South Africa is blessed with such a beautiful and dynamic array of wildlife and wilderness that we tend to inspire the world to come knocking at our front door. There is, of course, the famous Kruger National Park, which no doubt deserves its praise, but have you ever considered adding the ocean to the mix? Somewhere where both marine and land life coalesces into one unforgettable experience?
Consider a South African adventure at one of our beautiful coastal national parks.
Garden Route National Park
It’s called the Garden Route for a reason. This is one of the green and gorgeous routes to meander through in South Africa and its national park is just one more tower in heaven’s castle. The Garden Route National Park is split into three beautiful sections, completely removed from one another. En route you’ll find Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma, and perhaps in the mix, you’ll find yourself.
Wilderness is a “fascinating combination of rivers, lakes, estuaries and beaches, unfolding against the backdrop or lush forests and imposing mountains. During spring, the area is beautifully blanketed by a kaleidoscope of colourful blossoms, further enhancing its profound beauty.”
Knysna consists of a beautiful section of lakes and inlets and is situated along the Garden Route between the mountain forests and coastal lagoons of the Garden Route’s shoreline.
Tsitsikamma is a beautiful vision by the sea where you can experience coastal scenery alongside lush forests and delicate Fynbos. With hiking, water sports and adventure, it is a rare treat on the famous Garden Route.
West Coast National Park
If you’re visiting the Western Cape and you’re looking to uncover the real Western Cape, look no further than the West Coast National Park. Only an hour and a half’s drive outside of Cape Town, you can absorb the sapphire waters of the Langebaan Lagoon, focal point of the West Coast National Park.
With thousands of seabirds roosting on its sheltered islands, luscious golden beaches and interesting salt marshes, this gem of the Cape provides the perfect setting for your South African getaway.
Namaqua National Park
If a painting could come to life then that living tapestry could be called the Namaqua National Park. Most famous during blooming season, if you’re looking to capture happiness in a bottle then you need to take a trip to Namaqua National Park and let its carpet of spring flowers, unspoilt coastlines, and diverse wildlife whisk you away.
Agulhas National Park
Right on the southern tip of Africa you can discover the windswept and rugged beauty of Agulhas National Park. Famous in history as the one the most challenging sea crossings, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, this corner of South Africa is rich in culture and national heritage.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
This is one of South Africa’s first World Heritage Sites is a beautiful consortium of eight interdependent ecosystems and an overwhelming diversity of flora and fauna. The park, formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, is a prime destination for those looking for a combination of marine splendour and pristine beaches.
South Africa’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Sibaya, also forms part of the park. Formed against thickly forested coastal dunes, its clear waters support the province’s second-largest hippo and crocodile population.
This season around 37,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica – home to about 20 million pairs of breeding penguins. But is it ethically acceptable to go on holiday to such a pristine environment?
Enfolded in two glacial arms the bay before us sparkles ultramarine, the water flecked with ice-lilies and dotted with bits of floating icebergs.
A sheer cliff towers dark above us, flanked by snow slopes as pure white as the glistening fronts of the little Adelie penguins whose spectacled eyes peer curiously around as they waddle and toboggan about their business just a few feet away.
This is Brown Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsula and togged up in layer upon layer of fleece, topped with vivid red wetskins I am all too aware that this is not my habitat.
Which begs the question: Should I be here? Am I, just by setting foot on this extraordinary continent, disturbing a pristine environment and polluting the last great wilderness on earth?
All visitors leave a footprint, admits my tour leader, Boris Wise of One Ocean Expeditions, and we all tend to go to the same places – the accessible coastline – which is also where the penguins and seals go to breed.
Nonetheless, he argues, carefully controlled tourism is not just OK but useful.
Without a native population of its own, Antarctica needs advocates and tourism creates a global constituency of people ready to support – and indeed fund – its preservation.
Not everyone is convinced the benefits outweigh the risks but most are pragmatic.
“It is better to have a certain level of responsible tourism than for it to go under the radar,” says Jane Rumble, Head of Polar Regions at the British Foreign Office.
This season 37,000 tourists are expected in Antarctica, although 10,000 will never go ashore.
About half the tourist ships are, like ours, flagged to Antarctic Treaty countries making them legally bound by the treaty’s environmental standards.
The other half are worryingly outside this regulation but most are part of the International Maritime Organisation which is just introducing a stricter polar code, and at present all the companies regularly bringing tourists here are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) which works closely with the Antarctic Treaty System.
As our ship crosses 60 degrees south into Antarctica we are given a mandatory briefing before gathering in the ship’s mud room for a “vacuum party”.
As a portable amp sets the rhythm with the music of aptly-named bands, Passenger and The Black Seeds, we biosecure ourselves, hoovering our clothes and kit and disinfecting our boots to ensure we introduce no alien species to Antarctica.
Does this really work, I wonder? Apparently it does. Non-native species have been accidentally introduced to the region but not, as far as anyone knows, by tourists.
In fact, research suggest that scientific programmes may have much more environmental impact than tourism.
Scientists, of course, argue that they also bring more benefit, including increasing understanding of how crucially changes in the Antarctic link to changes in the global environment.
Our ship never docks. We anchor and go ashore by biosecured dinghy.
There is no eating or smoking on land and we are instructed to take nothing away except photographs and leave nothing behind, not even a bit of yellow snow.
“So don’t drink too much at breakfast,” grins Boris.
We are told not to get any nearer than 5m from Antarctic wildlife.
But nobody told the penguins and, although we never touch, we have delightfully close encounters, especially with the confident little red-beaked gentoos.
One passenger is allowed to get as close as he likes. He is Phil McDowell, marine biologist and penguin counter from the independent research organisation Oceanites, who is hitching a lift on our ship to monitor the penguin colonies we visit.
There have been several studies comparing regularly visited colonies with those rarely in touch with humankind.
The results are strikingly inconclusive showing more-visited colonies variously doing worse, the same and even better.
Gentoos are thriving, McDowell tells me, increasing in both number and range.
Adelies, and the little helmeted chinstrap penguins, however, are in decline.
The Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by an average of 3C in the last 60 years, and winds have shifted, changing the pattern of the sea ice.
It is global warming that is changing the penguins’ fortunes, McDowell suggests, not tourism.
There are concerns for the future however. Tourist numbers look set to rise and membership of IAATO is voluntary.
Tourist ships are starting to offer activities like kayaking, mountaineering and diving which are potentially more invasive than simply looking.
The impact isn’t clear and more monitoring is certainly needed.
Back in London, enjoying my photos of ethereal icescapes and brilliantly comic penguins, I wonder again whether I should feel guilty for having been in Antarctica?
“No,” says polar expert Jane Rumble, “just do what you can to preserve it.”
Source: UK Progressive
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