I was in southern Namibia, near the Ai-Ais National Park, where the Fish River Canyon cuts its way through a landscape one and a half billion years old.
It’s a place that takes your breath away. Not only because of the extreme temperatures but because the scale of the scenery is humbling.
As in other African wildernesses, one quickly realizes that we humans are a very small part of a much larger whole.
Surrounding the canyon are desert plains, dotted here and there with quiver trees, a few gemsbok, springbok and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Notable too are the plutons, collections of massive granite boulders piled on top of each other. In the north near the town of Aus is the lodge of Klein Aus Vista, itself surrounded by some of these huge rocks.
After dinner at the lodge’s restaurant, I walked back to my chalet, then stopped in my tracks and stared upwards, hypnotized by the stars. The nearby howl of a black-backed jackal startled me from my reverie and I went to bed. The next morning I found out Mandela had died at about ten minutes to nine, about the same time I was looking up at the heavens.
As a young boy Madiba used to herd cattle in the grasslands and bushveld of the Eastern Cape. According to his autobiography, Mandela would also look up at the stars, and wonder what caused them to shine.
Perhaps his immersion in nature as a child gave him a sense of wonder and respect for the Earth, but what is certainly true is that as an adult, Madiba was a conservationist and lover of the land.
“I believe that South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth,” Mandela once wrote. “Admittedly, I am biased but when you combine the natural beauty of sunny South Africa with the friendliness and cultural diversity of our people, and the fact that the region is a haven for Africa’s most splendid wildlife, then I think that we have been blessed with a truly wonderful land.”
Madiba was one of the three founding patrons of the Peace Parks Foundation, which has worked to establish transfrontier parks in Africa. These cross-border protected areas conserve habitats according to ecological boundaries, not random colonial demarcations.
“I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses,” Madiba said. “We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment. Transfrontier parks are a way we can do just that.”
Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is one of these, and I had just spent two weeks photographing the 6 000 square kilometre protected area. It is one of the more successful cross-boundary parks, partly owned by the resident Nama people and increasingly popular among adventure tourists.
Mining does occur on the South African side in the Richtersveld National Park itself, but the licenses were awarded before the proclamation of the park. Nevertheless, much of this desert mountain habitat is now protected, a World Heritages Site with charismatic people and impressive biodiversity. Conservation efforts have saved most of this arid wilderness from mining.
Back in 1994, however, there was no compromise on the opposite side of the country on the sub-tropical KwaZulu Natal coast.
The apartheid government had issued leases to allow prospecting at St Lucia, one of the oldest game reserves in Africa. In the 1980s and early 90s, the international mining company Rio Tinto had wanted to dredge titanium from 17kms of forested coastal dunes on the Eastern Shores, the very heart of this protected area.
A public furore' ensued but despite the uproar, Rio Tinto and the government were unmoved. The battle continued until 1994 when a public petition to ban mining was started by, among others, conservationist Ian Player.
And who should be the first signatory of the anti-mining petition? The story is told in Graham Linscott’s biography of Ian Player called Into the River of Life:
When Nelson Mandela put his name to it [the petition], this was game, set and match. The pro-mining lobby collapsed like a pricked balloon. Ian Player tells how he was invited to lunch at the home of sugar magnate Chris Saunders. Also there was Harry Oppenheimer.
After lunch Oppenheimer put his hearing aid into his ear, leaned over and asked: “Who is going to win this battle?”
Ian replied: “We’re going to win, Mr Oppenheimer.”
Oppenheimer raised his eyebrows: “What makes you so sure you’re going to win against Rio Tinto, the biggest mining company in the world?”
Ian pulled out a copy of the first page of the petition and asked Oppenheimer to look at the top signature. It was Nelson Mandela’s.
Oppenheimer smiled and put his hearing aid back in his pocket: “Yes, you’re going to win.”
Today, thanks partly to Nelson Mandela, St Lucia (now renamed iSimangaliso Wetland Park) remains inviolate and protects more than 3 400 animal species, the most of almost any conservation area in Africa, and provides tourism jobs and natural resources for the surrounding Thongan communities. Like the Richtersveld, it is also a World Heritage Site.
Across southern Africa, from west to east, Madiba had given his voice to conservation, so it seemed appropriate that when he died the government issued a statement, comparing him to Africa’s biggest tree.
“The large African Baobab, who loved Africa as much as he loved South Africa, has fallen. Its trunk and seeds will nourish the earth for decades to come.”
As a conservationist Mandela probably would have enjoyed the comparison. A baobab can live for more than a thousand years, providing sustenance and shelter to hundreds of animal species, while generations of humans have sought refuge from the African sun within its broad embrace.
For Klein Aus Vista Lodge, go to www.klein-aus-vista.com. For Peace Parks, go to www.peaceparks.co.za.