Category Archives: Eastern Cape Province

Camdeboo National Park

In 1975 the Southern African Nature Foundation (today WWF-SA) established the 165km² Karoo Nature Reserve virtually all around the historic town of Graaff-Reinet. It was only in 2005 that the Karoo Nature Reserve was transferred to the stewardship of South African National Parks, and officially proclaimed as the Camdeboo National Park. Additional land was incorporated into the new Park, enlarging it to 194km². Some parts of the reserve consists of inspiring mountain topography, and yet others of wide open arid plains. The Nqweba Dam, previously known as the Van Rhyneveld’s Pass Dam and built in the early 1920’s, occupies a large section of the Park (up to 1000 hectares when full). The vegetation of the Park is a mix of Karoo scrub, grasslands, thorn savannas and succulent thickets, consisting of over 330 species.

Camdeboo National Park’s most celebrated natural feature, and a declared scenic national monument, is the Valley of Desolation, an awesome cleft over 100m deep, bordered by imposing pillars of stone and cut by natural forces over a period of 240-million years into the side of the mountain looming over Graaff-Reinet. A tarred road leads to the toposcope and viewpoints right at the top, where visitors have an opportunity to enjoy the magnificent vistas over the expansive Great Karoo and the small frontier town situated in an oxbow bend of the Sundays River below.

The Karoo Nature Reserve and later Camdeboo National Park was stocked with several large game animals that used to occur here historically, and today Cape Buffalo and Cape Mountain Zebra count among the 43 kinds of mammals that can be seen here. All told, there’s no less than 225 kinds of birds, 34 reptile species and 8 varieties of frogs and toads that has been recorded within the Park’s borders.

Overnight guests have a choice between the four basic two-bed safari tents at the Lakeview Tented Camp, which make use of a communal ablution block, kitchen and lounge, or the Nqweba Campsite which has fifteen sites for caravans and tents (each with a braai stand (barbeque) picnic table and electric point). There’s a limited network of gravel game-viewing roads available to sedans, a few more 4×4 trails, hiking trails, fishing and other watersports on the Nqweba Dam, a bird-watching hide (unfortunately really only of use when the dam is full), and rustic picnic sites. Graaff-Reinet has shops, restaurants, fuel stations and more.

Camdeboo National Park was the final stop on our December 2017 holiday tour through eight of South Africa’s national parks. The easiest access to Camdeboo’s Nqweba Campsite, Lakeview Tented Camp and the main game-viewing area is from the gate on the N9, just a few kilometres north of Graaff-Reinet, while the gate to the Valley of Desolation lies on the R63 to Murraysburg.

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Mountain Zebra National Park

Historically, the Cape Mountain Zebra occurred widely in the mountainous areas of what today is South Africa’s Eastern, Western and Northern Cape Provinces. With the settlement of Europeans in these areas, and the consequent increase in competition for grazing with their livestock as well as uncontrolled hunting, the numbers of the zebras started plummeting. With their plight finally brought to public awareness, the National Parks Board (today SANParks) proclaimed the farm Babylons Toren in the Cradock district the Mountain Zebra National Park in 1937. At 1,432 hectares in extent, the newly established Park was hopelessly too small, and the founding herd of 5 stallions and 1 mare entirely inadequate to save the species from certain doom, and by 1950 the world population of Cape Mountain Zebra had dwindled to only 91 animals, of which only 2 were in the national park that carried their name. That same year a local farmer donated 11 zebras to the park, but it was only in 1964 that the Park was expanded to 6,536 hectares with the addition of neighbouring properties. This proved very much to the zebras’ liking, and by 1969 the Park’s herd stood at 98 head and by 1978 had grown to 200. Today, the Mountain Zebra National Park protects around 500 of these beautiful animals, and several hundred more have been reintroduced to areas in their historic distribution range.

The Mountain Zebra National Park lies at the transitional zone between the arid western Karoo-scrublands and the moister, eastern grasslands, and protects a wide variety of habitats and landscapes within its borders. Given its amazing topographical diversity it should come as no surprise that over 700 plant species occur in the Park. With the future of the Cape Mountain Zebra secured, the focus of the Park could be shifted to biodiversity conservation, and with the help of wildlife artist David Shepherd and several corporate sponsors, enough funds were collected to enlarge the Park to over 28,000 hectares, which allowed the introduction of several large game species – notably lion, cheetah, buffalo and black rhino – to their former haunts.

Sharing the Mountain Zebra National Park with its most celebrated inhabitants is 65 other kinds of mammals…

… and to date 257 bird species have been recorded in the Park.

There’s also a multitude of smaller, less noticeable animals in the Park, including 45 kinds of reptiles, 10 species of frogs, and giant 4m long earthworms!

