Jewels of Tide and Turf - the Beautiful West Coast National Park
Gannets on Malgas Island, West Coast National Park, South Africa
First there’s the smell, then the sound and, finally, you see them. Skipper William Brink from West Coast National Park was guiding the rubber duck across the swell. We were headed to Malgas Island, several kilometres offshore from the town of Langebaan, where about 30,000 pairs of Cape gannets nest, breed, squabble ... and poo.
William positioned the boat alongside the jetty, I looked at him, and he just laughed. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it after a while.’ As a marine ranger for the park, he’s been to the island countless times before, but this was my first visit to what appeared to be the avian equivalent of a mental asylum. The squawking and squabbling was deafening, drowning out the sound of the outboard motors. Malgas. Even the Afrikaans name for Cape gannets had a hint of madness to it. (One of the derivations of the name comes from the early Dutch sailors who called them mal gans or ‘mad geese’.)
Despite their seemingly crazy behaviour, Cape gannets are among the most impressive birds of the southern oceans, flying for several hundred kilometres over the ocean every day to look for schools of sardine fish. I hopped off the boat and started taking photos, but wasn’t sure where to point my camera. At any one time, hundreds of birds were taking off from their nests and flying over our heads. Others flew in low, coming in to land, wings spread wide. This was organised chaos of the highest order.
Surrounded by the birds, I found it hard to believe that Cape gannets are endangered. As ornithologist Peter Ryan later explained, there are only six colonies remaining: three in Namibia and three in South Africa. ‘The overfishing of sardines in Namibia has greatly reduced numbers at those colonies,’ he said, ‘while in South Africa most of the sardines seem to have shifted eastwards, away from the West Coast, towards the Southern Cape. So whatever fishing does take place here is disproportionately high, meaning there’s less food for the gannets on Malgas.’ In recent decades, the number of gannets here has reduced by half from about 60,000 breeding pairs.
I walked slowly up to the edge of the colony, and the nesting birds seemed unperturbed by my presence. I was struck by their beautiful colouring and elegant postures and, despite the deafening noise and reeking stench, the more time I spent on the island, the longer I wanted to stay.
From the R27 road, there’s little to hint at the beauty that lies hidden away. Visitors who enter at the park’s southern entrance encounter seemingly monotonous, wind-battered strandveld fynbos, but the full splendour becomes clear as soon as you drive over the ridge. Spread out below is the 15-kilometre-long emerald Langebaan Lagoon, protected from the Atlantic Ocean by the narrow Postberg Peninsula, which extends north towards Saldanha Bay. Further out to sea are six islands: Schaapen, Jutten, Meeu, Vondeling, Marcus and Malgas, all of which form part of a marine protected area, along with the lagoon and Sixteen Mile Beach on the outer shore.
And it’s not just Cape gannets on Malgas which rely on the park for survival. Langebaan Lagoon comprises a third of all salt marshes in the country and is crucial to the survival of another charismatic bird, the curlew sandpiper. Every summer, several thousand of these small waders make an astonishing migration from Siberia, flying halfway around the world to the lagoon. ‘The park is one of the few places in the region where they can fatten up with food to start the long journey back to the Arctic Circle,’ explained Peter. Birders can make use of several excellent hides to see these and other migrants, such as the grey plover, bar-tailed godwit, sanderling, ruddy turnstone and red knot. During winter, when most migrant waders leave to go north again, there are several thousand flamingos and the park is home to one of the country’s largest populations of the vulnerable black harrier, an acrobatic raptor that hovers low above the fynbos, hunting for moles, mice and shrews.
The lagoon takes centre stage for non-birders too and several operators in Langebaan offer yacht cruises or rent out kayaks and windsurfers. However, there’s no better way to experience it than on one of the two houseboats at Kraal Bay, a sheltered cove on the western side of the lagoon. A large, luxury houseboat accommodates up to 24 guests, while a smaller version nearby provides a cosy set-up for six. Both offer an experience unmatched in the national parks; there’s little to beat waking up to a lagoon sunrise, with the water lapping against the hull. The lagoon is divided into three zones: the northerly section (Zone A) near Langebaan is open to all activities, including boating, skiing, kitesurfing, windsurfing and controlled fishing. Further south is Zone B, where only yachts and kayaks are allowed, and the most southerly Zone C is off limits to all people and activities, preserving its delicate salt marshes and birdlife.
