Third email from a Bundu bashing Ballerina – Alison Bijl

With the first chunk of Mapungubwe fieldwork behind us, Laurence and I took four days off, to travel south to the Punda Maria rest camp in the northern part of the Kruger National Park. We were late in departing the research house, but took a peaceful drive nonetheless, to better admire the landscape:

Roadside Baobabs

Roadside Baobabs

the mammoth Baobab trees, dense stands of Mopane tees and rocky, red sandstone outcrops home to the most beautiful large-leaf rock figs, dripping their roots down vertical rock faces and into crevices. We travelled in convoy, but as my vehicle had the engine power equivalent of a small lawnmower on an uphill, Laurence and I soon lost sight of one another and agreed to meet up at a certain point on the map instead of trying to stay together. I came to an intersection and my GPS said: “go left” off the highway and onto a shorter route. It certainly looked like the road less travelled and in the spirit of adventure, I took it. Ten humpy-bumpy minutes later, the car began making a very disconcerting rattling noise, so in the middle of rural nowhere with the road worsening and the sun getting low, I stopped, inspected all the tyres, opened the bonnet unsure of what to look for, and carried on. I called Laurence to find out if he was also somewhere on this road less travelled, just in case the car decided to give out on me. He was not, having wisely chosen to stay on the highway. I kept driving and to my enormous relief after about 15 anxious kilometres I joined the highway and found Laurence shortly after. He inspected the car and gave it a few vigorous side-to-side shakes, dislodging a small stone. Thereafter, no more funny noise. Huge relief! In the dark we drove to our overnight accommodation on the border of the Kruger Park. The Pafuri River Camp was pitch dark, the reception was closed and the huts were locked. We ambled around the buildings hopefully and stopped to admire a snake in a tree. We asked an old farmer in the neighbourhood if he knew the managers, and he suggested we hoot outside reception, because they were definitely in there, most likely just sleeping. We apologetically roused a dishevelled couple who gave us bedding, keys to our treehouse and some matches. This treehouse was actually just a tiny, sweltering little box on stilts, with two sagging beds crammed into it (there was a tree nearby, so I guess that counts) and we collapsed onto the beds gratefully, tired after a long day and relieved to have beds at all.

Big open expanses and pans. Namibia Alison Bijl - author

Big open expanses and pans. Namibia
Alison Bijl – author

The following morning we entered the northernmost gate of the Kruger National Park, joined a student group and took a walk to the top of another famous hill: Thulamela, one of the three “lost Kingdoms” (The others being Mapungubwe Hill and Great Zimbabwe). Much like on Mapungubwe hill, a kingdom was established on this majestic hill during the late Iron Age, with the royalty occupying the top and the community sprawling around its base. When Great Zimbabwe was abandoned in the mid-1400s, several groups moved south across the Limpopo River and settled at Thulamela. Stone monoliths (symbols of justice and defence) were carried with the people migrating here from Great Zimbabwe and placed at the bases of beautifully packed stone walls, which surrounded their dwellings. The original stone walls of 1500AD had long ago collapsed, but were reconstructed by the national park as part of the Thulamela Project launched in 1993, and the area was opened as a cultural heritage site museum in 1996. Pottery shards and stone tools can still be seen scattered around the area today. This place is well worth a visit, but do it in winter! The temperature climbed to 48 degrees by lunchtime, and everybody wilted. All the ice-cream in the world isn’t enough when it’s that hot.

Our next stop was a guesthouse just outside the town of Louis Trichardt, for three days of relaxation, forest walks and bird-spotting. The Entabeni State Forest, near Louis Trichardt, is one of the biggest chunks of indigenous Afromontane forest in the eastern section of the Soutpansberg, home to a variety of exciting trees, birds and animals. Based near Hanglip forest reserve, Laurence and I were hoping to add a few new birds to our lists and breathe some fresh mountain air.

