Second email From a Bundu Bashing Ballerina Botanist – Alison Bijl

After my first few days of fieldwork were successfully completed at a private game farm called Morongwa Bush Lodge (near the town of Thabazimbi, in Limpopo) I packed up and drove to Mapungubwe National Park. This was where I had just arrived when I first emailed…A great deal has happened since, and I’m so sorry for the long silence! I vastly underestimated just how frenetic the field season would be. I’ve been to Namibia and just gotten back, and I will document that trip asap too!


So without further delay!


Mapungubwe National Park, Limpopo. A world heritage site.


Before I dive into the various fieldwork adventures and misadventures, a little about this truly remarkable corner of the world… Mapungubwe National Park borders on both Botswana and Zimbabwe, at the confluence of the Shashe River and Limpopo River. The name “Mapungubwe” means “the place of the jackals” and the historical site within the Park, named Mapungubwe Hill, was once a thriving Kingdom in the Iron Age. It was home to about 5000 people in its heyday, which lasted about 80 years. The people of the K2 culture settled at the confluence of these great rivers where they could grow crops, access ivory and gold, and trade along the African east coast. The royalty lived at the top of the prominent Mapungubwe Hill, with the community scattered around the base. The kingdom was demarcated by beautifully packed stone walls, and this society is thought to be one of the first class-based social systems in Southern Africa. A separation of royals and commoners… There is a great deal more to the story, but I’ll leave it there for the moment.


SesameTree in the sunset

SesameTree in the sunset

By happy coincidence, a large population of my study plants, the Transvaal Sesame Bush (Sesamothamnus lugardii) occurs at the base of this magnificent Mapungubwe Hill, so one afternoon my boyfriend, Laurence (carrier of the protective firearm), academic supervisors (visiting for a few days) and I climbed the hill. The only way to reach the top is via a narrow crevice in the rock, which would have been great in the past, because it limits enemy access to the royal family. Once on top of the hill we were blown away by the incredible view -we could see for miles! What boggled me most was the thick layer of soil on the peak of the hill… apparently all of it was carried up from the plains below, in order to grow crops on top! It must have involved many days of toil and struggle to move all that earth! Just to explain why a firearm was present: Mapungubwe National Park has an abundance of elephants, some lions, and a range of other sharp-toothed, hairy beasts running around in it, which necessitates protection at all times, especially during the night!


My accommodation for the following ten days was about 10km outside of the national park, at the Duncan MacFadyen Research Centre, in the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve. A large, spacious house with aircon in the rooms, and a huge walk-in fridge (in which I often lingered after long days in the sun). The property is home to plenty of wildlife, being a nature reserve, and is therefore surrounded by an electrified fence which I accidentally caressed whilst trying to open the gate on my first day there. At first I didn’t realise what had happened… I heard a loud “CRACK” and thought someone had fired a gun, but then my shoulder muscles contracted, my teeth chattered and I knew. Luckily I just grazed the fence, and was fine. The first of a series of minor injuries. Par for the course really, in this line of work.


