Snuggled into the heart of South Africa’s biggest lake district, Chrissiesmeer is a tiny town with a very big lake, the biggest of about 270 water bodies in this ecologically sensitive area.
From the moment you start planning your holiday to this part of the country, you realise that the people of Chrissiesmeer are openhearted. As such, they trust that you’ll let them know what you need. And this is the secret to truly experiencing Chrissiesmeer – you have to surrender yourself to the old-fashioned, open warmth of the community.
Since the land around Chrissiesmeer is mostly privately owned, it’s difficult to go eco-touring on your own, but all you have to do is mention your desire to one of the local establishment owners and they’ll arrange an experience tailored to your interests. And it won’t cost an arm and a leg.
To Each His Own
You like birds? Xolane Thusi is an ex-farm worker turned informal bird guide and will gladly take you on a guided walk. Frogs more your thing? No problem, in summer Hester Bezuidenhoud, who owns Froggy Bed & Breakfast, will take you frogging. She knows the area’s 13 species like the back of her hand and knows exactly when and where to go searching. More interested in the flora? Hester can help you there too. She knows and loves the area’s wild orchids and has an eye finely tuned to spotting the colours in amongst the rolling green grasses.
In winter you can explore the rich history of the town and surrounding areas. There are several historical buildings made out of sandstone sourced from the area around Chrissiesmeer Lake.
Especially notable are the town’s many churches. The Hervormde Kerk was built in 1892, although the building was altered over the years to accommodate the fluctuating community. The first Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk was built around 1912. In 1951 a second church was built right across the road from the first one when it grew too small to accommodate the growing congregation. There’s the St George’s Anglican Church, a tiny building constructed in 1913 and standing forlorn alongside the main road through the town. And then there’s the Methodist Church, which was built around 1919 and has in recent years been converted into a quaint guest house overlooking the lake.
It was a Scotsman who established the town of Chrissiesmeer. Alexander McCorkindale bought 200 farms in the area during the second half of the 1800s. The area reminded him of home with its gentle green hills and so he gave the various farms Scottish names such as Dumbarton, Warburton, Lochiel and Lothair. Chrissiesmeer was first named Zeekoei Pan but McCorkindale and his wife, who did not have children of their own, renamed it to Miss Chrissie’s Lake, in honour of Christina Pretorius, the daughter of Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, the South African Republic’s first president. Later this changed to the Afrikaans Chrissiesmeer.
The Crane Festival
But I was visiting the town for a specific reason. Every year in July the Chrissiesmeer Crane Festival offers locals and visitors an opportunity to learn more about cranes and their natural habitats.
The Chrissiesmeer area is one of the few places in South Africa where one can see all three South African crane species. These are the Grey Crowned Crane, the Wattled Crane, which is critically endangered in South Africa with only about 260 birds left, and the Blue Crane, our national bird. Nearly every farm in the area has breeding or visiting Grey Crowned Cranes, making it especially important for this vulnerable species.
I tracked down some crane experts at the festival. According to the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Tanya Smith, all but two of the world’s 13 crane species are fully dependent on water for forage and breeding. That makes them the ‘canaries’ of wetland conservation. When the cranes go, it’s a sure sign the wetlands are in trouble.
Wetlands are vital ecosystems. They filter water at a micro and macro level, removing, amongst others, harmful chemicals and bacteria and releasing clean water – for free. They also control the flow of water, capturing it from fast flowing rivers and releasing it gently when there’s a drought, or storing it when there isn’t. As a result, they are a life source for plants, animals and people, and teem with biodiversity.
A Change for the Better
Tanya says South Africa has lost about 50% of its wetlands since the 1950s, mirroring a decline in Wattled Cranes. But she says South Africa has since become a leader in wetland conservation, which is good news for the cranes. “We’re a stronghold for the Wattled Crane but with just 15% of its population living in formally protected areas, we rely heavily on private land owners for its conservation,” she says.
Fortunately, the land owners are playing their part. Poisoning by farmers was considered a leading threat to cranes little more than a decade ago, but according to Kerryn Morrison, manager of the EWT’s African Crane Conservation Programme, it is seldom a problem these days and many farmers are proud to have cranes on their lands.
Ursula Franke is the EWT field officer based in the Chrissiesmeer area. She says a changed mindset is evident in the support that the farming community has given to formally declaring a Chrissiesmeer Protected Environment. In April this year the MEC for Environmental Affairs signed an Intent to Declare notification in this respect, which is currently open for public comment.
The Chrissiesmeer community is working hard to develop tourism. With many unusual guest houses in and around the town and with plenty to keep visitors busy, they’ve made a great start. Add warm hospitality and the town’s easy accessibility from Johannesburg and Pretoria, and this is a tourism destination to watch. That’s good news for travellers and even better news for the cranes and the wetlands.
Visit the Chrissiesmeer website at www.chrissiesmeer.co.za for more.
Note to travellers: SANRAL is currently upgrading the N17 between Ermelo and Chrissiesmeer and is set to complete the project in February 2015. If you don’t like long stops, take the Carolina route instead.