Memel, Free State

Memel, Free State

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Memel, Free State

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Memel is a small town in the Free State province of South Africa, possibly named after the port city of Memel, East Prussia (today Klaipėda, Lithuania), but no current residents can verify that.

The name means surrounded by water in Old Prussian. The Seekoei-vlei Nature Reserve, a massive wetland spanning some 30 km², surrounds the town, which was declared a Ramsar site in 1999. It houses more than 250 species of birds, and the town is now a popular destination for bird enthusiasts (in the early 1990s, Birdlife South Africa identified the town of Wakkerstroom as the most important birding area in South Africa and located its field headquarters there. Some years later it became known that every bird species occurring there also occurs in Memel). Seekoeivlei is also home to some re-introduced hippopotamus, Seekoei being the Afrikaans translation for "sea cow". The word "vlei" means wetland. Accommodation in the reserve has been constructed and is expected to open to visitors in 2010.

Decades earlier, farmers built numerous drainage canals to create arable farming land. This dried the wetland out, and only in the 1990s Rand Water started a rehabilitation programme to restore the wetland. Part of their motivation was due to the realisation that clean water could be supplied more cost-effectively by forgoing chemical and mechanical treatment, and rather letting the wetland push its water back into the Vaal River where it augmented the water...
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