Every year during the mid-year school vacation members of the public have the opportunity to send their children on an adventure with us. This year our theme was ecosystems and looking at fynbos-forest-, dune and wetland ecosystems in particular. Within 2 hours of advertising, India Baird, from NGO Rock Girl booked up all the seats available for 14 young girls aged 11-15 years old, 4 boys from the Jag Runners club and their 2 supervisors from Mannenberg. The area around Mannenberg is plagued by gang violence in the on-going turf wars. Rock Girl started their involvement with Red River Primary 4 years ago. When they were asked, the children commented that they wanted a safe space. It was at this school where the first Rock Girl bench was built. The attractive benches symbolise real safe spaces in some of the most dangerous, challenged communities in Cape Town. By day 2 I had to drive past a murder scene en route to pick up the participants. Every morning I would hear about senseless shootings and people who died the day before. Besides this tragedy, the suburb has litter strewn everywhere. Here is an account of their journey with us.
Day 1 - Zandvlei Wetlands
Participants were shown how litter impacts the estuary and the surrounding neighbourhoods and the effects of littering on the environment in general were explored. Birds were observed at a distance and one sea gull was even seen trying to eat plastic, a common problem these days. We worked out that if 20 of us each picked up 20 papers per day it would amount to 400 papers per day. If we did this over 4 weeks 11 200 papers would be picked up. Taking advantage of the great weather the youngsters were given an opportunity to canoe on the vlei, and for all of them this was a first.The chance to see and touch a snake was met with awe, and they even got to see the endangered Western Leopard Toad and a terrapin. Great fun was had and the experience set the tone for what was to follow over the next few days.
Day 2 - Kirstenbosch Gardens
The largest of our 9 national botanical gardens did not disappoint and with so much on offer we crammed in as much as we could. Participants were shown the Garden of Extinction, felt and smelt fragrant plants, followed the braille trail, explored Afro-montane forests and learned about the various storeys in a forest and discovered the 4 main groups of fynbos plants. The group trekked up Skeleton Gorge to see the Skeleton Waterfall before meandering back through the garden towards its newest attraction, the Boomslang Walkway, where they could imagine being a bird high up in the trees. They learned some important history about the garden and its cycads before moving on towards the Conservatory.
Day 3 - Silvermine Loop Hike
We had hiked up to the lookout point over Hout Bay through misty conditions. Upon arrival the skies cleared enough for us to absorb breath-taking views of arguably the best scenery Cape Town has to offer. After a bite to eat we moved on towards the Fire Hut and Elephant Eye Cave on the opposite side of the mountain. Along the way we encountered the King Protea and other interesting plants and frogs in the streams that we crossed.
Day 4 - Biodiversity Park and Sea Point Promenade
With the weather turning out to be quite cold and rainy, our plans to climb Lion’s Head were cut short. It was time for a back-up plan and we initially headed off to the old harbour wall in the Waterfront before deciding to head towards the Green point Biodiversity Park. After exploring the park and learning about recycling, indigenous culture and useful plants, rain stopped play and shelter was sought. When the rain finally eased the kids enjoyed playing on the impressive park facilities, and to end the day we could not resist some exercise on the Sea Point Promenade with a round of putt-putt for good measure.
Day 5 - Lion’s Head, Signal Hill and the Iziko Museum & Planetarium.
With the forecast of rain for the day the plan was to visit the Iziko Museum. Since we were close by, we first stopped at the start of the Lion’s Head trail to see the Rock Girl bench. In total there are 32 benches around the city which represent peace and winning back our communities through bravery and positivity. A second bench on Signal Hill was a good enough reason to stay up there a little longer before heading off to the museum.
Day 6 - Tygerberg Hill Nature Reserve
This reserve covers 309ha and boasts over 560 plant species, 23 of which are on the red data list. 8 are endemic to Cape Town and 3 to the reserve itself. The diversity of species found is vast with 24 different mammals, 137 bird species, 22 reptile and 7 frog species as well as numerous butterflies. The Eastern slope of the hill is being restored while the Western slope is close to a stretch of pristine Swartland Shale Renosterveld. From the top one could see how fragmented natural areas are amidst the urban sprawl. We found tracks of Bontebok, evidence of an aardvark that had opened up a termite mound, as well as a jackal buzzard and lots of interesting plants.
