Meiringspoort is the spectacular final product of geological processes that have
taken place over more than 200 million years. Here it is clear how the sandstone
layers of the Cape mountains were lifted up, pleated and folded back and forth.
Terrestrial forces, greater than'we can imagine, created an impressive home for
a wide variety of living organisms in this area. Certain plants and animals have
evolved so much over thousands of years to be able to survive, that they are
today acknowledged as unique species that only occur here.
The plant diversity of Meiringspoort is one of its considerable attractions. The
species diversity is so high that, for a similar sized area elsewhere in the
world, it would be difficult to rival. Some of the plant species in
Meiringspoort are known throughout the world. In 1689, Hendrik Oldenland
collected the wild geranium (Pelargonium zonale) that occurs here. Seeds and
cuttings were later sent to Europe where the Duchess of Beaufort in England was
cultivating them by 1710. Over the years they have used our wild geranium for
selection and to breed hybrids. It is still known today as one of the important
parent plants of the massive geranium industry in Europe and America.
Meiringspoort forms part of the Swartberg Nature Reserve, which is managed by
Cape Nature Conservation. This reserve comprises about 120 000 hectares and
includes most of the mountainous area on both sides of the Poort.
The larger animals that occur here are seldom seen - probably because of the
busy main road. However, a variety of birds and smaller animals, which are not
frightened off by the busy road as easily, are seen regularly. One must drive
particularly carefully close to the northern tip of Meiringspoort at night, as
kudus often cross the road in this area. Car lights blind the kudus and they
then tend to try to jump over the car.
Respect the environment and please abide by the relevant regulations. Cape
Nature Conservation would like to keep this area in a good condition for you and
Meiringspoort took shape about 250 million years ago when Africa was still part
of a larger continent, which together with Australia, South America, Antartica
and India, was known as Gondwanaland. An inland mountain range was formed by
lateral forces which, by pushing against each other, gradually heaved up layers
of rock. At first, water from this old mountain range drained towards the north.
These streams cut ravines into the northern slopes of this mountain range.
About 100 million years later, Gondwanaland broke up and the adjacent continents
began to drift away. The rock formations of the mountain range toppled to the south.
New rivers formed ravines in a southerly direction. Another 120 million years later,
the mountain range was heaved up again, causing streams to cut deeper ravines in the
mountain. The gradual distortion and upheaval of the earth's crust formed the
Swartberg range, with Meiringspoort ravine cutting through it.
At least three different formations of the Table Mountain Sandstone group are
visible near the waterfall. The Tchando formation at the top, a narrow shale
band of the Cederberg formation lower down and below it, a much folded cliff
which consists of a 75 m layer of Peninsula sandstone. These
different formations differ in drainage pattern, the degree of erodibility
and nutrient content. Different plant and animal species occur on each of them.
The variation in the geology is therefore one of the reasons why such a great
diversity of plants and animals occur in this region.
The animals vary from small field mice, such as the Cape spiny mouse, to the shy
leopard, which is not often seen. Dassies (Cape hyrax) are often seen when they
sunbathe on the rocks or while feeding on the vegetation next to the road. Water
mongoose live near the river or close to picnic sites, while klipspringer stay
close to the higher slopes. Baboons often laze around close to the road. Please
do not feed them! It is an offence because they become used to being fed and
eventually become dangerous when they demand food from visitors. Most of the
other animals avoid the busy road, but you might sometimes see caracal, Cape
clawless otter, grysbok or large spotted genet at daybreak or dusk.
Of the 76 bird species that have been recorded in Meiringspoort, Cape bunting,
Cape rock thrush and Cape wagtail are the most common close to picnic sites.
Lesser double-collared sunbirds and malachite sunbirds stay close to the
waterfall. Malachite sunbirds in particular love the nearly black nectar that is
produced by the honey bush (Melianthus comosus).
Remain on the lookout for black eagles. They are often seen hunting dassies.
Other abundant bird species are the rock pigeon, Cape turtledove, laughing dove,
Cape bulbul, Karoo prinia, red-winged starling and Cape white-eye. In summer you
might see some of the bird species that migrate in winter, such as Alpine swifts
and greater striped swallows.
Three species of fish occur in the river, namely Cape kurper and two scarce and
endangered red fin species, the small-scaled red-finned minnow and the slender
red-finned minnow. The fins on the male, which becomes bright red in the
breeding season, easily identify them. Currently, there are no alien fish
species in the river. They can not be released here either as they are a serious
threat to the survival of the rare red-fins.
