. But the Rhinos (Afr. Renoster) have long gone. There’s also real forest. When you descend from Table Mountain to botanical garden Kirstenbosch*, you pass throughDagga in South africa such a forest (difficult climb by the way, Skeleton Valley is very steep). Along the coast near Knysna is another well-known forest. This region is also famous for its swamps and lagoons, with all kinds of water fowl. A little further down the coast is the Tsitsikamma forest*. A marvelous subtropical primeval forest: many species of trees, often with conspicuous roots, and lianas. This is where Sparmannia africana (Indoor Linden, African Hemp) grows wild. You may encounter tree ferns in this type of forest, and also trees of the genus Podocarpus (Yellowwood): Conifers with somewhat broader leaves, who get a kind of berries (instead of cones). This is yet another of those genera of the southern hemisphere, but just like the tree ferns, they are not confined to Capensis, but they occur also, and even more, in the Drakensberge.

the Karoo

Just north of the narrow strip of fynbos starts the Karoo. First there’s the Little Karoo, and behind that is the Great Karoo. In daggaecological sense this distinction is also recognized, only both regions are extended to the north, right up to the Namibian border. The eco-region along the west coast is called the Succulent Karoo, and the Little Karoo is the southernmost tip of that. More to the east is the Nama Karoo, which includes the Great Karoo. The Karoo as a whole is rather green; a semi-desert. It is not so very dry here as further north, but the high number of plants may also be explained by the fact that this is a very old desert. The Sahara for instance, is much more barren, in an area with equal precipitation. In the Karoo, plants had much more time to adapt to the climate.

In terms of vegetation, the Succulent Karoo is completely different from the Nama Karoo. This because what little rain there is, falls in local winter, and then it’s too cold for most plants to make use of it immediately. All activity has therefore been suspendend, and concentrated in the short period in spring, when the soil is still containing some moisture, and it also starts to warm up a bit: roughly the month September. Whole valleys may suddenly start to bloom and have carpets of flowers, mainly members of the Daisy family (herbaceous here) and Mesems (related to Mesembryanthemum). A species like Carpobrotus (Pigface or Hottentot Fig), well known from Mediterranean gardens and cliffs, is indigenous here, on the cliffs of the Northern Cape Province. The floral displays are always very local and short-lived, so you need to be well informed in order to find the right spot at the right time. Most species of succulents occur in the north of the Succulent Karoo, in Namaqualand, near the border with Namibia. A special type of Mesems (Afr: Vygies) are the Living Stones. They live underground, only have a sort of window to catch the light. These windows look a lot like small pebbles, Dagga in South africaso it’s a form of disguise too – against thirsty animals. Rather common here are members of the Crassulaceae (Stonecrop family)*, succulent Euphorbia’s (Spurge), and of course several species of Aloe*. A very special figure is Pachypodium (Elephant’s Trunk), looking a bit like a columnar cactus, and called Halfmens (Half-man) in Afrikaans. A sort of crowned guardsmen along the border with Namibia. There are also a lot of Stapeliads here. They look like small cactuses, but as soon as they start flowering you’ll know better. The often magnificent, but at least special looking flowers are very bad smelling (a carrion smell to attract flies). Currently there’s a lot of interest in Hoodia (Wild Ghaap): it contains a chemical that suppresses the feeling of hunger. The Khoi (Hottentot) and the San (Bushmen) used this property during their migrations. In cooperation between a British company and South African research, a new anti-obesity drug is being developed from it today. According to the contract*, the San* will receive a part of the future profits. In the Great Karoo the rainy season is in local summer (Jan.-March), which is more relaxed for the plants; the growing season is much longer. One difference is that there are much more grasses here. And all kind of grazing animals make good use of that, like for instance the sheep that are kept here on a large scale. When you want to enjoy the much-belauded South African “braai” (barbecue) – then do it here. The lamb legs do not need any seasoning, because you’ll taste the herbs the animals ate themselves (the connoisseur will even taste from which region the animals came). The Karoo Nature Reserve* near Graaff-Reinet is an excellent place to spot the many wild antelopes here (AKA Bokkies or Bucks). We noted down: Eland, Kudu, Gemsbok (African Oryx), Gnu (Wildebeest)*, Hartebeest, Blesbok, Springbok, Steenbok. Also other animals like the Vervet Monkey, Suricates (Meerkat)*, Warthog, Ostrich, Kingfisher, Secretary Bird, Cranes – and all this in one single morning. In another part of the same reserve you may climb to the Valley of Desolation. You’ll pass a succulent zone then, after all, with Portulacaria afra (the Spekboom; looks a lot like Crassula ovata, Jade plant*). On top of the mountain you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views over the Karoo, especially at sunset.

Gardens and ornamental plants

Dagga in South africaThe first garden in South Africa, and the second in the world I suppose, is Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden*, at the foot of Table Mountain, near Cape Town. The National Botanical Institute (NBI)* is based here: an umbrella organization of 8 South African botanical gardens*, distributed over the country. Click previous link to have a taste of each of these impressive gardens. The NBI promotes the use of indigenous plants as garden plants in South Africa, and this idea became quite popular. So when you did not find a particular plant in the wild, there’s still a good chance you’ll encounter it in a park or garden!

