Not all who wander are lost… Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania

Posted on November 13th, 2014 in Featured Conservation,General by March Turnbull

I’ve been sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro.   Mostly I was sitting because I was completely finished – hiking nearly six kilometres up will do that to you.  But the real reason I was there was because my fifteen year old daughter, Emily, couldn’t be talked out of it.   Don’t get me wrong, I was dead keen but it’s an expensive – and risky – undertaking so we had been stalling her for ages.  That strategy worked with the pet pig idea, but not the world’s greatest amateur mountain climb.

 

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Just clearing the cloud line on Kili after three days on the mountain.  
In the background is
Mount Meru, also in a Tanzanian National Park.
On top of the world with daughter
Emily, Musa and Daniel.

 

Call me biased, but I really think it is the best .  Not only is it the highest point in Africa, and the tallest free-standing mountain on earth, but it’s doable.   Yes, Everest is higher but you can’t borrow some ski-kit, take a week off work, and climb Everest.  And you can’t take another week off and revel in Lake Manyara National Park, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater.

Kili is not trivial.  Uhuru Peak, is higher than Everest Base Camp and most people hike for three weeks to reach that.  The scheduled flight that delivered us from Nairobi to the mountain had a a cruising altitude lower than the summit.

Getting to the top of Kili is hard but the feeling of accomplishment, of having done something extraordinary, is amazing.

There are few things as boring as other people’s holiday snaps, so let me think about our journey a bit differently for a moment.  I spend a lot of time worrying that protected areas are under siege, going backwards, facing insurmountable challenges. Mount  Kilimanjaro National Park is not like that.

I first climbed this mountain shortly before Emily was born, about 16 years ago.  It was dirty and dangerous.  There were no facilities – white flags of  toilet roll (and much worse) littered the barren upper slopes.  We never saw a ranger on the mountain and everyone knew that the $10 we each paid for mountain rescue was a joke.  No-one was coming to help if things went wrong.

How different in 2014!  It’s all so much more organised.  Every porter’s load is weighed, so that that porters aren’t bullied into carrying punishing loads.  Weigh-stations at every camp check that rubbish carried down the mountain isn’t dumped on the way.

Altitude sickness has always been a worry but now you really know when you’re getting into the red zone.

Each night the guides gather their hikers together and measure their oxygen saturation levels and pulse rates.  They also ask lots of questions.  If you are sick, you don’t hike tomorrow.  It’s not fail-safe (it took a Hindi speaker in our party three days to understand the question “Have you had a number two in the last 24 hours…..?”) but the young Londoner who died in our camp when I was summiting back in 1998, would not be left alone, sick and freezing, in his tent today.

It is still dangerous.  We saw several people taken down the mountain on wheeled stretchers, by incredibly strong and committed rescuers.  Heart attacks are apparently quite common and altitude sickness still defeats many.

 

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Hikers’ vital statistics are charted
to help guides assess their fitness to continue.
This porter is taking a stretcher back up through the
rainforest – he took it off his head for the photo….

 

Each camp on the Machame route, now has a few buildings, including an admin hut for signing in and brick long-drops.  There is radio contact all the way up the mountain and even some cell phone reception.  None of that was there in the past.  Yes, the unmaintained toilets are unbearably stinky – the temptation is still to slip behind a rock for a private moment – but it’s a tremendous improvement.

 

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Porters’ loads being
weighed
Signing in at a new hut at 4,600m  The weather can change in minutes

 

It’s not that easy to find good news stories in Africa’s conservation areas but, to the inexpert eye, Kilimanjaro National Park is in better shape than it was 15 years ago.   How encouraging is that?

Interestingly, it wasn’t the classic eco-warriors who motivated the clean up, it was the adventurers. The jobs and revenue they generate are too important to risk by offering a tainted experience.

Kili isn’t the only African national park to tempt the adventure crowd.  You’ll often hear people say that a place is spoiled when it becomes too popular.  Table Mountain National Park recently rerouted some running trails to manage erosion.  Still, you only have to visit less glamorous reserves to see how quickly infrastructure can fall apart.  In the 21st Century, African parks need more visitors, not less.

