Tracking a river

08 September 2013

tracking a riverGreat divide: The students studied the differences between the communities on either side of the water: predominantly game farmers on one side and subsistence farming communities on the other.

Expedition Kei: the first documented walk and ecological assessment of the Eastern Cape's Great Kei River

Starting in the frigid Winterberg Mountains and ending at the balmy Indian Ocean, an interdisciplinary group of five students hiked 450km in 30 days along the Great Kei, scaling cliffs and braving rhino poachers to collect water samples and study social dynamics on opposite sides.

Theirs is the first documented bio-monitoring assessment of the entire river and its tributaries, complete with photographic journal of the flora along the Kei's meandering course.

And thanks to "pedantic" planning, the group - Daniel Poultney, Carla McKenzie; Kim Harrisberg, Stefano Maiorana and Brandon Finn (four UCT students and a Stellenbosch counterpart) - arrived home on 14 July, the eve of the new semester. Negotiating dense bush and difficult terrain en route, they gathered over 200 water samples at GPS-logged points. These will provide information on pH, electro-conductivity, and oxygen and hydrogen isotope levels at various points along the Kei. This data will help researchers track the river's health, and later, the effects of climate change.

The scientists hope to establish a link between the river's biological status and the communities that live and farm along its course. Among the UCT researchers who will study the water samples are Dr Kevin Winter (environmental and geographical sciences) and Dr Adam West (biological sciences).

The river communities were also the focus of a second study, with a sociological theme, as the group documented the social interactions between the two groups: game farmers on one side and small-scale subsistence farmers on the other.

"We were welcomed on both sides," said Finn, who is studying environmental science and media. "Many of the farmers speak isiXhosa and although we noted plenty of integration, there is still racism, and tensions were discernible."

Brandon Finn Carla McKenzie
Many rivers to cross: Brandon Finn negotiates the slippery bottom of the Great Kei. The group made up to six river crossings a day, on one occasion submerged to the top of their packs. Uphill: Carla McKenzie negotiates a steep hillside. Sheer cliffs and dense bush sometimes necessitated wide detours.

A back-up team planted provisions at designated points every five to six days and apart from a few wet nights spent in dilapidated farm buildings en route (one optimistically marked 'Dallas' on the map), they camped out, to the call of jackals.

Although there were several brushes with Mother Nature - baboons throwing rocks over a cliff to intimidate them, other wild animals (unknowingly, they spent a night in an enclave, oblivious to the leopard, buffalo and rhino that frequented the area) - it was the thorny lantana bush that proved most obstructive, choking the riverbanks and making headway impossible.

They were also drawn into a game-poaching drama; one farm they visited was on high alert for rhino poachers in the area. "We drove out in a 4x4 with armed farmers, who say they shoot into the valley to kill the dogs that guide the poachers to the rhino," Finn explained.

But serendipity also lit the way. Prior to setting out, they met with rock art guru Victor Briggs, a retired farmer who's an expert on the paintings in the area. And on Poultney's birthday they stumbled on ancient rock paintings, on a jagged rock-face behind dense bush. Back in harness on campus, Poultney, the 'brain' behind the water research, and a student in the biological sciences department, summed up the experience: "There was an unusual sense of timelessness, of being isolated from the world."

For Harrisberg, a journalism student at Stellenbosch, the expedition has meant new ways of thinking about physical limitations. "We often stop pushing ourselves, as a type of defence mechanism. But when you're forced to push your limits, you realise you're a lot stronger than you thought."

Finn says he is amped for more - and wants to incorporate trail running into the next expedition.

Story by Helen Swingler

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