The Landscapes of South Africa

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Willem takes us on a delightful virtual tour of his country. Now, aren't you glad you know somebody who can do that?

The Landscapes of South Africa

Landscapes of South Africa

I'd like to tell you all a bit more about my country. This time, I'll talk about the landscapes of South Africa! My country is very scenic and extremely diverse.

First of all, South Africa is a country that is fairly high and dry! High, in that most of the country consists of a central plateau, with only narrow coastal plains surrounding it. Dry, in that more than half of the country gets less than 500 mm (20") of rain per year, on average. Thus, South African landscapes tend to be mountainous, rocky, and rather barren. But there are plains, and there are wet spots as well.

Let's consider the central plateau first. This stretches through all our provinces. In the south and west, this plateau is a semi-desert called the Karoo – although there are several different 'Karoos' with different characteristics. The northern and eastern Karoo is more grassy, while the southern and western regions sport more succulent and shrubby plants. The typical Karoo is a flat, high plain, with widespread, low hills with flat tops. These flat-top hills are remnants of an even higher plateau most of which has eroded away over millions of years. The Karoo is ancient, and has sedimentary rocks dating to over 300 million years in which fascinating fossils are found of our own ancient ancestors, the so-called 'mammal-like reptiles'. These rocks are remnants of sediments kilometres in depth that were deposited when the Karoo was a vast inland sea! Since then it has dried out and has been uplifted for many kilometres.

Though barren looking, the Karoo has extremely interesting wildlife, including a wealth of succulent plant species. In past ages it also abounded in large mammals but these have pretty much all been hunted out, and the Karoo is now mainly an area of sheep farms. There is little cultivation as the rainfall is so low and erratic. Small animals remain, though ... some being quite rare and threatened like the Riverine Rabbit: The central-northern portion of the plateau becomes lower and hotter. This basin extends into Botswana to form the Kalahari Desert. Not a true desert, it is actually a region of dry and sparse savannah woodland, but growing on deep, mostly reddish sand, in which rainfall very quickly drains away, so that surface water is a rare and precious commodity. There are some extensive sand dunes in the very driest parts. The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and adjoining parks in Botswana conserve vast stretches of this 'desert'. Large herds of game are still found, such as Gemsbok and Wildebeest. Rivers, lined with broad-spreading Camel Thorn Trees, only flow in years of exceptional rainfall. But plants like the succulent Tsamma melons, and a variety of tubers growing in the deep sand, store water that can be exploited by animals and humans. The San People, or Bushmen, long flourished in this region as hunter-gatherers with a truly minimal impact on the environment, but their traditional way of life has by now almost completely died out.

To the north and east, the plateau receives higher rainfall. The central regions, most of which are in the Free State, are high, cold grasslands. Much of this is farmland now, but there are still pristine areas. These high grasslands are called 'highveld'. Towards the region of the eastern Free State, the western Kwazulu-Natal, and the independent country of Lesotho, the plateau rises up into the tallest mountains of our country, the Drakensberg. These are volcanic rocks that have poured out of huge cracks in the Earth's crust about 200 million years ago. The highest peaks exceed 3 000 m (10 000 ft) in height. They are truly spectacular, with sheer cliffs over a km in vertical height in many places. The rainfall here is very high, over 1 000 mm/40". Despite the high rainfall, there are few forests, since the winter is dry and there are many fires. Nevertheless, the plant life is adapted to this. The Drakensberg has some of the prettiest flowers to be found in South Africa.

Just as much of the flatter grasslands have been converted to grain farms, much of the mountainous grasslands have been converted to plantations of trees like Pines and Eucalypts. This has been very harmful to the ecology. Grasslands are not just grass! They contain a wealth of other plant species as well: soft herbs and low shrubs, succulents, and flowers with underground bulbs. Just after the first spring rains, when almost everything bursts into flower, these grasslands are fabulously lovely. They also support a wealth of animals, including a great variety of birds. The more marshy grasslands host rare birds like cranes and many others. The draining of wetlands as well as pollution from mining and other activities have caused rampant destruction of this habitat and its native life.

Towards the north, the central plateau becomes lower and hotter again. North of the Magaliesberg range, and to the west of the northern Drakensberg, the 'highveld' gives way to 'Bushveld', which is a savannah landscape of grass dotted with trees. Most of the trees are thorn trees, such as the flat-crowned Umbrella Thorn, which is typical of much of the savannah of Africa. Other typical bushveld trees include Silver Cluster-leaf, Red Bushwillow, Buffalo Thorn, Karee, and Marula. A particular feature of the Bushveld are the many isolated rocky hills. These are inhabited by the Dassies, small rodent-like creatures that are actually relics of a primitive kind of hoofed mammal that once was very diverse in Africa and included species as large as small horses! The rocky hills have unique plant life including many succulents, huge examples of which are the Aloes and Tree Euphorbias.

