by Will Mann
I first landed in Plettenburg Bay on Friday 30th June 2023 with little knowledge or expectation about what the next 3 months would have in store for me. From the interview that got me a place on the internship programme, I was told the place had many exciting projects in one of the most beautiful and unique habitats in South Africa. The first people I met at the airport was Tiaan, my volunteer coordinator and guide who over my time with the trust would give so much of his time to helping myself and the other interns settle in, explore and enjoy the beauty of Nature’s Valley and the surrounding area. Accompanying Tiaan was Sophie, baboon obsessive and future pioneer in primate behaviour research who would become my baboon mentor over my time in NV.
South Africa is divided into several biomes where the landscape environment and biodiversity can vary greatly. Having come from savannah biome in Limpopo, I was keen to explore the fynbos, known to be particularly rich in plant diversity with unique endemic species earning the title of Cape Floral Kingdom. Driving through the area and entering the valley to the soundtrack of clicking frogs, Hadada Ibis and Egyptian Geese, it was evident how lush, green and vibrant the surroundings were. With huge, ancient trees being draped in old man’s beard, bright, red flowers at eye level and delicate white and blue flowers at ground level. The unique birdlife that inhabits the valley are just as diverse including Knysna Turacos, sunbirds, Narina Trogon, Helmeted guineafowl, Pied kingfishers, Water Thick-knee, African Oystercatchers, Goliath Heron and Cape Cormorants.
The beach is an expanse of perfect untouched sand, inhabiting White-fronted Plovers that leave tiny footprints as they race against the tides. The blackened rocks of the rocky shores are hit with huge waves but bring life to the pools including sea stars, anemones and octopuses. The lagoon is calm and provides perfect conditions for canoeing and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot an otter. The forest is dense and wild. Navigating through the undergrowth is a steep task whilst the silent bushbuck make it look effortless. Signs of vicious bushpig on the ground and the calls of baboons in the canopy haunt the forest in which I would be spending a majority of my time.
My interest in primates has always been strong so I was humbled to be involved in the baboon project with Sophie from the start. On my first outing, I found myself surrounded by them, peacefully feeding and grooming one another. A memory I will hold with me forever. The baboons are perfectly adapted to their environment and travelled through the forest with great ease and speed. This cannot be said for the two sometimes chaotic and clumsy interns sporting pink hats armed with clipboards. The tracking was hard and physically demanding but rewarding when you finish the day with pages and pages of data. In order to have successful focal follows, the 12 baboons in our troop must be correctly and consistently identified. A byproduct of this is gaining a deeper understanding of individual behaviour and the dynamics within the group. I am grateful to have been apart of their world for those moments.
The Nature’s Valley Trust’s ship is captained by Hendri who’s professionalism was apparent from the onset. Equally his eagerness to express his playful side caught me out on the morning after I decided to overtake him with the project car much to the enjoyment of the office! I will always value the time he gave me to guide my application technique to support my future career in wildlife conservation.
Brittany is instrumental in conservation projects at the trust and is one of the longest standing staff members who manages every project effortlessly. Her talent for marine and coast has stretched to the birds which I developed a fascination for since being in South Africa. Britt is always a willing teacher who tolerated many of my questions and badly timed jokes. She is also a gifted painter, potter and dog parent to Chewie, the dog with endless energy.
Getting out early in Phyl Martin park to try bird ringing with Brittany was a fantastic. The park itself is kept and managed by the excellent Yonela, making every beer he drinks more than deserving.
Lauren is a reliable member of the team who manages the Rivers and Estuaries programme as well as the Environmental Education and community awareness programmes. She also manages to keep producing extremely tasty cakes and brownies.
Sky is another member of the NVT family and works tirelessly on a number of projects with the Forest Programme. The time he gives to taking over the baboon project, assisting with intern’s insect project as well as continuing his own research into forest plant species is admirable. This work ethic and willingness to help others is reflective of all members of the trust.
Friday equals fun days for interns at NVT and they have allowed for the exploration of the local area. Going on hikes, swimming with seals, attending Birds of Eden and Monkeyland, Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary and concurring Bloukrans Bungee jump are some highlights. Shout outs to other memorable moments, sand sculpting Martin the Manta ray, the many braais, bonfires and birthdays, scaling the cliffside with Sophie, canoeing with Sky, dinners with Britt, cold feet with Tiaan and his frog adventures and of course breaking my foot on the beach halfway through my stay!