Samson, the Entabeni bird expert and Alison

Samson, the Entabeni bird expert and Alison

The local bird expert, Samson Mulaudzi, took us out one afternoon and showed us pigmy geese, a purple heron, a collared sunbird and several other little critters. On the morning of our departure, we spotted two shy grey-headed parrots shuffling about between the leaves of a Mobola Plum tree (Parinari curatellifolia), their beaks crammed with fruit. This was the highlight!

After this mini-forest adventure, Laurence and I parted ways. He had to get back to work and I had to get back to Mapungubwe to begin the second round of fieldwork. I was being assisted for the week by a highly qualified game guard, Steven Khoza, and a young environmental monitor, Elias.

Elias and Steven, my two fab field assistants

Elias and Steven, my two fab field assistants

These two men taught me some incredible life lessons in the days that we worked together. Both have stories of hardship in the face of poverty, and both have put themselves through tertiary education by working their backsides off at multiple jobs, saving every sent, and still sending money home to their families. Even in the face of many hurdles, they remain motivated, energetic, positive and passionate about conservation. I stood there, humbled. As a young, privileged white South African I realised I have no idea what hardship is. It really brought home the fact that we all have a great responsibility to share what we have learned, share the benefits of privileged upbringings, share the opportunities we are afforded… In the field we got through a great deal of work. Their interest in the study and their willingness to learn new techniques and theories was inspiring and made the work a pleasure.

They asked all the hard questions -two scientists at heart. My gratitude and respect for them is difficult to put into words. There are so many brilliant minds and motivated, hard-working people in our country, and so many go unnoticed and are under-valued. We have to find a way to create more opportunities for people like Elias to flourish! …A week of early mornings and sultry evenings passed and we covered a great deal of ground. On our last evening, we watched a herd of elephants pass through our study site from a safe distance, but close enough to hear the twigs crack under their giant feet, and smell one of the young bulls in musth. Elephant boy hormones are stiiiiinky!! They slipped between the trees surprisingly quietly, and one even inspected one of my research cameras gently with his trunk before moving along. I said goodbye sadly to my two new friends the following day and began once again with a big packing up, car loading mission. My record time is now down to two hours!

My next destination was Morongwa Bush Lodge near Thabazimbi. Back to the same place that I started doing fieldwork a month ago. My first visit previously was very short but eventful, and I needed to return to collect a decent amount of data. The road from Mapungubwe to Morongwa ran parallel to the Botswana border (the R572) through Alldays, Swartwater, Ga-Seleka and Lephalale (the old Ellisras) and was picturesque but possibly the worst road I’ve ever seen. In the end, it was better to drive on the shoulder just to avoid the numerous, deep potholes. Seven hours later I rattled into Morongwa, thoroughly shaken up by the intense corrugations on the district roads. No cars had passed me in three hours, and besides the manager of the lodge and his wife, I didn’t see another soul for the next few days. It was a little disconcerting to be quite so isolated, and if I’m honest, I was dreading the night time fieldwork alone in the dark. The accommodation at least, was luxurious. I unpacked hurriedly, grabbed my equipment, an array of torches and spotlights and headed into the wild. I had an hour of light left, and managed to select a nice big group of trees to work on before nightfall. A splendid crimson-purple sunset gave way to a sweltering, dark night.