 

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Running through the main gate at Victoria Falls National Park during the annual marathon event.

 

Earlier this year I ran a half-marathon at Victoria Falls where we had to run through the national park. It was a brilliant event with impala leaping across the road (true) and game guards ready to ward off lions (well, that’s my story!).

The Kruger National Park, like other South African reserves, has hiking and 4×4 trails.  Mountain bikes seems to be everywhere.  In the USA there are running events in all the big parks.

Even if they don’t know what they are looking at, hikers on Kilimanjaro protect giant lobelias as surely as surely as ornithologists in the Kazinga Channel protect shoebills.

 

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Giant lobelias at about 4,000m are part of the unusual alpine flora found just below the high Altitude desert

 

I’ve got the bug now.  Apparently Mount Meru is a much easier climb than Kili and you see plenty of game on the lower slopes.  I did a pretty amazing trail in the Atlas Mountains years ago.  Our parks need visitors and there must be loads of ways to spend time in Africa’s parks other than spotting big game.

 

Where else in Africa can I walk, run, ride and climb in a National Park?  I think we could be doing more of it.

 

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It takes a big team to help you to the top of Kilimanjaro – welcome employment in Moshi District.  One of our climbing companions was Kalpana Dash from India (wearing green).  She has previously summited Everest but still came to Africa to take on our iconic mountain.   

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Photo Sphere story: The world’s 1000th World heritage site

Posted on November 5th, 2014 in Spotlight on Parks by Administrator

As part of our blog series on African protected areas, we will bring you at least one new “Photo Sphere” story every week. Photo Spheres are 360º panoramic images (think Street View) that can be shared on Google Maps, or with the Views community. Through theStreet View partner programme, more and more remote places are making their way onto Google Street View. Where this is not (yet) the case, Photo Spheres allow the world an immersive view many of Africa’s protected areas.  You can see a selection of Photo Spheres taken in Africa’s protected areas on our interactive story map.

In June UNESCO officially recognized the Okavango Delta in Botswana as its 1,000th World Heritage Site, putting it alongside iconic places such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, and the Great Wall, to name a few.

Read more about what it took to get this designation, and why it matters, from National Geographic explorer Steve Boyes.

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Imfolozi Trail: Home of the wild

Posted on October 31st, 2014 in General,Spotlight on Parks by Administrator

This blog extract has been republished from Scott Ramsay’s “Year in the Wild” blog. Scott is a photo journalist who has spent the last year and a half exploring and documenting Southern Africa’s most special protected areas. Read all his “stories of African parks”, illustrated with amazing, award-winning photographs here. In this blog post he explores the complex interplay between wilderness, ecotourism, development and history. Read the full article here, and also check out this article published in the Cape Times on the mining issue.

It didn’t take long for the ancient creatures to show themselves. We had just started the Imfolozi Wilderness Trail, when two white rhinos rose up in a cloud of dust from where they were sleeping in the shade of an acacia tree.

A mother and her young calf, thirty metres from us. Rhinos have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and smell. The mother could sense the presence of humans. Her ears turned like radars on her head, listening intently. The calf stayed close by her side. Both were clearly nervous.

We were also nervous. Nothing can prepare you for this. Seeing rhinos from the safety of a car in a wildlife reserve is one thing. Being on foot, and coming face to face with these huge prehistoric-looking animals while walking in Africa’s oldest wilderness area is entirely different.

White rhinos are huge, weighing just over two tons, standing two metres tall, and of course, there’s that horn. And rhinos can run faster than the fastest man. Besides, when you’re carrying a 15kg backpack with five days of food and gear, there’s no point in trying to outrun them. Human kebab, anyone?

But our Zulu trails ranger Nunu Jobe calmly gestured for us to walk slowly to the rhinos to get a better view. He had done this a thousand times before – literally. We followed him, placing our feet as gently on the earth as possible.

We walked closer, when another rhino – a huge bull – appeared without warning to the side of us, fifteen metres away.

