Thursday, 21 April 2016

Frenchmen on the Moon: Encounters with Klipvis in the Tanqua Karoo

The long road: The R355 from Ceres to Calvinia in the heart of the
Tanqua Karoo. Beware of lurking 'klipvis'! 

This charming soul greets visitors as they
arrive at Stonehenge NR, site of the famous
Afrika Burn festival
Since I begun my studies in Botany I have found myself using all sorts of weird and wonderful objects for the purpose for which they were not intended in the name of scientific research. I have processed seed collections using a toilet brush. A car floor mat is also an excellent and most useful tool for this. In this spirit about 18 months ago I was on the hunt for corner markers for vegetation survey plots that could be hammered successfully into concrete hard Renosterveld clay soils. What better than tent pegs... I had recently brought a lovely new tent and its pegs jumped into my fieldwork box and headed off to the field. The tent pegs worked perfectly and stayed in my fieldwork box. I thought no more of it until last weekend....

I was keen to attend a meeting for the Karoo Biogaps Project in the small dorpie of Matjiesfontein, about three hours out of Cape Town, just that little bit too far to comfortably drive alone for one day. I found a couple of friends to join; "Oh you can also give us a lift to Afrika Burn at the same time. Don't worry, just a small detour. Camp with us then you can drive back the next day...". Plan made.

For the uninitiated, Afrika Burn is South Africa's equivalent of the Burning Man festival. It is held each year in the middle of the Tanqua Karoo, South Africa's driest desert. Each year around 10,000 people converge in the desert dust in this remote corner of the country. Vast sculptures grow, art, creativity and performance are shared, memories are made and much fun is had.

We left Cape Town on Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, loaded two weeks worth of camping gear into my small car in the dark and headed north. Meeting and talks done, we later headed with colleagues for a short field visit to a farm east of Matjiesfontein. There we asked the farmer for directions for our onward journey; "Take the road to the left, take the middle fork and head along the river. There you will find a good road. Keep going until you reach the main road". It seemed straightforward enough.

Sculpture at Stonehenge Nature Reserve
As we headed west the road conditions rapidly deteriorated. We inched our way over endless corrugations too deep to ride over at speed, with intermittent rivers of sand and sharp corners, heading uphill, heading downhill. Progress was painfully slow as we rattled our way westwards towards the 'main road'.

As dusk fell, the exhaust pipe fell off. We peered into the half light to fix it back on. The brake light also fell off the back window, swinging pathetically by its wire. We had been driving for four hours and had not seen a soul. Further back we passed a farm offering guest accomodation, with an optimistic cellphone number on the sign. The last cellphone reception we had found was five hours away from this achingly beautiful and remote corner of the Karoo desert.

Apparently, I was told, there are wild beasts lurking along the R355, the main road between Ceres and Calvinia. This road is one of the remotest in South Africa and bisects the Tanqua Karoo from north to south. It was here our journey would lead us to get to the main Afrika Burn site. These wild beasts are known as 'klipvis' or rock fish translated literally from Afrikaans. This is the name given to the sharp stones that line this road, famous for being thrown up by vehicles and slashing car tyres. The side of the R355 is lined with dead car tyres, slashed to pieces by the attack of the klipvis. It didn't inspire confidence. My friend Dave kindly informed me that in attending no less than eight Afrika Burn Festivals, not once had he made it there without getting a puncture. We were prepared, or so we thought....

Onwards we drove northwards into the night. Just as we thought we were almost there we heard the dreaded hissing sound of my now rapidly deflating tyre. Off the road we pulled and with great purpose hauled out the spare tyre and jack. Unfortunately some helpful soul who replaced my car tyre before had done up the wheel nuts far too tight and left it impossible to undo. We were left with a cracked wheel spanner and going nowhere.

View across the vast open spaces of the Tanqua Karoo west towards the Cederberg
Mountains in the distance, including the appropriately named 'Tafelberg'. 
There is something very humbling about being truly stuck about in the middle of nowhere. Nobody knew where we were and the nearest cellphone reception was but a distant memory. There was nothing to do but to wait for help to come past. And we had no clue how long that could be. We were stuck on South Africa's remotest road several hundred kilometres from the nearest town. We sat and we waited. Not a headlight or a car in sight.

There was nothing for it but to hunker down for the night. There was a strong wind howling across the desert, making our compulsory roadsite stop a truly uninviting camp site. We figured that one thing that would make life this moment feel better was some dinner. We were well prepared with two weeks worth of food and a big gas stove with which to cook it..... "Where are the matches?". The phrase that strikes impending doom and fear of starvation into the most determined of campers. The matches were not there....we thought happy in their absence tucked up safe and warm somewhere in Cape Town, as far away as they could be from this dark and windy roadside.

