Is this desert in KwaZulu-Natal really the smallest in the world?

2018-11-27 12:00 - Gabi Zietsman
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Red Desert Conservation Area South Africa

Is this desert in KwaZulu-Natal really the smallest in the world? (Photo: iStock)

No matter how long you live in South Africa, you'll always stumble on something weird and new.

With a nickname like 'The Garden Province', it would be hard to believe that there's a tiny desert in KwaZulu-Natal, claiming to be the smallest in the world at just 11 hectares big. The Red Desert Nature Reserve's sandy dunes stand out starkly against the lush green that surrounds it.

Its website mentions a few myths around its creation - including an alien ship landing - but more likely to be the result of cattle overgrazing during the 1800s.

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What also makes the Red Desert Nature Reserve special is its archaeological artefacts from the Stone Age, as well as plant species that are on the SANBI Red Data List. Animals that make their home in the reserve include large felines like the caracal and serval, antelope like the reedbuck and blue duiker, the endangered samango monkey and a variety of mongoose.

The desert also forms part of Pondoland, recognised as a botanical hotspot of plant endemism.

While there aren't any built facilities at the reserve, there is a hiking and mountain biking trail to check out that can also form part of a longer trail along the Umtamvuna Gorge up to the main bridge.

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But is it really the smallest desert in the world?

The claim for 'world's smallest desert' is also made by the Carcross Desert in the unlikely place of Yukon, Canada. However, this desert is technically much bigger at roughly 260 hectares. Its dunes were created during the last glacial period as the remnants of old lakes' silt, and a 'rain shadow' robs the area from moisture by wind-blocking mountains. 

But what qualifies a desert?

It's not just about looking like a desert. According to the US Geological Survey, the main factor that qualifies a desert is its annual rainfall. Extremely arid deserts can go 12 consecutive months without rainfall, arid lands have less than 250mm annual rainfall, and semi-arid landscapes, more generally referred to as steppes, have between 250 and 500mm of annual precipitation.

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Where does the Red Desert land? According to the SA Weather Servicethe area around it received between 500 - 2 000mm of rainfall during the region's rainy season from July 2017 and January 2018, making it fall outside of the required precipitation parameters for it to be considered a desert. Carcross also, technically, just falls out of the desert zone with around 255mm of rainfall a year, writes The Weather Channel. 

Whatever your take, the Red Desert would still make a fun detour if you're passing through, mixing in a little red with your green holiday.

ALSO SEE: Is this the nicest garden in KZN?

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