The part of the Wilderness Section which contains the Ebb & Flow Camp, the Serpentine and much of Langvlei originally formed part of the farm Kleinkranz, which was granted to JJ Viviers in 1818. Little is known of that period but in 1845 the land was transferred to Paul Gerber who moved there with his wife, four sons and two daughters.
Gerber did not subdivide the farm and, by the time of the third generation of the family, there were 37 people living on it. Early in the 20th century the western section was sold, with the Dumbleton family of Oakhurst and Fairy Knowe acquiring the westernmost section on both sides of the Touw River, and Donald McIntyre of Oudtshoorn buying a portion bordering Island Lake. Here he built "Glentyre", the original name of the prominent house above the north shore of the lake.
The land north of the railway and adjoining the Touw river was administered for much of the 20th century by the George Divisional Council. Originally a public camping ground, it became the Ebb and Flow Nature reserve and was described as "closely overhung by the forest canopy; there is abundant bird life, and a quiet canoe trip up these slow-flowing waters is a memorable experience". This is now Ebb & Flow North.
On the south bank of the Serpentine where it joined the Touw, the Siesta Caravan Park was run by Jack Nixon in the nineteen sixties and seventies. This spot, which originally belonged to the Dumbleton family, is now known as Ebb & Flow South and has become the headquarters for the park and its main restcamp.
The process of preserving the waterways of the Wilderness Lakes complex has been a long one. It started with the proclamation of the Lakes in 1968 and was to result in the formation of the Wilderness National Park in the 1980s, although this was by no means the end of the process, which remains ongoing.
With the formation of the Lakes Area Board in 1975, the way was cleared for the identification and acquisition of suitable land for preservation. This was initiated by the taking over of pieces of land near the river mouth, followed by 450 Ha which included the first two lakes and Duiwerivier kloof.
In 1983 the country's first national lake area was proclaimed at Wilderness. At that time it was still under the control of the Lake Areas Development Board with the National Parks Board taking over in 1985 and the Wilderness National Park being proclaimed in 1987.
In 1986, the year prior to proclamation, Swartvlei was brought into the area controlled by the Parks Board. With the inclusion in 1991 of the Lakes Nature Reserve at Rondevlei, from Cape Nature Conservation, the Park now formed a single unit stretching from the mouth of the Touw to the mouth of Swartvlei,including an important research facility at Rondevlei.
The lakes included a drowned river valley, Swartvlei; a drowned lowland, Langvlei, and a wind-formed and later flooded hollow, Rondevlei. In trying to manage an area which is under such intense pressure from developers, one of the significant actions of the Park involves regulating the hydraulics of the system so that the inhabitants in low-lying sections can be protected against abnormally high water levels, while simultaneously protecting the ecological functioning of the region.
The most prominent landscape feature in this section is the Knysna Estuary. The high conservation importance of this estuary has been emphasised in several studies, with it ranking 3rd of South Africa’s estuaries in terms of botanical importance, 8th in terms of importance for conserving fish, 19th in terms of waterbird conservation, and 1st in terms of overall conservation importance which includes criteria such as size, diversity of habitat, zonal rarity and biodiversity.
About 2000 years ago San hunter-gatherers, whose ancestors had lived in southern Africa for tens of thousands of years, were joined by Khoekhoe herders (pronounced koi-koi). The term ‘Khoisan’ includes both the San and the Khokhoe whose clans had names like Namaqua and Outeniqua.
Their influence on ecological systems was probably slight except perhaps for starting fires to drive out game animals. Artefacts suggest that they inhabited caves along the coast. They seemed to live at the coast during winter and inland during summer. They fished, gathered roots and bulbs of wild plants and hunted small mammals in the nearby forest. After the Europeans arrived, the clans slowly disintegrated, and their members ended up in the employment of farmers.
Much of recent history is built up around the logging of surrounding forests.
