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Beautiful South Africa from summits to sea

VCU students take the trip of a lifetime during winter study abroad course

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Shira Lanyi climbs through the mist on the famed chain ladders route in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa.
Photo by Dan Carr.

One of the most basic principles of biology is that all life is interconnected. A few lucky Virginia Commonwealth University globe trekkers experienced this firsthand this winter as they hiked, paddled and swam through the wilds and cities of South Africa.

The students traveled throughout South Africa from Dec. 27–Jan. 15 as part of “South African Summits to Sea: Human and Natural History of KwaZulu-Natal,” a biology study abroad course. The explorers enjoyed the South African summer, while temperatures dipped on campus during winter break.

As the undergraduates stood on the peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains and snorkeled in Kosi Bay, they learned about the role rivers play in the connections between humans and nature in ecosystems. The coursework focused on the Tugela and Pongola rivers, the mountains where they originate and the ocean where they end.

“Quite literally, from the summits of the Drakensburg mountains to the coast of the Indian Ocean in Maputaland, the synergy between the South African people and their natural resources, namely water, was palpable,” said Christine Savoie, a biology student on the trip. “This course gave me a newfound appreciation for the inextricable effects of the environment on how we live, and the biodiversity around us.”

Group photo on footbridge over Mahai River in Royal Natal National Park. Pictured from left to right: Thomas Vinyard III, Nick Kelly, Christine Savoie, Shira Lanyi, Simren Bhatt, James Vonesh, Trevor Young, Mahad Mustafa, Diego Azuga and Nycole Taliaferro. Not pictured: Dan Carr.
<br>Photo by Dan Carr.
Group photo on footbridge over Mahai River in Royal Natal National Park. Pictured from left to right: Thomas Vinyard III, Nick Kelly, Christine Savoie, Shira Lanyi, Simren Bhatt, James Vonesh, Trevor Young, Mahad Mustafa, Diego Azuga and Nycole Taliaferro. Not pictured: Dan Carr.
Photo by Dan Carr.

Savoie and her peers spoke to farmers and people in the ecotourism business, examined mining company policies, and toured a dam to observe the human impact on rivers. They observed the wild dogs, zebras and elephants of the South African veldt.

Learn More

More information about the South African Summits to Sea course, which was open to students from all majors and to non-VCU students through the VCU Education Abroad office, can be found on Vonesh’s lab page, wp.vcu.edu/voneshlab/news.
The class fulfills the senior capstone requirement for VCU biology.

The course was created by James Vonesh, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, who based the curriculum on the “Footprints on the James” class, which exposes students to ecosystems dependent on the James River as they camp and learn the basics of life outdoors. Vonesh also was inspired by his recent stint as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa. Daniel Carr, biology instructor in the College of Humanities and Sciences, taught alongside Vonesh.

Vonesh and Carr urged students to reflect on the course by sketching and writing in travel journals and taking pictures along the way. The following are excerpts from class journals and interviews that capture 19 days of adventures from summits to sea. The excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

 


 

“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and may I say innocence, with Nature herself.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Beauty in Basotho
By Mahad Mustafa

The woman in Basotho.
<br>Photo by Mahad Mustafa.
The woman in Basotho.
Photo by Mahad Mustafa.

There were tourists in Basotho cultural village but there were also a fair amount of native South Africans. There was one lady that I saw just standing there, one hand behind her back in her traditional clothes, just looking off into the distance.

I came up to her and asked could I take a picture of her. She just smiled. I don’t think she understood English, but I kind of just used body language to describe what I was asking her. I think it was one of the most beautiful pictures I had taken. Not only because of natural beauty, but because she was there in that moment. She was living in her own environment kind of looking around. I thought that was absolutely beautiful.

 


 

On the rooftops of South Africa
By Thomas Vinyard III

Summits to Seas students hike through the mist of the Drakensbergs.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
Summits to Seas students hike through the mist of the Drakensbergs.
Photo by James Vonesh.

We just got back from hiking the Sentinel Peak, right on the border of the Kingdom of Lesotho. We were deep in the Drakensbergs, or Dragon Mountains, and it was very rocky, unlike the route I had climbed yesterday, which was sandstone. This was mostly metamorphic rock. I have no idea why this is because we only drove an hour away. We drove through the old capital of Qua Qua Phuthaditjhaba. This was noticeably less developed than other cities. Qua Qua had been home for black South Africans in the apartheid area.

Wild flowers and other wildlife spotted while hiking through the Drakensbergs.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
Wild flowers and other wildlife spotted while hiking through the Drakensbergs.
Photo by James Vonesh.

