Corinna Riginos is a Fulbright scholar in South Africa studying overgrazing in the Succulent Karoo.

Monday, 8 Jan 2001

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa

Timm, the leader of the project I am working on, buzzes up to my apartment at 6:30 this morning. I come down with all my stuff for the week, which is not all that much: sleeping bag and ground pad, a few outer layers of clothing, an extra T-shirt (in case the one I’m wearing becomes a bit too odorous), boots, flashlight, binoculars, clipboard, ruler, other various trappings of ecological research, and, above all, sunscreen and a hat.

Timm and the bakkie.

Photo: Corinna Riginos.

Downstairs, the truck (or bakkie, as they call pickups here, an Afrikaans word for “container”) is loaded with all sorts of equipment and food for the week. Timm is wearing his usual field attire: a bright green suit, the sort that a gardener might wear, with “Kirstenbosch” emblazoned on the lapel of his jacket. Kirstenbosch is the name of the botanical garden where the National Botanical Institute (Timm’s employer) is based. Timm already has about two days’ worth of stubble, as if in anticipation of the week in the field.

The mountains around Stellenbosch are dazzlingly lit by the early morning sun. Stellenbosch, South Africa’s second oldest town after Cape Town, is situated in a fertile valley famous for its wines. Surrounded by four striking sandstone mountains and studded with tidy vineyards, Stellenbosch is a gem. But its charms slowly fade into the distance as we begin the long drive north.

Our destination, a small village called Paulshoek, is a far cry from Stellenbosch’s affluent, Cape-colonial feel. Paulshoek is part of the “Communal Area,” a chunk of land owned in trust by the government for all the occupants. In the “old” South Africa, during the apartheid days, Paulshoek was part of a “Rural Coloured Reserve.” The people who live there are what the apartheid state would have classified as “coloured,” but if you asked anyone in Paulshoek, he would say “we’re Nama.” The Nama are part of the larger Khoi group of people, traditionally nomadic herders throughout southern Africa’s arid region. But ever since colonists began to claim large chunks of what is now South Africa for themselves, the Nama people became limited to “reserves,” a limitation that was strongly enforced by the apartheid government.

These communal areas make up 25 percent of the Namaqualand region — not nearly enough land relative to the number of occupants, but nevertheless a sizeable chunk of the region. Namaqualand sits in the northwestern corner of the country, a good 600 kilometers up the road that carries traffic from Cape Town to Namibia. It is a long drive; it will take us most of the day just to get to Paulshoek.

Once we leave behind the Stellenbosch winelands, we move on to endless wheat fields. The fields undulate in almost alien fashion thanks to the hundreds of heuweltjies that are packed into the fields. Heuweltjies are mounds or hillocks created by termites over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, as they enrich the soil surrounding their termitaria. They appear so regular and neatly round across the landscape, it is hard to believe that something as small as a termite could have done so much.

We wind through our first mountain pass, full of large truck traffic, and descend into the Olifants River valley, a long and narrow citrus-producing region. Outside the bakkie, the world is starting to wake up, farm laborers are starting to go to the field, and the many citrus stalls are just opening up. We continue past the towns of Citrusdal and Klawer, then suddenly burst into the Karoo, the semi-arid biome of which Namaqualand is a part. Big, wide-open space, and a very straight line of highway ahead.

We stop for breakfast in a town called Van Rynsdorp (Van Ryn’s town). Every gas station cafe offers the same fare — greasy and meaty. Timm gets some heart-stopper called an “egg and cheese burger,” as well as a few candy bars. I settle for a toasted ham and cheese, about the most palatable item on the menu.

We drive on.

By noon or so, we reach the “last outpost” town of Garies, which touts itself as “the heart of Namaqualand.” One worries that Namaqualand may not last long with such a small and sleepy heart. In Garies we find lunch in a boerworsroll, the South African version of a hotdog. After lunch, we lose the main highway and turn onto a dirt road. Here we drive through some splendid mountains and farmlands, climbing slightly in elevation. The uplands are home to vestiges of the Renosterveld and Fynbos vegetation that abound back south around Stellenbosch and the Cape, while the valleys are Succulent Karoo. Both Fynbos and Succulent Karoo are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems; South Africa is both blessed and burdened to have two of the world’s biodiversity “hot spots” within the country.

Photo: Corinna Riginos.

After about an hour on this road, which has taken us northeast to just below the highest point of Namaqualand’s Kamiesberg mountain range, we turn off at a hand-painted sign for “PaulsHOEK” — “Paul’s Corner.”

Soon the town spreads before us, and children and women in huge 18th century-style Dutch bonnets run out of the houses waving as we pass. We stop to touch base with Mervin, the man who runs things Paulshoek-side for Timm. But before long, we take the turn onto the Parkie Straat, which carries us several hundred meters out of town and over a little ridge to the campsite. The site is small and tidy, blanketed with yellow wildflowers, all edifices constructed from reeds and wood, except for a camper that Timm uses as his field office and storage room. We park in front of the camper, thankful to stretch our legs after the seven-hour drive.

My first action is to lay claim to one of the round reed mat huts — matjies in Afrikaans. These huts are shady and cool, and at night you can glimpse the stars overhead through the gaps between the reeds. The floors are level and hard, hand-packed with a mixture of dirt, sheep dung, and water. I sit in the welcome cool of the hut, transfixed for a moment by the calm of the place, the sound of the wind whistling as it passes through the reeds of the roof. It is good to be back in Paulshoek.

Reluctantly, I get up and return to the bakkie. There is more unpacking to be done. We set up tables, lanterns, crockery, water drums, and a gas stove in the kookskerm — a traditional cooking shelter, nestled in a rocky hollow to cut the wind. The walls of the kookserm are made of packed shrub skeletons from a particular shrub species. The walls come only to chest height, leaving the top open for ventilation and stargazing.

There is not enough time to merit a trip to the sites of the various experiments we are conducting, so Timm uses these few hours of waning light to collect his monthly phenology data: He monitors each of approximately 200 plant species monthly for buds, flowers, and fruits. Slowly, this data is building a picture of what time of year each species flowers and sets seed, and whether this process is governed more by time of year or by the weather. This data will allow Timm to make recommendations such as what time of year a pasture should be rested from grazing to ensure that the majority of shrub species reproduce.

The campsite is very rich in species, making it a perfect spot for me to wander or simply sit and observe the iridescent green sunbirds flit from shrub to shrub and the occasional hare bound across the
rocks. The vegetation is all scrubby bushes, thigh-high, except for a handful of Lyceum bushes that come to eye level. The absence of trees makes for a feeling of wide open space, vistas stretching until the next ridge of pink gneiss rock.

By sundown, Timm reappears and says, “Well, I thought we might braai up some chicken tonight, what do you think?” Pretty soon he’s chopping away at the firewood with a hand ax, and a fire is roaring in the kookskerm. I prepare a salad to supplement the grilled chicken. By now it is cold outside, despite the fierce heat of the day, and we stay in the warmth of the kookskerm. We eat and talk, planning the week’s work, catching up on the past month’s events, enjoying the tranquility of the night. Tomorrow the real work begins.