Baviaanskloof: Where the Lionheart dwells

ReStory narrator: James Blignaut

[This article was first published by The Daily Maverick. The article can be found here:]

 A family of Cape Mountain Zebra in the Baviaanskloof (Photo: Justin Gird)

Deafening is the cry of the dry heat – bellowing off the Baviaanskloof’s endless array of rocks, rocks which are strewn lavishly among the plucky spekboom and thicket. The heat seeks to destroy the will to live while lapping up moisture from any source it can find. It is as if nature is seeking to reclaim this parcel of land for herself. Only the foolhardy can even think of venturing out of the comfort of the air-cooled double cab, let alone try to carve out a living here.

There are, however, a few determined farmers, barely more than a dozen, who call the Western Baviaanskloof home. They are Homo supercalifragilisticexpialidocious on steroids. Not unlike the Spekboom, they hang in against all odds. With an iron will to not only survive, but also improve, prosper and restore, they valiantly soldier on, fighting forward with an unwavering expectation that tomorrow it will rain, tomorrow it will be cooler, tomorrow there will be a market for their products – and for that tomorrow they prepare today. 

The harsh environment of Sewefontein, Baviaanskloof (Photo: James Blignaut)

The farm Sewefontein, with its seven fountains and wild fig tree forest, is a community farm and home to almost 20 households. While struggling against resource poverty themselves they use what they have, a fountain and land, to diligently produce lucerne for a fodder hungry country.

Regularly a truckload of nutritious lucerne of the highest quality exits the Kloof to provide hope to a farmer and his animals somewhere in an adjacent community where the stock of fodder has long since run out.

However, Sewefontein’s lucerne is much more than just fodder, it is the lifeline to many a farmer and animal, a promise of a better future, bale upon bale by the truckload. With kindness, the lionhearted of the Kloof share and offer a baton of hope to a fellow farmer.

The rock hard environment of the mountain slopes of Sewefontein (Photo: James Blignaut)

Down the ever-meandering gravel road is Zandvlakte, the plain of sand. Destroyed, firstly by the audacious yet irresponsible ostrich farming in the 1890s followed by high-density Angora goat farming, this farm’s precious vegetation has yet to recover, but recover they will.

Under the unwavering fighting spirit, keen eye and wittiness of oom Pieter Kruger (the current owner) and a large cohort of collaborators that included the national government (Department of Environmental Affair’s Natural Resource Management programme) and the Subtropical Thicket Restoration Project (STRP), they discovered restoration as being a vision of the future and that to restore is a verb.

In 2008, the restoration process commenced after oom Pieter took the brave decision, for the sake of a better and restored future, to remove all domesticated livestock. So, the precariously slow process of recovery commenced. Today, 11 years later, the spekboom and thicket are showing signs of return – but at a very high price – they have not been grazed yet. A bold step indeed of a courageous farmer seeking to undo the catastrophic consequences of decisions taken in the past by people he never knew, and that to the advantage of tomorrow’s people, also unknown to him. 

In the bottom of the valley, using regenerative principles, oom Pieter produces organic rosemary while allowing the sheep to graze the cover crops, in this way cooling the planet while producing food harmoniously. The local market for rosemary is weak at best and the global market finicky to say the least – but not even that will deter a lionheart. 

Oom Gustav Nortje overseeing the offloading of the zebras, 15 August 2019 (Photo: Justin Gird)

Lastly, the fearless residents of the Kloof are also a people with a vision of a Kloof that will regain its historic glory. Nearing extinction, all the Kloof’s remaining Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra), or Quagga, had to be removed in 1972. They became part of a larger breeding and protection programme. Heroically the visionaries of the Kloof started with a re-wilding programme in August 2019 when the owners collaborated to acquire 12 Cape Mountain Zebras at an auction and re-established them in the Kloof. 

Oom Gustav Nortjé will never forget that day of their re-introduction. After all, he was born in the Kloof and was present the day when the last herd of resident Quagga was removed in the early 70s. He obviously thought he would never see them again in his beloved Kloof. Yet, he had the unique privilege to witness their reintroduction more than four decades later. 

The Baviaanskloof farmers are formidable. With a never-say-die attitude they valiantly defy all odds. Step by step they are busy reconstructing a new future, one they will probably never see themselves, but nevertheless a better one.

Truly, the Kloof is where the lionhearted dwell. DM

James Blignaut is professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.