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Kogelberg - Heart of the Cape Flora

By Scott Ramsay | Book Accommodation


Kogelberg Nature Reserve

Just an hour’s drive south-east from South Africa’s second largest city is one of the world’s astonishing natural wonders. In the mountains of Kogelberg, across the beautiful False Bay, is the world’s highest diversity of plant species, per hectare. CapeNature’s Kogelberg Nature Reserve is responsible for the conservation of this special place.

Here there are close to 1800 species of plants in an area of just 70 square kilometres of mostly inaccessible mountainous terrain. What’s more, 77 of these are found nowhere else on earth, and 150 of these species are rare, endangered or vulnerable. Compare this to the Kruger Park, covering more than 200 000 square kilometres, which has 2 000 plant species, of which fewer than 10 are endemic.

Kogelberg Plants


Consider another comparison, this one by Norman Myers from Oxford University in the foreword to the excellent bookFynbos, by Richard Cowling and Dave Richardson:  “The British Isles [300 000 square kilometres] have only 1500 plants, fewer than 20 of which are endemic. The whole of tropical Africa harbours 30 000 plant species in almost 20 million square kilometres – or only 3,5 times as many species in an area 235 times as large [as the Cape’s floral region].”

The Kogelberg is, according to experts, the heart of the Cape flora, which is dominated by the fynbos community of plants, which in turn makes up the majority of the Cape Floral Kingdom. There are six plant kingdoms on earth, the largest of which is the Boreal, covering 40% of the earth’s land surface in the northern hemisphere; the Cape’s remarkable flora makes up less than 0.04% of the earth’s land surface, yet it has the highest density and diversity of plant species per square kilometre.

Here at Kogelberg, near the holiday town of Betty’s Bay, is the epicenter of this remarkable plant kingdom. The highest percentage of occurrence (20 to 26%) of the characteristic fynbos plants – Proteas, Ericas, Restios and Brunias – is found in the Kogelberg area; this is twice the species density of these plants in the Cederberg and more than three times the density for the southern Cape.

Map showing the highest occurrence in the Kogelberg of plant species indicative of fynbos.

Map showing the highest occurrence in the Kogelberg of plant species indicative of fynbos.

Just why are the plants of the Kogelbeg so diverse and concentrated? Few people know the landscape and plants of the Kogelberg as well as Mark and Amida Johns, who have lived on the reserve for 18 years. Mark is CapeNature’s manager for the reserve, and Amida his wife is a botanist and artist.

Mark and Amida were patient enough to answer some of my simplistic questions about the Kogelberg, and it’s incredible flora. They explained to me that these mountains – more so than any other in the Cape – offer a diverse array of habitats, micro-climates and soil types, all of which has created the platform for a stupendous array of plant species, many of which are not only beautiful, but biologically-fascinating too.

Steep mountains rise sharply from the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean, reaching a highest point of about 1260 metres at Kogelberg peak which is just a few kilometres from the ocean. There are numerous valleys and kloofs, each with several isolated mountain peaks. These conditions have given plants the opportunity to specialize and evolve unique survival strategies.

“Nowhere else in the Cape – or the country – do you have mountains rising so sharply from the sea,” Amida told me, “and all the different aspects, mountain peaks and valleys create islands of isolation for species to develop.”

The mountains of Kogelberg, approaching from the west along the beautiful Clarence Drive. Note how quickly the peaks rise from sea level, one of the important factors in determining the diverse array of plant species.

The mountains of Kogelberg, approaching from the west along the beautiful Clarence Drive. Note how quickly the peaks rise from sea level, one of the important factors in determining the diverse array of plant species.

Some species in the Kogelberg – many of which are spectacular – grow only on a patch of ground a few metres wide, and nowhere else in the world. Some only make an appearance every few decades, as their seeds – buried decades ago by ants – lie dormant in the soil, waiting for the right conditions (usually a good hot fire!) to germinate. Are some species – as yet undiscovered by science – waiting to make their appearance to man?

Today, Kogelberg Reserve is managed by CapeNature, and forms the core area of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the first in South Africa.

“The area is managed according to internationally-accepted principles of a biosphere reserve. A core area (about 24 000 hectares) remains pristine, with high levels of biodiversity,” Mark explained.  “Around the reserve are agriculture, urban and commercial pine plantations. The idea is to protect areas of high biodiversity, and by so doing, ensuring ecological services to the surrounding communities.”

I’ve spent several days in Kogelberg, hiking around the mountains, and along the Palmiet River, which is, according to Mark, one of the last naturally-functioning rivers in the south western Cape (and is also one of the preferred rivers for white-water kayakers).

The pristine Palmiet River in the Kogelberg

The pristine Palmiet River in the Kogelberg

But the river has already been dammed on its upper reaches, and during the 1980s, there were plans to build another dam near the mouth of the river, which would have flooded the Palmiet Valley, the heart of the Kogelberg reserve. Fortunately, several studies showed that the dam would be unsustainable in the long term. And of course, much of the flora would have been lost.

To the first-time visitor to the Cape, fynbos plants may seem all alike, but if you find a nice rock to sit on, and spend some time enjoying the stupendous views, you’ll start seeing a panoply of different flowers and leaves. And some are small! So be sure to get down on your knees, and gaze into the never-ending wonders of a Drosera or Erica flower. Each is a work of art – perhaps a work of magic?

If you have a macro lens for your camera, bring it along, and marvel at the exquisite engineering of millions of years of evolution. For it was way back – about 65 million years ago, or the time of the dinosaurs – that the first proteas, ericas and restios evolved. So next time you walk past a shining protea, consider this: you’re in the company of an ancient and wise organism.

Fynbos & Ant

In fact, some experts believe that the diversity of fynbos in such a small area is due to the relatively constant climate that this part of the Cape has enjoyed. For the last 114 million years, the south-western Cape has escaped at least 10 glacial cycles, when most of the rest of the world froze over with ice. Elsewhere on earth, plants and animals would have died off. In the Cape, however, fynbos had the luxury of relatively steady conditions.

More recently, the relative isolation of the Kogelberg from man has given it a reprieve from uncontrolled development.The first road through the area was only built during the Second World War, while the little towns of Betty’s Bay and Pringle Bay only received electricity in the 1980s. There is little alien vegetation in the reserve.

It is the wild aspect of Kogelberg which I am drawn to – yes, the flora is remarkable and beautiful, but this is truly a wild area, where it’s possible to walk for a day without seeing another person. It is also where the Cape leopard still roams!

“The Kogelberg has the most spectacular scenery,” Amida explained. “It kind of overwhelms you.”

Kogelberg Nature Reserve Waterfall

Mark and Amida emphasise that many of the plants in the Kogelberg are very sensitive to disturbance, and hikers should stick to designated paths, to avoid trampling on rare plants and their roots.

“Visitors must please be careful,” Amida explained, “because these plants really are sensitive. For instance, the beautiful marsh rose (see Amida’s photo further down this blog) has very fragile roots and because it grows in marshy wet areas, its easy to trample on the roots and kill the plant, which has happened before. Think about it, these plants have been growing in very isolated areas, and they not used to having people come walking past!”

I’ve spent the past few days here, with my friend Tim Henny, who is also shooting a film for CapeNature on Kogelberg.  We stayed at the new, very slick Oudebosch Cabins, which are a destination in their own right…I’m doing a blog on them in the next few days.


 Great video of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve


Orothamnus zeyheri - the marsh rose - one of Kogelberg's iconic species

Marsh Rose


Haemanthus canaliculatus

Haemanthus canaliculatus


Kogelberg flower


Kogelberg Flower