South Africa's Red Desert - the smallest desert in the world

in #travel3 years ago

Who woulda thunk that the smallest desert in the world is in South Africa? And that it’s red, like a Mars-scape?

Where in South Africa is it?

We visited the delightful town of Port Edward in early May, and were introduced to one of the world’s better secrets – the Red Desert of Banners Rest. Fans of the 1978 television series could be forgiven for thinking this is where the Incredible Hulk’s human counterpart, David Banner, finally put an end to his peripatetic wanderings. The only thing hulking around this area are the plants and insect life – lovely tall trees, enormous hibiscus bushes and gorgeous big moths. As I mentioned in my introduction of the delicious peppadew, the produce here is like sunshine converted straight to food.

An idea of setting and scale

But back to the Red Desert – it’s really a thing, and so underplayed by South Africa as an attraction. First, to get an idea of scale, check out this website for spectacular aerial views of the area and a bit of information about the local wildlife and natural history. It’s set above the cliffs on the left bank of the Umtamvuna River, which separates the KwaZulu Natal and Eastern Cape provinces. The impressive coastal bridge you see in the photos below links the two provinces; mostly, to this visitor’s uneducated perception, it gives people from the South Coast a chance to visit the Wild Coast Sun, a hotel and leisure complex in the Eastern Cape, immediately south of the bridge. Apparently the bridge was the object of a wild sabotage plot by white extremists not long enough ago, but the bad guys were apparently caught, bombs didn’t explode, and I shall leave that story to the Steemhistorians among us to share.

Red desert aerial view

Photo credit

Red desert aerial view with bridge over Umtamvuna River

Photo credit

As you can see, it’s really tiny, about 200m across.

After a great deal of lobbying on the part of the local community, it was made into a nature reserve which means its rare flora and fauna (not that we saw any fauna – nary an insect, let alone anything furry, scaly, feathered or clawed – during our midday visit) are more protected than if it wasn’t a reserve.

Red desert NR sign

It really is a nature reserve.

How was it formed?

Apparently it’s a remnant of ancient coastal dunes in this mineral rich area. The best reference I could find on how it was formed was on a geocaching site (cool – people still do that?). The geocacher contacted Professor R Uken of the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Geology department, who provided the following rich explanation:

“It is a small remnant of Berea Red Sand that lies directly on a very flat surface of Msikaba Formation sandstone. This coastal plateau extends all along the coast, especially marked from Port Edward to Waterfall Bluff, and represents an erosion surface that dates back to before the breakup of Gondwana.
As the proto Indian Ocean opened, the first marine sediments of Cretaceous age were deposited on this surface. These sediments are preserved in a few places along the coast and contain marine fossils (Trafalgar Beach etc). They are generally soft and semi-consolidated because they were never deeply buried. After Gondwana breakup the coast experienced renewed uplift and erosion. The cretaceous sediments were easily eroded away exposing the old pre-Cretaceous Msikaba surface again. It was on this surface that dunes fields were generated probably as far back as the Miocene with a basal boulder bed representing beach deposits overlain by dune sand. Sea level has gone up and down with the ice ages and dunes are also found submerged on the continental shelf and were formed when sea levels were low during glaciations (during this time the northern hemisphere was covered in an ice sheet lowering sea level- only the Drakensberg may have a small ice sheet on top of it).
The dunes mainly consisted - like today, of quartz sand but also shell fragments and heavy minerals such as ilmenite and magnetite. These are Fe-Ti oxide minerals. These minerals were weathered in the dunes by oxidising groundwater releasing iron in the form of iron hydroxide. This stained the sand the rusty Berea Red colour. Shell fragments released calcium carbonated [sic] in places cementing the dunes to form a rock called aeolianite. The coastal dunes have been greatly reduced in size by weathering and erosion and the red desert is one such remnant.”

Enough with the helicopter view – what’s it like in there?

You got an idea from the entrance and the aerial photos that it’s surrounded by grasses and low trees. What you can’t see from up there are the beautiful wildflowers:

yellow flower

Geez, it was windy that day and I couldn’t persuade this flower to stay still long enough to take a decent picture of it. I suspect it might be some kind of lady-slipper – flower experts out there, note the stem and leaves as well as the single flower.

Here’s another beauty:


I think it’s some kind of lily. The shot below puts it into context – and those tracks beside the plant are the footpath we took to get into the desert, trying as much as possible not to disturb the area off the track.

lily beside path

Again, will appreciate some feedback from those more knowledgeable in things floral.

