Text by Linda Baker & photographs Trygve Cooper
A dusty track meanders across a vast golden plain, edged with rocky outcrops. As the Cruiser rattles towards a summit, a wilderness preserved since time immemorial yawns beneath us.
Startled gemsbok freeze momentarily, returning to graze on the lush grasses germinated in recent, exceptionally good rains. An abundance of plant life, cousins of the northern Namib flora, dot the plains, a palette of pastels, tones and textures unfolding as we journey southwards.
As we jolt along towards the Aurus mountain range, our guide – wilderness guru and seasoned conservationist Trygve Cooper – Chief Warden of the newly proclaimed Sperrgebiet National Park, points out a few of the signature succulents that are found nowhere else on earth. Gazetted in December 2008, Namibia’s newest park covers an area roughly the size of the Etosha National Park, making it the third largest park in the country.
As Cooper explains, it is a national treasure due to the biodiversity it protects. With more than 1 000 plant species, many found within the ecologically sensitive Succulent Karoo ecosystem, this is one of two world desert hotspots.
A walk through the Aurus Mountains along a carefully laid path – one of Cooper’s many projects – reveals an abundance of tiny purple blossoms, while spiny euphorbias carpet the rocky hills. Succulents have evolved to maximise the benefits of the scarce rainfall, with many adapting to harvest fog falling on shores and mountaintops.
I am careful where I walk. At sunrise, my travelling companion, Nina, was reminded of the perils lurking in the desert. As she shook out her bedroll, a deadly Parabuthus scorpion scuttled from the shelter of her pillow.
This is one of thousands of insects to be found here. The park also shelters more than 100 reptile species, 120 terrestrial bird species, scores or shore and wetland birds and numerous mammals. We catch a glimpse of an African wild cat as we walk, and there is evidence of brown hyaena around.
As the hills give way to a vast plain below, we pause at the Africa Rock – a heart shape punched into a towering rock. The Roter Kamm crater sprawls beneath us. This is the fourth largest impact crater on the planet, a perfect sphere when viewed from the air.
Further south, the landscape gives way to the fossilised dunes of Obib, and springbok prance in the lengthening shadows as sunset approaches. The landscape becomes increasingly mountainous, at last revealing the snake-like form of the mighty Orange River in a carved valley below. As the river courses its way to the Atlantic Ocean, bizarre road signs warn of a series of perils, from ostrich, gemsbok and sandstorms to brown hyaena.
The town of Oranjemund provides a welcome oasis, with its lush green lawns, palm trees and nonchalant gemsbok grazing on road verges. An abundance of birdlife finds shelter in the mouth of the Orange River. Declared a Ramsar Site or wetland of international importance in 1995, this is one of a handful of transboundary Ramsar sites and is managed jointly by Namibia and South Africa.
The shores of the Sperrgebiet are inhabited by more than half the world’s Cape fur seal population, with colonies patrolled by brown hyaenas and black-backed jackals.
Cooper explains that the Sperrgebiet has been off-limits to the public since September 1908, six months after the discovery of the first diamond near Kolmanskop. Prior to that, the area had seen its fair share of adventurers and fortune seekers, but the hostile nature of the landscape, adverse weather conditions and scarcity of water had kept all but the very determined from venturing into this zone. A plethora of palaeontological and archaeological sites hint at earlier life forms and human presence, although it is doubtful that the forbidding Namib Desert offered permanent settlement to people.
Bartholomeu Dias planted a stone padrão off Lüderitz in 1488, as he returned from his southern journey. In the nineteenth century, a brave few traversed the area in search of mineral riches, but none were found. Instead, black gold – guano – was mined on offshore islands.
In the northern areas, evidence of a wagon route remains, with shards from bottles, old wagon-wheel rims, rusted water drums and food tins hinting at a distant time when traversing the treacherous landscape took weeks of careful planning.
