Worlds Smallest Desert

Approximately 200m in diameter, the Red Desert is known as the world’s smallest desert consisting of 2 Berea formation red sand exposures. It also forms part of the Pondoland Centre of Plant Endemism and conserves the last remaining coastal grassland in the KZN South Coast that has remained in good condition, not having been affected by residential, agricultural and commercial development.

Rhizolith-like root channels in the red sand indicate lush tropical forests used to thrive in the area, as can be seen surrounding the Umtamvuna nature reserve today, these warm, moist conditions created a habitat for the early Homo sapiens to expand into, approximately 3 million years ago during the climatic fluctuations of the Pleistocene.

The Sangoan Industry, as this culture is known, left behind stone artefacts. Sangoan archaeological sites are extremely rare in South Africa, with Limpopo Valley’s Mapungubwe and further sites in the Red Desert’s neighbouring Wild Coast the only other known sites in the country. These Sangoan artefacts, having been exposed through deflation, are prolific on the surface of the Red Desert among the sand dunes and include picks, rough hand axes, choppers, flakes and cores.

Little is known of the physical appearance of the Sangoans and it’s possible that Sangoan hominid remains lie undiscovered beneath these mesmerising red sands.

Scientists are still speculating about the origin of the Red Desert, but theories include environmental and possibly human factors that cause the destruction of the surface vegetation, exacerbated by a period of drought that caused irreversible damage.

Surprisingly, there are many plants growing in the seemingly harsh habitat today. You’ll find black mangroves, endemic cabbage trees, wild frangipani, and Umdoni trees, 3 Proteas namely the tall Silver sugar bush, the Common sugar bush and the Dwarf grassveld sugar bush. In spring, feast your eyes on a bright spectacle of flowers in the unspoiled grasslands as you walk through the reserve.

Please note it is not allowed to remove any archaeological artefacts or biological matter from this national heritage site. This national heritage site’s rarity and undiscovered culture and heritage treasures should encourage all who visit the Red Desert to contribute to its conservation.