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.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Learning the Art of the 4x4

Tackling one of the trickier slopes on the course into an old quarry at
Melkbos 4x4 course. Photo: Trevor Knutsen (Allterrain 4x4)
"Ah no....it isn't....it IS....catch it...quick! Before it disappears!". Nothing like the sight of a tick trundling across the inside of the windscreen to bring a person sharply to their senses first thing in the morning. Clearly there was a small stowaway that got away after our research group's bakkie's latest field trip. With some highly professional multitasking my colleague dispatched our resident blood-sucking beastie and calm was restored once more. It was very early on a chilly Cape Town winter morning and we were heading north to the West Coast suburb of Melkbosstrand to do a 4x4 course.

Now the work of us botanists does have a tendency to take us off South Africa's beaten track into some fairly remote places and on all manner of roads. I've been shaken and not stirred up mountain and down kloof with all manner of cavernous potholes and dongas, slithered perilously across soggy clay mud and nearly been stuck never to be seen again down a sandy track in a hidden corner of Namaqualand. We've certainly clocked up adventures aplenty in the name of research, conservation, knowledge and exploration.

In consequence, to ensure safety in our endeavours, we were set the challenge of completing an introductory 4x4 course. It was with great excitement and a touch of nerves that we headed northwards to learn out high range from low range and diff lock from traction control. We were to be put through our paces and taught the ropes while under the highly experienced supervision of Trevor Knutsen from All Terrain 4x4. Our trusty steed was our research group's bakkie which travels all over the country during fieldwork with various members of the team.

My Namibian colleague was cool, calm and collected with plenty of experience under her belt and keen to learn more about the 'whys' behind the 'dos and don'ts'. I with little experience of all terrain driving was a little more nervous and not quite sure what to expect. Health-related coordination problems meant that getting my driving licence was a challenge, proving wrong my first instructor who said I was "too disabled" to learn to drive. It was with a little fear and trepidation that day that I was standing up for the challenge to move my skills as a driver to the next level.

We met Trevor and began the theory part of the course over a good strong cup of tea at Melkbosstrand Padstal. Our welcoming committee were a pair of white mallard ducks, who pottered confidently around visitors' feet among the delicious culinary goodies in the hopes of a few leftovers dropping from the heavens. After a good introductory grounding without further ado we headed out to Melkbos 4x4 trail to put theory into practice. The 4x4 trails here were the perfect training ground, offering everything from deep sand to clay, dongas, standing water, slopes and cambers aplenty to test our skills and build confidence on a variety of different terrains.

We started from the bottom upwards, with some practical guidance on getting the right tyre pressure for the right terrain and then we were off on the course. Under Trevor's watchful eye and calm and patient guidance we learnt how to tackle various different obstacles, starting first with driving through thick sand, how to get your vehicle out when stuck and then building up to driving up and down steep, rocky and undulating slopes. At times only three wheels were on the ground, which was a little scary for the uninitiated, but it is extraordinary the stability and flexibility of the vehicle to deal with the terrain. I took a while to adjust to the capacity of what the car could do and what was not possible, but as the day went on we learnt to understand how it moved over difficult terrain and how to choose the right 'line' through an obstacle.

It was with great satisfaction that the day ended, both of us proud of what we had achieved and now with new found skills to take with us on our fieldtrips and other future travels. I look forward to what will come next.

For more details on the 4x4 course we took check out:


Saturday, 14 June 2014

A mushrooming we will go.....

Pine Ring Mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus) harvested from Tokai Plantation
Last weekend I went foraging in the forest for my dinner. Inspired by my adventure, this week we will be taking a leap from the Plant Kingdom to the far lesser-known but equally fascinating world of fungi. I was lucky enough to be one of the first participants in a new mushroom foraging course run by the Cape of Good Hope Nurseries. In the capable hands of Ismail Smith, local artist and mushroom hunter extraordinaire, we spent a wonderful and highly informative Sunday morning exploring among the pine trees of Tokai Plantation in Cape Town in search of edible mushrooms to fill our baskets and cooking pots.

