Ithala - Ntshondwe View
Ithala - Ntshondwe Restaurant View
Ithala - Ntshondwe Camp View
Ithala - River Scenic Landscape
Ithala - Mhlangeni Bush Lodge
Ithala - Ntshondwe

Ithala Auto Trail - The Ngubhu Loop

AUTO TRAIL THE NGUBHU LOOP AUTO TRAIL

A INTRODUCTION

The Auto Trail consists of a 30 km circular drive that should take about three hours to complete. A total of 22 points of interest are described along the route, which is marked alphabetically.

a) Dangerous animals occur in the reserve, notably black rhino, leopard, elephant, buffalo and white rhino. It’s scenic beauty and remoteness makes Ithala one of our greatest natural assets, so please keep it clean.

b) The reserve covers 29 653 ha and represents and represents 13 vegetation communities. Because of this, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has reintroduced a variety of game species into Ithala. The bird life is equally gratifying as no less than 300 species are well represented here. It is a most beautiful, peaceful place to spend a few days.

c) Dongas here originated when too many cattle and goats grazed the veld. This led to the grass canopy being repeatedly removed. With the "umbrella" no longer there to shelter the bare soil, raindrops impacted directly onto the soil, loosened the particles and washed them away into the rivers. The dongas are deep because the particular soil type is highly susceptible to erosion. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are concerned about dongas because they represent a tremendous soil loss and are a threat to our rivers and streams. When the soil particles from the dongas enter a river they cause two serious problems. Firstly, the silt settles and causes shallowing or blockage of dams and rivers. Secondly, the murky water is unsuitable for many of the plants and animals that require clear water for their survival.

d) Once you have joined the Loop Road you will see the tall grasslands ahead, where you can expect the greatest concentration of game. Blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, zebra, white rhino, warthog and eland inhabit the area. Later you will drive through hilly country where you may see kudu, impala, giraffe and even perhaps the elusive bushbuck or black rhino.

B. MARULA TREE Sclerocarya birrea Maroela umGanu (No 360)

The marula tree carries with it the same romance as does the fever tree and the sycamore fig. In the ideal environment it will grow to about 10 m, and has a wide-spreading crown. The trees are unisexual, which means of course that only the female trees bear fruit - often in great profusion. The fruit, which is very juicy, has a remarkably high Vitamin C content, from which people derive great benefit.

It is in its versatility that the marula tree has gained so much fame. The fruit is used in the preparation of an alcoholic drink and may be used to make a delicious dry wine. Elephants are reputed to enjoy the fermenting fruit; this has given rise to the myth that animals become intoxicated by eating fallen marula fruit. However this may be, it is a wonderful sight to see an elephant picking out the tastier ripe fruit with a delicacy one would expect of a dowager.

The marula nuts taste like walnuts and may be eaten raw, or may be ground to make an excellent porridge. Because of its immense value to animals and people, the marula is truly one of the great trees of Africa. Elephant, monkeys, baboon, zebra, rhino, squirrels, porcupine, warthog, parrots, as well as rats and mice, all join the marula fruit feast. Kudu, giraffe and nyala browse the fresh leaves and the dry leaves are eaten by duiker.

At least eight species of butterflies breed on the foliage while the holes in its trunk form an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. A small beetle called Polyclada is also an associate of the marula tree. In the larval stage it is highly poisonous and is used by the San as one of the ingredients for their arrow poison.

The information one might give on the marula seems endless. The wood is light, soft, coarse textured and is used to make food troughs, dishes, divining bowls and drums.

The tree has many medicinal uses. Brews of the bark are used to treat diarrhoea and dysentery. Another concoction made from marula bark, well-laced with brandy, is a sworn cure for malaria. Other medicinal uses include a prophylactic to treat malaria, a steam treatment for eye disorders, and reputedly as a means by which it is possible to dictate the sex of an unborn child: the bark of a male tree being administered if a son is desired and that of a female tree for a daughter. Zulus and Tongas call it the "marriage tree". When a baby girl is born both the mother and child are washed in water which has been boiled with marula twigs. The marula is said to symbolise fertility, tenderness, softness and early maturity, all of which are said to be transferred to the child. What more could anyone want from a tree?

