Goukamma Nature Reserve - South Africa
Goukamma Nature Reserve - South Africa
Goukamma Nature Reserve - South Africa
Goukamma Nature Reserve - South Africa
Goukamma Nature Reserve - South Africa
Goukamma Nature Reserve - South Africa

Cape Town - The little-known Goukamma Nature Reserve and its marine protected area – just 65km² – is hidden away between Knysna and Sedgefield in the southern Cape. But the photogenic reserve became the centre of the nation’s attention on August 8 when the 182-metre Kiani Satu cargo vessel ran aground in heavy seas just off Goukamma’s beaches.

The German-owned ship was carrying about 15 000 tons of rice and 300 tons of fuel oil. About 50 tons of oil leaked out, blackening the beaches of the reserve and the marine protected area, which extends one nautical mile from the shore. On August 21 the vessel was towed 110 miles out to sea, into water 1 000m deep, where it sank.

Fortunately several winter storms passed over the area. Heavy wave action broke up the oil on the beaches, making it easier for the clean-up teams to remove the remaining pollution.

Last week, I walked the coast of Goukamma with reserve manager Keith Spencer, to see what oil remained. With us was Byron Elkington, the insurance assessor for the vessel’s owners.

“When the oil first hit the beaches,” Spencer said, “we could smell it on the shore. It was that sharp petrol-type smell you get when filling up your car.

“There was a line of black all along the beach, and we were expecting the worst. Fortunately, nature played along, and the stormy seas helped to clean the beaches.”

According to Elkington, the insurers of the vessel have paid for all cleaning and emergency operations, and will continue to do so until the reserve is restored to its natural state.

But what of the marine protected area, and its ocean life, including one of the country’s healthiest spawning populations of Red Roman fish? These territorial fish are slow-growing, and their numbers outside reserves have plummeted because of overfishing.

“Oil will sit on the surface of the ocean,” Spencer said, “so it’s unlikely any fish or sub-surface marine life will suffer. But you never know what the long-term effects will be.”

The mouth of the Goukamma River was closed off with a boom to prevent oil from entering the estuary, and the river system was mostly spared.

The oil didn’t affect only Goukamma. The ocean currents carried the pollution 300km east to the Cape gannet nesting colony on Bird Island, off the Addo Elephant National Park. This is the world’s largest Cape gannet colony and one of only a few remaining. Nearby is the small St Croix island, home to the largest colony of African penguins.

According to Sanccob, 112 African penguins, 172 Cape gannets and one White-breasted cormorant were captured for cleaning. So far, 47 Cape gannets have been released.

While the insurers are ready to pay out for expenses incurred in cleaning up the mess, what price the damage to endangered species like African penguins, Cape gannets and Red Roman fish? After all, they have a hard enough time as it is, regardless of oil spills.

Is it time for a sizeable fine to be imposed, in this case on the owners of the Kiani Satu, to cover “the cost to nature”, over and above any clean-up fee? This money could be used to expand protected areas and train extra conservation staff, for instance.

As leading environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan writes convincingly in his book Wild Law, nature and our fellow species should have legal rights too, even if South African law doesn’t acknowledge them.

For now, Goukamma is on the mend. It was hard to believe there was a recent oil spill. Except for a few small isolated spots, the beaches were clean, while the emerald sea lured me in for a swim.

I photographed several pairs of oystercatchers feeding in the rock pools, surely a sign that the reserve is mostly back to its beautiful best.

To savour the area fully, visitors should walk the beaches or the fynbos trails on the dunes, all the way to the gorgeous Groenvlei, a natural body of fresh water that has no inflowing or outflowing rivers.

One morning I borrowed the reserve’s little boat and drifted along the edges of this sparkling lake. A pair of Cape clawless otters poked their noses above the surface, and a fish eagle swooped to land on one of the thousands of ancient milkwood trees.

Self-catering accommodation includes three stylish thatched cottages on the estuary, and two rustic bush lodges overlooking Groenvlei. But the best is Fish Eagle Loft, a two-bed semi-luxury eyrie that has high views over the river and ocean.

The natural perfection at Goukamma was always deserving of more attention and recognition. The oil spill from the Kiani Satu may just give it that.

l Call 0861 227 362 8873, or 044 383 0042, or see www.capenature.co.za

Photojournalist Ramsay focuses on Africa’s protected areas. See www.yearinthewild.com. Partners include Ford Everest, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart and K-Way. - Cape Times