Wild Coast Monitoring 1 of 2011

Jan 8, 2011

MISSION  01 of  2011

Name of Mission: Wild Coast Monitoring 1 of 2011      
Date of Mission: 8 January 2011
Aircraft used: Cessna 172    
Pilot: Barry de Groot   
Beneficiary: E.O.J. Gouws

Objective of the Flight

To record, via aerial imagery and GPS co-ordinates, the sites of illegal structures, roads, sand mines, and any other negative infrastructural impacts on the terrain of the Wild Coast.

Beneficiary’s story of the mission        By E.O. J. Gouws

At the start of the New Year, on 08 January and even before sunrise, the environmental officers of the Eastern Cape were looking forward to a bright new day and year. This would soon prove to be a special day for me.

The skies were clear, not a cloud in sight and no wind hindering us. Waking up at 05h00 in the morning, Robert Stegmann and I travelled to Port St  Johns where we planned to meet John Castillo, the co-author of the book “Mkambati, the Wild Coast” and from where we would be flying the length of the Wild Coast, thanks to the generosity of The Bateleurs and their pilot, Barry De Groot.

This was my third flight in a period of two months.  While driving to Port St Johns I just knew that this excursion would be different. We met with John Castillo at the Outspan Bed and Breakfast and were assisted with transportation of the fuel for the helicopter to the airstrip.  Meeting John for the first time was a pleasant surprise. With the knowledge and enthusiasm that he has shown for the environment, I was sure that this would be an unforgettable experience.

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At the airstrip I met our pilot, Barry de Groot and his colleague, Peter.  After a final briefing and synchronising of the GPS and camera clocks (for use later when geo-tagging images with the GPS breadcrumb) it was time to get into the plane.  The biggest shock was that this excursion would require a helicopter without any doors. Peter reassured me that the safety belts and the wind would prevent me from falling out and helped me to climb aboard and secure my safety belt.

The airstrip was located on top of the cliffs at Port St Johns and the direction for taking off was directly towards the end of the cliff.  The runway did not look long enough and all I could think was “what happens if the helicopter cannot get up enough speed?”, but Barry took off smoothly over the cliff, without any hassles.

We were on our way to Northern Pondoland, still a pristine coastline and also the centre of Endemism.  Barry did some fine flying with tight turns, so that at times I did not know where the sky or the sea was.  Robert was able to take good photographs of apparently new alleged unlawful development, sand mines and the harvesting of trees in the Lugaso Forest, as well as in surrounding areas.  While Robert was taking photographs of the various sites, I was using a handheld GPS to record the locations at which the images were captured.

Afterwards we flew inland in search of sand mining locations.  We noticed two big sand mining operations where the biodiversity of the environment had been greatly disturbed and even destroyed.  At one of the sand mining sites approximately 500 people using buckets were mining sand.  These piles of sand were then sold to truck drivers who drove off with their ill-gotten gains.  The case has been forwarded to the relevant department for further attention.

The flight back to Port St Johns although you could feel the wind picking up.  After refuelling at Port St Johns – another first as we had to refuel manually – we flew down to Coffee Bay to survey several illegal structures.  During our take-off I was then told to hold on tightly, as Barry would be going straight down the cliffs. Flying towards Coffee Bay we noticed that many buildings had been constructed.

After the flight we prepared a quick tally of what we had noted, including:

  • 5 incidents of sand mining
  • 141 illegal developments, including 13 sites where case dockets had already been opened
  • 1 site where trees were being harvested
  • 3 roads under construction
  • Clearing of forests
  • Alien vegetation

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This aerial survey again confirmed my belief that such surveys should be an integral part of operational planning to combat environmental crime on the Wild Coast.  The flight helped us to determine the “hotspots” on the Wild Coast and because of the remoteness and vastness of the area, by air we were able to view those areas normally beyond the reach of normal road transport.  While the Wild Coast Illegal Development Task Group has long held that aerial surveys are imperative in the fight against illegal development and other environmental crime on the Wild Coast, today’s flight has made me even more determined to stop the irresponsible damage to this environment, and to do everything necessary to preserve what is left of the Wild Coast  – not only for our future but mostly for the future of our children.

After the flight we sat on the edge of the cliff and watched Barry and Peter flying over the cliff, off into the sunset over the sea, and disappearing into the distance.  While we watched them depart I realised that while their work had ended for the day, ours had only just begun.

We say thank you to The Bateleurs and especially to their pilots, for giving up their free time and helping us,  the official protectors of the environment, to achieve our objective.

I am pleased to report that, since the flight on 08 January, the DEDEA WCIDTG Strategy (Project) team has been hard at work.  The intelligence we have gathered has resulted in vehicle and foot patrols leading to the investigation of several case dockets relating to illegal developments, many administrative notices have been  issued, together with a number of warnings for first-time offenders engaged in unlawful sand mining.

Author:  E.O.J. Gouws

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