Contrary to popular belief, mushrooms are not plants. They were placed in a seperate kingdom to plants in 1969 in recognition of their evolutionary differences. In fact, with regard to their biology fungi actually have more in common with animals than they do with plants, despite their superficial similarities. It is thought that there are between 700,000 and five million species of fungi on earth but to date only around 100,000 have been described by scientists. It is likely that the Fungi Kingdom is more than six times more species diverse than that of plants.

What is visible above the surface of the ground is but the tip of the iceberg in the secret life of fungi. The mushrooms themselves are actually just the 'fruiting' body of the organism. Below the ground surface this is connected to a mycelium with a maze of tiny filaments known as hyphae. These hyphae are usually found within the organic matter on which many fungi feed and can spread more than 1 km per day under optimum conditions.

Fungi fulfil a plethora of useful purposes to people as well as the ecosystems in which they reside. Yeast which is used in brewing beer and bread-making is a type of fungus. As a food source edible mushrooms are rich in protein. Several widely used pharmaceutical drugs including statins and penicillin are based upon natural chemicals produced by fungi. In their natural environment fungi play a critical role in facilitating decomposition processes as well as forming mutualistic association with plant roots to aid uptake of water and nutrients.

There are several different edible varieties of mushroom that grow on the Cape Peninsula, with numerous different fungi species being found in the arboretum and surrounding plantations at Tokai forest. Many different fungi were introduced as spores along with various alien tree species that dominate the area. However, mushroom collecting needs to be approached with great care. It is critical not to mistakenly collect and eat any species you cannot positively identify as a case of fungi consumption after mistaken identity can result in anything from hallucinations to liver failure.

In consequence, under Ismail's watchful eye we focused our collecting efforts on collection of Pine Rings (Lacterius deliciosus). This species is fairly easy to identify with knowledge and experience and after a morning of hunting we left with baskets groaning under mushroom weight. Wild mushrooms have a distinct favour and a variety of different culinary uses, from delicious pasta sauces to an accompaniment to venison in a decadent stew. As part of the foraging course we were provided with plenty of recipe ideas to take home and try.

I made an enormous pot of warming mushroom soup from my pine ring haul that went down with great joy and happiness on a chilly June winter afternoon. I'd like to thank Ismail Smith and the Cape of Good Hope Nurseries for organising such a pleasant and interesting morning. No doubt now equipped with the skill to identify pine rings with confidence I will be back for more for my cooking pot this season.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

What is Fynbos?

Protea compacta flowering in fynbos at Lucerne Farm in the Akkadiesberg
Mountains, Overberg Region, South Africa

Erica regia

This week I'm going back to basics to tell you a little more about  fynbos: that brown-looking scratchy vegetation that clothes the mountains and lowlands of the Cape, aiming to address several burning questions: What is it? Where can I find it and why is it important? Why should we care?

Fynbos is an evergreen, hard-leaved Mediterranean type shrubland that occurs on nutrient-poor soils derived from predominantly quartzitic sandstones and limestones. The name is derived from the Dutch word Fijnboch which when literally translated means 'fine bush'. This vegetation type is distributed in an arc-shaped belt northwards from the Cape Peninsula as far as the Bokkeveld Plateau above Vanrhysdorp and eastwards to the city of Port Elizabeth.

Leucospermum oleifolium
Fynbos is also characterised by the presence of an enormous diversity of species from several key families: Restionaceae, Proteaceae, Ericaceae, Rutaceae and Iridaceae. The species diversity of fynbos is one of the main things that makes it so special. Table Mountain alone has more species of plants than the whole of the British Isles. The Fynbos Biome is home to one of the world's richest floras, with more than 9,000 species of plants occurring within an area the size of Malawi or Portugal. Two thirds of these species are endemic to the region, thus meaning that they occur nowhere else on earth. In addition, when looking at diversity at the macro-scale within fynbos vegetation, it is home to between 150-170 unique species per 1,000 km thus making it two to three times more species diverse than the world's rainforests.

