The rifle on ranger Gavin Lottering’s shoulder seemed out of place. ‘It’s for protection,’ he told me. I was a bit bemused. We were walking up one of the koppies in Karoo National Park and we couldn’t see an animal for miles around. Protection from what exactly, I wondered. For anyone who’s driven through the Karoo, it’s hard to believe there is much of anything here, except some bedraggled bushes and thorn trees.
A closer look at the Karoo – a word which means dry and hard in the original Khoisan language – reveals there is life, including Africa’s largest predator, the reason armed rangers now accompany guests on walks. Two years ago, several lion from a population sourced from Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park were re-introduced, a symbolic and practical attempt to re-establish the natural predatory processes which once existed.
The last wild lion in the area was shot in the 1830s. Back then, before sheep farmers erected fences and hunters had obliterated the natural wildlife, this part of the Karoo was also home to cheetah, African wild dog and leopard. These predators hunted the huge herds of springbok and hartebeest, which migrated across one of South Africa’s biggest landscapes, following the rains and fresh grass. But as the numbers of herbivores plummeted, large predators were soon eliminated. Now Karoo National Park is trying to rectify this.
‘We had only jackal and caracal as predators, so we introduced the lions to bring back the large carnivore component,’ ecologist Angela Gaylard told me. ‘Over the next few years, we hope to introduce other predators such as cheetah and leopard. From an ecological point of view, we’re trying to manage processes, rather than focusing on managing species, and the large predation part of the process was entirely missing in the Karoo.’
‘What’s really fascinating is how the whole system is driven by rainfall,’ Angela said. ‘The place can look absolutely devastated and overgrazed if it’s had a couple of dry years, and everyone worries about the animals. Then you have one good rainfall season and everything looks very green and lovely again – that’s what is incredible about the Karoo. It’s arrogant for us to think we can control things here.’
For the moment, it’s unlikely that you’ll see any of the eight lions in the 88 000-hectare park, which is about five per cent of the size of Kruger, but there’s plenty of other life. You just have to look for it and, like the migrating animals of yesteryear, you may have to arrive after the rains.
The small, seemingly unexciting creatures are as crucial to the Karoo’s ecosystem as lions, rhinos and eagles. Take for example its five tortoise species, the highest density per equivalent area in the world, and the brown locust. ‘The park doesn’t spray them anymore, which the farmers hate, of course,’ Angela said. ‘They play a huge role in mobilising nutrients in the soil: they eat massive amounts of vegetation in localised areas and the soil absorbs their faecal material. Plus there is evidence to show that the knock-on effect of poison from spraying is detrimental to everything.’
As well as these creatures, the reserve has one of the largest populations of endangered Cape mountain zebra in the country and at least 20 breeding pairs of Verreaux’s eagles cruising above the plateaus of the impressive Nuweveld Mountains looking for dassies. This is just one of more than 200 bird species found in the park, and a visit to the fantastic bird hide near the rest camp is highly recommended.
Then there are several black rhino, which were re-introduced in 2005. Interestingly, one of the last black rhinos in the Karoo was shot near the source of the local Gamka River in 1779, an area which now falls within the park. ‘The population includes one of the first hand-reared cows in Africa to have a calf in the wild, so that’s very special,’ Angela said.
One animal that isn’t thriving as well as the rhino is the springbok, whose numbers have crashed, partly as a result of the increase in the size of the park, which is 10 times larger than the 7 000 hectares it was in 1979.
‘The herds were dispersing, they weren’t able to mate as often or protect themselves against jackal and caracal,’ Angela explained. ‘They fell into a predator trap, which they have yet to get out of completely.’
It’s clear the Karoo will never again see the large herds of springbok that once occurred, a reality of managing a park within a farming area with fences and boundaries.
‘The huge migrations which occurred two centuries ago were transitory and just snapshots in time. It’s unsustainable to have those densities all the time in a restricted area. The veld just wouldn’t be able to cope.’
However, the park recently introduced 2 500 springbok in an attempt to stabilise the population. ‘We hope that will help, but springbok numbers have crashed in other areas of the South Africa too – for example in the Kgalagadi area – so there may be another factor. We just don’t know for sure.’
