Namaqualand's Shining Jewels
The westerly wind was strengthening and dark clouds hovered low. Night was looming and raindrops pounded the roof of my Ford 4x4. Yet I was lost – and alone. I was searching for my campsite, but my GPS batteries were flat and the jeep tracks in the thick sand seemed to lead nowhere.
On the Namaqualand coast there’s no place to hide. Here the sky and sea rule. There are no landmarks to identify your position – no mountains or hills, no cliffs or kloofs.
Rocky beaches run for hundreds of kilometres from south to north. To the east, tiny succulent plants hug the low-lying strandveld. To the west lie thousands of kilometres of Atlantic Ocean. Dark and icy, the rich Benguela Current surges from Antarctica up the coast of Africa. There is little sign of human habitation. Once famous for diamonds, the Namaqua coastline has given up its mineral wealth. The mines are abandoned and, without anything else to live off, the remaining people are leaving.
The emptiness was tangible and unnerving; I was travelling alone through one of the most sparsely populated areas in South Africa – a new section of the Namaqua National Park lying adjacent to the coast, which was given to conservation authorities by De Beers Consolidated Mines.
When I’d arrived earlier in the week at the park’s head office in the hills of the Kamiesberg, the sky and the earth were on fire with luminous orange. The sun shone warmly and flowers were blooming.
The view of Kamiesberg
Proclaimed in 2001, Namaqua National park conserves a sizeable portion of the succulent Karoo. This arid biome stretches from the Little Karoo to the Richtersveld, and hosts the greatest diversity of desert-adapted plant species in the world.
The succulent Karoo is an international biodiversity hotspot, described as those areas which are endowed with particular biological richness, yet are also threatened by climate change and man’s over-bearing footprint. And it’s one of only two hotspots in the world which are entirely arid (the other being the Horn of Africa).
Lying within the succulent Karoo, Namaqualand is the most important part of this biome, containing 75 per cent of the plant species in just 25 per cent of the total area. There are more than 3 000 species of plants, mostly bulbs and succulents, half of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
Uncomfortably hot, dry and drab for most of the year, the veld transforms itself when spring comes. Literally millions of flowers emerge, thanks to the reliable (albeit low) rainfall every August and September. ‘It’s what makes Namaqualand unique,’ park manager Bernard van Lente explained. ‘It’s one of only a few arid regions which receive reliable, predictable amounts of rainfall. The plants can rely on the rain, even if it isn’t very much.’
Each spring morning at about 10h00, when the temperatures climb to about 20°C, every flower opens its petals to attract a range of pollinators. Each afternoon at about 16h00, as the temperatures fall again, the petals close. ‘The flowers open according to temperature, not sunlight,’ Bernard elaborated.
‘That’s why when there’s warm, cloudy weather, the flowers still open, but stay closed when a cold wind blows on a sunny day.’
But the famous flower displays near the entrance to the park aren’t entirely natural and owe their presence to many years of overgrazing by livestock.
‘These concentrations of flowers are actually an indicator of damaged veld,’ Bernard explained. ‘It looks pretty, but it’s not ecologically diverse. If you want to see Namaqualand in its natural state, you need to go here.’ Bernard pointed to a map on his office wall, to an isolated spot about 100 kilometres southwest on the coast, a lonely place called Boulder Bay.
The 60,000-hectare section lying adjacent to the coast was donated by De Beers four years ago on a 99-year lease, and it includes some of the country’s most unspoilt beaches, coves and estuaries.
‘De Beers never mined this land,’ Bernard explained. ‘So it’s in an excellent state and contains some fascinating ecosystems.’ Bernard – a former marine biologist – is excited as the new land includes three waterways: the Spoeg, Bitter and Groen rivers. ‘The Spoeg was ranked as one of the most pristine estuaries in the country,’ Bernard enthused. Along the coast are some of South Africa’s last untouched moving dune systems, with uniquely adapted fynbos.
‘There’s some seriously deep sand there,’ Bernard warned me before I headed out. ‘I hope you know how to drive that 4x4 of yours – you’re going to need it.’
