For the love of the wild

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The azure waters of Langebaan Lagoon in West Coast National Park, seen from the air. PICTURES: Scott Ramsay

Cape Town - I’ve spent the past year taking photos of our country’s national parks from ground level, but I’ve always dreamed of getting airborne to get the full perspective. Think of places like uKhahlamba-Drakensberg or Garden Route National Park. As impressive as they are, their dramatic beauty is often best revealed from the vantage point of a soaring eagle.

I met up recently with award-winning photographer and pilot Jean Tresfon, who introduced me to his lightweight, ingeniously designed gyrocopter. Jean flew us at about 300m above sea level from Milnerton to West Coast National Park near Langebaan, a distance of about 150km.

If there are two things that characterise the West Coast, it’s the wild, windswept beaches which stretch for hundreds of kilometres all the way to Namibia, and the Benguela Current of the Atlantic Ocean, an icy, tumultuous adversary.

We approached the national park, and after Jean radioed air control, we circled over the eastern side of Langebaan Lagoon, crossing to Kraal Bay, where hermit Frank Wightman spent two decades hiding away from the caterwauling of city civilisation. Today, there are several houseboats which can be rented to guests, making for a great getaway.

Then we crossed over the Postberg peninsula, where springtime flowers bedazzle the eyes, and from there to the Atlantic Ocean, making our way back down 16 Mile beach towards Cape Town.

Flying over the park makes one realise how unique it is: there is nothing else like it in South Africa. The docile, emerald waters of the lagoon, the sand flats, and the close proximity of the surging ocean are not only beautiful – especially from the air – but also ecologically special.

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Gyrocopter pilot Jean Tresfon flying south over 16 Mile Beach in West Coast National Park.

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The lagoon is the only true tidal lagoon in the country, with no rivers flowing into it, and provides a crucial feeding area for thousands of migrant wader birds like Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot, which fly halfway around the world from Siberia to feed on molluscs in the shallows of the lagoon.

The park’s marine-protected area is also an important breeding and nursery area for fish species, as well as the only known locality in the world for a particular marine mollusc (Siphonaria compress).

The terrestrial environment of strandveld fynbos is also important to conserve. These apparently monotonous plants are actually more diverse than the fields of Technicolor flowers which grow on old farm fields in the Postberg section of the national park.

On our way back down the coast, Jean lowered altitude, flying close to the long, empty beaches, before swooping high again. I felt like I was sitting on the back of a giant eagle, a fantasy movie made real.

We spotted a southern right whale and her calf just behind the breakers, and then an offshore island full of Cape fur seals, as well as a few baby seals on the isolated, empty beaches. Surfers in the sea below waved at us, as did some free divers, braving the cold water to enjoy the opening of the crayfish season in the Cape.

“Isn’t it incredible to think,” Jean said over the headphones, “this is all just an hour’s drive north of Cape Town. How lucky are we to live in a place like this.”

With its national parks and nature reserves, South Africa offers some of the best wilderness areas in the world, often just a short drive from our cities. But my flight with Jean also revealed their comparatively small size. According to experts around 80 percent of the country’s landscape has been transformed by man’s activities.

For sure, when you’re in a national park it seems big and expansive, but in fact it’s a relatively small patch of perfection surrounded by urban sprawl, agriculture, livestock farming, alien vegetation, commercial plantations and mining.

To the north of the lagoon is the port of Saldanha Bay, where massive ships carry away millions of tons of iron ore, and huge breakwaters disrupt the natural flow of sea water into the bay.

Humans sometimes think of the Earth as being a huge, inexhaustible expanse of never-ending land and sea, but it’s only a tiny dot on the edge of infinite space, and the planet’s wild areas are increasingly threatened by man’s insatiable hunger for so-called “development”.

Yet places like West Coast National Park are what make our country and continent unique, and deserve to be protected for their own sake, not ours. But of course, we selfishly need wilderness to remind ourselves where we have come from, to provide fundamental ecological services, and to provide some sanity in our incessantly busy lives.

As writer Edward Abbey wrote, “The love of wilderness is an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need – if only we had the eyes to see.” - Cape Times

l Photojournalist Scott Ramsay has recently completed Year in the Wild, a journey to South Africa’s most special nature reserves including all the national parks. For more information, visit websites, www.yearinthewild.com. For information on accommodation in West Coast National Park, see www.sanparks.org, www.duinepos.co.za.

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