It’s not the first time that vast numbers of animals have come and gone from the Karoo. More than 250 million years ago this area was teeming with probably even more life and was a wonderland of weird creatures. Incredibly, these animals preceded the dinosaurs and were the predecessors of the very first true mammals.
‘It was possibly the first time that such a complex savannatype ecosystem had evolved on Earth,’ Karoo paleontologist Roger Smith explained to me in his study at the Iziko Museums complex in Cape Town. ‘It was as diverse as the modern savanna. The rocks and fossils of the Karoo hold the definitive record of a time period from 300 million to 190 million years ago, when the predecessors to modern mammals made their first appearance.’
A geologist and zoologist by training, Roger first visited the area in 1976, before it had been proclaimed a park. After the town of Beaufort West had donated 7 000 hectares to the establishment of the park in 1979, he was responsible for setting up the fossil trail, an interpretive self-guided walk near the main rest camp, which today still gives an excellent understanding of the fossilised wonders of the Karoo.
‘The rocks in the Karoo contain actual evidence – almost layer by layer – of transition from reptiles to mammals,’ Roger elaborated. ‘The types of animals were therapsids, or mammal-like reptiles. Like elsewhere in the Karoo, the rocks in the park are full of the skeletons of these animals. They show the 50 million years of evolution that takes us from true reptiles to some of earliest true mammals. The Karoo is the place where people come to study that evolution.’
At that time, the Karoo was a vast basin which was slowly filled with sediment from massive flowing rivers. More than eight kilometres of sand and mud built up over millions of years, ultimately turning into rock. Today, erosion continues to cut away through the landscape, exposing the rich fossil evidence. More than 35 000 fossils have been formally collected in the Karoo, and many from the national park.
‘If I walk from the rest camp to the slopes, I guarantee you I will find a fossil within minutes on the slopes,’ Roger enthused. ‘On average I can find about 30 a day in the park. I can go back to the same slope in five years and find a whole new set of fossils because of the weathering and erosion. Every single one is absolutely intriguing, even though I do it so often and have seen so many.’
Typical animals of that period included Diictodon, a group of common herbivores which may have fulfilled the same place as the dassie of today. ‘We know it was a ground grazer and there were clearly lots of them because it’s the most common fossil.’ Scarier than the Diictodon were the meateating, scavenging Gorgonops, several of which have been found in the park. ‘Carnivores at that time were like dogs of today,’ Roger explained. ‘They had serrated teeth. Some were scavengers and others were predators.’
One of the Gorgonops specimens on display in the park has a complete back leg with foot and claws – a very rare occurrence – and a study of its anatomy has helped scientists understand how the ankle moved as the animal walked.
‘This foot was the most complete we’d found,’ Roger told me. ‘Up to that point, paleontologists had reconstructed the Gorgonops as having an elbows-out, sprawling gait like reptiles of today. This specimen shows the hind legs were upright, which is one of the defining characteristics of mammals. It’s because of this fossil that we can see some of the earliest evidence of mammal behaviour.’
But like today in the Karoo, when rains come and go and animals adapt or die, the good times couldn’t last. About 252 million years ago, volcanoes across the world spewed tonnes of poisonous gases into the atmosphere, causing a 10 degree Celsius rise in average temperature over 10 000 years, heralding the End-Permian mass extinction. More than 95 per cent of life on Earth was eliminated, the record of which is found in the Karoo fossils.
And it has important implications for our existence today. The earliest types of proto-mammals managed to squeeze through the bottleneck of extinction, and we owe our presence to them. Moreover, it was the creatures that were living in marginal areas at the time which survived.
‘What we have today is a consequence of the survivability of the remaining five per cent,’ Roger explained. ‘Extinctions affect the most successful and most minor parts of life equally badly, and select those that are already adapted to those conditions in marginal areas. For instance, if there’s an increase in drought conditions, those animals already surviving in deserts will continue as if nothing has changed.’
What does that mean for the current wave of rapid global warming that man has induced?
‘There’s no doubt that what’s happening today will cause extinction of some species,’ Roger cautioned, ‘but we know from the rocks of the Karoo there will be survivors and life will carry on. Those that are most likely to survive are already adapted to warmer, drier climates. Importantly too, those people that are nomadic and free of modern technology are most likely to survive. People in cities have become too reliant on modern technology for survival.’
