Jewel of the Karoo: Gina Arena returns to the arid zone

31 Aug 2017 - 10:45

Graaff-Reinet, sometimes referred to as the “Jewel of the Karoo”, has a fascinating environmental history which echoes the arrival and mark of the trekboere and travellers who moved through the land since 1715. Until the arrival of the Dutch, the Karoo had been the home of the Khoisan people whose numbers would decline in the face of conflict and assimilation. There now remains the fingerprints of the Khoisan in their rock art, stone tools, graves and pottery that have been discovered throughout this vast region.

The town itself was established in 1786 on the back of colonial ox-wagons that trekked from the Cape into the remoter interior parts of South Africa. The influx of Dutch settlers into the interior brought with it livestock farming, particularly sheep, goats and cattle and, unfortunately, a quick degradation of natural rangelands that had until then, only experienced the lighter human hand of the Khoisan hunter-gatherers. However, not being accustomed to the volatile nature of the Karoo, no sooner would the farmers settle and attempt to establish temporary roots in their newly erected mud houses that they would have to resume their north-eastward trek across borders to escape the impacts of drought, migrating springbok and locust outbreaks. The timing of these natural events are said to have followed in “quick succession” throughout the 19th century thus maintaining the trekking movements of the people. Subsequent increases in stock numbers would also occur during the wetter “good” years and helped grow the thriving wool industry of which Graaff-Reinet had become a leading contributor of merino sheep wool. However, this would inescapably be followed by prolonged droughts and a persistent degradation of the veld. It would take another few decades before people began to settle permanently on lands where bubbling water from underground streams could be stored and dams were built to catch and store water flowing from down the mountains.

During the mid-1800s (when an unrelenting drought in the 1860s hit full force), the town and outer-lying farms of Graaff-Reinet were used as important staging posts for travellers and traders from the Cape to the interior and between Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage. These lands not only had to support the growing numbers of humans moving in and out but also had to provide decent forage to the horses that were used as transportation. Horses, as explained by a local, are notoriously hard on the veld and can strip the veld even worse than do sheep, and hence land had to be cultivated at these posts to sow oats as additional forage for horses. Some landowners of today have commented on the degradation of these historical posts, and the extremely long period it has taken for the degraded veld to recover from such heavy grazing and browsing. Another local described how she still remembers playing cricket with her friends as a child on large bare patches of ground in the veld, sometimes called “tennis courts” or kaalkolle, many of which have now become totally covered with Karoo bushes.

The famous Ostrich feather industry also began to thrive from the 1860s during the drought and several farmers turned their practices exclusively to ostrich breeding. It was during this time too that the fencing of camps became necessary to provide sheep with their own areas to graze, where ostriches were excluded. Ostriches are heavy browsers on Karoo veld when stocked in high densities inside enclosed camps. Abandoned ostrich camps can still be found throughout the Karoo, notably identified by the significantly reduced cover of natural Karoo vegetation, high abundance of invasive plants and the poor condition of the veld. However, the ostrich industry did not survive for long when fashion trends changed in the 1880s, and another drought hit the Karoo alongside an avian flu epidemic which killed many chicks.

Farmers had by this stage also experimented with their stock and came to find that keeping a combination of merino sheep and angora goats was both economically viable and agriculturally sustainable during the tougher drought years. Angora goats are better able to withstand drought compared to merino sheep and subsequently, Graaff-Reinet became a leading producer of mohair. It is said that the fencing of camps had a positive feedback on farming practices and the wool industry because it allowed farmers to learn how different animals used the veld, reduced the amount of walking required by animals each day and overall improved the quality of the wool produced.  

The name “Karoo” originates from the Khoisan word “garo” meaning desert, and if one has ever experienced the Karoo for a time will know that it is indeed a dry and thirsty land. Water has been the only most important aspect that has governed every decision and every action made by those who have and still inhabit the Karoo. Inhabitants of the Karoo have always regarded water with the utmost respect and thankfulness; all it can take is one drenching rainfall to revive the veld and bring on a display of new growth and colour. But the impacts of post-colonial mismanagement of rangelands into the 1900s has been an equally strong predictor of veld condition and productivity, and it has taken over a hundred years to correct the overuse of natural rangelands in many parts of the Karoo. 

Plant Conservation Unit (PCU) PhD student, Gina Arena, recently visited the Graaff-Reinet area in the Eastern Cape to collect data for her PhD. She is assessing the long-term changes of Nama Karoo and Grasslands vegetation in the context of historical and current land use and rainfall patterns. She learnt from the landowners that when rain doesn’t come for 2 years the grasses stay dormant, the animals starve and the wells dry up. She learnt that the farmers and game reserves are forced to supplement feed (extremely costly), that drought can push wild game over farm fences where there is the promise of water and food and that neighbour relations may become uncomfortable. One brief respite from the drought brought enough rain and snow to the area the same week that Gina was doing fieldwork which might just be enough to bring new growth to the desperately dry veld and to fill the dams temporarily until the next rain falls.

Snow on the foothills of the Sneeuberge at Asante Sana Private Game Reserve. PC: Timm Hoffman

Gina spent time conversing with farmers, surveying vegetation and assisting Prof. Timm Hoffman with several repeat photos around the Graaff-Reinet farms, all from which she hopes to gain more insight into how vegetation has changed between the mid-1900s and now.

Left: Timm Hoffman taking a repeat photograph at Samara Game Reserve, PC: Gina Arena. Right: The new PCU bakkie on its first fieldtrip, PC: Timm Hoffman.

Follow Gina on Instagram using the handle @karoomoments to keep up-to-date with her PhD adventures.

References used:

Smith, K.W. (1976) From frontier to midlands: a history of the Graaff-Reinet district, 1786 – 1910. Institute of Social and Economic Research. Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.

Palmer, E. (1966) The Plains of Camdeboo, Collins Clear-Type Press, London.

~ Article and images supplied by Gina Arena