Mud and snow beneath the stars in the Karoo

“Do you realise that it is going to be freezing during your stay here?” was the opening question from Erna when she phoned a day before our planned arrival at her establishment in the Roggeveld. “Yes, we have seen the weather report and are packed for extreme weather” I replied.

Amanda and I were preparing for our winter visit, the first of four 14 day bird monitoring sessions at a new proposed wind farm site 40km south of Sunderland, in the north western part of South Africa’s Karoo region.

Internationally, Sunderland is renowned as one of the largest observatories in the southern hemisphere. Locally, the town is considered to be the coldest place in South Africa, and most probably the coldest location in Africa.

We had been fortunate enough to locate Saai Plaas guest house for accommodation close to our work site which would reduce the daily travel time substantially. After trying to convince us to change our booking for spring or summer when conditions would be warmer, I finally managed to clarify to Erna that we had specific dates for our monitoring and couldn’t be deterred by the cold weather.

Bundled up with thermals, down jackets, gloves and benies, we arrived at Saai Plaas after dark. Pulling up to the main house Erna and François were wrapped up in parcha jackets and other warm clothing. After the initial pleasantries both of them warned that there had been a lot of rain and that the veld was wet. Both emphasised that if we didn’t want to get stuck in the mud we only drive on existing jeep tracks. Under no circumstances should we attempt to traverse any area off the tracks. We should not even by turn the car around by driving off the track. We put the be laboured warning down to the fact that they politely considered us as city slickers lacking gravel driving experience. Little did they know that in the past 12 months we had driven over 60,000km on gravel and off road on a variety of proposed wind farms.

The following morning we set out to explore the site while we waited for Andrew from the Endangered Wildlife Trust to arrive. The site was vast, covering in excess of 340 square Kilometres of rolling mountains like a series of frozen waves disappearing to the north, each with the characteristics flat top of the Karoo landscape.

Fifteen kilometres north of Saai Plaas we turned into the next homestead and stopped in front of a mother and two teenagers. “Are you the bird monitors?” we were asked while we were climbing out of the vehicle. It was good to know that the developer had warned the land owners of our arrival.

After the introductions were over, Doortjie immediately warned against driving across the veld. To emphasise her warning she related how on a recent horse out ride across the veld the horses had regularly sunk through the seemingly firm surface. Did we have a city slicker look about us or was this a serious issue?

In preparation for our visit a review of the terrain on Google Earth had shown a distinct lack of road or jeep track infrastructure across the site, particularly up to the ridges and escarpment where the bulk of the wind turbines were to be located.

In the sunroom of Doortjie’s house we asked if she could, on our maps, show us roads up to the areas planned for turbines. When she started describing how horses remained the main mode of transport to manage livestock in the Roggeveld and Moordenaars Karoo, we realised that coupled with the weather and the wet veld, this was not going to be an easy site visit.

With another two hours before Andrews arrival we decided to explore the most obvious road traced on our printout by Doortjie.

A 13km track to a ridge between parallel valleys, the first 5 km were muddy and slick but driveable to the farmstead. Once we passed through the southern gate we entered a world of mud. Tracing through the Karoo scrub were a pair of rivulets where the track used to be. Pools of muddy water and churned up mud punctuated the twin streams ahead of us.

An hour later we reached the watershed between the parallel valleys. As we prepared to turn around we were fortunate to have found a old cutting to negotiate a three point turn.

Back at Saai Plaas, Andrew was waiting with a layout of our proposed observation positions. Now we just had to get routes to them.

We decided to head to the closest and seemingly the easiest location first before investigating accessibility on the eastern side of the site.

VP 1 was simple to access – drive in at the shed of Saai Plaas, take a back road, cross two drainage lines and a livestock water trough. Easy, we thought and it shouldn’t take more than a half hour.

It was at the water trough that we had an inkling that things could get sticky. 1km west of the water trough, like so many of the management tracks we were still to discover on the site, the jeep track came to an abrupt end.

Mindful of the farmers warnings, we first checked the condition of ground adjacent to the track before executing a three point turn.

Halfway back to the trough we stopped and walked 200m north, inspecting a location to setup our vantage point. Mindful of weather we investigated a potential route to drive off road to the location.

Everything seemed solid, firm and in the afternoon sun, amazingly dry. With Amanda directing me around large rocks, I drove off the track across the veld. Solid with good traction I made excellent progress across the veld. Then, as Amanda directed me around a rock all four wheels simply broke the surface an dropped into mud.

A tentative bout of wheel spinning confirmed two things, we were stuck and secondly, we should never have ignored the farmers warnings.

Usually on our bird monitoring trips we pack spades and other equipment for getting out of sticky situations. But, packing for the Karoo, a semi dessert, we had left everything behind.

We had three options to get out. Plan A was to engage diff lock and have Amanda reverse out while Andrew and I pushed. Plan B was to make a more concerted effort of Plan A. Plan C was to eat humble pie, mount our mountain bike and ride to François and ask to be pulled out. Neither Amanda or myself wanted to implement this embarrassing plan, especially after the explicit warnings and getting stuck on the first day.

So, we dug with our hands, placed rocks and sticks under the wheels and pushed like the possessed while the wheels spun, mud flew and the vehicle inched back towards the track. It also was inching towards a muddy seep, which if the tires got stuck in would instantly invoke Plan C.

For one last all or nothing attempt, we packed extra rocks and brush under the wheels, braced and pushed.

