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Into perpetuity

A long-held conservation ambition to link the Tankwa Karoo National Park with the Cederberg Wilderness Area is taking shape. It will enhance the protection of fragile ecosystems, allow landowners to continue to make a living through stewardship agreements and reunite two iconic wild spaces.

I am here to find out more about a project that will enable a mega-interprovincial conservation area in excess of 258 000 hectares. And, of course, to meet the people who are making it happen.

© WWF South Africa/Andrea Weiss
Videographer Tim Gabb at work at a view site overlooking the river at the heart of a conservation corridor project to link the Tankwa with the Cederberg.

Into the wild

It’s my first field trip since hard lockdown, and it’s just wonderful to be surrounded by so much empty space. Only when you put a human figure into this space do you get a sense of its vastness, I muse, as a full moon rises into a sky that is morphing into a mother-of-pearl dreamscape.

At our backs, is the Cederberg in whose foothills we have spent the afternoon, exploring a little-known canyon on the Tra-tra River. The Tra-tra is a tributary of the Doring River which curls around this mountain massif as it follows a westward path to the sea. Ahead of us is the road to our overnight accommodation – the Tankwa Tented Camp on Stonehenge farm, erstwhile home of AfrikaBurn, the iconic performance arts and culture event.

Between these contrasts, a 15-year-old conservation dream is coming together.

© WWF South Africa/Andrea Weiss
These giant sculptures are remnants of AfrikaBurn at the Tankwa Tented Camp on Stonehenge farm.

Sunset musings

Jean-Pierre de Villiers, or JP for short, jokingly says he is about to use his one big English word of the week – “ephemeral”.  

‘’Ephemeral art; Tankwa Artscape!’’

These are some of the ideas he has in mind for the future of Stonehenge, the guest farm he co-owns with three partners. AfrikaBurn is moving to another site and a new destiny awaits Stonehenge. JP would like to further develop a residency programme where artists can spend time working on land art with a light environmental touch.

Stonehenge is a pivotal part of the Corridor because it backs directly onto the Tankwa Karoo National Park – and JP and his partners are preparing to sign a stewardship agreement. Although he lives and farms in Montagu his emotional connection with this place runs deep. His family spent the hard lockdown here. Each afternoon they would drive out before sunset to set up their cellphones at a vantage point to make a time-lapse video for sharing on social media “From you know where…”

The time lapses were evocative titbits eagerly followed by AfrikaBurn enthusiasts whose 2020 festival had been cancelled due to Covid – and most importantly raised closed to R37 000 for the school feeding scheme at the nearby Elandsvlei Primary School which, in previous years, benefitted from donations of non-perishable foods from festival goers.

© WWF South Africa/Andrea Weiss
Gemsbok pictured inside the Tankwa Karoo National Park which lies on the eastern side of the corridor.

There are plants here that you find nowhere else in the world."

Francois van der Merwe, landowner

Next level farming

Elandsvlei Primary, a farm school catering for around 40 children, can be found at Brakfontein, another key component of the corridor. Here we meet farmer Francois van der Merwe who has 25 hectares of vineyards under irrigation, producing sultanas, raisins and dried tomatoes.

His wife Nicolette is closely involved as principal of Elandsvlei Primary and the foundation phase teacher, and on behalf of the feeding scheme personally wrote thank-you letters to each of the donors inspired by JP’s time-lapse videos.

As Brakfontein backs onto the 71 000-ha Cederberg Wilderness Area, it is a critical piece of the puzzle and Francois is the largest landowner to be signing up. For him, a biodiversity stewardship agreement will give him tools to manage his land in an environmentally sensitive way while allowing him to continue earning a living off the land.

“There are plants here that you find nowhere else in the world,” he says – evidenced by the splashes of colour among the stones at our feet as we chat.

© WWF South Africa/Andrea Weiss
The waxy branches of this succulent plant, known as Bushman’s Candle, are flammable even when wet. Parts of the corridor feature diverse and interesting plant life typical of the Succulent Karoo.

The negotiators

The Corridor project relies on people with the ambition, skills and heart – and I meet them too.

Along for the trip are project manager Kerry Purnell, a pioneer of stewardship agreements, and land negotiator Ben-Jon Dreyer (both from Wilderness Foundation Africa) who are responsible for the planning and negotiations. Ben-Jon has spent countless hours drinking coffee in farm kitchens talking about stewardship. He even has a rescue dog called Tra-tra. One afternoon in the canyon, Tra-tra turned up in the river with a bad mouth wound, presumably inflicted by a baboon, and followed him back to his bakkie. Ben-Jon didn’t have the heart to leave the dog behind.

Also, with me is my colleague Katherine Forsythe – project coordinator for the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust, administered by WWF, which is providing funding for the Corridor project. Australian-born Katherine is a conservationist, mountain climber and AfrikaBurn veteran and so this field trip is interspersed with nostalgic memories of “the Burn”. Good to know that as a member of “the Grease Monkeys” at AfrikaBurn she has experience of fixing tyres so easily shredded by these flinty roads.

On our second day, we travel to the Tankwa Karoo National Park headquarters where we meet park manager Kennet Makondo who hails from Giyani in Limpopo Province. He is a long way from home but many years in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape, and now the Tankwa – on the border of the Northern and Western Cape – have made him something of a semi-desert veteran. He jokes that every time he moves, he is further and further away from cellphone reception. He is enthusiastic about the positive relationships developing between neighbouring landowners and SANParks.

© Ben-Jon Dreyer
Tra-tra the rescue dog recovering at Ben-Jon’s home where he is now a much-loved family pet.

The old post road

The names of the other farms that form part of the Corridor project are as evocative as the landscape:  Lekkerlag (laugh heartily); Elandsvlei (Portion 5) and Osvlei (eland and oxen wetlands) and Voetpad (footpath). I often wonder about the stories behind names like these – and there is one interesting final story to tell.

Apparently in days’ gone by, the seasonal 52km Tra-tra riverbed was used as a footpath leading from the 1830 mission village of Wupperthal in the Cederberg mountains to the Elandsvlei farmstead on the edge of the Tankwa where there was once a shop and a post office. This route is also covered by an 80km 4x4 track known as the Ou Pospad.

Most of the old buildings now lie in ruins but it is not hard to imagine the buzz of people and their pack donkeys arriving to pick up their groceries and news from the outside world.

© WWF South Africa/Andrea Weiss
The famous Cederberg landmark called Tafelberg, left, is silhouetted above the horizon at sunset.

The road ahead

Alongside stewardship and farming, and future art residencies, this leads us to another exciting plan for the corridor project – a tourism offering that will follow this ancient pathway from the plains to mountain – possibly in the form of a hiking trail. A wonderful prospect for any outdoor enthusiast.

I can’t wait to come back to give it a go!

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss , Media Manager

Andrea loves telling stories about the people who are working to create a better world for future generations.

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