Nivenia stokoei
This region is considered to be one of the world's six floral kingdoms and is the only one that occurs within a single country. The area encompassed by the Fynbos Biome is known as the Cape Floristic Region (CFR). The Cape Floristic Region is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its rich and diverse flora as well as levels of endemism. It is also considered to be one of the world's thirty Biodiversity Hotspots. The vegetation of both the Fynbos Biome and the Cape Floristic Region comprise not only fynbos but several other vegetation types that deserve mention. There is also another type of Mediterranean-type shrubland known as renosterveld as well as areas of indigenous forest. Both of these equally important although perhaps less well-known vegetation types will be introduced and profiled in future articles on this site.

Haemanthus coccineus
Scientists have debated for decades about why the vegetation of the CFR is so biodiverse and have to date failed to come up with a definitive answer that is accepted by all. It is particularly extraordinary that such a diverse flora and vegetation has evolved to occur on such nutrient-poor soils. The majority of fynbos soils are derived from quartzitic sandstones and are consequently not dissimilar to glass in their composition. Various theories have been put forward to try and solve this mystery. One is that slightly differing ratios in soil nutrients have created the presence of numerous different micro habitats to be occupied by a greater diversity of different species. Secondly there is the possibility that the diversity of microhabitats brought about by variations in topography and microclimate within the CFR are also a contributory factor to the evolution of the Cape flora. Pollination biologists have also suggested that the diversity of plants is as a result of evolution through a diversity of different pollinators, from insects to mice. The debate continues to this day.

In common with vegetation from several other Mediterranean type ecosystems, Fynbos is both fire-prone and fire-adapted. The vegetation needs regular fire at an interval of between 10-14 years in order to remain in optimum condition. It is a critical part of nutrient cycling in fynbos, it prevents excessive build up of pathogens and rejuvenates old and senescent vegetation. There are also some fynbos plant species that only grow and flower immediately after fire and chemicals from the smoke during a burn are a critical driver of fynbos seed germination post burn.

In common with the diversity of plant species within the fynbos of the CFR, there are also a plethora of different pollinators. Just within the context of insects there are long-tongued flies, butterflies, moths horseflies and many more. Numerous Cape species are adapted for pollination by avian visitors comprising the nectar-feeding sunbirds and sugarbirds. A total of 4% of fynbos species (around 430 species) are adapted for pollination by rodents. There is a diversity of different flower colours, forms, scents and nectar to match the diversity of available pollinators to facilitate reproduction. Next time you look at a flower ponder on who else might be visiting it.

So there you have the fynbos of the Cape Floristic Region in a nutshell. Keep reading for future articles with more information on what is outlined in this introduction here. Most importantly I implore you to go and and explore and find out for yourselves exactly what makes this globally important vegetation so special. Climb the mountains of the CFR, explore lowland fragments and protected areas on your doorstep. Take custodianship, raise awareness and take part in the conservation of this vital component of South Africa's natural heritage.

Serruria aemula

Chondropetalum tectorum

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Of Mice and Mountains: A Swartberg Roadtrip

View looking northwards from the Swartberg Pass

Protea lorifolia
Last week was a whirlwind. On Monday I was in the green and gently rolling hills of Dorset, England in the beautiful old Victorian house where I grew up. It was early summer, the buttercups were flowering and even the sheep were smiling. I left with great reluctance after a break that was all too short. By Tuesday night I was curled up on the floor sleeping in a small frozen heap in Doha airport in Qatar in the Middle East. Wednesday night brought me back to a cold and wintery Cape Town. Exhausted I was thrown headlong into the chaos of the Department of Home Affairs where the international residents of South Africa go in their hundreds crowded like cattle for visa applications and renewals. By Saturday I was on the road again for the weekend in the name of pollination biology research. Our destination was the Swartberg Mountains, a little more than 400 km east of Cape Town. This rugged range towers high over the small ostrich farming town of Oudtshoorn to the south with the wide open, sparsely populated semi-arid plains of the Great Karoo extending northwards.

