The Garden Route HD – Real Africa
In a park where land meets sea, The natural elements combine to create wonderful variety. Cola-colored water feeds forests green and dense. Fire and wind fuel growth in great diversity. And rock shapes a coastline of many faces. Life thrives here - from the magnificent, to the bizarre. This is the garden Route national park.
Great Parks of Africa The Garden Route In the waters off Southern Africa's south coast, ocean giants are making a mammoth trek. Humpback whales spend the summer months feeding in the frigid waters of Antarctica. Now they're on their way to warmer climes for the winter. Humpbacks make one of the longest mammalian migrations on the planet, traveling as far as 5000 miles to tropical waters. These whales are heading for their breeding grounds off the coast of Mozambique.
They've crossed the vast, deep expanse of the southern ocean and now cruise calmly along a special piece of coastline. These rich waters fall under the protection of the tsitsikamma marine protected area. Proclaimed in 1964, this is the oldest national marine reserve in Africa. Today it forms part of the greater garden Route national park. Stretching some 90 miles along land and 1.5 miles into the sea,
this park consists of a patchwork of protected areas, spaced among agriculture and urban expansion. These pockets of conservation safeguard a range of habitats. From lush forests and the most diverse floral kingdom on earth, to water worlds both wild and serene. In places these environments meet and interact to fuel and enrich one another.
In others, they compete for space in territories shaped by fire and water. Where they meet head on with humans, some creatures face new threats. While others are the unexpected beneficiaries of development. This medley of life and landscapes forms the garden Route, a paradise of land and ocean.
Not far from the shore, a rare and timid animal moves through the forest undergrowth. At just under 9 pounds, blue duiker are among the smallest of all antelope. Their short and stocky bodies are well adapted to threading quickly through the dense vegetation.
This female shares a small territory with her monogamous mate. He's seldom more than about 150 feet away. And the pair is obsessive about marking their territory, including each other. They will rub their swollen pre-orbital glands together to share their scent as many as five times an hour. The duikers' home is in the tsitsikamma forest, in the eastern extent of the garden Route national park. Elsewhere in South Africa, forests are restricted to higher altitudes, where it's cool enough and there's enough moisture for them to grow.
But tsitsikamma is a word meaning 'place of much water', and this area lives up to its name. More than 40 inches of rain falls here each year, providing enough water for forests to grow. As with all forests, plants must compete for light. The tallest use height as their primary weapon. Trees soar upwards, breaching the canopy to feel the sun. And among these, one family in particular reigns supreme.
Ancient giants called yellowwoods. Some, like this outeniqua yellowwood, are older than 800 years, towering at almost 130 feet high. Once exploited to the brink of extinction for their timber, these iconic trees are now some of the most fiercely protected inhabitants of the garden Route.
The more slender real yellowwood is South Africa's national tree. They're only the size of a shrub when not forced to compete, but growing in the forest, yellowwoods rise above all else in the canopy. And they're not the only ones striving for light. A knysna dwarf chameleon needs the sun's warmth to function and heads for the forest's high, exposed branches. It can be heavy going on a windy day.
His brilliant show of colors helps him to impress females and intimidate competitors. But he wasn't always this flashy. Juveniles are decidedly more drab, blending in with their Woody environment. Camouflage is an important adaptation for the canopy residents - there are predators about. Chameleons are a favorite of one of South Africa's most feared snakes.
The boomslang. In English its name means 'tree snake' - a reference to its arboreal nature. The snake's big eyes are an adaptation that shows its preference for hunting during the day. Its powerful haemotoxic venom causes internal bleeding. It patrols the trees in search of small birds and reptiles. The silent hunter excels here, but it's another canopy resident that typifies the secrecy of the forest domain.
An elusive bird moves deftly between the dense green leaves. The knysna turaco is most commonly found in the forests of South Africa's southern coast. And of all the forest's creatures, it's surely the prettiest. Deep green plumage offers camouflage, as well as a backdrop for bright facial markings.
A crown of white is the final stroke to a picture of beauty for attracting a mate. Turacos move through the canopy mainly on foot. They aren't strong fliers, but when threatened, they have a trick up their sleeves. A flash of bright red wings draws the attention of chasing predators. When the bird folds this decoy away, it disappears in plain sight.
And there's more to these feathers than meets the eye. Turacos are one of the only groups of birds with green and red pigment in their feathers. In most other birds, these colors don't come from pigments but from iridescence caused by the way the structure of the feathers reflects light.
Plenty of examples can be found in the park's richest habitat of all. Broad swathes of the park's patchwork have soils too shallow and acidic for forests to thrive. Fynbos, translated as 'fine bush', is a unique collection of shrubland and heathland plants that grows prolifically in these areas. It adds astounding diversity to the park. 70 percent of the 7700 fynbos plant species are endemic to South Africa. Flowers of all shapes and forms decorate the Hardy brush.
But the flowers are more than just adornments. Their bright colors attract a range of insects and birds essential to their life cycle. The flower of this protea plant has a regular visitor.