Since the earliest history indigenous forests have played a very important role in the development of the country. The early settlers were largely dependent on the wood from these forests for their normal timber requirements. When the Dutch East India Company founded the first settlement in the Cape in 1652, wood from the surrounding forests was used extensively for building dwellings and wagons; for making furniture, tools and other household articles; for erecting protective fences and for building boats and quays. These forests were soon exhausted and so the settlers had to go eastwards in search for timber - to the forests near George, Knysna and Tsitsikamma.
By 1711 the occurrence of large tracts of forest in ‘Outeniqualand’ had been reported to the Cape Colonial administration. Exploitation of the surrounding indigenous forests in the Knysna area started around 1763 and has continued for over 200 years. A woodcutter’s post was established near the present-day town of George in 1776, from where timber was transported overland to Cape Town.
Reckless forest destruction was already taking place when the area was visited by Governor Joachim van Plettenberg in 1778. He appointed Johann Meeding as resident at Plettenberg Bay to try and curb the rate of exploitation. Meeding built a timber shed and entered into a contract with the woodcutters to supply timber. No conservation measures were introduced, but there was a semblance of control. Controlling and limiting wood harvesting to a ‘sustainable’ level in the southern Cape forests was a long and difficult task. Soon the forest began also to be exploited for the British Royal Navy in 1812 and, in spite of the dangerous passage through The Knysna Heads, a port was developed at Knysna for the transportation of timber. The estuary is one of the country’s oldest commercial harbours, with the first loading wharf being constructed by the Dutch East India Company in 1776. In its heyday, the port would receive up to 80 sailing ships and steamers in a year.
The best known historical figures were George Rex (a self-proclaimed illegitimate son of King George III) who founded the town of Knysna and who at the time of his death in 1839 owned all of the land surrounding the estuary; and John Benn who for many years acted as the harbour pilot by assisting ships in their passage through the heads. Several sites and structures in and around Knysna have been declared national monuments. The Knysna harbour was de-proclaimed in 1959.
When the Great Trek commenced in 1836 it spurred an increase in the demand for timber for the construction of wagons. Ten years later, in 1846, all worked-out forests were closed by the Government, divided up into lots and sold by public auction. The remaining forests were reserved as Crown forests and put under the control of local magistrates who were to issue felling licenses. By 1847 however, forest destruction was so bad that all Crown forests were closed for harvesting. The Crown forests re-opened in 1856 because of the timber shortage.
The “Great Fire” of 1869, which stretched from Humansdorp to Riversdale, caused considerable damage in the region and spurred the Cape government to strengthen control over the forests.
In 1880 professional French forest officer, Count M. de Vasselot de Regné, was appointed as Superintendent of Woods and Forests for the whole Cape Colony. He introduced the first real efforts towards conservation of the forests. The Forestry Department was developed and professional forestry officers were appointed who played important roles in the development of forest management in the region and rest of the country for decades to follow.
The Cape Forest Act was passed in 1888. This gave a greater degree of protection to the forests. The first timber plantations were established near Knysna so as to reduce the timber demand on the indigenous forests. However, even under the section system forest destruction continued because the demand for timber caused woodcutters to exceed the recommended volume to be removed. Finally in 1939 the right of the woodcutters to work the forests was annulled, and state owned forests in the region were closed to non-sustainable harvesting. The Department of Forestry closed the forests to all exploitation from 1940 to 1964 except for the cutting of dead and dying trees and the working of windfalls.
An indigenous forest research station was established at Saasveld, near George in 1964, under the leadership of Dr. Friedrich von Breitenbach. A system of multiple-use conservation management was developed and applied that formed the basis for the management system applied today.
After extensive negotiations between the National Parks Board and the then Secretary of the Department of Forestry and his Minister, the Tsitsikamma Coastal and Forest National Parks were proclaimed in 1964 to establish South Africa’s first marine protected area and conserve the associated coastal forests of the region.
Today, the Garden Route National Park (GRNP), located in the coastal strip between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the sea, can be described as a complex of protected areas managed as a single entity by SANParks.
The Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park is situated at the heart of the picturesque tourist region known as the Garden Route, found in the Southern Cape of South Africa. Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan (early inhabitants of the area) word meaning "place of much water".
