Nestled in the heart of South Africa’s Lakes District, the little village of Chrissiesmeer in Mpumalanga derives its name from the adjacent Lake Chrissie, the largest natural freshwater lake in South Africa. Located within a radius of 20 kms around Lake Chrissie there are about 300 lakes and pans. Another unique feature of the area is that it is surrounded by a watershed, creating a “closed system” around the Chrissiesmeer area. Two of our three threatened crane species occur in the area. This includes the Blue Crane, South Africa’s National Bird, and the charismatic Grey Crowned Crane. Besides being home to the cranes, the area is known to hold more than 20,000 water birds on a regular basis, and is also a proposed Ramsar site (wetland area of international importance).
Chrissiesmeer is also the livelihood base for about 4,000 local residents and a vital farming community within the Lakes District. Due to the increased mining pressure, it was realised that unguided local economic development could severely impact the ecological significance of this unique and sensitive area and adversely affect local livelihoods. This was the drive behind the proclamation of the Chrissiesmeer Protected Environment in 2014 through voluntary partnerships with landowners. This provides the area with formal conservation status and regulates management practices and further economic development within the area.
Although the area is a national jewel in terms of its scenic beauty and biodiversity value, it is still relatively unknown as a tourism destination outside of birding circles. With the cranes as charismatic ambassadors for the area’s value, the Chrissiesmeer Crane Festival was initiated in the winter of 2012. The festival aims to achieve several objectives: it generates environmental awareness among local communities and the general public of the importance of Chrissiesmeer’s biodiversity, including the cranes and their wetland and grassland habitats; it creates an increased awareness of the unique characteristics of South Africa’s Lakes District to attract tourists to this beautiful area; and it is used as a platform for the local community to showcase and sell their produce and crafts. The Chrissiesmeer Crane Festival has a relaxed feel and generally attracts between 150 – 200 people. Visitors consist largely of bird and nature enthusiasts from Gauteng and local supporters from the surrounding area.
The highlight of the festival is the crane viewing trips where visitors are taken to see the magnificent flock of Grey Crowned Cranes, usually present near one or more of the area’s lakes or pans. During the past two festivals, visitors also saw Blue Cranes. Spending time in the field with these beautiful birds, watching them dance, hearing their calls, and seeing their colourful flight leave a lasting impression on all the participants.
A special thank you to the Dullstroom Birds of Prey Centre for their raptor awareness flight display, as well as the main sponsors U and Me Creative, and Painted Wolf Wines for sponsoring wine for the Saturday evening event.