In 2015, con­ser­va­tion writer and pho­tog­ra­pher Mitch Rear­don trav­elled 4 000 km alone through the Ka­roo. His ob­ser­va­tions led to his lat­est book Wild Ka­roo, which opens up this arid re­gion in a unique way. He tells us more.

go! - - Upfront In Brief -

De­scribe your route. I started in Bon­te­bok Na­tional Park near Swellen­dam and went in­land to places like the Moun­tain Ze­bra and Camde­boo na­tional parks. I went as far north as the Richtersveld and ev­ery­where in be­tween.

What do you think of when you read the word “Ka­roo”? Wide, open land­scapes and stark, strangely beau­ti­ful scenery. Also, the bloom­ing of wild­flow­ers in the Suc­cu­lent Ka­roo, which can cover en­tire hill­sides in car­pets of colour.

Be­sides vis­it­ing the var­i­ous con­ser­va­tion ar­eas, what made you de­cide to take on this jour­ney? I chose the Ka­roo be­cause it was some­thing new for me – I knew hardly any­thing about the re­gion. And also be­cause it of­fered the ro­mance of far-flung places.

Did you al­ready have a book in mind when you be­gan your jour­ney? I be­gan work­ing on Wild Ka­roo shortly af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of my pre­vi­ous book, Shap­ing Kruger. I had in mind a tril­ogy that would in­ves­ti­gate three dif­fer­ent ecosys­tems in South Africa and present an in-depth over­view of pub­lic and pri­vate con­ser­va­tion in the coun­try.

Who do you think will en­joy this book? I think a typ­i­cal go! reader would find the book in­ter­est­ing. Any­one who en­joys vis­it­ing out-ofthe-way places should have a book like this along as a com­pan­ion, to point out fas­ci­nat­ing things they might oth­er­wise over­look.

There are quite a few books avail­able about the Ka­roo. What makes yours dif­fer­ent? I knew it was a crowded mar­ket when I set out, so I tried to do some­thing dif­fer­ent: re­veal a lesser-trav­elled side of the Ka­roo, both in terms of land­scape and the peo­ple who live there. I was par­tic­u­larly in­trigued by the Nama and Baster peo­ple in Na­maqua­land and the Richtersveld, de­scended from Khoikhoi (or Khoekhoen) pas­toral­ists who first ar­rived in South Africa 2 000 years ago. Many of them still live a harsh, no­madic life, driv­ing their sheep and goats from one wild pas­ture to the next. But like an­cient cus­toms all over the world, theirs is a dy­ing tra­di­tion. The few re­main­ing fam­i­lies live in tiny set­tle­ments with names like Ek­steen­fontein, adrift in a vast wilder­ness of stony plains. I think I can prom­ise po­ten­tial Wild Ka­roo read­ers an in­tro­duc­tion to a piece of South Africa they prob­a­bly never knew ex­isted.

If you could re­turn to the Ka­roo right now, where would you go? The place I en­joyed most was Moun­tain Ze­bra Na­tional Park in the Nama Ka­roo. Be­cause I’m a con­ser­va­tion jour­nal­ist, I have ac­cess to the rangers, re­searchers and other per­son­nel in na­tional and pri­vate parks, which adds an ex­tra di­men­sion to my travel ex­pe­ri­ences. That was par­tic­u­larly true in Moun­tain Ze­bra. It’s also just a spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful part of the coun­try, and rich in wildlife. I haven’t spo­ken much about the wildlife in this in­ter­view, but the Ka­roo has many species that are en­demic or nearly en­demic – in other words, not found any­where else. I was in the park when chee­tahs and lions were rein­tro­duced and it has been in­trigu­ing to ob­serve the im­pact their re­turn has had on the park’s ecol­ogy.

What were some of the big­gest sur­prises dur­ing your trip? What sur­prised me most, es­pe­cially in the north­ern Ka­roo, right up to the Or­ange River, was how quickly the roads be­come spec­tac­u­lar sandy tracks when you leave the main ar­te­rial routes. In that re­spect, the Ai-Ais/ Richtersveld Trans­fron­tier Park is in a class of its own. I trav­elled alone in my Toy­ota Hilux 4x4 and there were times when my heart was in my mouth.

What in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ples of eco­tourism did you en­counter? In Kim­ber­ley, there’s a wet­land called Kam­fers Dam just off the busy N12 high­way. It’s a mostly dry salt pan, which is used to dis­pose the town’s storm-wa­ter runoff and treated sewage. This has stim­u­lated the growth of blue-green al­gae, which in turn at­tracts the great­est gath­er­ing of lesser flamin­gos any­where in South Africa. Be­lieve me, 80 000 pink flamin­gos feed­ing in an­kle-deep wa­ter is a sight to be­hold! If that’s not enough rea­son to visit Kim­ber­ley, just be­yond the town lim­its is Mar­rick Sa­fari, a 3 000 ha eco­tourism prop­erty that spe­cialises in night drives with guides who know ex­actly what they’re do­ing. High­lights in­clude sight­ings of shy and hard-to-find noc­tur­nal crea­tures like black­footed cat, aard­wolf, aard­vark, red rock rab­bit and a se­cre­tive ground-dwelling bird known as the bronze-winged courser.

What other projects are you work­ing on? I’ve fin­ished the field­work and pho­tog­ra­phy for the third book in my tril­ogy and I’m cur­rently writ­ing the man­u­script. This one takes an in­depth look at Addo Ele­phant Na­tional Park in the Eastern Cape, which has been ex­panded over the years and is now South Africa’s third largest na­tional park. It’s an as­ton­ish­ing story and in many ways en­cap­su­lates the suc­cesses and fail­ures of our na­tional parks in gen­eral. I’ve found that I en­joy the moun­tain of re­search in­volved in writ­ing such a book, then pulling all the loose ends to­gether to make a co­her­ent whole. It has been a great ad­ven­ture.

Wild Ka­roo is pub­lished by Struik Na­ture and costs R270 in book­stores.

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