Nature reclaims her landscapes

Volunteer Wildfire Services member Eppie McFarlane on Leopard Loop, assisting with trail recce operations in Helderberg Nature Reserve. Picture: Norman McFarlane

It is silent save for our laboured breathing as we work our way gingerly up the steep slippery slope of Helderberg Nature Reserve’s (HNR) Watsonia Trail, notorious for “The Green Death”, the impossibly slippery moss which accumulates on the clay-like surface of the reserve’s jeep tracks and trails in the rainy season.

It is literally like walking on snot, and a careless misstep will have you on your knees – or your bottom – in a trice, so you place each foot with care.

It is Sunday morning, and we are enjoying the rare privilege of being out on the trails in the Helderberg Nature Reserve for the first time since lockdown confined us largely to our homes on March 27.

But this is no casual hike. Rather, it is an inspection of a number of trails for the Helderberg Nature Reserve’s management team by Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) members, in preparation for the planned opening of the reserve once lockdown regulations permit it.

The VWS Grabouw firebase is located in the reserve, hosted by the City of Cape Town biodiversity directorate, and the nature of the relationship is symbiotic: we are there for each other.

When the call came for assistance from the VWS to assist with trail clearing and inspections in preparation for opening to the public, we responded with alacrity, a golden opportunity for the VWS to give back in return for the wonderful base facilities made available for our use by the City.

The call to action for crews to assist with the hard work of trail clearing evoked an enthusiastic response, not least because we’ve been deprived of spending time in the environment which we all love and are sworn to protect: the trails, peaks and fynbos of the mountain catchments.

With regular foot traffic, the trails remain easily passable, because the undergrowth does not have the time to encroach, but as soon as we were banished, nature reminded us that we, in fact, are the interlopers.

The fynbos had surprisingly rapidly taken back what is its own.

Two crews took to the trails on Friday and Saturday under the guidance and direction of biodiversity area coordinator, Hayley-May Wittridge, with an exacting brief.

We had to clear designated trails which had been literally taken back by nature in the three months since lockdown commenced, but not in the fashion that we are accustomed to clearing undergrowth – cutting a line in firefighting parlance.

With a wildfire bearing down on you when engaging in a parallel attack, you hack down any and all undergrowth as rapidly as you can, clearing a scratch line down to mineral earth up to two metres wide, for as long as you must to stop the blaze.

It is gruelling work, with little finesse: everything comes out.

Clearing a hiking trail is quite different. Each cut is carefully considered, and depending upon how high off the ground, is angled to be as invisible as possible, and such that it won’t cause injury if brushed against.

With fynbos preservation in mind, you remove only the branches you absolutely must, to make the trail safe for walkers, preserving as far as you can the precious proteas and other shrubs that grace the byways. The less visible your efforts are, the better.

Ideally, the casual walker or trail runner should not be able to detect your work.

Which means the cut material cannot be left in situ, or tossed into the undergrowth on either side of the trail. It must be bundled and either carried or dragged to either end of the trail you are clearing, for use elsewhere in the reserve.

And we had to, of course, observe strict Covid-19 health and safety protocols at all times.

The recce of the trails higher in the reserve – Baboon Traverse, Disa Gorge, Leopard Loop, Woodie’s Walk – is an equally meticulous, if less arduous, task.

Obstructions must be noted for removal, fall aways and wash aways, caused by the recent heavy rains must be noted, photographed and marked with a dropped pin (thank heavens for modern mobile phone technology) for remediation, to make the trails safe for hikers and runners once the reserve opens again.

As we progress ever higher up Watsonia trail, the evidence of nature’s take-back is increasingly apparent.

Regular visitors to the high trails will periodically see evidence of wildlife like porcupine and baboon, particularly in the early morning, identifiable by the telltale poop piles and quills. Now the evidence is abundant.

Nature is never actually silent, but it isn’t noisy like humans are, so the chitter of a passing sugarbird and the sibilant rustle of leaves in the halting breeze formulate a soothing backdrop, but it is too good to last.

As we crest the final rise before Baboon Traverse angles steeply west toward Disa Gorge, the petulant whine of chainsaws signals the resumption of commercial logging activities on the adjoining estate. Human intrusion has resumed its dominance, and nature is once more in retreat.

With the sun at its winter zenith, the area under the southern flank of West Peak is virtually perpetually in shade, so we must pick our way through dripping grasses and bracken on either side of the trail, which rapidly soaks our clothing and shoes, but it is a labour of love, as we faithfully record and pin what needs attention in Disa Gorge and Leopard Loop, before dropping down to the covered bench at the top of Red Route where we stop for a spot of lunch.

Famished as we are, our cheese-and-salami sandwiches taste like a gourmet meal, and the icy water in our drinking bladders, topped up at the trickling stream in the gorge, tastes like champagne.

The only jarring note is the evidence of careless humanity, still present after three months of nature in solitude: cigarette butts and scraps of plastic which we collect as we go and carry off the mountain.

Refreshed, we tackle the jeep track descent, branching off at the intersection with the trail which we cleared on Friday. Just three days later, the evidence of our endeavours is all but invisible.

Tired but happy, we head home, ready to face the week ahead, knowing that there is yet more work to be done, more trails to clear, more byways to recce. We’ll be back.

Norman McFarlane is a volunteer firefighter with Volunteer Wildfire Services.