Lady Luck smiled on us at that moment. The wheels popped out of the mud, the vehicle jumped over the seep and Amanda pulled up safely on the comparatively secure jeep track.

Ego’s intact, though infinitely wiser, we headed back to the accommodation. Having lost over an hour extracting ourselves from the mud we would not have time to head to the eastern section of the site.

A crucial aspect of maintaining health while conducting our monitoring programmes is a daily exercise routine. Amanda and Andrew headed off for a run while I opted for a sprint cycle.

Whether or not you notice the stars in you daily existence, in the Karoo you cannot avoid being amazed by the glittering brilliance of the Milkyway as it’s spiralling tendril extends through the galaxy.
As we prepared our braai over glowing coals, we traced out Scorpio, pointed out Orions Belt and calculated due south from the Southern Cross while a satellite winked it’s way across the star studded sky. Without urban light and atmospheric pollution the brilliant clarity was mesmerising, lulling us into silent contemplation till the lamb cutlets were done to perfection.

If we thought that the short muddy track to VP1 was a driving challenge, negotiating our way to the northern ridge of the site was a slippery round trip of two hours. There are many methods for off road driving, but whether it is mud or sand, there are two cardinal rules. Firstly, choose a line and maintain it. Secondly, maintain momentum.

Of these two principles, maintaining our line was the easiest, though at times the vehicle would pull into well worn ruts despite steering on a course to bypass erosion channels.

More difficult to keep up was momentum. As mitigation against water erosion of the few management tracks on the site, humps had been scraped at regular intervals across route. While the bulk of the water had been diverted from the tracks, at each hump pools had formed in the depressions, creating deep mud holes. Added to the navigation requirements to get through the mud holes, the humps were of a size and shape that forced a driver to slow down to get over the hump to avoid damaging either the undercarriage or suspension, or both.

To say that the drive was nerve wracking is an understatement – Amanda’s hands were clenched till her knuckles turned white and it seemed as if she held her breath for the full 45 minutes it took to traverse the 7 km of muddy slope.

Geological slice of timeThe reward, standing on the cliff top, gazing over the ridge down to the valley below, a feint track meandering across punctuated contours representing close to 30 million years of geology.
Despite the initial obstacles on site, over the following fortnight the Roggeveld seduced us as it revealed an array of natural treasures usually bypassed by all but the most patient travellers through it’s expanse of hidden diversity.

Eagle searchOn a still sunny day we were thrilled to observe no less than 4 adult Martial Eagles ridge soaring on the western escarpment. All together we accounted for no less than 6, possibly 7, of these magnificent raptors on the site. On late sunny afternoons we would regularly see Bat Eared Foxes. On one occasion a pack of six of these insectivorous mammals scurried off into the Karoo Scrub leaving distinct spoor in the fresh mud for us to learn. While they look medium sized animals, in fact they are extremely light with a mass of fur which we witnessed from their small tracks.

Perched on a peak looking along the escarpment trailing out of sight to the south, we were treated to a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles skimming the cliffs below us in search of their favourite prey species, dassies, or Rock Rabbits. Their usual method of hunting is for one individual eagle to skim the cliff, scaring the dassies as it approaches. The unaware rock rabbits retreat into the crevices while the eagle flies past and then come out to watch it fly off. that is when the second eagle swoops in and plucks the distracted dassie from the cliff and secures the pair of eagles a meal.

Karoo Cliff top rock poolWe were not fortunate to see the pair make a kill, but we were fortunate enough on two occasions to watch both of them land and drink from a rock pool formed during the recent rains. most frustrating was that I had removed my remote GoPro Hero 3 from the rock pool a mere 15 minutes before they landed to drink missing out on a perfect chance to capture them on video. Still, there is next time on a future visit.

As a winter visit we did not expect a big bird count, but were pleasantly surprised to notch up in excess of 80 species in the 16 days with no less than three lifers. For my big year I was able to add 14 species for my 2013 bird count, increasing my total to 459.

The Karoo landscape is a geological record of 400 million years, starting with an era from 60 million year ago at an approximate altitude of 1600m ABSL descending to 300m ABSL representing an era from 460 million years ago, accompanied with representative fossils. Standing on the escarpment of the Roggeveld and gazing into the valleys below was in effect peering through 30 million years of existence. While we did not find any fossils, Francois and Erna proudly showed us a few samples scattered in their garden.

Without a doubt the most unusual sight was of Fallow Deer, an exotic species which roams the plateau’s. Lacking large predators, the deer thrive in the remote conditions and are managed by an annual hunt to maintain a viable population. On the cold cloudy days with the drainage lines shrouded in frost, a glimpse of the deer created a scene of a northern hemisphere landscape in stark contrast to the semi-dessert environment of the Karoo.

River crossingFollowing the wet season, the August landscape was flowing, literally with streams and rivers flowing along every depression and down the step like ridges that defined the terraced slopes. Between rocks and in depressions, as the soil dried in the winter sun, flowers erupted, unaffected by the frost. Folded up for the night, they would slowly open during the morning as the sun approached it’s zenith transforming sections of the scrubland to vivid palettes of yellows, pinks and oranges, a floral display that will extend to mid September.

While this was our first of four visits to monitor bird activity on the site of a proposed wind farm, we discovered more than just a vibrant bird population, but a unexpected ecological diversity which we look forward to discovering more of it’s secrets during our future visits.

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