How to Have a Field Trip In Africa

15 Feb

Barely after the dust of registration had cleared last week, I was off on a camping field trip with my Masters class. We had an overnight stay at Silvermine Reserve in Table Mountain National Park. For those of you who don’t know, Cape Town shares a peninsula with a 62,000 acre national park with some of the highest biodiversity in the world. Nine students went on the trip, accompanied by our fearless and intrepid leader and instructor, Dr. Pippin Anderson. The objective was to mainly have all of the Masters class meet prior to courses starting, but also to start putting us in the academic mindset. For most of us, work and other non-school activities have consumed our lives for the past few years, so it was an apt opportunity for us to try to ease back into academia.

Like any good field trip, ours began at the local bottle shop. The particular liquor store we visited was in Steenberg, situated near South Africa’s largest maximum security prison. It was nestled in this cute little strip mall with a grocery store called Pick ‘n Pay (a large chain here equivalent to a Rainbow Foods in MN), a salon, a veterinarian, among others. The prison was basically adjacent to this shopping center and right in the heart of the suburb. The planning in this city keeps me on my toes. We climbed up the mountain in our large VW van and made it to our campsite, complete with a fire area for a nice “braai” (a common social event here centered around the grill), a large kitchen, showers, toilets, and 5 timber huts for sleeping. After settling down, we took off for a nearly 4 hour hike up, down, and around Table Mountain. Pippin led us in ecological explorations of the flora found in the area. During the interpretative hike, I learned about fynbos (pronounced here as “fane-boss”; Afrikaans for “fine bush”), a shrubland vegetation unique to this part of South Africa. The fynbos has been threatened by invasive species from Europe and Australia along with the pressures of human development, and many species that constitute fynbos either extinct or have become endangered. The picture included shows some nice fynbos in the foreground, with the Atlantic Ocean in the background. During the course of the field trip, we looked at ways in which people are trying to foster the growth of fynbos, not only on the mountain within the park but across the cityscape as well.

It didn’t take long to smell the pines. Being from northern Minnesota, where the odor of coniferous sap is analogous to getting warm embrace from nature, my nose is especially calibrated to sense it. The pines I saw were tall and probably pretty old. We were told that the pines we see here are not native and were actually brought by the Dutch to provide material for building and fuel to move their ships as they explored the seas. Now, vast portions of Table Mountain along with some suburbs are covered in pine trees. Many people appreciate the aesthetic benefits they get from the pines; they provide shade in an awfully warm climate and are a nice place to walk your dog. No doubt some ecological benefits come from the trees being a habitat for many other critters. There is also the economic incentive for having the pines through the logging trade. Unfortunately, these plants outcompete indigenous plants for moisture and have the ability to dramatically alter soil chemistry in a region. In a place like the Cape, conservation is a huge issue considering how much biodiversity is located in this relatively small chunk of land. For these reasons, conservationists and citizens alike have called for the mass removal of pines in Cape Town. That is not to say these efforts have not been met with resistance. This city and the surrounding region is widely diverse in so many ways, and this includes diversity in the values we hold in regard to the environment around us. Ongoing efforts are trying to reconcile sound ecology with human value systems. One such compromise is that for every plot of pines removed, a small portion is saved for the pinelands. I have to say, it was rather bizarre to look at these rows and rows of cultivated trees. If you kept the mountain to your back and you squinted just slightly, it looked just like Bemidji, Perham, Park Rapids, or the great, wonderful forests in MN. But it wasn’t. And there is no Paul Bunyan here to manage these larger-than-life forestry issues. It’s up to the people.

After our hike, we had time to read an academic paper and discuss it in our rustic kitchen back at camp. Then, we braai’ed. So the word braaicomes from Afrikaans, and means grill or barbecue (Afrikaans is a language that is spoken in South Africa, Namibia and in small pockets across southern Africa and has its roots in Dutch; 13% of the South African population are native speakers and it is the third most spoken tongue in the country). It was my first and only braai, so I don’t feel quite like I’m the expert on it, but I can say what we ate. Marinated chicken on kabobs and butternut squash cut in half and wrapped in tinfoil. We laid these both over our open fire (braai’ing in also done on a Weber or the like) and then chatted while we waited for everything to cook. It was fabulous! We ended the night singing songs and enjoying some good South African wines.

The following day, we got up and visited the parts of the city we saw the previous day while perched on the mountain. We visited the beach, watched a fishing net come in, stopped by nearby lakes or “vleis”, and checked out some really inventive conversation projects happening in this growing urban area. We shared a lunch underneath, you guessed it, some pines while the winds from the the flats blew dust into our sandwiches. “Boy Scout Salt and Pepper” is what I told my classmates dirt is called when you’re camping “Up North”.

I’m very thankful that this trip was organized and that I had the wherewithal to attend it. We had a great opportunity to meet each other and for me as a totally new addition to Cape Town, it was a wonderful introductory session to life here. I said multiple times that evening that this trip would rival all others as the best field trip ever (I still maintain that my Waste Water Treatment field trip in St. Peter is right up there). Now, classes have started, but I believe we’re all getting together again on Friday for “Sundowners” (an event where people get together to have cocktails and watch the sun sink beneath the horizon). May the legacy of the Silvermine Camping Extravaganza 2012 live on!

Many blessings to you,

ang

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3 Responses to “How to Have a Field Trip In Africa”

  1. jamiezamboni February 16, 2012 at 1:30 am #

    Angie! Sounds like you’re learnings lots (already, and you haven’t even started classes yet!) Learn lots friend.

  2. Kathy February 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Angie,
    Glad to find your blog and being able to catch up on how you are doing in SA. Sounds like a wonderful country.

    Take care,
    Kathy

  3. Danie Strydom (@Danie____) March 6, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    Your blog is read by locals too. Welcome to Cape Town Angiem.

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