MEET THE AUTHOR
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.
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.