Prince Albert: April

My fieldwork posts up until now give an idea of my feelings towards the Karoo. There is something enchanting about its humble beauty, its complexity that not everyone can appreciate, and its tranquility that not everyone gets to experience. It comes then as no surprise that I found myself hopelessly drawn to this place. And so, I decided that I want to make it my home for a while. Now here I am, sitting at a charming little restaurant called the Lazy Lizard, leeching off of their WiFi, over a chocolate milkshake and mozzarella, tomato and basil ciabatta sandwich. I promised I’d write about my time here at least once a month. Here goes…

My first month here completely flew by. I drove, with my father as the self-designated passenger seat driver, from our home in Cape Town to my new home in Prince Albert on 2 April, a Monday. It was my first long drive, and it came to pass very smoothly. That evening we stayed at a little guesthouse with an appropriate, witty name: The Bougain Villa (it was crawling with bright pink Bougainvillea). And the next morning, I set off on my new adventure, accompanied by the intern I was replacing: a young chap named Stefan, who was to become a very good friend and wonderful company.

Since my arrival here, Prince Albert has not held back on sharing its treasures with me. On one of my first occasions in the field with the researchers I am now working with, I was lucky enough to encounter lithops that were in flower. It was my first time seeing them flowering, looking like little candles in pebble-shaped holders. I do believe I may have fondled one too many Glottiphyllum plants, which feel particularly pleasurable after having bathed in the morning sun. The following week, I was greeted with glorious storm clouds, and consequently, some of the most gorgeously flamingo-pink, to lobster orange, to pomegranate red sunsets I have ever seen. Being fortunate enough to live right next to a koppie (a little hill), I was able to get some really great viewpoints for these stunning displays.

Among the other treasures I was fortunate enough to stumble upon was a Namaqua chameleon (Chameleo namaquensis) – a species which my supervisors have observed only twice in all 30 years they’ve been living and working here in Prince Albert… in the 1980s! What a privilege it was to see one during my first month here. A lucky find, I’m sure, but I hope to see more of them now that the area has greened up a bit.

As part of my work as an intern, I am required to assist with scheduled field data collection. Sampling for one of the long-term ecological studies ongoing at TKRC required that I stayed over at the research huts, along with a fellow researcher, for a little less than a week. Tierberg, which is just under 30km outside of Prince Albert, was a pleasure to spend time in. Three words that encapsulate some of the most memorable moments spent there are: silence, sunset, and… geckos. My word, the geckos… as a hint to their size, I nicknamed one of them ゴジラ (“Gojira” or Godzilla). A wonderful experience all in all, and not the last that I’ll be seeing of Tierberg, because I am expected to do data collection there once a week.

Here are some choice photographs from April, the last one showing my current situation. If you’d like to see more photos of my adventures in Prince Albert, please follow me on Instagram (@hana.petersen)!

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First field work of 2017: Eastern Karoo

My co-supervisor Sam Jack and I spent another week sampling sites in the Eastern Karoo last week. Last time we were out was in September last year, sampling the icy cold slopes in Sutherland. The situation this time round was quite the opposite.

The eastern-most extent of the Eastern Karoo that we sampled ranged from Colesberg to Middelburg to Cradock (north to south), and comprises the most mesic (wettest) part of the environmental gradient that my MSc research investigates.

Study area - Eastern Karoo. Points labelled "A" are dolerite koppies that have been sampled.

Study area – Eastern Karoo. Points labelled “A” are dolerite koppies that have been sampled. The blue demarcated area shows the central Karoo (encloses sites 2 – 8) and eastern Karoo area (encloses sites 1, and 13 – 18) designated for shale gas exploration.

On day one, we drove all the way up to Colesberg in the Northern Cape (my first time visiting), a 9-hour drive from Cape Town. We stayed in a quaint little caravan park in a tiny bungalow, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes, despite how well-armed I was with my citronella oil burner. I feel like they almost enjoyed the smell of citronella… Alas.

