Camdeboo National Park is best known for Desolation Valley with its panoramic viewpoints where tall columns of volcanic rock tower up to 120 m high over the plains of Camdeboo below. The aridity of the region gave rise to the name Desolation Valley. It is even more desolate now in the current drought emergency.
Camdeboo National Park incorporates the Nqweba Dam, which usually provides nearby Graaff-Reinet with water, but over the past few months the dam and its feeder rivers have dried up completely. On our recent stay in the park’s small tented camp we were privileged to have borehole water on tap – a luxury not currently available to many residents of Graaff-Reinet itself.
This view from the Crag Lizard Trail in the western section of Camdeboo National Park, looking towards the distant Sneeuberg range, gives some idea of the dryness
I have written about the ongoing drought in previous posts. The Karoo region is no stranger to drought, after all it is an arid, semi-desert region – the origin of the name Karoo is the Khoi-khoi word meaning “great thirstland”. However, the current drought is extreme even by the standards of the Karoo. At the end of October 2019, the Eastern Cape region was officially declared to be a “drought disaster area”.
This panoramic view (taken by my husband) illustrates that the name “Valley of Desolation” is even more apt now after four years of extreme drought
This viewpoint on the Crag Lizard Trail at Desolation Valley provides a clear view of the dry plains of Camdeboo below. Dark green lines of sweet thorn trees (Vachellia karroo – formerly Acacia karroo) mark the river beds and water courses that are all currently dry
Another view, with the weathered towers of volcanic rock in the foreground
In the eastern part of the park (to the north of the now dry Nqweba Dam), the small network of tourist roads enables visitors to see the dryness in close-up. The only green is provided by the sweet thorn trees and in some areas, the succulent spekboom. The name Camdeboo derives from a Khoi-khoi word (Xamdeboo), which means ‘green valley’, with the description ‘green’ thought to refer to these plants, which are relatively green even during times of drought.
In Camdeboo National Park, animals have access to water due to windmill pumps supplying borehole water to several small artificial watering points, but during the extreme drought animals have to stray from their usual areas in an effort to find food.
An Eland – its prominent ribs showing how thin it is – slowly approaches one of the artificial watering points in the Camdeboo National Park. As it seemed hesitant in our presence, we drove off to give it a chance to drink in peace
A suricate (meerkat) scraping the ground as it looks for insects and other prey. Usually we see suricates feeding in groups, so we were surprised to see this one apparently on its own. Perhaps, when times are hard, the animals are forced to spread out as they search for food
Wild ostriches foraging on what used to be under water when the Nqweba Dam was full. This part of the dam has been dry for so long that vegetation is now growing here
The Nqweba Dam has been slowly decreasing in size for a number of years, finally drying up completely in September 2019. It should be the main source of water for Graaff-Reinet, but now that the dam is dry the town is dependent on borehole water and water that is trucked in. The reception desk at Camdeboo National Park serves as a depot where travellers, passing through from areas that have water, may stop to drop off donations of bottled water for distribution to people in neighbouring communities who are trying to survive without piped water.
I came across an article in Business Insider South Africa that has two satellite images of the Nqweba Dam – one taken in June 2009, the other in September 2019. The two photos are overlaid, and by using a slider one is able to scroll across so as to compare the dam water level in 2009 to the dam having no water at all in 2019. To view this (literally) graphic depiction of the dam, see here
One afternoon we visited the bird hide on the dry shore of the Nqweba Dam, which is now completely devoid of any water. As this part of the dam has been dry for a long time, grasses and other plants have established themselves on what was the bed of the dam
Seen from the bird hide, backlit by the afternoon sun gemsbok walk in line (see the youngster on the left) and blesbok graze in the foreground. The green vegetation behind is a highly invasive alien species of tamarisk, probably pink tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima), a plant originally from the Ukraine region, which unfortunately has become naturalised in parts of the Karoo
We were fortunate enough to see a small group of Cape mountain zebras
Cape mountain zebras (Equus zebra zebra) have been pulled back from the brink of extinction. In the early 20th century, as a result of excessive hunting and habitat loss, there were less than 60 individuals left in the wild. Three relict (remnant) populations remained, namely, in the Cradock district and in the Kammanassie and Gamka mountains. Concerted conservation programmes were put in place, and over time the numbers have increased significantly.