The area on the right hand side of the road is called Pankomo and the area on the left is called Maqotho. In early winter either one of these two areas is often burnt. Pankomo consists of old agricultural lands and the objective of the early burns is twofold; in the case of the old lands it is to change the composition of the grass species occurring there - due to the fact that there was unnatural impact, tall, unpalatable grasses established themselves. Theses grasses were neither good for game or game viewing and burning the grasses early has changed the grass composition to shorter, more palatable species. The second objective is tot create a green flush in thee areas into winter which carries species, in particular white rhino, through a winter when grass dies and nutritional value decreases. This practice is carried out in other old agricultural areas of the reserve. Point C is about 1,3 km from here.

C. GRASSLANDS

Grasslands are the natural habitat of zebra, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, common reedbuck, eland, warthog, white rhino and oribi and in spring the home of a great variety of beautiful wild flowers. The diversity of animal life is possible because each one utilizes different parts of the grass plants. The white rhinoceros, because of its size, has a large energy requirement and therefore has to consume large quantities of grass. On the other hand, the oribi, a small orange-brown and white antelope, needs little food for its 14 kg body, so it selects only the choicest shoots to eat. Thus each grassland animal utilizes a specific food source and several species can survive in the same habitat without undue competition. Every animal and plant has its own niche, as part of the environmental puzzle, into which only one piece, the specific animal or plant, can fit. A good example of this is the giraffe, which uses a food source no other large animal can reach. The often close association between zebra and wildebeest may indicate to the casual observer that they eat the same food and therefore compete with each other. However, during seasons of abundant green food, they both feed on green grass leaves; when food shortages occur, such as during winter, the zebra eats more grass stems than the wildebeest, thereby reducing any competition it may have with the wildebeest.

The balance between food reserves, i.e. grass and numbers of grazing animals is to some extent controlled by lions, leopards and hyaenas. As there are insufficient predators to exercise these controls in Ithala, the grazers could soon over-utilize the area, and soil erosion could follow. All the dongas or gullies you may see in the reserve are the result of overgrazing by domestic stock and illustrate dramatically the need to control ungulate populations. A common method of control is to cull a percentage of animals - this in effect simulates the role of the predator. Point D is about 0,3 km from here.

D. VLEIS AND WARTHOG

Because it's a vlei, the area on your right is frequented by many animals. As it is the only source of water in the extensive grasslands around here, zebra, eland, wildebeest, tsessebe and reedbuck come here to drink. Rhino and warthog use these puddles as a wallow. Because warthog have little hair, they use a layer of mud to protect them from flies and ticks. Ticks become embedded in the layer of dried mud, and rub off more easily. Warthog in this area appear to be reddish in colour, this is because of the red soils in which they wallow and burrow. A warthog deprived of its burrow on a winter's night could possibly die. As they are very sensitive to cold, the sows often take grass down into the burrows to keep themselves and their piglets warm. Warthog cannot dig their own burrows. As opportunists they will use and occupy those termite mounds which have been opened up by aardvarks in their search for food and which are large enough to be used as a nest. The aardvark, a nocturnal animal, has extremely long front claws which it uses to dig through the hardest soil in search of termites and ant nests. Point E is about 2,2 km from here.

E. SIHLUTE HUTS

This is an old Zulu kraal which may be visited. Old grain pits are visible at the far end of the kraal. Grain was stored underground in these pits and the mouth covered by a large flat stone. Unfortunately most of the pits have collapsed with the passage of time. Ntabayensimbi, which translated from isiZulu means "Iron mountain", is is in front of you. About halfway up the slope, where the track meets the skyline, are the remains of old iron workings. In the old days the ore collected there was used to make assegais and other metal implements. The iron-bearing rock is called banded ironstone because it appears in the form of black and red bands. This indicates that oxygen was missing from the atmosphere when the rock was formed some 3 000 million years ago. Dendrites, fern-like patterns made by manganese solutions, are very common in the rocks. Initially these were considered to be fossils of prehistoric ferns and a certain amount of excitement resulted until it was found that they were merely the result of chemical reactions.