Bernard was right. The roads aren’t good. Bad gravel turns into deep, thick sand. I kept the Ford’s revs high, hoping the momentum would get me through the quagmire. As the sky darkened and the wind whipped the sea, I wondered whether I should have stayed at one of the comfortable chalets near the offices.
My eyes scanned through the drenched windscreen as the wiper blades smacked back and forth. There it was! I saw the stone cairn indicating Boulder Bay. I veered off the main jeep track and headed closer to the coastline.
A few low lapas provide a pittance of protection from the elements. In the howling wind I set up the rooftop tent, hoping the canvas wouldn’t tear. I made a fire and climbed into my sleeping bag, falling asleep to the pounding wind and crashing waves.
A loud noise woke me in the morning. I wasn’t alone. A seal was lingering on the pebble beach. It barked at me, then plopped back into the ocean. I followed its path through the water and watched it clamber onto some rocks. There it joined about 400 other seals, all basking in the morning light.
‘It’s one of only two shore-based breeding colonies in South Africa which fall within a protected area,’ I was told later by Peter Chadwick, the World Wildlife Fund’s marine parks programme manager. ‘There are larger breeding colonies on the coast, but none are currently protected.’
Now the shore is part of the national park – and the seals’ protection is ensured – but the open ocean is unprotected and can still be fished, something the environmental ministry and conservation authorities would like to change. A proposed marine protected area would run the length of the 45-kilometre coastal section of the current park and extend three to five nautical miles offshore.
Peter explained this is desperately needed. ‘The closest marine protected area is more than 400 kilometres away, near Langebaan. There is no other stretch of ocean along South Africa’s west coast which is conserved.’Namaqua’s oceans are ecologically special, underpinned by a strong upwelling of the Benguela Current, bringing vast amounts of nutrition to the surface and forming huge kelp beds.
‘It’s a unique habitat,’ Peter explained. ‘This area hosts the highest density of limpets in the world.’ Species such as Patella argenvillei and Patella granatina thrive, using their sandpapery tongues to graze on algae. There are also sizeable numbers of crayfish, galjoen and Hottentot fish.
Larger creatures such as Heaviside’s dolphins cruise the coast. ‘These dolphins are found only along the south-west coast of Africa,’ Peter emphasised. Then there’s the small stuff: invertebrates such as the giant isopod Tylos granulatus, a sand louse which is an important recycling agent in the ecosystem.
It’s not just the sealife that makes Namaqua National Park a wildlife destination. There are the flowers, of course, but there are also intriguing animals, including three endemic to the region: namely De Winton’s golden mole, Van Zyl’s golden mole and the Namaqua dune molerat. There’s also the world’s smallest tortoise, the Namaqua speckled padloper.
There was plenty wildlife before colonial hunters moved in. Elephants, black rhino, lion, cheetah and wild dog once roamed here. Today visitors can expect to see springbok, red hartebees, gemsbok and a few grey rhebok. Then there are the predators, which are rarely seen, but include caracal, black-backed jackal, small-spotted genet, bat-eared foxes – and leopards.
Hartbeest in Namaqua NP
Driving back from the coast to Kamieskroon, I met up with Chavoux Luyt, a researcher with the Cape Leopard Trust who is working to educate the local community about the crucial role predators play in Namaqualand’s ecosystem.
Some local livestock farmers still believe that by setting traps and killing predators, they’re eradicating the problem. ‘The problem is these traps are indiscriminate,’ Chavoux said. ‘Most of the time, these traps end up killing so-called non-target species such as aardwolf, dassie and porcupine.’
The park now has a breeding programme of Anatolian sheep dogs, which it supplies to farmers. These dogs – originally from Turkey – have proven to be proficient guards of livestock and farmers are benefiting already. Less livestock is being taken by predators and fewer traps are being set. ‘So the leopards are better off too,’ Chavoux smiled.
Jodi at Namaqua NP and one of her Anatolian sheep dogs.
As with the rest of the wildlife and sealife of the Namaqua National Park, the leopards are reclaiming their rightful place in this seemingly empty corner of South Africa.
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