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​KZN’S Red Desert blooms 

DEC 14, 2020 | Written by Isabel Johnson. Photos by Isabel Johnson and Graham Grieve.

Red Desert Nature Reserve 


Above: The red sands of Red Desert Nature Reserve form the world’s smallest desert – just 200 metres across. Photo: Isabel Johnson.

Green, subtropical KwaZulu-Natal is the unexpected home of the world’s smallest desert.

Next time you find yourself in the lushly pretty town of Port Edward, on KZN’s far south coast, take a detour to explore the three small wonders of its newest green museum, the Red Desert Nature Reserve.

The reserve contains the world’s smallest desert – so tiny that it is scientifically known by the diminutive, desertina.


Above: Pondoland CREW among the knolpypie (Watsonia pillansii): (from left) Maggie Abbott, Mark Getliffe, Tracy Taylor, Kate Grieve, Lloyd Mhlongo, Gail Bowers-Winters, Graham Grieve and Buyi Zakuza. Photo: Graham Grieve.


The site is also archaeologically important. Many objects up to 300 000 years old have been found, dating from the early, middle or late Stone Age, also known as the Sangoan era.

And the reserve is a botanical haven. Its blooms include nearly 500 rare, localised (endemic) plants because it is part of the Pondoland centre of endemism and home to one of the very few remaining patches of critically endangered Pondoland Ugu sandstone sourveld in KwaZulu-Natal.


Above: This member of the pea family, Lotononis bachmanniana, flowers in early winter. Photo: Isabel Johnson.


One of the particularly special plants is the largest known population of a shrub from the buffalo-thorn (Rhamnaceae) family, Phylica natalensis, that is classified as vulnerable.

Pondoland CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) visit regularly to monitor the reserve’s plants and their plant lists show you should find various plants blooming through most of the year.


Above: This vulnerable buffalo-thorn species, Phylica natalensis, flowers in mid-winter. Photo: Graham Grieve.


In Shaka’s footsteps

The most famous person to have swung by this special area before you was no less than renowned Zulu King Shaka. Legend has it that his army camped here after raiding Mpondo communities for cattle.

The great herds that the army brought with it are believed to have stripped the dune vegetation. This left its red sandy soil exposed to wind erosion.

Wetter conditions released iron from silica in this soil and turned feldspars to clay. The iron then formed an oxide, like rust, which coated the sand grains, turning them red.


Above: The orchid Disa similis is found flowering in swampy areas in spring. Photo: Graham Grieve.


Protecting heritage

That bare expanse of red sand gave the Red Desert Nature Reserve its name. Jointly owned by the Ray Nkonyeni Municipality and a local family, it was declared a nature reserve in 2015, facilitated by the Botanical Society of South Africa.

The reserve does have problems with high levels of illegal indigenous plant harvesting, alien invasive plant encroachment and frequent wildfires. It needs us all to respect and protect it.


Above: The Red Desert Nature Reserve has spectacular views across to the Indian Ocean. Photo: Isabel Johnson.


You can enjoy walking or mountain-biking here and admire it for yourself – see www.reddesertnaturereserve.co.za for directions, access details and more information and the Pondoland CREW blog for illustrated lists of monthly flowering.


1 Comment

  1. Wonderful place…

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