In recent years, Mountain Zebra has become one of South Africa’s most popular national parks, and recently the number of accommodation units at the Park’s rest camp (which also boasts a small shop, restaurant and swimming pool) had to be substantially increased to cater for the demand. Doornhoek Guest House is a historic homestead restored to its former glory and now converted to luxurious overnight accommodation in a secluded corner of the Wilgerboom River valley. There’s also a terrific camping site, two picnic sites, an extensive network of game-viewing roads, three 4×4 trails, a guided hiking trail and guided game drives available to visitors. A unique attraction at Mountain Zebra is the “cheetah tracking” where guests accompany researchers and rangers to find radio-collared cheetahs in their natural habitat.

Mountain Zebra National Park was the eighth and penultimate stop on our December 2017 tour through eight of South Africa’s national parks. It is located just outside the small town of Cradock, on the R61-road to Graaff-Reinet.

Elephants, Elephants, and more Elephants!

If you thought our previous post on the Addo Elephant National Park was a bit short on elephant photo’s, you’d be right. But Addo’s star attractions really deserve a post all to themselves, wouldn’t you agree?

With the proclamation of the Addo Elephant National Park in 1931, only 11 African Elephants remained in the Addo district. Initially, the Park was not fenced to keep the elephants in and when they left the Park they were at the mercy of the “civilisation” that wanted to destroy them all, so the first Park manager made the decision to feed them with citrus and other fresh produce to keep them within his boundaries. Slowly but surely their numbers started growing, but by the time the Park was finally surrounded with an elephant-proof fence in 1954, there was still only 22 elephants at Addo. The unnatural practice of feeding the elephants, which in the end was done more for the entertainment of tourists than for the elephants’ sake, ended in 1979. By then the herd numbered about 100 animals, but Addo’s elephants have responded wonderfully to the protection they’ve been afforded since the Park’s proclamation, and today number over 600!

Addo Elephant National Park

By the early 1900’s the Eastern Cape’s wildlife was being exterminated at an alarming rate. The last lions and black rhinos in the region did not see the arrival of the year 1900, and only about 140 African Elephants remained around the Addo district, which was rapidly developing into an important agricultural area, leading to conflict with the newly established farmers. The government’s decision to intervene was not good news for the elephants. In 1919 they appointed Major P.J. Pretorius to destroy the elephants, and by 1920 he had killed 114 of them and caught 2 for a circus. Only 16 elephants remained when public sentiment swung in their favour and the wanton killing ended, and when the Addo Elephant National Park was proclaimed in 1931, only 11 elephants were left. It wasn’t until 1954 when an area of 2,270 hectares was surrounded by an elephant proof fence that the future of the Addo elephants finally looked secure. Along with the elephants, the last free-roaming herds of African (Cape) Buffalo that occurred in the then Cape Province, as well as the unique and endemic Flighless Dung Beetle, finally found a secure refuge. In subsequent years the Park’s area was expanded and species that fell into local extinction through the barrel of a gun were reintroduced.

With the Addo elephants now finally living in a safe refuge, the focus at Addo Elephant National Park is no longer on saving a single species. Today, the park’s management is concerned with the protection of the enormous diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna encompassed within its boundaries, which covers an expansive area of over 178,000 hectares stretching from beyond and across the Zuurberg range to the coastal forests and dune fields of Alexandria. The Park protects portions of no less than five of South Africa’s seven distinct terrestrial biomes, these being subtropical thicket, fynbos, forest, grassland and Nama-Karoo, not to mention the portion of marine environment protected around Algoa Bay’s St. Croix and Bird islands which is important breeding sites for endangered seabirds. Addo is the only National Park in South Africa that can claim to protect the “Big Seven” –  Elephant, Lion, Black Rhino, Buffalo, Leopard, Great White Shark, and Southern Right Whale.

Addo Elephant National Park protects a total of 95 mammals species, including all the members of the famed “Big Five“.

The Park also boasts a list of 417 bird species!

And if that isn’t enough, visitors also have a chance of spotting any of the more than 50 reptile species or 20 kinds of frogs and toads that call Addo Elephant National Park home. The Park’s most famous invertebrate inhabitant undoubtedly is the Flightless Dung Beetle (Circellium bacchus), this being only one of 5 places they are still found. These interesting insects make use of elephant, rhino, buffalo and kudu dung as food, either for themselves or rolled into brood balls in which they lay a single egg before burying it in soft sand and on which the larvae then feeds when it hatches.

