Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Wild of Mkhambathi

This is a newer post. Again, sorry about the lag in time, intenet access is not too great. Also, I won't be able to post pictures for the same reason, but get a hold of me when I get back to the states and I can show you in person!!

I have lost track of time. I feel as if I have been suspended in this sliver of Africa for centuries, lifetimes even. For the past week (and the reason for my complete lack of communication with the world) we have been camping in an area totally removed from internet/phone/everything connection. We spent 8 days at the Mkhambathi nature reserve of the Eastern Cape, approximately 6 hours away from Dwesa-Cwebe and about two hours drive from the nearest town of Flagstaff. Up to this point in our trip, we have experienced some very pristine wilderness--from our stay at the Nature Conservatory, to our work in Morgan’s Bay to our stay Dwesa-Cwebe. However, once again, I am confronted with an even more wild version of Africa.
            In Mkhambathi, our role for the week was as conservationists. We were half scientists and half explorers for 8 days, driving around the park on roads barely passable by 4-wheel drive Land Rovers (assuming the roads were even there at all), crossing rivers, hiking in never before seen gorges, setting bouldering routes during our breaks on sandstone formations never before climbed and usually, rarely even seen. It was like being a kid, with free reign over a 7,500 hectare nature reserve and a purpose for being there.
            In Mkhambathi the herds of animals are much larger than in Dwesa-Cwebe, 50-100 strong, mixes of zebra, blesbuck, eland, kudu, red hartebeest, dik-diks, gazelle and others. Troops of baboons crossed the fields or the beach in front of our camp daily, often glancing curiously and tossing about their deep, throaty warning barks in our direction. Jackals, vervets, tons of lesser antelope species, innumerable reptiles, amphibians, and bird species rounded out the back-road and isolated landscape of this segment of the WIld Coast. Once again, ocean waters filled with sharks and whales and dolphins and fish and everything else crashed just off shore. Our camp was located just off of a small bay--beautiful breaks, beautiful warm Indian ocean waters, and beautiful sunrises/sunsets were common place, although still staggering even despite this. After a long day in the field, jumping in this ocean to wash the dirt from my skin and to heal my cuts and bruises was my daily baptism.
            Every morning, we were up by 5 am, stepping our of tents only to be greeted by the sun peeking over the pillars of rocks 50 meters away; Waves crashed and breeched into the air, playing prism with the yellow-red rays of an early dawn on Eastern African shore. Instant coffee and oats for made a simple, yet perfect breakfast before heading  out into the field.
            Our fieldwork consisted of two different projects that we switched between every other day. The first project involved setting up and documenting plots for grassland research being conducted by our professor, Erika Smithwick. These were long days, 12-plus hours in the grasslands with little to no shade and tough manual labor. Awesome. Sweaty work days. Leaving the field smelling awful and barely being able to move. Amazing. Life is good. For me, just being in Africa, made even the most monotonous and otherwise unpleasant tasks into something brilliant, every day story worthy, every moment capable of invoking awe, laughter or just an un-containable smile.
            On every other day, we were working with the local and friendly Parks Board ranger Jan Venter and his herpetologist friend Wernan to locate, catch and catalogue the amphibian and reptile species in the park. Just as a side-note, the reason this type of work is necessary is because there is still a lack of definitive knowledge of what exactly lives within the park boundaries. The Parks Board knows that Mkhambathi is a biodiversity hotspot on the globe, that it is threatened by a number of forces, and that conservation is necessary. They do not know, however, what exactly it is they are conserving or the best ways to go about doing so. As a result, we got to spend a week, like kids in a candy shop, walking through unexplored territory with snake tongs and crowbars (for prying up rocks), setting traps and chasing after any number of curious critters. Life is so good.
            On one of our days of trekking, we stopped for lunch in a waterfall pool that crashed down 30 meters directly into the ocean. We ate sandwiches, swam in our underwear and watched the tide slowly come in on the beach below. There are 4 waterfalls in the world like this and Mkhambathi is home to 2 of them. We ate lunch in one of them and drank the fresh water coming out of its spring straight from the falls. After lunch, on this day, we ventured down into a gorge that had only been surveyed briefly in the past. the gorge walls got steeper and steeper (some great bouldering) and eventually, after hours of bushwhacking through the underbrush, we came to a small waterfall with vertical rock faces on each side. At this point, time being the issue, we had to turn back, but I realized something ver important from this small area of unexplored gorge that had only been seen one or two times ever--there are still so many places in this earth to explore.
            The week in Mkhambathi was inexplicable. I feel as if these words are just a cursory and superficial effort in comparison to the time I have spent in that place. In the future, I would love to talk at greater length about any of these things, but in person and with pictures and hand gestures to supplement my stories. Life is so good.

            The world is still wild. The world is still beautiful. There is still a world to be saved and conserved. I promise you that this is true.

acting like a kid again (only this time, with PhD’s and researchers and an NSF grant),
-little hupo


  1. Mario,
    I absolutely love hearing all of your stories about your adventures. This is by far one of the best ones. Way to send some routes too!!!
    I miss you a whole lot hermano, I'm so glad you're getting these experiences. Stay safe and take care :-) Hope to hear from you soon!!

  2. Dearest Little Hupo,
    I am happy to hear that you are having some adventure/exploration intertwined with your research. I am not surprised that you are finding Phd's acting like kids, just look at your Dad. Growing up is over-rated. Don't be having so much fun and awe that you for get that S. Africa is still a dangerous place. I know that this trip is maturing you but as your mother, I still worry. What's a mother to do?