FARMING FOR THE FUTURE

Bonnie Schumann, Nama Karoo Coordinator, EWT Drylands Conservation Programme

Tourism in the Bokkeveld Plateau, near Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape, is currently almost exclusively confined to the spring flower season. This incredible floral display is largely attributed to the flowering of geophytes, which has resulted in the area claiming the as yet undisputed title of “bulb capital of the world”. There are, however, untapped opportunities to attract a year-round flow of visitors to enjoy nature-based activities in this unique part of the Northern Cape. This could help stabilise the tourism-centred economy and could lead to some great conservation spin-offs.

The EWT’s Drylands Conservation Programme team recently visited this biodiversity hotspot, with the aim of exploring some innovative ideas for expanding nature-based tourism with local landowners and the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve staff.

We spent time with the Van Wyk family, owners of the farm Papkuilsfontein, who have, for the past ten years, partnered with the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Nature Conservation as part of the Department’s Biodiversity Stewardship Programme.

This programme has a unique connection to their farm as their vision is for each generation to leave the property in a better condition than what it was when they started farming. Willem van Wyk and his wife Mariette practiced this ethos, and their son Jaco and his wife Alrie are following in their footsteps.

This is a commercial sheep farm with conservation being part of this living working landscape, an approach which lies at the heart of the Stewardship Programme. Besides the incredible plant biodiversity, for which the region is famous, Papkuilsfontein is truly a birder’s paradise with 145 species encountered here at various times throughout the year. Raptors include the Martial and Verreauxs’ Eagles, kestrels, and the rare and Endangered Black Harrier, which nests on the property. The property is spectacular both in and out of the flowering season.

In recognition of the commitment of the Van Wyks to conservation, the EWT’s Drylands Conservation Programme has selected Jaco and Alrie as Sustainable Land Management Champions. These champions form part of the EWT’s Karoo Forever Project which promotes sustainable land management (SLM) in drylands. Our aim is to identify champions who are flying the SLM flag in their communities and work with them to promote sustainable land management.

By identifying and harnessing champions’ “institutional knowledge” and encouraging peer-to-peer learning, the project promotes dialogue and action to improve sustainable land management in drylands. This is especially critical as these arid landscapes are typically vulnerable to degradation, especially in the face of the predicted detrimental impacts of climate change.

On Papkuilsfontein, farming income and activities are complemented through successful diversification into tourism. Diversification into non-agricultural activities can build resilience and reduce risk by developing alternative income streams. The tourism infrastructure on Papkuilsfontein incorporates guest accommodation, a restaurant and hiking trails.

Plans are afoot to repurpose the old 4×4 route into a mountain bike route, an activity which has less impact on the environment and gets people out of their vehicles to enjoy the spectacular surroundings. Visitors to this unique area have the opportunity to learn about rock art, view the Oorlogskloof canyon, the waterfall and its geology, birds, the diversity of veld types, farming and conservation, and, of course, flowers during the spring season. Biodiversity, conservation and the integration of conservation into a farming landscape are discussed with visitors; this is a suite of topics that makes for lively discussion and highlights the critical role of conservation of natural resources outside formally protected areas. The landscape is truly unique and inspiring.

Our plans with the Van Wyk family are centred around options for the expansion of nature-based activities offered at Papkuilsfontein, as well as options for linking tourism initiatives with surrounding land owners and the nearby Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve.

“One product idea being explored, is the creation of a Via Ferrata (a way of softening technical rock climbs through the introduction of safety points and rails) from Papkuilsfontein’s magnificent sandstone cliff-tops down onto the steep, densely vegetated slopes which lead to the Oorlogskloof River some 200 metres below. And if this is possible, it would create a link to existing trails on neighbouring properties, thus opening up an important eco-tourism corridor and boosting the Green Economy in the region,” noted Nick Yell (a journalist who joined us on our visit to Papkuilsfontein) in his recent article that appeared in Sunday Times Travel Weekly.

With this in mind, the EWT’s Cobus Theron invited seasoned rock-climbing guide, Justin Lawson, (ClimbZA) along to assess the property to explore this as a novel tourism option and search for possible routes. The entire plateau, from individual properties to activities linked across the landscape from the North to the South Bokkeveld, offers exciting options for expanding nature-based and adventure tourism; low-impact, high income activities that can operate independently of the temperamental flower season. Besides the spectacular biodiversity, a great deal of the appeal of the Bokkeveld is to be found in its remoteness and tranquil environment. Expansion of nature-based tourism will be based on maintaining the integrity of these qualities, in addition to creating a greater awareness and appreciation of the biodiversity of this unique area.

This initiative forms part of the EWT’s Karoo Forever project and is funded by the Global Environment Facility through the Department of Environmental Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme.

For more information on the Karoo Forever project, contact:

Bonnie Schumann, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Drylands Conservation Programme, Cell: 072 122 4232, email: bonnies@ewt.org.za