We desperately burrowed in the food supplies to hunt down what the raw food diet had on the menu for the night. There were potatoes and butternuts to sink a battleship. Enough dried pasta to feed a small army. Many things very inedible sans cooking. A squished pear emerged and was carefully placed to one side. A few minutes later I found a hungry cricket licking his chops and tucking in. Clearly big juicy pears don't land regularly in this corner of the Tanqua Karoo. Cricket looked like Christmas dinner had just arrived.... I have never seen a pear so well enjoyed before.

I was so hungry at that moment cold tinned tomatoes looked like the best food on earth. We settled on chickpeas and salad. Not quite the King's banquet we'd planned but enough to stop our stomachs eating their insides in the night. Dinner was lovingly prepared and just as we were about to tuck in THE MATCHES TURNED UP! Suddenly a whole new world of culinary diversity and hot food opened before our very eyes. Soon the stove was bubbling and gnocchi was added to the menu. Never have I enjoyed a meal so much as that night.

Desperate times: Our rudimentary roadside desert camp
Stomachs full and purring contentedly in the heaven that is cooked food in the Tanqua wilderness we put up our tents and prepared to bed down for the night. And suddenly there was a beautiful sound of an engine in the far distance and lights appeared on the horizon. It seemed we were to be rescued after all. The lights grew closer. We flagged down a big green truck: The Dag n' Nag freight services. Sadly they did not have the tools we needed. We could do nothing but look on forlornly as they drove off into the night.

We had erected our tents without fly sheets as clearly it was not going to rain in South Africa's driest desert. By this point the wind had picked up even more. We went to bed but I lay awake, trying to sleep in a tent in such high winds was like being in the stomach of some bright blue wild animal that was trying to fight its way to freedom. My weight was the only thing stopping the whole thing flying away to some distant corner of the Cederberg Mountains. Eventually I dropped off to sleep but then woke with a start an hour or so later. It was 4 am and a drop of water landed on my nose. It was raining. In the Tanqua Karoo. Nothing like the thought of impending sogginess to bring a person to their senses and the guys leapt up to put on the fly sheets. And then... I heard words that brought memories flooding back... ""Where are the tent pegs?......." Oh dear. My tent pegs were very far away...happily tucked up in our garage in Cape Town in my fieldwork box. In our bug eyed state a plan was made. Rocks and the spare car tyre were carefully attached to the guy ropes and we headed back to bed once more.

At 5 am the next morning our saviours arrived. They came driving a 1960s Chevvy truck formerly owned by Tropicana with green lights on the roof. They were three French solar pump engineers, who's names we never did find out. With good humour and better tools they changed our flat tyre in a flash. If this was you and you are reading this, I thank you deeply. Rescue was sweet, so sweet.

We grabbed a couple more hours sleep and emerged as daylight came. It felt as though we had landed on the moon. There was little vegetation surrounding us in this dry, dry desert. The Tanqua Karoo is also one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Our makeshift camp came with spectacular views across the dry stony flats towards the Cederberg Mountains in the distance.

We packed up camp and headed onwards, as our French saviours had kindly informed us that we had broken down just 3 km from the turn off to the Afrika Burn Festival site. By the site of the road at the junction we found none other than a farming couple who had set up a tent offering tyre repairs, vetkoek and coffee. After I'd dropped the guys off I returned and was fussed over like mother hen and tucked into delicious vetkoek with apricot jam and cheese washed down by beautiful coffee. Meanwhile my tyre was repaired, Karoo style. A piece of wood was carefully carved to the right size and glued into the hole. I was sent on my way, homeward bound. As I passed our camping spot once more a pair of bat eared foxes trotted across the road. I like to think they were keeping us company that dark and windy night by the R355.

Rain in the desert: The rare sight of thunderstorms in the Tanqua

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Out of the Ashes: Post fire in Table Mountain National Park

Watsonia borbonica and Bobartia indica flowering en mass at Silvermine East
Disa atricapilla
In March 2015 the Peninsula burnt. The biggest veld fire since 2000 raged across Table Mountain National Park. People lost homes and businesses. Bees Marais, one of the country's top helicopter rescue pilots, tragically lost his life in the line of duty while fighting fire at Cape Point. The blaze and the acrid smoke cloyed the air all over Cape Town, turning the sky scarlet and orange as the sun went down each day. Hundreds of fire fighters fought the blaze both at the fire-line and from the air in extreme temperatures and high winds to protect lives and property. They are saluted for their courage, strength and hard work. The community rallied around in overwhelming support.

