By Hugh Paxton
The proclamation of the Sperrgebiet National Park (SNP) in December 2008 means that, for the first time in more than a century, ‘ordinary’ people will be able to set foot in this vast, desolately beautiful 22 000-square-kilometre area of largely pristine wilderness, the most biodiverse desert in the country.
The most frequently asked question at the moment is “When?” Here’s an update. And hopefully a few answers!
The northern section of the SNP has been accessible to limited concession-run tourism for some time – noteworthy being ecologically sensitive adventure dune-driving safaris, visits to historic mining relics, shipwrecks, and seal colonies north of Lüderitz. Most of the southern section, however, has experienced no visits from the public since being declared ‘forbidden’ in the early 20th century.
Despite having been declared a national park, this status currently remains unchanged. Entry is denied to non-permit holders under the conditions of the Diamond Act. This effectively means that access is still limited to the former Diamond Coast Recreation Area (now part of the SNP) and the famous ghost town of Kolmanskop near Lüderitz, the eerie remains of the Pomona settlement and the magnificent Bogenfels rock arch guided by the authorised tour operator.
For all other areas you still need to obtain a special entry permit from the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), which necessitates the submission of a police clearance document from your country of origin and can entail some months wait for Namibian authorities to approve the visit application.
Namdeb-run security gates continue to operate at each of the existing entry points as well as within the park. And although the penalties have changed, the message on the old signs that still stand essentially remains the same – “Warning. Penalty £500. Or One Year’s Imprisonment. The Public Is Warned Against Entering The Prohibited Area.”
Given the number of enquiries to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) there is clearly tremendous popular and tourism-sector interest in Namibia’s latest national park, for obvious reasons. The SNP not only boasts vast swathes of unspoilt wilderness, but has been declared one of our planet’s top 34 ‘global biodiversity hotspots’, this latter distinction being earned by its super-abundance of succulents, 234 of which are endemic, and 284 Red Data listed. Although the SNP covers just three per cent of Namibia’s land area, it holds 25 per cent of the country’s plant species (1 050 species), and is part of the transfrontier Succulent Karoo ecosystem, the most diverse desert system on earth.
Inland, due to harsh conditions, wildlife is sparse, but nonetheless some 80 terrestrial mammal species have been recorded, reptile species are understandably abundant (nearly 100) and the coastal zone is home to over 500 000 Cape fur seals and their principal predators, brown hyaenas and jackals. Sea and wetland bird numbers can loosely be pegged at close to half a million and the Orange River mouth has been designated a RAMSAR site.
Flora and fauna are only part of the tourism draw. The essence of the SNP is landscape; towering dunes, sea cliffs, soaring inselbergs, panoramic views, lonely gravel plains, the Roter Kamm meteorite crater (fourth largest in the world), and mass flowerings that follow spring rains all combine to make this one of the most dra-matic wilderness experiences in Africa.
So back to the earlier question.
The answer is, “Have patience.”
The MET has established the Sperrgebiet National Park Advisory Committee with the MME, Namdeb and other stakeholders. A task force has been formed within the Committee to review existing legislation, regulations and access control procedures to develop a plan for easing entry in order to make the park operational and truly open to the visitors.
Other preparation is ongoing – the MET has established new park management bases in Oranjemund and Rosh Pinah and staff members are plotting ecologically sensitive guided driving and hiking trails. The new Sendelingsdrift border post was opened in 2007 to facilitate visitor access directly from the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa to /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs and the Sperrgebiet in Namibia by a pontoon crossing over the Orange River. With funding from the UNDP/GEF-supported Strengthening the Protected Area Network (SPAN) Project, a project of the MET, new patrol camps have been erected, a radio communication system installed and the Incident Book Monitoring System (a local level park monitoring regime) introduced.
A biodiversity management plan and best-practice guide were developed with support from the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP) and the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF). A park management plan and business plan have also been developed and a tourism option study has been completed.
Given the importance, but also the fragility, of this ecosystem, tourism planning must out of necessity be carefully and sensitively addressed. Some areas with a high endemicity and range-restricted species are to be designated as Strict Nature Reserves and will never be generally accessible. Other areas will have access limited to visitors on foot, horse or camel back. Tourism is to be operated on a concession basis and will be guided.
Diamond mining has spared the Sperr-gebiet but has also scarred it. Namdeb, which is increasingly looking offshore as terrestrial diamond reserves are depleted, is engaged in a vigorous restoration programme aimed at restoring ecological integrity to damaged environments. All redundant (as opposed to historic) mining infrastructure will be demolished.
Oranjemund, currently off-limits, is sche-duled to become a municipality, and with its sporting facilities (which include the only golf course that has gemsbok working as greens keepers), supermarkets, and sophisticated infrastructure seems likely to skip the diamond ghost-town body count and become a gateway to the Sperrgebiet.
Things are happening.
That same question again! “When?”
Says SNP Chief Warden, Trygve Cooper, “Life owes us adventures and we owe our lives adventure. Wilderness gives us that. Of all the parks I’ve worked in over the past 30 years, the Sperrgebiet is my favourite. I love its extremes.”
So same answer: “Have patience.”
It will be worth the wait.
This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.