I have a crippling fear of being alone in the dark, so I switched on my three headlamps, armed myself with a spotlight, and walked cautiously from tree to tree, jumping at every small sound and berating myself for being such a wimp. The owner, Errol had assured me that it was safe, with the comforting words that they only had herbivores on their farm… and sure, the odd leopard passes through, but I’d be lucky to see one, and not to worry, the multitude of brown hyenas and jackals making the rounds were more scared of me than I was of them.  After this talk, I was just waiting for one of the transient leopards to sniff me out. My imagination is fertile, and I had no trouble picturing my dismemberment. Time snailed by slowly. I cycled through bravery and terror in ten minute cycles, and by 9.30pm, leapt into the car, floored it home and crawled thankfully into bed. The morning fieldwork was a pleasure. The sun beat down, the birds sang, the wildebeest gambolled and all was well. The day grew hotter and hotter, peaking at around 44 degrees in the shade. During the daytime hours, I lay comatose in a cold bath, contemplating snow. On night two, I startled a warthog that had had been reclining in the shade of my study tree. It came exploding out from under the shade in my direction with a great deal of sound and fury, did a rotation in mid-air, and raced away in a cloud of dust. I wet myself a little bit, dropped everything and stood frozen in terror until my brain caught up with my eyes. Not a leopard, not a leopard, not a leopard… phew! Fieldwork continued and I was jumpier than ever. I almost called it quits, but the work needed to get done and time was short. Luckily the rest of the night passed without trouble, and the perseverance paid off, because I managed to capture two hawkmoths. Sad, but all in the name of science. Every day grew hotter, and in the afternoons the animals and I turned our heads towards Botswana and hoped for rain. The area was so terribly dry, with not one green leaf on a tree for the poor kudus, and not a clump of grass for the zebras. Dust storms blew past, the sky rumbled and darkened, and the rain passed us by repeatedly without a drop touching the ground. Our disappointment was bitter. Despite the scary darkness and terrible drought, I loved Morongwa. The remainder of my time there was peaceful and uneventful, and the owners, Gillian and Errol, were so kind in letting me do research and stay free of charge. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise. They were gracious hosts from afar and called regularly to make sure I was comfortable, had enough to eat and found the plants I was looking for. Errol even came to stay for two nights, took me on farm tours and had an ice cold beer waiting whenever I returned from the field at night, exhausted and filthy. I departed Morongwa after four nights, pleased that no puff adder, crazed jackal, startled warthog or hungry leopard had managed to end me, and even more pleased that the fieldwork had been successful.

The next two days I remember as only a blurr of packing, unpacking, repacking, driving, more driving, and more packing. From Thabazimbi to Johannesburg to meet my father and pack his car, as he was going to be my field assistant in Namibia (where my second study species occurs). Then a drive to Pietermaritzburg to return the borrowed research car, a quick chat with my supervisor, a speedy visit to the UKZN campus to pick up some equipment and a flight back to Johannesburg, now that I no longer had a car. My dad collected me at the airport and after a fitful night of little sleep, we were on the road to Namibia. I was so happy to have my dad along with me, because we see each other so rarely and don’t get enough time to bond over the things we both enjoy, like camping, botanising, birding and exploring. We drove right across the northern part of South Africa, through the quaint little towns of Sannieshof, Delareyville, Kuruman, Hotazel (it really is hot as hell!) and slept at the Rietfontein border. My dad drove all day, letting me sleep. After a month on the road I was starting to feel it. Tiredness was creeping in and the muscles were getting stiff. After a quick little braai in a campsite that we had all to ourselves, we turned in, and were across the border and into Namibia by 8am the next day.

Another long day on the road! Past beautiful red Kalahari sand dunes into Keetmanshoop, between mountains dotted with Quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma) to reach Mariental, through the vast stretches of bushveld dense with Camel Thorn (Acacia erioloba) trees and patchy langbeenboesmangras (Stipagrostis ciliata var. capensis) and finally, into the surprisingly green city of Windhoek. We stocked up on food and pushed on to Okahanja, where we rested our weary heads that night. Both being tall, the little tent my dad had packed for us was much too small and cramped, so with it being swelteringly hot and cloudless, we chose to leave the tent’s nylon flysheet off, for a bit of air. That night, we froze! Rookie error #1 …Never, ever leave the flysheet off! It gets surprisingly cold at night and you lose all your heat without it. My poor dad was burrowed under a mountain of towels and our picnic blanket when I woke up. The day grew hot fast, so we packed up quickly and forged ahead to Khorixas, home to the Herero

flower of namibian sesame bush

flower of namibian sesame bush

Sesame bush (Sesamothamnus guerichii), desert elephants, countless goats and a few brave souls eking out an existence in the scorched landscape. We arrived at the Khorixas Rest Camp a few kilometres out of town and were pleasantly surprised: AC rooms, a glistening swimming pool and a well-stocked bar and restaurant. This would be a good base from which to do the next four nights of fieldwork.