Continue reading 

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Explore Gombe National Parks through the eyes of Jane Goodall

Posted on October 21st, 2014 in General,Spotlight on Parks by Administrator

In the last few weeks we’ve been bringing you a few “stories of African parks” that have been a little on the somber side. It is of course, important to remember, that African protected areas can also be places of immense wonder.  In today’s post we’re featuring a story that will allow you to experience some of that wonder in Gombe National Park,  through the eyes of someone that knows it intimately: Dr Jane Goodall.  Below is an extract from the Google Latlong blog. You can read the full post here.

In July 1960, Dr. Jane Goodall stepped off the boat in what is now Gombe National Park, Tanzania with a pair of second-hand binoculars and a notepad. She was 26 years old, and was there to observe and record the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild. This summer, after four planes and a boat ride, I took my first (wobbly) steps onto the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I was about to walk the same paths that Dr. Goodall took to do her groundbreaking research into the lives of chimpanzees. And now—thanks to a Google Maps partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute and Tanzania National Parks—so can you.

We were invited to Gombe National Park to capture a record of this historic place, where today the Jane Goodall Institute manages the longest-running chimpanzee research study in the world. It was here that Dr. Goodall first witnessed chimpanzees fishing for termites using a blade of grass as a tool to dig them out of their mounds. Using tools was an act previously believed to be unique to humans. Her observations revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees—animals that share 98 percent of our DNA—and redefined the very notion of “human.” More than 50 years later, protecting chimpanzees and their habitat is central to the mission of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

Continue reading on the Google Latlong blog

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Rebuilding Kissama: war-torn Angola’s only national park affected by deforestation, but refaunation gives hope

Posted on October 14th, 2014 in Spotlight on Parks by Administrator

In the lead-up to thWorld Parks Congress in Sydney, we are telling (or channeling) stories of African protected areas.  Angola has a lot of sad protected area stories to tell, about war, deforestation, defaunation – both human well-being and ecological health have had their fair share of punishment. However, there are also some signs of hope too. Like in so many parks in Africa, the story of Kissama National park – some (but not all) would argue Angola’s only functioning national park – is a pretty complex one. 

This article, by Fidelis Zvomuya, was published on Mongabay.com in July. You can read the full article here.

The story of Kissama National Park is one of perseverance, vision and disaster in waiting. The only functional national park in Angola, a country wracked by war for decades, Kissama (also called Quiçama) lost much of its wildlife, with that which is left still impacted by poaching and deforestation. However, a project is attempting to bring the park back to life.

Most of the lush forested areas of Kissama National Park occurs in its eastern portion, comprising about 200,000 hectares. Of this forest cover, nearly seven percent disappeared from 2001-2013, according to data from Global Forest Watch.

A 2010 report written by Roland Goetz, Director of the Kissama National Park at Kissama Foundation, raised concern about poaching and illegal harvesting of trees for building material and charcoal production. It underlines the urgent need for mitigation.

. It underlines the urgent need for mitigation. 


Kissama National Park has lost nearly seven percent of its forest cover since 2001. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge. 

In the report, Goetz said Quiçama National Park is at a crossroads. 

“Continuing as we have been is certain death for the park,” he said. “With decisive action to save the park in the next year, the Ministry of Environment can show the international conservation community that Angola in a leader in protecting the biodiversity of the planet.” 

Illegal development is also a major threat to the park, including a housing development called Cabo Ledo and several roads. 

Angola is one of Africa’s most biologically diverse countries, boasting a long Atlantic coastline, dense equatorial forests, rivers thick with mangroves, vast desert expanses, rolling savannah grasslands and high-altitude rocky outcrops. 

Forests still cover 35 percent of Angola, but clearing along coastal regions is massive and has led to desertification as trees no longer exist to hold moisture in the soil. One of the primary drivers behind Angola’s deforestation is the wide use of wood as fuel as 80 percent of Angolans cook food over fire. In addition, timber is often sold and exported illegally.

Read the complete article on Mongabay.com

For more on Angola and other African protected areas, visit our interactive map.

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Seeing the Forest for the Trees: How ‘One Health’ Connects Humans, Animals, and Ecosystems

Posted on October 7th, 2014 in Spotlight on Parks by Administrator

One of the key outcomes of the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 will be the drafting of a New Social Compact, recognizing the complex social-ecological nature of protected areas, in Africa, and all over the world. For today’s Photo Sphere  story we share an article, written by Wendee Nicole, on the One Health approach to understanding the complex linkages between disease, people and ecosystems.  

