by James McCulloch
Descending down the winding road, coursing past the precolonial trees of the Kalander Kloof, ears popping from the sudden change in air pressure, I knew I was about to arrive somewhere very special. Then eight weeks and 4,000 insects later, my time with the Nature’s Valley Trust mournfully came to an end. Now I’m sitting in a café back in overcast Oxford writing this blog post, thinking that statistic may need some context.
My arrival in Nature’s Valley at the end of July coincided almost perfectly with the eight year anniversary of acquiring my first microscope. Since then, I’ve been enamoured of God’s smaller creations; flies, moths, beetles (of which He is said to have an inordinate fondness) and anything else with at least six legs. While I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around South Africa visiting family several times during my upbringing, developing a proper appreciation for the diversity of the country’s invertebrates has always necessitated a longer stint. Two months in Nature’s Valley was the perfect opportunity.
As part of our busy interning schedule, the Trust allots time for us to work on our ‘special projects.’ My special project was, unsurprisingly, investigating the invertebrate communities in and around Nature’s Valley. How do the communities in recently burnt fynbos compare with those in intact fynbos? What are the differences between the species present in the Hebron Forest and those in the nearby thicket-like vegetation? How successful has the fynbos restoration project in Nature’s Valley been in restoring the characteristic invertebrate assemblage of this threatened habitat? In the end, over 4,000 unlucky invertebrates found themselves in my pitfall traps – traps fashioned from small plastic pots to catch unwary denizens of the soil surface – and contributed to a 14-page scientific paper aiming to inform habitat management decisions concerning invertebrate conservation.
Of course, that is only what I got up to on Mondays. The rest of the week was available for us to throw ourselves into whichever project the Trust had in store for us. My ankles had their pain threshold tested by the icy water of the Groot River as I conducted miniSASSes (water quality assessments). The lively Indian Ocean provided the perfect soundscape for marine debris surveys. The promise of the shimmering iridescence of the southern double-collared sunbird delivered the perfect motivation to get out of bed at 6am for bird ringing. The scarlet wing feathers of the Knysna turaco never failed to elicit surprise and awe when seen in flight during one of our monthly bird surveys, or from a table outside the Blue Rocks restaurant.
The free time on weekends allowed us interns to explore the area more widely. We took in the beauty of the Garden Route while standing on the suspension bridge at the Storms River mouth, through snorkels while we swam with Cape fur seals, from horseback cantering along the beach at Jeffreys Bay, and hanging from a bungee cord as we jumped off Africa’s highest bridge. Our adventures even took us as far as Gansbaai to cage-dive with a multitude of sharks and to Boulders Beach to gawk at the somewhat less-threatening African penguins. This all came together to give me my most memorable boreal summer in a veritable austral Eden. I would recommend the intern programme with the Nature’s Valley Trust to anyone with even a passing interest in the environment and its stewardship.