Sperrgebiet National Park

The Sperrgebiet National Park  --  No more a " Forbidden Area "    
The Sperrgebiet National Park was proclaimed in year 2008 as a National Park, and it is now open for visitor after being a " Forbidden Area ". The size of the park is nearly 26,000 km2The Sperrgebiet National Park is Namibia’s newest national park. While the park is largely undeveloped and much of it remains inaccessible to visitors, there is still a chance to explore this wild landscape. Ministry of Environment and Tourism concessionaires from Lüderitz take visitors into the southern extremity of the park where they can admire the colossal 55-metre-tall Bogenfels rock arch, the modern diamond mine and the mysterious ghost town at Elizabeth Bay, the ghost town of Pomona (which is noteworthy for enduring the highest average wind speeds in Southern Africa) and Märchental – the famous ‘Fairytale Valley’, where diamonds were once so common they could be picked up in handfuls as they gleamed in the light of the moon. Observe the birds and animals that frequent the Orange River mouth, an internationally renowned Ramsar site. And, of course, don’t miss the succulents, some of which grow as tall as trees and many of which put on a stunning floral display after winter rains.

Prohibited Diamond Area  --  No more
The Sperrgebiet (meaning ‘forbidden territory’) covers 26 000 km2 of globally important semi-desert, forming part of the Succulent Karoo biome that extends down into South Africa. With its profusion of succulent species that in terms of endemism and number is unrivalled anywhere else on the planet, conservation scientists have classified this area as one of the world’s top 34 Biodiversity Hotspots. To qualify for hot-spot status, an area must contain at least 1 500 endemic vascular plants (0.5% of the planet’s total). Prior to the establishment of the Sperrgebiet National Park, a mere 11% of the Namibian portion of the Succulent Karoo, which is home to 2 439 endemic plants, fell in protected areas. Now, with the park’s proclamation, 90% is protected. Due to its world-famous diamonds, the Sperrgebiet has been off-limits to the public for over a century and the habitat is largely untouched and pristine, making a visit to the Sperrgebiet National Park a truly unique wilderness experience.

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Diamonds and conservation in the Sperrgebiet National Park                
Diamond mining has both scarred and spared the Sperrgebiet. The interior, due to the exclusion policy, has remained pristine, but the coastal areas where the diamonds occur have suffered considerable damage. Yet the scene from Bogenfels with active mining in the distance proves that nature and industry can co-exist. In the early days diamonds could be identified and picked up by the handful in moonlight, particularly so in ‘Fairytale Valley’, but soon mining became more destructive as excavations began and beaches were moved off-shore to act as sea barriers enabling miners to extend their operations into the Atlantic. The Namdeb Diamond Corporation is working to restore damage caused by open-pit mining, re-vegetate spoil heaps and return affected areas to as near a natural state as possible. Some traces of the early diamond rush will be preserved. The numerous ghost towns, rusting fragments of railway and other historic items that still survive will be allowed to remain. In their heyday some mining towns boasted surprising luxuries – skittle alleys, ice houses and dance halls. These structures will stand as a haunting testament to mankind’s tenacity, greed and love of beauty until the shifting sands finally swallow them.

The Orange River
The Sperrgebiet’s fierce and lonely landscape is bordered in the south by one of the greatest rivers in Southern Africa, the Orange. This mighty river rises in the Lesotho Drakensberg Mountains at an altitude of 3 000 metres. It is only 195 km distant from the Indian Ocean, yet it flows 2 000 km in the opposite direction before emptying into the Atlantic. The river mouth is a designated Ramsar site, and is one of Namibia’s globally important wetlands (the others being Walvis Bay Lagoon, Sandwich Harbour and Etosha Pan), protecting an abundance of bird life. The reed beds and tidal mudflats sustain huge numbers of resident and migrant birds.

Future activities
Future Ministry of Environment and Tourism plans include the laying of ecologically sensitive guided hiking trails, and guided drives, the opening of basic rest camps, admission to limited numbers of fossil and archaeological sites, and visits to diamond mines, a meteorite crater, shipwrecks, seal and seabird colonies. Not to be missed is the Roter Kamm meteorite crater, the fourth largest in the world, viewed from the summit of Aurusberg Mountain, which is also noteworthy for its botanical hiking trail. The restricted mining town of Oranjemund will also be opening its doors to visitors soon, offering wellstocked shops with provisions, entertainment and sporting facilities, and acting as the perfect base from which to explore the southern Sperrgebiet National Park and the neighbouring /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park that straddles Namibia and South Africa.