Media coverage of the Peninsula fires was extensive, with many people glued to social media for the latest updates. People were not only mourning the loss of homes, businesses and destroyed lives but also the 'destruction of thousands of hectares of our precious Fynbos'.

Ixia dubia
After a wildfire has raged through the landscape it is often forgotten that out of the ashes new life will come. The landscape appears desolate and devoid of all life. Far from the Fynbos being destroyed, it needs fire and is both fire prone and fire dependent. As Carly Cowell, SANParks Regional Ecologist said to Eyewitness News: "You think its devastation, but that isn't the case. This is cleaning the palate before nature can start painting again". Within weeks of the fire resprouting plants will start to grow again, flowering plants such as Fire Lilies stimulated by the smoke emerge and seeds from reseeding Proteaceae will have rained down onto the ground, providing food for rodents and awaiting the coming of the winter rains to germinate and grow. 

As the veld slowly regrew in the coming months after the fire, most of the burnt areas of Table Mountain National Park were closed to the public to allow for rebuilding important infrastructure and reducing traffic on footpaths to lessen the likelihood of soil erosion as the Fynbos regrew. For the botanical community it was like waiting for a chocolate box to be opened..... What would we see in this new post fire world?

Disa  racemosa
In early summer it was with great anticipation that Silvermines was at last re-opened and Capetonians and the world beyond were once again allowed to roam the mountains there. Our hiking boots went on, our lunch was packed and we headed there as soon as we could.

And we weren't disappointed. There were swathes of pink Watsonias and yellow Bobartia flowering into the distance as far as they eye could see. In the seeps there were a plethora of different orchids to be seen, including numerous Disa racemosa, usually only seen after fire. I saw the intricate flowers of Disa atricapilla for the first time growing alongside the bright yellow of Disa tenuifolia and Pterygodium acutifolium. In between the orchids there were carpets of Drosera hilaris, a species of Sundew. Sundews are insectivorous, supplementing their spartan existence in nutrient poor soils by catching and digesting insects on sticky glands that cover their leaves. Members of this triffid-like genus of plants can be found on every continent on earth except Antarctica.

Aristea africana
Seedlings of re-seeding Proteaceae could be seen everywhere amidst the other flowers. Eventually they will reach maturity and flower once more. As we climbed upwards through the rocks we were treated to the sight of the spectacular purple and white flower of Disa cornuta right next to the path. Another first for me. We took a quick detour down into one of the many caves that are scattered across this section of TMNP. It was a much needed break from the hot summer sun. We enjoyed our lunch together tucked under a rock overhang looking down across False Bay over the Cape Flats and away to Hangklip in the far distance. We could also see down the Peninsula to Kalk Bay below us, Fishhoek, Glencairn and Simonstown in the far distance. It was a beautiful sight to behold and such a treat after a long time away.

Post fire seed cone

The Cape fires captured the attention of many, from all Cape Town and beyond. It brought attention to the challenges of living in a city surrounding a world famous national park containing thousands of hectares of flammable vegetation. It brought attention to the tireless work of all those involved in fighting the fires and 'holding the line' to keep people and the city's infrastructure safe in the midst of incredibly tough working conditions. It brought attention to the excellent work of organisations such as the SPCA involved in wildlife search and rescue after the blaze. Sadly there were a few casualties. Nature can be harsh.

The Cape fires also opened up important debate and discussion about the importance of regular control burns within Table Mountain National Park. In the case of the Cape fires, high winds took a huge wildfire across the park during gale force winds, bringing about huge challenges in
keeping people and property safe.

Drosera hilaris
This shows the importance of regular control burns of blocks of the park under safe weather conditions to ensure that all areas are burnt at the appropriate fire interval before woody vegetation builds up to the point of creating a raging inferno when it does burn. Sadly despite the great work of all those involved in fire management in the city, this remains a challenging and controversial topic and it is hard to be able to strike the match until it is too late.

The impacts of the Cape fires on communities and wildlife also serve to show the importance of effective control of alien vegetation, which burns far hotter than Fynbos in nature. When the Cape fire moved into the forestry plantations at Tokai so loved by so many for their shade and recreation value it was a terrifying sight to behold. Flames moved high into the air and fire tornadoes raged as fire teams fought to bring the blaze under control. The fire burnt underground here for weeks afterwards. Now most of these plantations have been destroyed and the work to clear the vast amounts of burnt timber are still ongoing.

