While the stormy seas and deep-green forests of the Tsitsikamma National Park have not changed much in its 50-year existence, nearly everything else has evolved for the betterment of man and the environment – far beyond the park’s official boundaries.

WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz

Tsitsikamma is an assault to the senses, in the most pleasant of ways. The crushing seas are loud; the herbaceous fragrance of fynbos mingles with fresh, salty sea breeze; the horizon stretches forever. Every now and then a whale pops out just behind the breakers. In the forest, everything is green, fine and pretty; it smells of wet leaves and soil and dew.

South is here to celebrate with South African National Parks (SANParks) as the jewel in its impressive crown turns 50.

Proclaimed in 1964, Tsitsikamma is the oldest marine national park in Africa and has the largest single no-take area in South Africa. Originally called the Tsitsikamma Coastal and Forest National Parks, it initially comprised a long narrow coastal strip between two rivers called Groot (great). Over the years it has been extended with acquisition and long-term lease agreements, and now covers an area of 63 422 ha, including 34 300 ha that is a Marine Protected Area (MPA). It straddles the border between the Western and Eastern Cape.

In 2009 the park was amalgamated with other conservation spaces in the region and is now referred to as the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park.

The Tsitsikamma of today incorporates four sectors that include land from just east of Keurboomstrand, around Nature’s Valley Village, to Groot River (east) in the Eastern Cape. Inland it stretches deep into the Tsitsikamma Mountains, where the Soetkraal section extends along the length of the 40km mountain range, covering 24 392 ha of mostly untouched territory from behind Plettenberg Bay to just outside Kareedouw.

It is the third most visited section of national park in the country, after Kruger and Table Mountain, hosting 200 000 visitors a year. It is also home to one of the most famous hiking trails in the world, the five-day 42km Otter Trail, which has just seen a major upgrade and re-launch.

While Tsitsikamma is a must-visit tourist destination, park manager Lesley Ann Meyer says its mandate remains conservation first, and plays an essential role in the protection of land and sea. “Except for the rest camps at Storms River and Nature’s Valley (De Vasselot), the park is mostly pristine. Twelve rivers run through it; one more forms a border.

“The MPA conserves 11 percent of the Warm Temperate South Coast rocky shoreline and shelters large populations of reef fish that are very sensitive to commercial exploitation.

“There are 211 seaweed species in the park – the greatest number recorded along any stretch of the country’s coastline and equivalent to 25 percent of the seaweed flora of South Africa,” says Lesley.

Tsitsikamma also guards significant stands (29km²) of Afromontane forest, the vegetation type covering the smallest area in southern Africa. Terrestrial flora comprise at least 523 recorded species without counting hundreds of new species of Tsitsikamma Mountain Fynbos that continues to be discovered in the Soetkraal area.

Animals abound, including leopard, caracul, rare blue duiker, bushbuck and Cape clawless otters. Three species of dolphin frequent the area and southern right whales are seen in winter and spring.

“The discovery of new and even Jurassic invertebrate species in the Salt River has been well-published and research and conservation efforts are on-going,” says Lesley Ann.

As the largest employer in the area, the park also has an important role to play in supporting its surrounding community, a task that has gained momentum since the 1990s.

“Educational programmes for school children, in association with the Nature’s Valley Trust, continue. We made great efforts to record the history and heritage of the area and its people, and continue to employ and contract locals in an effort to reduce poverty.

“But operating and maintaining such an important park requires tourism to supplement its state-allocated funds and has as a result systematically developed its tourism offering to ensure sustainability,” says Lesley Ann.

The rest camps offer two very different experiences. Set right on the rocks of raging seas, Storms River is in-your-face wildness with a reputation for living up to its name. Many an unprepared camper has had his tent flattened by wicked winds. Once, a freak wave crushed a sliding door of a holiday flat – several metres above its usual breaking point. While the roaring is ever-present, the log homes scattered along the winding coast are amazingly soundproof and cosy. A wide deck encircles the restaurant, offering unsurpassed views. A tiny man-made beach entertains children and foreigners, the only ones generally willing to brave the chilly sea.

De Vasselot rest camp in Nature’s Valley is a magical forest wonderland with campsites in the shadows of age-old yellowwoods and a tangle of indigenous vegetation. Set along the banks of the Groot River (west) and sheltered from the elements by vegetated hills, it is one of Tsitsikamma’s best-kept secrets. Birds, animals and bugs are prolific. At night it is pitch dark and quiet except for owls calling their mates. A sand dune protects the Nature’s Valley estuary from raging seas and provides safe swimming for children. Often an uncanny silence hangs over the shimmering lagoon and laughing voices travel far across its waters.

The Tsitsikamma of the 1960s
While the park now attracts thousands, some 50 years ago the only visitors were forestry communities from Goesa and Bloubos who used the narrow grassland as additional feeding for their cattle.

Just ahead of its proclamation, the park’s first CEO, Dr Robbie Robinson, was among the first to arrive. Several locals were employed to start work on the Storms River rest camp, among them 17-year-old Popo Scott, who acted as foreman and eventually worked for the park for 43 years. Dr Robinson also stayed until retirement.

South paid Oom Popo, 66, who still lives in Storms River Village, a visit. He has many stories to tell; like the one about Dr Robbie’s semi-tame otter that required a special permit so it could travel with him in a basket to Pretoria on business, the leopard that fell from the cliff at Storms River mouth and the whale that came in too shallow to give birth.

He also remembers a very sad fishing trip in which friends drowned. “The boat was a small thing with just one engine, but we all knew the sea so well… I nearly went with them that day… It happened within sight of the camp, and shook us all to the core.”

Dr Robbie laid out the rest camp, which initially comprised 10 accommodation units. The first day visitors paid five cents to enter.

Work on the Otter Trail, which was loosely based on the old fishermen’s trails along the coastline, started in 1967 and was designed by Dr Robbie from scratch. “He would walk ahead of us, marking the way with tiny scraps of fabric. During the week the team would sleep wherever we were working, go home on a Saturday afternoon, and return on Monday. It was hard work but a good life, with fish fresh from the sea every day and meals around the fire. The worst thing was the puff adders that came looking for a warm spot to sleep… not a pleasant feeling waking up with a snake in your bed,” Oom Popo laughs.

Another world-renowned icon – the dramatic suspension bridge across the 69-metre Storms River mouth that hangs only seven metres above the water – was built in 1969. Exposure to the elements eventually took its toll and the bridge had to be rebuilt in 2006. Its success prompted the commission of another two suspension structures in 2009, which run along the rocky western cliffs inside the river mouth opening.

The walk to the bridges is decked out all the way from the restaurant and is relatively easy. The trail is mostly through indigenous forest with large overhanging trees and glimpses of the sea below. Dassies (rock hyrax) bake in the sun on rocky outcrops, their intense stares charming yet slightly unnerving.

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Storms River, and it’s time to go. I’d forgotten how it pulls at my soul and instantly revives. The next visit will definitely be sooner.

Tsitsikamma at a glance
Size: 63 422 ha, 80km of coastline
Marine protected area: 34 300 ha
Highest point: 1 675m above sea level (Soetkraal)
Deepest point: 80m at 5.6km off shore

Storms River 042 281 1607
De Vasselot 044 531 6700