SA roads agency fences off the world’s smallest desert

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JOHANNESBURG, November 20 – The South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) said on Tuesday that it had erected a fence to protect the world’s smallest desert, the Red Desert, which lies 170 kilometres south of Durban, after a request from private owners of the nature reserve in which it is located.

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

The Red Desert gets its name from the scarlet colour of the sand and is situated on a hillside overlooking the Mtamvuna River which divides KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, near the Wild Coast Sun casino complex.

Archaeological artefacts going back millions of years can be found and the locals have welcomed its new status as an internationally-protected heritage site, Sanral said.

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.

“Truth be told, the origins of this dessert are found in the location of a Zulu tribe in the 1800’s, 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,” Williams said, adding that tools from the Stone Age that were used to chop up plants and seafood have been discovered.

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 comprises several habitats ranging from coastal marine, grasslands, coastal forests, swamp forests, krantzes, desert and riverine to a 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 Reed Buck, common duiker, blue duiker and oribi have also been seen.

Williams, who is chairman of the Red Desert Nature Reserve Committee, said since the nature reserve adjoins the former R61 coastal route which is now declared as the N2, many buck, deer and bush pigs have been run over by vehicles.

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 N2 whilst also combating trespassing and plant poaching problems,” Ronny said.

Ronny also said this section of the R61 was 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.

– African News Agency (ANA)