Getting there
Located off the B4, the main tarred road running between Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz, the Sperrgebiet National Park is open only to those travelling with a Ministry of Environment and Tourism concessionaire. Please contact the MET office in Lüderitz, Rosh Pinah and Oranjemund for more information.

Weather: Temperatures fluctuate dramatically, but one constant is the wind. Be prepared for savage gales, flying grit and adventure.

Wildlife wonders in Spergebiet National Park
Conservation scientists have proclaimed the Sperrgebiet one of the world’s top 34 biodiversity hotspots, an honour earned principally by the unique and superabundant species of succulents found in the area, 234 of which are endemic and 284 of which are Red Data listed. The Sperrgebiet is the most biodiverse region in Namibia and the Succulent Karoo biome, of which it is part, supports more species of succulents than any other place on earth. The horseshoe-shaped inselbergs provide shelter from the wind and are particularly rich. Aurusberg, for example, has 80 plant species, some found nowhere else on earth. After spring rains, literally millions of succulents flower, carpeting the normally bleak landscape in a fiery blaze of colour. Historical information shows that large mammals such as hippos, elephants and lions occurred in this area. Though they are no longer found in the Sperrebiet, the park has still has populations of gemsbok, springbok, grey rhebok, leopard, aardwolf, brown and spotted hyaena, and cheetah, as well as smaller mammal species such as African wild cat, bat-eared fox and the Cape clawless otter. Off-shore, 35 species of whales and dolphins have been recorded. Oceanic and deep-sea species are temporary visitors (‘vagrants’) but the Benguela dolphins are loyal coastal inhabitants. They are one of the world’s rarest dolphin species, occurring only in south-west African waters, the bulk of the global population favouring Namibia. All the islands, which have been proclaimed as a marineprotected area by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, are havens for breeding seabirds. Ichaboe Island is a crucial African penguin habitat.

On the beach
The Sperrgebiet National Park hosts two seal species. The southern elephant seal, which often weighs over a ton, puts in occasional appearances. Roughly half of Namibia’s Cape fur seal population (500 000 or so, although numbers fluctuate) has established colonies in the Sperrgebiet. Their principal predators, brown hyaena and jackal, orbit the seal colonies and utilise shipwrecks, caves and tunnels as lairs, leaving spectacular trails of footprints in the sand. Thanks to the nutrient-rich Benguela Current, seaweed growth rates off the Sperrgebiet coast are some of the highest in the world. Harvested further north for agar, used in brewing and scientific work, washed-up seaweed in the Sperrgebiet sustains small crustaceans, while the living seaweed forests act as fish nurseries. At least 190 species of spider occur in the Sperrgebiet, including the seashore spider which makes its home in mussel shells. At high tide it shelters under the shell. To prevent it from being washed away, it spins an anchor out of web. Fine body hairs store air and act as aqualungs enabling the spiders to breathe when submerged. The total number of seabirds and wetland birds in the Sperrgebiet is close to half a million. African Penguins suffered a serious population collapse when guano scrapers destroyed their island habitats. Over-fishing has also dealt them a blow, but their numbers are slowly increasing. Other charismatic bird species include greater and lesser flamingo, Cape gannets, sacred ibis, martial eagle, African fish-eagle, Damara tern, goliath heron, Cape eagle-owl, Maccoa duck and cormorants. Numerous semi-intact shipwrecks line the Sperrgebiet National Park coast, serving as roosts for seabirds and shelters for seals. Seals are not always good neighbours and have been recorded eating seabirds, particularly penguins.

On the plains
Even when you explore a tiny fraction of the more than 26 000 square kilometres that comprise the Sperrgebiet, there appears an endless field of succulent plants and colour. Pink flowers emerge on top of the spiky stems, yellow and white petals emerge from thick, fleshy stems, and the bulb-like tubes of the Bushman’s candle, a plant that, when burned, emits a strong incense, cover the plains. Over millions of years succulents have proved themselves perfectly capable of adapting to the harsh conditions that characterise the Sperrgebiet. Occurring in areas that would kill most plants in minutes rather than hours they have evolved to beat drought, heat, frost and strong winds. Their tough skins and stems insulate the plants from climatic extremes. Their fleshy leaves act as botanical ‘vacuum flasks’, retaining precious rainwater on the rare occasions that it is available, storing fog moisture and resisting evaporation when temperatures soar. To thwart attack they have come up with numerous strategies; bitter sap, poisons, spikes, hooks, and in the case of stone plants, extremely convincing camouflage.

