Losing yourself in South Africa’s enchanting lake districts

By Stef Terblanche

What do the southern Wetlands region of Mpumalanga and the Garden Route of the Western Cape – 1,100km apart – have in common? Both provinces have majestic mountains, beautiful forests, dramatic scenery, and water, water, and more water. In the form of some 280 lakes.

After all, they are South Africa’s two premier lake districts, easily rivalling the famous lake districts of England and Scotland.

The one is spread out south of the small Mpumalanga hamlet of Chrissiesmeer. It has by far the larger number of lakes and pans – some 270 in total. The other straddles the Garden Route coastal strip between the towns of Wilderness and Knysna in the southern Western Cape and consists of a series of some 7 large lakes and lagoons, interconnected by snake-like rivers and water channels, and opening into the sea through beautiful estuaries.

With an abundance of things to do, places to stay and attractions to visit, visitors to either of the two lake districts will be spoilt rotten for choice. Both fulfil the promise of an enchanting, relaxing and never-to-be-forgotten holiday. Or a weekend getaway if you are fortunate enough to live nearby.

Chrissiesmeer Lake District

The Chrissiesmeer Lake District in Mpumalanga is numerically the largest lake district in South Africa with more than 270 lakes and pans spread within a 20-kilometre radius of the hamlet of Chrissiesmeer. The charming little village is situated on the northern bank of the largest lake in this system, Lake Chrissie, which is also said to be the biggest freshwater lake in South Africa. In January 2014 the Chrissiesmeer lakes area was declared a Protected Environment.

The area is renowned as a bird-watcher’s paradise, home to some 287 bird species. Among these you will find noisily chattering flocks of southern red bishops, the shockingly bright red plumage of the breeding males contrasting with the varying shades of blue, grey, yellow and green of the surrounding water and landscape. Also vying for attention are the thousands upon thousands of lesser and greater flamingos that stop over here in the late summer, while blue, grey and even wattled crane are all found all year round. It is rare to find all three crane species together in one place.

1

Also to be found here are crowned crane, blue korhaan, chestnut-banded plover, yellow-billed stork, western marsh harrier, Asiatic golden plover, lesser sand plover, redshank and curlew, among the many other species. The village and surrounding areas host an annual Crane Festival.

The birds may think they have pride of place, but don’t forget the frogs.

There are no fewer than 13 species of frogs populating the wetlands area, which explains why the area is also known as Matotoland, the Swazi word for ‘land of the frogs’. In this district frogs have right of way on the roads, and road signs will tell you as much. The frogs too are honoured with an annual Frog Night in December when locals and visitors put on their gumboots to go frog spotting and learn all there is to know about these happy little creatures.

A word of advice: leave your cell phone headphones at home, as between the birds and the frogs you will have enough natural music for a lifetime.

The importance of this wetland system is also underscored by the fact that it serves as the source of four important Southern African rivers. These are the Vaal River, which later joins the Orange on its journey to the icy Atlantic Ocean; and the Komati, Usuthu and uMpuluzi which all reach the Indian Ocean via Mozambique.

The area was first inhabited by the San, with plenty of excellent examples of their rock art still to be found here. Other early inhabitants along with the San were the mysterious Tlou-tle people who lived on rafts on the larger lakes, not unlike the water-dwelling communities of Asia. It is said they hid underwater from approaching enemies, breathing through reeds until the danger had passed. Sadly, no traces have remained of these people and their water-bound lifestyle, other than the written accounts of early travellers who came upon them.

2

Those who have been to Scotland will surely sense a pleasant feeling of déjà vu when visiting Lake Chrissie and surrounding areas for the first time. The lake lies in the farming region once known as New Scotland, which was settled by Scotsman Alexander McCorkindale about 150 years ago. McCorkindale bought up dozens of farms here as it reminded him so much of his native Scotland.

In 1864, McCorkindale renamed Zeekoei Pan to Lake Chrissie for Christina, daughter of Marthinus Wessel Pretorius who was then president of the South African Republic, and someone McCorkindale and his wife were very fond of. Many of the Scottish names surviving in the district such as Lochiel, Dundonald, Bonnie Brae and Arthur’s Seat are McCorkindale’s legacy. Interestingly, his friend President Pretorius also bought two farms named Elandspoort and Daspoort between 1854 and 1855 for the purpose of establishing a new town, in his case founding what later became the city of Pretoria.

In the 1880s, Chrissiesmeer became an important stopover to and from Barberton during the gold rush, and an important junction for wagon trains taking goods to the harbour in Algoa Bay. However, over the years other towns sprang up and developed faster, which resulted in Chrissiesmeer retaining its unspoilt charm as a tiny country village perched at the edge of a lake. Today it is one of the most important eco-tourism destinations in the country. The hamlet is also an ideal stopover for people travelling between Gauteng and the Kruger National Park, Swaziland, Mozambique and KwaZulu-Natal.

3

Frogs, birds and water by no means complete the list of local offerings. The area also boasts a rich floral diversity which bursts into a spectacularly colourful display of wild flowers in the summer months between August and February. In addition no less than 12 different types of wild orchids are found here. Knowledgeable local flower guides will take visitors on wild flower walks, while the village hosts an annual wild flower day on the third weekend of each January.

