From the Spoeg River to the Groen River
Late January arrived with an unexpected adventure: a 3-day hike down the Namaqualand coast within the borders of the Namaqualand National Park. Kevin, a longtime hiking companion, was the instigator. He had wanted to tackle the 44 km hike for years. So at short notice we entered the park at the gate near Hondeklipbaai, drove down to Boulders Bay camp where we overnighted before striking out south the next day. Note, however, that this hike had been specially arranged with the rangers at SANParks, who transferred my bakkie to our last camp and kept us supplied with water (there is no fresh water along the hike, although there are some springs known to a few) and firewood, Rooikrans from the former “forests” in the Bitterrivier dune field which are being cleared. It is not a recognised hiking trail.
The hike basically parallels the 4×4 Caracal Eco Route that hugs the coast between Boulders camp in the north and Delwers camp in the south. Between Boulders and Delwers lie another 6 campsites, clustered along a rocky stretch of coast. All the camps are characterised by semi-circular, stone vuurskerms, designed to shelter braai-fires from the prevailing southerlies, and one dry “eco-loo” per every two campsites. The dry toilets work very well. We carried food, plenty of drinking water, sleeping bags and tents.
The coast is a harsh, wind-swept environment frequented only by 4×4 campers. However, on our hike we came upon only one family camping at Kwass se baai, and then a few campers at Delwers. Instead of the expected southerlies or hot “berg” winds, we had perfect weather over the three days: sunny days softened by sea mist and light breezes off the cold Benguela current, meaning that the temperature never ventured much above 20°C. Inland temperatures were well into the mid-thirties. Even in this mild summer weather the sun hammered us. Our constant soundtrack was the roar and thunder of the surf, and the whistles of concerned Black Oystercatcher pairs as they tried to lure us away from their nests. There are relatively few pairs along this coast because of the long, sandy beaches devoid of rocks, and thus mussels and limpets.
The park was proclaimed in 2002 and has grown steadily, incorporating the Spoeg-to-Groen section in 2011. It also includes a marine protected area and the effect of protecting the coastal waters can be measured in the order of magnitude increase in the Cape fur seal population at the seal colony south of Boulders, from a few hundred individuals to the thousands, in a decade. Anecdotally, I was told that farmers and crayfishers used to descend on the colony and indiscriminately slaughter the seals with shotguns, before the coast was incorporated into the park.
Day 1: After a comfortable night in the rooftop tent at Boulders, we set out the next morning in cool weather. After about 4 km we reached the noisy seal colony. At first I thought it was fairly small, but as we walked more seals revealed themselves amongst the rocks. A large proportion are pups, so the population looks as if it is growing rapidly – and this means that there must be ample food for them. South of the colony on the seaside of Bitterrivier dune field, a long beach stretches away to the south. Its smooth satin sand merged into the sea mist as we strolled along the firm sand for kilometres. Soon after passing the dry Bitterivier mouth, we ambled into Skuinsbaai Noord camp a short time after midday. A light south-westerly was now piling dark clouds over the coast and a sudden burst of rain had us scrambling to pitch our tents. Mother Nature was easily satisfied with her little joke, however, because as soon as the tents were set, the rain quit. Of course we had brought no dry bags nor rain gear. Later, the rangers rolled into camp with water and firewood. Kevin had filled up a couple of garbage bags with plastic detritus from the shore, mainly plastic bottles. Our coastlines are drowning in a plastic tsunami. It is worth noting that this coast is free of all artificial light and you won’t spot any ships or trawlers here.
Day 2: day 2 dawned calm and clear. We were up with the sun and knew a relatively short day lay ahead of us. The section between Skuinsbaai Noord and Kwass se baai is boulder strewn and rocky. At times we followed the 4×4 sand track, but it can be tiring and monotonous. We enjoyed coffee at Skuinsklip camp and once more arrived around midday at Kwass se baai camp, our next overnight stop. It was pretty warm, but the friendly family who were camping at the neighbouring site, offered cold beers, which we gratefully accepted. Later, we swam in the sheltered bay. As is usual for the west coast, the water was frigid. A few rapid crawl strokes, and that was enough. We were mildly concerned that the cleaning crew, working its way north through the camps, had, according to our neighbours, removed our bottled water and firewood, but fortunately order was restored when the rangers directed them to return with the offending contraband.
Day3: this was to be our longest day – it proved to be almost 20 km – and the forecast was for temperatures in the mid-thirties. However, it remained pleasantly mild at sea level. South of Kwass se baai a long beach of some four kilometres unfolded beneath our feet. It was a beautiful morning. The surf roared and groups of white-fronted plovers (I think) foraged in the receding water. It helped that we traversed these beaches at low tide. After the beach the coast became ruggedly rocky, with cliffs and kelp-protected coves. On a section between two (recycled plastic) “wooden” walkways, a hiking trail seems to be laid out. I believe it is the advertised Heaviside Trail of some 6 km. We marched into Delwers camp, our final stop, in mid-afternoon. In a spectacular sunset we braai-ed excellent lamb chops supplied by the ranger from his farm in Spoegrivier, I believe. My vehicle with its rooftop tent was safely parked at the Groenrivier gate. The next morning we departed for home.
The name Delwers is Afrikaans for “diggers”, referring to the diamond diggers that mined for diamonds from here northwards into Namibia. The coast is marketed as “the Diamond Coast” and is described as “pristine” in brochures and websites, but along our route there are terrestrial scars from diamond prospecting. One prospecting technique was to dig huge trenches down to diamond-carrying gravel beds, and simply pile the “overburden” next to the trenches. No effort was ever made to rehabilitate these trenches. The photo below shows some of these trenches.
Diamonds were also mined offshore from 1961, mostly near shore, but from the early 1990s deep-water mining recommenced. The extent of the damage to marine ecosystems has not really been assessed I think, although it was a source of conflict with fishing and crayfish communities over the years. Offshore mining was certainly hugely destructive, and still continues further north.
The Spoeg-Groen River section was prospected and mined by De Beers Consolidated, with whom SANParks contractually agreed to include it into the Namaqualand National Park. Although 1905 legislation established a government monopoly over diamond mining, De Beers succeeded in becoming a mining and selling, private monopoly along this coastline. Quite how that happened would make an interesting story, but elsewhere.
Historically, the diamond finds in the Lüderitz area dating from around 1908 and which resulted in the Sperrgebiet in what is now Namibia, and came to be dominated by the Anglo American Corporation by 1920, inspired prospectors south of the Orange River in the then new Union of South Africa. Dr Hans Merensky and Dr Reuning had predicted the link between old marine terraces and diamond deposits and soon discovered numerous rich deposits south of the Orange River mouth.
The fact that the west coast between the Olifants and Orange Rivers became a de facto “reserve” for so many years has balanced out the ecological destruction, which terrestrially, at least, is limited to a very small, cumulative area, by preventing access, and any other development and negative ecosystem impacts along this coast, is positive. The Namaqualand NP coast can consequently be regarded as “near-pristine”, it can be argued.
Source: B.M. Clark, W.F. Meyer, C. Ewart-Smith, A. Pulfrich and J. Hughes. 1999. SYNTHESIS AND ASSESSMENT OF INFORMATION ON THE BCLME THEMATIC REPORT 3: INTEGRATED OVERVIEW OF DIAMOND MINING IN THE BENGUELA CURRENT REGION. 1 March. Commissioned by the UNDP. Available online: http://archive.iwlearn.net/bclme.org/factfig/diamond_mining.html.