According to the most recent assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), dated 1 December 2015, there were estimated to be between 2,381 and 3,247 mature individuals in both formally protected areas and on private land. (This number reduces if only populations greater than 50 individuals are taken into account.) One of the reasons for the increase (and the continuing increase) in numbers is the expansion of protected land areas and conservation programmes. Cape mountain zebras were classed as Endangered in IUCN Red List assessments from 1986 to 1996, and were downlisted to the status Vulnerable in the 2008 assessment. Taking a complexity of factors into account, the status of Cape mountain zebras was further downlisted as Least Concern in the Red List assessment published in 2019. For more details on the IUCN’s assessment of the Cape mountain zebra see https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/7959/45171853
Distinguishing features of the Cape mountain zebra include the slight dewlap on the underside of the neck, broad black stripes, stripes that continue right down the legs to the hooves, and stripes that do not extend under the belly so that the underside is white
The better known plains zebra (Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchelli) has shadow stripes, especially on the hindquarters, the stripes continue partway under the belly and the stripes fade out on the legs. The above photo was taken at Mkuzi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal
The Cape mountain zebras we saw at Camdeboo stopped to watch us with what appeared to be considerable interest
A portrait of a Cape mountain zebra, taken in late afternoon light
Driving back to camp we stopped to admire this speckled mousebird, one of several preening in the sunshine as they perched in sweet thorn trees next to the road
While at the park we saw several species of antelope in addition to gemsbok and bontebok as already mentioned. We also saw springbok, common duiker, red hartebeest, kudu and black wildebeest (white-tailed gnu). Sadly, the only buffalo we saw was dead. We also saw vervet monkeys, including a troop foraging on the ground more in the fashion of baboons, probably in part because much of the park is devoid of trees other than the sweet thorn.
In the small camp, which has four two-bedded sleeping tents (each with a fridge), a fenced-in (monkey-proof) communal kitchen, communal showers and toilet facilities, several species of birds were very evident. The four-tent camp is called Lakeside Camp, recalling the days when the dam had water. Adjacent is a campsite for visitors equipped with their own tents or caravans. For more on accommodation at Camdeboo National Park see here https://www.sanparks.org/parks/camdeboo/tourism/accommodation.php
Vervet monkeys visited the camp at times. Despite notices warning that food should be kept out of sight, these monkeys were evidently used to being given handouts and equally used to snatching food even from inside tents. While they were around, we kept our food concealed and our tents zipped up. Giving up on us, the monkeys spent time in the camp foraging in trees, and two mothers perched nearby peacefully suckling their small babies.
A mother vervet quietly suckling her baby near our tent
However, to our astonishment, when new neighbours arrived in the camp at lunchtime, despite the obvious presence of monkeys, they spread out quantities of food and drink on several portable tables on the deck of their tent. They were seemingly surprised when the monkeys proceeded to help themselves to the food on display. The neighbours then resorted to lots of loud shouting and swearing, while leaving the spread of food enticingly visible.
After all this excitement, the monkeys disappeared from the camp for the afternoon, but late that night for a time we heard the monkeys calling to each other in soft grunts from their night-roosting spots somewhere near the camp. Rather than enjoying the sounds of the wild, the same neighbours yelled at the tops of their voices telling the monkeys to shut-up and f&*#-off. Go figure!
More peacefully, on an unaccountably green small patch of lawn in front of the kitchen, at dusk a scrub hare arrived to feed on the grass. I crept as close as I dared to sit down to watch it, and managed to take a few photos as the light started to fade.
A scrub hare enjoying the patch of green lawn in the camp in evening light. Green grasses are the favourite food of these herbivores
Scrub hares are primarily nocturnal but can emerge to forage at dusk as this one is doing. Until 1912, hares and rabbits were classed as rodents but in fact they have significant differences and they are now classed in the family Leporidae
Scrub hairs live mostly solitary lives. They are endemic to southern Africa
And so ends this post on our visit to Cambedoo National Park. I keep an occasional eye on the region’s weather forecast. Dismally, rain that had been forecast for the coming weekend was no longer on the cards a day or two ago, but checking again today I see that once again there may be a little rain starting this weekend. At best it won’t be much, but it could be something.
Posted by Carol