Eco-Tourism at Oyster Bay Reserve and Pinnacle Point Caves

Let word spread: Mossel Bay, South Africa is coming into its own in a fresh way, embracing models of sustainable eco-tourism, supporting local community development initiatives, celebrating natural history and, most recently, presenting newly-revealed pre-historic dwelling sites at the Pinnacle Point Caves to visitors interested in ancient human habitation on the tip of the African continent.

Mossel Bay, South Africa: Home to the Oystercatcher Trail and Saint Blaize Trail

Mossel Bay is a farming, fishing, and port community wrestling with its identity, stretching and writhing to align its desired future with overlapping histories of indigenous cultures and European exploration and settlement, off-shore gas and oil harvesting, questionable shark-related wildlife tourism, and the tamer tourist trappings of wine tasting and whale watching, beach bumming, shopping, and adventuring along scenic hiking trails.

After exploring the downtown stretch to visit the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex and eat tasty, greasy street food, Ted and I spent a beautiful day outdoors learning about an inspiring new (OLD!) chapter in the Mossel Bay Story: the Oyster Bay Reserve, Saint Blaize Trail, and Pinnacle Point Caves.

Aiden Beck, our host at the Oyster Bay Reserve Conservation Trust

South African conservation manager and landscape architect Aiden Beck welcomed us to the Oyster Bay Reserve Conservation Trust headquarters and began a whirlwind of introductions: staff and volunteers, projects and programs, histories and grand future plans.

(Side note: how fun is it to find landscape architects doing great things for the world? Also: don’t hold it against him that, in addition to studying at the University of Pretoria, he’s an Ohio State Buckeye alum.)

Long, complex story short: a massive, irresponsible development project gone awry on the wildlands of the coastal community brought forth an unexpected happy ending – an allegiance between Mossel Bay Environmental Partnership and then-formed Oyster Bay Reserve Conservation Trust, and the establishment of a 330 hectare (815 acre) botanical nature reserve as well as conservation, preservation, and educational projects for the greater community of Mossel Bay.

Here in this unique corner of the world, indigenous Karoo vegetation comes all the way from the highlands to the coastline: much like Greece, Aiden was quick to point out.

To give us a tactile-introduction to the land and its stories, Aiden wrapped up his overview and sent us out to experience the place with a terrific group of guides.

Willie, a grandfatherly man with deep respect for the land and for his Xhosa heritage, led us on a nature walk on a portion of the St. Blaize Trail, pointing out indigenous plant species and teaching about age-old natural remedies and cures. Interesting to note that current estimates attribute 200,000 indigenous traditional healers to South Africa in comparison to 25,000 western-trained doctors.

Willie identified milkbush and aloes, sour figs and baboon grapes, speckbush and pick ears, milkwood and cross-trees and spike-trees, camphor bush, white rosemary, September bush, and confetti bush; with each he shared about treatments for ailements from nose-bleeds, upset stomachs, and baby colic to diabetes and cancer.

I loved hearing the history and traditions of medicinal remedies “grown in the wild, not bought in the store.”

As we made our way down the trail, a squat, black little dung beetle stopped the group in its tracks. Willie stooped down to point out the “Tok-Tokkie” or “Doctor of the Road” respected and honored in folk songs in the Xhosa tradition. He went silent, looked up, and then started to clap and sing Helmut Lotti – Qongqothwane in praise of the little creature. Forgive the camera quality, but please take a listen. I hope it makes you smile as much as it did me.

Next stop along the trail: the Pinnacle Point Caves archaeological site. (The mouth of the main cave is hidden there in the shadows.)

We were accompanied by Pinnacle Point Caves head archaeologist Doctor Peter Nilssen whose excitement and fascination with geological history is positively contagious.

Cave 13B, under current study, made big waves in the archaeology world when Doctor Nilssen and his team discovered and demonstrated signs of shellfish consumption and ochre and bladelet (small stone tool) use, indicating modern behaviors predating the previously-thought earliest examples in Europe and at Blombos Caves near Stillbai, South Africa.

Slide from Pinnacle Point Caves Presentation “Our Origins” – Image Courtesy Dr. Peter Nilssen

Mossel Bay is pursuing UNESCO World Heritage status for these significant historical features and plans are underway to construct a visitors center to welcome South African residents and international guests alike. Doctor Nilssen is working on the interpretive presentation, including visual aids and 3D modeling to help tell the story of the chronological and geological setting for this important milestone in human history.

Why, aside from the obvious answers of scientific and sociological study, are sites like these important to the world?

They are reminders. Profound places. Thin places, in ways.

Overlooking these caves, my imagination wandered. I transposed mental images from childhood readings of Island of the Blue Dolphin (separate world, I know; but similar, too) over the landscape and visualized people not so different from me living in this spot, looking out over a vast horizon, planning their daily rituals, and tending to the elemental needs of life that each and every one of us still experience today in our 21st century world.

Doctor Nilssen said it well – the importance of these places are the reminders that we have all come from the same origins, that we are not so very different at the very end of the story, and that these understandings of our history can change the way we interact in the world of today and shape the world we form for tomorrow…

Willie with three of the local rangers: Henry, Christopher, and Graham

A hike back to the top of the hill, and we piled in the van to head to one last corner of the Oyster Bay Reserve. Here, Christopher and Henry shared about their habitat restoration work and bird hide construction.

I loved listening to these two: they’re friendly and full of smiles. They’re delighted and dedicated to educating the local community and the world. And they’re passionate about conservation and tourism.

Constructed bird habitat at the Oyster Bay Reserve
Ted and Christopher at the Southern Red Bishop Hide, built of invasive wattle species removed from the land and re-purposed as low-impact building material.

Unlike Mossel Bay’s infamous shark cage diving attractions, this is something we can really get excited about!
Note: see our post The Questionable Ethics of Wildlife Tourism in South Africa for our two cents related to why shark cage diving may not be a responsible industry.

The team of rangers, archaeologists, tourism interns, and community volunteers working hard to elevate Mossel Bay to a new position as one of the world’s exemplary conservation and natural history areas of significance are to be commended.

We’re hopeful for Mossel Bay’s prospects of emerging as a world class spot for nature tourism, welcoming and inspiring visitors, teaching heritage of the Xhosa culture and sharing links to previous civilization.

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