The Addo Main Camp is the Addo Elephant National Park’s first and biggest tourist facility. Camping and a wide variety of accommodation (as well as a swimming pool) is available to overnight guests. There are picnic sites for day visitors, an underground hide overlooking a waterhole frequented by all the Park’s animals and floodlit at night (we even saw a brown hyena there when we visited in December), a birdwatching hide overlooking a small artificial wetland, a self-guided discovery trail, guided drives and horse rides, a fuel station, restaurant, shop and excellent interpretive centre where young and old can learn more about the Park and its inhabitants. Elsewhere in the Park guests can overnight at the luxury, full service and privately-run Gorah, Riverbend and Kuzuko-lodges, or in one of the Park’s own camps at Nyathi, Matyholweni, Kabouga Cottage, Mvubu Campsite, Narina Bushcamp, Langebos and Msintsi. Between the Main Camp and Matyholweni guests have access to an extensive and well-maintained network of all-weather game viewing roads, while other areas of the Park can be explored along hiking trails or 4×4 trails.

We spent three nights camping at the Addo Main Camp during our December 2017 holidays at eight of South Africa’s National Parks. The easiest way to reach the Park is along the N2 highway from Port Elizabeth, turning off to the gate at Matyholweni just before you reach the small town of Colchester on the bank of the Sundays River, about 45km from PE’s airport.

Tsitsikamma (Garden Route National Park)

When it was proclaimed in 1964, Tsitsikamma was the first marine national park in Africa. Since then it was progressively enlarged as more areas on land and sea was added to the Park, and by the time it was incorporated into the Garden Route National Park alongside Wilderness National Park, Knysna National Lake Area, and extensive tracts of state forests in between in 2009, the Tsitsikamma section covered an 80km stretch of coastline, extending on average 5km out to sea.

The name “Tsitsikamma” is a Khoekhoen word meaning “place of much water”, which is very apt as the region receives on average around 1,200mm of rain annually. This is a rugged but exceptionally beautiful area, with forested slopes, shear cliffs tumbling into the sea, deep ravines cut into the mountains by dark rivers over millennia, and enormous waves pounding unrelentingly onto the rocky shore.

The easy trail leading to the suspension bridges at the river mouth, about a kilometre from Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, the Tsitsikamma’s main tourst facility, really gives the visitor an excellent introduction to the Tsitsikamma-area; bringing you into contact with the beach, ocean, forest and river, and many of the creatures that find a home there.

Notably, Tsitsikamma’s list of recorded mammals is dominated by marine animals rather than the large terrestrial game species normally associated with a national park in Africa. That being said, visitors should count themselves lucky to see one of the seven whale or five dolphin species that ply these waters – we were fortunate to see a pod of Indian Ocean Bottlenose Dolphins in the surf and a handful of Humpback Whales breaching far into the sea. On land however the Chacma Baboons and Rock Dassies are ubiquitous inhabitants of the camp. And with almost 300 bird species recorded, many of which closely associated with the ocean and rocky beaches, the Tsitsikamma section is a birdwatcher’s delight. Most of the Garden Route National Park’s 25 species of snakes are seldomly seen, so we were thrilled to witness an altercation between a deadly venomous Boomslang and Southern Boubou while walking around one morning.

Walking around after dark, and seeing the healthy population of frogs and toads at Storms River Mouth, we realised how grossly inadequate our old guidebook on South Africa’s amphibians was to identify the 24 species that’s been recorded in the Garden Route National Park. We remedied that soon after we got back home!

As already mentioned, Storms River Mouth Rest Camp is the Tsitsikamma section’s main visitors facility and understandably one of the Garden Route’s top attractions. Here, wedged between mountain and sea, overnight visitors have a choice of spectacularly located accommodation and camping sites, serviced by a restaurant and shop that stocks basic food items and curios. There are picnic sites for day visitors and a small swimming beach. Guided boat tours and more adventurous activities up the Storms River gorge can be undertaken daily. Unique snorkeling and scuba trails allow visitors a glimpse into the underwater world of the Tsitsikamma, and on land several walking trails lead deep into the forest. At the eastern side of the Tsitsikamma section lies the more rustic Nature’s Valley Rest Camp, just outside the small holiday town of the same name. The renowned Otter Trail, covering a distance of almost 50km between Storms River Mouth and Nature’s Valley over 5 days, is rated as one of the best and most scenic hiking routes on the planet.

Storms River Mouth was the sixth destination on our December itinerary through eight of South Africa’s national parks. It is easily accessible along a good tarred road that turns off the N2 highway between Plettenberg Bay and Port Elizabeth.

What a trip it’s been!

Happy New Year to all our friends here at de Wets Wild! We hope that 2018 has lots of opportunities to explore the outdoors, for you as well as for us!

We have just arrived back home safely after another epic summer holiday in South Africa’s wild places. All in all we were away from home for 24 nights and traveled a total of 5,550km, exploring eight of this beautiful country’s National Parks.

The route for our epic December 2017 holidays

Of course we came back with literally thousands of photos, which we’ll be sharing here in the coming weeks. We tried to post a daily update as we went along – here’s a quick recap.

Our 2017 in pictures

Looking back at the places we stayed at during another year of enjoying South Africa’s beautiful wild places.

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