I cannot possibly write of the aftermath of the Cape fires without mention of the 'Cape Aflame' book. This beautiful coffee table publication was written with the aim of telling an important story, raising awareness of the challenges of living next to a fire prone national park as well as raising much needed funds for organisations such as the Volunteer Wildfire Services to continue their vital work in fire management serving both Cape Town and its environs as well as other communities across the region when it is their turn for fire to come. This book tells the story as it was, told by all those involved, from on the ground, to the fire crews, to the scientists and park management staff.

In August at the annual Fynbos Forum conference an important and highly informative keynote address was given by Dalton Gibbs from the City of Cape Town's Nature Conservation. While the staff worked tirelessly at the fireline important 'scientific research' was also taking place. A burning question needed to be answered, one that has always been surrounded by controversy. When toasted at the margins of a fire, which colour marshmallows taste the best? The pink ones or the white ones? I will leave you, the reader, to decide.....



Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Swaziland: Time for Healing

View down towards the dam below the farm in beautiful late evening light

Protea roupelliae subsp. roupelliae 
I dedicate this post to my Mother. After several years of breast cancer she sadly passed away in February. The following month was spent at my family home in England sorting out all to be done. As spring arrived in our rural corner of the Westcountry's Dorset I begun the long journey southwards to Cape Town once more. While sitting in Doha airport in the dark and early hours of the morning, a plan was hatched. We were going to Swaziland for Easter.

A couple of days later, still feeling rather bug eyed, flights were booked, my bag was packed and I was on my way to Johannesburg, South Africa's biggest city, economic hub and "City of Gold". I was flying Blue Crane, one of South Africa's newest airlines, named after South Africa's national bird. Given nobody I knew had yet flown with them, I didn't know what to expect: "Don't worry, Blue Cranes are excellent flyers, if they were called Albatross airlines I would be concerned...." assured an ornithologist friend of mine.

Aloe cooperi

 We were flying in a tiny plane to Johannesburg, travelling via the remote Northern Cape Town of Kimberley, in the middle of the Kalahari Desert on the banks of the Gariep River. I was seated right at the front of the plane, which earnt me my own personal safety demonstration and amazing views. We flew up and away, over the Cape Mountains, the Tanqua Karoo (South Africa's driest desert) and north-east into the Kalahari Desert when Succulent Karoo gave way to red desert sand and Acacia trees. We touched down briefly at the tiny airport at Kimberley and then flew onwards to Johannesburg, where the dry red desert sand dunes gave way to green Highveld grassland and urban-scape. As we arrived at OR Tambo International airport pink carpets of Cosmos lined the fields beside the runway. This popular garden plant from the States, Mexico and South America has naturalised and made itself very much at home up here. 

Watsonia watsonioides

Shortly afterwards I experienced my first journey on the Gautrain across Jo'burg. This shiny new rail network was built when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010. I was a little disconcerted that according to the signage the line I was supposed to be taking had not yet been built, but there were plenty of friendly locals to point me in the right direction. In Rosebank I was reunited with two close friends of mine, with whom I was staying for the night and travelling.

The following morning we headed east from Johannesburg to Swaziland via the 'scenic route' through Mpumalanga and into Swaziland via one of the smaller, more remote border posts near Barberton and Pigg's Peak. We travelled through some of the largest coal mining areas of the country before reaching the beautiful mountains adjacent to Barberton. Numerous padstals by the side of the road were selling citrus fruit and there were fields of macadamia nut trees as far as the eye could see.
Swimming at Matenga Falls is a bad idea...

We headed up towards the Swazi border via the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail. The pass winds upwards steeply over 40 km through the montane grasslands, dotted with Protea roupelliae subsp. roupelliae, via a series of interpreted viewpoints that guide visitors through more than three billion years of geological history. To visit this area and the Barberton Greenstone Belt takes one back to a time during the Achaean when Earth had no vegetation, volcanic eruptions filled the sky with ash and volcanic debris rained down far and wide.

At the other end we reached the Swazi border, when the rain started. The border crossing went smoothly but there the potholes started and soon we lost the tarmac, as we wound our way along more than slightly terrifying slippery and muddy dirt roads. It was with great relief that we eventually emerged on the only stretch of freeway in the country, built so that King Mswati III could travel easily and unimpeded between his palatial residence and the airport.

Xerophyta retinervis
The Kingdom of Swaziland is one of the smallest countries in Africa, no more than 200 km in length and 130 km wide. It is governed by an absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III. It has a diverse topography and climate, varying from cool and mountainous highveld around the capital Mbabane down to hot and dry lowveld in the eastern parts of the country. The country has a diverse flora with more than eighty endemic or near endemic plant species. Swaziland is a low-middle income country, and its currency the Lilangeni is pegged to the South African Rand as part of trade agreements.

