The little Silaka Nature Reserve lies to the south of Port St Johns, one of the most beautifully-located towns in the country. It lies at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River, which has cut its way through high sandstone cliffs to empty itself out into the Indian Ocean.
Silaka is seven kilometres south of the town, and is only 4 square kilometres in size, making it one of the smallest protected areas in the region. Like Port St John’s, however, it is one of the prettiest too. The hills are covered in indigenous coastal forest, where you can see samango monkeys and blue duiker (at just 30cm tall and weighing 4 kg, they are the smallest antelope in Africa). The small Gxwaleni River flows onto a wild beach, where huge waves crash against the shore.
But like Port St John’s, it’s immediately clear that despite the scenery, there is a sad side. Visitors who drive into town are immediately confronted with an enormity of litter lying on the street, and it’s obvious that the municipality are clueless about their town’s image. There is also a stench from drains and sewerage. The locals don’t try to hide the fact that the town is a dump located in the heart of paradise. If it wasn’t for the few hospitable locals and their efforts to improve things, I am sure it would look even worse.
And such is Silaka. At first, the scenery is superb. Our chalet overlooks the little bay of the reserve, and it’s like a slice of heaven. But alongside the beautiful haemanthus flowers and coral trees, you soon see litter lying everywhere, in the forest and on the beach. We went for a short forest walk (the only one in the reserve), and there was litter every few metres.
It’s such a small reserve, so it should be easy to clean up. There is also plenty of alien vegetation chocking the forest. Management need to get a team in here to clear it out.
But don’t let that put you off visiting Silaka and Port St Johns. Do your best to voice your concern about the sad state of affairs, then hope that someone in the municipality gets their act together. Clearly the authorities don’t know how special this area is – if only they knew that they were sitting on one of South Africa’s tourism gems, perhaps they’d wipe the sleep from their eyes and get to work.
Fortunately, the ocean is still pristine. In fact, it’s THE reason why you should visit. Offshore is perhaps one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth – that of the annual sardine run, which takes place in winter. Millions of bait fish – including sardines – get carried up the coast from the south, in a counter current that runs against the warm Agulhas Current.
It is here near Port St Johns and Silaka that the continental shelf of Africa is at its narrowest and closest to shore, so ocean depths can plummet to one kilometre or more just behind the wave line. The result? A wild ocean, and plenty of predators that come to prey on the sardines – including dolphins, sharks and Bryde’s whales. Then there are the migratory humpback whales, which come up from Antarctica to breed and calve in the warm waters, and so although they don’t usually feast on the sardines, they are often sighted. Sometimes they breach – spectacularly so.
The sardines have already pushed off, so we weren’t expecting to see THAT much action, but we went out with Offshore Africa on their boat, and were treated to some epic sightings of at least ten humpback whales, some of which obviously took a liking to us, because they were quite content to float next to us, and sometimes right under our boat! They can weigh up to 60 tons, so to see such huge yet gentle creatures up close was very special.
Then there were literally hundreds of dolphins – both common and bottlenose – which played alongside the boat, and raced ahead of us. After a while you start to take them for granted, because there are just so many, all the time! Certainly the whales were the stars of the show, but you have to remember that to see all the dolphins is a spectacle of note in itself!
We didn’t have our diving or snorkelling gear, unfortunately, because it would have made a superb underwater experience. Now I just have to start saving for an underwater housing for my camera!
If you’re interested in being part of the sardine run – and experiencing it for yourself – then be sure to link up either with Offshore Africa, or with Steve Benjamin from Animal Ocean. Steve is a regular boat operator and marine guide at the sardine run, and besides being a zoologist and ichthyologist (that’s science-speak for fish geek) also has some epic photos from this year. Check out his website and amazing photos of a breaching humpback whale at www.animalocean.co.za.
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.