Last week I visited a patch of limestone fynbos near Cape Agulhas. My reason for the visit was to see what plants are present in an area proposed for extending a agricultural lime mine. On the way to the site I stopped for a hamburger in town and then drove on through the wheat lands of the Overberg. Not very long ago this region was home to an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals. But here nature was doomed by its existence in an area characterized by dependable winter rains and nutrient-rich, clay soils. Within a century some 95% of the renosterveld vegetation of the Overberg has been plowed up and replaced by winter grains – wheat, canola, barley and oats.
When I reached the mine site I clambered up a hill and was overwhelmed by the diversity and intricate beauty of the flowers around me. For a few hours I recorded and photographed the many flowers I found and then sat down and looked around. There I was amongst my little pocket of limestone endemic friends, the majestic conebushes Leucadendron muirii and Leucadendron meridianum, the limestone pincushion protea Leucospermum truncatum, and the limestone protea Protea obtusifolia. And then there was the endemic blombos Metalasia calciocola, the waving Thamnochortus fraternus eking out an existence on the hard calcrete bank – seemingly with no topsoil at all, the delicate Wahlenbergia calcarea, Jamesbrittenia calciphila, Ficinia truncata, Berkheya coriacea and so many more……
Looking around me I had the feeling of being marooned on an island, an island of exquisite limestone fynbos with all its unique and threatened species. All around us a sea of farmland as far as the eye could see. These limestone islands have survived the last centuries and these plants and associated fauna have witnessed the slaughter of the surrounding renosterveld that once thrived on the fertile soils below. They survived because the soils were poor and had no agricultural value. But now it would appear that their time for the bulldozer has also arrived! Agricultural lime from my little limestone island are needed to feed the agricultural monster that has sprung up around it over the last century. The monster needed to produce our food and support our burgeoning human population.
As I left for home that hamburger I had eaten on the way to the site felt very heavy and uncomfortable in my stomach.