The Park incorporates 80 km of rocky coastline with spectacular sea and landscapes, a remote mountainous region with secluded valleys covered in mountain Fynbos and temperate high forests with deep river gorges leading down to the sea.
The Tsitsikamma Section protects a wonderland of inter-tidal and marine life. This is one of the largest single unit 'no take' (including fishing) Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the world, conserving 11 percent of South Africa's Temperate South Coast rocky shoreline and provides a 'laboratory' for fisheries baseline research on endangered line fish species. In 1964 when it was proclaimed, it became the first Marine National Park to be proclaimed in Africa.
The Tsitsikamma Section has a long history of Marine and Forest utilisation and most of the local communities relied mostly, in one form or another, on these two ecosystems for their survival. The previous resource utilisation was of obvious economic value gained from the region and now incorporated into the Park. Today, the National Park contributes in a different way to the economic development of the region. Tsitsikamma National Park attracts tourists to the region, provides economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs, (local trail guides, adventure operators, transport services, infrastructure development & maintenance services, etc.) and as an implementing agency for poverty relief programmes, creates employment and training opportunities for some of the regions poverty stricken communities. Currently, two of the nationally running, poverty relief programs, namely Working for Water (Invasive Plant Clearing) and Coasts Care (Coastal Conservation) are operated within the Park.
The Tsitsikamma Section incorporates various cultural heritage sites ranging from Khoisan cultural heritage sites such as caves, shell middens and rock art to more recent cultural historic sites such as the ruins of small fisher settlements, remnants of the past forestry industries and grave sites. The park is currently embarking on a Cultural Mapping project with the aim of identifying and protecting all Cultural Heritage sites incorporated within the Park. An Oral History Collection project is being implemented currently to recover and interpret information relating to cultural heritage. The more recent history of the forestry and fishing industries that is still in the memories of older folk from the region, is the one thing that strongly connects local communities with the park and can enhance park-community relations. These processes will be developed and implemented in conjunction with local community members and the organisations representing community interests, as well as relevant academic institutions and researchers.
During the First World Conference on National Parks in Seattle in 1962, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) appealed to governments for the establishment of marine parks and reserves. The National Parks Board responded with the proclamation of the Tsitsikamma National Park.
The original Coastal and Forest National Parks were proclaimed on in December 1964, by the then Minister of Forestry in conjunction with the Director of the National Parks Board (Government Gazette 1964). The original coastal park extended some 59 km between Groot River (east) (west of Oubosstrand) and Groot River (west) (at Nature's Valley), and included the areas approximately 800m landward and 800m seaward of the low water mark (horizontal distance - contours ignored).
In September 1983 the seaward boundary of the park between the Groot River (east) and the Bloukrans River was extended to three nautical miles and the remainder (Bloukrans to Groot River, west) changed to 0.5 nautical miles offshore. (Government Gazette 1983). The small Tsitsikamma Forest National Park was deproclaimed in 1989 (Government Gazette 1989) and the coastal park became known as the Tsitsikamma National Park (TNP). In December 1987 the De Vasselot Reserve (2561 ha) was added to the park (Government Gazette 1987). During April 1996 an extension of the seaward boundary was proclaimed as part of the Tsitsikamma National Park. This section extends from Groot River (west) along the same seaward boundary to a point parallel to Grootbank and then back to the Groot River (west) along the high water mark.
Contractual areas (Schedule five National Parks) have, subsequent to the original proclamation, been added to this park. During March 1995 erven 382 and 444 and the remainder of erf 434 Nature's Valley were added to Tsitsikamma as contractual areas. The farm Buitenverwachting was gazetted as a contractual National Park in 1996. In October 1991 a 30-year lease for the neighbouring Soetkraal area (24 372 ha) was signed with Rand Mines Properties Ltd.
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- The Wilderness section of the GRNP has a Ramsar site (wetland of global significance). It has the potential to conserve whole ecosystems from catchments to sea.