We spent the week on a friend's family farm adjacent to Mbabane. The farm has a mix of timber plantations with some beautiful highveld grassland on the upper slopes. It was the perfect base from which to explore and relax. Our first priority the next morning was an expedition to the shops in Mbabane to make sure the hungry faces would all be well fed. We ended up coming home with no less than 38 of the biggest avocados I have ever seen.....
Matenga Falls

  One of the tasks of the week was a warehouse full of boxes that needed to be cleared out. Oh so straightforward I hear you say. Until it is mentioned that said warehouse contains a hive of African wild bees. They are also known as killer bees and are far more aggressive than the Cape honey bees that we know from further down at the tip of the continent. Luckily the mention of honey was enough to galvanise the troops and around seven kilos was harvested from the hive and divided up among those who assisted and the rest of us staying on the farm.

One of the highlights of the trip was our ascent of Sibebe. Sibebe is the largest exposed granite pluton in the world and the world's second largest monolith. It lies just outside Mbabane. Sibebe Beer, a premium local lager, is named after the mountain. Sibebe rock is more than three billion years old. We started our ascent early in the morning, heading upwards along the steep and winding trail into the mist.

As we climbed upwards we encountered a diverse variety of
Ceratotheca triloba
 plants hunkered down in between the granite boulders from gnarled trees to the Natal Wild Banana (Strelitzia nicolai). In the case of the latter contrary to its name it does not have edible fruit, nor is it related to the true bananas and it is thought that it was named owing to the similarity in appearance of the leaves to its edible counterpart. In areas of shade in between the rocks Plectranthus was flowering in profusion. A butterfly rested for long enough for me to photograph it and it was later identified as a Wandering Donkey Acraea.

As we ascended upwards the mist cleared and the views across the grassy plateau on the summit opened up to the mountains beyond. There were vast granite boulders scattered across the landscape and various grassland species in flower including Watsonia, Gladiolus and Protea parvula. We reached the summit viewpoint and enjoyed a leisurely lunch with spectacular views down over the sheer granite faces of Sibebe and beyond. On the way back we explored several caves within the granite boulders, providing valuable shade from the heat of the midday sun. 

Gladiolus serpenticola
We also hiked fairly extensively around the farm through the plantations up into the highveld grassland above. Despite the drought there seemed to be much in flower to be seen, including fields of the beautiful white Watsonia watsonioides and various other species. Within the forestry plantation we found some very curious looking fungi including the stinkhorn illustrated below. By the time we'd made it back that evening we'd definitely earnt our homemade pizza, piled high with as many toppings as we could fit on. 

On the second day of the trip we took a drive down 'The Valley' to go and visit the spectacular Mantenga Falls. The falls lie within Mantenga Nature Reserve and are Swaziland's most well known waterfalls, and are the largest by volume of water. We also visited the Swazi candle factory and various other handicraft shops. The glass factory at Ngwenya (meaning crocodile) was also well worth a visit, with an extraordinary array of handmade glassware made from recycled glass. 

Our final morning of the trip was Easter Sunday. Tempers were slightly frayed as we crawled out of bed at 5am and went to go and watch the sunrise from the mountain top. It was bitterly cold as we bumped and rattled and dodged our way along the rutted track through the dongas and the muddy puddles. First light broke as we settled on the granite, armed with coffee and nibbles. A warm glow reflected upon the mirror perfect calm of the water of the dam far below. We sat quietly as the sun slowly broke above the horizon, casting its light across the landscape as it rose above the mountains. Sun came, daylight came, another day came. It was an emotional moment, spent with important people. A moment I will always remember. A time to reflect and a time to heal a little. 

On top of Sibebe near Mbabane, the world's largest exposed
granite pluton

Stinkhorn (Aseroe rubra) growing in one of the Eucalyptus plantations on the farm

Hiking near Mantenga Falls

Sundowners on the farm
View over Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Nieuwoudtville: Bulb capital of the World

Stunning spring flower displays at the small Namaqualand town of
Nieuwoudtville in August

Lapierousia oreogena
"I'm chilling in the both senses". Camping on Namaqualand's Bokkeveld Plateau in August is not for the faint hearted or those lacking in strong constitution as we were soon to discover! At that time of year it is COLD! Snow on the nearby Hantamsberg is not uncommon in winter and spring and known locally as 'kapok' meaning cotton in Afrikaans.  We had decided to head up to Nieuwoudtville for a long weekend away to see the spectacular spring flower displays and the plethora of bulbs that grow on the surrounding plateau.

