Coming from Singapore, a tiny island that faces challenges of delicately balancing between preserving natural spaces, and constructing urban spaces, being in Mossel Bay grants me the opportunity to reflect on yet another perspective about the relationship between humans and nature. Unlike Singapore, the abundance of land in the George region allows town planners to leave natural and historical sites mostly untouched. In addition, an awareness of environmental conservation has been essential in the preservation and conscious maintenance of such spaces. For someone interested in the socio-history of places, I was certainly in for a treat. I sought for lessons that Mossel Bay could teach me, a Singaporean.
My body was confused, with the sun’s rays prickling the skin on the back of my neck and the ocean breeze chilling my extremities. There is no doubt my body is engineered for the tropical climate. Wrapped in layers of long-sleeved shirts because I did not want to invest in thick winter clothing that would go to waste in Singapore, I trotted along the scenic route by the coast from my accommodation at the Lavender House to the Point. I did my best to avoid walking like a guarded porcupine as the cold wind started to get to me.
I felt like a young toddler, so easily intrigued by this new environment I was discovering. The tall, slim rectangular buildings that I call home in Singapore were replaced by fenced low-levelled houses, which I call ‘architectural snowflakes’ because no two looked the same. The contrasts between old, modern and natural architecture was such a delight to me as they were a visual stimulation to the discovery of Mossel Bay’s history. More than half a millennium ago, this area hosted the first encounter between Southern Africans and the first European explorers on 3rd February 1488.
Since then, centuries of people would have strolled along the same path as me, except my bright red sports shoes touched nicely-laid wooden floors while those in the past might have precariously negotiated with the edges of cliffs barefooted. Nevertheless, the view out to the Indian Ocean would have been the same for anyone across time – the natives, the European explorers, and eventually me. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was jealous of the ocean, rocks, flora and fauna because they had such privilege to witness the growth and evolution of society and the eco-system.
As I walked past natural heritages, local hangouts, restaurants, and eco-tourism businesses, it made me ponder about what once stood in these spaces. It is said that Mossel Bay, or Mosselbaai in Afrikaans, was named by Dutch maritime merchants in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Named after the mussels and oysters found on the shores, Mossel Bay hosted the first economic transaction in South Africa, serving as the major port for the Dutch in the Southern Cape region and the Klein Karoo. The abundance of marine life and land saw fishing and farming as major contributors to the early modern economy of Mossel Bay.
My mere pondering spiralled into deep reflection. Not often do we appreciate how nature and its resources shape society and its economy. Till today, even with gradual urbanisation and modernisation over the years, nature still influences the types of businesses available in Mossel Bay. Eco-commercial businesses such as Great White Shark cage dives, the Big Five game drives, and aquariums pride on their raison d’être of educators and ambassadors of environmental conservation. As such, nature still retains its centrality in business models and brands today. Moreover, natural and historical sites very fortunately remain mostly untouched and exist well alongside modern spaces.
I spoke to a few locals who shared with me about their lives in Mossel Bay. What stood out so greatly was the sheer, immense passion that oozed out of their words in regards to environmental conservation. Their words were heavy with responsibility, but their shoulders did not betray that burden. It is no surprise that nature is essentially a lifestyle here. This then made me reflect about Singapore and its environmental conservation efforts.
Like Mossel Bay, Singapore was also a major port for the British in Southeast Asia, along the Straits of Malacca during its colonial past. It evolved from a fishing village into an entrepôt that facilitated huge volumes of economic flows. However, land constraints have proven a major challenge to urban planning, which has to delicately balance between preserving natural spaces, and constructing urban city and residential spaces.
One approach Singapore has taken is to consciously construct urban spaces that feature natural landscapes. An example is the Gardens by the Bay at the south of Singapore, an urban nature park that boasts two glass-roofed domes, which are essentially super-sized gardens. Technology is used to artificially replicate different types of climates within the domes. But unlike Mossel Bay, Singapore struggles to preserve natural sites due to its small physical size and the need to accommodate a growing population. Nevertheless, it overcomes this by using urban spaces to house nature.
Two places with two contrasting approaches to preserving nature, all because of differences in physical environment. This sort of circular relationship between nature and society makes me wonder – is nature accommodating humans, or are us humans accommodating nature? It seems to me that Mossel Bay is the former, while Singapore is the latter. Regardless, I believe it is amazing how nature is able to overcome modernisation and still find its place in society. However, such resilience should not be taken for granted and as part of the eco-system, humans have a responsibility to ensure a healthy co-existence with nature.