A typical day of fieldwork involves waking up at 5:30am, gulping down some breakfast and running out of the house to get to the plants by 6:00am. Once there, I walk from tree to tree estimating the height of the plant, the diameter of the stem, and count the number of seed pods and flowers on each. Then I look for flowers due to open the same night (my study species is pollinated by moths at night, and so the flowers only open up around sunset and become wonderfully fragrant in the dark). I typically select about 20 flowers and mark them with a little metal tag. Then I identify ant species associated with the seed pods, and observe their behaviour. At around 9:00am, when the temperature has climbed to about 35 degrees Celcius, it becomes unbearable in the direct sun, and it’s time to go back home. The day gets hotter and hotter, reaching 42 degrees at about 3:00pm, before it starts cooling off slowly. During these hot hours I lurk inside, capturing the morning’s data on my computer, charging batteries and torches and planning the afternoon’s fieldwork. Often a small nap is on the cards too. By 3:30 it’s back in the car and off to the field again. I return to my 20 tagged flowers and record their condition: have they unfurled their five petals yet? Have they been eaten by beetles? Have they been pollinated yet? I revisit these 20 flowers every fifteen minutes until I go home at 9:00pm. Between observations I setup cameras facing a few flowers, to record moth visits, and also do experiments that involve hand pollinating flowers, much like Gregor Mendel (the father of genetic study) and his pea plants. This is to test whether these plants are capable of producing a seed pod when they are pollinated with their own pollen (effectively cloning themselves) or whether they need foreign pollen in order to reproduce… I won’t go into my hypotheses now, because it gets a bit “sciencey” and difficult to put into laymans terms. The night time fieldwork goes by quickly because it’s very busy, and exhausting. Movement is more difficult in the dark, and everything is done a little more slowly and carefully, because half of my sensory system is focused on detecting movements and sounds beyond the pool of light from the torch. Carnivores hunt by night, after all, so it pays to be quiet and alert… By 9:30 I’m in bed, unconscious! Aaaaand repeat…

The above went on for ten days.


Some nights the moon was out and bright, lighting our way, and other nights were dark and cloudy. One particularly dark night, Laurence and the rifle were a long way away from me (we had decided to take our chances and split up, in order to get more fieldwork done) and I heard a very eerie noise in the riverbed nearby. A braying, moaning sound, some short, harsh snarls, a high whine, and silence… My heart was racing, and I quickly began to back away, looking over my shoulder for the pinprick of light that was Laurence. He called me towards him in a half whisper, and I wasted no time, recognising the concern hidden behind the forced calmness in his voice. He confirmed my suspicions when we were back in the car. Leopard. Hunting. It sounded to me like it had caught something, so I wasn’t too frightened at the time, but the following day we estimated that it had been a mere 50 metres from where I had been standing the night before, and then I wasn’t feeling so brave anymore. Another sweltering afternoon an enormous bull elephant stood quietly, upwind of us, as we moved between our trees setting up tags and equipment. It was too hot to fuss, and he drowsed as he stood, so we were calm in his presence. Once the sun had set, we climbed onto a small, rocky outcrop that afforded a good view of the elephant, and watched him walk with purpose across the plain, and into the darkness. A beautiful and humbling sight. It’s impossible not to appreciate the incredible opportunity that comes with doing fieldwork on nights like that. To sit under a full moon, on the red, sun scorched earth and watch the blossoms open, in the presence of elephants and leopards. It’s really something special. It fuels my determination to live lightly on the earth, and encourage in others the will to conserve our dwindling natural resources.

Shashe and Limpopo river confluence

Shashe and Limpopo river confluence

After all the hard work, Laurence and I rewarded ourselves with a day off. We started the day by visiting a lookout point above the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo River. From this vantage point, we could look into Botswana and Zimbabwe, and drink in the stark, dry landscape, dotted with huge baobab trees. We then took a drive into Botswana’s Northern Thuli Game Reserve, it being only a hop, skip and a jump away. We entered at the Pontdrift border crossing, which involved driving through the Limpopo Riverbed. A little cable car ferries people across the river when it flows, but with Rudyard’s great grey-green greasy Limpopo River being reduced to a mere greasy trickle, a bigger concern was the thick, loose river sand. We crossed without a problem in the bakkie, and spent a very enjoyable day bird-watching, animal spotting, and having a picnic on an island in the Limpopo River. On this island, we saw what I’m sure is the biggest Leadwood tree (Combretum imberbe) in Southern Africa. I’m a bit of a tree fanatic, so I get very excited by big trees, interestingly-shaped trees, rare trees, old trees… I love them all. So this Leadwood made my day! The day ended with a visit to some local bushman paintings in a small overhang on a nearby farm… I’ll attach some pics.


More news soonest!