They say when the first pioneering Voortrekkers acquired the central South African plateau (locally known as the Highveld) in their creaking ox wagons it was a place teeming with grazing wildlife. The region was wide open grassland with the occasional stunted tree adorning a rocky hillside. Once gold was discovered in the region known as The Witwatersrand the surrounding landscape changed dramatically into a bustling shanty town and…over time, a vibrant metropolis which remains today at the heart of South Africa’s economy. Johannesburg and Pretoria and surrounds have also changed ecologically. Joburg is often referred to today as the world’s largest man-made forest…its sprawling suburbia is now essentially a woodland environment and bears no resemblance to the grassland that existed once before.
There are, however, vestiges of the landscape that existed here historically…and closer to the city centres than one might think.
Very near to Centurion in eastern Tshwane and close to Pretoria lies a provincial reserve called Rietvlei…about a thirty-minute drive from OR Tambo International Airport. It has at its centre a large dam that supplies Pretoria with around fifteen percent of its water. The surrounding vegetation type is known as Bankenveld grassland and is considered threatened.
These wild pastures teem with indigenous Highveld wildlife like Springbok, Blesbok, Eland, Red Hartebeest and Black Wildebeest. Carnivores like Black backed Jackal, Serval, Yellow Mongoose, Cape Clawless Otter and even Cheetah can also be seen here. Cape Buffalo, White Rhino and Hippopotamus are afforded excellent protection here too.
The birdlife is exceptional and beautifully representative of the high lying grassland biome in South Africa. Long tailed Widowbirds adorn the tall grass stalks and occasionally fly in that strange, ephemeral, fluster that they effect. Black Korhaan vocalise from all points of the compass in an odd, metallic bluster and everywhere Cape Longclaws and Red capped Larks rise and fall across the swaying sea of grass.
Rietvlei is more than just a provincial reserve. It is a rare glimpse at a fast vanishing African biome that used to dominate these landscapes before modern man arrived.