Peering under the canopy of trees at the Graskop Gorge: The bold, the beautiful and the rare

Botanists’ eyes will shine with excitement and nature lovers will ooh with delight when they step out of Graskop Gorge’s famous viewing lift and into the green cocoon that lies snuggled below a canopy of trees at the bottom of the ravine.

Never before has it been possible for so many people to so easily immerse themselves in the beauty of an indigenous mist forest.

Even wheelchair-bound people are able to access a part of the forest trail that has been created. Ramps leading from the visitors’ centre to the lift – which travels down the cliff face, and a wooden walkway in the forest below allow people with mobility challenges to become one with the forest.

The developers of the Graskop Gorge Lift Centre are passionate about making the Panorama Route accessible to visitors while being sensitive to the pressure they place on the environment and they have a history of striking a good balance in this regard.

James Sheard developed the Long Tom Toboggan in 2016. It is the longest toboggan run in Africa with an impressive 1.7km track. Since then, the hundreds of people who have ridden the toboggan down the mountain between Lydenburg and Sabie have been left with a new appreciation of the beauty of the region, while minimal stress has been put on the environment.

Campbell Scott developed Skyway Trails in 2005, on land that had been returned to claimants through the Land Claims Commission. While much of the land was ideal for farming, it included a steep river valley with a forest of tall trees not suitable for agriculture. It was there that Campbell developed the 1.2km aerial cable trail that has not only allowed people to enjoy the Hazyview forest but has enhanced the forest’s sustainability through the removal of exotic invader plants, in partnership with the Working for Water programme.

“Campbell offered a way for us to benefit from land we could not harvest, while at the same time preserving and protecting it,” says Riebs Khoza of the Sandford Community Trust, from which Campbell leases the land.

Sheard, Campbell and the third Graskop Gorge Lift Co director, Oupa Pilane, have applied the same principles to the lift development – opening up the region while ensuring its important biodiversity is protected for future generations to enjoy.

The 600m circular trail through the forest reflects this value, with beautiful interpretation boards and special features that explain the forest and its inhabitants to visitors, a walkway that prevents the trampling of vegetation and a commitment to preserve the forest.

Earlier this year, a number of experts were commissioned by the Graskop Gorge Lift Co to do a survey of the gorge’s plants. One of the team members was John Burrows, a South African botanist and horticulturalist with vast experience. He has also authored several books on African plants. Since 1988, he and wife Sandy have managed the Buffelskloof Private Nature Reserve in Lydenburg, where they have established an extensive herbarium.

In 1994, Burrows formed the Plant Specialist Group, a group of amateur enthusiasts from Mpumalanga’s Lowveld and Escarpment region, which now attracts participants from Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

Conservationists as a rule are not in favour of ecologically important areas being developed. “However, the Graskop Gorge development has been done as sensitively as possible,” he says, “and it has opened a window to the importance of South Africa’s indigenous forests.”

Southern Africa has few true forests. Indigenous afromontane forests such as the one in the Graskop Gorge occupy a mere 0.47% of the land area. The majority of these forests occur in areas not easily accessed, such as coastal plains and mountain gorges. Forests make up the smallest biome in Mpumalanga – only 0.5% of the province’s surface area, which means visitors to the Graskop Gorge Lift Centre are able to enjoy a fairly unique experience.

A huge diversity of trees create a shady oasis for an even greater diversity of plants, which creep, climb, cling and drape from every surface. The air is rich with the smell of soil and vegetation and the tinkle and spray of the river and waterfall add another dimension to this wonderous world.

The forest has diverse ecosystems that support birds, insects, indigenous trees and flora. It is the latter that had Burrows and his team so excited when they did their survey. Although they are waiting for the official results, the forest may hold a botanical discovery or two.

While South Africa’s afromontane forests are found in patches, far away from each other, they share a similar mix of plant species which are often distinct from the surrounding lowland regions. However, each patch of forest may have plants that have adapted in some way to their specific environment and are thus unique to the area in which they grow.

“There is a degree of plant speciation at Graskop Gorge,” says Burrows. “We recorded a number of rare plants,” adds plant enthusiast Delia Oosthuizen.

Burrows says that the mist forest is alive with primitive ferns, ancient trees, medicinal plants, orchids, forest grass and cliff-hanging aloes. “Everything feeds off the mist,” he says. “Close ancestors of one primitive fern species, Ptisana fraxinea var. salicifolia, has been around for 310 million years,” adds Burrows.

The forest plants have ingenious survival mechanisms. Plants cling from rock faces with seemingly nothing in which to root while others indeed do not root at all but instead draw their nutrients from the air. A rare grass, Prosphytochloa prehensilis, climbs by scabrid hairs which stick a bit like Velcro; and even old tyres, dumped down into the gorge way back when, have been claimed by the forest and now provide a nurturing habitat for plants and insects.

There is an abundance of epiphytes, those plants that have found a way to survive by snuggling up to another species. A mass of ferns, air plants and orchids can be seen on tree trunks and branches. Let your eyes adjust to the layers of green, and you will be amazed at how many different plants are juxtaposed in the same space.

Over 100 species of fern have been recorded in the Lowveld escarpment. In the Graskop Gorge, both of South Africa’s indigenous tree ferns – the rare Cyathea dregei and the Cyathea capensis – can be found. “I have never seen these species growing side by side before,” says Burrows.

“There are a number of very special orchids too,” he says.

A bulb with delicate orange flowers, the Crocosmia mathewsiana, is endemic to the forests around Graskop and is rare, with its habitat threatened by invasive species. It is pollinated by the long-tongued bee, Amegilla.

There are a huge number of plants with medicinal properties in the gorge, and a number of others designated as butterfly host plants. One interesting species is the Ochna arborea var. oconnori, a tree with bark that is cold to the touch.

The directors of the Graskop Gorge Lift Co and Burrows appeal to people not to take cuttings of plants. “Imagine if every 10th visitor removed something from the gorge,” says Burrows, “irreparable damage will be done. In any event, many of these plants will not thrive in a garden; they need specific misty conditions to grow.”

Biodiversity expert Mervyn Lötter says that the Blyde escarpment area is botanically very rich and fascinating. “It includes many plant and animal species that occur there and nowhere else in the world. The Graskop area forms part of what botanists call a ‘centre of plant endemism’ – you have a high number of plant species occurring there, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Where you get a big accumulation of these endemics, you can call it a ‘centre of endemism’. There are not many of these centres around.

“However, most of these endemics occur in the grasslands and rocky areas, rather than in the forests.”

He adds that the indigenous forest in which the Graskop Gorge Lift Centre is situated extends all the way to Mariepskop some 40km away and makes up the largest intact forest in Mpumalanga.

He echoes Burrows’ words about weighing up the awareness being created of South Africa’s vulnerable forests through the development of the Graskop Gorge Lift Centre against any possible negative impacts to the environment: “We need to unlock the benefits of nature so that all can appreciate and benefit from the experience of being at one with nature. You will only protect that which you value and respect.”