Back to the present
People are drawn to Karoo National Park to escape modern life and the attendant technology that has alienated humans from nature. Although the main rest camp near the entrance can feel like a little town, with plenty of overnight guests travelling from Joburg to Cape Town, there are areas of the park which remain unchanged by people’s activities and instill a wonderful sense of peace and tranquillity.
‘There’s a unique wilderness experience in this national park,’ SanParks botanist Hugo Bezuidenhout reminisced. Hugo has spent countless days studying the 864 plant species in the park, more than can be found in the whole of Britain, proving again the Karoo is full of life. Despite his love for plants, for Hugo – and many others – the best thing about the park is the simple pleasure of the open, wide spaces.
‘You can’t see any power cables, artificial lights or any cellphone towers. For me, that’s the best thing about the park. From the top of the mountains you can see for 50 kilometres across a landscape that is untouched by man.’
One of the best places in the park to experience this is at the remote Embizweni Cottage, at the base of a koppie in the northwest of the park and accessible only with a 4×4 or high-ground clearance vehicle. Here you can sit on the stoep and gaze at the high basalt cliffs on one side, and turn your gaze to a never-ending sweep of Karoo veld. When evening comes, the only light comes from your candle and the brilliant stars above, and the only sounds are the buzzing crickets and the occasional screech of a bat.
It’s clear that the beauty of the Karoo affects both expert and casual visitor alike. But what’s always unexpected – even to regulars – is how much life the Karoo and its national park continues to display, if you give it enough time to reveal itself. So be sure to spend a few days here – you will be surprised.
Karoo National Park is about 12 km west of Beaufort West, off the N1 highway. It’s about 500 km from Cape Town, and 1 000 km from Johannesburg.
There are 37 Cape Dutch-style units at the main rest camp, which is fenced off from the rest of the park. Eight have two bedrooms, sleeping six people, with en suite bathrooms and a fully equipped kitchen. Another 10 have one bedroom with a fully equipped kitchen and 19 have an openplan arrangement with two single beds and a double sleeper couch intended for children, with a basic kitchenette.
Prices range from R870 to R1 315 a unit a night for two people, depending on room and season. Additional adults pay R236 and kids R118 each. Breakfast is included, but don’t hold your breath as it’s not particularly tasty.
There are 30 camping and caravan sites with a communal laundry, ablutions with showers and baths and kitchen facilities with stove plates and scullery. All caravan sites have 220-volt power points. Costs from R175 a site for two people (up to a maximum of six, additional adults pay R58 and children R29 each).
Embizweni Cottage is undoubtedly the best place to stay in the park if you want to absorb the Karoo’s special spirit. Costs from R750 a night for four people (up to a maximum of six, additional adults pay R236 and children R118 each). A 4×4 is required.
The main gate is open from 05h00 to 22h00. The gate to the wildlife area is open from 06h00 to 19h00.
Fracking, or the extraction of gas from the ground, is a highly controversial issue. For now, the government has put a moratorium on any exploration, and rightly so. There are a number of negative consequences, including pollution of water supplies in an already arid area, as well as the desecration of the aesthetic value of the landscape.
Paleontologist Roger Smith recently travelled to Argentina to search for fossils in an area that looks very much like the Karoo, but has been damaged by oil and gas exploration.
‘Wherever you go there are gas pipelines,’ Roger told me. ‘For miles around, the area is crisscrossed with very straight lines which were cut to detect underground gas and oil. They’re now being used as tracks for vehicles. There’s a whole grid which has been imposed on the natural landscape. It’s very artificial and so unnatural. It’s so big you can see it from space. This is seen by some business people to be inconsequential, but for a natural historian like me it’s totally unacceptable.’
For more information, go to www.treasurethekaroo.co.za.
Photojournalist Scott Ramsay is documenting and photographing 31 of South Africa’s most special nature reserves, including all the national parks.
Year in the Wild is sponsored by Total, Ford, Evosat, Goodyear, Frontrunner, Conqueror Trailers, Vodacom, Digicape, Lacie, Garmin, National Luna, Safari Centre Cape Town, Escape Gear and EeziAwn.
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