Southern Drakensberg History
The wide rolling plateaus one hundred years ago was virgin grassland: partly black in winter from lightning fires and fires lit to attract game, green in spring, and in later summer and autumn a rippling red ocean.
Many of the spring flowers were geophytes, `earth plants', which come to life briefly following a spring burn, set seed and replenish their bulbs before being drowned in the rising tide of new grass. Hills and headlands were dotted with proteas, rivers and streams partly lined with ctshitshi' (Leucosidea sericea).
In south facing kloofs and gullies protected from frost and fire, small pockets of forest were partly dominated by the yellow-woods which would soon fall to the pit sawyers. Tshitshi and Buddleia formed the forest margin and acted as firebreaks. On rocky hillsides there was protection amongst the boulders for shrubs (Diospyros, Halleria) and Watsonias.
Certain ridges had been Bushman lookouts and workshops. One could find flakes littered around anvil boulders where they had chipped at their arrowheads.
Many of the Bushman paintings were still fresh and bright, and topical, with scenes of wagons and of horsemen with guns. The Bushman bands were not long gone - there would have been some Bushmen around in 1887.
Black tribesmen had recently occupied the Mkhomazi valley and the lower Polela, with a scattering of cattle posts here and there. Being self sufficient, they had no incentive to work as farm labourers.
In earlier days, game hides and ivory were the principal exports from Natal, and hunting parties would have known the lie of the land. The big herds were migratory and had largely been hunted out elsewhere.
But one hundred years ago there were still eland and hartebeest, and perhaps black wildebeest and perhaps zebra. `Tygers' as leopards were then called, 'wolves' (hyena), jackal and smaller predators would have been the scourge of small stock, leading to an unrelenting war with gun, trap and poison bait. The last record of lion was 1880 and the last elephant 1869.
Cobham Nature Reserve
If there were anglers among those first farmers they would probably have been disappointed by a dearth of fish in the Mzimkulu and Polela rivers above the waterfalls in `Thromby Gorge' and on Tierremone. The scaleys which later abounded in the upper reaches of the Polela probably dated from introductions by Harry Blaikie of `Inchgarth' and have since died out.
There are, nevertheless, several Bushman paintings in the district of fish and of fishing scenes - one, much weathered now, is on Mpongweni mountain near Cobham, near the Polela. Very likely they depicted remembered yellowfish of the Orange river in Lesotho, not far away.
If those were the days before trees, they were also the days before guineafowl, in the absence of cultivated land and trees to roost in. The first guineafowl in the district were probably those brought up by Harry Blaikie, who bought a crateful on the Maritzburg market.
Redwing partridge would have abounded on the grassy hillslopes and in the Berg were great coveys of Greywing. Duck and geese were not to be found in the great variety of today. Egyptian Geese have come in quite recently with cultivation, and the building of dams has encouraged open water species like Shelduck, Pochard, Shoveller, Whitebacked and Maccoa Ducks and Hottentot Teal. But one hundred years ago Yellowbilled Ducks and Spurwing Geese, Crowned and Wattled Cranes thrived and bred in the extensive vleis which are now largely drained or dammed.
Oribi were plentiful in the grasslands and Reedbuck in the vleis. As today an exposed carcass attracted numbers of scavenging birds such as kites, Whitenecked Ravens, Cape and Egyptian Vultures. The planting of trees has brought a great variety of fruit and insect eating birds to the district. Gumtrees meant nectar for honeybees which in turn brought in drongos, orioles and even honeyguides. Bramble and Cotoneaster brought in indhlazis (mousebirds).
"A long, long time ago, we, the Bushmen, roamed these mountains, masters of the unpredictable ways of nature. We were nomads then, moving with the great herds of game and the changing of seasons. When the animals migrated we followed, leaving no houses or roads to mark our presence here. All we left behind was our story painted in the rock, in the shelters, the story of sacred animals and our journeys to the spirit world. These mountains once gave us shelter and the herds of antelope gave sustenance, and meaning to our lives.
Especially the eland, for it is the animal of the greatest spiritual power. For us, it is the animal of well being and healing, of beauty and peace and plenty. The eland could take us on journeys to the world beyond and connect us to God."
© Southern Drakensberg Information - 2014