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 tent.....in 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

Friday, 10 April 2015

A Feast of Fynbos: The Kirstenbosch Annual Plant Fair

Oxalis pers-caprae (Cape Sorrel) is a common member of the Oxalidaceae family. It
is an integral ingredient of the traditional winter Cape stew 'Waterblommetjie Bredie'
Photo: Alice Notten

Muraltia spinosa (Tortoise Berry) has edible fruit that
are rich in Vitamin C Photo: Alice Notten
This week Notes from a Cape Town Botanist is reporting on the upcoming Kirstenbosch Plant Fair, one of the most exciting events and fundraisers in the South African Botanical Society’s calendar. Come along to flex those green fingers and find on sale a vast selection of indigenous plants for your garden. The dates for your diary are the 18th and 19th April and the fair will be taking place as usual adjacent to the stone cottages at Kirstenbosch NBG.

The Kirstenbosch Plant Fair is a long held tradition and this year heralds the 40th one held since its relatively humble beginnings. Dirk Muller, Chairman of the Kirstenbosch Branch of BotSoc, recalls attending the first plant fair in 1975 which saw eager members queuing up at 6:30am in the morning prior to the opening and by 11am every plant on sale had marched out the door in the hands of inspired and enthused growers.

Since those days this annual event has done nothing but grow in momentum. Now numerous volunteers alongside the BotSoc’s hardworking and enthusiastic committee begin the planning months in advance, culminating in one of the highlights of the gardening year. This year’s theme is ‘A Feast of Fynbos’. This title is both figurative and literal: referring to feasting on the richness and beauty of the flora of South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region as well as educating those who attend about the diversity of edible indigenous plants that South Africa’s Fynbos Biome has to offer.

Pelargonium citronellum has highly
aromatic leaves that can be used to flavour
a variety of dishes. Photo: Alice Notten
At the plant fair there will be some prominent local experts in indigenous foods to inform and to educate at the Incredible Edible Tasting Station. First up is Loubie Rusch of ‘Making Kos’. Loubie is a landscape designer by trade but more recently has become known for her ingenuity in cooking up a storm in her Kenilworth kitchen with indigenous foraged ingredients from kei apples to dune celery. Her delicious products are sold direct to the public at various events and talks and include everything from numnum chutney to wild herb harissa. She also runs cookery courses to pass on her secrets to would-be indigenous foodies.

Also present will be Roushanna Grey of the Cape of Good Hope Nurseries. I first met Roushanna’s delicious rooibos cupcakes before I met Roushanna herself thanks to a generous prize won by a friend via the nursery Facebook page. Our paths later crossed when I joined one of her highly popular foraging courses, hunting for edible mushrooms in Tokai forest. She also organises fynbos and coastal foraging courses teaching people how to harvest, use and preserve indigenous edibles, culminating in a three course meal with all the ingredients gathered. Roushanna is known for her inventiveness and creativity as a chef: equally comfortable in the veld or making seaweed sushi with kelp on the Expresso Show.

Salvia africana-caerula is a strongly aromatic
shrub that can be used in treating coughs, colds and
indigestion. Photo: Alice Notten
Last but not least of the trio is Kobus Van De Merwe, world class chef and owner of the Oep ve Koep restaurant in the small West Coast village of Paternoster. He specialises in producing ‘modernist South African country cuisine’, rooted in extensive use of local and indigenous ingredients foraged from the West Coast’s strandveld vegetation. The menu here changes daily but signature dishes might include yellowtail pickle with ice plant, grapefruit and fennel, springbok and kapokbos or West Coast oysters with Cape gooseberry and basil, washed down afterwards with a warming moerkoffie. His new cookbook, ‘Strandveldfood’ reveals just a few of his secrets, presenting culinary treats that are as much an art form as delicious. We look forward to welcoming all these expert chefs to the plant fair.

Tulbaghia violacea (Wild Garlic) is a
versatile indigenous edible that can be
used either cooked or raw to flavour
 dishes. Photo: Alice Notten

And if that weren't enough, then there will be the usual wealth of different plant growers together presenting hundreds of different species suitable for indigenous gardens of all types. Many of the brightest brains in the business will be there to answer your horticultural questions and help you choose the right plants for your garden from a plethora of different species on sale. Frustrated by Cape Flats Sand where nothing you have planted seems to grow? Can’t find anything for that dark and shady corner? Looking for that obscure plant that isn’t on sale anywhere else? Come along to the Kirstenbosch Plant Sale and find the answers, while at the same time contributing towards the biggest annual fundraisers for the South African Botanical Society and its most valuable work in conserving and educating about South Africa’s flora.

