The West Coast National Park is only an hour’s drive from Cape Town, but couldn’t be more different from the city’s own Table Mountain National Park. I was slipping and sliding in a quagmire of bird poo, but I hardly noticed. The Cape gannets were flying low overhead, taking off and landing in organised chaos. A north-westerly gale was hammering Malgas Island, near Langebaan Lagoon. I struggled to keep my balance as I tried my best to take some photographs.
I was in the second week of Year in the Wild, my year-long journey to 31 of South Africa’s most special nature reserves. I’d managed to get a very wet ride out to Malgas Island with skipper William Brink on the South African National Parks rubber duck. You hear the island before you see it. Thousands of histrionic gannets squawk and screech. Then the stink hits the nostrils. The entire surface of the island is covered in guano.
The gannets didn’t seem to mind the weather – or me. I approached a group of them to within a metre. I hid behind my camera lens, hoping they wouldn’t peck me. Despite their harsh calls and lack of personal hygiene, gannets are surprisingly beautiful, elegant creatures. The wind picked up even more, and William beckoned me to return to the boat. I snapped a few more photos and jumped back on board.
The marine ranger hit the throttle hard and we hurtled over the Atlantic swell, back into the safety of Langebaan Lagoon, passing several huge tankers carrying iron-ore from Saldanha Bay.
The West Coast National Park lies just to the south of this industrial port. But it’s still a wild, natural place. The lagoon is the focus of the park, in terms of conservation and recreation.
More than one-third of South Africa’s salt marshes are found here and thousands of migratory sea birds use this rare habitat to fatten up before flying back to Russia. The lagoon’s constant salinity and regular tides provide the ideal environment for them. Then there are the famous flowers.
During a drive through Postberg, section ranger Carmen Gagiano explained how without some trampling and grazing of the veld, the flowers wouldn’t thrive.
“It’s because the land has been degraded by livestock in the past that there are so many flowers. It’s not an entirely natural scene.”
Some of the antelope have been relocated to other parts, but many returned to Postberg, jumping the fences or even – in the case of a herd of eland – swimming across the lagoon.
“We don’t know why exactly they prefer it,” Carmen said. “Maybe they just think of it as home.”
The southern section of the park, extending all the way to Yzerfontein, is considered a “wilderness” area. Except for a few jeep tracks, there are no roads and no public areas. The so-called 16-mile beach runs down the entire western Atlantic shore of the park. A marine protected area extends across the lagoon and out into the open ocean.
The sense of wilderness is something that senior section ranger Pierre Nel is very protective about. “There is so much pressure on the park already from urban and industrial development,” he said. “We have to protect the park. We can’t have too much development.”
Despite 36 000 hectares of conserved land, and a marine protected area of 25 000ha, the park still faces pressure from surrounding industry. Red dust from the iron-ore depot at Saldanha ends up in the lagoon.
Langebaan itself is a major holiday destination, and houses crowd the park’s north-eastern boundary. Hundreds of boats use the park’s recreational section of the lagoon, especially in summer time. Popular activities include skiing, fishing, swimming, kite-surfing, windsurfing and kayaking.
The lagoon is split into three different zones, the northernmost being for recreational use, the southernmost being off limits to the public and the middle part having some recreational use.
l See www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast/or www.houseboating.co.za
Photographer/writer Ramsey is focusing on conservation. He is travelling for a year to 31 of South Africa’s most special nature reserves, including all the national parks.
See www.yearinthewild.com or www.facebook.com/YearInTheWild - Cape Times