We three made good progress eastwards along Route 62 squished inside the 'Jimny': a tiny underpowered box on wheels carefully disguised as a 4x4. Immediately after driving under the stunning rock arch of Cogman's Kloof near Montagu I spotted a huge snake crossing the road and we quickly u-turned and stopped to make sure no motorists ran over it. Mr. Snake was one of the largest puff adders I've ever seen at nearly a metre in length and we watched carefully as it continued its journey safely into the grass at the verge. Puff adders have highly cytotoxic venom and are responsible for more deaths on the African continent than any other snake. That said, encounters with this beautiful snake are rare and a privilege at a safe distance where they will not feel threatened or cornered and be likely to strike. They should be treated with the respect any living creature deserves and are a vital part of the ecosystem to which they belong.

Orange-breasted Sunbird
After a long drive west we overnighted in the small Karoo town of Prince Albert before an early morning start for the main business of the trip. We were there to collect some camera traps from high in the Swartberg Mountains placed as part of a pollination biology research project. Camera traps are movement triggered cameras that automatically take pictures of any living critter that happens to walk past them. They have a variety of different applications in biological research and can provide valuable information to scientists on everything from population distribution to behaviour of mammals and birds. They are particularly useful when stationed in remote or inaccessible areas and generate footage easily without the disturbance caused by the presence of a human researcher.

Lower reaches of the Swartberg Pass

In this case we were collecting cameras which had been placed to monitor and provide new insights into pollination biology of altimontane Proteaceae species. The species being studied grows high up in the Swartberg and is thought be pollinated by mice. However to date unsurprisingly nobody has been crazy enough to sit up there through rainy days and chilly nights to confirm this 'educated hunch' and camera trap film footage promises to provide new ecological insights into exactly who visits this species during its flowering season. This is thought to be one of a number of Protea spp. which are adapted to facilitate rodent pollination. Other examples include Protea humiflora and Protea amplexicaulis. Rodent pollinated Proteaceae can usually be distinguished by their low hanging flowers and often yeast-like odour.

Protea montana
We took the dirt road out of town towards the base of the Swartberg Pass which led us as close as possible to our high altitude field site. This 24 km stretch of dirt road ascends from adjacent to Prince Albert southwards over the Swartberg Mountains climbing to an altitude of 1,575m asl along a series of beautifully designed switchbacks. The road was engineered by Thomas Bain and built by 250 convict labourers, being opened to the public in 1888. Some paid the ultimate price for their hard work during the second winter of the construction when the roof of one of their camps collapsed under the weight of snow. Much of the road was constructed using perfectly dovetailed dry stone walls which are immaculately preserved to this day more than 120 years later. The Swartberg Pass is a National Monument and was the final road that Thomas Bain engineered in the Cape. It is also one of the greatest achievements of his career. 

As we ascended up the pass early on Sunday morning we were treated to the sight of no less than five klipspringer. This beautiful antelope stands only a little more than half a metre in height and their name when translated from Afrikaans means 'rock jumper'. Remarkably they derive all the moisture they need from the vegetation on which feed and never need to visit water to drink. As we drove slowly upwards we were rewarded with views over some of the most spectacular geology in the world where the sandstone of this mountain range is contorted into a myriad of anticline and synclinal folds more than 120 million years old. Slowly as we climbed upwards the vegetation changes with splashes of pink of the last few flowers of the year of Protea punctata being visited by numerous orange breasted sunbirds. 

Eventually we arrived as 'Die Top', the summit of the pass and the start of our ascent on foot. We made steady progress up the steep and rocky trail typical of most in the Cape mountains through stands of Protea lorifolia with their pale yellow and pink flowers. The wind was bitterly cold and scattered grey clouds flew past us at the same level as we climbed upwards. Our reward was stupendous views in all directions throughout the Swartberg range and beyond as we arrived at the research site to collect the cameras. The winding road where we started was visible far below us as we sat hunkered down beneath the rocks out of the wind. We paused briefly to take a photograph to mark our achievement before beginning the long journey homewards, with luck armed with new information about the ecology of these achingly beautiful mountains of the Cape. 

                             The long and winding road: View northwards over the Swartberg

Standing atop the Swartberg Pass buffeted by icy cold winds with the Swartberg
foothills spread out far below

Message loud and clear!