It was barely a road; more a collection of rocks scattered across a hillside, alongside other larger rocks on one side and a vertiginous drop on the other, punctuated by more jagged rocks, hungry for the metal of unwary 4x4s and their delicious, fleshy occupants. Our driver chatted animatedly, gesticulating with his hands and occasionally glancing over his shoulder at his passengers, while my cohort’s expression grew ever more fearful. The Cederberg is not for wimps.
It is, however, great for Land Cruisers. Ours trundled along steadily, if not gracefully, past great ancient boulders white with the chalk of sport climbers, eldritch fingers of stone clawing at the sky, and breathtaking vistas spreading out towards the north. Gazing out over this rocky, scrubby landscape, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s looked the same for thousands of years. You’d be wrong.
Until the late 19th century, the Cederberg was home to great forests of – would you know it – cedar trees. Clanwilliam cedars (Widdringtonia wallichii) once stood tall along the mountain range. Unfortunately, their sturdy trunks made them rather popular in the construction industry, and as telephone poles – more than 7 000 of them were felled to fulfil this purpose between Piketberg and Calvinia. A combination of unmanaged exploitation and fires devastated the cedar, and though their removal was halted in 1963, their numbers have never recovered. The tree is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
In 1987, CapeNature created an initiative to turn back the clock on this deforestation, planting cedar trees in appropriate places around the Cederberg. The trick is that cedars need pretty specific conditions in which to thrive – naturally irrigated nooks and crannies among rocks, out of the way. Such conditions were what lay at the end of our treacherous Land Cruiser journey. You see, every year CapeNature holds a tree-planting day, bringing sponsors, school children, interested parties and journalistic hacks like me together to help create the forests of tomorrow. This particular event was held in the rural town of Heuningvlei.
It’s not just a matter of sprinkling some seeds along the mountainside and then going for a beer, though. The process begins at uber-luxury resort Bushmanskloof, an ardent supporter of the programme, where saplings are cultivated in their nursery (which also produces all of the fresh ingredients they use at the resort, so you know they’re in good hands). These grow to a foot or two in height before they are hauled off into the mountains to fend for themselves.
At Heuningvlei, the youngest kids were given handfuls of seeds to push into trays of soil, forming the next generation of saplings. Then the operation got underway in earnest. Bakkies laden with saplings trundled up along the dirt road to the planting site and dozens of enthusiastic humans set about trying to make amends for the sins of their species. Despite the fact that we were toiling in the midday sun, there was a festive atmosphere, the sounds of happy labour filling that quiet corner of the Cederberg.
Grabbing two young trees, a trowel and a couple of litres of water, I tried to find a safe and suitable home for my arboreal charges. I climbed up a rocky slope, heaving the plants ahead of me, until I found two sheltered corners I thought suitable. One of these required some minor excavation with the trowel, and my curses rang out clearly over the sound of steel on stone. Finally, saplings embedded in the moist soil and sprinkled liberally with life-giving H20, I had my trees geotagged – each one has an identification tag so its progress can be monitored the following year. It also means that one day I can come back and check if my efforts have borne fruit, or at least seed.
Despite an understanding of ideal growing locations, it’s currently uncertain what environmental factors might hamper the regeneration of cedar-tree plantations. And a further difficulty is that the trees take about 30 years to produce their first seeds. However, with sound environmental management and the support of initiatives like this, you can hope that one day the landscape of the Cederberg will look a little greener, a little more forested and a little more forgiving.