Green protea beetles occur wherever their favorite food source does. It buries itself headfirst in the welcoming flower, gorging on the sweet nectar. As it does so it performs the crucial role of pollinating the flower so the next generation of proteas can grow. For some fynbos pollination is carried out by the wind, which spreads pollen as it blows through the dense brush. The wind also helps to spread another crucial element in the fynbos life cycle.
For many of these plants, rebirth first requires the intervention of one of nature's most destructive forces. Fire. Fires are naturally caused by lightning or sparks made by falling rocks, but today people are usually responsible.
As the Blaze decimates the living scrub, fueled by the wind, its flames trigger a reaction from the hard cones of many plants. The heat causes them to release their seeds into the fertile ash, allowing the next generation to propagate. In this way, fire is essential to fynbos. And it's this positive relationship with a destructive force that wins the fynbos plenty of room to grow. For the forests, fire damage is devastating.
But forests also find allies in other elements. Water and earth. Over the eons rivers have eroded valleys and gorges on their way to the sea. These are protected from the reach of fire, and provide space for forests to take root.
In places, the gorges reach spectacular depths. These rocks originally formed in horizontal layers deep underground, but were lifted at an angle during continental collisions millions of years ago. Here vegetation clings to the cliffs, taking root in the gaps between the layers. Many years ago, woodcutters lowered huge yellowwood trees down these drops to be sailed away and sold.
Now these cliffs and the plants that line them are protected as part of the park. As they flow, the streams and rivers also provide the moisture that the forest needs. And it's not only giants that thrive here.
Ferns grow in abundance in the undergrowth. Instead of accessing more light by growing tall, they've evolved to make the most of what's available to them. A gene known as neochrome enables the ferns to detect a wider range of the light spectrum than other plants.
This allows them to grow even below the shady fortress of trees above them. It's such a successful adaptation that ferns have been around for 360 million years. The rivers moving through the forest provide homes for many small animals. And they're a favorite hunting ground for another of the forest's residents. A night adder is on the move, looking for prey.
Growing to more than three feet long, these vipers belong to the same family as rattlesnakes. Unlike most adders which wait to ambush their victims, night adders actively seek theirs out. They feed on amphibians, and there are plenty to be found here. The snake spots a target and begins to move in. It must get close enough to strike. The toad will live another day.
For the adder, the search continues. The stream's trickle is the soundtrack to its forest home. But to the south, an unmistakable rumble interrupts the pervasive quiet.
The garden Route's forests descend all the way to the coast, where crashing waves batter the shore. The tsitsikamma section of the park protects 50 miles of rocky shore that hosts a range of life of its own. In what's known as the splash zone, rust orange lichens carpet the rocks.
Further down the shore plants and animals alike thrive in the turmoil. Sea foam is produced when the winds and stormy swells churn the cold ocean. These dense collections of froth are rich in nutrients.
Food for the rock pool's variety of life. From spiny urchins, to predatory starfish - and many small fish also benefit from the waves above. There's an animal on the coast that crosses the divide between land and sea. A cape clawless otter lives on land, moving between rivers and the rocky shore.
It gets much of its food in the breaking surf. There's plenty of prey to be had in these waters, which benefit from a steady influx of nutrients. As they flow through the forests, more than 30 rivers collect nutrients from decaying matter. Eventually they reach the shoreline and pour their rich load into the sea.
The combined addition of these nutrients helps enrich the coastal waters. Not far off shore, great schools of small prawn-like crustaceans called krill are swimming. And they're a banquet for the traveling humpbacks. During the months feeding in antarctic waters the whales gained as much as a ton of weight per week. Now, during their migration, they'll live mainly off these reserves. But when an easy meal presents itself, they're not going to let it pass them by.
While the whales enjoy the fertile ocean's gift safe in the park's marine protected area, some live in habitats where the line between land and sea is blurred. In many cases, freshwater and saltwater meet and mix in broad, shallow lagoons. These provide habitat for a different range of creatures, including this bizarre-looking animal on the hunt for a mate. Known as shaggy sea hares, these are a type of sea slug.
They digest algae from the bottom of the lagoon and excrete the leftover grains of sand. Their diet is crucial to their survival in more ways than one. With no hard shell, these slugs might make easy pickings for predators. For protection they absorb noxious chemicals from the algae they eat, making them unpalatable. They're all here for one reason - to mate. When a sea hare lays eggs, it releases pheromones into the water, attracting other potential mates.
Others sense the chemical trace with long tentacles on their heads, and head toward the signal from far and wide. The slugs are hermaphrodites, and any individual can fertilize any other. Incredibly, they form mating chains, with each slug fertilizing the eggs of the one in front of it, and being fertilized by the one behind.
Once they've mated, the sea hares make for beds of lagoon grass. Here they lay their eggs in great stringy aggregations. With the mating frenzy over, the slugs go their separate ways across the lagoon again.
Where their lagoon home meets the sea, the rugged rocky coast gives way to a broad Sandy beach. It's home to numerous birds, including white-fronted plovers. Here they find all the food they need. These plovers are common along the entire southern African coastline, and can live in densities of up to 45 per mile of beach. During the summer breeding season they separate into monogamous pairs and stake out territories. A simple scrape in the sand makes for a suitable nest.