You can read the complete article on Mongabay.com
 . 

A gossamer mist settles over the jagged peaks of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a 318-square-kilometer park on the eastern flank of the Albertine Rift in southwest Uganda. It’s a hard scramble up and down steep ravines of this World Heritage Site, home to 400 of the world’s estimated 880 remaining mountain gorillas. The guide, Omax, radios ahead to trackers who have located the Habinyanja gorilla family. As the eight tourists and their porters catch up, everyone gathers to watch, mesmerized, as two gorillas placidly eat nettles. Without warning, a male gorilla named Kavuyo charges straight toward a middle-aged woman; she holds her ground, her eyes saucers. “He’s a joking one,” Omax says after shooing Kavuyo back. 

Tourists have just one hour to watch the gorillas and must stay seven meters away from the animals, but counting tourists, porters, trackers, and guards, more than 60,000 people visit the park for the gorillas every year, in addition to locals passing through, potentially exposing both species to health hazards from the other. People and great apes are so closely related that infectious agents ranging from common cold viruses to potentially fatal diseases such as tuberculosis can pass between the two. One study found that 30% of park staff and 85% of local villagers admitted to defecating in the park without burying it, and many leave behind soiled trash that can expose the gorillas to parasites, pathogens, and other health threats. 

Read the complete article

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Spotlight on Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Madagascar

Posted on October 2nd, 2014 in General by March Turnbull

Continuing our series on Africa’s parks posts ahead of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, we are staying with Madagascar this week.  What we have been trying to show is that Africa is a big place and not all parks are the same!

As mentioned last week Madagascar’s wildlife reserves are fragmented and often very small.  Because of the prevailing winds and weather, the island has very different climate and vegetation zones, all nurturing different species.  It’s a difficult place to do conservation.  Last week we looked at Anja, one of Madagascar’s smallest reserves.  Great to visit but an ecological dead end.

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The park is still quite difficult to access but well worth the trouble.  Credit: March Turnbull

One of the biggest protected areas is Tsingy de Bemaraha, and at 150,000 hectares it is an entirely different prospect.    It has always been pretty inaccessible because of its formidable limestone formations, not to mention the roads.  It was also a strictly protected reserve traditionally, meaning that only researchers could get in.  But now the southern part – which makes up the Tisngy de Bemaraha National Park – is a popular tourist destination and and an extraordinary travel experience.  The northern section remains off limits to casual visitors and the whole protected area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ecologically it is priceless.  That’s easy to say in Madagascar, where so much flora and fauna is found nowhere else on earth, but in Tsingy the endemism is even more extreme.  While 85% of the wildlife in this park is endemic to Madagascar, almost 50% is endemic to Tsingy……  And it is widely believed the species list for this reserves is still far from complete.

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 One of 11 lemur species in the National Park, this Decken’s Sifaka (Propithecus deckenii) at home on the limestone karsts of Tsingy de Benaraha.  The rock can be brutally sharp and hot.  Credit: March Turnbull

This is an excerpt from the Travel Madagascar website:

Visitors can spot 11 lemur species, including for Decken’s sifaka, red-fronted brown lemur, fat-tailed dwarf lemur, grey mouse lemur or the Cleese’s woolly lemur and the Sambirano lesser bamboo lemur, which only occur here. Other resident mammals are the small carnivorous falanouc and ring-tailed mongoose, and several bats.
More than 100 bird species have been catalogued at present inside the National Park, including the critically endangered Madagascar fish eagle and crested ibis, Madagascar wood-rail, giant coua or Coquerel´s coua. 
The 45 reptiles and amphibians which are found here are all endemic. Some significant species which only occur in Bemaraha are the Madagascar iguana, a local endemic long-tailed skink and the Antsingy leaf chameleon.