Local folklore suggests that a huge black mamba lives amongst the diggings and its suspected presence must have inhibited any further mining. A similar legend exists in Swaziland, at the Ngwenya mine near Mbabane. A great horned snake, "God of the Underworld" is believed to live in the mountain. It is called Inkanyamba and is feared by the tribesmen who, understandably, are very reluctant to work on the mines. Swaziland is very close to Ithala, and it makes one wonder if these two legends are not somehow connected. So if you're tempted to collect a few souvenirs, beware Inkanyamba! Point F is about 2,3 km from here.

F. NGUBHU VALLEY

From this point you have a spectacular view of the Ngubhu basin, which was gouged out by numerous floods that have occurred over millions of years.

Distinctly different vegetation communities are noticeable from this point. Each species of plant favours a specific situation. Some plants grow well near rivers, others on moist southern slopes, some on rocky koppies.

Let's probe a little deeper by taking two factors into consideration. First, the white rock lying about is quartzite, a rock made up of quartz crystals. Secondly, this slope faces south. The spindly trees with rough bark and shiny green leaves are the Transvaal beech or boekenhout (Faurea saligna), which is also a member of the protea family. Point G is about 1,5 km from here.

G. RED IVORY Berchemia zeyheri Rooi-ivoor umNini (No 450)

The large tree on your right is a red ivory, a lowveld tree. It yields some of the most beautiful wood for woodworking and sculpture. It earns its name from the hard, bright red heartwood. In Zululand only the Zulu amakosi may possess knobkerries made from this tree. In late summer it produces a profusion of small scarlet fruit which are enjoyed by man and animal alike. Zulus collect the fruit, place them in woven baskets and wait for them to stick together in large congealed lumps. This is the stage at which they are eaten. A tree in fruit is a hive of activity as birds and small mammals feast on the fruits. Genet, baboon, monkeys, birds and insects are all keen visitors to the fruiting red ivory. The umNini, as the Zulus call the red ivory, usually has a characteristic rounded appearance. The leaves are delicate and light green and before falling off in autumn, turn a banana yellow. Point H is about 0,5 km from here.

H. NGUBHU STREAM

The stream which you have just crossed is the Ngubhu stream. The name means "the river rises quickly after a thunder storm" it usually subsides again just as quickly. Several streams which flow from the mountains join together to keep the Ngubhu running throughout the year. In particularly dry years the stream may cease to flow but during heavy rains the water may even cover the bridge crossing the Ngubhu. This stream joins up with the Thalu River that leads into the Pongola River. The Pongola joins the Usutu River in Ndumo Game Reserve and this river enters the sea at Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. The Pongola River system has a wide variety of fish, from tropical fish, like the famous tigerfish, to temperate fish, like the exotic trout. The latter are to be found only in the upper reaches of the Pongola's tributaries outside Ithala. Point I is about 0,8 km from here.

I. BUSH ENCROACHMENT

Along this stretch of road you'll notice many trees forming a fairly dense bush. The most common tree amongst them is the Glossy currant, better known as Rhus lucida (No.388). Here it illustrates the phenomenon known as bush encroachment. The process is initiated by an over-abundance of animals: too many animals were allowed to graze here and the reduction in grass cover resulted in fewer fires, thereby removing competition for nutrients, water and sunlight. Grazing animals don't eat the young trees and soon the trees take over the area and prevent sunlight from reaching the grass-level. Because trees have a deeper root system than grasses, they are able to out compete the grasses for water and as a result trees have flourished and created this typical example of poor veld management. It could take about fifty years for the veld to return to its original state or it may remain permanently wooded. Point J is about 0,9 km from here.

J. SICKLE BUSH Dichrostachys cinerea (No.190)

The trees you see around you are Dichrostachys cinerea. These trees are common in bushveld thicket and on overgrazed or disturbed areas where they can become seriously invasive. This is a widespread species in Africa and also occurs in Australia, Burma and India.