Strangely enough, the Garden Route is not so much a route along gardens, but rather the name of a region along the south coast of the Western Cape, plus a bit of the Eastern Cape. There are Mediterranean type of seaside resorts here, like Knysna and Plettenberg, mentioned above for their forests. So it’s essentially a green region, with a mild climate, thanks to the Indian Ocean. Precipitation is more or less evenly distributed over the year. No wonder that you can enjoy the most beautiful ornamental plants here, in private gardens, parks and road verges.

South Africa is the prime country where many of our ornamental plants originally came from. For example, to start with, our “Geranium”. Between quotes, because its real name is in fact Pelargonium* – a genus which comprises 250 wild species here. There are also hundreds of wild species of bulbous plants, and dozens of them became world famous, like Clivia, Nerine, and other species of the Amaryllis family. Also Crocosmia (Montbretia) has its roots here, as well as many species of Gladiolus. The Arums of the genus Dagga in South africaZantedeschia are called Varkblom in Afrikaans (Pig’s flower). They come in white, yellow and pink. In warmer parts of the country you’ll encounter the Coral Tree – or rather one or more of the 8 species of Coral Tree (Erythrina)*. Wood-sorrels (like Shamrock) are also very popular; 200 species of Oxalis are indigenous here, usually with yellow or pink flowers. Oxalis pes-caprae, the Bermuda Buttercup or Cape Sorrel (much naturalized in the Mediterranean) honours its name: it grows like a weed between the paving-stones in Cape Town. Perhaps I should also mention Polygala (Milkwort). In Europe this is a tiny plant, with beautiful, but also very small flowers. In the Cape Province there are a few species however, that become rather big shrubs, with lovely violet flowers. Another conspicuous plant is Leonotis*, an orange Dead-Nettle, that will get up to 3 meters high, and has woody stems. It’s called Wild Dagga (Dagga is a Khoisan word, referring to a mild narcotic property, like Cannabis. It has resinous buds that are made into Wild Dagga resin, or added to tobacco and smoked by the Hottentot tribes).

the Lowveld (Laeveld)

daggaThe vegetation along the border with Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana starts to look like the African savanna. Mind you, I say “look like”, because it’s not tropical at all in winter – the temperature of the water in the swimming pool remains considerably below pleasant then. And the bushes are mostly leafless (winter is also the dry season), but that’s quite favourable for game spotting.

This is the region of the Big Five: lion, leopard, rhino*, elephant and buffalo*. These animals are known as very dangerous, and they were extensively hunted in the past. But there are many more special animals of course: with giraffe*, hippo, crocodile* and ostrich, you could also make it a Big Nine (and some include the whale – a Big Ten). In addition there are herds of antelopes* of all sorts. Warthogs are quite interesting animals too. They often dig their den in termite hills*, which are in itself also a quite characteristic element in this landscape. The warthogs could very well be attracted by the scent of the fungi that are cultivated by the termites: the mushrooms of those moulds (truffles?) are also much appreciated by the people here.

But let’s not forget the plants. There are groups of Sansevieria (Mother-in-Law’s Tongue or Snake Plant), of which you can squeeze the Dagga in South africaroots in order to get some drinking water. And you’ll see those flat-top or umbrella Acacias, though not much yet. There may be an Orchid growing in them, or the pretty flowers of a parasite, related to the Mistletoe*. The Candelabra Tree*, is a tall succulent Spurge, looking a bit like a columnar cactus. It’s locally common. Southern parts of the Lowveld will have elements of the Cape, like a nice tall Aloe* with orange flowers on horizontal branches (?). More to north, say, from the Kruger Park onward, tropical species become more frequent, like the magnificent Impala Lily (Adenium)*, the Sausage Tree (Kigelia)* and the impressive Baobab*.

The Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Park*, in Zululand (KwaZulu-Natal) is rather hilly and offers great views*. It was created in 1895, which makes it the oldest game park in South Africa. At that point in time their were only 20 White Rhinos left in the region. This is where the successful “Operation Rhino” was initiated in the 1960’s, relocating the remaining South African White Rhinos to protected game parks. Their numbers have risen since then from about 500 to 6000. Along the coast is the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park*, a brackish water lagoon area with swamp forest* and mangrove. It got the status of World Heritage site in 1999. Hippos and crocs* play the principle part here, but also the birds are quite interesting, like the Goliath Heron* and the Fish Eagle*.

Dagga in South africaPresident Paul Kruger of Transvaal founded a reserve in 1898, which would later be known as Kruger National Park*. It has been enlarged considerably since then. The landscape* is rather flat, with some bumpy hills which are called koppies*. There are smaller private parks along the perimeter, such as Timbavati Lodge*. Nice thing of such a smaller park is that, when there are no large cats, you may stroll around on foot in it. Guided by a ranger, you may test your courage while approaching a group of buffalos*, or, even more exciting, a family of White Rhinos*. Much more fun in fact than all that game driving in a 4x4.

The Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary* in Swaziland does not have the Big Five, but therefore the tourist is allowed to go free on foot or on horseback. They’re apparently not much concerned about the crocs and hippos. On such a hike you may truly enjoy nature and theDagga in South africa landscape*. There’s a great variation: grassland and forest, rivers and mountains – and a lot of flowers*, even in winter. There were some alien invaders though, like Lantana. But not every foreign species is a pest: a neglected forest of giant Eucalyptus trees is very impressive, when you’re allowed to walk around in it. High above your head a group of dexterous Vervet Monkeys. And in the evening on the veranda bordering the watering-place, a flock of Sacred Ibises* descends on a large Acacia – wow!

Tour of South Africa, 23 June – 13 July, 2003

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