Have you ever heard of Goukamma Nature Reserve?
Probably not, but If you have, then you’ll know its one of the Garden Route’s best kept little secrets. Located between Sedgefield (South Africa’s first official slow town) and the quaint coastal village of Buffels Bay, Goukamma is one of those places which you could easily drive right past and never know it was there.
It has a serene pea green lake at its heart as well as a river, an undeveloped estuary and 16 kilometres of empty beaches to stroll along. Sandstone cliffs festooned with resting nesting cormorants tower above rocky islets and an unruly sea where dolphins are as common as corrupt politicians.
Goukamma, as well as comprising some 2500 hectares of fynbos and forests (most of which sits atop an ancient undulating dune field) also includes a marine reserve that extends out into the Indian Ocean for more than a kilometre.
No bait collecting of any kind is allowed along the reserve’s entire length and as such, the marine life there flourishes in abundance.
Low tide rock pools in summer are a great place to explore and one can clearly see the benefits that a bait collecting ban has had on local wildlife. Octopi are often seen crawling around on carpets of gaily coloured sea anemones whilst on the beach itself, formally disadvantaged communities of oystercatchers are doing very well.
On my last visit to this magical little reserve, I spotted eighteen of them trotting up and down the beach, looking for all the world like little clockwork toys. They appeared happy to me; free from the persecutions of dog walkers beach drivers and the fishermen which nearly made them extinct not so long ago.
The Goukamma oysters mind you, well, they didn’t look so happy.
Although you are not allowed to collect bait in Goukamma, fishing from the shore is permitted. Cape Nature (the organization responsible for looking after the reserve) once, years ago, tried to put a halt to it, mostly because South Africa’s marine life needs as many safe havens as it can get; but a local group of fishermen challenged and overturned the decision before it was put in place.
“Vehicular access to the coast here is intentionally limited to just two points at either end of the reserve.” Keith Spencer, the reserve’s manager told me when I met him at the park’s picnic site on the shores of the Goukamma River.
“Not many fishermen are prepared to walk far from where they can park their cars” said Keith “which means less pressure for our fish stocks ”
Limiting bakki access turned out to be a very good plan, and as such, most of Goukamma’s marine animals have probably never seen a hook in their lives. The difficult access also makes for a lovely hiking experience, and every time I visit the reserve (which is often because I live just around the corner) I rarely, if ever, see another living soul.
Although there are some people who vociferously lament Goukamma’s bait collecting and boat fishing ban (I met one in a local pub; a portly chap who didn’t like the idea of having to walk to catch his fish), such restrictions are critical if fish stocks both within and outside of the reserve are to remain healthy.
Fish (such as the rare red roman) breed in Goukamma and from there, they repopulate areas that have been denuded by greedy fishermen. Without such marine protected areas the fault-finding fishermen would have even more to complain about. Simply put, there wouldn’t be any fish for them to catch….anywhere!
“If you really want to go fishing” Keith told me “Then we encourage you to get a licence and come rid our lake of the invasive Bass that live there”
A jolly good idea I thought to myself, and so, upon my very next visit, I stocked up on worms and the like and went boating with a buddy upon the beautiful Groenvlei lake.
Sadly for us (but perhaps fortuitously for the fish) my friend and I are incompetent anglers, and our ineffectual casting and reeling resulted in nothing but frustration (and a painful hook in the top of my head) . Bass rippled at the surface, mocking our ineptitude, but rather than grow angry, we decided to switch our focus to bird spotting instead.
We had much more success at that.
Goukamma plays host to an impressive 260 avian species with quite a few being special and scarce. As well as the usual spoonbills, kingfishers, touracos and sea birds, the lake side vegetation also plays host to little bee eaters and hoopoes (my favourite little bird).
It used to play host to hippos too, but sadly these great beasts have long since gone.
I asked Keith if there were plans to reintroduce these animals back into the reserve but he told me the nearby presence of the busy N2 plus the adjacent town of Sedgefield would likely cause problems.
“Imagine a hippo wandering out onto the highway” Keith said to me “Not a pretty situation…..”
Goukamma has a plethora of self catering accommodation, all of which have nice views over the reserve’s lake, river or estuary, but the best of the bunch must surely be Mvubu cottage; a sizable log cabin with a huge deck overlooking the aptly named Groenvlei.
Milkwood trees draped with mosses hide the house from all but the resident lories and a half tame genet, so when one stays there one could easily imagine a world without people. Shame about the noise from the nearby N2 though.
A rickety wooden jetty juts out into the lake where a kayak awaits the attentions of the Mvubu cottage guests. You can use it to go fishing or bird spotting or merely just to paddle around and enjoy the solitude and calmness of the place.
During the winter months, Goukamma’s beach and dune trails will reward the hiker with multiple sightings of southern right whales. Common dolphins are as common as their name would suggest and sometimes seals and penguins will haul out to take a rest on the coffee coloured sands.
The hiking is great, and one can choose to do short loops from either end of the reserve or else take off on a fourteen kilometre slog over dunes and across the sweeping beaches. There are six well maintained trails to choose from all of which have spectacular views, great birding opportunities and a lovely ambience of peace and isolation.
One of the nicest and certainly most educational ways to see the reserve is to join local guide, Mark Dixon on one of his regular Garden Route Trail slack packing excursions
Mark is a qualified naturalist and one of the most knowledgeable people in the region when it comes to wildlife and geography. A walk with him will open up your eyes to all the lovely little residents of Goukamma, be they nesting oyster catchers, fynbos orchids, eagle owls or jellyfish. Lucky (and quite) hikers may be fortunate enough to glimpse one of the parks resident otters, caracals or bush pigs.
When I get tired of hiking, Goukamma becomes a great place to go Kayaking. Stable bottomed Canoes are available to hire at the Buffels Bay side of the reserve where the Goukamma River is an easy and rewarding paddle. Skirting giant dunes and riparian forests, one can row for almost ten kilometres upstream before the water becomes too shallow to continue.
All in all, Goukamma is a surprising little reserve; mostly because very few people know of its existence (not even those who live in Sedgefield right next door) Its a pretty and picturesque place too; a lovely location where one can escape from the rat race.
Its also important for conservation, and despite its modest size, the marine protected area is of international significance. Without it, the regions rare fish stocks (Red Romans, mussel crackers and the like) would undoubtedly disappear.
Goukamma is a special secret known to only a few, but now that the cat’s out of the bag, perhaps you should go visit now before the crowds pull in..
Goukamma is located off the N2 approximately 40kms east of George and 20kms west of Knysna.
Contact Cape Nature (0861 227 362 8873) for accommodation bookings and enquiries
Visit www.capenature.co.za for more information on the reserve
Both Sedgefield and Buffels Bay are very close to the reserve, and as such, they are great places to buy provisions.
There is no camping in Goukamma, but there are excellent camp grounds at Lake pleasant (on the western side of the park) and at Buffels Bay (on the eastern border)
To explore the park on foot with Mark Dixon visit www.gardenroutetrail.co.za or call (+27) 0822135931