South Africa’s Otter Trail, a 42km coastal hike set in the Garden Route of the Western Cape, is considered one of the finest hiking routes in the world, and so popular hikers have to book for it almost two years in advance. The famous five-day trail through the Tsitsikamma National Park is spectacular, but it’s not just the views that take your breath away. Make no mistake, the daily climbs and descents from the sea to the coastal plateau make the 42km Otter Trail a tough challenge.
But unperturbed, some bright spark at premier event specialists Magnetic South noticed that the trail is exactly the distance of a full marathon – and so the idea of the Otter Run was born. In September this year some 200 trail runners will line up at the Storm’s River Mouth rest camp and race along the path to Nature’s Valley, with the winners expected to finish in a little over five hours.
And some won’t leave it at that. Although the Otter Run can be entered as a separate one-day event, the real nutters, individual or relay participants in the Southern Storm, will continue along the coast for the next four days on a duathlon of trail running and mountain biking from the end of the run at Nature’s Valley, along the rugged coastline, up and down majestic peaks and steep ravines and through the indigenous forest and open grasslands of the Garden Route before crossing the finishing line in Wilderness National Park.
Tsitsikamma and Wilderness, the two national parks that have been chosen to mark the start and end of the inaugural Southern Storm, will also be the eastern and western boundaries of the new Garden Route National Park (GRNP), which was gazetted in March 2009.
The new park will comprise some 121 000 hectares, including the existing national parks of Wilderness and Tsitsikamma, the Knysna Lakes area and other land currently under the management of South African National Parks (SANParks), as well as about 52 500 hectares of newly proclaimed land.
The areas that now form part of the Garden Route National Park.
The GRNP will straddle the Eastern and Western Cape, two district municipalities, Eden and Cacadu, and four local municipalities, George, Knysna, Bitou and Koukamma. Cooperative governance will therefore be essential, as Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa’s minister of environmental affairs and tourism, stressed at the launch of the park.
“The new national park is unique, as its administrative and ecological boundaries vary considerably,” he said. “In this context, multi-stakeholder partnerships will be instrumental to successful conservation management.”
Current programmes focus on specific areas, or corridors, which include the Western Knysna Heads, the Harkerville-Robberg coastal corridor and the Touw, Hoogekraal, Karatara and Knysna River corridors. But with at least 1 004 private landowners bordering the park the challenge will be coordinating the various stewardship programmes in the years to come.
The idea is that residents of the Garden Route will do their bit to conserve the area’s natural heritage – there will be no additional fences and, for the immediate future, it will be business as usual. But the formation of the GRNP will facilitate the regional implementation of important programmes like fire management, alien clearance and land consolidation, while the sharing of resources and management experience, and the integration of current management units, will result in greater economies of scale.
The tourism potential of this diverse and internationally renowned area is enormous. The Garden Route is the third most-preferred tourism destination in South Africa, and marketing the GRNP should ensure that visitors discover more that just the well-trodden routes to the premier visitor sites.
Tourist facilities will be expanded to include a range of accommodation options such as chalets and forest camping decks while adventurers are spoilt for choice given the vast number of mountain biking, hiking and canoe trails, the superb snorkelling, diving and fishing, and the range of more extreme activities such as abseiling, kloofing and paragliding.
The establishment of the consolidated park is part of a long-term strategy to expand South African natural areas under formal protection from 6% to 8% of the country’s total land area. That would increase protected regions from the current 75 000 square kilometres to about 100 000 square kilometres – an area roughly the size of South Korea.
“As our parks are some of our most important conservation and tourism assets, we have been steadily increasing spending on parks,” said Van Schalkwyk. “We have invested R411-million [about US$50-million] in infrastructure development for the period 2006/07 to 2008/09 and a further R245-million [$30-million] is being earmarked for the next period. Other financial assistance has increased from R85.6-million [$10-million] in 2004/05 to R205-million [$25-million] in 2009/10.”
SANParks is the second largest employer in the region and its chief operating officer, Sydney Soundy, said the Garden Route is one of the conservation body’s critical focus areas in South Africa.
“The area plays host to the largest continuous complex of indigenous forest in the country, spanning approximately 60 500 hectares,” he said. “Its aquatic systems, the Knysna estuary and the Wilderness lake areas, are rated number one and number six respectively in the country. The fynbos falls within the Cape Floristic region, which is a designated global diversity hotspot.
“To manage this unique combination of diverse biomes with strong tourism and developmental interest will be one of our biggest challenges as SANParks. Here the term ‘conservation without boundaries’ needs to become a way of life, not just for major stakeholders, but also for all residents in the areas surrounding the park.
“The Garden Route is fortunate to be part of this process and I believe we will be coining a new conservation model for South Africa.”
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