A Timeless Place

Cypress squeals “just my size” and sits happily on this shady bench being overtaken by mosses.

 While we were in South Africa, one of the oldest and biodiverse ecosystems on earth locked my interest most.  A timeless place that is home to many plants and animals that have remained  unchanged for millions of years.
It was fascinating to see Afro-montane forests with giant Podocarpus trees! Podocarps, an ancient conifer with foliage like a yew, are a relic from Gondwanaland – when Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, Madagascar, New Zealand and India formed one mega land mass. Podocarpaceae, along with other plant families, evolved before Gondwanaland split apart. Now remnants of this lush rainforestd and ancient plants can be observed in isolated patches in humid temperate parts of the southern hemisphere. We also saw glimpses of this unique forest in South America, Australia and New Zealand, so seeing it here in Africa was very exciting! There is very little in Africa, but we saw it in the mountains at Mt. Sheba Lodge and along the coast of Southern Africa at Wilderness National Park.
This huge Podocarp was at Wilderness National Park, South Africa
We brought an entire library of field guides to Africa, but only one “guide” book: Southern African Birdfinder by Callan Cohen. This guide book outlines excellent nature and birding hot spots, as well as lodges and campgrounds. We depended on this book for the best natural areas to stop at and explore. 100s of brilliant birding hot spots were outlined, each offering a peek into interesting natural communities as well as the fascinating bird denizens. Some spots were easy to access, but most were down untamed roads and quite an adventure to reach.
December 18, 2016. We were in the Drakensburg Mountain Range near a small town called Pilgrim’s Rest when we needed to find a place to camp for the night. Mount Sheba Nature Reserve Lodge was not too far away and sounded amazing. We were keen to check out the spectacular avifauna and rainforest. I called the lodge to see if they had any available campsites. Yes, they did. I asked if the road was good. She candidly said “No, but it’s getting better. The last 15km is on a gravel road.”
The road wasn’t that bad, just a few man hole size potholes in the beginning and a long bone-rattling ride the rest of the way. At least the final steep 3km into the lush valley was paved. There were enticing signs about 1km apart the entire way down the gravel stretch that distracted me from the painful jarring ride. One sign read ‘A relaxing retreat awaits you’ another said ‘Natures paradise up ahead’ or ‘Serenity not too far ahead.’ Good thing for these amusing alluring signs, which were truly necessary to keep guests pushing on the agonizing corrugated road, or I would have said “let’s turn around!” The effects felt from a bumpy road were magnified in our camper van. Not only were my bones rattled and brain turned into spaghetti, but dishes, cupboards and anything loose in the camper van jostled violently. (We soon learned that corrugated roads were common and one day after bumping up and down for 100s of km, our microwave came unscrewed and th back cabinets fell right down!) This rattling was so  intensely loud that I could not hear Cypress reading happily in the back seat.

We finally hit a wonderful smooth tarred road as we entered an open high veld zone with showy Proteas. On the upper reaches of the grassy slopes were rocky outcrops and pretty hot pink flowers.


Our destination came into view as a tiny white spec amid a blanket of green in the steep valley below.

Mount Sheba Lodge, nestled in the valley below, was surrounded by mountains of lushness.
We arrived at a posh British style lodge that had more class and elegance than we could ever muster up. With unkempt hair, filthy clothes and muddy boots, we all probably bore a resemblance to wild bush pigs and certainly smelled like them. Feeling a tad out of place and more and more like a bush pig, we strolled into a lavishly decorated reception. We were greeted by a cheerful young lady with an English accent and fire red hair. She handed us iced tea and shots of brandy (hmm…I could get use to this fanciful lifestyle). She handed Cypress a dart to pop a balloon and win a prize, since it was almost Christmas. He won sunglasses.
 We were allocated a small patch of grass where we could camp for the night. It was a
stunning location. We hiked the extensive trails, through temperate afromontane forest leading to plummeting waterfalls. The forest was complex in every shade of green imaginable with giant figs, African cherry, podocarpus and heavenly-scented blooms of irises and lilies. The forest was alive with bird song and insects humming. An interesting critter or plant was discovered continuously as we hiked the rugged trail and Cypress proved to be a budding mountaineer. We glimpsed several birds, including a Norina Trogan, African emerald cuckoo and a Knysna Turaco. Soaking up the abundant life was mind-blowing and made me feel more alive and connected to nature than ever. Nature has a calming, tranquil, beneficial effect on me and most people (if not all humans?). The health benefits of simply stepping into a very old forest or any natural space is profound, peaceful and beautiful, so go outside and take a soothing nature bath!
This beauty, Knysna Turaco, was a treat to see.
 Not exactly sure what Cypress is doing here, but it looks like yoga.
 We occasionally had a braai (Afrikaans word meaning to cook meat over a fire). Grill master, Ryne, cooked some tasty burgers! Beef was typically fresh, high quality and easy to come by, so we all kind of turned into carnivores on this trip. This was difficult for me considering I was a vegetarian for 17 years before this! Locals eat an insane amount of cow, sheep and pig, and are kings of the barbeque!