The history of life is sometimes seen as a series of advances, with the obsolete being discarded along the way. As it happens, nearly all of these “failures” hang on somewhere, documenting the past in a living museum. The Drakensberg is home to many of these refugees.

Liverworts represent plants’ first emergence from the water. These little flat structures can be found on shady boulders in the stream near the stables. They must always stay damp. The more familiar mosses are their nearest and more advanced relatives. They are more resistant to water loss, so are not confined to stream banks.

The transitional stage to a fern is demonstrated by the club-moss Selaginella, which creeps over the Fern Forest floor. Like its ancestors, it still reproduces by means of spores, which consist of DNA and the tiniest amount of water, and little else. So they must germinate rapidly in a damp spot. Adult club-mosses survive well if there is enough shade.

True ferns appeared about 350 million years ago. By then competition for space on land stimulated plants to grow taller. In those days all trees were ferns, and it is their half-decayed remains that are mined as coal. In most parts of the world tree ferns have been shouldered aside by bigger, stronger, more modern trees, but tree ferns still linger in isolated places in the southern hemisphere. They are quite common along grassy streams behind The Cavern.

Cycads mark a further advance. Instead of spores, they produce cones containing seeds, which additionally have food and a waterproof coat. They survive long periods if there is no rain. Now it is possible to colonise land far from water. A fine example of the endemic Drakensberg cycad Encephalartos ghellinckii has been transplanted into the garden in front of the Cave Bar. Dinosaurs ate cycads. Yellow-woods are newer conifers, and still quite abundant, but only in southern continents, memories from 150 million years ago when they were joined in the Gondwana supercontinent. Three species occur in the Fern Forest.

David Johnson