Coastal dune conservation in South Africa kicked forward a gear in 2001, when driving on the beaches was banned. This helped safeguard sensitive coastal birds whose nests were often crushed or breeding season interrupted by vehicles. But archaeologists have also welcomed the additional protection measures for evidence of ancient humans.

Did you know?

Middens among dunes often include remains of crabs, crayfish, birds, fish and even whales.

When South Africa banned vehicles from driving on beaches in 2001, there was a massive outcry, not least from the 4x4 fraternity.

But in 2004 when the policy was reviewed, it was considered such a success that it is now set in stone.

Coastal dune conservation has emerged as a crucial endeavour for environmentalists as well as archaeologists because these dunes carry far more than just beach sand.

In northern KwaZulu-Natal, the massive and ancient dune system there has been found to be an enormous freshwater filtration system. Rainwater that falls on top trickles out decades later.

In Alexandria, the dunefields that are now part of Addo Elephant National Park are almost pristine, and preserve a landscape of extraordinary windswept beauty that is nearly 6500 years old.

Near Cape St Francis, and at regular intervals along the southern Cape coast, dunes protect middens of shellfish and other objects that show how early modern humans eked out a living here up to 50 000 years ago and more. These dunes carry crucial clues about human development. Coastal dune conservation is important for preserving such vanishing middens and archaeological traces.

The edge of the sea is also a place full of life – much of it extremely sensitive. For example, while vehicles were allowed on beaches, various coastal birds like the Damara tern and African oystercatcher were badly affected.

But once the vehicles were stopped, the improvements in breeding were ‘staggeringly good’, says ornithologist Tony Williams from CapeNature.

Studies found the birds were breeding earlier in the season and more successfully than before the 4x4 ban.

Coastal dune conservation is a now seen as a highly important part of safeguarding South Africa’s enormous coastline and the immense biodiversity that it supports.

Travel tips & Planning info

Best time to visit

Summer (October to March) is the dry season in the Western Cape, so is the best time to backpack along beaches. The KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape coastlines are particularly pleasant during winter (May to August).

Tours to do

If you're anywhere near Cape Agulhas, enquire about the local shipwreck tour.

You could also do the five-day Whale Trail in the De Hoop Nature Reserve near Bredasdorp in the Western Cape. Book this through CapeNature. You might need to do this months in advance, depending when you'd like to do it. The best and most popular time is during the whale season (from about June to November).

The five-day Oystercatcher Trail near Mossel Bay will give you an insight into coastal creatures and history that you will never forget.

Get around

You're not allowed to drive on beaches or dunes. Rather walk. You'll see so much more anyway.

What to pack

Sunblock, hiking boots, beach shoes, a hat, a swimming costume and a towel or kikoi.

What's happening

You may encounter a midden while rambling around dunes. They will almost always be on the leeward side, and would be where women shucked shells of abalone and other sea creatures. On the windward side, overlooking the sea, you may find stone blades and spear heads. Do not remove any objects. These are important archaeological remains and, by law, must be left in situ.