 

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If it is hard to imagine it anywhere else, that’s probably because it it isn’t anywhere else…  Credit: March Turnbull

 Visitors are not going to see all those species, mostly because the terrain is so hostile.  But that’s also its attraction.  The massively eroded limestone formations are incredible to behold, and the park authorities have done their best to get you in amongst them; there are ladders, rock bolts, and aerial platforms to give you an amazing visitor experience.

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Visitors need a head for heights – ladders, bridges, steep steps and cracks to squeeze through are part of the fun.  Credit: March Turnbull

 Conservation is hard.  In Madagascar, with massive poverty, a growing population, unstable government and some of the most precious wildlife anywhere in the world, it is much harder still.  It is on the back foot, yet it is still there. Good people are working hard to preserve it.  Take a look at this WWF report.  615 new species were found on the island between 1999 and 2010……! That is quite astonishing.  WWF Madagascar are one of many NGOs working really hard with Madagascar National Parks.

We could post again and again on Madagascan parks as the World Park Congress approaches but I will try to resist the temptation….

 

Click on the icon below to see more detail on Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in Madagascar.   Use the Read More buttons to see further detail - if you can correct or improve the data please let us know! 

Go to www.mapaproject.org to search for other African parks and projects.

You can make your own custom map of the African conservation areas that interest you at www.mapaproject.org.  Use the searchable map to narrow down your results and then click the Share button to see how you can share your map with others.  If you embed your map in a blog or website (like I’ve done here) it will be automatically updated if users add more relevant features to the database in the future.  Easy and free!

 

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Photo Sphere story: Keeping an eye on Tarangire’s elephants

Posted on September 28th, 2014 in General,Spotlight on Parks by Administrator

As part of our blog series on African protected areas, we will bring you at least one new “Photo Sphere” story every week. Photo Spheres are 360º panoramic images (think Street View) that can be shared on Google Maps, or with the Views community. Through theStreet View partner programme, more and more remote places are making their way onto Google Street View. Where this is not (yet) the case, Photo Spheres allow the world an immersive view many of Africa’s protected areas.  You can see a selection of Photo Spheres taken in Africa’s protected areas on our interactive story map.

There are two African icons that you will almost certainly encounter when visiting Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park: baobabs and elephants. In fact, the Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem, one of the most biodiverse grasslands in the world, by some accounts boast its highest elephant density too (although Botswana has the highest number).

Its not only the ecological landscape that is complex and diverse: the park and it surrounding areas encompasses many of the problems and opportunities so typical of protected areas in this part of east Africa: a complex history of ecotourism and community relations, community displacement on the one hand and development on the other, a high propensity for human-wildlife conflict, and herbivore populations at high risk of poaching.

In response to the current elephant poaching crisis – one that this park has not escaped – TNP management is following other parks in establishing monitoring and protection programmes that uses Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Announced in September 2014, this project will see a number of UAV camps being established from which operational units (PODS) equipped with multiple aircraft vehicles and communications equipment will be deployed to monitor, identify, follow and eventually deliver suspected poachers to wildlife authorities.

So next time you visit Tarangire, you may see more than just baobabs and elephants…

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Spotlight on Anja Community Reserve, Madagascar

Posted on September 25th, 2014 in General by March Turnbull

Continuing our series on Africa’s parks posts ahead of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, we visit Madagascar this week.  What we have been trying to show is that Africa is a big place and not all parks are the same!

I have been lucky enough to visit Madagascar and to see many of its national parks.  The thing that strikes you immediately is that there is very little natural habitat left.  Cattle ownership, as a proxy for wealth, demands huge areas of pasture, created by repeatedly clearing and burning the landscape.  The burgeoning population also has a massive dependency on rice (Madagascar is said to have the world’s highest per capita consumption of rice) which means that every watercourse and accessible hillside is cleared and terraced for agriculture.  Outside of protected areas, small remnants of forest left clings to inaccessible hilltops and steep ravines.

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The island has distinctly different vegetation zones, because of the rainfall pattern, but before man arrived 2,000 years ago almost all of it was heavily forested, and home to many more species than survive today. Credit: March Turnbull

So, this week I wanted to look at small parks.  They are all relatively small in Madagascar.  In southern Africa you would want a minimum 40,000 hectares to sustain the Big Five, the (unfair) litmus test of an iconic park.  Madagascar doesn’t have any of the big five (water buffalo don’t count..) and few parks would be big enough anyway.  But small can be beautiful, especially in a landscape of environmental chaos.