But when railway worker Zacharias Lewala picked up a diamond near Kolmanskop in April 1908, his discovery sparked a diamond rush and the subsequent closure of the area to the public for the next century. From June to December that year, more than 141 000 carats of diamonds were discovered. In September the diamond riches of the area resulted in the South West African Secretary of State declaring a prohibited area, or Sperrgebiet. Inadvertently, although diamond mining became the key activity for the next century, this proclamation preserved one of the world’s most precious biodiversity areas for future generations.
Settlements sprang up along the shores, at Bogenfels, Pomona and Elizabeth Bay, while the town of Kolmanskop became a hive of activity, with a bowling alley, the first X-ray machine in the southern hemisphere and a theatre. Pomona, where diamonds were discovered in profusion on the sands, became the richest diamond mine in the world. Yet within decades, the riches were gone, with attention turned to diamond-rich marine deposits on the banks of the Orange River mouth. The desert reclaimed the once-bustling settlements, with only the wind and the sand as permanent occupants today.
However, it remained as a concession to Consolidated Diamond Mines, which was later transformed into Namdeb Diamond Corporation. The area was surveyed exhaustively to ensure that all diamond deposits were mined. In recent times, concession holder Namdeb has taken great care to restore areas that have been mined, embarking on rehabilitation programmes aimed at hastening natural recovery processes.
In 1986, the north-eastern portion of the Sperrgebiet was incorporated into the Namib-Naukluft Park. Nine years later, Namdeb initiated an Environmental Profile of the area to determine future land use.
In a historic move, three ministries combined efforts to oversee the development of a Sperrgebiet Land Use Plan. Commissioned in 1999, the plan recommended the establishment of a multiple-zoned national park in the Sperrgebiet for the conservation and development of the southern region of Namibia. The ministries of Environment and Tourism, Mines and Energy and Lands and Resettlement compiled a joint submission to Cabinet, and, in 2004, the Government gave the green light for the establishment of a new park. Aptly, the park was launched in February 2009 at the historic hall in Kolmanskop. More than 100 people gathered to witness a new beginning for the area, as Minister of Environment and Tourism, Honourable Netembo Nandi-Ndaitwah, unveiled plans for the future.
It is this rare gift to planet earth that Cooper, colleagues from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and a range of other stakeholders are determined to conserve. While tourism can bring economic opportunities to southern Namibia, a decade of careful planning and consultation has marked the way in which it is to be utilised. The area holds a quarter of the country’s plant diversity on less than three per cent of the land.
Cooper explains that the rugged terrain, sensitive habitats, unique fauna and flora, violent sandstorms and extreme weather conditions, along with the lack of 2×4 roads, resulted in the decision to allow visitors into the area under the supervision of concessionaires. At present, a Tourism Option Plan is being scrutinised, and a series of concessions is likely to be awarded soon, with preference given to neighbouring communities and previously disadvantaged applicants. The Namibian Government hopes that this forbidden territory will offer new riches to the young country, not by mining and scarring its landscape, but by conserving it.
In addition to attractions such as the majestic Bogenfels Rock Arch, ghost towns, pristine landscapes, wild horses on the Garub Plains and rich biodiversity, the discovery of a 14th-century shipwreck has added to the treasures of the Sperrgebiet. Discovered last year north of Oranjemund, the wreck yielded scores of elephant tusks, copper and gold ingots, remains of navigational instruments, cannons and tableware. These treasures have been collected painstakingly for future display, lest the icy Atlantic waters reclaim the wreck.
A Park Advisory Committee has been convened, consisting of various representatives from a range of institutions, to oversee future development of the park. Activities will be aimed at boosting tourism to the surrounding towns of Lüderitz, Rosh Pinah, Aus and Oranjemund.
The world awaits the awarding of concessions that will enable travellers from overcrowded cities to explore the desolate wilderness of a once forbidden territory that offers a oneness with nature as scarce on planet earth as new diamond deposits.
Although most of the new national park is currently off-limits to the public, it is possible to visit Bogenfels and Pomona with a Lüderitz-based concessionaire.
This article was originally published in the June 2009 Flamingo publication.