The plovers share incubation duties for just under a month, until their eggs hatch. During this time, they must be ever vigilant. Bigger birds like kelp gulls would relish one of their eggs as an easy meal. To avoid the threat, the plovers cover the eggs in sand to add to their camouflage. But this strategy can have unexpected drawbacks. The garden Route's pristine beaches attract people and their pets.
Many eggs are accidentally crushed. But for the chicks that do make it, there are people taking a special interest in their survival. To better assess and mitigate the impact of humans on these vulnerable beach dwellers, the nature's valley trust runs programs to monitor their numbers.
This chick gets a ring to allow scientists to identify it as it grows. Once released, it makes a hasty return to its protective mother. It may have survived incubation on a busy beach, but the dangers are far from over. To make it to adulthood it must rely on its devoted parents. It's quick to take cover in its mother's fluffy feathers.
When danger gets too near for comfort, mum Springs into action. She makes a distracting dash to draw the threat's attention. If all else fails, she makes herself seem a tempting target, feigning injury in the sand.
The chick has a chance to make a break for it. With parents like this, the chick might just make it to adulthood. And the nature's valley trust will continue to work to spread awareness and knowledge about the little birds. As such a picturesque stretch of coast, the garden Route has a long relationship with people. Not far away from the plovers' beach, the small town of knysna lines the banks of another broad lagoon.
Europeans first settled here in 1770. Today it's a bustling town, with many areas well developed, including numerous small boat docks. Above the water these moorings have little to offer in terms of natural wonders.
But stepping below the surface reveals an eerie scene that exists beyond the gaze of the world above. Rather than sheer concrete walls, these jetties have been built above wire cages packed with rock, called gabions. Their porous yet stable structure provides the perfect base for many peculiar residents. Feather-duster tube worms present magnificent shows of color.
They use their fans to filter feed, only eating the smallest and most nutritious things they catch. Of all the creatures down here, one in particular benefits from the sheltered environment. Knysna seahorses are the most endangered seahorses in the world.
Surprisingly, many have chosen a life below the Marina over their natural habitat of lagoon grass beds. These curious fish have outer skeletons like insects, instead of having scales. Yet they have fins and gills like other fish.
Their eyes move independently, like a chameleon's. They have prehensile tails, like monkeys, which they use to grip vegetation. But their most remarkable characteristic is their reproductive cycle. This male is pregnant. His female mate deposited her fertilized eggs in his kangaroo-like pouch around three weeks ago.
And he's just about ready to pop. But it will be a drawn-out labor. After a few contractions, the first sign of life appears, a tiny tail. But the baby isn't emerging.
With one more big push, it's finally born. And the floodgates open. One male can give birth to scores of babies. The miniature horses don't take long to grab on to something stable.
The father has succeeded. In the shelter of the Marina, the future of the knysna seahorses may be secure. The garden Route's lagoons are nurseries for some, and a fully stocked larder for others. On the edges of the estuary, wetlands give various water birds a chance for a meal. But there's limited space, and many hungry mouths. Cormorants submerge themselves in the shallows, chasing their prey.
A spoonbill forages by feel, snapping up anything edible. Little egrets forage by sight, and wait to take advantage of prey disturbed by the bigger bird. It's an effective strategy. While the egrets and spoonbill compete, others keep their distance. Egyptian geese keep to the margins.
A grey heron watches the commotion from the sidelines. Above them all, a pied kingfisher looks for his opportunity. For him, Patience is the name of the game.
He must time his dive perfectly. Success. The little bird will eat around ten fish of this size a day to satisfy his hunger. For the wetland dwellers, the meeting of river and ocean provides. With rocky shores, beaches and lagoons, the garden Route's multi-faceted coast provides for a variety of life.
And the shape of the coastline on a bigger scale adds to the variation. Numerous large bays hold calm, relatively shallow waters where fish gather in numbers. In plettenberg bay, these rich waters provide for a range of marine predators. And none is more graceful than the common dolphin. They move in enormous pods, with as many as 9000 recorded swimming together in this bay. The largest males can grow to as much as 500 pounds.
But despite their size they are a picture of agility, and can swim at almost 23 miles an hour. With numbers and speed on their side, they glide effortlessly through the bay, searching for schools of fish. When they find their prey, they'll work together to herd them into dense aggregations for easy pickings. For the humpbacks, their feasting is finished and it's on with the last leg of their northward journey.
In a few months, the newly pregnant females will lead the migration back south to the rich waters of the antarctic. During their epic journey, they'll once again pass through the protected waters of this very special stretch of coastline. The garden Route national park is a patchwork of thriving environments. Here rock, water, wind and fire provide for a great variety of life. For some, each environment is the theatre of their entire existence.
While for others, this is just part of a much bigger picture. Together, the many facets of this coastline create a picture of lush abundance. And as long as there's protection of both land and sea, life here will continue to thrive above the surface and below.