Anja

They don’t come much smaller than  the Site Ecotouristique d’Anja, Anja Community Reserve. It is just 30 hectares in size.  In the late 1990s, aware that its globally significant endemic species were under huge pressure, the Madagascan government worked hard to expand the land under formal protection.  One of the results was small community managed reserves, like Anja.

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Like all reserves in Madagascar your visit is guided, in this case by a local villager rather than a National Parks employee.    Credit: March Turnbull

Incidentally, for those from mainland Africa who are used to exploring the wilderness independently, you need to adjust your mindset in Madagascar.  Every hike or visit to a reserve requires a guide, even if it is a 30 minute signposted circuit.  There are lots of good reasons for this but don’t expect to contemplate nature in solitary splendour, or to get away with just paying the park entrance fee!

Anyway, back to Anja.  This tiny patch of forest, squeezed on all sides by cattle and rice, is magical.  You get here because you are south of the capital on the RN7 – perhaps on your way to see lemurs at Andringitra National Park.   Before you get there, pop in and see these habituated ring-tailed lemurs.  You are going to see big ones, small ones, baby ones.  Playing, fighting, eating, dozing, in the trees, on the ground – up close and personal.  It is very cool and, because the short hike offers panoramic views of the stripped hillsides, it makes you rather wistful for what must have been.

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 Ring-tailed Lemurs in Aja Community Reserve.  Credit: March Turnbull

 

Human pressure is hardly new for Madagsacar’s wildlife.  Since the arrival of people about 2,000 years ago, dozens of species have gone extinct, including at least 15 species of lemur bigger than the indri, the largest of today’s survivors.  One was as large as a gorilla.

But enough doom and gloom.   In a country infamous for its chaotic political order, there is a functioning wildlife authority, presiding over some very special national parks.   The flora and fauna is outstanding even though you have to work hard for it.

In fact, I think we must talk about another more conventional Madagascan park next week.  The best things often come in small packages.

 

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Did you know that Africa has 7 species of baobab – and 6 of them are endemic to Madagascar? Credit: March Turnbull

Click on the icons to see more detail on National Parks in Madagascar.   Use the Read More buttons to see further detail - if you can correct or improve the data please let us know!

You can make your own custom map of the African conservation areas that interest you at www.mapaproject.org.  Use the searchable map to narrow down your results and then click the Share button to see how you can share your map with others.  If you embed your map in a blog or website (like I’ve done here) it will be automatically updated if users add more relevant features to the database in the future.  Easy and free!

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Photo Sphere story: The rocks of Robberg: Ancient story-keepers.

Posted on September 18th, 2014 in Spotlight on Parks by Administrator

As part of our blog series on African protected areas, we will bring you at least one new “Photo Sphere” story every week. Photo Spheres are 360º panoramic images (think Street View) that can be shared on Google Maps, or with the Views community. Through theStreet View partner programme, more and more remote places are making their way onto Google Street View. Where this is not (yet) the case, Photo Spheres allow the world an immersive view many of Africa’s protected areas.  You can see a selection of Photo Spheres taken in Africa’s protected areas on our interactive story map.

Since their younger days in the time of Gondwana’s break-up (some 110-130 million years ago), the rocks of Robberg have seen a thing or two. About 120,000 years ago, these cliffs and caves played host to beach-combing “Strandlopers”, subsisting in large part on the shellfish riches of the rocky inter-tidal. Later, when the seas retreated, the rocks kept watch as giant buffalo, alcelaphine antelopes, and other near-mythical herbivores roamed the grasslands of that age. When the seas returned, the rocks welcomed new cave dwellers. With time, various waves of human inhabitants found increasingly sophisticated ways to prosper on the Peninsula. And as they did, the rocks stood guard, both undertakers and scribes of their livelihoods and stories…

For more history on, and pictures from, this magnificent little protected area, read Scott Ramsay’s blog post on his Year-in-the-Wild visit to the Robberg Nature Reserve.

 

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