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A little gem off the beaten track

(adapted from Cape Argus article, 2 October 2003)

SA's second largest continental island is no longer just for the birds. The island, 55km north of Cape Town, will now welcome 12 tourists a week.

Cape Town has added one more attraction to its ever growing things-to-do list, with the launch of the Dassen Island tourism initiative.

Once a week, for the next year, the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, in conjunction with NAC Makana Aviation and Portnet, will ferry 12 tourists by helicopter from the V&A Waterfront to Dassen Island, 55km north of Cape Town and 9km west of Yzerfontein.

The board's spokeswoman, Amanda van Niekerk, said the aim of the initiative was to determine the impact of tourist activities on the island and to assess the demand for such a venture.

"All visitors will be accompanied by a conservation board official. We will monitor the ecological impact on the island. The results of the experimental year will be used to plan the long-term strategy for the island," said Van Niekerk.

Dassen Island, covering 220 hectares, is SA's second largest continental island after Robben Island, and is home to the world's largest colony of African penguins.

Van Niekerk said the trip, weather permitting, took between 35 to 45 minutes.

"To not disturb the birds on the island, the helicopters won't land there before 10am and will have to leave the island before 4pm as they usually start nesting at that time. The tour will last between two and three hours," she said.

Van Niekerk said tours to the island would be strictly controlled to try and ensure that the seabird populations were not seriously disturbed.

This was the main reason the board decided to offer only one trip a week.

More than 100 bird species, including a palmnut vulture, have been seen on Dassen Island.

The island has a long history which includes having been used as an outpost by the Dutch East India Company, the scraping and harvesting of seabird guano and the collection of penguin eggs.

In an illustrated handbook on the island, Cape Nature Conservation says the past human activities on Dassen Island have left behind numerous structures and artifacts, including shipwrecks, one of the oldest lime kilns in the Cape and the living quarters of the former guano scrapers who used to live and work there.

The island has been managed as a provincial nature reserve from 1988 by Cape Nature Conservation, primarily to protect, manage and monitor the various resident seabirds and shorebirds that breed and roost there.

The trip costs R2 600 a person and bookings can be made at the NAC Makana office at the Waterfront.