Sehlabathebe National Park
Situated in Lesotho’s southeastern corner, within Qacha’s Nek District, the 6,500-ha Sehlabathebe National Park (SNP) is currently the only national park in this Mountain Kingdom. Landlocked by South Africa, the Kingdom of Lesotho is one of the smallest and most elevated countries in Africa. With an area of 30,355 km², Lesotho is a country of rugged relief, bracing climate, heavy annual rainfall (averaging 1,900 mm), and winter snow. Most of Lesotho is grass-covered, yet the thin soils are highly erodible. The SNP is located between latitude 29°52’ and 29°58’S and longitude 29°03’ and 29°08’E at altitudes which range between 2,200 m and 2,600 m above sea level (a.s.l.) (Greyling & Huntley 1984). While most of the park lies between 2,300 m and 2,450 m a.s.l., mountains just outside the northern border soar to 2,900 m.
As the brochure to the SNP indicates, “travel to the park is an adventure in itself”. The five main access routes to the park are as follows:
From Matatiele (South Africa) via Ramatseliso’s Gate (probably the quickest route when travelling from South Africa)
From Maseru via Thaba Tseka over Matebeng Pass on the Senqu River
From Maseru via the southern route through Quthing and Qacha’s Nek
On foot or horseback from the Bushmen’s Nek border post in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (this is a 10 km trip up a steep and winding bridle path)
By aircraft to the Ha Paulus airstrip (see Zonneveld 1998)
Whether travelling from Maseru or Matatiele, a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
Accommodation available to visitors within the park includes a lodge (which can accommodate 12 guests) and a comfortable hostel. Other buildings include a Research Centre (housing the SNP Herbarium), the Park Headquarters, and staff housing. Reservations for the lodge are handled through the Ministry of Agriculture’s Conservation Division in Maseru.
The Park was established in 1970 (Lesotho Government Gazette Notice 34 of 1970) as Lesotho’s first (and so far only) national park. Ancient legends attempt to explain the origin of the name, Sehlabathebe. The most popular tales relate the saga of a great battle, which took place on the high plateau where a victorious tribe pierced the shield of the enemy, hence the name “plateau of the shields”.
Almost the entire park is on Cave Sandstone rock formation (Jacot Guillarmod, Getliffe & Mzamane 1973) and the altitude at which the park occurs is the highest known at which Cave Sandstone occurs in southern Africa. Where the Cave Sandstone protrudes, it has been “carved by erosion into strange shapes and many caves and arches, as well as providing many deep pools and a number of shallower, less permanent ones” (Jacot Guillarmod et al. 1973). These sandstone outcrops are usually rich bryophyte habitats (Hodgetts, Matcham & Duckett 1999). A number of volcanic dykes intrude into the sandstone, “criss-crossing the area in straight, Roman-road fashion” (Jacot Guillarmod et al. 1973). The soil mixture is partly sedimentary from the sandstone and partly lithosol from the volcanic rocks.
SNP receives around 1,300 mm rainfall per annum, and the annual average temperature ranges from a minimum of 9°C to a maximum of 16°C (Greyling & Huntley 1984). The area, which is classified as having a temperate climate, receives about 80% of its rainfall in summer (October to February), as well as snowfalls, some rain, and frosts in winter (Jacot Guillarmod & Marais 1972; Greyling & Huntley 1984). The whole area is in a mist belt, being part of the Drakensberg escarpment. The main drainage system flowing through the park is the Tsoelikana River, a tributary of the Senqu (Orange) River. It is in this river that the endangered Drakensberg or Maluti Minnow, Oreodaimon quathlambae, an indigenous fish species, has been recorded (Skelton 1987).
The immense floristic diversity of the subcontinent is not evenly distributed across the entire region: high species concentrations are indeed often restricted to specific locations. Most of these areas are rich in endemics—plants that are confined to specific areas. The Drakensberg Mountain range in Lesotho and southeastern South Africa is one such area. Various scientists have classified the vegetation of the area differently over the years:
Eastern Mountain Region (Phillips 1917)
Austro-afroalpine Region (Van Zinderen-Bakker & Werger 1974)
Austral Domain of the Afroalpine Region (Werger 1976, pers.comm. in Killick 1994)
Afro-alpine Region (Killick 1978)
Altimontane vegetation (White 1983)
South-eastern Mountain Regional Mosaic (Hilliard & Burtt 1987)
Drakensberg Alpine Region (CPD Site Af82) (Killick 1994)
Alti/Afro Mountain Grassland (Low & Rebelo 1996)
Broadly classified within the over-exploited grassland biome (Rutherford & Westfall 1986), the area was classified as Themeda-Festuca Alpine Veld (veld type 58) by Acocks (1975). The area consists essentially of species-rich subalpine (1,800–2,800 m) grasslands dominated by Themeda triandra, but with a wide variety of other monocotyledons and dicotyledons. There are also “patches of wet meadow and marshland at all altitudes and small areas of dwarf shrub heaths on steep and rocky ground” (Greyling & Huntley 1984).
According to Schwabe (1990), there are three types of wetlands found within the SNPC: tarns, riparian marshes, and inland freshwater marshes. All are effective sediment traps and stabilisers of stream flow because of their capacity to store sediments and water. Tarns are depressions in the sandstone that are filled with water and have very little emergent vegetation associated with them. It is in these tarns that the rare Aponogeton ranunculiflorus, described in 1972, may be found (Jacot Guillarmod & Marais 1972; Jacot Guillarmod et al. 1973; Jacot Guillarmod 1977, 1978). This species flowers in January and has been described by Zonneveld (1998) as the “jewel of Sehlabathebe”. It was first discovered in the tarns of SNP. Subsequently, specimens were noted in tarns and pools along the Drakensberg escarpment, but all at approximately the same altitude of 2,600 m. Its distributional range is restricted, however, to less than 10 km (Jacot Guillarmod 1977, 1978). It has been listed as rare, mainly because the habitat is so readily disturbed—erosion causes silting of the water which cuts out the light necessary for photosynthesis and subsequent growth of the plant (Jacot Guillarmod et al. 1973). Within SNP, A. ranunculiflorus is found solely in the tarns in the eastern and southern parts of the park. The flower head is borne at the top of a long, slender peduncle, and the open inflorescence resembles a white buttercup floating on the water—hence the specific epithet ranunculiflorus. The leaves seldom reach 10 cm in length and are always under water: the clear pools, however, allow enough light to penetrate to allow photosynthesis to take place (Jacot Guillarmod 1977). It grows readily in cultivation (Jacot Guillarmod 1978).