The Goukamma Nature Reserve’s charm lies in its sense of peace and isolation, despite its position near Knysna on the busy Garden Route coast. In fact, many people don’t even know it’s there. By Roxanne Reid.
You’ll find Goukamma Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area near Buffalo Bay, between Sedgefield and Knysna but despite its high-profile position on the busy Garden Route coast, it’s a relatively low-profile reserve.
Goukamma reserve’s Groenvlei lake, which has no inflowing rivers and only an underground link to the sea, is the last remnant of an old lake system. On our first morning we took a trail through a forest of Cape saffron, sea guarri, dune sage, candlewood and wild camphor trees to the edge of the lake. The sound of the sombre greenbul was ever present, ‘Willie?’, then a muddled phrase before the call ended with a long descending whistle. We felt privileged to spot a genet watching us from a low branch, but it slunk away as soon as we stopped to take a photo. If you do the whole of the Cape Clawless Otter Trail on the southern shore of the lake, it’s a 6,5km hike. Birding is good – some 220 species have been recorded at Goukamma. You might see fish eagle, African spoonbill, the vibrant green-and-red Knysna turaco, kingfishers, sunbirds and woodpeckers.
Later, from the Platbank Trail Head on the beach behind Groenvlei – still part of the Goukamma reserve – we walked part of the Galjoen Trail to get a feel for the reserve’s beach walks. Gulls wheeled overhead or bickered on the beach, sharing the space with a few African black oystercatchers. It was May so too early for southern right whales, which visit between July and December, but we explored the rock pools to see what urchins and anemones we could find. On our second morning we walked the Bush Pig Trail (6,5km) from the Ferry Trail Head near the reserve’s offices.
First we had to don an orange lifejacket for the ferry crossing. Otters Rest, where we were staying – like the office, rondavels and wooden chalets at Buffalo Valley – occupies a narrow strip of land between the river and the road that goes to Buffalo Bay. This means that the reserve’s walks start either on the other side of the river, or near Groenvlei. So we climbed aboard the blue-and-white little boat that serves as a ferry and used the ropes slung across the river to pull ourselves to the other side.
The trail climbed high above the river by a series of steps, giving sweeping views over the river and estuary from a fynbos ridge. Later there were views over the sea as we dipped down to the coast and the Skimmelkrans picnic spot. A star apple tree here, a prinia, mousebird or tortoise there, a section of milkwood forest and then we ferried ourselves back across the river to Otters Rest.
If you’re not walking or birding, you can explore the Goukamma River by canoe or pedal-boat, fish for bass on Groenvlei lake or go angling with a rod from the sea shore. Goukamma reserve’s management team would like to develop some more low-impact activities, such as guides to take visitors on day walks to interpret the plant and bird life. ‘We’d need to train locals to get this off the ground and it would be a way of providing employment,’ says reserve manager Keith Spencer. They’re also working on a circular trail in the forest above Groenvlei, taking walkers up into part of the forest where there are lots of birds. This should be open by the end of the year. A longer-term notion is to provide canopy bird hides.
Goukamma’s main purpose isn’t to preserve an endangered species of plant, bird or animal – though the satellite Brenton blue butterfly sanctuary does that. It’s to preserve a typical Southern Cape coastal belt against ribbon development that could potentially merge Knysna and Sedgefield. The Marine Protected Area extends along about 18km of coastline from Buffalo Bay towards Sedgefield and one nautical mile (1.85km) out to sea. ‘This low-impact protected area including the Goukamma estuary is a major benefit to conservation in the area,’ says Spencer. CapeNature is also looking at securing more land around Goukamma in formal protection contracts as part of its Stewardship Programme, where it works together with landholders flanking the reserve to influence the nature of development. ‘We don’t want to see high-impact township development here. We’d like to convince landowners to go the low-impact, eco-development route,’ says Spencer.
He also has a dream of one day seeing Buffalo Bay nearby emerge as an eco-friendly village. ‘That means rainwater catchment, solar energy and other green technologies. But there’s some hard work to do to make this happen.’ With the current trend towards sustainable and environmentally responsible travel, that might just turn out to be a winning idea.
Getting to Goukamma Nature Reserve
From Cape Town
Take the N2 and travel for about 380km east towards George. Roughly 40km past George, between the towns of Sedgefield and Knysna, turn right to Buffalo Bay. Follow this road for 8km and then turn right (towards the river) and into the reserve. From Port Elizabeth: Travel west on the N2 to Knysna (260km); turn left to Buffalo Bay about 15km past Knysna.
Roxanne Reid is a writer, editor, blogger and incurable Africa addict. Read more about her travels here.