The Sentinel, a flat-topped mountain on the border of Royal Natal National Park was shrouded in mist. You couldn’t see but about 40 feet in front of you. The higher we climbed up the wet rocky trail, the smaller the flora got. Lichens and small shrubs, with some beautiful small flowery weeds, were predominant. I saw no large mammals but I did see their trails and scat. Our guide, Stef Steyn, says that Lesotho farmers illegally bring their cattle up to the plateau to graze.

Thomas Vinyard III ascends the famed chain ladders route in the Drakensbergs.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
Thomas Vinyard III ascends the famed chain ladders route in the Drakensbergs.
Photo by James Vonesh.

The chain ladders really weren’t scary at all if you didn’t look down. The water that dripped down every rock face was clean and pure, and most of us filled our canteens. The plateau at the top had short grasses and shrubs and seemed to be in a constant state of saturation. This is because it is the Tugela River catchment. We saw the headwaters of the Tugela and Mahadi rivers up there. There was one hill that, if a raindrop fell on one side, it would eventually end up in the Indian Ocean. If it landed on the other side, it would eventually end up in the Atlantic.

 


 

Somkhanda Game Reserve
By Thomas Vinyard III

We left for a game drive this morning. We saw probably 60 or more impala, several kudu, nyala and black and white rhinos. The black rhino is known to arbitrarily charge for no reason, so when we saw but one, everyone hurriedly got back into their safari vehicle. The white rhino are less aggressive. We saw some from the side of the hill about 1,500 meters away, so we drove down and walked around the hill in a diminishing arc until we were about 50 yards away. They knew we were there because of our smell and our sound. Their little Shrek ears pointed to our sound. When they found us, they put their rear ends to us and squatted, looking exactly like large gray rocks.

VCU Summits to Sea students track rhinos at Somkhanda Game Reserve.
Video by James Vonesh.

 


 

African wild dogs at Somkhanda Game Reserve
By Diego Azuga

There was more game viewing in the park at 7 a.m. The crew was split into two groups and the beginning of the viewing was a good one. A nearby water hole had a pack of seven wild dogs lying by it. The alpha, a female, was larger and laying by the water.

We observed the wild dogs for a while. Their ears would twitch as they looked around and at us. They would play with each other from time to time and when moving, they stayed together. They may have finished a hunt, which explains why they were cooling down.

Canines like the wild dog have certain attributes that other predators don’t. Wild dogs have learned to store food in carefully chosen caches. They also eat after a kill, only to feed their pups safely in their dens by regurgitating it.

Wild dogs rest in Somkhanda Game Reserve in Mkuze, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
Wild dogs rest in Somkhanda Game Reserve in Mkuze, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Photo by James Vonesh.

 


 

The city of Jozini
By Christine Savoie

Driving into Jozini was eye opening and unique. It was very impoverished; there was a lot of trash. There were people selling things on the streets and a lot of really interesting looking vendors, and they were just surrounded by this dilapidated and crumbling city. There were piles of trash and people walking everywhere.

The downtown of Jozini,  a small town in South Africa on the main route to Mozambique.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
The downtown of Jozini, a small town in South Africa on the main route to Mozambique.
Photo by James Vonesh.

I was really surprised that if you lived in this environment, you would want your trash to be in a pile near your home. So I asked our guide Abednigo “Abe” Nzuza, why is there so much trash? Don’t people have somewhere they can bring it? Why does it pile up like this? It was everywhere. Abe responded that people didn’t really have anywhere to bring their trash, because they couldn’t get to the facilities. There was no infrastructure to pick it up. He said most people were so poor, that it wasn’t worth a cab drive and a cab driver wouldn’t want your trash in his vehicle anyway.

So, it was kind of an only option to have it near your house. Everyone in that region was sort of trying to keep it contained. Then someone who was even more desperate than you would pick through it, and maybe disperse it everywhere in a city with a considerable number of people. So, it seemed like it was an institutional problem, that there had been no infrastructure imposed to help these people manage their trash. Abe said when it was attempted, there were lots of strikes. There were a lot of problems, and eventually it was one of those issues that people kind of gave up on. So, now they were in a situation where it was sort of an accepted thing. People just accepted the fact that there’s trash everywhere. On top of that, there was a nearby mall that we visited. Naturally, the cab driver said that it added a lot to the trash.

 


 

The herd at Tembe Elephant Park
By Nicolas Kelly

Elephants at water hole Tembe Elephant National Park, KZN, South Africa.
Video by James Vonesh.

