World’s smallest desert now an internationally-protected heritage site

The Red Desert Nature Reserve in Port Edward.

The Red Desert Nature Reserve in Port Edward.

The Red Desert Nature Reserve also covers several habitats including coastal marine, grasslands, coastal forests, and wetland.

One of South Africa’s best-kept conservation secrets lies near Port Edward and is considered to be the smallest desert in the world, reports South Coast Herald.

The Red Desert gets its name from the scarlet colour of the sand and is situated on a hillside overlooking the Mtamvuna River.

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Only 200 metres in diameter and resembling a miniature version of the Arizona Desert in the US, the man-high hills and valleys of naked red soil are in stark contrast to the surrounding lush and tropical vegetation.

Archaeological artefacts going back millions of years can be found and the locals are pleased this is now an internationally-protected heritage site.

Matt Williams, a fourth-generation member of the family which, for more than 100 years, has owned the land where the Red Desert is situated, said myth and legend surrounded the origin of the desert, including stories that aliens had landed on the site.

Matt Williams, a fourth-generation member of the family which, for more than 100 years, has owned the land where the Red Desert is situated.

“Truth be told, the origins of this desert are found in the location of a Zulu tribe in the 1800s, with vast cattle herds stolen from the Pondos. The terrain became severely overgrazed and subsequently eroded by wind, resulting in the desertification of the area with wind-sculpted dune formations.

“The underlying soil has very high iron content which does not allow vegetation to thrive,” he said, adding that tools from the Stone Age that were used to chop up plants and seafood have been discovered.

The Red Desert’s description was contained in navigation manuals as a sighting landmark for ships on their way up the Natal coast.

In 2005, the Williams family, which is committed to nature conservation, formed a partnership with the Ray Nkonyeni Municipality, which consented to 105 hectares of municipal land being joined with the family’s 75 hectares for the purpose of creating a nature reserve.

Negotiations then began with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and in 2015 the Red Desert Nature Reserve was established as a biodiversity stewardship nature reserve. This would ensure the effective management of land use outside existing state-managed protected areas, including privately-owned land, to ensure that natural systems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem are maintained and enhanced for present and future generations.

The area contains a significant area of “Critically Endangered” Pondoland-Natal sandstone coastal sourveld found nowhere else in the country. The Red Desert Nature Reserve also covers several habitats including coastal marine, grasslands, coastal forests, swamp forests, krantzes, desert and riverine, and wetland.

At least 480 species of plants and 200 bird species have been recorded to date, with many listed as being under some degree of threat. Southern reedbuck, common duiker, blue duiker, and oribi have been seen.

Williams, who is chairman of the Red Desert Nature Reserve committee, said since the nature reserve adjoins the former R61 coastal route, many buck, deer and bush pigs have been run over by vehicles.

He approached the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) with a request to fence the eastern boundary of the reserve and was most grateful that his request was granted.

Ravi Ronny, Sanral Eastern Region design and construction manager, said discussions about erecting 2,7 kilometres of fencing had been ongoing since 2014.

“Given the environmental importance of the nature reserve, we agreed to erect a fence along the reserve’s boundary with the road at our cost.

“The fence will help keep animals away from the busy road while also combating trespassing and plant poaching problems,” said Ronny.

He also said this section of the R61 is being upgraded at an estimated cost of R2.5 billion, and will see the improved road becoming the “new N2”. The new fence has been erected at the revised road reserve boundary, which takes into account the future upgrading of the freeway.

Anyone who wishes to visit the Red Desert Nature Reserve and enjoy the scenery, bird watching, archaeology, hiking, mountain biking, or trail running may phone Matt Williams at 083 631 9331 to book private tours. They may also visit by themselves. There is no entrance fee.

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