A nature reserve should be dedicated firstly to protecting nature, and secondly to allowing people to interact with it, enjoy it, and fall under its spell. Witsand in the Northern Cape is a perfect example
Words and Pictures: Jacques Marais, www.jacquesmarais.co.za
I love how Witsand Nature Reserve changes with every passing hour. The desert environment evolves as the day lengthens, with shadows chasing one another amid dunescapes and arid savannah vegetation, shape-shifting all the while as light morphs into dark.
To me, nothing quite beats the breathless expectancy of that languid pre-dawn hour, with the first light from the sun smudging the horizon. The stars begin to dim, at first imperceptibly, until only the evening star remains bright in the sky. Then the purple bruising in the east becomes tinged with oranges and ambers, as if a gigantic lava deluge is about to leak across the skyline. The prospect of dawn sees nocturnal beasties of all shape and size sneak off to their dark-zone lairs, while the diurnal menagerie slowly stirs to life.
I stand under one of the enormous Sociable Weaver nests in Witsand Nature Reserve as dawn unfolds, with my eyes closed as I listen to the faint scuttling sound of the birds waking up. This is ‘Twitter’ as it should be, with real-time tweets echoing into the stillness of the semi-desert savannah. The first bird fizzles from one of the grass tunnels, whirring past my head into the silhouetted thorn tree copse. Another follows, and then another, like minute missiles detaching from the belly of a giant, organic mothership. Soon the air is alive with tiny feathered projectiles strafing into the morning chill, before dispersing into the surrounding dune lands.
About 300m from the nest there is a hide, and I quietly take up position on one of the tree-stump chairs. The ground-level view of the watering hole offers exceptional photographic opportunities, and I watch through my lens as a herd of skittish kudu drifts into the distance. A couple of Cape Turtle Doves torpedo in to drink as the sun crests the mountain ranges to the east, while Spectacled Weavers puff up against the cold air higher in the branches. I give it about 15 minutes before wandering back to my bike, pedalling silently back to the stone chalet where my wife Karyn, my folks and the kids are also starting to stir.
It’s this freedom of movement that makes Witsand so special. There are no fences or walls that bar access to experiencing nature at any hour of the day or night. In fact, night hikes and mountain bike rides are very much encouraged and, since our arrival a couple of days ago, we have barely been in our vehicle. Instead, we hike or pedal our mountain bikes far and wide along a network of gravel roads and trails that meander throughout this 3 500ha swathe of arid thornveld. At the centre of the reserve lies a geological basin brimming with aeons of windswept, sugar-like sand, shaped into the towering dune fields that give the protected area its name.
Witsand has seen much human activity for many thousands of years, and archaeologists have discovered several sites dating back to the Stone Age. Pastoralist Koranna people settled here, making way for the Tswana people, and eventually the first European settlers arrived. But while the ecosystem at Witsand has remained relatively unchanged, critical damage to the dune vegetation accelerated, as grazing pressure increased from the 1950s onwards. Eventually, in 1993/4, the area was proclaimed a protected zone by provincial government.
It may well be one of South Africa’s lesser-known nature reserves, but Witsand is one of my favourite conservation destinations on the sub-continent. Superb stone chalets (with separate bedrooms, ablutions and a living area opening onto an expansive stoep) are hemmed in by ancient thorn trees. Genets, porcupines and duikers wander on the periphery of our braai firelight at night, and in the morning we awake to a cacophony of birds. Ashy Tits, Black-chested Prinias, Cape Glossy Starlings, Pygmy Falcons, Crested Barbets. It’s a paradise for twitchers and outdoor folk of all ages. Slender mongooses skulk from their expansive colonies to sneak a drink at the stone bird baths. Steenbuck sun themselves on the edge of the bristling Karroid undergrowth, and ground squirrels fantail about while we dunk our rusks in morning coffee.
As far as the ear can hear, a world sans cellphones and the World Wide Web stretches into the distance, leaving us free to experience a day filled with outdoor pleasure. I crank at speed towards the serrated rock horizons on my mountain bike, exchanging the air conditioning of the car for the feel of the wind in my hair. We hike the interpretative trail with the kids, put on trainers and run wild in the spiky surrounds of this amazing place, take our sand boards (you can rent proper stand-up decks from reception) and head onto the undulating dune fields shimmering in the Northern Cape sun.
Here are some of the bigger dunes in South Africa, with a sugary consistency that makes for high-speed runs. While Karyn and I are surveying the options, Robs has already sprinted to the top of ‘The Dune of Certain Death’ (eight-year-olds have a certain way with words). With a wild whoop, he dust-lines a few hundred metres along a suicide run before tumbleweeding into a dry branch. A few scrapes and some snot en trane last for nothing more than six seconds, before he charges back to the summit howling ‘Aaaaawesome!’ into the wide bowl of the sky.
Even Oupa and Ouma leopard-crawl to the top of the steep Brulsand (Roaring Sand) dune to be a part of the shenanigans, and it takes some major convincing to keep them off the boards. Hours flit by, as do the days and, despite all plans to extend our stay, we have to leave eventually, way before accomplishing half of what we intended. So, next time, I need longer in the bird hide, I want to hike across the dune field proper, I want to do more star-trail photographs, sand board under a full moon, take the kids on the night trail to see the wind spiders and the scorpions hunt, and just chill. Because that is what you do best in this beautiful place.