I will see you there.....

Grewia occidentalis (Cross Berry) is a common indigenous tree on the
Cape Peninsula. It has sweet-tasting edible fruit that can be boiled in milk
to make a pleasant drink. In some areas the ripe fruit are femented to
make beer. Photo: Alice Notten

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Out of the ashes: Notes on the March 2015 Cape Town wildfire

Fire: Life-giving force of the Fynbos in South Africa's Cape Floristic Region

In the Mother City the mountains are ablaze. It is late summer. Four days ago the fire started in Farmer Peck's Valley adjacent to the seaside suburb of Muizenberg, known for its surf and sharks. Sitting here at home it is 42°C and the sound of helicopters are a constant background alongside the low hum of the city of Cape Town going about its daily business. The fire spread quickly and gained strength owing to strong southeaster winds typical of Cape summer weather grounding helicopter crews and leaving ground-based fire teams to fight the blaze. Despite the best efforts of emergency services the fire spread throughout Silvermines section of Table Mountain National Park over towards Fishhoek, Tokai, Noordhoek and Hout Bay.

Emergency services staff and the crews of the Volunteer Wildfire services as well as numerous other fire teams have been working through day and night to contain the blaze and to try and minimise damage to neighbouring property and danger to residents of the city. Numerous people have been evacuated from homes in proximity to the fire line and residents of a care home in Noordhoek have been treated for smoke inhalation. Several hikers caught in the blaze have also been rescued. Several homes as well as the upmarket hotel of Tintswalo Atlantic near Hout Bay have been burnt to the ground. As the fire continues to burn additional staff from the Working on Fire project have been brought in from other parts of the country to provide support to the fire effort and relieve those who have been working to the best of their ability to keep everyone safe and out of harm.

The media both local and international has been flooded with extensive coverage and social media channels have been buzzing with photos, commentary, opinion and questions. The injury and loss of livelihood to all those affected is tragic. It is the challenge that all residents of Cape Town face when living at the margins of an iconic national park filled with flammable vegetation that easily can burn during the summer months.

However, there seems to be a widely held view that the fire is also a force for destruction of the vegetation of the mountain and are filled with sadness of destruction of the beautiful fynbos. Fire can bring challenges, loss, injury and destruction to the unluckiest city residents. My heart goes out to those affected who have faced fear or loss of their homes or have been evacuated away from the fire line. I wish strength to the fire crews who have been working tirelessly in the toughest of conditions to contain the blaze.

This reality comes as part of life within a city in the Cape Floristic Region. The fynbos vegetation that clothes the mountains of the Cape Peninsula and throughout the Cape Floristic Region is both fire prone and fire dependent. When fynbos burns it is a challenging neighbour to live alongside. But alongside our sympathy and support for all those affected we need to also understand that fire is a natural part of the ecology of the Fynbos Biome. After the tragedy of injury and destroyed property will come new life in the veld. Without fire there would be no fynbos.

The burning of fynbos vegetation is an inevitability. It is sad that people are negatively affected but it is far from sad that the veld itself is burning. This vegetation type has been subjected to fire for millennia and the optimum fire interval is every 10-14 years. Fire is a keystone process without which many plants in the fynbos would not be able to regenerate, produce offspring or reproduce. Fynbos plants are either resprouters or reseeders: Either they can resprout after a fire has passed through or they produce seeds that are adapted to survive fire and require heat from the fire and chemical compounds from the smoke to germinate.

At present after the fire Silvermines looks like a blackened lunar landscape. At first glance it appears that nothing can have survived. But as the fire moved through the landscape members of the Proteaceae family will have opened their cones and spread their seed within hours, ready for new life to begin once more. These seeds provide essential food and nourishment for those rodents who have survived the fire.

