Walking the ancient livestock paths of Namaqualand

Veld and pastoralists: Oom Koos Paulse, experienced herder, with some of the livestock at the winter stock post at Jaarskloof in the Leliefontein Communal Area. Photo: Clement Cupido.

Oom Koos Paulse, experienced herder, with some of the livestock at the winter stock post at Jaarskloof in the Leliefontein Communal Area. Photo: Clement Cupido.

The Kamiesberg Upland in Namaqualand is a place of cultural and botanical richness. In the Leliefontein communal area of this region one still finds traditional livestock herding which evolved over centuries and is still an integral part of the lifestyle and livelihood of livestock keepers.

Remnants of ancient Nama transhumance (seasonal livestock relocation) routes, which were later cut off by political interventions and privatization of land, is still actively used by herders moving between winter and summer stock posts. The Leliefontein communal area consists of about 194 000 hectares of land with the population located in ten villages.

Leliefontein village has about 20 livestock owners, each with their own herder, most of whom are over the age of 60. Herders tend to relatively small flocks of boer goat and a variety of sheep breeds in the grazing areas outside of the village perimeters. The village of Leliefontein, the oldest of the ten settlements, has several ephemeral wetlands and was traditionally used as the summer grazing area for the transhumance Nama herders.

Situated about 1400 meters above sea level in unique renosterveld vegetation, surrounded by predominantly succulent Karoo vegetation in the midlands, this village with less than 1000 inhabitants has adapted to the political and climatic changes they are facing. The place offers a unique window through which one can look into the past – where simplicity, Ubuntu, humbleness and the welcoming attitude of the people reminds one of an era that has passed.

An early morning departure for Oom Koos Paulse, Oom Gert Brandt and three dogs starting their journey from the summer stock post in the uplands in Blokdrif. Photo: Clement Cupido.

Leliefontein transhumance is different from the normal movements we find in South Africa, where livestock is moved from winter to summer rainfall regions. Here they move altitudinal over shorter distances. It reminds me a bit of my favourite childhood television characters, Heidi and her herder friend Peter, who seasonally move with their goats down the slopes of the Alps to warmer climates.

In Leliefontein the movements to find fresh rangelands are relatively short – about 10 km from 1400 m to around 1000 m above sea level. More importantly, the herds are moved to escape the winter cold and occasional snow which could threaten the survival of the young lambs.

In June this year I met up with livestock keeper Oom Gert Brandt, his 13 year old grandson, Ethan Julius, and his trusted 70-year-old herder, Oom Koos Paulse, at their summer stock post in Blokdrif. The mission is to walk to the winter stock post at Jaarskloof in the succulent Karoo vegetation, a distance of about 10 kilometers and a drop in altitude of around 300 meters. It’s an exciting day for the trio, and Oom Koos, a quiet introvert who prefers the solitary lifestyle with his animals in the veld, is dressed up in his water boots and formal blazer.

Oom Koos travels light with his kierie and makeshift rucksack with water bottles. Photo: Clement Cupido.

Oom Gert, a retired municipal official, explains to me that in the past there was actually a trek calendar every livestock keeper had to adhere to. “The winter trek date is the 15th of May after the first winter rains. We are already a month late for the trek,” he explains. “The rainfall is not that predictable anymore and has become less and less”.

The prevailing drought and impact of climate change has forced them to adapt and change the rules. We walked at a steady rate of about 2 km/h and after two and a half hours we cross the turnoff to Leliefontein village. This is the halfway mark and now it’s all the way down to Jaarskloof. The older ewes in the herd know the route and even become a bit excited, getting a quick bite of the fresh palatable plants along the way.

Oom Koos is still quietly doing his thing – no rush, no stress, just another peaceful day at the office as we walk down the slope. The vegetation is changing, with succulents starting to dominate. The veld looks relatively good despite the poor show of rain, but there is one big concern about the availability of drinking water for the livestock. “We might have to move back to Blokdrif if we do not get follow-up rain soon, and that’s a huge concern for all of the livestock keepers.”

Oom Gert explains the value of an experienced herder like oom Koos. “No, I do not have any concerns with Oom Koos around my flock”, he confirms when asked. “Oom Koos loves being around animals”, he explains. “It’s his life”.

Oom Gert Brandt meets up with his wife, Auntie Kate and helper who prepared the winter stock post in Jaarskloof. Photo: Clement Cupido.

Oom Koos owns a small share in the flock, from which he will occasionally sell or slaughter at special occasions. “I haven’t had any livestock losses through predators the past few years and I think the herder with two dog combination works very well to deter jackal, caracal and even leopard,” Oom Gert explains.

“He knows each animal and can immediately pick up if something is wrong and can report to me if he would suspect the animals might have consumed poisonous plants. He has a lot of local knowledge and if no western treatment is available he can treat animals with local medicine to ensure survival. Oom Koos is a true herder,” says Oom Gert.

Our journey ends at Jaarskloof stock post, where, similar to Blokdrif, one finds a khaya, kookskerm and kraal. I take a breather as I sit on the granite boulder just to take everything in – the bleating of the lambs, the chatter in the cooking shelter, the smell of the taaibos smoke as the coffee is brewing. The peace and tranquillity, the simplicity of life.

It’s bliss within this beautiful semi desert landscape. But then it strikes me. If young kids like Ethan walk away from this lifestyle it could spell the end of a millennia old era of herding in the Namaqualand landscape.

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