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Airborne Over Addo

 | Scott Ramsay Book Accommodation

Conservation manager John Adendorff gets the Bantam ready...

Conservation manager John Adendorff gets the Bantam ready...

The last two days have been busy! Yesterday I spent the day in the Woody Cape section of Addo Elephant National Park, and it’s another world. The scenery changes completely. Instead of the sub tropical thicket which characterizes the main section of Addo where most of the wildlife is, Woody Cape comprises dense evergreen coastal forests, long, sandy beaches several kilometres in length, and the largest coastal dune field in the southern hemisphere. (I presume the endless Namib coastline’s dunes are of desert origin, not ocean origin.)

The beach at Woody Cape

The beach at Woody Cape

I was fortunate to spend yesterday morning with rangers Guy Padayachee, Lungile Somyali and Korsten Hendrikse, as well as conservation student Melissa Perozzi. Riding on the back of one of the park’s Land Cruisers, we drove down onto the beach and into the dunes, to put back some fossils and bones which some local people had found a few weeks ago while walking on the beach.

This area is rich in evidence of stone age man’s lifestyle, dating back to 160 000 years. There are huge shell middens – literally ancient rubbish dumps where people used to process shellfish like mussels, limpets and abalone. We came across one on the way down, and found some ancient pottery, as well as some fossilized bones and teeth, which had been exposed by the incessant wind. It’s a fascinating place, and although the rangers weren’t sure of the identity and origins of the archaeological finds, I look forward to finding out more from the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, who have studied this area intensively.

Ranger Lungile Somyali at the site where the fossilised bones and teeth were found

Ranger Lungile Somyali at the site where the fossilised bones and teeth were found

This southern part of Africa is now considered to be the last place on earth where modern man was able to survive the last ice age, which occurred about 150 000 years ago. The theory goes that while ice covered most of the northern hemisphere, and desert conditions prevailed elsewhere (because of the lock up of the earth’s fresh water in ice), the southern and eastern Cape remained temperate and hospitable because of the warm Agulhas Current.

Allied to this, there was once plenty of shellfish in the oceans here, and the shallow ocean floor would have provided lots of opportunity to collect food from the rock pools. Finally, the coastal fynbos was highly valuable because of its rich tubers and corms, which provided extremely good carbohydrates to the diet of our ancestors. Botanist Richard Cowling told me recently that it was these three things – the warm Agulhas current, the shellfish and the bulbs of the fynbos plants – which allowed Homo sapiens to survive the bottleneck. Experts reckon there were only about 1 000 humans left on earth after the ice age, so whoever you are, your ancient heritage lies in the southern Cape of Africa. Makes one think!

Yesterday afternoon, I explored the beautiful forests in Woody Cape with Melissa, and we hiked part of the Alexandria Hiking Trail, which is a two day trail through this area. It reminds me of the Tsitsikamma Forests, and Melissa told me that there are plenty of Knysna loeries in the forest – I can believe it.

I wish I could have done the whole trail, but I had to fly this morning with conservation manager John Adendorff over Addo in his little plane (nice conundrum to have, I admit.) The light wasn’t brilliant because of high cloud, but it was a privilege to get airborne with John. We saw some nice herds of elephant, buffalo, Burchell’s zebra and eland. We also flew over the eastern dune field near the mouth of the Sunday’s River, and I got a good perspective on how HUGE the dunefield is. It extends all the way east from the river mouth to the horizon, a distance of 70 kilometres.

Big buffalo herd walking up to drink... 

Big buffalo herd walking up to drink...

John has been in Addo for twenty years, and knows it like his own home…which it is, I guess.

He told me how when they introduced four elephant bulls from Kruger a few years ago, they at first couldn’t integrate into the breeding herds. The four bulls had come from different parts of Kruger, yet they soon found each other in Addo, and stuck together as a group. Eventually they managed to integrate into the herds, but only after a few years. John believes that the elephants from Kruger communicated in a different “dialect”, and he reckons they initially had trouble socializing with the Addo elephants, simply because they couldn’t understand the locals. After a few years, they had “learnt” the “regional language”, and were able to woo the local females! John was quick to point out that it’s impossible to prove this, but that’s his gut feel…and I think it’s highly plausible.

Elephants from the air

 Elephants from the air

Other interesting things that are evident from the air:  large parts of the subtropical thicket were once cleared by farmers for grazing, and these areas are now part of the park, but they remain transformed. The grazers like buffalo and zebra love it, but as John points out, these are not entirely natural areas, and the park is slowly restoring them to spekboom veld and thicket.

It is also very clear from the air that, like most nature reserves in South Africa (and increasingly in Africa), there are large semi-urban communities living right on the borders. (The national N2 highway roars right between Woody Cape and the main section of Addo.) This poses big challenges to both communities and the reserves. Fences become one of the most important – and expensive – assets in the park, and John told me that 90% of the rangers’ time is spent maintaining fences. This is crucial when one considers that there are elephant, lion, jackal and buffalo living within a few metres of large communities.

It’s also obvious that the coastline and estuary needs protection from development and over fishing. The Sunday’s River estuary is heavily developed (some illegally, according to John), and there are homes, factories and communities living right on the sensitive estuarine area where sea fish come to breed  before heading back into the ocean. There have been plans afoot for some time to proclaim a Marine Protected Area all along the Woody Cape section, but government bureaucracy has got in the way. But it seems like it will happen…and so it should. John regularly sees Southern Right Whales and Great White Sharks while flying along the coast.

Thanks very much John for taking me up in the air…

Take off...

Take off...

 

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