Around this central plateau are the lowlands. Let's start in the north. The northern border of South Africa is formed by the Limpopo river, which has carved out a low river valley that forms an arc around the northern central plateau. The climate of the northern Limpopo valley is extremely dry and hot. This is where the huge Baobab trees are found! Towards the East, the Limpopo descends into a vast lowland region, most of which is in our neighbour country of Mozambique, but a bit of it is in the east of our country, and called the Lowveld. The Lowveld is also mostly savannah, but often with somewhat more luxuriant grass, and larger trees, such as the Mopane, the Wild Teak, and the Leadwood. The climate is extremely hot in Summer, just bearable in Winter. Most of the Lowveld is fairly dry.

The Lowveld is the only part of South Africa where most of the large mammals still remain. The huge Kruger National Park encompasses much of the eastern Lowveld, and there are many smaller national, municipal and private game reserves as well.

Between the Lowveld, and the Highveld and Bushveld, there is a rim of mountains forming a barrier. These include the northern Drakensberg which is an extension of the range into the old Transvaal; the Wolkberg range; and the Soutpansberg range. This rim of mountains blocks moisture-bearing rains, and so on their eastern slopes rainfall is high but to the west it is low, forming a 'rain shadow'. In the moist regions forests are found – these form only a tiny proportion of South Africa's surface area, but are lovely and magical. Some of the best ones are in Magoebaskloof, only a short drive from where I live. Rainfall reaches 2 500 mm a year/100", and frosts are rare, leading to a luxuriant growth of trees, ferns, shrubs, mosses, lichens and other nice plants. These forests do not have many large mammals, but there are some, such as Bushpigs, Red Duikers (small antelope) and Samango Monkeys. Birds are abundant and diverse, as are insects.

To the east and south of the Lowveld are the coastal plains of Kwazulu-Natal. Right next to the sea, moisture from the oceans sustain a dense coastal forest. On more exposed dunes, this is replaced by a rolling grassland. This forest has in many places been cut down to make way for sugar cane plantations, but there remain some impressive remnants. The coastal forest is mostly not very tall, consisting of low trees and shrubs with dense crowns. Particularly interesting plants include the Wild Date and Lala Palm trees, the Tree Strelitzias, and Coast Aloes. Right next to the sea, plants grow that are adapted to survive in the salt spray, growing on and stabilising the dunes and so colonising them for larger plants to follow. These dune colonizers include the Dune Tacky, the Dune Morning Glory, and the Sea Pumpkin (actually a member of the daisy family).

In and around estuaries – the mouths of rivers – a special kind of forest called Mangrove Forest is found. This consists of salt-resistant trees that are adapted to root in the soft mud and sand, and also to survive the coming and going of the tides. Some of these trees have stilt-roots, others have 'upside down' roots (pencil-like 'fingers' growing upwards to poke out of the mud to allow the tree to 'breathe') or knee-roots. Mangrove trees include members of the genera Bruguiera and Avicennia, and the lovely Powder-Puff Tree, Barringtonia racemosa.

Unfortunately, lots of mangroves have been destroyed to make way for harbours and coastal towns and developments.

In a few places along the coast, the forest becomes taller and includes some large forest trees such as the Water Berry and the Red Milkwood. Coastal forests have a somewhat greater diversity of mammals and birds than the more inland forest, including interesting species like the Tree Dassie (yes, an arboreal hoofed mammal!) and the tiny Blue Duiker.

The northern parts of the coastal plan broaden into the region called Maputaland. There the spectacular Lake Saint Lucia (actually a huge estuary) is found. This region is almost tropical in climate and include plants not found anywhere else in South Africa. Wildlife is also still abundant, much of the region being conserved in the iSmangaliso Wetland Park.

Between the coastal plain and the central and southern Drakensberg Mountains are found the Natal and Eastern Cape midlands. These are mostly undulating, moist grasslands, but there are also lovely 'mist-belt' forests. These are so called because in these regions, moist air coming from the coast rises as it moves inland, condensing into clouds and mists that almost perpetually cloak the land.

Most of the eastern coastal plain is subtropical in climate, but towards the south it becomes cooler and drier. Around the Port Elizabeth area, there is a 'break' in the moist coastal belt, and drier landscapes approach the coast. In this region a wonderful mix of plant types are found – almost everything in South Africa is represented: Karoo-type semi-desert, grassland, savannah/bushveld, thicket, forest, and fynbos. The moister vegetation types are found on the slopes of hills and mountains facing the sea, while the drier types are found in flat land or 'rain shadows' in the lee of the mountain slopes or in steep valleys and gorges.

I would like to tell you about the vegetation called 'thicket'. This is a very dense growth of fairly drought resistant plants found in river valleys from the southern Cape to Kwazulu-Natal. The 'canopy' is low and mostly formed of tough, thorny trees and shrubs, in the dappled shade of which many more delicate plants survive. This vegetation used to be called Valley Bushveld. This thicket includes a mix of plants related to species that occur in habitats from semi-desert to forest, and an incredible wealth of different species. A fine example of this thicket is the Addo Bush, found in the Addo Elephant National Park. This thicket hosts the last substantial wild herd of Cape Elephants, who used the impenetrability of this thicket to shelter them from hunters during the nineteenth century. Today they are protected.