The word Dichrostachys means “two_coloured flowers” and refers to the pretty pink and yellow “chinese lantern” shaped flowers. Of interest; ostriches can be used to control the encroachment of this species as they browse the leaves of young trees so thoroughly that the tree is unable to photosynthesize and dies off. The pods are highly nutritious and fibre can be made from fresh bark. The wood burns very well and is used extensively for fence poles. Bark, leaves and roots are used as pain killers and as treatment against snake bite throughout Africa.

K. GIRAFFE

This bushveld area is particularly suited to giraffe and they are often found browsing hereabouts. The giraffe, the tallest of all land animals, grows up to 5 m and can weigh up to 1 000 kg. Giraffe have a peculiar way of walking which is caused by the legs on each side moving forward together; this gives a rocking-horse effect to their gait. The head moves backwards and forwards in rhythm with the legs. Giraffe can run fairly fast and over a short distance reach a speed of over 50 km/h. Their main predators are lions and humans, and their only defence is their hooves which they can use most effectively and which are capable of killing a lion with a kick.

Giraffe calves are very vulnerable to predation during the first few weeks of their lives, when they lie quietly in the grass while their mothers browse in the vicinity. When a giraffe is born it weighs about 100 kg and is about 2 m tall. The giraffe cow does not lie down when calving, so the calf drops about 2 m to the ground. This process helps to snap the umbilical cord. The calf is able to stand and suckle within an hour. Giraffe calves are beautiful, playful little creatures which may often be seen gambolling and running about. The giraffe has been chosen as Ithala's emblem. Point L is about 1,8 km from here.

L. SCENTED THORN Acacia nilotica Lekkerruikpeul umNqawe (No 179)

The Acacia in the general area is the Scented Thorn or Lekkerruikpeul is one of the most common of the acacia trees in Ithala. It has a dark, rough bark, long white thorns and in summer produces great quantities of fluffy yellow flowers which turn into black necklace-like pods in the autumn.

Associations between trees as a food source and animals are well known. Here at Ithala the most likely animal to be seen near the scented thorn is the impala. The association to which we refer is that of impala acting as dispersal agents for the seeds of Acacia nilotica. In this case, the seed passes through the gut of the impala, and thus has a better chance of germinating. This is because the digestive juices of the impala's stomach serve to soften and break open the hard coat of the seed pod.

A point of interest concerning the impala is that the male is quite docile and silent during the year, but when the rutting season comes about his roar, which rivals that of a lion, can be heard reverberating through the bushveld. Point M is about 0,9 km from here.

M. TERMITE COLONY

The two trees the termite colony is built under are the Euphorbia ingens and Euclea racemosa sub species Zuluensis. This mound of earth may house tens of thousands of termites. Each termite colony is made up of four termite types and each has its own specific work to do in the colony. These chores cannot be performed by any other section. The four types are called workers, soldiers, nymphs and the royal couple. The workers maintain the nest, collect food and feed the queen, king, nymphs and soldiers. The soldiers protect the colony, particularly from their greatest enemies, the ants. The queen may live up to about ten years and produces thousands of eggs daily. Her body may grow up to 12 centimetres in length. The nymphs are the famous "flying ants" of late summer. These are princes and princesses that leave the nest to establish new colonies. This specialization is so developed that termites cannot exist independently but can only act as a community. The famous South African author/naturalist Eugene Marais in his book, "The Soul of the White Ant", goes as far as to say that all the termites in the nest create a single animal and the individuals and groups are mere tissues and organs of a greater body, the termite community. Termites are not ants, in fact their closest relatives are cockroaches. Incidentally, what you see above the ground is but a small fraction of their home; the majority of the community lives underground and, as a general rule, never ventures into the open air. Point N is about 0,9 km from here.

N. WALLOWS AND RHINO

At this little pan, on hot days, rhino and warthog are particularly fond of lying in the mud. Wallowing helps keep them cool and discourages ticks. In the late afternoon white rhino may be seen drinking here.

