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by Nicolette Jacobi
Diversity rules in the Kuiseb River Delta and in the areas upstream of the ephemeral Kuiseb River. The area is the playing field of ever-shifting sand dunes. There are also sand flats and gravel plains, and nearer to the coast the delta plays an important role in sustaining birdlife at one of the world’s Ramsar sites.
The Kuiseb River has its source in the mountains of the Khomas Hochland west of Windhoek. From there the river cuts through the mountainous area to reach the desert flats. Aerial photographs of the Kuiseb River show how the southern riverbank consists of high sand dunes and the northern bank of rocky outcrops and gravel plains.
The delta formed by the river lies south of the Walvis Bay salt works, east of the fishing spot, Paaltjies, and falls within the Dorob National Park. It extends into the lagoon of Walvis Bay. The zone borders the northern section of the Namib-Naukluft Park.
The delta is home to many indigenous plant species, a conspicuous one being the well-known !nara plant. Various species of indigenous trees flank the riverbed. Alien invasive species, however, also occur here and are spreading. A variety of lichen species grow on rocks and stone in the desert plains.
An important Ramsar site
The Kuiseb River Delta and Walvis Bay Lagoon were classified as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) at the turn of the century. These areas support on average about 100 000 birds during the summer months and about 50 000 during winter. According to Bird Life International, which conducted the IBA assessments, more than 90 per cent of the birds using the wetland during the summer are migratory species and do not breed here.
The majority of the birds found in the surroundings consist of flamingos and migratory waders from the northern hemisphere. During the winter months between 80 and 90 per cent of the flamingos from Southern Africa are found in the delta and lagoon.
While it is said that the salt works south of Walvis Bay have destroyed the natural habitat of the birds, they do provide permanent, shallow water-filled areas. This artificial segment of the wetland supports more than half of the birds in the surroundings, and contributed towards the proclamation of the area as a Ramsar site.
The international convention on wetlands held in the city of Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, became known as the Ramsar Convention. This inter-governmental treaty commits member countries to maintain wetlands of international importance.
Namibia signed the Ramsar Convention in 1995, and the Walvis Bay Ramsar site was proclaimed in that year. The site consists of the Walvis Bay Lagoon, Pelican Point up to its extreme northern top, and the salt works and area to the south. According to the description of this Ramsar site, its most important feature is the mudflats that are exposed during low tides. Eleven red data species are regularly found at the Walvis Bay Ramsar site. Bird counts are done twice a year.
Home of the Topnaars
Not only does the Kuiseb Delta provide sanctuary to a large number of bird species – it is also home to the unique Topnaar community. The Topnaars are a semi-nomadic tribe descended from the Nama people, and are also a Khoisan group.
The Topnaars living in the Kuiseb Delta are from the ≠Aonin tribe. According to Chief Seth Kooitjie of the ≠Aonin Traditional Authority, when the Sperrgebiet was set aside as a diamond area in 1908 and the Namib-Naukluft Park was proclaimed in 1979, a large area next to the coast and the Kuiseb Delta were excluded because the ≠Aonin people were living there, subsisting on livestock farming, harvesting the !nara fruit and fishing.
At the official launch of the Dorob National Park, Kooitjie said that the Kuiseb Delta was unparalleled in Southern Africa for its archaeology, and that it provided information on the ≠Aonin people dating back some 2 000 years. He said that 256 archaeological sites had been identified, providing valuable insights into how the indigenous people lived. “The significance of the knowledge provided by these archaeological sites is paramount to the ≠Aonin people. The sites therefore need to be preserved and protected in the interests of national history.”
About 400 Topnaar people live at the settlement of Lauberville, about 55 km from Walvis Bay. They still harvest !nara in the southern reaches of the delta. The regulations of the newly proclaimed Dorob National Park stipulate that no plant or animal harvesting may be done without a valid permit, and that harvesting may not be done for commercial purposes. On behalf of his tribe, Chief Kooitjie agreed that the ≠Aonin people would ‘fully participate and assist’ the Ministry of Environment and Tourism with the development and upliftment of the park. He said he hoped that the local development trust would be included in community–based ecotourism to help sustain the utilisation of the natural resources in the park environs.
Good to know
- If you plan to explore the Kuiseb River Delta in the Dorob National Park you need to obtain a permit, which is issued by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism free of charge.
- On the gravel plains of the Delta and in the Walvis Bay dune fields, vehicles may drive only on proclaimed or park roads, for which a permit is required.
- Residents of the Topnaar community who require access to their properties and natural resources in the Kuiseb River area in the park, may use the existing tracks. They may not make new tracks.
- The best way to explore the Kuiseb River Delta and to get to know the Topnaar people is to visit the area on a guided tour. Enquire about the different options at information centres in the coastal towns.
This article appeared in the Aug/ Sep 2011 edition of Travel News Namibia.