A plateau rich in flora and fauna, history and geology rises from the Kalahari, south of Etosha National Park. Amy Schoeman explores this multi-dimensional conservation area: the Waterberg Plateau Park.
There is a certain incongruity about a park named Waterberg featuring prominently in an arid country famous for the Namib and Kalahari deserts. Be that as it may, with its turbulent history, species-rich flora and fauna, striking geological formations and extensive rest camp, the Waterberg Plateau Park is one of Namibia's most colourful and interesting conservation areas. Moreover, it has fully lived up to the rationale behind its creation, namely to serve as a sanctuary for rare and endangered species.
Rising above a sea of African bush and savannah about 270 km north-east of Windhoek, the Waterberg Plateau is an island of vibrant colour, its vivid Etjo sandstone cliffs glowing brick-red against lush sub-tropical vegetation.
The Waterberg complex has a south-west to north-easterly orientation and can be divided into the small Waterberg in the south, followed by the Omuverume Plateau, which has the highest elevation and is saddled to the main plateau, and the Waterberg proper, roughly 48 km in length and varying in breadth from 8 km to 16 km. With the exception of its northern extremity, the plateau is surrounded by a wall of cliffs, which become steadily lower and more broken towards the north. The highest point is at the Okarakuvisa range, and it is here that the column-like erosion of Waterberg sandstone is at its most striking.
The Waterberg is an erosion relic of sedimentary rock originating from the Karoo System. A lower section, the Omingonde Formation, is composed of approximately 350 metres of conglomerate and reddish-brown mud-, silt-, sand- and grit-stone. The upper formation consists of reddish-brown Etjo sandstone, which forms the perpendicular cliffs of 70 m to 75 m high lying directly under the crest. Fossils of mammal-like reptiles found in the Omingonde formation, and tracks of bipedal and four-footed dinosaurs which can be seen embedded in Etjo sandstone on top of the plateau, indicate that the rock formations were deposited during the upper Triassic period and vary in age between 180 to 200 million years.
The plateau's elevated position is due to the resistance of Etjo sandstone to weathering, and to pressure in the earth's crust which lifted the Karoo layers millions of years ago. It is partly due to this tension that over the centuries pillar-like seams developed in the sandstone. Rainwater falling on top of the plateau flows into the seams and seeps down until it is stopped by the impermeable mud- and silt-stone from the Omingonde Formation. It emerges further down the slopes from numerous fountains.
The Waterberg's vegetation changes dramatically from acacia savannah at the bottom of the plateau to lush sub-tropical dry woodland with grassy plains and tall trees at the top. During the summer months the dominant tree, silver terminalia, gives the plateau a silver-green glow, and in spring the weeping wattle, shaped like a jacaranda, bears heavy clusters of yellow flowers.
Other trees found on the plateau are the Kalahari apple-leaf, bush-willow, silver bush-willow, wild syringa, wild plum, flame acacia and coffee mimosa.
Common shrubs are the lavender-bush, cork-bush and white bauhinia or coffee-bush, recognised by its white orchid-like flower. The flamboyant flame lily associated with Zimbabwe also grows on the plateau. Below the cliffs, where the fountains seep through, Waterberg ferns, some species of which are endemic, flourish among the wild fig trees.
In the 1960s, when the West Caprivi Game Park was de-proclaimed in order to create homelands in line with South Africa's apartheid policies, it was feared that the scarce and endangered species of the Caprivi would not survive the pressure of hunting and poaching.
It was recommended that, since the vegetation of the Waterberg area was similar, it be set aside as a reserve for eland and refuge for the scarce and endangered species of the Caprivi. In 1970 the Namibia Administration started buying up farms at Waterberg, and in 1972 the park was proclaimed.
In the same year the Department of Nature Conservation and Tourism embarked on an ambitious translocation programme to populate the new park with game.
From locations as far afield as Natal and Addo in South Africa, a large variety of species were translocated to the park. These included white rhino, eland, giraffe, buffalo, roan and sable antelope, tsessebe, blue wildebeest, hartebeest, impala and duiker, all of which had occurred naturally at Waterberg in former years.
Today the park also harbours gemsbok, kudu, baboon, brown hyaena, leopard, cheetah and smaller animals such as warthog, steenbok, klipspringer, Damara dik-dik, black-backed jackal, caracal and rock hyrax.
The abundance of trees and large quantities of natural food sources at the Waterberg support a rich birdlife of over 200 species, some of which occur only at a few other locations in Namibia. Examples are Bradfield's hornbill, the Pallid flycatcher, Hartlaub's francolin, Rüppel's parrot, the Alpine Swift and, on the Okarakuvisa cliffs, a breeding colony of Cape vulture. Also found in the park are White-backed andLappet-faced vultures, and eight eagle species, including Black and Booted eagles.
Of the population groups known to have inhabited Namibia in earlier years, the so-called yellow Bushmen were the first inhabitants at the Waterberg. Today their engravings of animal tracks can be seen on the rocks surrounding a large waterhole at Okarakuvisa. A group of Damara cohabited with them towards the middle of the nineteenth century, and at roughly the same time the first Herero moved into the surroundings.
In the 1850s the two celebrated explorers, Charles John Andersson and Francis Galton, visited the Waterberg area, and from 1875 to 1880 the intrepid Dorsland (Thirstland) Trekkers settled there briefly before trekking further north to Angola. It is thought that these people, reminded of the Waterberg in South Africa's Transvaal province (today's Gauteng), gave the mountain its name.
When German colonial forces moved into the area in the 1890s they were on friendly terms with the Herero. However, in 1904, when the Herero attacked and massacred some German garrisons, the German forces led by General von Trotha cornered them at Waterberg and wiped out their fighting force virtually to a man. This bloody encounter became known as the Battle of Waterberg, and is commemorated every year at the cemetery near the battle site, where more than 70 Schutztruppe lie buried.
Below the rocky escarpment of the plateau is the Bernabé de la Bat Rest Camp, named after the founder and long-time Director of Namibia's Department of Nature Conservation. Regarded by many as Namibia's most attractive tourist camp, the red-brown brick and russet-coloured roofs of the buildings echo the rich colours of the Waterberg's sandstone cliffs. The Okatjikona Environmental Education Centre at the foot of the plateau plays a pivotal role in environmental education and hosts training courses in wilderness management. A wilderness area of 19,000 hectares in the western section of the park is used for guided wilderness trails.
Amy Schoeman is a regular contributor to Travel Africa. She is a well-known Namibian photographer, writer and author whose work has been published and exhibited around the world.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Eight: Summer 1999 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)