These lovely little daisies were peeking out through the grasses around the desert; what you can’t see because my awesome Huawei Mate 9 couldn’t capture it is that their petals are shiny.


Entering the Red Desert

How about this regal protea, acting as a sentinel at the entrance to the desert?


And once you’ve passed the protea, you enter the desert. Within two paces, your surroundings have changed completely. This is a view looking back towards the path entering the desert, the path being just to the right of the photo. In this photo you can clearly see the transition between grassland and sandy soil (the blonder colour) to harder red sandstone (as you look to the left). And look at the foreground – nothing’s growing there.

Red desert edge

Hmmmm, this is odd…perhaps a bit of human work here?

clump of stones

As we walk farther in, we start to see impressive rock formations, the result of erosion over millions of years.

rock formation

A few hardy plants have managed to grab a roothold and will gradually contribute to the further erosion of this interesting rock formation. You can also see some grasses are taking hold in the foreground of the photo above, gradually breaking down the rock so that other plants with less robust root systems can start to grow there as well. The photo below shows how larger plant species are beginning to feel at home on the rocks.

bush growing in rock

Here’s a perspective looking from the top of one of the rock formations back towards the reserve entrance:

Red Desert vista

And a couple of different perspectives on the rock formations:

Red desert rock formations

More rock formations

Now for a couple of lizard’s-eye view shots of the area:



I thought this was lichen at the time, but now I’m not sure. Maybe some kind of calciferous deposits within the rocks, “bubbling” out? Here’s a closer look; perhaps some Steemian geologists, amateur and/or professional, could have a say.

lichen? Closeup

And because I’m me, I can’t resist taking a shot of this and imagining it’s hyena scat, but it’s probably just bleached dog poop. But a girl can always hope.

probably not hyena scat

And I love the patterns the wind has caused these grasses to make in the sand.

wind patterns

And looking towards the Indian Ocean on the eastern edge of the desert, you again get the sense of how hard the edges of this formation are – rock, then vegetation, with nearly no transition area.

desert edge

Break on through to the other side

A brief walk through a narrow path with grassy, steep sideslopes leading up to bushes and low trees, and then we’re back in grassland, heading to the Umtamvuna Gorge. Then we see this breathtaking vista.

bridge over Umtamvuna Gorge

And a treat for me on the walk back – what manner of flower is this? Be it red broccoli?

Cool red plant

Here’s what it looks like broccoli-head on:

Cool red plant top view

Back to life, back to reality

We lingered within the desert and scrambled up and down rock formations for a while, then just as suddenly as we’d entered the desert, we were out of it.

Here are a couple of additional sites for some lovely photos of the area and a bit more backstory, and this is a nice website if you want to learn more about what to do in the area. Bonus: it has a nifty 360° view of the Red Desert.

I hope you enjoyed this excursion into the world’s smallest desert (or so they all say – nobody seems to have any references to back that up) and it tantalises you to visit that little piece of heaven down on the South Coast of South Africa.

Steemit RSA logo @alainite
Cool South African Steemit logo credit: @alainite


...not that we saw any fauna – nary an insect, let alone anything furry, scaly, feathered or clawed...

It could be that you just couldn't see them. There could well be tribes of very, very tiny little critters who have been lost in the desert for 40 years. It's all a matter of scale. A very small scale

Bwahaha! Perhaps their leader could find some stone tablets on top of one of those formations.

What a wonderful spot - off the beaten track for you, I think. I love the ocean being right there. The whole place looks magic. Thanks for such a detailed post.

Thanks, @fitinfun! We actually went to visit my partner's cousin and her partner - they've settled on a lovely smallholding there (with a view of the ocean if you stand in the right place), and indeed, the whole place is magical, if incredibly sleepy out of season. Being in Joburg we get a surprising amount of nature walking into the house, but in that part of the world, it's just bigger and greener and yummier. Nuff said.

That's a weird landscape, reminds me a bit of the Bledow Desert in Poland. Thanks for posting, upvoted.

Interesting, @temnozor! Let me know (can we tag here? I don't know) if and when you decide to post about the Bledow Desert - I'm curious to know more about it. Thanks for the kind words and the upvote :-)

Oh, I wasn't there yet myself, I'm only familiar with it due to a German documentary series. But I have scheduled a trip to Poland for spring 2018, so I might consider visiting it. I do have tons of other material about Eastern Europe, though, so if that interests you, you may check out my blog. I didn't intend to advertise here, just saying. :)

Cool on all fronts - didn't take it as advertising or the sp** word, you can see I'm interested! Poland is on my bucket list but I'm not quite sure when I'll get there, so I might need to enjoy it through your blog in the short term.

