I was sitting out in the open upon a very comfortable chair with the breeze and the honeybees buzzing in my ears when I heard the distant sound of a zebra ‘laughing’ at me. The sapphire sky above was dotted with little fluffy clouds and the fynbos all around swayed in unison with the wind.
To the South, the Outeniqua and Langeberg mountains took on the countenance of an enchanting fortress of rock coated in cascading clouds.
It was likely raining in the Garden Route if those clouds were anything to go by- but over on the other side, atop the Klein Karoo’s Gamka Mountain, its standard practice to be sunny.
The elevation had taken the summer sting from the sun; the fynbos was aglow with flaming Proteas and Erikas; and the smells were as divine as the views: – Rosemary and sage; lavender and chocolate; perfumes, oils and bubble bath.
Ahhhhh; Bliss! Who could have imagined I was sitting on a loo?
Up in Oukraal camp, at the very summit of Cape Nature’s Gamkaberg Nature reserve, there is a fantastic little bothy. It’s not much more than a zinc roof, a few stone walls and a big pile of natural boulders… But it has character…. Oodles and oodles and oodles of it!
The mountain winds are kept at bay, a fire burns in a primitive hearth, and one can’t help but feel a little like the Khoisan of old with a natural stone wall at one’s back and a simple ceiling over one’s head.
The design of the camp is a work of simple genius. It incorporates and utilizes the natural features amongst which it is nestled, and at no point whilst exploring the rolling surrounds can one actually see it- It blends in with the scenery as perfectly as a pile of rocks should.
But if you think that the camp composition is something to write home about, just wait until you see the long drop toilet. It’s a literal work of art and has possibly the most incredible ambience one could ever hope to encounter whilst sitting on a toilet… There’s nature all around; not a human sound; fresh air, blissful solitude… and somewhere close by, judging by the laughing I could still hear, a mountain zebra or two.
The Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, located a little ways off the R62 half way between Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp, is one of the Western Cape’s best kept secrets. It incorporates several biodiversity hotspots (Mountain Fynbos, Succulent Karoo and a bit of Valley Bushveld) and has a plethora of activities on tap for the outdoor enthusiast.
There are three excellent bush camps, a series of short and overnight hiking paths, a rugged 4×4 route and a run of trails for mountain biking.
But if you, like me, would rather enjoy nature from the comfort of a chair (or a toilet seat for that matter) then there’s plenty of that on the menu as well.
I flipped the page on my magazine, finished what it was I was doing and made to head back down the short trail to the Oukraal camp where my family and I had planned to do some more sitting around.
And then I heard the zebra again…
“Let’s go find it” said my husband, whilst eagerly packing our baby son into his back mounted carrier. And so off we went, down the dusty track and past pockets of Proteas, in the hopes of spotting the world’s rarest zebra.
The Gamkaberg Nature Reserve was initially created in 1975 to help save these beleaguered equines from an almost certain extinction. Itchy trigger fingered zebra hating farmers had been rather successful in their attempts to eradicate the species, and by the time the reserve had been established there were less than fifty left on earth.
Mercifully though, thanks mainly to a well-orchestrated and executed recovery plan, conservationists have brought the species back from the brink to an estimated population of around a thousand: – fifty of which call the Gamkaberg their home.
And wouldn’t it be just super to see one…
Unfortunately though, our walk paid no dividends, and I was denied the rare mammal sighting I had hoped for… but never mind. The scenery was fantastic, the weather was fine and the short hike was just the ticket to sooth my soul and further convince me of what a beautiful country it is that we live in.
I felt the urge then to burst into a rendition of ‘The Sound of Music’ which alas, scared some francolins into the air which in turn startled my son into tantrums and tears.
Somewhere off in the distance a zebra laughed again
The following night we stayed at the newly renovated Tierkloof Bushcamp at the foot of the Gamka Range. It’s an exclusive affair; lovely colonial style safari tents, a beautiful lapa, kitchen facilities and a crystal clear dam in which to take a splash… But it doesn’t have an exclusive price.. In fact, at R120 per person it’s probably one of the most luxurious “budget” accommodations I have ever stayed in.
“The concept of this camp” said Tom Barry, the Manager of the reserve “Is that it can comfortably accommodate eight people, but we only take one booking at a time. In this way you are in no danger of being disturbed, or of disturbing, any other people. It’s all yours- the whole camp. Leopards and all”
We were sitting on the decking of our safari tent, watching the dramatic evening sunlight play across the steep sided walls of the red rocked Tierkloof canyon.
Tom had a small book with him that contained photos of various animal’s which had recently been taken courtesy of a beam triggered camera that had been concealed along one of the nearby hiking trails .
“The Cape Leopard Trust recently began working in the reserve, and look what they found.” he held up a photo of a beautiful adult leopard “visits the camp regularly. We never see him of course; leopards are too clever for that, but just knowing he passes by most evenings gives me a special feeling”
Tom and his wife Lisl, a professional Karoo landscape artist, have lived in a modest house in the reserve since 1993. They were married in the Tierkloof camp, and have raised their two hyperactive little daughters in the reserve.
“Kai is 4 and Jade is 5” said Lisl who had also joined us to watch the sunset. “They take up most of my energies what with the home schooling and everything else, but I still sometimes get the time to do some painting. There’s something about the light out here in the Klein Karoo which is very special. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I looked at the ever changing colours of the rocks and the big open sky above us, and whole heartedly agreed. There were pinks and pale blues; a dark ochre at the horizon and a velvety mauve at the edges of the sky.
A nightjar somewhere off in the kloof announced with a plaintive whistle that the evening was coming and soon it would be dark.
“The silence is also very special” said Tom “We don’t get traffic here…”
I strained my ears, and it was true. I couldn’t hear a thing….
The following morning we took a drive out to Groenefontein, a sector of the greater Gamkaberg Conservation Area, which is of special interest to anyone who has a soft spot for succulents.
Along the twisting trail we saw all sorts of delightful and enchanting plants. There were spiky things and wispy things and squat plants and tall ones too; and amongst them all were bunches of multicolored ‘Babies Bums’; an aptly named succulent that becomes bright pink when the sun is at its hottest.
I discovered after talking at length with Tom, who accompanied us on the trail, that the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve is not just a single isolated hummock, but is in fact a huge and ever expanding biological hot spot conservation zone.
“There are five interconnecting reserves here, and accumulatively they amount to around 35000 hectares. Add to that the local landowners who are becoming more and more involved in sustainable land use initiatives and what you end up with is a nature reserve of sorts that’s at least double that in size. It’s very exciting for me to be part of that, and both Lisl and I are happy to be raising a family in this environment”
Eventually, the interconnected reserves will be linked up with both the Outeniqua and the Swartberg Mountains as well as with other regional sustainable use and protected areas: – A project which is collectively known as the Gouritz initiative.
It’s a grand scheme indeed, which will, when it’s complete, shape, uplift and protect the very lives of the plants, animals and people who call the Western Cape their home. And at the very centre of it all is the humble Gamkaberg Nature Reserve.
And so, on our last day in the Klein Karoo, we trundled back up to Oukraal camp, where I once again retired to that special seat with a most commanding of views. And there I sat awhile and contemplated (as one tends to do on the toilet) and came away feeling a little lighter and a little happier about the world.
From horizon to horizon there was naught but natural splendor- and thanks to the likes of Tom Barry and his colleagues, it’s likely to stay that way forever for all of us to enjoy.
To find out more on the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve visit
Booking can be made by calling (021) 659 3500 or email@example.com
Lisl Barry’s art can bee seen by visiting www.lislbarry.co.za