Insects form an integral part of the ecosystems in Meiringspoort - from the well-
known dragonflies along the river to the hoard of strange little insects on the
pebbles in the riverbed, the carpenter bees that hum around pease-blossoms to a
variety of butterflies. Some of the world's most interesting beetle species also
occur on the high peaks above Meiringspoort.
Visitors are kindly requested to:
- Only make fires in designated fireplaces
- Not make fires anywhere after sunset
- Bring all their firewood with them and not to gather wood in the veld
- Not disturb, collect or remove any animal, bird, insect or plant
- Not disturb, collect or remove any artifacts or geological objects
- Use the rubbish bins and not to litter
- Not feed baboons or any other animals
- Have picnics only in the designated picnic sites
- Not camp here. There are camping facilities at De Rust
- Not make a noise - radios or musical instruments should not be a disturbance to-others
- Not paint or write on rocks, trees or at the waterfall
- Not swim in the river - people and animals that live down the stream drink this water!
As a result of the many loose stones and rocks in the Poort, it is dangerous to
walk on the mountain slopes and will only be allowed in special cases.
There is a dramatic change in the vegetation from the Karoo to Meiringspoort.
Tree and fern species that are more distinctive of the wetter Knysna forests
occur inside the Poort. Mixed amongst these are Great and Little Karoo plant
species, which in turn occur between the typical fynbos plant species.
The rich variety of plant growth can be ascribed partially to the broken
topography of the environment. This landscape creates various habitats, which
differ with regard to the depth, drainage and nutrient status of the soil. The
rainfall and degree to which fires can occur also differ from place to place.
Adjacent habitats can differ totally. This is why surprising combinations of
plant types, such as typical Knysna tree species and Great Karoo succulent
species can grow here practically side by side.
A large variety of shrub and tree species that are adapted to surviving regular
floods grow next to the river in the Poort. These riverine vegetation, such as
the Cape willow (Salix mucronata) and honey bell bush (Freylinia lanceolata)
have flexible stems and elongated leaves that offer little resistance when
submerged during a flood. Their special adaptations enable them to recover soon
after a flood. Young trees that occur in and along the river initially also have
flexible stems, but later develop a dense root system and strong stems that
anchor them firmly.
The sweet thorn tree (Acacia karoo), which prefers sweet, clayey soils, is
abundant along the rivers outside the Meiringspoort but scarce inside the Poort,
where the sandy soil is
acidic and nutrient poor. Riparian plants play an important role in stabilizing
the soil and rocks in the riverbed. Without this vegetation, the homes of birds,
fish, insects and other larger animals, as well as the road, would be severely
disturbed every time there was a flood.
The vegetation on the slopes also varies considerably. Fynbos vegetation, such
as the waboom (Protea nitida), is found particularly on the cool, moist mountain
slopes. Typical mountain fynbos is limited primarily to the higher slopes, but
sections of it are visible close to the road. Little Karoo vegetation, which is
sometimes mixed with Great African holly (Ilex mitis) does best in narrow
protected gorges, while red alders (Cunonia capensis) grow in areas where
underground water seeps perennially. Three of the plant species growing on the
vertical sandstone cliffs are heath species (Erica species) and occur only in
Meiringspoort and nowhere else in the world.
Many questions about the plant diversity in Meiringspoort have not yet been
answered, such as why the mountain cabbage-tree (Cussonia paniculata) occurs
only in the northern half of the Poort, while the common cabbage-tree (Cussonia
spicata) is restricted to the southern half.
Meiringspoort was officially opened to traffic early on the morning of 3 March
1858 with a colourful procession and a tearful guest of honour - the champagne
bottle only broke after the third attempt! The Poort was named after the
influential farmer from De Rust, Petrus Johannes Meiring, who tirelessly
campaigned for a road through the poort. This road opened doors for trading
between the communities of George, Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn and the farmers to
the north. Tollhouses that were built also served as shops and dwelling houses
and the first toll-keeper that functioned there for fifteen years became famous
as the local herbalist and tooth-extractor! The boom in the wool trade had more
than one million kilograms of wool being transported through Meiringspoort by
To preserve the natural beauty of the Poort, as little blasting as possible was
done when the road was tarred from 1966-1971. The stonewalls that maintain the
character of the earlier road, were built by 480 migrant workers from the former
Ciskei and Transkei.
Some of the best anecdotes about Meiringspoort include stories about leopards
roaming the ravines of the Swartberg Mountains, the "finger rock" pointing to
the pool where a sinful couple drowned and New Year celeb shallow pools.
*Excerpts taken from Meiringspoort, a scenic gorge through the Swartberg
Mountain Range by Helena Marincowitz.
Tel: (044) 279 1739 or 082 784 1786 (after hours)
Source: Cape Nature
Article Date: 16 May 2005