Shortly after lunch we pulled up to a watering hole surrounded by elephants. It appeared to be at least a whole herd, possibly two. There were 11 elephants, with two or three babies. The babies flailed around and played in the mud while the adults used their trunks to fling mud and water at themselves. The elephant trunks were sniffing in our direction and they were obviously aware of us. They didn’t seem to pay us too much attention. The most notable defensive behavior was forming a kind of wall between the babies and us.

Watching the elephants was amazing. I had relatively low expectations because I had hoped to have only one sighting.

 


 

A little elephant coaxing
By Mahad Mustafa

Summits to Seas students spot an elephant at the Tembe Elephant Park in Maputaland, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
Summits to Seas students spot an elephant at the Tembe Elephant Park in Maputaland, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Photo by James Vonesh.

At first we saw just one elephant and I was floored by our guide. He talked to the elephants very sweetly and gently. It was almost how a father would talk to his 5-year-old child before he or she goes off to kindergarten. He was saying things like, “Beautiful boy come out, we came all the way from America to see you.” And the elephant would just respond. I asked him later how long he had worked at the elephant park. He said four or five years but that he had been in the bush his whole life. I think that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The way the elephant responded was really majestic. It would look over right on cue. The more that our guide would encourage it in a loving and sweet voice, the more it would respond.

 


 

Paddling the Pongola
By Trevor Young

Today we set sail for the wider Pongola River on a boat trip with Peter. We were able to see many hippos and even a few crocodiles. Our guide, Peter Calverly, went into detail about his Ph.D. work with the crocodiles. I was surprised how relevant to the river’s health the crocodiles were. For example, they serve as indicators of fish populations.

We next embarked on our paddle down the Pongola River in kayaks. Sadly, there was a noticeable quantity of trash strewn about the river due to a recently built mall that had brought many more people (and trash) to the area.

Paddling up the river was eerily quiet. It reminded me of scenes from the movie “Apocalypse Now” on the Mekong River. Breaking the silence was a great many bird calls and the bird diversity was incredible. Bright blues, yellows and reds darted from tree to tree. Particularly impressive was a giant heron with a wingspan half as tall as me. Seeing all of these birds made all of the trash we saw more impactful.

Nycole Taliaferro paddles down the Pongola River.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
Nycole Taliaferro paddles down the Pongola River.
Photo by James Vonesh.

Today, we did a bit more paddling and focused on the ecology of the river. We were able to do more macroinvertebrate sampling mean, to the joy of some local children playing in the river.

Children playing along the Pongola River are interested in specimens studied by the Summits to Seas class.
<br>Photo by Dan Carr.
Children playing along the Pongola River are interested in specimens studied by the Summits to Seas class.
Photo by Dan Carr.

We were led to a local farm to gather ingredients for a Potjiekos cooking competition. [Potjiekos is a dish that is cooked outside in a cast iron pot.] Along the way, we witnessed the extent of a recent drought when we saw the skeleton of a cow bleached white by the intense sun. Until then, I hadn’t quite grasped the extent of the impact on the agrarian communities of South Africa.

 


 

Bhanga Nek Beach
By Simren Bhatt

So, where do I start off about my day today? I have so many great stories to share! We ventured onto the rocky shores of the Bhanga Nek beach this morning to explore marine life of the intertidal zone. The water is this dazzling cerulean blue and it is so clear. I wish I could sketch it, but I wouldn’t do it any justice. (But I have a bunch of great underwater footage on my GoPro!) We had to go quite early to catch the low tide in order to analyze the rock pools. I couldn't get over the auroral colors of the coral and the diversity of aquatic life that I could see with my naked eye.

Curious hands reach into an intertidal pool at Bhanga Nek Beach.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
Curious hands reach into an intertidal pool at Bhanga Nek Beach.
Photo by James Vonesh.

Trevor found an octopus that seemed to be dying, but I think he may have revived the poor thing! I saw rows upon rows of mussels embedded amongst barnacles. They were tiny, so I am assuming they were very young (that or the mussels that we eat are commercially farmed to be large). It was a reminder of what a wonder nature really is — well, this whole trip has been a constant reminder of the magnificence of the world around us.

After inspecting the rocky shores, Shira and I walked over to a group of village women harvesting red bait. They were so kind in trying to explain to us what they were doing, but their broken English was quite difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I was extremely impressed with the time and effort they put into feeding their families. After spending hours under the scorching sun cutting through their catch, they began their 2-3 km hike back to their homes, balancing their food on their heads. Geez and I complain about walking while carrying absolutely nothing.

