Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve: Giant earthworms, ancient gold diggings and a botanical treasure trove
By Kathy Waddington
Just nine kilometres from the village of Umzinto and a short drive from the seaside resort and residential area of Park Rynie, Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve is home to a rare species of giant earthworm, endangered beetles – there’s even an ancient gold mine hidden in the hills. Its real treasure is what it offers walkers, hikers and nature lovers.
Pack a light daypack, pull on your hiking boots and grab a hiking pole to explore the trails marked out over a portion of this jewel of a reserve’s 2 189 hectares. Four trails, from an easy 1km stroll to the longest, at 4km, provide routes through coastal forest and flower-filled veld as you skirt vleis where crested cranes nest. Caretakers Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are planning to include a more strenuous 14km hike – currently available by special arrangement only – to the workings of what was, in 1889, the Happy Thoughts Gold Mine, the site of gold yielded by the 1000- million-year-old rock underlying the loamy soil.
Vernon Crookes’ natural riches include the world’s largest earthworm and a threatened beetle species, while the changing seasons provide wild flower displays that attract those looking for solitude and rural beauty. The KwaZulu-Natal Coastal Branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa arranges walks led by experts at different times of year. They can also provide information on the grasses, flowers and trees of the region.
Vernon Crookes lies partly behind, and crests, the coastal plateau near Scottburgh, in an unlikely setting amid pine plantations, sugar-cane fields and tribal lands. Once on the gravel road turn-off, the sugar-cane soon gives way to lush indigenous forest and grassland. From its highest point – 610 metres above sea level – and on a clear day, you have views all the way to the Indian Ocean horizon. In the cool forested ravines and riverside glades, you’re just 150 metres above sea level and surrounded by ancient trees, ferns, tree orchids and the sounds of gently flowing water and raucous birdsong.
Three species of earthworm are found at Vernon Crookes, including the world’s largest, Microchaetus vernoni. Known only from this conservation area, scientists describe it as ‘remarkable’. According to the Endangered Wildlife Trust website, adults grow to 2.6m and about 10mm in diameter. Their mud-hills shouldn’t be confused with mammal dung heaps – but skirt them carefully anyway, since the earthworms are among the growing list of endangered species associated with South Africa’s diminishing grasslands.
As you wander the trails in the company of blesbuck, impala and zebra you might also see the more elusive reedbuck, tiny oribi and blue and grey duiker that have been introduced among the reserve’s 56 mammal species.
But it is a delight to visit in spring and early summer, when bees, ladybugs and other pollen-seekers are busy harvesting the botanical treasure chest. A secret glen of arum lilies beside a wetland was disturbed only by the flash of butterflies. Purple-blue water lilies on two dams buzzed with iridescent dragon- and damselflies. Each bend and turn of the trail revealed a new landscape of shifting shades of pinks, magentas, lilacs and blues and, on one memorable hillock, a blazing field of yellow everlastings.
Quite naturally it’s a birding destination of note, too. SA Birding’s online ‘Wiki’ tells us that the bird list for Vernon Crookes stands at more than 300 species, 100 of which can easily be recorded in a summer morning’s birding. These include a number of forest and grassland specials including emerald cuckoos, three species of honey guide, pygmy kingfisher, narina trogon and crested flycatchers, among a myriad LBJs. African crowned eagle, martial eagle and buzzard jackal provide aerial displays as they catch the thermals when conditions are right.
Accommodation at the Nyengelezi hutted camp is in five two-bedded rondavels, with communal kitchen and toilet facilities. A large lounge doubles as a conference centre, or laboratory for educational groups. There’s also a 10-bedded ‘treehouse’, built around a giant wild fig whose massive trunk reaches through a deck surround, while its canopy towers over the braai area. The treehouse, equipped with a freezer/fridge and microwave, has sliding doors and plenty of beds to allow for conversion into a dormitory arrangement for large groups.
There’s a picnic site for day visitors among coral trees near the entrance. Braai areas, complete with tables and benches, are deeper in the reserve. These are discreetly tucked into a copse of trees, each with its own path to a central ablution block. A 12km gravel road criss-crosses the reserve, some for 4x4s only, for those who prefer to enjoy the views and wildlife from a distance.
If you’re going:
Turn of the South Coast freeway at the Park Rynie/Umzinto flyover and take the Highflats/ Ixopo road. The reserve turn-off is 3 km past Umzimto, 12.5km from the freeway. The entrance gate is 6km on good dirt from the turn-off.
Gates open at 6am in summer and close at 6pm. Entrance is R20 a person, or Wild Cards are accepted.
Take insect repellent – ticks can be a problem, as can horse flies when you’re hiking near the river – as well as sunscreen, binoculars and a wildflower handbook.
To book accommodation: Tel +27 (0)33 845 1000, email firstname.lastname@example.org or book online. The self-catering rondavels and tree-house cost around R120 a person a night, with specials for pensioners and children.
For general information: Officer-in-charge Tel +27 (0)39 974 2222 or +27 (0)72 303 8648.
For more information: http://www.kznwildlife.com/index.php/accomodation/resorts/vernon-crookes.html
Read more about threatened grassland biomes in South Africa.
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