Our best-kept secret

Emily Taylor, EWT Communications and Marketing Manager, emilyt@ewt.org.za

This month’s tale from the field is a special one. It isn’t often that Support Services staff based at Head Office get to write stories about field trips, or at least ones that would be interesting! But in February, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) Communications and Marketing team was given the opportunity to get out from behind our desks and venture into the spectacular Soutpansberg mountains. And what a trip it was.

The VhaVenda call it “Tha vhani ya muno” – the Mountain of salt. Rising like an island from the surrounding bushveld flatlands, the forgotten Soutpansberg is South Africa’s best kept secret and one of the country’s most unique and unexplored natural areas. The name ‘Soutpansberg’ is derived from the large natural salt pan to the northwest of the range.

The Soutpansberg Mountains. Photo credit: Suzette Britz

The Medike Mountain Reserve boasts 58 butterfly species, 15 scorpion, 19 amphibian, 61 reptile, 59 mammal, 229 bird, and 237 tree species. The Vulnerable Leopard, the Near Threatened Brown Hyaena and Natal Red Duiker, and the Endangered Mountain Reedbuck are among these.

The Soutpansberg in Limpopo is South Africa’s northernmost mountain range and forms part of the UNESCO Vhembe Biosphere Reserve. The mountainous landscape comprises an impressive variety of habitats: forest, thick thornveld, savannah, and grassland – and is home to several iconic, rare, and Endangered species, including a plethora of endemic species of both fauna and flora (which occur nowhere else on Earth)! It is also a critical groundwater source. The EWT identified the urgent need to conserve the area, and in 2015, on behalf of the Roberts family in Australia, the EWT purchased the 1,398 ha Medike Mountain Reserve in the Soutpansberg. We subsequently received funding from the Rainforest Trust to purchase a neighbouring property, almost doubling the reserve’s size.

When the EWT began working on the mountain, we embarked on several ambitious projects to restore the integrity of the mountain by clearing large patches of alien and invasive plants that had encroached on native vegetation and affected the function of the water sources on the mountain. Check out our Forgotten Mountain video to see the benefits these projects have had for the landowners and local communities. The EWT also began to engage with neighbouring landowners about interlinking their properties and creating an opportunity for the community to unite and optimise the mountain’s value as an ecotourism destination. Many landowners welcomed the opportunity for collaboration, and 17 have already decided to join the EWT in legally declaring their properties as one large protected area spanning 22,000 ha of the Western Soutpansberg, called the Western Soutpansberg Nature Reserve (WSNR). The collective vision for the WSNR is to create and protect a connected landscape under formal conservation, covering priority species, habitats, hydrologically important areas, and cultural heritage, for the benefit of biodiversity, ecosystems, and people in perpetuity.

The Old Salt Trail is one of the first projects initiated to share the mountain and its unique and diverse landscapes and cultural heritage with others, generate income for local people, and secure a sustainable future for the WSNR and Luvhondo Nature Reserves. The long-term vision is for this project to catalyse a successful ecotourism initiative, bringing visitors to the mountain in an ecologically sensitive way. Hikers will be able to experience the exceptional beauty and biodiversity on offer while gaining knowledge from local trail guides and supporting local socio-economic development within a protected environment.

The EWT’s Communications and Marketing Team. From left to right, Kedibone Chauchau, Suzette Britz, and Emily Taylor

This particular field trip enabled the Communications and Marketing team to visit the EWT’s Medike Mountain Reserve and neighbouring properties to experience first-hand the unique mountain landscape and meet with the local landowners and communities to better understand how to market the area, and the Old Salt Trail in particular, as a unique ecotourism destination.

The Soutpansberg, and Medike in particular, is known for its astonishing diversity of landscapes and habitats , and as the geology changes, so too do the colours of the soil, the topography, the shape, size, and density of the vegetation, and the animals that occupy each habitat. And a few hundred metres later, they all change again. One minute we marvelled at the less dense thorn-veld with its brown soils, patches of golden grass, and fine-leafed thorn trees; the next, at the dense green bushveld packed with broad-leafed Bushwillows, Gardenias, Silver Cluster Leafs, and the remarkable Rock Figs that wrap themselves around and push through the mammoth rocks.

I was a field officer once upon a time, and, perhaps out of self-preservation, I often forget the utter bliss that being in the bush brings. I almost forgot that I was there for work and found so much joy just driving along, chatting to the landowners and the EWT’s Soutpansberg Rangers, and seeing first-hand what they have all achieved in the last few years. More than that, though, it was touching and inspiring to witness the connection that those living and working there have with “the mountain”, as they affectionately call it. I completely and instantly understood why they have this deep and eternal love for this land – it is undeniably one of the most enchanting places on Earth. But don’t take my word for it – you need to see it to fully comprehend its magic – contact Catherine Vise for more information on how to find the forgotten mountain.

Don’t miss out!

This spectacular range of Mountains will host the second running of the Soutpansberg Mountain Marathon. With 42 km, 21 km,10 km, and  5km courses on offer, all start and finish and Schoemansdal (30 mins from Louis Trichardt) at the base of the mountain range. The longer three courses climb up the mountain and can be considered proper challenges. To register, click here.