Sunday, 30 October 2016

Mkhambathi - magnificent scenery and successful plant hunting

During our previous visit to Mkhambathi Nature Reserve last year we came across a Brachystelma which we did not recognise, and an Ipomoea which we thought might be a plant that Tony Abbott had long searched for. Subsequently we were able to establish that the Brachystelma is an undescribed species and the Ipomoea was indeed Tony's sought after plant. In both cases we wanted to collect more representative material to allow proper description of these two species. We therefore timed our visit to coincide with the same period as our previous visit. 

As was the case with the trip to Sigidi, it is necessary to travel far inland to avoid the deep river gorges in Pondoland before turning coastward. As the crow flies, the distance between home and the Mkhambathi NR is only 42 kilometers but the trip via Flagstaff takes about four hours and this can be considerably longer depending on the current state of reconstruction of the R61 provincial road. Arriving at the gate not long after mid day we stopped off at a site of the dwarf succulent Euphorbia flanaganii. Soon after starting to walk through the long grass towards the rock plates on which the Euphorbia grow, we unexpectedly came across a few of the unknown Brachystelma species and made a collection of the desired number of individual plants. 

Brachystelma sp. nov.
While wandering around on the rock plates amongst the Euphorbia flanaganii we saw several other interesting plants: Buchnera simplex, Eriosemopsis subanisophylla and Helichrysum felinum.
Euphorbia flanaganii
Buchnera simplex

Eriosema subanisophylla
Helichrysum felinum
Just as we headed back towards the vehicle, Kate spotted a shriveled-up flower on the small, elusive Ipomoea which was the other target species for the trip.While unsuitable for a specimen, it proved that we probably had our timing right and that the plant occurs at more than one location in the reserve. This has to be some kind of record - finding two target species withing 15 minutes of entering the reserve, both in an unexpected place.

We drove to the office, sorted out our accommodation and made arrangements for the next day's expedition, and then drove to our cottages. After unpacking and a quick lunch, we set off across a beach and started botanising in the coastal grassland just to the north of the Gwe Gwe river. 

Scrambling across some big rocks we saw the Cussonia species to be named Cussonia pondoensis ined. in fruit. Growing on the rocks was a group of small orchids, which had still had a few remnants of flowers; these were clearly a species of Holothrix but some research would be required to confirm their identity. Fortunately on the way back to the beach, Anne came across a pristine flower on another specimen, which allowed decent photographs to be taken and this eventually helped us to tentatively identify the species as Holothrix burchellii - an ID which was subsequently confirmed -- and this find represents a considerable north-eastward range extension for the species. We also came across further specimens of our unknown Brachystelma in these grasslands.
Cussonia pondoensis ined.
Holothrix burchellii
Early the next morning we met with our guides and interested observers for the day and after a brief stop at the Euphorbia flanaganii site, headed into the wilderness area of the reserve. We stopped at a river crossing where we found Struthiola pondoensis and Chironia krebsii.
Struthiola pondoensis
Chironia krebsii
 We then drove to where we had found the Ipomoea plants last year, but apart from some shriveled specimens, we were disappointed to find that most of the rock plates in this area were devoid of flowering Ipomoea. Kate walked ahead to avoid some of the jolting in the vehicle but soon called to us as she had finally found some of the Ipomoea. Here there were sufficient plants to allow the necessary collection of specimen material.

The tiny undescribed Ipomoea (approximately lifesize)
The next stop was an area which had been burned and we spent some time exploring to see what was flowering. There were several impressive specimens of Brachcorythis ovata, as well as a slightly damaged but still recognisable Pachycarpus linearis (this is a correction of an earlier ID of Pachycarpus campanulatus - thanks to Adam Shuttleworth for the correction)
Brachycorythis ovata
Pachycarpus linearis

The successful Ipomoea hunters - in front of the Mtentu River gorge
with a waterfall in the background
The lunch spot we used last year once again did not disappoint. Graham, sandwich in hand, found more Ipomoea on the rock plates and a Brachystelma australe in a seep area. Wandering off into a wetland he found a feast of Satyrium trinerve accompanied by some bright Disa caffra.
Brachystelma australe

Satyrium trinerve
Disa caffra
We made a detour to some rocks on the return trip, finding Delosperma rogersii and Bulbophyllum scaberulum in flower. 

Delosperma rogersii
Bulbophyllum scaberulum
On the return trip we had to ford the Mkhambathi River just above the falls which drop directly into the sea.
"Sylvie" crossing the Mkhambathi River with the falls to the right
After a well-earned rest, the next morning we met at the Daza River bridge and set off to walk along the river towards the sea, which would give us the opportunity to investigate the forest fringes. While getting ready to walk, Dorothy found some of the grass-like Erica abbottii and Kate found some Kniphofia drepanophylla growing in a swampy area. We set off down along the river which soon dropped into a narrow rocky slot. As we approached the forest we found a Manilkara nicholsonii in fruit.

Erica abbottii
Kniphofia drepanophylla
Following the Daza River slot towards the forest
Manilkara nicholsonii fruits
Trees encountered along this forest fringe had us debating hard. There are several plants that require some research to establish species identities, but one which required little debate was a Urera trinervis in flower.

Urera trinervis
We stopped for lunch where the river banks flattened and sat just below a small waterfall dropping into the clear stream.
The lunch spot

Anne, Kate, Sonwabile Jack and Nyameka Dubedube
with Dorothy at the lunch spot
Continuing on down the river towards the sea, we eventually reached the mouth - an odd sideways cascade over rocks to eventually reach the sea.

The Daza River - the last cascades into the sea
On the way back we were lucky to find a small group of Brachystelma sandersonii in flower - it is very unlikely that this unobtrusive Vulnerable species would be spotted if not flowering.

Brachystelma sandersonii
As this part of the grassland has been burned, many of the animals in the reserve are happily grazing here. We were initially observed by a group of Red Hartebeest and then startled a small herd of Eland with a young calf - Graham was not quick enough to get a photo of the calf.

Red Hartebeest keeping an eye on us
Departing Eland
On our final morning we decided to walk inland a little and then follow the Gwe Gwe River back to the sea. From up on the hill we had a great view back over Gwe Gwe bay.

The first different species we encountered on this walk was Macrotyloma axilare, and on a rocky ridge we found Tarenna pavettoides  in flower. Near the Tarenna was a Shirakiopsis elliptica in fruit and amongst the rocks in the grassland there were a few tall Senecio decurrens.
Macrotyloma axilare
Tarenna pavettoides
Shirakiopsis elliptica
Senecio decurrens
Once we reached the stream we found the first Disa tripetaloides for this trip and Hesperantha hygrophila on the stream bank. Following the stream down we found the odd fern, Psilotum nudum.

Psilotum nudum
Back at the beach, we just had time for a quick swim before packing up and heading back homewards. Our thanks to Mr Lwazi Khuzwayo and his staff at Mkhambathi for all their help (once again the stalwart Mr. Jack safely shepherded us around the reserve) and in particular the interest shown in what we were doing by Nyameka Dubedube. We were able to add about 40 taxa to our species list for the reserve - a list of already nearly 1200 species, as well as being able to record accurate locations for many of the threatened species.

Participants: Anne S, Dorothy M, Graham G, Kate G, Nombasa M, Nyameka D, Sonwabile J, Zama S.

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