 

In addition, Chrissiesmeer and the surrounding districts are renowned for the many beautiful sandstone buildings dating back to the mid-1800s found here, another reminder of Scotland. Many have been beautifully restored and can be visited. Among them are the Ou Sending Pastorie (Old Mission Parsonage), the old Jail now used as self-catering accommodation, the old Methodist Church, the old Barclays Bank, Chrissiesmeer Trading Store (now the McCloud’s Factory), the Old Mill (now the McCloud’s Shop), the Reformed Church, the old NG Church and more.

 

The old Dumbarton Oaks Hotel in the village was a popular stopover for transport drivers on their way to Delagoa Bay, today known as Maputo Bay. Among some of the infamous and famous who stayed in this hotel were the serial killer Daisy de Melker and Swaziland’s King Sobhuza. Farm houses and other old buildings such as sheds in the familiar sandstone style are also dotted throughout the region, with the odd old building sometimes found near the water’s edge along the lakes, providing a composition that will delight photographers and artists alike.

The town’s cemetery, full of history, is another interesting place that can be visited. It is the final resting place of many Boer and English soldiers who died here in the Anglo-Boer War, as well as during the Battle of Chrissiesmeer which took place here on 6 February 1901. Romantics will be charmed by a unique love story. British soldier Arthur William Swanston died here a hero in a 1900 battle while attempting to save the life of a young private. Both are buried here. Swanston’s fiancé, who lived in Scotland, sent flowers to the local post office with a request to have them placed on the fallen soldier’s grave. She never visited her love’s grave, but each October for the next 65 years a bunch of heather would arrive at the local post office to be placed on the grave.

One of the largest collections of vintage tractors, including examples of nearly every tractor model sold in South Africa since the 1920s, is found at farmer Jan Randell’s Ranch Museum. In the district you will also find some very interesting rock formations, considered a place of spiritual significance by the descendants of early inhabitants of the area, and which is considered to be one of the holiest places in South Africa by the famous Soweto-based traditional healer and spiritualist Credo Mutwa.

Apart from the clear sunny skies and dramatic African sunsets, the feeling of being in the Scottish Lake District can be completed with a bit of fishing. But you will have to travel a short distance away for some trout fly fishing as the district has no rivers. However, you could always try your hand at some bass and carp fishing in the deeper lakes and pans of the district itself.

While Chrissiesmeer is the focal point of Mpumalanga’s lakes and wetlands district, there are a number of other delightful towns quite close by, all with much to offer. Among them are the small farming town of Amersfoort named after a city in Holland; Amsterdam, which was named by McCorkindale in honour of Holland’s support for the Boers during the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881); Badplaas with its hot mineral waters; Breyten, an area rich in San history; Carolina, known for its Highveld grassland biome and a bird watchers’ favourite; the sleepy little farming town of Morgenzon; Volksrust, where Mahatma Gandhi was briefly imprisoned; the larger farming and commercial centre of Ermelo; and Perdekop where Oom Gert Van Der Westhuizen’s private Roodedraai Museum houses one of the largest collections of Anglo-Boer War memorabilia in the country.

Garden Route Lakes

Our next stop is George, at the start of the Garden Route in the southern Western Cape. This bustling capital of the Southern Cape is easily accessible by air or excellent highways connecting it to Cape Town, Johannesburg or Port Elizabeth. George also once briefly hosted a serial killer, Gert Swanepoel, or better known as Bluebeard of the Karoo, who was hanged from a tree at the end of York Street. The same tree was also the site of slave auctions. The tree, with part of the chain used for the slaves embedded in it, are still there.

From George it is a short hop across the Kaaiman’s River to the hamlet of Wilderness, and the first water body of this region’s lake district.

The lakes wetlands system here is comprised of four distinct systems: the Wilderness system, which includes the Wilderness Lagoon, the Touws River, the Serpentine, Elandsvlei, Langvlei, and Rondervlei; the central system consisting of Swartvlei, the largest of these lakes, and the Swartvlei estuary at the town of Sedgefield; the landlocked single lake of Groenvlei, which has no connection to the sea; and finally the Knysna Lagoon and the estuary of the Knysna River. Most scientific descriptions of the wetlands system talk of only three systems and exclude the Knysna Lagoon, but in sheer size, beauty and proximity travellers will most certainly view it as an integral part of the overall Garden Route water wonderland.

Seen from the air, the five lakes form a dramatic picture of dark, glistening bodies of water surrounded by forests, reeds and grassland, and interconnected by snaking rivers that meet up with the sea through large, blue lagoons and estuaries. All of this is locked in between the towering and beautiful Outeniqua mountain range on one side, and the sand dunes, beaches and river estuaries along the Indian Ocean coastline on the other side. The lakes are about 20,000 years old, but the two dune ridges that originally shaped and dammed them, are 300,000 and 6,000 years old respectively.