Pre-human history
Marine and terrestrial fossil deposits dating back as far as the Cretaceous period (85 million years ago) are particularly abundant in the Sperrgebiet National Park. These range in size from snails, termites and frogs to deinotheres (proto-elephants with tusks only in the lower jaw), crocodiles, giant ostriches, dassies the size of sheep and rhinoceros. A particularly dramatic find of rare Mioceneera mega-fauna was made at Arrisdrift, 35 kilometres upstream of the Orange River mouth.
Human history Archaeological remains indicate Early Stone Age man settled in the region around the Orange River mouth at least 300 000 years ago. Late Stone Age man ventured further inland, leaving exquisite rock art as evidence of his presence. But shell middens, ostrich eggshell fragments, tortoise shells, crayfish carapaces and cetacean bones indicate a hunter-gatherer lifestyle still heavily dependent on coastal resources. The Portuguese were the first European mariners to reach the coast, arriving in the 15th century. Subsequent explorers reported encountering Khoi (‘Hottentot’) villages constructed of animal hide stretched over whalebones and locals wearing coats made from penguin skins. In the 19th century American whaling and sealing vessels and British guano collectors arrived in increasing numbers and traded with the scattered Khoi communities. The early 20th century brought the discovery of diamonds and the establishment of an exclusion zone. By happy coincidence this sheltered one of the most botanically diverse regions in the world. Archaeological sites are rich and new finds are still being made. In 2008 diamond miners uncovered what is believed to be the earliest sub-Saharan shipwreck yet discovered. Among items of cargo retrieved were bronze cannons, over 70 elephant tusks, navigation equipment and thousands of Spanish and Portuguese gold coins minted in the 1400s and 1500s. With the opening of the Sperrgebiet the area enters into a new era of human history – environmentally sensitive tourism allowing people from around the world access to its long-hidden natural marvels.

Diamonds in the rough
Diamonds and the Sperrgebiet are intimately linked. These precious ‘stones’ are valued worldwide – you’ve probably got one – but how much do you know about what is on your ring or your necklace? Diamonds derive their name from the Greek word adamas meaning ‘invincible’. This is apt. They are the hardest natural material known on our planet and can only be scratched by another diamond. This makes them ideal for industrial purposes such as cutting and polishing, (80 per cent of all diamonds mined annually are for industry) and, of course, jewellery. The diamond is the birthstone of people born in April and the symbol of 60th anniversaries. Diamonds are weighed in carats. One carat is 200 milligrams. They can be any colour but the most common are yellow or brown. This is caused by traces of nitrogen. The famous vivid blue of the Hope Diamond is due to elements of boron. The Cullinan Diamond, part of the British Crown Jewels collection, is the largest gem-quality diamond ever found (1905 in South Africa), but scientists at the US Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics believe that the galaxy’s biggest diamond forms the core of a White Dwarf star. Observations indicate this diamond is 4 000 kilometres in diameter. The first diamond in the Sperrgebiet (forbidden territory) was found by a railway worker, Zacharias Lewala, near Kolmanskop in 1908. The ‘rush’ was immediate and diamond mines sprang up all but overnight. The area was subsequently pronounced ‘forbidden’ after the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft (DKG) was given sole extraction rights. While the area was flush with diamonds, the scarcity of fresh water was causing a problem. The Germans established a base at Grillental, where an underground aquifer fed four boreholes so that fresh water could be supplied to mines as far away as Kolmanskop and Bogenfels. Against a stunning hillside of marble, today only a few buildings and some rusted pieces of equipment remain. Another fascinating location in the Sperrgebiet is Pomona, a deserted mining village where, at the height of its productivity, some 1 500 people lived and worked. For 38 years, the trains ran, the processing plant operated, and men toiled against the extreme wind and hot and cold elements in one of the richest mining areas of its time. A cemetery, resting on a ridge with long views across the mountains to the distance shore, bears the headstones of a policeman, miners and others who perished at Pomona between the years 1917 and 1925. During the second half of 1919, Ernest Oppenheimer, Chairman of the South African Anglo American Corporation, met with representatives of most of the larger German diamond companies in Holland. One of the representatives was August Stauch. With the financial backing of the Anglo American Corporation, Oppenheimer acquired, for the sum of £3 500 000, the assets of the German companies and formed the Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa (CDM) on 9 February 1920. Though these relics remain here, diamond mining is still a vital part of life and the economy in Namibia. Diamonds contribute to 40% of Namibia’s export earnings, generate N$700 million in taxes annually and NAMDEB employs more than 4 500 people (one per cent of the country’s workforce). The waters off the coast of the Sperrgebiet National Park hold the richest deposits of marine diamonds in the world.