A few days ago, some friends and I visited the small farm some 80 or 90 km east of Pretoria, where I spent much of my youth. I took some photos which, unless I messed up the HTML code or you are using some weird browser, should open in a new window when you click on the smaller images below.
There is a steep, rocky hill with a flat top that gradually slopes down into a valley towards the north. I took this picture on the hill, and its own south-facing slope (not visible here) is somewhat similar to those of the hills you can see in the distance. If you climb up those hills, you'll see that they too have fairly flat tops that gently slope down towards a further valley:
It is late winter, and the winter frosts seem to have killed everything. But this is normal for the highveld
this time of year. For all the drought-stricken appearance, below ground the grasses are still alive and well and merely waiting for warmer weather and the first rains.
The soil is very rocky, and not exactly arable. But the grasses and wild herbs growing in between the rocks make for good grazing, and we saw several grey rhebok
. Alas, with my simple point-and-shoot camera there was no question of taking photos of these small and rather elusive antelope.
The rocky habitat is a home to all manner of interesting things. This rock looks like someone has splashed paint over it:
It is in fact covered by lichens, which are a symbiosis of algae and fungi. Many species of lichens can live under rather extreme conditions. It hasn't rained here for many months, the nights are freezing, by day the rocks are baked in the sun. And yet they are a habitat to these hardy organisms.
This time of year many species of aloe are in bloom:
One can see more lichens on the rocks around it.
Here is a photo of the steep slope on the south side of the hill:
The tangled, dry shrub in the left foreground is wild apricot
. It looks as dead as everything else, but it will soon turn green and by January or February will bear delicious, sweet-sour fruits that superficially look a bit like apricots, hence the name.
Most of the green trees down in the valley are, alas, invasive eucalyptus and wattle trees. Native to Australia, they are attractive trees but here in South Africa have become quite incredibly noxious and virtually indestructible weeds. They form a habitat for, well, just about nothing. Their leaves are not particularly edible (though I have on occasion seen cattle browse them a bit). They do not bear fruit, or serve as hosts for insects, that are of any use to local species of birds or mammals. And almost nothing will grow under them. Large swathes of the highveld are sinking below an ocean of these trees.
I have tried cutting them; they simply grew back. I sawed them off and poisoned the stumps; within a year they had all sprouted again, and for every trunk you cut off, five new ones grow in its place. It is an ongoing battle.
In their native Australia they have all manner of competitors and parasites that keep them under control, and one really needs to import some of those to do the same job here. But importing foreign species is a risky business - you need but to look at the eucalyptus trees themselves to see how easily it can end in disaster. They are also of some economic importance because the wood is extensively used in the construction and mining industries. In Mpumalanga province there are large plantations of these trees. There are thus established economic interests involved, and many powerful people who would not be too amused at the thought of seeing their profits disappear down the throat of some Australian parasite.
And thus the highveld ecosystem, already under severe pressure from farming and urbanization, is sacrificed to economic interests. It might not be the most obviously spectacular or glamourous habitat on the planet. But at least to me, it is possessed of a subtle beauty that grows on you the more you see of it.
A creek flows in the valley, into this small, shallow dam:
In dry years the creek sometimes goes completely dry, and most of the dam as well. But we had good rains last summer, and there is still plenty of water, even after many months without any rain.