The scars of more than a century of overgrazing, ploughing and failed farm management practices run chest deep in the grainy tillite clay on the renosterveld slopes of the Bokkeveld plateau, in the Northern Cape. Decades of rain have scoured away over three cubic kilometres of topsoil. Dongas have sliced into the skin of this ancient land, their walls baked hard as cement under the unblinking gaze of a near-desert sun.
The farm of Avontuur, about 15km outside the town of Nieuwoudtville, was once thought to be good only for sheep, wheat and rooibos. But it is in the ‘bulb capital of the world’, and includes pristine fynbos, which is why conservationists snapped it up when it came under the hammer in 2008.
The Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) is one cog in a collaboration between conservationists, civil society organisations and local small-scale farmers who are working together to patch up its work-weary slopes. Their aim is to protect the soils and the treasure-trove of natural diversity, and find ways for farmers to tread lightly on this rare land, writes Leonie Joubert.
Photography by Sam Reinders, with additional images from Noel Oettle and Leonie Joubert.
Healing the scars
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The day was drawing to a close when the tea pickers first noticed the thunder clouds boiling up on the edge of the plateau. By seven that evening – or was it eight? – the storm hit. An angry wind ripped down through the homestead at Dobbelaarskop in the Suid Bokkeveld, baying mercilessly with its pelting rain and hail. It hounded through two opslaan huisies (small, prefabricated houses), tearing them to splinters.
Son of the Suid Bokkeveld
Tea farmer Hendrik Hesselman may be well into his retirement years, but he has a plan to patch up the erosion scars he has inherited on his farm Dobbelaarskop. (Photograph by Leonie Joubert.)
A ten thousand litre water tank floated free of its moorings and sheared in two. Thankfully, the ancient gum tree didn’t drop any of its lead-heavy branches as it hunched itself against the fury of the storm.
The smiling 77 year old Hendrik Hesselman – Oompie Hen, to everyone – sits upright in the kitchen of an old sandstone-block house the Nieuwoudtville, recounting the story of that night with a quiet pragmatism. His eyes twinkle as he thanks his maker that no one was hurt. His son, Bennet, and daughter-in-law, Ragel, were in one of those houses when it was whirled away by the wind, and the nearby buildings collapsed. The pauses between his words tell it all: things could have ended very differently.
At home in Dobbelaarskop
In this 2007 file photograph, Hendrik Hesselman sits in front of the family’s kitchen, a reed kookskerm or cooking screen, along with his wife Sanna (right) and daughter-in-law Ragel. (Photograph by Leonie Joubert.)
Like many of the small-scale farmers here in the Suid Bokkeveld, Oompie Hen has been working the land for decades, coaxing rooibos tea from its sandy, nutrient-poor soils, or searching through this rugged, fire-adapted veld for wild tea.
And, like many of these tea farmers, he has inherited the scars of poor farming practices that are generations old. But Oompie Hen, in spite of being well into his retirement years, doesn’t have time to sit back and let storms like that February 2011 one rake their way deeper into the Dobbelaarskop hillsides.
Oompie Hen has a plan.
Tackling century-old erosion
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The neat arc of the falling pickaxe belies the truly herculean task of breaking down the walls of an erosion donga. It takes brute force to slam the implement’s dull steel spike against the century-old wall.
Hacking out small chunks of sun-baked clay from the walls of aged erosion dongas is back-breaking work.
A pickaxe isn’t a precision instrument. Blow after blow meets with shuddering resistance until eventually a series of fine fissures spider outwards in the clay face. A few more well-positioned blows and the donga wall relents, shedding a few masonry-hard clods into the gully below. And then it’s back to square one.
The 23-year-old Areefa Tietis and her fellow field rangers from the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) use this sort of natural debris to help reinforce the ‘check’ dams they’re constructing in the gullies to slow down and spread out the flow of water that has been steadily carving out the soil on the north-east side of Avontuur farm.
The erosion here is a century or more old, explains EMG’s local project manager Noel Oettle, where the fragile renosterveld was heavily grazed by generations of sheep farmers, before the plough wrought severe damage to the delicate soils. Now, the erosion ditches look like the ever deepening valley floor at the foot of an imposing miniature escarpment.