Fire also stimulates the growth and flowering of numerous different species. Fire lilies from the genus Cyrtanthus will flower less than two weeks after fire, their flowering being stimulated by the smoke. Given that this is a summer fire, as time goes by other geophytic (bulbous) species will also break their dormancy and start to grow and flower. As the autumn rains and cooler temperatures come later in the season seedlings of reseeding shrubs will start to germinate, their dormancy having been broken by the heat and smoke from the fire. As winter passes growth continues and as spring arrives the fynbos will be filled with a profusion of colour from mass flowering of bulbs such as those from the genus Watsonia and numerous others. Other plants such as orchids will also grow and flower, making the most of the additional light and space created by the burning of the overstorey vegetation.

A question often asked is what about the animals? What will happen to them? Insects and birds will fly from the fire and many insects and spiders will survive as eggs or pupae buried in the soil or underground in ants nests. Many reptiles are adapted to take refuge in cracks in the rocks or in rodent burrows as the fire moves through the landscape.Tortoises often survive veld fires in this way but among these slower moving creatures there are often a few casualties. Their sad charcoal blackened bodies are often visible scattered through the skeletons of shrubs after a fire has moved through. Nature seems cruel at this moment. Those larger mammals that can will run from the flames. Numbers of some rodents including the Pygmy Mouse will actually increase after a fire owing to their preference and tolerance of more open landscapes.

It may not seem so now amidst the heat, chaos, injury, loss and destruction, but with time out of the ashes of this fire will come new life....like a phoenix. Watch and wait.....

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

To Malawi in a Ford Fiesta

View from the plateau of Mulanje Massif over the surrounding landscape
Disa erubescens
   Sometimes living life on a student budget drives one to do things a little out of the ordinary in the name of travel and exploration. One of the university societies that has inspired and challenged me the most is the University of Cape Town's Mountain and Ski Club. It is one of the largest mountain clubs in Africa, second only to the Cape Town branch of the MCSA. One of its core philosophies is to encourage and support its members in exploration of the diverse and exquisitely beautiful mountain ranges of the Southern African subcontinent.

It is with this in mind that we gathered together to plan the trip of a lifetime to hike Mount Mulanje near Blantyre in Malawi. Despite the distance from the Mother City of more than 3,000 km, flights are notoriously expensive and were far beyond our shoestring budget. Twenty-four hours on a bus from Johannesburg was also not an appealing option. The solution was to drive up there in a friend's car, none other than a humble Ford Fiesta. Recently some writers from Getaway Magazine undertook the same journey in a Mini. If they could do it then what should stop us from taking on the challenge?                                        
Cleome densifolia

Our schedule was certainly punishing as we only had four days to get to Blantyre from Cape Town. The first leg of the journey took us across the Karoo Desert to Johannesburg: a journey of 1,400 km or 16 hours. We left Cape Town on a balmy January night at 2 am in the morning and begun the long drive north-eastwards. Dawn broke with the Mother City far behind us, with the warm early morning glow of the sun rising over the dusty plains of the Karoo Desert. Doggedly we plodded onwards and by nightfall that evening we arrived in the vast metropolis of Johannesburg. Mid summer brought intense thunder showers typical of Highveld weather, sometimes raining so hard it was impossible to see where we were driving. It was with great relief that we arrived at last at Mbizi Backpackers in Boksburg.

Protea caffra ssp. nyasae
The next morning we left early with our sights upon the border post and Zimbabwe's capital city of Harare. We made good time and thanks to an excellent team effort made it complete with our trusty steed and all her paperwork through Beitbridge's usual chaos over the border. As we drove northwards the landscape changed with beautiful granite inselbergs surrounding us as we headed north on an excellent road albeit with the odd pothole. We made such good progress that we encountered our first delay, which involved being stopped by the local police for "speeding in a build up area". Our crime was actually travelling at 65kph past about three rondavels hidden far away from the road behind thick vegetation. However, we weren't in the mood to argue and settled the modest on the spot fine to get on our way as quickly as possible. There was still a long way to go.

Satyrium trinerve
It was after nightfall that we finally arrived in Harare. Driving in the dark in Zimbabwe is not to be recommended thanks to likely encounters with such hazards as cars without headlights and cows, donkeys and other wildlife taking an evening stroll. After being delayed by the police we completed the last half hour of the drive in darkness. Driving in Harare is not for the faint-hearted at the best of times, but we had friends expecting our arrival that night in the suburb of Amby. We saw one working street light throughout the drive across town and there were enormous potholes everywhere. The following morning we found one along the same route that was so deep that somebody had marked it by putting a piece of vibracrete in there end on and only the tip was protruding above the ground surface, making it nearly a metre deep! I'm not sure if ignorance was bliss! Just to add further to the challenge every second vehicle was a 4x4 and everyone drove with their brights switched on so they themselves didn't drive into the monster potholes. We couldn't see much from our rather lower Fiesta-height perspective!