The white rhino, the second largest animal in the African bush, weighs up to 2 500 kg, (which is about the mass of a small car), and has a phenomenal appetite. Their dung piles, which have a variety of uses, are called middens. Rhino use them to advertise their presence to other rhino in the area. You will see several of these middens as you continue along the trail. Leguaans, glossy starlings and jackal all use the middens to find fat insect grubs to eat. Rhino have few predators. The calves are sometimes attacked by hyaenas but the adult rhino's only enemy is man. In southern Africa, black and white rhino are relatively safe from poachers but in the rest of Africa they are threatened species. The rhino horns are used for medicinal and cultural purposes in the near and far East. Point O is about 2,3 km from here.

O. GRAVEL PITS AND DONGAS

The gravel pits here are man-made. In the past overgrazing and the constant movement of cattle to and from water eventually created footpaths which ultimately became dongas. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has begun the long, slow process of reclaiming this land.

Roads, such as this one, need material to build them so it was decided that, as the area had been disturbed, it would be better to use gravel from this damaged resource rather than create a new pit. However, gravel pits collect water which attract animals into an eroded area. The pan which has formed in this depression is known as Simongweni Dam. It is a seasonal pan which is utilised extensively in summer by elephant, leopard, buffalo, giraffe and rhino. The pan is used more than the streams in this area because they run in steep gradients down Ngotshe Mountain into the basin and can be difficult to access and drink from. You may notice a number of terrapins in the dam - these are marsh or helmeted terrapins which belong to the family of Side Necked terrapins ie the neck is completely retractable under the carapace (shell) edge. They are omnivorous and eat water weed, insects and frogs. In some areas it acts “crocodile” and ambushes, drowns and eats birds as they are drinking. These terrapins have a thin shell and because of this do not usually share habitats with crocodiles as they are easy to prey on. When the dam is dry they hibernate underground.

On the right of the hillside in front of you, you will notice a different Euphorbia species, Euphorbia cooperi, Transvaal candelabra. This species is smaller than Euphorbia ingens and has fewer branches. Its lower side branches die off regularly. The sap is highly poisonous. Point P is about 1,8 km from here.

P. PUZA MOYA VIEW SITE

Literally translated from isiZulu “drink the wind”. You may get out of your vehicle, sit on the bench and take in the beautiful scenery. Scan the bush below carefully as this is one area in the reserve where buffalo can be seen.

The distance to point Q is 0,6km.

Q. CAVES AND BATS

The small sandstone hill jutting out on your right is really a great chunk of mountain that, some time in history, came loose and slid down to its present position. The old scar half-way up the mountain can still be seen. This piece of sandstone carries interesting folklore. The hill is called "mVankali". Behind it there is a deep vertical shaft - a sort of slot in the mountain - into which evildoers were tossed. Today the only activity that takes place around the cave is the coming and going of bats. Despite the evil spirits that may or may not haunt the area, the bats which roost in the cave during the daytime seem quite oblivious to them. They leave the cave at dusk, and return before light. Bats can hunt for their food in total darkness and use a built-in echo system to do so. Point R is about 0,3 km from here.

R. KARROO SEQUENCE

If you look across to the left and ahead onto the Ngotshe escarpment you will see a classic geological example of the Karroo Sequence, which was formed when Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, India and Arabia were part of the huge supercontinent, Gondwanaland. In the centre of the gigantic landmass, several inland seas existed and southern Africa was the bed of one of these inland seas. The rivers which flowed into these inland seas deposited large quantities of sediment and vegetation as the layers of shale behind you indicate. (The road has been cut into this shale and signs of fossilised animals and plants have been found). The large rivers that flowed into the sea formed deltas and enormous quantities of sand covered the older layers of sediment and vegetation that lay on the sea floor. This produced a white, horizontally-layered rock which is called sandstone.

Coal was formed in layers when vegetation was washed down rivers and compressed by further sediment deposits. The enormous pressure exerted on deposits squeezed out all the gases and left the solid substance full of carbon which we know as coal.

