Year in the Wild Blog

Days 25 to 27 – Year in the Wild 2013-14 – The beautiful and ugly of Silaka Nature Reserve

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.

That's our cabin in the foreground...a great view to greet visitors to Silaka

The view from our cabin at Silaka - beautiful!

Dusk at Silaka beach

Dusk at Silaka beach

Sunbird at Silaka, having its morning breakfast of pollen from a coral tree

Coral trees ablaze

Indigenous forest at Silaka...beautiful, but on closer inspection, the reserve needs a good clean up.

Coral trees are blooming all over the Wild Coast at this time of year

Haemanthus flower - these are flowering now (August)

Lichen on trees in forest

Lichen on rocks at Silaka

Think this is an Agapanthus?

Ferns at Silaka

Humpback whale offshore of Port St Johns

Humpback!

Humpback having a look to see what we're all about

The humpbacks stick their tails out the water quite often, but none of them breached for us...which must be quite a sight.

Also present are Cape Gannet birds, which divebomb into the ocean to catch sardines

Trying to get a decent photo of the whales

Cattle on the beach to the south of Silaka

We spotted this Knysna Turaco (or Loerie) while walking at Silaka...

Litter at Silaka!

Alien plants growing at Silaka

This ball of wire and old fence was just lying in the forest of Silaka

More junk and litter lying in the forest at Silaka

Litter at Silaka

Litter at Silaka

Old wire lying on the forest floor at Silaka

Litter at Silaka

Cow grazing in Silaka, alongside a big section of burnt vegetation....not great to walk past!

More litter!

Aaargh - these bottles lying on the forest path - obviously they've been there for a long time, because the creeper has grown over them!!

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.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as EeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

2 comments

  • What does it takes to have a clean inviralment!good management!!

  • So nothing has changed in the last few years. Was last at Silaka 5 years ago (been 3 times) and found the same thing. Litter and general lack of care. The little picnic site near the beach was dilapidated and plenty of alien vegetation. Really sad. And then 20km south at Hluleka, the exact opposite, pristine, litter-free and beautiful…. and yet they are run by the same agency. Makes no sense.

    Beautiful photos though, and thanks for the honest article.

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