Located just outside Middelburg, slap bang in the heart of coal mining territory and surrounded by mealie fields. The Bezuidenhoutshoek Nature Reserve is a truly remarkable natural oasis that positively dazzles visitors with its biodiversity. It’s also situated in the Olifants River catchment area – making its waters strategically important for both the Loskop Dam and Kruger National Park. In short, this little-known private Mpumalangan treasure is a natural asset worth protecting by all nature-loving South Africans.

When old school buddies Sid Sidersky and Eric Dorner bought the Bezuidenhoutshoek Nature Reserve – or Bezhoek as it’s more affectionately known – back in 2003, they knew they were onto something special, but it was an act based largely on faith. “We were invited there for a weekend in 2001 and immediately fell in love with the place,” recalls Sid. “However, when the sale eventually went through neither of us knew anything about farming. So at the time we kept asking ourselves, were we right about this being a special place or not?”

Eric Dorner [Left] and Sid Sidersky [Right]

To allay their fears and fill in the blanks, the partners brought in numerous experts to conduct proper environmental assessments. First came the grassland study. Then there was the geology study, followed by the tree study. They even commissioned a study on the critically endangered Giant Bull Frog, another permanent resident on the reserve. And, as each final report came in, the results just confirmed their initial gut instinct. “Every professional who has ever come to the farm tells us the same thing – ‘this place is special, we have to come back and do more research’,” Eric explains.

At the time, the farm had been used extensively for cattle grazing and, although it had pockets of degradation, the bulk of the farm was in excellent condition. The main issues Sid and Eric started concentrating their rehabilitation efforts on included mitigating soil erosion and removing the many invasive plant species that had taken over the place – namely Black wattle, milkweed, water hyacinth, Pompom weed, Poplar and Bankrupt bush (Seriphium plumosum) that took hold of the grasslands because of overgrazing.

The other big issue they encountered that’s an ongoing problem is water quality. Sadly, the Olifants is one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Ironically, the Wilge river, located just 60 km away, is one of the cleanest! Most people automatically blame the extensive mining taking place in the area as the main culprit, but this isn’t the case. Much of the environmental degradation is caused by unregulated fertiliser run-off from farms, informal settlements situated along its banks and poorly maintained municipal sewage plants – none of which Bezhoek can really do anything about. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t try. One thing they regularly do is remove the water hyacinth that threatens to completely clog the river at certain times of the year. Fed by the excessive nutrients in the water, this prolific waterborne pest removes the oxygen from the river causing the fish to die.

“All these factors cause absolute havoc to wildlife downstream,” points out Eric. “Crocodiles have been dying in Loskop Dam in worrying numbers because they ate contaminated fish. There’s just so much environmental damage that could have been avoided if everyone simply followed the rules.”

Another very real threat to Bezhoek that had to be tackled head-on was coal mines wanting to prospect on the land. Fortunately, after a few heated court battles, the fact that the area was too ecologically sensitive to mine was established and Sid and Eric won the day. Not that it was easy, it cost them a huge amount of money. “We probably spent about R1 million just fighting the mines to get them off our backs,” Sid elaborates.

Not that the owners of Bezhoek are anti-mining. Both men understand the country needs power (coal-fired power stations in the region generate about 80-percent of our country’s electricity) and jobs are needed to mitigate poverty in the area. “We support mining, and support the employment mining brings,” explains Sid. “But if the many good environmental laws already on our statute books were taken seriously and adhered to, our environment would be in a much better place.”

What makes Bezhoek so special
In a nutshell, Bezhoek has it all. So much so, that the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority has designated Bezhoek as “irreplaceable and highly significant in terms of their bio diversity assessment criteria” – which qualifies the reserve to be registered as a Protected area.

Situated in the Mpumalangan transition zone between the Lowveld and Highveld, it boasts over 120 indigenous grass species, which is more than the significantly larger Kruger National Park. Cycad populations of the critically endangered Encephalartos Middeburgensis and vulnerable Lanatus dot the landscape as testaments to our planet’s evolutionary past. Then there’s the permanent wetlands and streams, many of which are so pristine you can drink from them.

The Olifants and Klein Olifants rivers play their part too. Converging in the reserve’s North Western corner, then leaving the property to flow down to Loskop Dam and, ultimately, into the Kruger National Park. Both rivers meander through the reserve, cutting awe-inspiring gorges into the predominately sandstone and quartzite geology on their way to their confluence point. This provides Bezhoek with extensive river frontage, which attracts a wide variety of plant and animal life to the area. It also creates the ideal habitat for the pockets of riverine forest that transforms the twisting riverbanks into long ribbons of lush green in an otherwise uniform-brown African landscape.