Lay of the landAreefa Tietis and her fellow EMG field rangers measure out anti-erosion contour lines with Oompie Hen (centre, left). (Photograph by Noel Oettle.)
Oettle’s team of young rangers hauls wooden logs into the gullies and wraps them in a wide-meshed hessian-like fabric called ‘geotextile’. They moor these into the donga floor using rocks stacked downstream of the ‘dam’. They pile the salvaged clods upstream of the wall. A few spade-loads of topsoil, shaved neatly off the healthy ground outside of the donga, get dumped on top of the clods, followed by an armful or two of vegetation from the surrounding shrubs.
When the rains come, the clods will dissolve and settle behind the dam wall, where seeds and organic matter can snag and take purchase. But getting this rough and ready structure in place is back-breaking work.
These dams are small feats of engineering. Older check dams, built a year or two earlier, are already showing how effective they are in slowing the erosion process. In some of them, the fabric is beginning to rot, as it’s meant to. Behind the now weathered log, thick wedges of damp silt have settled, where they’ve been trapped by the rock and fabric. Seeds, flushed down in previous rain storms, have grabbed a hold in the silt, and germinated. Their tender young roots become the next line of defence against the relentless pressure of the water which would otherwise carve the channels even deeper. Once the vegetation has recovered like this, it locks down the soil in the gully floor and diffuses the whittling energy of storm waters. Nature can be left to carry on with the slow process of mending itself.
There aren’t many job opportunities for school-leavers in farming towns like Nieuwoudtville. But Areefa Tietis’ training as a field ranger could set her up for a career in conservation.
Donga repair like this is part of a broader restoration initiative on Avontuur, which was bought by international conservation body WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature) when the beleaguered property was put under the hammer in 2008.
The farm straddles two clear vegetation communities: a relatively undisturbed Bokkeveld sandstone fynbos – the largest remaining stand of it left in the area, which is why WWF was so eager to buy the land – and a heavily over-farmed renosterveld section (Nieuwoudtville shale renosterveld and Nieuwoudtville-Roggeveld dolerite renosterveld).
The arduous job of building erosion control measures in the dongas is two-fold: not only does it rehabilitate this heavily over-extracted farm for conservation purposes, but it is a demonstration site where local farmers can learn these techniques and apply them on their own properties.
This kind of farming rehabilitation is a key aspect of the overarching mission here, run by a not-for-profit company called Avontuur Sustainable Agriculture, and spearheaded by EMG. It starts with erosion repair, and extends to clearing invasive alien plants, taking down unnecessary fences, and then farming appropriate crops and livestock in a way that doesn’t tear up the sensitive landscape. It is an opportunity to develop best practices around farming in this kind of landscape, and train up small-scale farmers in these techniques, explains Oettle. And this is how Areefa and her fellow rangers came to be part of Oompie Hen’s plan.
Satellite shipNoel Oettle heads up EMG’s Nieuwoudtville office and has trained up a team of competent field rangers.
After coming to Avontuur for a recent donga rehabilitation workshop hosted by EMG, Oompie Hen’s son Bennet realised that they had everything they needed within their community to deal with the erosion problems they’d inherited from previous land users. So Oompie Hen invited the EMG field rangers out to Dobbelaarskop, about two hour’s drive south of Avontuur, to help him sketch out a plan.
‘About four weeks ago we went to Dobbelaarskop,’ Areefa says, skipping tentatively between English and her mother tongue, Afrikaans. She’s perched on a bar-style stool next to the coffee counter in EMG’s Nieuwoudtville office lounge. The gurgling coffee machine fends off the September chill as it hisses another espresso to life. Spring may be on its way, but the Bokkeveld doesn’t seem to know it yet.
Youngsters taking root
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Areefa Tietis sips the foam tentatively off the top of her steaming cappuccino and explains how she became a trained field ranger in a town that offers few job opportunities for high school graduates.
Slow down, spread out
The check dams help to arrest the speed of rainwater, which has the energy to carve deep scars into the land. These are made with materials that will mostly degrade and collapse in time, but which allow vegetation to take root and stabilise the soil further.