Nieuwoudtville Falls
The small town of Nieuwoudtville sits high on the Bokkeveld Escarpment above the Knersvlatke which lie to the south below Vanrhyn's Pass. The Knersvlakte are named after the sound of waggon wheels travelling through the vast plains of quartz pebbles which can be seen from the edge of the Bokkeveld Escarpment. The Bokkeveld was named by the early Dutch settlers as a result of the huge herd of game such as zebra, wildebeest and springbok that roamed the landscapes there.

This mountain plateau is a highly popular destination for those making the annual pilgrimage to see the Namaqualand spring flower displays and rightly so.... The Fynbos, Mountain Renosterveld and Mountain Karoo vegetation here supports a total of 1350 plant species, more than the entire flora of the UK. An incredible 80 of these plant species are endemic to the Bokkeveld Escarpment, therefore occurring nowhere else in the world. These endemics constitute a total of 6% of the Bokkeveld's flora.

Hesperantha vaginata
Feeling a little bug eyed after our first bitterly cold night of camping, huddled like penguins in an attempt to stay warm, our first port of call the next morning was the extraordinary quiver tree forest which lies between Louriesfontein and Nieuwoudtville. This is the largest forest of quiver trees in the Southern Hemisphere. Quiver trees are known more scientifically as Aloe dichotoma and are some of the largest members of the genus Aloe, reaching as much as seven metres in height. They can live for as long as 80 years. The branches used to be hollowed out by the San and used as quivers for their arrows. The large trunks of dead trees are also sometimes hollowed out and used as a natural refrigerator for storing vegetables and meat. Air passing through the fibrous tissue of the trunk has a cooling effect.

One of the highlights of any visit to Nieuwoudtville and its surrounding area is the Nieuwoudtville Falls. Here the Doring River plunges 100m off the Escarpment into the pools below, often with rainbows forming in the rising spray. It is a spectacular sight and one of my favourite places in Namaqualand.
Sparaxis elegans

Nieuwoudtville is also home to the newest of South Africa's nine National Botanic Gardens: the Hantam NBG. This amazing place was formerly the farm Glenlyon, owned by the McGregor family. In 2007 it was sold to SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute) with assistance from the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust. The veld here is recognised to be of international conservation importance and was used in the filming of Sir David Attenborough's classic BBC series the 'Private Life of Plants' in 1991.

We spent almost two days exploring Hantam and its maze of walking trails: there is much to see. August is the peak flowering season for the majority of the extraordinary diversity of geophytes that occur in this landscape. The area behind the main farmstead is gently undulating and dotted with dolerite koppies. There were flowering bulbs are far as the eye could see, from the tiny purple triangular marked flowers of Lapeirousia oreogena to the tall monkey beetle covered orange spikes of Bulbinella latifolia subsp. doleritica. Both of these are endemic to the Bokkeveld Escarpment. The latter is only known from seven populations due to habitat loss for agriculture and is listed as 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List.

Babiana framesii
Adjacent to Hantam is the Nieuwoudtville Wildflower Reserve, which is an equally worthwhile destination for August visitors. This reserve is 119 ha in size and alone is home to a total of near 300 plant species. It was established in 1974 with the aim of conserving the extraordinary botanical diversity of the area as well as providing a place for visitors to see the spectacular wildflower displays during spring. The reserve encompasses several different geologies and thus different habitats, including Nieuwoudtville Dolerite Renosterveld and Nieuwoudtville Shale Renosterveld. Despite a history of disturbance including heavy grazing, there is still an amazing diversity of beautiful bulbs to see including many of those endemic to the area.

After taking in our fill of beautiful wildflowers, we meandered back to camp. There we were joined by friends doing fieldwork for pollination biology research. They were doing research on the somewhat pungent topic of orchids that attract pollinators using carrion odours. This involved various experiments involving digging up and burying roadkill in varying stages of decomposition. All in the name of science!

Aloe dichotoma
We headed out of town together to the edge of the Bokkeveld Escarpment for sundowners to catch the last of the evening sun. The view was stunning...few things beat the view of the sun setting over the Knersvlakte far below us with the Matsikamma Mountains far away in the distance. Then it was back for another chilly evening huddled around the camp fire, braaing our dinner and early to bed. 

It was with great reluctance that we meandered southwards back home to Cape Town the next day. Instead of the speedy and more direct N7, we decided to take the road less travelled and meandered on the back roads south via the Botterkloof Pass southwards through the Cederberg Mountains. We eventually emerged a few hours later in the Cederberg dorp of Clanwilliam. Winter is peak citrus season here and so the car was inevitably stuffed with naartjies for the journey home. A perfect end to a great roadtrip. 

Bulbinella latifolia subsp. doleritica flowering in Hantam Botanic Gardens. 