Exhausted, with our nerves in shreds, a few interesting detours and too many near traffic accidents later we eventually arrived in Amby. We couldn't have recieved a warmer welcome and dinner went down in a daze of tiredness and it was with the greatest pleasure and relief that we fell into bed that night. The next morning after another early start we hit the road once more, but didn't get very far. After all the potholes the metal clip that held the clutch together had fallen off and we came to a halt on the road out of town. Luckily between us we had one working cellphone and so were kindly rescued once again and had an extra night in Harare before heading northwards once more. Luckily our friends were able to rescue us and a friendly local mechanic was able to 'make a plan' with Mazda parts to fix the car. Initially we were more than a little worried as Ford parts are hard to come by in Zimbabwe and had the whole clutch needed replacing we would have been in trouble.

Streptocarpus nimbicola
The next morning early we were on our way once again with three countries in one day. Our route took us northwards through Zimbabwe up to Mozambique's Tete Region where we crossed the Tete Corridor via the region's main trucking route into Malawi. Luckily the border crossings passed without too much incident and we managed to find fuel at Tete in Mozambique. We had been warned that Malawi was currently experiencing fuel shortages and so wanted to be prepared. With the logistical admin of three border crossings behind us, we started to relax a little and enjoy the remainder of the journey to Blantyre. Soon we reached Malawi's capital just as it started to get dark. It was with great excitement and tremendous relief that we finally arrived at the next milestone of our journey, four days after leaving South Africa's Mother City.

Cyperus spissiflorus
As a result of our clutch problems, the rest of our group had started hiking Mount Mulanje a day ahead of us. We meanwhile were left with some catching up to do. The next morning we stocked up with some final provisions and headed through to Likhubula village where we were to begin the hike. The road was potholed and rough but passable with care. We soon arrived at the forest station and prepared ourselves ready to start the hike to the first hut on our route in pursuit of the other members of our group.

Mount Mulanje is the highest massif in Malawi and is found in the south-eastern corner of the country. It covers an area of 650 square kilometres and is known as the 'Island in the Sky' by locals. Mulanje boasts over fifty peaks that attain an altitude greater than 2,000 m rising from the surrounding plateau including "Green Horror", "Slug", "Scorpion" and "The Turd". The highest peak in the massif is Sapitwa which in Chichewa means "the place where one must not go". It is also the highest peak in Central Africa reaching 3,002 m above sea level.

After defeating hordes of angry ants while repacking our bags ready for departure, we began the long and hot ascent up to our first overnight stop at the eponymous Chambe Hut, named after the peak over which it looks, home to the largest rock face on the African continent. It was the peak of the wet season with temperatures clocking in at more than 40C. The air was so humid it felt like breathing underwater as we struggled upwards along sticky and slippery orange clay paths that were almost vertical at times. A little relief came during the regular river crossings, one of which involved being lowered by the arms over a huge and slippery granite rock face into the water.

Exhaustion set in to the point of struggling to put one foot in front of the other and the intense heat made the climb feel impossible to achieve. But little by little the plains below grew more distant below us and the vegetation slowly changed as we climbed upwards. Eventually around five hours later we reached the top of the plateau and cooling mist swirled around us. Onwards we trudged getting wetter and colder by the moment. Suddenly the mist cleared as we rounded the next corner to reveal the face of Chambe Peak and our beds for the night.

The next morning dawned wet and misty and it was with more than a little trepidation that we packed up and headed out into the murk, feeling rather as though we were on a summer holiday in Scotland rather than between the tropics. But the weather gods were luckily on our side and the white-out subsided to reveal some of the most spectacular scenery of the hike. The vegetation of the "Island in the Sky" is tremendously diverse and home to numerous endemic plants with 70 of the 1,330 species of vascular plants only occurring on the massif. This is owing to a complex mosaic of habitats created by high variation in levels of rainfall due to the influence of the Mozambican trade winds. Rainfall varies from 2,859 mm/yr on the south-eastern plateau around Lichenya to 2,001 mm/yr on Esperanza Tea Estate at the base of the mountain.

