A few decades ago, some people were ready to give up hope for the Tankwa Karoo. This deceptively beautiful valley in the Western Cape lies between Ceres and Calvinia. To the west is the Cederberg and to the east are the Roggeveld mountains of South Africa’s great plateau.
For hundreds of years this valley had been used by nomadic trekboere, who moved their goats and sheep into the veld during times of rain.
But when fences were erected and farms marked out on maps, the land couldn’t cope. Intensive grazing destroyed the veld. One of South Africa’s priceless ecological jewels almost died.
Few people realised how special the Tankwa’s ecology was. Very little research had ever been done on the area. So in 1986, when SANParks nevertheless decided to conserve 27 000 hectares, people were sceptical.
For 20 years, the park wasn’t open to the public. Instead, like a patient in intensive care, the land was given time to recuperate. And remarkably, against the odds, the dusty, denuded valley made a recovery.
And what a recovery it was. Today, the glory of the Tankwa Karoo is plain to see. Just after the first rains in July, the land explodes into colour. Billions and billions of flowers erupt from the earth, in a kaleidoscopic show that rivals Namaqualand’s more famous spring.
The Tankwa forms part of the Succulent Karoo, a distinct biome which is one of the world’s 25 biological hot spots – those areas of the globe which are particularly important for their ecological diversity, and which are particularly threatened.
It is one of only two arid hot spots in the world (the other is the Horn of Africa).
And the Tankwa is one of the most important parts of this amazing ecological system. This valley is unparalleled for its succulent plant diversity in such a discrete and small area – more than 3 000 species of plants can be found. Incredibly, about 70 percent of Tankwa’s flora species aren’t found anywhere else.
It’s a wonderful confirmation of the value of conservation. And for park manager Conrad Strauss – who has been at the helm since the start – all the hard work (and patience) has paid off.
“This park is totally different from all the others,” the former farmer’s son commented. “People used to believe that this area wasn’t worth anything. But they were completely wrong.”
Conrad was born in the homestead that now serves as the park’s offices. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all grew up in the Tankwa. His love and pride for one of South Africa’s most beautiful places is clear to see. But the Tankwa is not only about flowers. With the recovery of the veld, Conrad and his team have reintroduced a number of animal species.
“The veld actually needs a bit of trampling and grazing,” Conrad explained. “Otherwise the veld wouldn’t thrive… but of course it can’t be overgrazed, so we’re constantly monitoring the carrying capacity of the land.”
There are now 250 gemsbok, 160 red hartebeest, 500 springbok, 35 Cape Mountain zebras and about 20 kudu. “Those kudu have come all the way from Beaufort West,” Conrad told me.
“Previously, they would have been hunted here, but now that they’ve found the sanctuary of the park they seem to be thriving. They’ve come to stay and it obviously feels like home for them.”
And then there’s the crepuscular aardvark. At sunset one evening recently, while I was driving to one of the beautifully restored farmhouses – which now are rented out to the public – I came across this weird animal. He stood in the gravel road, unsure of my intentions. I managed to get a few photos before he scrambled off among the flowers of the veld.
The park has now grown to 146 000ha, and every piece of land was offered to the organisation by farmers who have moved away from the area, realising the futility of intensive livestock grazing.
Now tourism is the main source of income in the area, and is the most sustainable.
It seems as if nature has finally had its own way in the Tankwa Karoo. And it’s something that makes it such an attractive destination.
“People come here for the lonesomeness, that’s why we’re not planning more tourist facilities,” Conrad said.
“We have only about 4 600 visitors a year, but that’s enough for this area. If you have any more, the park would lose its sense of space and silence.” - Cape Times
l Scott Ramsay is a photojournalist travelling for a year to 31 of South Africa’s most special nature reserves, including all the national parks. For more, see www.yearinthewild.com or www.facebook.com/YearInTheWild.