Day 7 - Soetwater Environmental Education Centre (Kommetjie) overnight stay
With mountain and sea in close proximity the Slangkop Mountain and beach below provides a home for thousands of birds and other mammal species. Plant diversity ranges from strandveld to mountain fynbos. Before setting off on a walk, participants were given a presentation of leopards and other mammals found on images taken by our camera traps. Indigenous fish traps tell a story of how modern man utilised nature for survival and a lens into a huge shell midden provided interesting insights into a bygone era. Participants explored a little, practised doing a bird count, and explored their own creativity by building sand creatures. There was ample time to swim for a bit and the group even managed a night hike up to the top of a huge dune.
Day 8 - Soetwater Environmental Education Centre (Kommetjie) overnight stay
After breakfast and batteries recharged our participants headed off along the beach towards South Africa’s tallest lighthouse. Exploring the rocky shore, they observed creatures found amongst the rocks and learned that our country boasts 62 different species of limpet, with the USA in second place with 2 species of limpet. We found tracks of an Aardvark, and a klipspringer midden was a surprise discovery. Klipspringer is being reintroduced into the Table Mountain National Park after being exterminated through hunting in earlier years. Back at base camp, it was time to play and the learners got stuck into some outdoor activities: soccer, volley ball, basketball and even playing with puppets and musical instruments.
Day 9 - The Masque Theatre and Rocky shore ecology study along the St James walkway
For many of the participants it was the first time they had visited a theatre. The youngsters enjoyed the story of ‘Hoerikwagga’ (Table Mountain) through the eyes of 2 mischievous baboons characters called Smiley and Knuckles. The two take you on a journey of discovery about places and animals found on the mountain. The actors morphed seamlessly into various creatures providing insights into the natural world in a funny and entertaining way. Having visited many of the places mentioned in the performance it served as a great way for the youngsters to consolidate what they have seen and learned. Later strolling along the St James walkway there were birds to see and they children had a closer look at life between the tides by using a quadrant study along a line sect. Various species were identified and the youngsters learned how to differentiate which occurred within the spray-, high tide-, middle tide- and low tide zones. Afterwards the participants were asked to do a charcoal drawing of what they saw the most in their quadrant surveys or otherwise any favourite creature or sea plant observed.
Day 10 - Leopard’s Gorge Hike and a research exercise using a camera trap
It was by no accident that the Harold Porter national botanical garden was chosen as the final destination. With all four ecosystems represented here, participants could observe and further consolidate their knowledge about the fynbos-, forest-, wetland- and dune ecosystems. After a brief stop at the Wolfgat Nature Reserve and a scenic drive along Clarence Drive, the indigenous garden at Harold Porter in Betty’s Bay was explored. The youngsters gathered and shared information from the story boards. We then trekked up the gorge to the top to see the beautiful waterfalls. Crossing the flowing streams provided a good challenge, with me being one of the casualties of having wet shoes and socks. It was met with fun and laughter. We set up a camera trap and participants pretended they were leopards, klipspringer, rabbits and other mammals of the forest. It was a wonderful experience for them to see how our researchers manage to get images of animals in their natural surroundings. Settling down to a picnic afterwards we held a quiz, complete with a prize for the one who answered the most questions correctly. It was heart-warming to hear how the yougsters had retained information and that they could provide good answers.
Our closing circle revisited our journey together, unpacking what we had learned and how we can strive to make a difference for the environment and its people. As the trip came to an end everyone reflected on the new friendships that had been made during an amazing adventure.
A big thank you to everyone involved for making this adventure possible, especially the acting deputy of Red River Primary, Mr Sydney Hendricks and his devoted wife and teacher, Cheryl. During a time when most teachers are resting during their holidays, the two of them showed up every day to lend support and love to the participants. Not only did Sydney and Cheryl provide meals for the youngsters, they even took them running over the weekend, clearly demonstrating their dedication and commitment. A special thankyou too for my colleague, Jaclyn Stephenson, for her invaluable support throughout.
Hadley-John Lyners: CLT Environmental Educator