The majority of endemic species on Mount Mulanje are herbs, grasses or small woody plants which occur in high altitude grassland, shrubland or rocky terrain (<1,750 m asl). We were warned that this wasn't the best time of year to hike the massif owing to the often inclement weather but our efforts were rewarded by seeing some stunning species at their peak flowering times, including the endemic Streptocarpus nimbicola which only flowers from December to February, growing on wet moss-covered rock faces, in crevices and at the base of tufted sedges. Other endemics we spotted along the way included Cleome densifolia, Senecio whyteanus and Cyperus spissiflorus. The latter could be easily identified by the inflorescences of light brown congested spikelets that typify the species.

Protea caffra ssp. nyasae growing in habitat context
(Chambe Peak in the background)
We were also treated to the magnificent sight of the Mulanje endemic subspecies Protea caffra ssp. nyasae growing in the montane grasslands on the plateau. It was also in full flower and being visited at regular intervals by Southern Double-Collared Sunbirds which are a key pollinator. We reached Chisepo Hut on the lower slopes of Sapitwa in the early afternoon but unfortunately due to cloud on the peak conditions weren't suitable to attempt an ascent. We decided to push on to Sombani Hut, our final destination on the Mulanje Plateau.

Unfortunately flash flooding is common on the Mulanje Massif during the rainy season. Reaching Sombani Hut safely depended on crossing three large rivers, none of which had any form of bridge. We crossed the first and second river without incident, but taking note at the second river of the huge boulders brought down by floodwaters past giving clues as to how intense the flow could become. Just after we crossed the second river cloud started to swirl around Sapitwa high above us and huge rain drops started to fall from the heavens.

We realised that we were going to be in serious trouble if we didn't take action fast. We were still to far from the third river to reach it and cross safely and we were in very real danger of being trapped overnight on the mountain between two raging torrents if we proceeded forwards. If we retraced our steps immediately we were still in with a chance of getting back across the other two rivers before they became too swollen to cross. So far so good with the first return crossing, which passed with ease and without incident.

Unfortunately our proximity to the last river before Chisepo Hut was heralded by a deafening roar of water. As the white rushing torrent came into sight we realised we needed to move quickly if we were going to stand any chance of crossing safely. A branch pushed into the water revealed that we could still just about cross safely with care, being called by the warm cosy hut waiting just a few metres from the other side. I took a step into the water and immediately felt the current pulling my legs from underneath me. Falling was not an option as the crossing point was immediately above a large waterfall.

With no time to think I was grabbed by several of the stronger guys and we clung to each other and slowly edged across through the torrent. It was about thigh deep but the current was extremely strong and the river bed too rocky to easily find a grip. I remember screaming most of the way across as my rucksack and I were pulled like a ragdoll by strong climbers through the water. It was with the deepest relief that we safely reached the other side. The warm fire in the hut that night was beyond cosy and welcoming as we lay huddled like penguins around the fire listening to the rain hammering against the tin roof.

After the storm: View over Lake Chilwa with Mozambique beyond
The following morning dawned bright and clear. With the previous day's storm seeming akin to a distant past nightmare we looked out of the hut door and down over the surrounding landscape far below. The light glinted on the water of Lake Chilwa and we could see as far as Mozambique beyond. We quickly packed up and headed on our way and soon arrived at Sombani Hut without incident. The path took us through some spectacular grasslands full of flowering orchids. I enjoyed some precious downtime after the trauma of the previous evening but the more energetic members of the group climbed Namasile Peak after we arrived. From this lofty perspective one can see the whole of the Mulanje Massif and the others returned later triumphant if rather tired after the climb.

View of Namasile Peak from Sombani Hut
After our final night on the plateau we carefully slithered and slid our way down through the slippery clay maze of paths down to 'civilisation' once more. Eventually we reached the base of the massif and piled into a minibus taxi back to Likubula Village to retrieve our trusty steed. We were hemmed into an ancient vehicle that had long since lost any functioning suspension along with numerous people, bags of mealies and the odd chicken or two.

