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The showpiece of the Agulhas waterscapes

Apr 17, 2018 | Activities, Blog, Conservation

Three hundred and forty-five years ago, around 40 thirsty shipwreck survivors stumbled upon the waterscapes centrepiece of the Agulhas Plain.

They were so relieved at the fresh, clear water of this vlei, they named it after their ship: Zoetendalsvlei.

 

But what does a shipwreck have to do with the Black Oystercatcher Wines?

Zoetendalsvlei is the focus point of the waterscapes in the Agulhas Plain – connected to our Waskraalvlei, and other vleis like Voëlvlei, in this intricate water system, through the Nuwejaars River.

Zoetendalsvlei is an important waterscapes-feature for many reasons: it’s Africa’s southernmost lake. It’s also the largest natural freshwater lake that has an outlet to the sea in South Africa (it’s 8km from north to south, and 3km wide when the vlei is full).

From here, water flows to the De Mond Estuary in the Heuningnes River.

 

For birders, the vlei is a paradise: it’s home to around 230 bird species. And it’s a vital breeding and feeding ground for freshwater fish species, like the Nuwejaars Redfin Minnow and Cape galaxias. You could also find a range of endangered frogs and toads here, like the micro frog and the Cape platanna.

Of course, the current drought has affected Zoetendalsvlei – as well as the vleis and wetlands that connect to it.

For example, Voëlvlei dried up during droughts in 1899 and 1969/70. And it’s once again dry now. Zoetendalsvlei has also been heavily impacted now: while there is water, it’s at its lowest since 1970.

 

But here’s where nature’s resilience comes in

Fish species like the indigenous Flatheaded mullet can survive the drought, as they come together in estuaries (like the De Mond catchment). And even though they are a freshwater species, they spawn in sea (coastal surface water), before heading back into the freshwater.

That means they can repopulate our rivers, vleis and wetlands when the drought is broken.

The drought is also seen as a cleansing mechanism. Alien fish have made their way into many of the Agulhas Plains waterscapes. They are the first to die out during these dry times – allowing for a return to the natural system.

 

And what about the little Nuwejaars Redfin Minnow and other small fish species?

Many of these fish species are critically endangered. So a drought is not good for them.

But: they can survive in the pools in the many tributaries to the Nuwejaars River (these pools are often fed by underwater arteries, and so can retain their water during the drought). The palmiet vegetation along the banks of these rivers also provides them with the ideal environment to survive.

And what’s more, there was also a happy ending for the shipwreck survivors back in 1673. Having stocked up with water supplies, they successfully navigated the hike to the refreshment station at Table Bay, guided by a local Khoi chief named Dorha.

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