Itchy bites notwithstanding, we sampled near Colesberg and then went in search of accommodation further east. We ended up in Oviston, a small town on the edge of the Gariep Dam (also my first time). What was interesting to see was how lush the vegetation in the grasslands looked compared to the western reaches of my study area, and of the country in general. The landscape was carpeted in green, with some impressive annuals showing their vibrant faces. After a stay at a farmer’s house between Steynsberg and Venterstad, and a day devoid of sampling due to rain, sampling was fairly easy sailing from then on. We missioned between Venterstad and Cradock, sampling four sites along the way, before heading towards Graaff-Reinet for another site, then to Beaufort West and eventually back home to Cape Town.

We were met with thundershowers more than once and, consequently, very muddy district roads. At this point I will mention that we were driving a bakkie with no 4WD – mud was our nemesis. I had many tiny panic attacks along the way because of this (which I suspect Sam enjoyed just a little bit). We had to postpone an entire day of sampling due to weather conditions (it is not advisable to carry aluminium rods up a koppie during a thunderstorm), which we spent catching up on species IDs, digitizing datasheets, and other work (and also a few sneaky episodes of Planet Earth).

Overall it was a very successful trip. Just one more two-week long trip and I’ll be done with my data collection. At this point I’d like to say thanks again to Sam Jack – I literally would not be able to do any of this without him. He is my mentor, my friend, my driver, my field assistant, my photographer, and my Afrikaans translator and diplomat. This degree belongs as much to you as it does to me. Thank you so, so much.

Read the official article for this blog post on the Plant Conservation Unit website here.

The Arid Zone

Bit of a delayed start to this blogging business, but here it is: my first attempt at an academic diary.

As an introduction to what will (optimistically) be a prosperous account of my journey through my Masters degree in arid zone ecology, I would like to introduce you, kind readers, to the Arid Zone. Let me begin by saying that when I started my undergrad degree in Applied Biology and Ecology & Evolution in 2012, I had zero idea that I would be devoting essentially 2 years of my life to studying plants in some of the driest places in South Africa. In fact, I was dead-set on becoming a fully-fledged zoologist when I started out. See, the goal was to study zoology and then get a job at the Wolong Panda Sanctuary in China so that I could spend my life among giant pandas, which, to this day, I am somewhat obsessed with. Since then, however, I have been sorely disillusioned in that regard. But luckily, I found a happy niche amongst the botany researchers at the University of Cape Town, and realised that I actually enjoyed studying plants. Quite a lot. And so here I am, in my first year of my Masters degree. Serious business.

I first became acquainted with the Arid Zone during my Honours year in 2015. I had elected to take on a project with Prof. Timm Hoffman, the director of the Plant Conservation Unit at UCT. Possibly one of the coolest projects I could have chosen to do, it involved me getting to dig through incredible archives of lantern slides and black and white prints of landscape photographs taken by reputable biologists of their time like Rudolf Marloth, Margaret Levyns and John Acocks, some dating as far back as 1903. I also got to have a look through John Acocks’ field notes – regardless of how people feel about his sampling methods, his field notes were immaculate, and I wish more people could keep notes like those. I had such good intentions to keep detailed written field notes (with sketches), but time constraints in the field always prevented me from doing so. Anyway.

This research took me to the Tanqua Karoo – the place where two of South Africa’s biodiversity hotspots (the Succulent Karoo and Fynbos biomes), recognised by the IUCN, overlap. Having my first hands-on experience of independent botanizing was what got me hooked on the Arid Zone. Being out there was magical, especially in the company of and under the supervision of someone like Timm Hoffman, who made the entire experience feel like I was in a documentary with the way he could narrate and describe what we observed in the landscape and what the history of those places were. That trip lasted only five days, but the experience was magical enough for me to feel as though I had left a part of myself in the Karoo – so much so that I heartily agreed to take on an MSc once again supervised by Timm and a fellow Arid Zone ecologist, Simon Todd (affiliated with the South African Environmental Observation Network – or SAEON) in the following year (currently).

Having been on several subsequent trips to sites across the central Karoo, I can safely say that I still feel the same way. There is a certain magic about the Karoo that most people, myself included, just can’t put into words.

‘Stuur my Hemel toe, ek dink dis in die Platteland.’ – Fokofpolisiekar