Year in the Wild Blog

YITW 2013-14 – Mandela’s Frontiers – “A truly wonderful land”

Happy New Year everyone! May it be full of wild adventures. Thank you for all your support so far.

In the next year I’m travelling to Kgalagadi, Tuli Block, Gorongosa, Gonarezhou, Kruger and Imfolozi, among many others. I look forward to sharing some of these places with you!

With Mandela’s passing last month, I was inspired to write this piece about his contribution to conservation in Africa. It’s a good reminder of how each of us can make a difference to the lives of people around us, but also to the wild animals and places with which we share this lonely planet. We are privileged to be living in a region which is the last bastion of large wildlife on Earth. With this privilege comes responsibility. We must keep fighting the good fight, helping those on the frontlines of conservation, including the countless rangers, managers, researchers and community leaders.

This is a photo of a photo which I saw at a little restaurant called Marmalade Cat in the town of Darling in the Western Cape. I don't know who took the original photo, but if you know, please let me know, and I'll acknowledge the copyright holder. For me, it depicts the essence of Nelson Mandela more than any other image I have seen of him; his unbridled joy at the freedom of a dove in the air. He clearly was a gentle soul.

A truly wonderful land

In southern Namibia the stars always shine brightly. But on the moonless night of Nelson Mandela’s death, the stars were so numerous that they seemed to jostle for position, squeezing into every patch of available darkness.

I was in Ai-Ais National Park, where the 90km Fish River canyon cuts through a landscape over one and a half billion years old. Up to 500 metres deep and 27km wide, the canyon is considered the second-biggest in the world.

Looking down into the Fish River Canyon

It’s a place that takes your breath away. Not only because of the extreme temperatures but because the scale of the scenery is humbling. As in other African wildernesses, one quickly realizes that we humans are a very small part of a much larger whole.

Surrounding the canyon are desert plains, dotted here and there with quiver trees, a few gemsbok, springbok and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Notable too are the plutons, collections of massive granite boulders piled on top of each other. In the north near the town of Aus is the lodge of Klein Aus Vista, itself surrounded by some of these huge rocks.

After dinner at the lodge’s restaurant, I walked back to my chalet, then stopped in my tracks and stared upwards, hypnotized by the stars. The nearby howl of a black-backed jackal startled me from my reverie and I went to bed. The next morning I found out Mandela had died at about ten minutes to nine, about the same time I was looking up at the heavens.

As a young boy Madiba used to herd cattle in the grasslands and bushveld of the Eastern Cape. According to his autobiography, Mandela would also look up at the stars, and wonder what caused them to shine.

Perhaps his immersion in nature as a child gave him a sense of wonder and respect for the Earth, but what is certainly true is that as an adult, Madiba was a conservationist and lover of the land.

I believe that South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth,” Mandela once wrote. “Admittedly, I am biased but when you combine the natural beauty of sunny South Africa with the friendliness and cultural diversity of our people, and the fact that the region is a haven for Africa’s most splendid wildlife, then I think that we have been blessed with a truly wonderful land.”

Madiba was one of the three founding patrons of the Peace Parks Foundation, which has worked to establish transfrontier parks in Africa. These cross-border protected areas conserve habitats according to ecological boundaries, not random colonial demarcations.

Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is one of them, and I had just spent two weeks photographing the 6 000 square kilometre protected area. It is one of the more successful cross-boundary parks, partly owned by the resident Nama people and increasingly popular among adventure tourists.

Mining does occur on the South African side in the Richtersveld National Park itself, but the licenses were awarded before the proclamation of the park. Nevertheless, much of this desert mountain habitat is now protected, a World Heritages Site with charismatic people and impressive biodiversity. Conservation efforts have saved most of this arid wilderness from mining.

Back in 1994, however, there was no compromise on the opposite side of the country on the sub-tropical KwaZulu Natal coast.

The apartheid government had issued leases to allow prospecting at St Lucia, one of the oldest game reserves in Africa. In the 1980s and early 90s, the international mining company Rio Tinto had wanted to dredge titanium from 17kms of forested coastal dunes on the Eastern Shores, the very heart of this protected area.

Female kudus running over the vegetated dunes in iSimangaliso


The dunes of iSimangaliso...looking out over Lake St Lucia, where the largest population of hippos and crocodiles in South Africa live.

A public furore ensued but despite the uproar, Rio Tinto and the government were unmoved. The battle continued until 1994 when a public petition to ban mining was started by, among others, conservationist Ian Player.

And who should be the first signatory of the anti-mining petition? The story is told in Graham Linscott’s biography of Ian Player called Into the River of Life:

When Nelson Mandela put his name to it [the petition], this was game, set and match. The pro-mining lobby collapsed like a pricked balloon. Ian Player tells how he was invited to lunch at the home of sugar magnate Chris Saunders. Also there was Harry Oppenheimer.

After lunch Oppenheimer put his hearing aid into his ear, leaned over and asked: “Who is going to win this battle?”

Ian replied: “We’re going to win, Mr Oppenheimer.”

Oppenheimer raised his eyebrows: “What makes you so sure you’re going to win against Rio Tinto, the biggest mining company in the world?”

Ian pulled out a copy of the first page of the petition and asked Oppenheimer to look at the top signature. It was Nelson Mandela’s.

Oppenheimer smiled and put his hearing aid back in his pocket: “Yes, you’re going to win.”

Today, thanks partly to Nelson Mandela, St Lucia (now renamed iSimangaliso Wetland Park) remains inviolate and protects more than 3 400 animal species, the most of almost any conservation area in Africa, and provides tourism jobs and natural resources for the surrounding Thongan communities. Like the Richtersveld, it is also a World Heritage Site.

Across southern Africa, from west to east, Madiba had given his voice to conservation, so it seemed appropriate that when he died the government issued a statement, comparing him to Africa’s biggest tree.

“The large African Baobab, who loved Africa as much as he loved South Africa, has fallen. Its trunk and seeds will nourish the earth for decades to come.”

As a conservationist Mandela probably would have enjoyed the comparison. A baobab can live for more than a thousand years, providing sustenance and shelter to hundreds of animal species, while generations of humans have sought refuge from the African sun within its broad embrace.

For more, go to and Check out my Flickr photos at and my Instagram photos at Twitter on

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

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational 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.

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