Am following you now :-)

This is wonderful - must make a plan to get out there . Great article

Thanks, @anneke! I thought our Banners Rest friends were kidding when they said there was a desert there (you can never tell when they're being serious and when the twinkle is just a twinkle), but indeed, the whole area is a must visit area :-).

I was scrolling through the hot topics, when I saw the word "South Africa" and knew that I had come across another fellow South African :)

I am living in Cape Town. I see you are in Johannesburg. I was born there! :P

Nice to meet you @kiligirl! I posted my latest post about 3 hours before you :) I am focusing my energy on building relationships and most importantly creating quality content :)

I will give you an upvote and I will follow you! Talk later :) Have a great evening

Nice to meet you on Steemit, @enazwahsdarb (I saw what you did there)! Thanks for the upvote and follow. I think I started following you when we started compiling the list of South African Steemians but had better double check. Have a look at @marcel1965's timeline for a dynamic list of us!

Wow awesomeness! I didnt even know people were making lists haha! Thanks for that. I look forward to connecting in the near future! Talk soon :)

I definitely adding visiting this place to my bucket list!! Thank you for not keeping the secret to yourself.

You'll still have to find it! It's not exactly well-signed 😎

Wow, right under our noses....
I know where I might be headed to next... after I get that Steemit introduction
Thanks @kiligirl

You deserve a holiday :-)

Hi @kiligirl, I am now envious. I stayed very close to the place at Caribbean Estate, which is at the mouth of the river. I heard about the red dessert and even saw a sign of it next to the main road, but could not find it, and I asked several people, how did you find it? I think I might get it now after seeing your post.

I think you were lucky to see a sign by the main road! I don't think we saw any signs at all. It's at the end of a residential road, with no clues on how to get there other than already knowing how to get there. In any case, it's a beautiful part of the world, isn't it?

Yes it is a beautiful pert of the world, when I go there again, I will search for it again. Thanks for posting

@tim-beck's cousin who lives in Banners Rest showed us the way :-). There are more signs to the Space Centre (no joke) than there are to this attraction.

Well done post You deserve for getting Upvote from me. I appreciate on it and like it so much . Waiting for your latest post. Keep your good work and steeming on. Let's walk to my blog. I have a latest post. Your upvote is high motivation for me. Almost all Steemians do their best on this site. Keep steeming and earning.

This comment has received a 0.08 % upvote from @booster thanks to: @hamzaoui.

Would love to visit there one day! Nice Informative Post! Followed =D

Hey, @spikykevin, thanks for the upvote for Port Edward and the Red Desert! Appreciate the kind words and the follow. :-)

This is so awesome !!! I've been there before because I literally live in Banners rest, near the Afri Carve. Awesome post !!

So cool! Maybe you can share something about the Space Centre? I'm really curious why it's there 🤣

Wow!!! What a beautiful red dessert!
Would be awesome to visit one day....

Thank you for the kind words, @awesome-seven! South Africa would welcome your visit :-)

Wow. I live in South Africa and consider myself pretty well travelled and well versed in the country....but I had never heard of this place. Thanks for opening my eyes.

A pleasure, and I have to say at the end of April this year I would have said the same thing if I'd read this post written by someone else :-).

These are some incredible pictures and details! I loved your work! I hope you will continue to share more such posts in the days to come!

Why thank you, @firepower! Really appreciate your kind words. >curtsies<

Trying to create quality posts and develop deep connections on Steemit. Comments like yours motivate me!


When I saw your post. I thought I will see more pictures of wild animals like the Lions pride, croc, wild dogs, etc. I guess too much watching NatGeo.

Instead, you showed the other part of Africa and I thank you for that. You deserve my vote!

Follow me @Yehey
Thank you.

Hee hee - we actually had lions roaming the streets here in South Africa (briefly) earlier this year. One of the websites I mentioned indicated that a few different kinds of buck live there, and I suspect some small cats do as well. But it's waaaay too small for any of the big predators, and there's nowhere for a croc to hang. Will post about that kind of wildlife some other time, but in the meantime there are plenty of other South Africans on Steemit who are posting about wildlife now. Have a look at @marcel1965's account to get a recent list! Glad you enjoyed.