South and west of the Port Elizabeth region, the coastal plain becomes moist again. In the Knysna-Tsitsikamma region, the plain broadens and is covered by an extensive, moist forest. Unlike the subtropical forests to the north and east, this one is considered a Temperate Forest, being quite cool and even on the cold side in winter. Nevertheless, frosts are rare, and plants grow luxuriantly. Here some of the largest indigenous trees in South Africa are found, such as the Outeniqua Yellowwood, which can exceed 30 m in height and spread, with a massive thick trunk as well.

From the southern to the western Cape, the coastal plain is covered by a unique kind of vegetation that I've mentioned before – the fynbos (it means 'fine bush'). Coastal fynbos is also called 'renosterveld' (rhino 'veld') because it is dominated by the Rhino Bush, a shrubby member of the daisy family. Nevertheless, this kind of veld is very diverse in other plant species as well, including many lovely flowering shrubs and bulbs. Unfortunately almost all renosterveld has been destroyed to make way for farms.

The southern and western Cape also sports an extensive and complicated array of mountain ranges. These are not part of the mountainous 'rim' that borders the interior plateau, but are a wealth of separate ranges, most being 'fold' mountains, formed by the buckling of the Earth's crust. These ranges can be very rugged, particularly spectacular examples being the Cederberg, the Little and Great Swartberg, and the Groot Winterhoek Mountains.

These mountains host the most diverse vegetation type in South Africa – and one of the most diverse in the whole world: mountain fynbos. This consists mainly of low shrubby plants from the Protea, Erica and Restio family – but in between are vast numbers of species of other kinds of plants, again including a great variety of lovely flowers. In some small patches of land, great numbers of species can be found, and many species are restricted to very small areas, such as single mountains or valleys. Fortunately, the ruggedness of these mountains mean they are little utilized by humans, and most of this vegetation type is protected in nature reserves.

The northern regions of the Cape Fold mountains are drier than the southern ones, and again there are rain-shadow areas, such as the Little Karoo, and the Worcester-Robertson Karoo, that are semi-desert. Here the plant growth is again low and shrubby, but with a wealth of succulent species. Towards the north and the west, this constitutes the Succulent Karoo, which is the world's richest succulent region. Interestingly, most of the succulent species found here are very small, the Mesemb family providing the greatest number of species. Particularly charming are the many species that mimic rocks and pebbles, such as Lithops, Conophytum, Argyroderma, Bijlia, Pleiospilos, Lapidaria, Dinteranthus and many more. The 'bodies' of the plants, actually formed by the leaves, are round and with a texture and colour mimicking the particular kinds of stones and gravel constituting the desert surface.

In the north and west, the Succulent Karoo reaches the ocean, forming 'Strandveld' and to the north, Namaqualand and the Richtersveld. Namaqualand is famous for its display of flowers. This region receives very little rain on average – but it varies. Some years – most years, actually – there falls hardly a drop of rain, but then every few years, the rains are abundant. When that happens, the land explodes into colour! A great many seeds of annual plants that have been lying dormant in the sand, suddenly germinate and in a very short period of time, grow to adulthood and flower. Also, many bulbs that have been buried deep in the soil, waiting for moisture to penetrate, also sprout leaves and flowers. Even small perennial herbs and shrubs, that might have seemed dry and dead, now suddenly burst into life. The total of it all is that for a few weeks, the entire desert becomes covered in a carpet of white, yellow, orange, red and purple flowers. People go on special tours to admire this spectacle when it happens.

In the very north the region of Namaqualand merges into the Richtersveld, one of the driest and most barren desert regions of South Africa. This is where the Orange River, our largest, meets the sea. In its lower reaches it has carved its course through a mountainous region, which in our border country of Namibia includes the spectacular Fish River Canyon (the Fish River being a tributary to the Orange), and more inland, the Augrabies Falls, a low but very voluminous and powerful waterfall, wh

ere the entire Orange river is constrained to rush through a fairly narrow, rocky gorge.

The Richtersveld, though extremely dry and barren, hosts one of the richest succulent floras in the world. Here, unlike in the more southern Succulent Karoo, large and extremely weird succulents are found, like the Giant Quiver Tree, and the Halfmens or Elephant-trunk Tree. Here the more tropical desert flora of Namibia meets the more southern Succulent Karroo flora, leading to a very interesting and unusual mix. Apart from the flora, this region also has very weird and spectacular rock formations.

And that brings us to the end! This was just a quick overview of the landscapes of South Africa! Each of the regions I mentioned here, could be expanded into much greater detail and has itself many other sub-regions and a plethora of special features of interest.

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