On land, the park’s most splendid moment comes in spring. Flowers emerge from the winter cold in their millions, opening their petals to the increasingly sunny conditions. The kaleidoscopic array of colours boggles the human eye and attracts pollinators, some of whom rely on the flowers for survival. ‘Bees, in particular, rely on both nectar and pollen for all their nutrition throughout their lives, both as larvae and as adults, and so are entirely dependent on flowers,’ explained botanist John Manning from the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
When the sun rises, the flowers open up, only closing again when the afternoon draws to an end. ‘Some species respond more strongly to light and others to temperature,’ John explained. ‘They probably close for various reasons, including protection of the pollen from moisture, avoidance of predation and synchronisation of flower opening.’ Most of the vegetation here consists of strandveld fynbos, which is more diverse than the fields of yellow, white, orange and purple flowers. ‘The park is the only place where several highly localised plant communities are preserved, notably Saldanha Granite Strandveld, Saldanha Limestone Strandveld and Langebaan Dune Strandveld,’ said John. ‘These were never very extensive, and most have disappeared through urbanisation and agriculture.’
Still, the flowers at Postberg steal the show, attracting more than 100,000 visitors during the two months (August and September) that the section is open to the public. Postberg also seems to be more popular with the park’s large mammals such as Cape mountain zebra, kudu, springbok, blue wildebeest and eland. In fact, in a move to reduce grazing pressure on the section’s vegetation, park authorities moved several eland to the eastern areas near the town of Langebaan, but the large antelope had other ideas. ‘No sooner had we relocated them, than they jumped into the lagoon and swam across to Postberg on the other side,’ said section ranger Pierre Nel with a laugh. ‘Believe it or not, they can swim really well! Perhaps they just think of Postberg as home.’
Because there’s no dangerous wildlife such as lion or elephant, West Coast National Park is great for families who want to get out of the car and explore on foot or mountain bike. With mostly undulating hills and long flat stretches, the highest point is the low granite koppie of Vlaeberg (198 metres).
This area has been good walking territory for more than 100,000 years. In 1995, Dr Dave Roberts from the Council of Geosciences uncovered some of the world’s oldest anatomically modern human footprints on a sandstone slab near Kraal Bay, close to where the houseboats are now moored. This is one of just four sets of fossilised human footprints worldwide and experts suggest they were made by a female, because of their small size (about 22 to 26 centimetres). No doubt, the young lady would have admired the surrounding scenery, although the climate then was considerably warmer and the sea level was probably two metres higher. Nevertheless, it’s poignant to think that West Coast National Park has changed relatively little in the past few thousand years.
The same can’t be said for the area around the park, which has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Eddie Papier, a recently retired field ranger, was born in 1950 at Oesterwal on the eastern shores of Langebaan Lagoon and spent most of his life as a fisherman, whaler and, in later years, a park ranger. Eddie took me to one of the park’s best view points at Seeberg, where a little white-washed hut on the eastern hills offers panoramic views of the lagoon, Atlantic Ocean and – on a clear day – the silhouette of Table Mountain 100 kilometres to the south. It was from here in the 1800s that a signaller used to light a fire to alert farmers that a trading boat was arriving in the bay from Europe or Cape Town. Eddie recalls his childhood and how he’d help his father Nicklas catch cob, steenbras, stumpnose and maasbanker in the lagoon. During winter, Nicklas would leave for several months on the whaling ships.
While we sat chatting, Eddie pointed to Donkergat at the end of the Postberg Peninsula, where for decades until 1967 a whaling station processed thousands of cetaceans, including one of the biggest blue whales ever caught. ‘Ja, we’ve come a long way in conservation,’ Eddie said. ‘At least we don’t hunt whales today. But there are other worries. The lagoon has silted up a lot, and that’s because of the breakwater and the dredging at Saldanha Bay harbour,’ he said of the three-kilometre-long breakwater, which was built in the 1980s to protect huge ships carrying away millions of tons of iron ore mined in the Northern Cape to the Far East. ‘These have changed the dynamics of the currents in the bay and lagoon. And because there’s more silt, there are fewer places for fish to breed and less food for the migrant birds. ’Then there’s the urban development of Langebaan, which stretches right to the park’s borders. ‘When I was young, there were hardly any houses near the park,’ Eddie said. ‘There were once fields of flowers where today there are huge suburbs.’ But there are positives too. ‘The lagoon was overfished in the old days,’ Eddie continued. ‘Today the fishing is controlled. The terrestrial animals have also come back; these days it’s relatively easy to see animals such as caracal.
As a former whaler, Eddie sailed the length and breadth of Earth’s oceans, but West Coast National Park is where his heart belongs. ‘I’ve been all over the world, but there’s no other place I’d rather live. On my travels I saw how much nature has been damaged by man. We’re lucky in South Africa to still have this beautiful lagoon.’
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