Most youngsters leave school and work in town at a relatively menial job for a year or two before heading off to the city in search of better things. Or, if they’re lucky to come from a family with the means, they might sign up to a city college or university. But those opportunities are few and far between for people in this marginal agricultural dorp in the Bokkeveld – particularly if they’re born into a coloured family, where the dragnet of apartheid-era impoverishment still makes it so hard for these families to catch up economically.
Areefa’s first job, after matriculating in her hometown of Van Rhynsdorp about 60km away, was a cashier for two years in a small grocery store here in Nieuwoudtville.
‘I also did the books and orders,’ she recalls.
But an advert for a field ranger job, stuck up on a notice board in a shop in town, brought her into the EMG fold.
‘I didn’t really know what a field ranger was. They said it was like people in CapeNature who work in the veld.’
Young plants bud between the mesh of the geotextile which has helped stabilise the soil until the vegetation can recover and lock down the trench.
Now, she loves nothing more than to be out in the veld all day.
What does she love most about her job?
‘Watching nature recover,’ she says, through a shy smile. And she chatters on softly about what some of her work entails.
‘We must make the dams in the sloote so dat die water stadiger can loop (we must make dams in the dongas so that they can slow the water down), so the topsoil and seeds can stop at the dams,’ she explains.
If you don’t build these dams correctly, the water will find a way to break through.
‘Dit sal die donga grooter uitvreet (it will eat out the donga and make it bigger).’
She takes another sip of coffee.
The rangers’ job isn’t just about donga repair. It also involves hacking out invasive alien plants, building contour lines to stall potential erosion and marking out or repairing hiking trails. These are all physically gruelling tasks. There’s brain work here, as well as brawn. Areefa has been trained to use a dumpy level so she can plan slope contours lines. She’s learning to identify fynbos species and she understands the technical application of erosion control.
So when Oompie Hen wanted some advice on how to deal with the dongas on one section of his farm, Areefa and her strong young team had some of the know-how.
‘There was a koppie on Dobbelaarskop where the soil was very soft, en die water vreet die grond uit – and the water ate up the ground,’ she explains. ‘Oompie Hen thought the water should be...,’ she pauses, searching for the word, ‘bekamp... stopped. And we agreed that a contour would work best. And we decided to make check dams in the sloote, the dongas.’
Sweeping cleanEMG field ranger Andre ‘Kabamba’ van Wyk (22) and Andries Opperman (42) pull invasive alien plants as part of the conservation work being done on Avontuur, 15km outside of Nieuwoudtville.
They measured out the contour walls with a dumpy level.
‘You have to be able to work with numbers! And you have to be able to see clearly that it is the right number,’ she chuckles.
They marked out the contour line, hammered poles into the soil, and calculated what height the wall should be. The next step is for Oompie Hen to hire in some labour, probably from amongst his fellow farmers, to help do the heavy lifting. EMG has helped leverage some funds to subsidise the costs. They might even be able to rent a front-end loader for a day if they can raise the capital.
She’s quietly modest as she remembers what it was like, her as a young woman, giving advice to a man of Oompie Hen’s maturity.
‘Ah, it felt good to go and work with him even though he has a lot more experience with farming and erosion work. I enjoyed sharing the knowledge with him.’
The ‘bulb capital of the world’
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Donna Kotze and Shannon Parring are dwarfed by the blocky megaliths behind them. Stone upon dolerite stone, these ancient volcanic towers stand red and square-shouldered, their weathered skin draped in lichen like the relics of giant stonemasons from a mythological time.
Walking at the feet of giantsDonna Kotze (left) and Shannon Parring return from a day in the veld, counting flowers in the Nieuwoudtville Wildflower Reserve, forms part of a network of conservation spaces of which Avontuur is now a part. Donna and Shannon work with Indigo development & change, a sister-organisation to EMG.
The two young women cover ground quickly, their feet swinging comfortably through the shin-high veld after a day of counting flowers in the municipal wildflower reserve on the outskirts of Nieuwoudtville. They’re part of EMG’s partner organisation Indigo development & change, and are working alongside Areefa and the rest of the field rangers to map the rare flowers found across the Bokkeveld.