Red Desert is the beautiful one of all the deserts on Planet... Nice tour @kiligirl...

breathtaking would love to visit there one day

Thanks, @yardieonwallst! South Africa would love you to visit :-)/

A desert lost in a world of green. i have been here and it really is something else.very pretty.gif

Indeed, @superday! At least you can confirm I'm not making it up 😋

Some fantastic photography and a good read thank you , mike

Looks more like a sandbox then a dessert lol

Always wanted to go to Africa, maybe someday after I visit my sister in Italy.

Wow, such a drastic change in landscape and environment.
Just another beauty of the world.
It also bears some beautiful wildflowers which I don't know why for some reason look like fruit to me at times haha.

this seems to be an amazing place the pictures looks fantastic and the colors are wonderful thanks a lot for sharing and keep on posting ;)

Thanks so much, @othmanesl! :-)

Thanks for the tour of the world's smallest desert, Red Desert, a place I will probably never have known, much less, travel to. But in all honesty, being that small a patch, it really does look man-made to me. Then again, what do I know? Love the photos and description :)

Reading the geology professor's description of its origins for the umpteenth time, I sort of get it now...but you're right, it does look from the air like someone just let loose an enormous firecracker a few hundred years ago. We have so much to learn....

Thanks for the kind words - much appreciated. :-)

Hahaha... I sort of got it too :)

This is awesome when I think of deserts 🌵 I think of the regular sand an pyramids like in the mummy. I wouldn't consider this a desert if I came across it myself, but this is so cool red sand the plant life are there any like tigers or lions in the area? Just like the scenery an vast horizon makes this place look like a awesome hiking ground to meditate. Very peaceful looking and the tree picture above I could swear that's the acacia tree, the tree that can be seen in the lion king. But it truly is beautiful how nature works its mysterious an random making wonders like red sand deserts. I really enjoyed this read Dope Post I have upvoted, Resteemed, and followed 🙏🙏

beautiful red desert. Thanks for your time and knowledge. see you again next post. done re-steem and followed.

Great Post
Thank you.

Thank you, @enomujjass. Appreciate the kind words.

Woo beautiful, I love to go might be will go next year holiday. Thank you so much sharing those place

Thanks for the kind words, @shrestharam! :-)

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing it with us !

@kiligirl super interesting post! I've never heard about "Red Desert". I love steemit because I can learn sth new every day:)
If you have a minute please check my new story about Multimedia Fountain Park in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. I'm sure you will like it!
All the best :)

Thank you for the kind words, @radzioha! Glad you enjoyed it.

You photography is amazing work. Have you worked in geology? Thanks 🐓🐓

Thank you so much, @mother2chicks! Not really worked in a kid I enjoyed picking up rocks and trying to figure out what they were, but it was my sister who had the actual collection. My favourite "kid rock" experiences were picking up pieces of shale from construction sites and breaking them open to see if they hid any fossils. More often than not, they did! Studied geology as a compulsory subject (one of my favourite courses) in university. South Africa has such a rich geological heritage it's pretty hard not to get excited about the rocks around us here...:-)

never knew, very cool. thanks for sharing

Thanks for the comment - I'm so glad you left it, since it led me to your blog and your amazing painting of the secretary bird and black mamba, which I've upvoted and resteemed :-). Now following you.

ha, thank you! yeah, I only learned about the secretary bird maybe a year ago, but I love them, a very very cool bird. Thanks again for the follow

wow, awesome post kiligirl!

Wow..Good post thanks for share with us

enjoyed the read! very nice

Wahh..never expect to see such beauty there .. great post !

Absolutely beautiful..Thanks for sharing the pictures!

Thank you for the kind words! :-)

Thats crazy! It does look like mars, right in the middle of everything! I want to visit!

Amazing, isn't it? It reminded me how much geology influences our lives and we don't even realise it.

Yes, I live in the Willamette valley, in between the pacific ocean, and a few mountains. The geology you speak of definitely effects the weather plants trees etc. Looking forward to seeing more of your posts!

Cool! We see this starkly in South Africa's game reserves, where the grasses that grow on the soil that erodes from the nearby mountains feeds the herbivores which in turn feed the carnivores. There's a whole lot that happens in between, but a visit to a game reserve is an amazing experience in experiencing how the whole system works together 😊😊

It's almost like a circle helping every plant, animal and so on. We have a few game reserves here, and it is very fascinating and tranquil.

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