Africa Park Sets Stage for Cross-Border Collaboration

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
September 5, 2003
With the proclamation of a new international park spanning the border
between South Africa and Namibia, the jigsaw pieces are beginning to
fall into place for what could eventually be one of the world's greatest
coastal sanctuaries—a 70,000-square-mile (180,000-square-kilometer)
strip that would provide protected status for a unique desert ecosystem
that stretches across three countries.

Encompassing an arid landscape of spectacular beauty and variation, the envisaged super park would be long and thin, stretching for about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) along the sub-continent's Atlantic seaboard, crossing the boundaries of South Africa, Namibia, and Angola.

The first major step towards realizing the vision of the giant coastal park was taken when South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and his Namibia counterpart, Sam Nujoma, recently signed a treaty to establish the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park between their two countries.

The newly combined park spans the Orange River boundary to link South Africa's Richtersveld, which is community-owned, with Namibia's Ai-Ais and Fish River Canyon National Park. With visitors now able to move freely across the border within the greater park, a power-driven pontoon will carry them and their vehicles across the Orange River near the park's western extremity.

This new transfrontier park represents but a small part of a much larger picture. The international coordinator of the project, Peet van der Walt, sees Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park as the launch pad for piecing together the giant subcontinental park.

Van der Walt has been intimately involved in conservation on both sides of the Orange River, having served for several years in Namibia's government as deputy director of nature conservation and tourism before joining South African National Parks.

He says the new transfrontier park's joint management board, which will come into existence in terms of the presidential treaty, will be a handy forum for propagating the greater park.

A Bigger Dream

At the treaty-signing ceremony last month in Windhoek, capital of Namibia, both presidents emphasized that the new transfrontier park was part of a bigger dream. Mbeki called it a concrete step towards a bigger integration process; Nujoma said while the transfrontier park was Namibia's first, it would not be the last. It would serve as an example for similar agreements with other countries.

Namibia's Minister of Environment and Tourism, Philemon Malima, disclosed that on the same day that the presidential treaty was signed with South Africa, he had signed a memorandum of understanding with his Angolan counterpart, Virgilio Fontes Pereira, to pursue the establishment of a similar transfrontier park across the Kunene River.

The Angolan minister remarked: "According to the understanding, we have two years to prepare for a transfrontier park. My belief is we can sign the treaty launching it earlier. The political will is there to do so."

Officials from all three nations say it could take as little as two years for the prospective super park—which would be about the same size as Uruguay—to become a reality.

The governments are treating the creation of the park with urgency because tourism is seen as key to the region's reconstruction now that the destructive civil conflicts which once plagued it have finally come to an end also in Angola.

When the mammoth new sanctuary comes about, tourists entering it at its southernmost point at the scenic Augrabies Falls in South Africa will be able to travel in an unbroken conservation area through Namibia and into southern Angola.

Along the way they would pass through the Richtersveld, a rugged mountain desert sitting on the South African side of the Orange River boundary with Namibia.

"Hot-Hot" in Namibia

Across the river in Namibia they would encounter the Ai-Ais (meaning hot-hot in the local Nama language) Hot Springs and the 100-mile (160-kilometer)-long Fish River Canyon that cuts up to 1,800 feet (about 550 meters) into what is known as the Nama plateau, exposing rock formations that are 2,600 million years old.

Travelers would be allowed to travel through a rehabilitated section of a long-closed mining area called the Sperrgebiet (forbidden territory), where much of southern Africa's diamond riches were found in the sands.

From here the tourist route would wind through Namibia's huge desert parks of Namib-Naukluft and Skeleton Coast, the latter named after the numerous shipwrecks that litter its desolate shore, before crossing Namibia's Kunene River frontier to enter Angola's Iona Park.

Planners hope that some day the long, skinny park can also extend eastwards into Namibia's interior to link up with the world-famous Etosha Park, which was once did extend to the Skeleton Coast.

As one of the biggest enthusiasts for piecing all the parks together, Van der Walt says such moves have already been set in motion round the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park project. "To its east, farmers and communities living between the park and Augrabies are keen to join a conservation area. It is not pie-in-the-sky to talk about attaching that entire area to the transfrontier park. Some farms have already been acquired for the purpose.

"North-west, a section of the diamond concession area, which separates the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park from Namibia's Namib-Naukluft Park, is already being turned into a conservation area in co-operation with the mines. So the link-up with Namibia's vast coastal parkland is already a practical proposition," he says.

Willem van Riet, head of the business-sponsored Peace Parks Foundation, which is a driving force behind transfrontier-park development in southern Africa, is no less enthusiastic about the bigger ideal. "You simply have to look at the map to see what good sense it makes to have a single park running from South Africa, all the way up Namibia's coast and into Angola. It will of course depend largely on Namibia whether the big ideal gets realized. But the parks are there. What a phenomenal place it would be if it could all be fitted together," he says.

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