Nature lovers hack away alien vegetation

Two years after the veld fire of 2015 look up at verdant green slopes and you would be excused for thinking that vegetation is regenerating. Take a walk there and you will find a very different story, a wall of impenetrable, mostly alien and invasive plants, many from Australia and the Mediterranean, others indigenous, prickly, horrid.

How to rid these unwanted plants that could be home to indigenous ones that could be a cure for cancer, a nectar filled tube for a sunbird or bee, or just a delicate gladiolus admired by a hiker. Enter a band of passionate, fit, healthy hackers. People who come from far and wide giving up a few hours a week, a month, satisfied and happy at making a difference.

Many were inspired by the late Alf Morris who taught at Wynberg Boys’ High School from 1947 to 1988. He was their hostel superintendent, ran their mountain club and was heavily involved in all aspects of the school, continuing after his retirement. The Alf Morris Centre was originally the gym hall and then converted into a music centre.Mr Morris and his helpers spent many hours on Vlakkenberg building a logged path, clearing aliens, planting silvertrees nurtured from seeds donated by Kirstenbosch and grown in his Plumstead garden. Recently the Bulletin caught up with them as they arrived at the top of Price Drive wearing old clothes, hefting equipment, slugging up slopes in all weather. Jos de Gendt is in charge of the Friends of Vlakkenberg and has been actively hacking there (and in other areas) for over 20 years. He says 80 years ago Vlakkenberg was covered with pink ericas and silvertrees.

Vlakkenberg is especially important because of the silvertrees, which are becoming endangered, requiring a soil of decomposed granite which is found on the lower slopes of Table Mountain from Lion’s Head, to Rhodes Memorial, Kirstenbosch, Cecilia, Vlakkenberg and Tokai.

Mr De Gendt of Tokai says when he first went up Vlakkenberg in 1978 the lower parts were pine plantation, the higher slope an impenetrable curtain of long-leaved acacia. Wanting to climb the peak he cut a track to the top.

He then joined the official hacking effort in 1995 and in 2000 a swathe of flames destroyed all their efforts but they continued. “Aliens grow en mass after fire, but with eco-friendly poison and much manual labour from volunteers, we got on top of it,” says Mr De Gendt.

In 2012 he was the only person hacking at Vlakkenberg, the others having moved to other infested areas Silvermine, above Groot Constantia and Silvermist.

Apart from Vlakkenberg, Margaret Kahle of Wynberg, who has been hacking for 12 years, hacks in the Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area, Youngsfield and Lower Tokai.

And then came the fire of March 2015. Mr De Gendt says they could not believe how much alien vegetation reappeared, not helped that they could not access the area until June 2015. They started clearing aliens from the top of Price Drive soon realising that progress was too slow and so they changed their strategy. Noticing that silvertrees were plentiful but getting swamped by aliens they crisscrossed the slope clearing around the silvertree seedlings. “It’s addictive”, according to Richard Whiteing of Constantia who started hacking three years ago when he retired and does it because of his love for fynbos, the smell and being in nature.

Neville Attridge of Claremont has 17 years experience and uses a bow saw, loppers a tree popper. Mick Farrow of Bergvliet prefers loppers and hand saws plus chain saw when needed. John Shaw of Fish Hoek has been hacking at Elsies Peak, Clovelly, Glencairn, Simonstown, Silvermine, Tokai, Constantia since 1995, before that at the botanic gardens on the West Rand. “I do it to preserve the natural vegetation and it’s satisfying and a good reason to escape and exercise on the mountain,” he says.

Jay Cowen of Tokai has been hacking for 35 years and uses loppers and various saws – chainsaw, bow and folding saws.

The Friends of Vlakkenberg are asking others to join them saying they are losing the battle with fast growing aliens and stinkbean starting to flower.

The hack group meet at the top of Price Drive every Wednesday in winter at 9am, in summer at 7am, work for about four hours. Their monthly hack is on the third Saturday of the month at 2pm with the next one taking place on Saturday April 22. Contact Jos De Gendt at 021 712 7506, or josdegendt@gmail.com.