Above the horizontal layers of white sandstone is another dark rock layer that reaches up to the top of the mountain. This is called dolerite, which formed when molten rock (lava) was squeezed into the sandstone under great pressure.

In the white sandstone layers to your right, bald ibis have a colony. You may recognise the site by the white droppings that have marked the cliff face. These birds are classified as vulnerable and are specially protected in South Africa to which they are endemic. These birds are extremely gregarious and flocks of up to 100 birds have been recorded. Breeding is July - October and chicks are fed by both parents. At this point you may get out of your car but remain in its immediate vicinity. Game animals may be seen in the valley grasslands and vleis below. Point S is about 1,2 km from here.

S. WETLANDS

For the next 0,5 km the road goes through a very interesting and important community. A marsh, or a vlei, as it is more commonly called in southern Africa, has certain plants and animals which thrive in this constantly wet habitat. Frogs, rodents and birds can be found amongst the sedges and grasses as part of the vlei community and it is a favourite spot of the southern reedbuck. Buffalo and elephant graze in these wetlands, buffalo particularly at night and elephant more commonly in the winter on the lush vegetation.

Vleis are the backbone or foundation of water systems. Wetlands, which are capable of absorbing great quantities of water during the rains, release it back into the streams again during the dry season and thus help to maintain a sustained water supply. Apart from their ability to store water, they also act as filters. During floods or heavy rains, they slow down the rush of water as it passes through and help prevent the sand particles and other matter from going into the rivers. In this way silt is kept out of rivers and the water runs clear and the rivers deep. How many deep rivers have you seen with clean water over the last few years? What do you think has been happening to our wetlands? Many have been submerged by dams or have been pumped to be ploughed up to plant crops. Point T is about 0,9 km from here.

T. KLIPSPRINGER AND CLIFFS

The cliffs on your right are the habitat of a quaint, small antelope called the klipspringer. Klipspringer are small, weigh about 12 kg and live on cliffs and rocky areas. In colour they are bright golden yellow with the top part of the body flecked with black. These animals are extraordinarily well adapted to living amongst the rocks. Their hooves have an oval narrow sole with blunt tips which give the impression that the antelope is standing on tip-toe. The shape of these small, strange hooves enables the klipspringer to jump onto rocks and utilize the tiniest footholds. The fur is also very unusual. Each hair is hollowed, flattened and has a sharp point. This unique fur insulates the klipspringer from extreme temperatures and helps to conserve body moisture. Klipspringer can thus live in hot areas where water is scarce, and can obtain sufficient moisture from leaves, flowers and fruit. They are usually seen in pairs early in the morning or late afternoon. However, on cool days they may be seen at any time of the day.

Klipspringer are specially protected animals. They are very territorial and their living requirements are so specific that they can only survive in certain areas. All these factors make the klipspringer a rare animal. In the old days their fur was used as padding in saddles, and many were shot for their skins. Point U is about 0,4 km from here.

U. RED-LEAVED ROCK FIG Ficus ingens Rooiblaarrotsvy (No 55)

The tree on your right is a fine example of one of the wild figs. This species, called a red-leaved rock fig, earns its name from its habit of growing on rocks and producing red copper - coloured new leaves in spring which later turn green.

Fig trees have a very interesting association with a specific wasp which pollinates the flowers. No other insect can perform this function.

The fig fruit is called a sycorium, because its fruit is not really a typical fruit but is a thickened stem with a hollow cavity. The fig's male and female flowers grow inside this cavity or sycorium. The female flowers mature first and, when still green and small, release a chemical which attracts the female wasps. These wasps are about 3 mm long and enter the fig fruit through a small cavity which is otherwise closed to the outside by a series of scales. In the process the female loses her wings and a labyrinth of scales prevents other unwanted insects from entering the fruit. The female wasp has special body cavities in which she has stored pollen from the previous fig fruit nursery, and with this she fertilizes the female flowers. She then lays her eggs and dies.

