Fauna - A variety of life
The diversity of living things that occur in the Barberton area today form a stark contrast to the ancient, single-celled organisms that are captured in the rocks here. It took more than 3 billion years before multi-cellular life evolved and only about 425 million years ago vegetation colonised land followed by the first land animals. And since then Mother Earth went full throttle with a variety of species arising and disappearing over time. According to science, humans are late comers to the planet with anatomically modern man appearing a mere 100 000 years ago.
Nowadays, the Barberton area is teeming with life. Farmers breed cattle, horses, goats, chickens and wildlife ranching is also practiced. Even though you won’t see a lion walking down the street in town, you may come across Vervet monkeys raiding fruit trees and a spectacular variety of birds. Most of the wild animals occur in several nature reserves and conservancies that protect the main repositories of fauna and flora in the mountainous terrain. This includes Swaziland’s Malolotja Nature Reserve through to Songimvelo Nature Reserve and Nkomazi Wilderness in the Badplaas area; to Mountainlands to the East of Barberton and the Barberton Nature Reserves to the north.
Several of the reserves have day visitor facilities; such as Songimvelo and Barberton Nature Reserve. There, animals that used to occur in this area have been reintroduced over time. This includes most of the larger game such as elephants, kudu, eland, impala, zebra, waterbuck, wildebeest, hartebeest, leopard and warthogs, to name a few.
The spectacular seclusion offered by the mountains together with various microhabitats and endemic plants offer the opportunity for insect species to also be geographical restricted. Three butterflies are endemic to the mountains North East of town and as entomologists continue their search, more will certainly come to light. Here are uncounted numbers of other insects, reptiles and amphibians. And the high lying mountain streams are nurseries for fresh water fingerlings and unique species of indigenous fish.
To get a fair measure of all the birds is an ongoing task with twitchers and the local bird club doing counts. Some places are renowned for spotting specific species and rare winged visitors spawn a flurry of excitement among enthusiasts. Currently the number of birds for the Barberton area is more than 300.
William Shakespeare wrote “In nature’s infinite book of secrecy. A little I can read”. There is still much that can be learned from the biodiversity of the Barberton area as the scientific and natural treasures in these mountains help us to understand the origins of our planet, and ultimately its destiny.
Flora - Unleash the plant lovers
The mountains around Barberton are renowned for its ancient and unique geology and rugged terrain. Less well known is that it is also a botanical wonderland. From the lowland savannah to the riverine forests, from the thickets in the north to the grasslands on the high-lying areas, these mountains offer a showcase of flora. And it is in the grasslands where many interesting herbs can be found.
In summer the grasses are emerald green and yellow Berkheyas stand like miniature suns along many roads while orange-red squiggles of Bauhinia galpinii can be seen in the forests. In winter red and yellow aloes, such as Aloe arborescens and Aloe marlothii flower against the backdrop of grasses glistening gold. Proteas, of which Protea caffra is the most common, can be seen on steep hillsides and magnificent trees grow in the mistbelt forests. The Barberton daisy, Gerbera jamesonii, is probably the most iconic flower and has become a popular brand. The world’s tallest tree aloe, Aloe barberae, and the world’s smallest aloe, Aloe albida, that stand a mere 15cm tall when in bloom, also occur here.
Naturalists and botanists have been identifying plants here since the 1880’s and research is continuing to this day. Famous plant collectors were George Thorncroft and Ernet Galpin. The genus Thorncroftia honours Thorncroft and many species such as the endemics Thorncroftia longifolia and Aloe thorncroftii have been named after him. Galpin’s name is captured in names such as Bauhinia galpinii and Streptocarpus galpinii.
Several plants are endemic – meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world and this include small trees, shrubs and herbs. Soils associated with high concentrations of heavy metals, which are generally toxic to most plants, have seen at least 30 endemics adapt and colonise these as the unfavourable soil conditions lessened the competition from other plants.
Nowadays many of the plants are protected in several conservation areas that stretch from Badplaas to Kaapmuiden.