Nieuwoudtville night-life

Hesperantha cucullata flowering at Hantam Botanic Gardens just outside
Nieuwoudtville. Flowers of this bulb only open in the late afternoon. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Kenilworth Racecourse: Refuge for a flora on the edge

Watsonia borbonica flowering in profusion at Kenilworth Racecourse
Conservation area with Table Mountain and Devil's Peak beyond (Photo: Stuart Hall)
Drosera trinerve (Sundew) in flower
(Photo: Stuart Hall)
The City of Cape Town is one of South Africa's largest urban areas. It is also one of the country's greatest conservation challenges. The Cape Peninsula, at the south-western tip of the African continent, on which Cape Town has been built happens to be one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. The Peninsula is home to a total of 2285 plant species, of which 7% are endemic and therefore occur nowhere else on earth. The area has the greatest concentration of plant species per unit area than anywhere else within the Cape Floristic Region.

The montane flora of the Cape Peninsula is now well conserved, with most habitat lying within Table Mountain National Park. The story is rather less rosy for the equally precious lowland habitats of the Cape Peninsula. Historic photos from as recently as the early 1900s show just a few houses and farmsteads. Rapid urban expansion over the last 100 years has transformed the landscape to a sea of suburbia and shopping malls. The precious habitats and biodiversity of the Cape Flats have been destroyed, fragmented, isolated and disturbed. Written accounts, old photographs and herbarium specimens are often all that remains of what has been lost.

Serruria glomerata (Photo: Stuart Hall)
Fortunately in a few places life hangs on. One of these places is Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area (KRCA). This site lies at the heart of Cape Town's Southern Suburbs. It is Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. This vegetation type is endemic to the Cape Peninsula and is classified as 'Critically Endangered'. Six species from this vegetation type are now extinct in the wild. Only 15% of its former extent now remains.

The conserved area of KRCA lies within the racecourse itself. The reserve is about 52 ha in size and is home to a total of 310 plant species. Thirty-four of these are threatened and one of these is endemic, occurring only at KRCA. The reserve is also home to a wealth of fauna, including reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. The Cape Platanna and Critically Endangered Micro Frog are some of the wildlife highlights, living in the 16 wetlands that lie within the reserve. The latter is the smallest frog on the African continent.

Erica imbricata (Photo: Stuart Hall)

Due to the sensitive nature of the site, access to KRCA is strictly controlled. Walks are however organised by the Friends of Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation area in winter for people to see the area's amphibian residents as well as later in the year to enjoy the spring flowers. They also run regular evening lectures.

We were lucky enough to visit the reserve in October thanks to a walk organised by Alex Lansdowne from the Indigenous Bulb Society of South Africa (IBSA). This was an enjoyable and highly informative outing, with lots of great botanising to be done on a beautiful Cape Town spring weekend.

This was a great opportunity to see some of the specials in the reserve, as well as to see how the Fynbos has been regrowing after the controlled burn done by the reserve's excellent management team back in the autumn. Until the last couple of years, the vegetation at Kenilworth Racecourse had not burnt for more than 100 years. Fynbos is both a fire prone and fire dependent vegetation type and needs fire for its plant's seeds to germinate. Unfortunately one of the greatest management challenges for the few remaining fragments of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos is ensuring that each patch is burnt at an appropriate interval, given that isolation of these urban fragments means that fires cannot travel through the landscape as they would have done in the historic past.

The management team at Kenilworth Racecourse have risen to this challenge, and have over the last couple of years been implementing a highly effective burning plan. Owing to the long term absence of fire at the site, the area had been extensively colonised by large woody shrubs such as Searsia lucida. If the area was burned immediately, the fire would have burned too hot and thus having the potential to destroy many precious seeds remaining in the soil seed bank. Instead the larger woody shrubs were manually cleared. This meant that when the burn took place, the vegetation would burn at a lower temperature as the fire was carried through. This has meant that the Fynbos has recovered well after the burns that have taken place. Some species that have appeared after these fires have not been recorded at the site for more than 100 years.

We were treated to some spectacular post fire flower displays - truly one of the highlights of spring in this fire prone, fire dependent landscape.  The management team of KRCA are to be commended for their excellent work. Long may it continue to conserve this beautiful and precious area of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos in perpetuity.

Spectacular post fire spring flowers at KRCA (Photo: Stuart Hall)

Diastella proteoides
(Cape Flats Silkypuff) (Critically Endangered) One of the smallest members
of the Proteaceae Family. This beautiful species is experiencing ongoing habitat loss due to urban
expansion, agriculture, alien plant invasion, mowing under electricity pylons and inappropriate
fire management practices.  (Photo: Stuart Hall)

Out of the ashes:New life begins to emerge after the burn
(Photo: Stuart Hall)

Friday, 1 May 2015

What is Renosterveld?