 


 

Hike to Kosi Bay
By Shira Lanyi

Today, Dr. Vonesh woke us at 5 a.m. to take down our tents and pack up our campsite to take our last hike from Banga Neck to the Kosi Bay estuary. After quickly dismantling our campsite and scarfing down breakfast, I took some time to sit under the trees rustling both from wind and the movement of vervet monkeys. I fondly thought of the midnight wake-up call by the hippos laughing their hearty cackle in close enough range to cause a shutter of fear in the moonlight. When again will the robust gargle of a hippo startle me awake? 

We began our march with Shadrek at 7:40 a.m. … After hiking for about three hours, we finally reached the top of the dunes and caught a glimpse of the reed fish traps snaking through the periphery of the water shed beneath us. Clearly, this is a place with no possibility of vehicles and children must travel three hours by foot everyday just to get to their school at the top of this dune. What a contrast to the comforts we take for granted at home.

We moved downhill and ended up traversing through thick, grassy flat lands. We arrived at a stretch of mangrove swamps where we observed the root system of these remarkable plants. These trees have evolved to grow in the saline water system of Kosi Bay using an extensive taproot system that looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Tiny fiddler crabs burrow holes all around these swamps, feasting on mangrove roots and pods. 

After trudging through mud as thick as cement and as smelly as a sulfur spring, we arrived at the mouth of the lake. It was about a mile of army walking through shin-deep water. We paused at one of the fish traps to take a close look at the mechanism and workings behind these 700-year-old structures. Reeds create a long, serpentine pathway for the fish to migrate toward until they are met by a claw-like gate that traps them inside until a hungry fisherman decides its dinnertime. This is a beautiful example of sustainable fishing and an ancient one still used today as it was by the Thonga people centuries ago.

A method of sustainable fish traps used by the Thonga people for centuries.
<br>Photo by James Vonesh.
A method of sustainable fish traps used by the Thonga people for centuries.
Photo by James Vonesh.

We finally exited the swamp and what was supposed to have been a four-hour hike had turned into a nearly six-hour hike. Still not to our final destination, we passed the sweetest old Thonga man with no front teeth and a smile to light up the world. He spoke to Shadrek in their native tongue as he looped together a line of caught fish. He laughed at our crazy long hike and clearly saw the exhaustion and dehydration in our eyes. 

When we finally made it to Kosi Bay and the “aquarium” where we would have the opportunity to snorkel, we had to cross another body of water. Weary, tired, hungry, thirsty, burned and delirious, we collapsed on the shore with the snorkeling gear at our feet. With whatever last bit of strength we could muster, we splashed into the warm water and allowed the current to carry us down as we gazed at the most glorious array of subtropical fish species. It was a spectacular sight and a beautiful way to experience the biodiversity in this tiny strip of Kosi Bay.

Kosi Bay "Aquarium" Snorkeling with Diego.
Video by James Vonesh.

 


 

Only the beginning
By Shira Lanyi

Today is the first day back at VCU for the start of the semester 2017. As I sit in a fluorescently lit classroom in the Trani Center for Life Sciences to reminisce on how lucky it was to spend three weeks in South Africa for school credit, I miss the sights, smells and tastes of South Africa. But mostly I miss the people. As soon as I set foot back in the U.S., I was met by the terse and bustling nature of our Western culture. Time suddenly sped up, and taking the time to observe and reflect was suddenly an inconvenience to those around me. On campus, students stand before class, leaning against the cold walls and staring intently into the screens of their cell phones. They’re not interacting with the world around them.

There are things about being home that are pleasant and remind me how lucky I am to have unlimited access to clean potable water. I remember fondly the afternoon when we paddled down the Pongola River and the golden shores were dotted with locals bathing, playing, washing and socializing in the shallow turbid water. We take for granted the ease with which we live. We are unaware of the source of our water and how much legislation, cleaning, processing and infrastructure is required to make this valuable resource readily available.

My classroom was my playground for three weeks. Sitting by the Indian Ocean in the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, with our lecture notes written in the sand by a truly jovial South African, is a special memory and experience that I had the unique pleasure and opportunity to share with 10 others. PowerPoint slides, classrooms of 200 people, cold weather and the whirlwind of city life are my new reality. I will continue to carry the many lessons, experiences, insights and observations from my journey in South Africa with me. All of this positively impacts my education as a biology scholar and lover of science. My eyes are opened to a whole new world, and it is only the beginning.

 

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