Kwelera’s 164 hectares form a narrow strip of coast that runs parallel to the Indian Ocean for about five kilometres, between the beachside town of Gonubie and where the Kwelera River meets the sea just north-east of East London.
Few of us know anything about this small, unobtrusive nature reserve. Yet since late July it is the country’s 10th National Botanical Garden.
Kwelera, or Kwelegha (the ‘r’ is pronoucned as a ‘gh’ as in loch), comes from the Khoi language and means place of aloes (the Eastern Cape’s emblem).
It is a series of sand dunes and coastal forests, dominated by white and red milkwood and silver oak trees, protected from the continuous development along this part of the Sunshine Coast. In places it is little more than 200 metres wide, its coastline a string of sandy bays and inlets.
Though it has some way to go before it catches up with its plans to acquire further land, plant a formal garden and design a walk that links the garden to the coastal dune forests, the reserve is nonetheless worth a visit for its beauty and wildness. Here is why you should visit:
1. The bird life, animal life and heavily wooded sand dunes
Between its heavily wooded sand dunes is a rich bird life and the odd Vervet monkey, little bushbuck and blue duiker. Thicket provides cover for the nocturnal porcupine and the seldom-sighted caracal, as well as the Knysna turaco and emerald-spotted wood dove.
2. The soon-to-be walking trail through the dune forest
Visit the nature reserve before it becomes a frequently visited garden and see the plant, bird and animal life for yourself. The next step in becoming a national botanical garden is the design of a sensitive trail to link the formal garden (not yet in existence) with the coastal dune forest of Kwelera Nature Reserve (which will remain as it is, forming the ‘natural’ part of the garden). Accompanying the walk will be a list of unique plant, bird, mammal, reptile, butterfly and fauna and flora.
3. The deceptive diadem
A rare butterfly found in one of its most southerly locations in the Kwelera nature reserve. Also known as the deceptive eggfly, it belongs to a group of brush-footed ‘butterflies’ that breed on nettle. Also known as a Novice Friar, or an Outannie in Afrikaans, they adopt a similar look to a butterfly to protect themselves. It is black and brown with white markings, usually with a wingspan of between 55cm and 65cm.
4. Kwelera reserve lies on the Jikeleza tourism route and the Strandloper Trail
The Jikeleza tourism route links the Sunshine Coast to the Wild Coast, a cluster of 50 or so attractions that include one of South Africa’s best rated backpackers. The route follows the T1 Road starting just outside Beacon Bay in East London and ending on the N2 some 30 km away. The Strandloper Trail runs from Kei Mouth to Gonubie, via the Kwelera National Botanical Garden, along unspoilt beach; a 57 km trail over four days.
5. The reserve’s highest sand dune
Magoza is some 77 metres high and a favourite with locals. Climb it.
6. The three little villages on its periphery
The biggest of these, Sunrise-on-sea, is guilty of the odd insensitively designed double-storey and the illegal clearing of dune vegetation in front of houses, but Kwelera Mouth and Rainbow Valley are both still small enough not to threaten the nature reserve’s protection status, or the quiet of the wilderness. Stay in any of these and enjoy the quiet.
7. Extra protection, maintenance and management
As a National Botanical Garden, Kwelera will have extra protection, and more funds will mean better management of the environment. ECPTA will act in partnership with SANBI; the first garden managed jointly by two agencies.
The next step is to find adjacent land to landscape a formal garden, and to build an education centre and offices.
“Kwelera became a nature reserve in 1983, just in time to prevent any further overgrazing by local dairy herds on the edge of the sand dunes. Once proclaimed, the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA) erected a little hut for a conservation officer near the Kwelera River Mouth, from which a lonely figure was often observed, his binoculars trained to catch sight of fish eagles as they rose above him.” ~ Source: Veld & Flora, September 2014 edition