OUT OF OFFICE |
by Samantha Barnes
Beautiful beyond belief
“Wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Henry David Thoreau. That may be so, but have you ever wondered who takes care of the vast tracts of land in our country that are commonly referred to as tourist drawcards? South Africa has lots of land. Take a trip in an aeroplane and the sheer expanse of nothingness will never cease to amaze you, the traveller – whether it be the Orange River snaking across the country or the farmland of the Free State that feeds our bellies.
Places of natural beauty and wildness nourish our respective souls and swell our tourism coffers. Gail Robinson, Eco Manager, Forever Resort, Blyde River Canyon, cherishes her role as custodian of the third-largest canyon in the world. “I feel very privileged to be working in the Blyde River Canyon, as it has a unique atmosphere which can only be described as magical,” she muses.
A typical day sees her leading guests on guided horse trails up to World’s End viewpoint or on guided hiking trails within the resort under her domain. It is a job that requires physical effort, scientific know-how and people skills. On any given day, Robinson needs to take care of the horses – not inconsequential stuff, either. It includes farrier work, grooming, dipping, or, in her words: “Whatever needs to be done for their wellbeing.”
Robinson’s daily tasks include conservation work. Controlling exotic, invasive plants and checking fence lines for snares are among her list of must-dos. Poaching is a reality. Poachers use snares and sometimes hunting dogs. Robinson points out that there is the danger of feral animals to contend with as well.
The Mpumalanga Parks Board has an antipoaching unit responsible for controlling poaching in the reserve as a whole. Robinson is responsible for the area around Blyde Canyon, a Forever Resort. As could be expected, endangered birds are being monitored in the region.
“The very rare Taita Falcon can be found nesting on the cliffs of the gorge,” Robinson says. She recommends the lower viewpoint as the best vantage point for spotting these elusive birds. You will need binoculars, but could be lucky enough to see one swooping down on a smaller bird in flight.
It is not just poachers that represent a threat to certain species of wildlife. Robinson observes: “As is the case in most parts of the world, wildlife in general is under threat as a result of the increasing human population outside the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve.” Human settlements are encroaching on what were once wilderness areas. “The most noticeable changes to the landscape have actually occurred just outside the reserve on the other side of the main road,” she notes. “Hills that were once covered in indigenous vegetation are now full of houses, cattle and maize plantations.”
Changing weather patterns are also causing some species to flourish more than others. This is particularly noticeable with regard to the flora of the region. Robinson explains: “The ferns in the riparian regions tend to fare less well in a rainy season such as the one we have had this year, where rainfall was not as high as in previous years.”
Visitors enthuse about proteas in the Blyde River region, which include a species endemic to the region. It is commonly known as the Blyde protea or Protea laetans for the scientists among us. “Proteas flower in winter and can be seen on the rocky slopes on both the Leopard Trail and the Guinea-fowl Trail,” Robinson says.
Some visitors to the Blyde River Canyon, whether domestic or international, have mistaken beliefs about wildlife in the region. “The biggest myth that a lot of tourists have is that they will be attacked by snakes, baboons or some other wild animal,” Robinson points out. “The truth is that most wild animals are shy and avoid human contact at all costs.”
A notable exception is baboons. Robinson describes them as opportunists who will grab any chance for an easy meal. Despite this, the baboons have never injured anyone in the process.
A Close Call
Robinson has had some moments too close for comfort in the wild. Snakes get a bad rap at the best of times. She started the Snake Rescue Project a few years ago. The aim of the project is to capture snakes that are too close to human habitation and release them into the nature reserve. For those among us harbouring a soft spot for our slithery friends, rest assured that sick or injured snakes are kept and treated until they are well enough to be released.
On the day in question, Robinson was called to catch ‘a particularly feisty’, three-metre long black mamba. She explains that all snakes will rather flee than attack (which is reassuring to learn). However, on this occasion she had the snake cornered.
Her escape route blocked, the black mamba reared up, cleverly using a wall to lean against and thus gaining extra height. “In this way, she was literally taller than me when she struck the top of my head,” Robinson recalls. Luckily for the plucky eco manager/warrior, she managed to duck to the side in time – but only just. However, ‘the game’ was far from over. “After an epic battle of wills, I managed to capture her and she was subsequently released,” she says.
“Besides the obvious viewpoint of the Three Rondawels and the features of the Canyon, we have a really beautiful Tufa waterfall on our shortest hiking trail, the Kadishi Trail. The word ‘tufa’ comes from the Latin word ‘tofos’, which means ‘porous rock’,” Robinson observes.
To put it in layperson’s terms, the rock behind the waterfall is actually ‘growing’ as a result of calcium carbonate precipitation, instead of receding towards its source as is the case with most waterfalls. Robinson emphasises that this is a very rare phenomenon which creates an almost enchanted feel that can only be experienced when you see it for yourself. We need little, if any, further encouragement to visit it and are grateful to people like her for their dedication to and passion for the preservation of the wilderness known as the Blyde River Canyon.