Along the isolated and sparsely populated shoreline of the Northern Cape, an annual coastal audit keep tabs on natural and unnatural activity…
Words and Pictures: Steve Moseley
It was 40 degrees outside the general dealer in the small town of Koekenaap in the Western Cape. Perspiration poured as we waited in the only patch of leafy shade, eager for the other expedition vehicles to arrive.
Dusty children squatted in the branches, observing the group and whispering among themselves. As each 4×4 crunched to a stop on the gravel, the occupants went through a greeting and handshake ritual before being kitted with a two-way radio. When the gathering was complete, the convoy snaked its way to the cooler climes of the coast and the informal campsites at Gert du Toit se Baai.
I was lucky enough to be part of the annual coastal audit undertaken by the Northern Cape’s Department of Environment and Nature Conservation (DENC). Each vehicle was loaded with food, water and camping equipment – and lots of braai wood. Ahead lay a rough and obscure route that would follow, as closely as possible, the high-water mark.
It would take between eight and nine days to complete, up north at the mouth of the Orange River – depending on how often and how badly vehicles got bogged down in the trackless sands.
“In order to obtain a good idea of the general health of our coast, we use the audit to gather data, which can be used to monitor certain aspects,” explained Wilna Oppel, manager of coastal management at DENC. “This assists us in making decisions regarding required actions and follow-ups, and we cover every inch of the Northern Cape’s coastline.”
The Northern Cape’s Atlantic coastline weaves for 350km from an invisible boundary near Koekenaap in the south to the Orange River mouth. It’s a rugged shore, 90 per cent made up of rocky ledges and jagged outcrops interspersed with an occasional white beach and blue-water bay. It’s a deserted and desolate place, but therein lies its beauty.
Many rusted shipwrecks are testament to fierce winter storms that lash the shores, while the gently lapping waves of summer speak of a soothing paradise. Its waters are fed by the cold, mineral-rich Benguela Current and support greatly diverse marine life. The intertidal zone has an extraordinarily high biomass of several organisms, in particular rock lobster, mussels, and limpets. Surprisingly, fishing from the shore isn’t very rewarding.
Much of the region has been mined for more than a century, mostly for the rich alluvial diamonds deposited there over millennia. Virtually all the coastline is owned by mining companies – De Beers, Alexkor and Trans Hex – restricting access for all but those permitted to work there.
“These audits started after we received repeated complaints about the misuse of certain parts of the Northern Cape coast,” said Wilna. “There was no control over who used certain sections of coast or what they did there, and we realised something had to be done.” At the same time DENC decided to liaise with mining companies to get access to the shoreline in the mining areas. “We felt that including the mining component would be invaluable in creating a bigger picture regarding the state of our coast,” Wilna continues.
On the first morning we were told to deflate our tyres to one bar, make sure our radios were on, and prepare for some serious off-road action. The rookie drivers among us learnt fast and when they did get stuck our experienced expedition leader, Klaas van Zyl, and his navigator Enrico Oosthuysen, soon had them going.
Each vehicle was equipped with checklists and binoculars and along the route we kept ’em peeled for observations that needed recording. “The primary function of the audit is to document impacts caused by human activity,” explained Wilna.
This included recording issues such as waste, pollution, development in the coastal zone, and seawater intakes and outlets used in the mining process. Along this coast, kelp is harvested commercially and sold for numerous applications. Each harvesting and processing site was plotted in order to ensure the proper permissions had been obtained by the operator – here in the hidden coves it’s easy to operate under the radar.
GPS readings and descriptions of observations crackled over the radio waves and were noted by the group’s scribe. Waypoints were issued for plotting on a map. For visual records, fixed point photographs were taken of structures that either needed attention or demolishing.
A secondary but no less important function of the audit concerned issues of a more natural nature. Along the route we plotted seal haul-outs – sites where seals chill (the human equivalent is hangout) – of the Cape fur seal, Arctocephalus pusillus. The Northern Cape coast is host to no less than three Cape fur seal colonies – with an estimated 450 000 seals – the largest of which is outside Kleinsee.
The coastline is also an important habitat for many bird species. Of particular conservation interest is the distribution and the numbers of the Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber and the African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini, the latter listed as near-threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red Data List.
The Pied Crow Corvus albus was also a concern, not because of declining numbers but because they are expanding their range rapidly and could become a threat to raptors by out-competing them. The rocky outcrops were also scrutinised for the nesting and breeding sites of the near-threatened Crowned Cormorant Phalacrocorax coronatus and the endangered Bank Cormorant Phalacrocorax neglectus. The latter is found only along the west coast of South Africa and Namibia and numbers are declining sharply.
Apart from the extensive stretches of coastline affected by mining, we also had the pleasure of experiencing some pristine coastline. The section between the mouth of the Groen and the Spoeg rivers, which is an absolute gem, now forms part of the Namaqua National Park.
It was included into the national park through a contractual agreement reached between De Beers Consolidated Mining Company and SANParks in 2008. It encompasses a portion of the Succulent Karoo biome, which is a biodiversity hotspot, in addition to having some of the last unspoilt sections of coastal dune veld left in South Africa. By all accounts the coastal audit is an important tool in ensuring the Northern Cape coast is monitored.
It encourages dialogue between DENC, the mining companies and government departments, and ensures all relevant parties know their responsibilities. According to Wilna the audits are bearing fruit. “The mines are starting to show a willingness to abide by our recommendations – putting scrap metal collection out to tender, demolishing obsolete buildings, cleaning up landfill sites,” says Wilna. “Illegal structures and permanent caravans have been largely removed from the entire coastline and word is out that even the most isolated parts are being monitored.”
At the end of it all I realised that the task of ensuring a healthy balance between nature and human activity is no easy one, especially in such a far-flung and secluded location. But in its quest to achieve this, the Department of Environment and Nature Conservation is certainly giving a good account of itself.
The coastal region is part of the Succulent Karoo biome, an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot that supports a great variety of hardy plants, like the (top to bottom) Wooleya farinosa or vaalvygie (endemic to the coast of Namaqualand), the Roepera cordifolia or sjielingbos/geldjiesbos, and the Crassula plegmatoides and the Jordaaniella clavifolia, both of which have no common name. The Jordaaniella is endemic to the coast of Namaqualand.