Much of the Wilderness–Sedgefield lakes area forms part of the Wilderness Section of the Garden Route National Park and the CapeNature Goukamma Nature Reserve. The Wilderness lakes were designated a Ramsar Site in 1991, to be protected under the Ramsar Convention Treaty. The lakes here are among only a few warm temperate coastal lake systems in Africa, and the only one in South Africa. They are fringed by grass, reeds, coastal fynbos and evergreen forests.

The lakes, beaches and mountains together form one of South Africa’s most popular holiday regions, filling up with thousands of holidaymakers each year during December and January. For those seeking quiet tranquillity in the bosom of nature, away from so many people, most of the rest of the year offers just that.

On the way to Wilderness one passes the spectacular train bridge over the mouth of the Kaaimans River across which the famous Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe Train ran daily between George and Knysna until flooding destroyed part of the railway line in 2006, thus ending the last remaining continually-operated passenger steam train service in Africa. There have been attempts to revive this train service so popular with tourists, but its fate remains uncertain. Along the way you may also pass some of the numerous world-renowned golf courses of the area, some designed by famous golf players like Gary Player and Ernie Els.

4

Much of the Wilderness–Sedgefield lakes area forms part of the Wilderness Section of the Garden Route National Park and the CapeNature Goukamma Nature Reserve. The Wilderness lakes were designated a Ramsar Site in 1991, to be protected under the Ramsar Convention Treaty. The lakes here are among only a few warm temperate coastal lake systems in Africa, and the only one in South Africa. They are fringed by grass, reeds, coastal fynbos and evergreen forests.

The lakes, beaches and mountains together form one of South Africa’s most popular holiday regions, filling up with thousands of holidaymakers each year during December and January. For those seeking quiet tranquillity in the bosom of nature, away from so many people, most of the rest of the year offers just that.

On the way to Wilderness one passes the spectacular train bridge over the mouth of the Kaaimans River across which the famous Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe Train ran daily between George and Knysna until flooding destroyed part of the railway line in 2006, thus ending the last remaining continually-operated passenger steam train service in Africa. There have been attempts to revive this train service so popular with tourists, but its fate remains uncertain. Along the way you may also pass some of the numerous world-renowned golf courses of the area, some designed by famous golf players like Gary Player and Ernie Els.

5

6

The town of Sedgefield is situated on what was once the historic Ruigtevlei farm, originally granted to the widow Maria Meeding (née Terblanche) by Lord Charles Somerset, governor of the Cape Colony. Today it is a bustling little centre with restaurants, pubs, arts and crafts shops, B&Bs and very content locals who enjoy living in their own bit of paradise. As the town is almost entirely surrounded by water, boating is popular – motor boats are restricted to certain areas, so kayaks are the best way to get around.

Groenvlei, which covers and an area of just over 3km2, is the most unique of the Garden Route Lakes, being the only of these lakes with no recognisable inlet or outlet. Its water seeps up from subterranean channels and is slightly saline, and its distinct aquamarine colour that gave it its name (“groen” meaning green) is caused by the reflection of sunlight on green algae against the calcium-rich white floor of the lake combined with the reflection of the green forests and bush surrounding it.

7

From Sedgefield it is a short distance to Knysna, situated on what was the historic farm Melkhoutkraal. The town is steeped in history – site of erstwhile Xhosa raids on settler farms; the place where British entrepreneur George Rex built his empire, and who is generally considered to be the founder of the town; and where the pioneering Norwegian Charles Thesen started a shipbuilding industry, with one of the islands in the lagoon still bearing his name.

Today it is one of South Africa’s most popular holiday destinations, with plenty on offer such as houseboats, golf, boating, swimming, hiking, golden beaches, angling, restaurants, pubs, arts and crafts, forest walks, bird-watching, and so much more. Historical buildings and other places of interest abound. The town is surrounded by beautiful forests that include the wooden walkway through the Garden of Eden where you can marvel at giant yellowwood and stinkwood trees. A large variety of endemic plant species are found in the forests of the area.

Some of the other delightful towns, villages and interesting places to visit in the Garden Route Lakes area include the forest settlements of Diepwalle and Karatara (settings of author Dalene Mathee’s famous novels), Brenton-on-Sea on the eastern side of the Knysna Lagoon, the lovely holiday village of Buffels Bay, the city of George with its transport and other museums and many places of historical interest, the Goukamma Nature Reserve, the castles at Noetzie, the nearby Outeniqua mountains, the ghost mining town in the forest above Knysna, the surfers’ paradise of Victoria Bay, the Wilderness National Park, and the Giant Kingfisher Trail, among many more.

The entire region is also a bird-watchers’ paradise, supporting over 260 species, including several species of water birds, the secretive African Rail, the Black Crake with its red legs and fat yellow beak, Fish Eagles and African Snipe. The estuaries here serve as a nursery for many seawater fish, while the rare and threatened endemic Knysna seahorse and beautiful, delicately-patterned pansy shells are also found here.

The Wilderness-Knysna wetlands system faces various environmental challenges and is threatened by human activity. But numerous programmes are in place to deal with these. As the names of the area – Eden, Garden Route, Wilderness and others – suggest, it is still by far one of the most beautiful places in South Africa with much to do and experience.