The next morning we headed up to the Lake for a couple of days of relaxation before we begun the journey down southwards. After our experience of Beitbridge Border crossing we decided to avoid it by travelling down through Botswana and crossing back into South Africa at Mafeking. This was a pleasant and easy journey after the greater challenges we encountered heading northwards. After being stamped quickly and easily back into South Africa we headed westwards across North-West Province and into the Kalahari Desert. 

We had heard rumours during our travels that Augrabies Falls on the Gariep River was currently experiencing the biggest floods since the 1980s and consequently it was on our route so we decided to make this our final night's stop. We weren't disappointed. The spray from the falls was visible from more than thirty kilometres away and the flow was at 4,416 cumecs (cubic metres per second). We stood quietly overlooking the falls, cold beer in hand, cowering underneath our waterproofs in a futile attempt to remain dry. This was Southern Africa's nature at her most spectacular. Never will I forget it.
Augrabies Falls on the Gariep River during the biggest flood
since the 1980s

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Fynbos and Forests: Reporting on Fynbos Forum 2014

Looking up into the canopy in the heart of the Knysna Forests
Last week saw one of the largest gatherings of people working in the landscapes of South Africa's Cape Floristic Region. I was lucky enough to attend. The annual Fynbos Forum conference brings together everyone from academic researchers, students, conservation managers, landowners and numerous others from all over the world together in a friendly and welcoming space to exchange ideas, knowledge and progress in all connected fields. It is run by a dedicated team of volunteers and hosted in a different town within the CFR each year.

This year the Forum was held in the town of Knysna at the heart of the Garden Route, known for its beautiful and sheltered lagoon, delicious oysters and the ever elusive Knysna elephant. Its name is thought to be derived from a Khoikhoi word meaning 'fern'. The conference was attended by 188 delegates, representing organisations from Yale University to the Eden to Addo Corridor Initiative.

The centre point of the conference was a four day series of talks, from full length to five minute 'lightening' talks. A symposium and panel discussion was also held on fire, biodiversity and climate change. Sessions included ecology, sustainable indigenous plant use, community participation in conservation, urban ecology and biological invasions. Poster presentations allowed delegates to interact with colleagues and network with those interested in their work. In addition there was a series of exhibitions with representatives from various community-based environmental organisations, from the Southern Cape Fire Prevention Association to the Nature's Valley Trust.

We learnt about sustainability indicators in the honeybush and rooibos tea industries, the role of citizen science in bird pollination research in the fynbos of the Tsitsikamma and urban ecologies of the city of Cape Town. New research findings were presented on effects of heat treatment on seed germination in Critically Endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos completed in collaboration with RBG Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, one of the world's largest plant conservation initiatives. Workshop outputs from a variety of stakeholders on finding solutions to conflict between baboons and people at the urban edge were also presented.

Several excellent short documentaries were also presented. This included work by an intern from the Groen Sebenza programme in documenting use of medicinal plants from the West Coast town of Mamre. The work of Cape Town's Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation and their "Herbanisation" project showed us how street gardens can be used to bring plants that are important for traditional medicine closer to the communities that use them. The documentary 'Stepping stones - Through Fragmented Environments' informs about the work of Bongani Mnisi in working with local schools to establish a series of gardens to assist avian pollinators in traversing the Cape Flats between nature reserves. Bongani was presented with the Theo Manuel Award by the UCT Plant Conservation Unit for this excellent work.

No Fynbos Forum conference is complete without its usual diverse variety of highly informative fieldtrips led by various local experts. The more adventurous and energetic among us went canoeing up the Touws River in the Wilderness section of Garden Route National Park. One could learn about Knysna's Rastafarian culture, visit an elephant dung paper making factory or learn more about the region's endangered butterflies. A large group of us headed off to explore the Gouna section of the nearby Knysna forests, hiking through dense stands of tree ferns and vast towering yellow-wood trees (Afrocarpus falcatus) while learning about the ecology of this extraordinary environment which is home to mammals from leopards to elephants. We were treated to hearing the calls of the numerous birds that also inhabit these forests including the iridescent green and red Knysna Lourie.

It was with great reluctance that we made our way back to Cape Town at the end of the trip, our knowledge all the richer and with fresh inspiration from all those of the Fynbos Forum community. Thanks to all involved, no matter how large or small their role, in making such a wonderful conference happen. Long may the tradition continue for another 37 years.