In the past few weeks since finishing my first Year in the Wild (I’m planning Year in the Wild 2 – watch this space!), I’ve been tying up some loose ends, and writing some articles for Getaway Magazine, so have travelled back to Addo Elephant National Park, Garden Route National Park, Tembe Elephant Park and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. It’s been good to get back into these areas, meet up with old friends, and see these beautiful protected areas at different times of the year. Watch out for blogs on these in the next few days.
But a real highlight for me, excuse the pun, was flying this past week up over West Coast National Park. My friend Jean Tresfon, an award-winning photographer and gyrocopter pilot, offered to to take me airborne up the west coast. Now, an invitation like that needs no consideration at all. Yeehaa!
I’ve spent the past year taking photos of our country’s national parks on the ground, and I’ve always dreamed of getting aerial photos. Some areas just MUST be photographed from the air. Think of places like uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, Richtersveld or Garden Route National Park…as impressive as these areas are on the ground, their vast size and drama is often best revealed from the vantage point of a soaring eagle. (Check out my aerial photos from Garden Route National Park, when Cloudbase Paragliding took me up over the Wilderness section.)
So I met up with Jean at the local airfield last Friday morning, and was introduced to the lightweight, ingeniously-designed gyrycopter. It was my first flight in one of these little birds, and although I was initially apprehensive, Jean has several hundred hours of flying time, all over the country. Once we were airborne, the flying was surprisingly stable and enjoyable. For such a lightweight craft, the gyrocopter is remarkably comfortable, and feels far safer than it looks!
A cold front was approaching Cape Town, so instead of flying around the peninsula, and checking out Table Mountain National Park, he decided to take us up the west coast, 100-odd kilometres to West Coast National Park.
We flew at about 300 metres all the way along the coastline. Below us at first were suburbs, industrial sites and holiday towns on the outskirts of northern Cape Town, but the further north we flew, the more natural the landscape became. If there are two things that characterise the west coast, it’s the wild beaches and massive, cold ocean. The windswept, isolated beaches here carry on for hundreds of kilometres, all the way to Namibia, and the Benguela Current of the Atlantic Ocean is an icy, tumultuous adversary.
As we flew at about 110km/h, Jean pointed out the rip currents below, and the huge amount of churn that the massive swell was creating near the beaches. Because we were exposed to the elements in the gyrocopter, we could smell the salty air, and feel the chilled air over the ocean. Birds like pelicans and sacred ibis flew below us, and Jean kept us well away from them. “Things could get a bit messy if we hit one of them.”
Then we approached West Coast National Park, and after Jean asked for permission to fly over, we soared over the eastern side of the lagoon, crossing over to Kraal Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and then made our way back down 16-Mile beach towards Cape Town.
Flying over the park makes one realise how unique it is in South Africa: there is nothing else like it in South Africa. The docile, emerald water of the lagoon, the white sand flats, and the close proximity of the surging, cold Atlantic Ocean are not only beautiful (especially from the air), but also ecologically special. The Langebaan Lagoon is the only true lagoon in the country, and provides a crucial feeding area for thousands of migrant wader birds like Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot, who fly half-way around the world from Siberia to feed on molluscs in the shallows of the lagoon.
It’s also an important breeding and nursery area for fish species, as well as the only known locality in the world for a particular marine mollusc species (Siphonaria compressa). The park’s terrestrial environment of strandveld fynbos is also important to conserve. I recently chatted to botanist John Manning who explained things to me.
“The park is the only conservation area where several highly localised plant communities are preserved, notably Saldanha Granite Strandveld, Saldanha Limestone Strandveld and Langebaan Dune Strandveld,” said John. “These were never very extensive to begin with, and much of these communities have disappeared through urbanization and agriculture.”
These apparently monotonous communities of plants are in fact more diverse than the fields of yellow, white, orange and purple flowers which grow on old farm fields in the Postberg section of the national park, and which are what makes the park so famous among visitors in spring time. (Check out my flower photos from August here. I’d love to fly over the park in spring time!)
On our way back down the coast, Jean dropped down low, flying close to the long, empty beaches, then gain altitude again. I felt like I was sitting on the back of a giant eagle, in some sort of fantasy movie – what a feeling!
We spotted a southern-right whale and her calf just behind the breakers, and then an offshore island full of Cape Fur seals, as well as a few baby seals on the isolated, empty beaches. Some surfers in the waves below waved at us, as did a few crayfish divers, bunking work and braving the cold water to enjoy the opening of the kreef season in the Cape. Kindred spirits!
“Isn’t it incredible to think,” Jean said to me over the headphones, “there’s a hundred kilometres of unspoilt beaches an hour’s drive north of Cape Town! How lucky are we to live in a place like this.”
I couldn’t agree more. On our way back to the airfield, Jean took me a bit closer to Table Bay to get some photos of the mountain and Cape Town, before we landed back at the airfield. Thank you Jean. One of the best experiences of my first Year in the Wild!
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