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Martin Hatchuel studied horticulture in Johannesburg and Durban, and then used his knowledge to become a guide at Featherbed, and in the Knysna forests in the mid-80s. After about 10 years in tourism (working in attractions and as a driver-guide), he moved into PR and writing for the tourism industry. Last year after the fires, Featherbed Co asked him to come back as a horticulturist to help with the rehabilitation of the vegetation.

“The Featherbed I knew - as a young tour guide and during more than 33 years of association with the place - always revealed its secrets only slowly. But in the three months since late December, 2017 - when I returned as the reserve’s tame horticulturist to help with the rehabilitation of the vegetation - it’s sprung surprises on me on almost a daily basis.

Six months after the fire, the plant life looked a lot better than I expected. Although we’d had a hot summer, we’d also had some rain, so the indigenous pioneers were flourishing. The ground was covered with sedges, succulents, and even Keurboom seedlings - and I’d never seen a Keurboom (Virgilia oroboides) here before (but I shouldn’t’ve been surprised: the Keurboom is often the first tree to establish itself on disturbed ground here on the Garden Route).

Much of the land both on the Featherbed Nature Reserve and on our neighbours’ properties had been covered with invasive aliens - particularly Rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) - but the fire literally consumed almost all of them, but not their seeds - which germinated in their millions.

So we went high-tech and began pulling ‘em out by the roots, by hand!

For this, we’ve employed a team of local workers, as well as a team from Working on Fire (under the management of the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association), and a team from Working on Water (sent here by SANParks because of the high biodiversity value of the rare Knysna sand fynbos - an eco-zone of which only 1,600 ha remains).

Our alien’s team works in measured blocks of 30 x 30 metres, usually pulling all the Rooikrans in each block in less than an hour. On one occasion, though, they just didn’t seem to be making any headway. After two hours of pulling, they were still a long way from being done, so I marked out a test patch of 1 x 1 m, and pulled the blighters out myself, carefully putting them in a huge plastic bag. Then I counted.

I’d yanked out 217 of them.

When you multiply 217 by 900 square metres, this means that our 15-person team of super-green-heroes removed 195,300 seedlings in a little over three hours. And that was very satisfying - although not as satisfying as seeing the indigenous material they’d left behind.

This reserve is rocking!

When I’m not performing feats of long multiplication in the field, I spend time walking the reserve, and checking what’s happening with the regrowth. And what’s happening is that the indigenous plants are germinating at an incredible pace. And I’m happy to say that many of the burnt trees - like the Millwoods (Sideroxylon inerme), the Candlewoods (Pterocelastrus tricuspidatus), the Coast Camphor bushes (Tarchonanthus litoralis), and the White Stinkwoods (Celtis africana) - are sprouting too! - some from their bases and some along branches that look like they should’ve died in the flames.

One exciting discovery that has nothing to do with plants - I’d been told that there was an early stone-age tool workshop on the reserve, but - although I looked, often - I never could find it in those early years.

Well, on my first post-fires walk up the firebreak, there it was - exposed now that the vegetation had been burnt away. I didn’t touch any of it, though: I simply marked the place, and sent the pin and some of the pics to an archaeologist who’s working in the area.

But probably my most goose-bumpy moment happened when I walked the foot path for the first time since the fires. I personally worked to build it with Samson Ngalo (who’s still employed at the reserve) and his team 36 years ago, and it’s always given me a bit of a thrill knowing that literally hundreds of thousands of other people have walked it and enjoyed it as much as I have.

It was eerie but also beautiful. The indigenous trees remain untouched in places, while in others, the black, charred branches stand stark against the fresh green of new undergrowth. I had to walk carefully, testing the ground ahead of me at times. Also had to do a bit of scrambling, a bit of deduction (that must have been that Milkwood! Oh yes, that would’ve been that clump of aloes!), and suddenly I found myself at “Rus ‘n Bietjie”- the glade where Samson and I had placed that old bench in the days before our very first visitors did the very first tour of Featherbed Nature Reserve. We’d had to carry it up by hand. There’s no vehicular access up there.

And there it was! Unbroken - and in need of nothing more than a lick of paint.

Of course I sat for a while (“How’re you doing, old buddy?”), but then I walked up the short path to the top of the cliff, and stood staring down at the waves, at the Caves, at Duiker Rock, and at Knysna itself in the distance.

So much emotion! I’d come home. But best of all - from the point of view of the vegetation - home was looking very healthy indeed. “

Footnote from Featherbed:
Martin has been asked to speak at the upcoming summit of the Southern Cape Landowner's Initiative, which forms part of the Garden Route Rebuild Initiative. According to their Manager, Cobus Meiring, they view Featherbed Nature Reserve as the premier rehabilitation project on the Garden Route because of the work being done with its own weed-pulling team, and the planting of trees, as well as the work being done by the Southern Cape Fire Protection Association (which manages the team from Working on Fire - whom Featherbed has contracted), and SANParks (which appointed the team from Working on Water).

We believe our project is also significant because of the presence of the Knysna Sands Fynbos in the Western Head Conservancy - and there are only 1,600 hectares of that vegetation community left in the world.

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