Botanising at Haarwegskloof Renosterveld Reserve during the launch of
the research centre
Aspalathus nigra
Previously Notes from a Cape Town Botanist introduced fynbos, the most widespread vegetation of South Africa's Cape Floristic Region (CFR). This week I will be writing about renosterveld vegetation, the neglected and little known sister of fynbos and one of the world's most species diverse Mediterranean type shrublands.

Renosterveld is also part of South Africa's Fynbos Biome and the CFR. However, it is notably different from Fynbos vegetation in several ways. Firstly in contrast to fynbos it occurs on relatively fertile soils, predominantly derived from shales although can also occur on silcretes and other lithologies. Members of the three dominant plant families in fynbos: the Restionaceae, Proteaceae and Ericaceae are mainly absent and instead renosterveld is dominated by shrubs predominantly from the Asteraceae family as well as various C3 grasses and C4 grasses. It is also far richer in forbs and annuals than fynbos. Renosterveld is particularly known for its extraordinary diversity of geophytes, which during their spring flowering bring a profusion of colour. Many of these bulbs are local endemics.
Brunsvigia orientalis

The name renosterveld is derived from the Afrikaans word 'renoster', meaning rhinoceros, which is thought to refer to the Black Rhino which historically occurred in the Western Cape prior to its extermination as a result of hunting by early colonists during the 18th-19th Century. This is in reference either to the predominantly grey colour of the vegetation which was thought to be similar to a rhino hide or that renosterveld was a key habitat for black rhino. We will never know for sure the exact answer.

Like fynbos, renosterveld is also a fire dependent vegetation type, although opinions vary in the literature as to how often renosterveld should burn. There is considerable debate over whether renosterveld should be considered a 'grassy shrubland' or 'shrubby grassland' and some authors believe that renosterveld was formerly a grassland before overgrazing by the early colonists transformed it to become a shrub dominated habitat. It has been argued on this basis that renosterveld should be burnt at relatively short intervals of as little as 3-4 years but more recent research suggests that renosterveld has always had a significant shrub component and should therefore be managed in line with this through burning with a longer fire interval to allow shrubs to mature and set seed in between fires.
Polhillia curtisiae

Today all types of renosterveld are considered to be Critically Endangered and also are classed as "100% irreplacable". Of its former extent only relatively small fragments remain, often areas that are too steep or rocky to be reached by the farmer's plough. Transformation for agriculture is one of the main threats, closely followed by continuous heavy grazing and mismanagement of the veld. In the Overberg only 4-6% of renosterveld is left and of that even less is still ecologically intact. The majority of renosterveld in the Overberg is on private farmland, thus making it imperative to work with landowners in order to facilitate effective conservation for the future.

Satyrium erectum

To this end Dr Odette Curtis founded the Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust with the aim of working with farmers in the region to better conserve what little of this Critically Endangered vegetation remains. Over the last three years amazing progress has been made. Collaborations have been built with farmers across the Overberg as well as numerous national and international conservation organisations. A research strategy for renosterveld is ongoing in its development and a small but rapidly growing group of students are now undertaking research to better understand renosterveld ecology to facilitate implementation of best conservation practice in future. Odette has been recognised through various awards for her innovative approach to conservation and all that has been achieved by the trust in its short history.

However, the jewel in the crown of the Overberg Lowland Conservation Trust and its excellent work is the founding and development of Haarwegskloof Renosterveld Reserve and its on site research and visitor's centre. The reserve encompasses 500 ha of Eastern Ruens Shale Renosterveld, which is one of the largest fragments in the world. It was purchased after five years of negotiations by the World Wildlife Fund and is now managed by the Trust. Funds were raised through a highly successful crowd funding campaign to turn the previously derelict farmhouse into what is now a cosy home from home for students undertaking research into renosterveld as well as providing affordable self catering accomodation for visitors to the reserve and the surrounding area. Since the launch last September numerous visitors from the scientific community and beyond have had the privilege of visiting and staying at the heart of the reserve.

The future for the renosterveld at Haarwegskloof looks bright but there is still a monumental amount of work to be done to conserve this exquisitely beautiful, species diverse and Critically Endangered vegetation type across the rest of the region.

To find out more about how you can support the vital work of the Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust or visit Haarwegskloof Renosterveld Reserve please check out their website for more details:

Moraea elegans

Watsonia aletroides flowering alongside a plethora of other geophytes in
Central Ruens Shale Renosterveld in the Overberg