Outlook / Lookout
By Romi Boom
Lured by exciting developments at Marakele, Wild revisited this national park in the heart of the Waterberg. Like us, you’ll be captivated by the breathtaking scenery, and come back for more!
Five Reasons to Visit
• A Big Five, malaria-free destination, 2½ hours’ drive from Gauteng. The park, as its Tswana name suggests, is a sanctuary for an impressive array of wildlife.
• Marakele is part savanna bushveld, part Kalahari, and part Okavango swamps.
• Situated in the transitional zone between the dry western and moister eastern regions of South Africa, the park has sweetveld, camelthorn trees and spectacular scenery.
• The unique topography comprises plains to the north and a basin in the 2000m mountain. Both sites offer rewarding sightings.
• The biodiversity is astonishing. In a very small area there are unique differences in height above sea level. You’ll even find fynbos!
Rain has draped a grey cloak over the spectacular cliffs of Kransberg over the past two days. The mountain, which dominates the park, dazzled in rosy tints on my previous visit. The rain is welcome, it having been a dry summer, although not as severe as in Kruger. The winter of 2016 is expected to be challenging as Marakele National Park doesn’t receive a single drop of precipitation for six months of the year.
When the sun finally breaks through, I happen to be making my way to the Lenong viewpoint. My eye is drawn to an unforgettable sight: in a clear sky, hundreds of Cape vultures are catching the thermals above Kransberg cliffs, having waited out the dismal weather in their breeding colony, one of the world’s largest. There are said to be 800 pairs, but the numbers of these highly endangered raptors fluctuate as they move to and fro to another breeding colony in Limpopo, at Blouberg Nature Reserve.
In Marakele, where much of the park is mountainous and sicklebush encroachment is dense, you occasionally see Cape vultures on the flat areas where kills have taken place. The best chance of an encounter is the drive to the top of the mountain since these enormous birds, like an aeroplane, need open area to take off. From the Sentech Towers, near the colony, you’ll be able to watch the birds gliding and soaring.
Guided outings to the vultures are one of the adventure activities in the park’s management plan for the next decade. In the future, visitors who make their way up Lenong Drive to the towers will be able to walk along viewing decks to appreciate the scenic beauty without impacting on the flora.
Bontle leads the way
SANParks’ responsible tourism development plan has identified Marakele as an underdeveloped park with huge potential. “Even though we recently purchased adjacent farms,” explained park manager Johan Taljaard, “we do not necessarily have to own more land. We can collaborate with our neighbours on a contractual basis so that we have sufficient space to protect even wild dogs with the right kind of fencing. After dropping the fences to new sections, the wildlife moved in immediately.”
Year-round occupancy of 75 per cent in the 10 units at Tlopi Tented Camp prompted the opening last year of 10 more safari tents adjacent to the Bontle campsite. Their great attraction is being secluded and unfenced, in a woodlands section of the park that is not home to the Big Five.
“We may open more of these units,” said Johan. “Our plans also include a lodge with 30 rooms and we have already identified a ‘wow’ terrain on the periphery of the park, in a gorge in the Big Five section.”
The Marakele road network will be developed to give tourists access to larger sections of the park. A R17,5 million roads project is in the works, making provision for sedans. Short 4x4 routes will be opened up, in view of the fact that more than 80 per cent of the vehicles passing through the gate are 4x4s. To keep visitors off the roads, two new picnic areas, modelled on the popular ones in Kruger, are in the pipeline.
“A tourism hub is to be established at the gate, in line with SANParks’ policy of connecting to society. It features an activities centre to attract day visitors who do not necessarily have to enter the park. There will be a swimming pool and braai area for people whose leisure pursuits are not necessarily the same as nature lovers, but who can benefit from the park’s existence nevertheless.”
Bontle safari tent.
Mining and environmental conservation are the two aspects central to the local community’s life. They are keen to develop tourism in an attempt to make up for the 1 400 jobs lost when Kumba mine closed last December. Adventure activities such as mountaineering and kloofing are likely to be outsourced, which will satisfy a very real need in the community.
“We hope to achieve most of our goals in the next five years,” said Johan. Marakele seems set to rival Kruger!
What about the wildlife?
Marakele is Big Five country. In 2013, TB-free buffalo were introduced, initially 15 bulls, with females being added gradually. They now number 70, with a sizeable herd of 40 plus calves spotted recently.
“We need them for the vegetation,” explained conservation manager Mphadeni Nthangeni. “They break down the tall grasses and trample them for grazing by the zebras and wildebeest, amongst others. We also need them for tourist purposes. We dropped them off in areas that were not utilised in the past. Once they number 100 to 120, we will start managing the population growth.”
Although the park has a large number of elephant, about 200, they are just being monitored at present. “It is a challenge,” admitted Mphadeni, “but fortunately they have not damaged trees much. Perhaps on the floodplains, where there is sweetveld, but not in the mountains, in the sourveld areas.”
Although the home range of each species differs, migrations follow a 32km corridor through the mountain. (The corridor runs directly in front of Motswere guest house, as well as two to be developed from existing farmhouses.) In a thinning project to prevent overgrazing, some plains game such as impala, zebra and wildebeest that graze in the same places were removed from the contractual section while others were sold off on auction. The next aerial census is to be conducted in July, when the entire park will be covered over two days in a R44 helicopter.
“We have firebreaks on the boundary and to protect infrastructure,” said Mphadeni, “but accessibility in the mountains is very difficult. Lightning burnt 53 000ha in the last year. We tried to contain it, but 15 per cent of the plains were affected and we lost some grazing.”
And the rhinos? “As far as poaching is concerned, the Waterberg is becoming a closed area,” emphasised Johan. In addition to being surrounded by game farms and private nature reserves, the park has 24-hour visibility on the ground and four tracker dogs (three malinois and one German shepherd). In addition to security guards, Marataba, the contractual park to the north, has 18 guides who also serve as eyes and ears on the ground. They patrol the premises both in safari vehicles and on foot on hiking trails.
Counterinsurgency engages in very specific actions and security is tight, with booms on public roads and more in the pipeline. The Greater Marakele Security Cluster aims to implement measures similar to those in gated estates, where a mobile scanner will be used to scan vehicle licences and driver’s licences before the boom opens automatically. Information will be transmitted to reaction forces and the police.
Getting there: Marakele National Park lies 250km north of Johannesburg. The nearest town is Thabazimbi.
Accommodation: Pitch your tent in the unfenced campsite at Bontle, from R245 a night for two people, R76 an extra adult, R38 a child. Bontle’s safari tents start at R1145 a night for two people. The safari tents at Tlopi overlook the dam, from R1260. Motswere Guest Cottage, which can sleep up to eight, is from R2000 a night for four people, R220 an extra adult, R110 a child.
Contact: Book with SANParks Central Reservations on 012-428-9111, www.sanparks.org
Source: Wild Magazine