For many visitors to the Magaliesberg Biosphere the most appealing aspect of the region is its beauty and tranquillity - a retreat from the bustle of city life and a sanctuary for mind and body. Clear streams tumble down shady gorges or spill over high waterfalls. Woodland and grassland reward the rambler with spectacular rockscapes, birdlife and glimpses of wildlife. The Magaliesberg is a microcosm of the magnificence of nature and the turbulence of our history.
The serenity of the landscape conceals the violence of its geological formation. More than two billion years ago the massive molten rock intrusions of the Bushveld Complex depressed the bedrock of an inland sea and tilted it skyward to form the Magaliesberg range. A billion years later lava from the Pilanesberg volcano pumped into fissures and burned out deep gorges. In subsequent eras the jagged peaks of the tilted seabed were scoured by a continental ice-sheet, then buried in swamp, smothered under desert sands and finally capped with volcanic lava. Sixty million years ago that covering began to weather away and the mountains re-emerged as the towering cliffs, secretive kloofs and streams we know today.
On the southern side of the Biosphere Reserve, in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, a very different geological history took place. Here the landscape was built not by seismic violence but by vast colonies of microscopic bacteria. These bacteria were the first organisms to release oxygen into the atmosphere – and then toxic mix of gases. Over time the bacteria not only manufactured the limestone that later preserved the fossils of our ancestors, but also transformed the atmosphere into the life-sustaining air we breathe.
The geology of the Magaliesberg created different habitats that support a variety of wildlife that is exceptional both in its abundance and in its diversity of species. Grassland of the Highveld reaches the mountains on the south and gives way to woodland in the deep rich soils of the lower slopes. The warm, north-facing slopes of the ancient seabed harbour the plants and animals of the dry bushveld while the sheer cliff edges provide safe, inaccessible roosts for Cape Vultures and Black Eagles. The shaded kloofs, watered by clear perennial streams, maintain a gentle microclimate for varieties of ferns and flowers and a retreat for the wary leopard.
Ancestors of humanity evolved in the Magaliesberg area and human history can be traced from its earliest beginnings before hominids spread and prospered on other continents. Stone implements and rock engravings tell of ancient peoples who once hunted and gathered in these mountains tens of thousands of years ago.
In about 300 AD new cultures settled in the Magaliesberg bringing with them the skills of animal husbandry, iron smelting and pottery. These ancestors of the modern Batswana traded ivory and copper through middlemen to the eastern and southern coasts of Africa. They built substantial stone-walled settlements and developed a strong economy based on cattle, hunting and trade.
In the early nineteenth century the prosperity of Batswana society in the Magaliesberg was shattered by invasions, first by the BaPedi and then by the Ndebele under the formidable leadership of Mzilikazi. For a decade he conquered and ruled the people from the Vaal to the Limpopo rivers. Robert Moffat, the famous missionary, visited Mzilikazi's kingdom and became the leader's close friend and ally and through his good offices came early explorers and naturalists from Europe. Their names are famous in the annals of science and exploration: Andrew Smith, William Cornwallis Harris, John Wahlberg, Joseph Burke, Thomas Baines, Adulphe Delegorgue and many others who were drawn to the area because of its natural wonder. They called the range the "Cashan" after Kgosi Kgaswane, a well-known Tswana chief who lived just south of what is now Rustenburg at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Mzilikazi was himself evicted from the Magaliesberg region by Dutch trekkers seeking new lands away from the British-ruled Cape. They founded settlements of their own and renamed the mountains after Mogale, chief of the BaPo, who had befriended them. Conflict between Dutch and British eventually escalated into war and fortifications in the Magaliesberg are reminders of violent engagements during the Transvaal War of 1880-1881, the Anglo-Boer War of 1989-1902 and the 1914 Rebellion.
In later years population pressure and an increased recreation footfall into the area began to impact on the natural environment. Quarrying for sand and aggregate damaged key areas, leaving scars on the landscape. Infrastructure of necessity expanded, and brought in its wake positive and negative impacts. Mining activities centre on the platinum group metals. The chrome mining in the early days tended to be open-cast mining. These chrome mines supply around 45% of international demand, while the geological region (Bushveld Complex) accounts for about 70% of the world’s chrome reserves. The underground mines further north tend to concentrate on extracting platinum group elements. Mining introduces economic activity to the region, and significant environmental impacts, most of which will continue for generations.
The Magaliesberg Biosphere as such an incredibly rich biodiversity because it lies at the interface of two of South Africa’s largest biomes: the highveld grassland and the Savannah bushveld. The region is home to species from both of these biomes and includes the remnants of a third, the Afrotemperate Forest.
The biodiversity boasts 46% of all birds recorded in southern Africa – 443 bird species. Mammals include 111 species; there 19 lizards, 30 snakes; 17 frog species; 18 indigenous fish species and 121 species on indigenous trees and shrubs. Wildflowers abound, aloes, grasses, butterflies, scorpions and spiders enthral.
To meander in the Magaliesberg and to enjoy its beauty and understand the romance of its turbulent history is a great privilege. Its protection has been a continuous battle by dedicated conservationists and landowners. Whether your ancestry is Tswana, Nguni, Boer or British, and no matter what one's interest may be, the Magaliesberg is a national treasure where all South Africans can find their roots.