The two big nature reserves in the vicinity of the Piekenierskloof Pass are the Cederberg Wilderness Area and the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area.
Cederberg Wilderness Area
Approximately 200km north of Cape Town, the Cederberg Wilderness Area (was proclaimed a wilderness area in 1973), stretches from the Middelberg Pass at Citrusdal to north of the Pakhuis Pass at Clanwilliam. It is over 70 000 hectares of rugged, mountainous terrain.
A popular destination for more than occasional hikers and mountaineers, the entire area is renowned for its spectacular landscapes and rock formations. Its namesake, the increasingly rare Clanwilliam cedar tree, is also found in the area.
Part of the Cape Fold Belt, the Cederberg is mainly made up of Table Mountain sandstone. Weathered sandstone formations, notably the Wolfberg Arch and the Maltese Cross, are typical. These mountains fall within the catchment area of the Cape fynbos region and are managed as a source of water.
The San and Khoi people were the earliest inhabitants of the Cederberg. European settlers began stock farming in the early eighteenth century and, in 1876, a forester was appointed to oversee crown land in the mountains, possibly the first attempt at conservation in the Cederberg.
A French nobleman, Count de Regne, who was in charge of state forests in the Cape Colony, named the campsite, Algeria. The mountainous environment and the cedar trees reminded him of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria.
From 1903 to 1973, exploitation of natural products was rampant in the Cederberg. Cedar wood, rooibos tea, buchu and rockwood bark were harvested in large quantities. The mountains were used to graze livestock in times of drought. Large numbers of cedar trees were harvested to meet the growing demand for construction wood. Some 7 200 trees were used for telephone poles between Piketberg and Calvinia alone.
Fires compounded the destruction and cedar trees are now on the brink of extinction. In 1967 the removal of dead cedar trees was halted and other forms of exploitation ended in 1973.
The 12 000 a Matjiesrivier Nature Reserve is situated on the drier eastern boundary of the Cederberg mountains. It is managed as an integral component of the greater Cederberg conservation area. Obtained in 1995 with the assistance of the World Wide Fund for Nature (SA), this rugged nature reserve includes the famous Stadsaal rock formations and some excellent examples of San rock art.
Cold and wet in the winter and summers are hot and dry, the most rainfalls between May and September, with snowfalls in the higher parts. Night temperatures drop sharply in winter and heavy frost may occur. Summer temperatures reach up to 40°C.
Lightning is the most common cause of periodic veld fires, fanned by southeasterly winds prevalent in the summer and which contribute to the fire risk.
Predominantly mountain fynbos. The lower slopes support laurel protea, silky conebush, sand olive and yellow daisies, with wild olives and mountain maytenus on the rocky outcrops. Waboom veld also occurs at this lower altitude. The eye-catching purple-blue ridderspoor, rooibos tea and buchu grow against the lower cliffs, while higher up one finds fynbos restio veld, with red disas in abundance along streams on the plateau.
The Clanwilliam cedar grows in cedar zone against cliffs and overhangs at altitudes of more than 1 000m above sea level. In the wetter ravines, Red and white alder, yellowwood, hard-pear and Cape beech are found in the wetter ravines, while wild olive, silky bark and spoonwood prefer dryer kloofs. The endemic snow protea is very rare and found only at a few sites in the area, but is undoubtedly the most attractive plant on the highest peaks.
Baboons, dassies, grey rhebok, klipspringers, duiker and grysbok are common. Porcupine, honeybadger, Cape clawless otter and aardvark also occur although they are shy and seldom seen.
The leopard is the Cederberg's largest predator and is fairly common although it too is very shy. Smaller predators include African wild cat, lynx, bat-eared fox, aardwolf and Cape fox.
The small grey mongoose and striped polecat are often seen. Various interesting rodents occur, including the spectacled dormouse.
More than 100 bird species occur here, with black eagle, rock kestrel and jackal buzzard being the most common raptors.
About 16 snake species are found in the Cederberg the most common being berg adder, puff adder and black spitting cobra. The armadillo lizard is an endemic reptile.
Cedar trees are dying out despite the protection offered by the Wilderness Area. A cedar reserve of about 5 250ha was created in 1987 in an attempt to prevent the extinction of these trees.
Special measures include more frequent, cooler burning and limiting the extremely hot fires that kill mature trees.
Cedars are also being cultivated and, each year, volunteers help plant about 8 000 one-year-old trees at suitable places within the reserve.
The Wilderness Area forms the core of a leopard management area established in 1988. This area includes private land and is managed in collaboration with the landowners. The aim of the initiative is to promote the existence of leopards by minimising conflict between stock farming and nature conservation.
Local landowners have joined CapeNature in setting up two conservancies bordering the Wilderness Area. The Cederberg and Biedouw Conservancies jointly comprise about 312 000ha of private and state land. Broad conservation goals are achieved by means of environmental management plans and ecological auditing. Conservancies are also planned for the Olifants River valley and Wupperthal. Conservancies are an important component of the proposed Cederberg Biosphere Reserve.
The Cederberg Mountain Range is the main catchment area for the Olifants River system and is home to the richest variety of endemic fish species south of the Zambezi.
Regrettably, human activity and invasion by alien species threatens the river system. There has been a dramatic decline in the quality of the riverine environment as a result of excessive extraction of water, excavations in the riverbed, damming, pesticide pollution, alien fish such as bass, and infestation by invasive plants such as black wattle and blue gum.
The eight species of fish endemic to the Olifants River all face extinction with those inhabiting the lower, unprotected reaches of the Olifants River system, particularly at risk. These include the Clanwilliam yellowfish, three species of redfin minnow and two species of mountain catlets. The Conservancies are being used to improve the management of rivers on private land.
(With Acknowledgement to CapeNature)
The Groot Winterhoek Wilderness area lies about 120km North of Cape Town.
It features extraordinary rock formations and popular hiking routes and is situated in the Groot Winterhoek mountain range, north of Tulbagh and east of Porterville.
The greater Groot Winterhoek conservation area comprises over 30 000 ha. and is particularly important for the conservation of mountain fynbos and wildlife, as well as a source of clean water to the Cape metropole.
The landscape is rugged and mountainous, with altitudes of 1 000 to 2 077 m above sea-level. The rock formations consists mainly of Table Mountain sandstone.
Various Bushman paintings indicate that San and Khoi peoples were once present here.
The early farmers in this area used pack animals to transport their produce and supplies to and from Porterville and Saron. The tracks are still visible above Driebosch and Weltevrede.
In 1909 a group of Portuguese speaking herders known as the Makatese, stayed at De Tronk. They all died, apparently of flu, and their stone graves can be seen at De Tronk and near the present-day office complex.
As the name Groot Winterhoek suggests, winters are cold and wet, while summers are moderate. The average annual rainfall is 1 450 mm and the heaviest rains are between April and September. Winter nights are very cold, with temperatures below freezing, and heavy frost. It snows frequently. The weather at Groot Winterhoek is unpredictable, and hikers should always be prepared for sudden cold and mist.