These dolerite koppies are part of a unique tapestry of soil and climate that have sculpted a pallet of such rare and diverse flowering veld plants, that people make pilgrimages from around the world to capture the springtime kaleidoscope.
Millions of years ago, liquid-hot rock oozed up through cracks in the Earth’s skin, creeping up chimneys or along horizontal fissures between older sandstone and tillite layers. The tough dolerite stood firm while the softer rock around it yielded to the wear-and-tear of the elements. Over time, the sandstone and tillite and even some dolerite sloughed onto the plains below.
This created three distinctive soil types which, together with the changing rainfall gradients, have carved out different environmental niches into which the local plant life has squeezed itself.
Dolerite koppies tower over a patchwork of mostly sandstone and tillite soils at the Nieuwoudtville Wildflower Reserve, helping to sculpt the unique floral diversity.
The Russian violet shades of the Pride-of-Nieuwoudtville (Geissorhiza splendidissima) are splendid indeed; the powder-pink baubles of the candelabra lily (Brunsvigia bosmaniae) which explode like fireworks in March; the galaxies of seemingly petal-less yellow heads hovering like a billion minute suns. Across the veld, starbursts of flaming yellows and midnight mauves and rusted reds and ivory whites; petals that are rounded or blunt or spear-sharp; some growing as single blooms on the end of a stalk, others studded up the stem’s length.
Adapted for life on the edge of the desert, most of these plants shrink back underground during the hot summers. But come the winter rains, they explode into a visual cacophony for a few short weeks. The winter of 2013 was long and wet, producing some of the best flower displays seen in years, and it’s been keeping Donna and Shannon dashing between the network of flower reserves, with a hit-list of their ‘most wanted’ flowers.
Their work takes them from this municipal reserve, to the Hantam National Botanical Garden, and now out to Avontuur, where the first botanical surveys have turned up a treasure of rare plants and their quirky pollinators. Like the tiny Diascia species with its bizarre double-horned flower, whose spurs hold oil like beakers for the female of a Rediviva bee species to collect on her unusually long forelegs. The Avontuur farm has become a study site for one such rare example of the region’s co-evolution of pollinator and pollinated. And there are so many other unique relationships here, between flowers and birds, mice, flies, bees and myriad other little pollen collectors
A galaxy at her feet Shannon Parring captures some of the abundance following a particularly long and wet winter in 2013 which produced one of the best flowering seasons in years.
The Indigo and EMG teams started compiling the Avontuur ‘herbarium’ in 2010, on behalf of the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s (SANBI’s) Custodians of Rare and Endangered Flowers (CREW). Unlike SANBI’s museum-style herbaria at its Kirstenbosch head office, this herbarium is little more than a ring-bound file with sleeves of clear plastic holding the contorted shapes of pressed plants. But it’s an important start of a botanical audit that has already turned up a significant number of rare plants, along with the relationship they have with a peculiar collection of equally rare pollinators.
Donna pages through the sleeves, stopping at one entry: dried green leaves radiating out from the top of a stem; white petals with a sunny yellow base, some paper-flat, others crumpled up through the drying process; the kinked pinkish-brown root restrained by slim bands of white tape. A printed form at the bottom of the page notes what the plant is (an ‘Oxalis’), where it was collected (‘Avontuur, @ lower windmill’, along with GPS coordinates), when (‘29/5/2011’ in neat, black handwriting), who collected it (‘Bettina Koelle’).
This is specimen ‘BK#07’, a white oxalis...
The file is beginning to bulge with similar samples, 30 in all.
This is ancient country, with many of its own untold stories. Avontuur, and the people working here, are beginning to tie together the first fascinating threads of how life operates high up on the Bokkeveld plateau. They’re all scholars in this mysterious place.
The regular botanical surveys keep the teams hunting for rare and endangered flowers, and occasionally turn up new species.
‘Kolegas?’ Oettle calls to his team of rangers one afternoon during an inspection drive through the farm. They’ve found a purple flowering shrub which no one recognises, so they huddle around their field guides to see if they can narrow down the plant to a specific family: probably a daisy of sorts. Other than their subdued discussion over the glossy pages of the book, not much else stirs the lazy spring air other than the hum of a nearby insect buzzing between flower heads, and the slow stirring of the wind across the plateau.