As they develop, the wasp larvae use the galled flowers for food. The male wasp, which doesn't even look like a wasp, hatches first, has no wings and never leaves the fig fruit. He crawls around inside the unripe fruit and fertilizes the still unhatched female wasps. He then bores a hole through the wall of the fig fruit, allows air to enter and dies, as his function in life has been completed.

The fresh air stimulates the female wasps to hatch and helps the male fig flowers to produce pollen. By the time the female wasps are ready to leave the fruit, the pollen has matured. Before leaving, the female wasps comb pollen off the male flowers and store it in special body cavities. They then leave the fruit, and smell out a green fig fruit with mature female flowers and re-enact their cycle. When the female wasps have hatched and gone, the fig fruits ripen quickly and many animals come to enjoy them. The fig seeds are not digested by the animals and the seeds are thus sown via the animals' droppings. The life cycle of the wasp takes about two months. The fig trees bear fruit throughout the year and this ensures that the little wasps always have a suitable green fruit in which to breed. If the wasps are unable to breed, the fig's flowers will not be pollinated and the fig tree cannot reproduce. If you think about it, it's incredible that a tiny insect and a mighty tree are so interdependent. Point V is about 1,4 km from here.

V. CLIFFS AND BLACK EAGLES

The dolerite cliffs on your right, with their high vertical columns, make a splendid sight. The bright yellow and green colours on the rocks have not been painted by man or even by the woodland fairies but have been created by lichens.

Lichens are a combination of fungi and algae and are two of the most delicate forms of plant life growing on an inhospitable rock surface. The fungi create the "house" for the commensal relationship and the algae produce food for both. Thus the fungi survive because their food is produced for them by the algae which are water plants and able to survive in harsh conditions.

The dolerite cliffs on which the lichens are growing were formed when lava surged upwards during a volcanic eruption, but failed to reach the earth's surface. At this time when this dolerite sill, as it is called, was formed, many layers of rock, over on kilometre deep, formed the Ngotshe mountain here. This thick layer prevented the lava from reaching the surface and forced it to expand into a huge underground platform or sill. Here the lava cooled slowly and solidified to form a mineral-rich rock.

Dolerite is a very hard rock, weathers slowly and is the major reason why the Ngotshe mountain has not disappeared. Sandstones and shales are very soft when compared with it. Had the Ngotshe mountain not been protected by this dolerite, it would have eroded, to look much like the valley to the west.

While you are in this area, scan the skies for black eagles soaring near the cliffs. We know a pair live here and they are often seen. They are enormous black birds with wings broadened at the tips. The tips of the wings are also light in colour, while their backs show a flash of white. Pairs of black eagles are closely bonded, and often hunt and fly together. They pair for life and use the same nest each year. The nest, a large platform of sticks about one metre in diameter, is usually placed on a cliff ledge. Their main diet is dassies and one pair may catch up to 300 dassies a year. Point W is about 2,0 km from here.

W. TREE ALOE Aloe bainesii Boomaalwyn inKalane-enkulu (No 28)

The aloes on your left are called Aloe bainesii, and as the name suggests, were named after Thomas Baines who first discovered them near Greytown in KwaZulu-Natal. This species of aloe is the biggest of all the southern African aloes and can grow up to 20 m in height. In May and June the tree aloe bears beautiful rose-pink flowers. Each time the tree produces branches, it does so by forming a pair identical in thickness. This gives the aloe an unusual symmetrical appearance.

The tree aloe is a protected plant in KwaZulu-Natal. Protection laws are necessary to prevent indigenous plants from being over-exploited and becoming extinct. Wild plants have an important part to play in our future because they not only make our world a very beautiful place to live in, but because they also provide us with a multitude of medicines and drugs. Most of our medicines originate from either European or American plants; Africa's plants have not as yet been studied sufficiently and may hold the key to cures for some of the earth's major diseases. On this basis it is sound to suggest that if any plant were to become extinct, mankind could lose some great asset which ultimately could have been of benefit. Point X is about 0,3km km from here.

X. MGAMGELA VIEWPOINT

After your hopefully enjoyable and informative trail relax here for a while and enjoy the view over the Ngubhu Basin.

Ithala Gallery

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