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Stars, stars and more stars at Anysberg

By Scott Ramsay | www.yearinthewild.com Book Accommodation

 My cottage, the stars, and an attempt at painting with light...

Astronomers estimate that there are about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way. But because of light pollution, most city-dwellers can see only a few hundred of them. Head to Anysberg Nature Reserve, however, and it’s as if every single star in our galaxy is within grasp.

Situated in the Western Cape about 80kms north-east of Montagu and about 100kms south-west of Laingsburg, the 800 square kilometre reserve – managed by CapeNature – is probably one of the best places I’ve been to in southern Africa for stargazing.

“Because Anysberg is a large reserve and is located in such a wide valley between two mountain ranges, there is absolutely no light pollution,” reserve manager Marius Brand explained. “You can see the entire night sky in the southern hemisphere, from east to west and north to south.”

Having lived on the reserve with his family for four years, Marius has seen a few stars in his time. “Just be careful, though,” Marius smiled, “you might not be able to sleep at night. Once you see the stars, you won’t be able to look away.”

At the main rest camp of Vrede in the middle of the valley are just five small adobe-style cottages, each fully-equipped for self-catering. Visitors can swim in a huge reservoir, surrounded by a wooden deck and umbrellas. The peaceful scene is perfectly suited to its Afrikaans name. A star-viewing platform and telescope give guests a chance to see even more of the celestial wonders.

A star-viewing deck and telescope makes for a fantastic night out...thanks to ranger Willem Volhard for helping me take this photo.

A star-viewing deck and telescope makes for a fantastic night out...thanks to ranger Willem Volhard for helping me take this photo.

The views from Vrede extend 100km down the plains to the unmistakable peak of Towerkop near Ladismith. Large herds of eland, gemsbok, red hartebeest and springbok roam this semi-arid Karoo reserve, making it a surprisingly rewarding place for wildlife viewing. A few Cape Mountain zebra also occur, as do kudu, steenbok, klipspringer, grey duiker and rhebok.

The five cottages at Vrede, in the middle of Anysberg, with the eponymous mountain range behind. You really do feel like you've got the whole reserve to yourself.

The five cottages at Vrede, in the middle of Anysberg, with the eponymous mountain range behind. You really do feel like you've got the whole reserve to yourself.

The rugged Anysberg range to the south reaches 1 600 metres above sea level, and is incised with deep gorges where leopards prowl. “Our camera traps pick them up quite often,” Marius said, showing me some of the photos, including one of a particularly large male. “This is not your typical small Cape leopard!”

One of the leopards caught on Marius' camera traps in Anysberg Nature Reserve - great to see them!

One of the leopards caught on Marius' camera traps in Anysberg Nature Reserve - great to see them!

Marius explained that most farmers have turned away from intensive livestock farming in this parched region, which receives between 170 and 200 mm of rain annually. “It’s just too dry out here, but there are always pools of water for wild animals to drink.”

The reserve was proclaimed in 1987 to protect part of South Africa’s Succulent Karoo biome, a global hotspot for biodiversity with more species of drought-adapted plants than anywhere else on the globe, and more than 2 000 endemic plant species that are found nowhere else in the world.

Anysberg itself has at least 12 plant species that are known to occur only in the reserve itself, and is a stronghold of the bizarre Gibbaeum genus, one of the most restricted and endangered groups of succulents.

“There are still plant species that need to be identified and many others that are not yet discovered,” Marius added.

Fynbos grows on the mountain tops, where rainfall is higher. And it’s the combination of these two threatened, species-rich biomes which make Anysberg a critical part of the Western Cape’s conservation strategy. “This is an important corridor that links the western and eastern parts of the province’s other nature reserves.”

The gifbol plant...the compounds of this plant are toxic and were once used by the Bushmen as poison for their arrows.

The gifbol plant...the compounds of this plant are toxic and were once used by the Bushmen as poison for their arrows.

The arterial roads in the reserve are rugged, so a high ground clearance vehicle is recommended, but the main thoroughfare is doable in a regular vehicle. However, the best way to get around is probably on mountain bike or horseback.

Anysberg has several horses that guests can hire. A two-day overnight, guided horse trail to Tapfontein in the north of the reserve is a great way to absorb the spirit of the place. There are four basic wendyhouses, with kitchen and showers, while a reservoir demands a mandatory swim in summer. Guests with 4x4s can also find their way here.

Ranger Willem Volhard and one of the horses, which can be hired by guests for both short and long guided trails...

Ranger Willem Volhard and one of the horses, which can be hired by guests for both short and long guided trails...

In times past, before fences and farming, /Xam bushmen would have moved across the plains, following the water and the animals. Living sparsely and gently on the arid earth, they nevertheless left evidence of their presence. On the way to Tapfontein, Marius showed me some human figures painted on a shelter; two women arch forwards on the rock, as if dancing in a trance.

According to Little Karoo rock art expert Renee Rust, Anysberg was a particularly special place for the Bushmen, who were drawn to the sweet perennial water in the numerous kloofs. (The camp today is supplied with the same water). Check out Renee’s excellent book Water, Stone and Legend, about the rock paintings of this region.

Bushmen rock art at Anysberg Nature Reserve - for an excellent book on the rock paintings of the Little Karoo, check out Renee Rust's Water, Stone and Legend.

Bushmen rock art at Anysberg Nature Reserve - for an excellent book on the rock paintings of the Little Karoo, check out Renee Rust's Water, Stone and Legend.

That evening, as I finished my dinner and listened to the howling of black-backed jackals, I made the wonderful mistake of looking upwards to the heavens. Marius had been right – I couldn’t look away. It was a new moon, and the stars kept coming, filling every dark spot. So I pulled my mattress off the bed and lay on the stoep, staring skywards before falling into my dreams.

Anysberg Sign Board

 

Tapfontein, the small camp in the north of Anysberg Nature Reserve where horse trailists, mountain-bikers and 4x4ers can overnight. There is a lovely reservoir to swim in - very important during summer!

Tapfontein, the small camp in the north of Anysberg Nature Reserve where horse trailists, mountain-bikers and 4x4ers can overnight. There is a lovely reservoir to swim in - very important during summer!

 

The huge swimming reservoir at the main camp of Vrede at Anysberg - lekker!

The huge swimming reservoir at the main camp of Vrede at Anysberg - lekker!

 

Eland galloping across the Karoo veld - I'm always inspired by the adaptability of certain species of Africa's wildlife. I've seen eland in so many different habitats, from the sub-tropical coastline at Mkhambathi to De Hoop in the southern Cape, and now here, in the middle of the semi-arid Karoo.

Eland galloping across the Karoo veld - I'm always inspired by the adaptability of certain species of Africa's wildlife. I've seen eland in so many different habitats, from the sub-tropical coastline at Mkhambathi to De Hoop in the southern Cape, and now here, in the middle of the semi-arid Karoo.

 

Male red hartebeest antelope standing his ground...this is my turf, human!

Male red hartebeest antelope standing his ground...this is my turf, human!

 

Gemsbok herd - the antelope of Anysberg are quite habituated to people, making for a surprisingly rewarding wildlife experience.

Gemsbok herd - the antelope of Anysberg are quite habituated to people, making for a surprisingly rewarding wildlife experience.

 

Klipspringer...

Klipspringer...

 

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