Away from the river, savannah plains, rocky outcrops and Bushveld dominate the rest of the 3 000 hectare reserve. Roaming freely are over fourteen different species of antelope, including Eland, the vulnerable Oribi and Klipspringer. Predators include Leopard and Brown Hyena. Other game includes Giraffe, Ostrich, Bushpigs and the elusive Honey Badger. Over 278 confirmed bird sightings have been ticked off the list, including the African Finfoot, Verreaux Eagle and Denham’s Bustard. And, as if that isn’t enough, surviving late stone age rock art pays homage to the reserve’s older, more ancestral human residents.

Rehabilitating nature
Clearing Bezhoek of all the invasive plant species is an ongoing process that requires a huge amount of labour and resources. It’s also a backbreaking job that’s probably never going to end. Using the Black wattle as an example, Eric explains: “The Black wattle is an amazing tree. Its bark can be used in the tanning industry, branches can be used to make lapa poles, the leaves can be composted and its pulp used to manufacture paper. The problems come when it’s growing in the wrong place.” And at Bezhoek it’s definitely growing in the wrong place.

Growing densely along the reserve’s watercourses. What it does is kill the natural growth on the ground, so when there’s a flood all the valuable top soil gets washed downriver. The seeds can also survive in the ground for years, requiring a five year plan that involves the annual spraying and pulling out of young plants until eventually there’s nothing left. “Our main challenge is access. Because of the difficult terrain we have to go in on foot, making it nearly impossible for us to extract the wattle and make it commercially viable. It also requires a scary outlay of money.”

Here’s another drawback: Black wattle trees are also incredibly thirsty suckers. This is a huge problem, and represents a very real threat to our drought-prone nation’s already scarce water resources. And, when they grow in our critical water catchment areas, like they do at Bezhoek, this is doubly so. That’s because, although these areas only cover about 10-percent of our country’s surface area, they yield in excess of 50-percent of SA’s total annual water runoff – which is basically how we fill our dams. Evidence of the negative effects of alien tree invasion has been accumulating steadily during the last 25 years. One study of 94 catchment areas showed that alien invaded areas yielded 3 000 m³ less water per annum per hectare than indigenous covered areas. That’s a huge loss of water! Clearly, these invasive pests from Australia really need to go.

Enter the Bezhoek Extreme and help preserve this natural treasure
Realising that they can’t complete this mammoth task alone, Eric and Sid are asking for your help. And the best way for you to do that is by entering the Bezhoek Extreme Trail Running Festival that takes place 25 November, and the three-day MTB Festival happening next June. These exclusive routes will not be made open to the public, so you get an opportunity to be the one of the first runners or MTB riders to experience this gem of a reserve.

All moneys raised by the race entrance fees will get ploughed directly back into conservation and rehabilitation efforts on the reserve, allowing Sid and Eric to tackle their ongoing invasive plant problem more effectively. “The way we see it, our river courses belong to everyone,” Sid explains. “How we spend the money raised will be open for everyone to see. Everything, be it a chainsaw or chemicals used, will be well documented.”

Both the trail running and MTB routes will pass through areas targeted for rehabilitation, so competitors get a unique chance to see where their money’s going first-hand. But to get a proper handle on progress that’s been made and experience a genuine “Wow!” moment, you really have to come back again next year and run the route again.

Ideally, what Sid and Eric are hoping to achieve is encourage the growth of a can-do volunteering spirit amongst trail runners and mountain bikers – the two main sporting codes intimately connected to nature. And, if an individual, after experiencing all that Bezhoek has to offer, falls in love with the place like they did and approaches them to partner up, that would be a bonus.

“This place has so much potential and we’re only at the very beginning,” says Eric. “Future options we’re considering include birding tours, eco hiking trails, white water kayaking (in season), drone flight training, outdoor how-to courses and getting university students in to complete their practical environmental studies. That said, if someone with a similar eco vision as ours approached us with a mutually-agreeable collaborative plan, we would definitely be open to having the conversation.”

That aside, just by competing in these two events you’ll be helping make a significant difference downstream to the water quality of both Loskop Dam and the Kruger National Park – which is a pressing issue for all like-minded, nature-loving South Africans. – (c) 2017 NavWorld