A change of pace...

After spending the last three months on a farm in the middle of the Kalahari desert, it was a wonderful change of pace traveling down south to the coast. The scenery changed drastically from dry brown savannah to green and mountainous with a beautiful ocean backdrop. I had no idea just how beautiful this country really is when I was working up in the desert, but I must say that South Africa’s coast may be one of the most gorgeous spots I’ve ever been. It almost feels European in a sense; small towns tucked away in between adjacent mountains, vineyards scattered around the most beautiful of locations, and spectacular old architecture remains from the early settlers. But most impressive, in my opinion, is the remarkable contrast I’ve found in this country. To drive a few hours and go from Kalahari desert, through grass field and savannah, rolling hills to mountains, past forests and sand dunes – it is just unbelievable how diverse this country is. Someone could spend years traveling through South Africa and still not see all it has to offer – it’s almost overwhelming!

When I was working on the farm I met a brother and sister who lived in the nearby town but went to school in a town called Stellenbosch, about 30km outside of Cape Town. Because I needed to head in this direction to renew my visa, I went to visit them for a week. I had been corresponding with a professor from Rhodes University in Grahamstown about helping with a research project starting once my visa was renewed, so the plan was to hang out with my two friends until my visa paperwork came through, and then head off to help the university as a field assistant. Stellenbosch was absolutely fantastic, so I had no quarrels with this plan. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the view from the town is spectacular. The region is also well known for its wineries, so it greatly resembled Napa Valley in that one could drive only a few kilometers and pass by several vineyards. One day all of us drove around on a wine tasting tour, checking out several of these amazing wineries. The vast majority of them remain in the original structures – over three hundred years old – and boast several acres of grapes as well as stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It was my first time on a wine tour and I must say it was a magnificent time.

After being away from the mountains for so long when I was on the farm up north, it was quite a luxery being in Stellenbosch where I was surrounded with huge peaks on all sides. I tried to find my way up a different mountain each day, despite the lack of hiking trails in the area. It meant a little extra scramble and a little less casual, but it was quite entertaining trying to find my way up the rocky hillsides with slopes as steep as 70 degrees. It also made me realize how out of shape I was after sitting around for three months on the farm as I struggled for breath and had trouble moving one foot in front of the next on something that I probably would have had little issue with back in Boulder.

After my week in Stellenbosch, my paperwork had come through on my visa and it was time to head to Grahamstown to help Rhodes out with their coastal research. A few students were making the 12 hour trek back from Cape Town and I had made arrangements to catch a ride with them. Luckily the entire drive hugs the shoreline so the scenery is breathtaking the entire way. Not only that, but every year during August there are hundreds of whales that come to the region to calve, so as we drove along I would look out my window and see whales jumping out of the water. Quite a marvelous sight! And there are also a few scattered beaches with wild penguins (weird right?? Penguins in Africa?) so we stopped at one to check them out. Cute little buggers, a little stinky…but still cute.

A view of Stellenbosch from one of the peaks

Another view of Stellenbosch, surrounded by mountains

This is what it looked like hiking up the surrounding mountains - very steep and very rocky

Driving along the coast

Another view of Stellenbosch

A penguin we saw on one of the beaches

I arrived in Grahamstown about a week ago and have been helping a master’s student with her field work, which I must say is no easy task. She is studying the invertebrate communities along sandy beaches so every day we go to a new beach (cool!!) to collect data. It takes about 8 hours to collect all the samples she needs, and the works is very laborious and back breaking. The work revolves around the tides, so often we are out the door by 6am to make it to the site in time for low tide. Once we get to the sampling site, we spend the entire time coring out sand with a big tube then sifting through it with a small mesh net and bagging the contents. Very tedious indeed! Before this trip I would have thought it would be impossible to find a research project on the beach that was not enjoyable…I mean, you’re on the beach for crying out loud! Well, turns out I found a non-enjoyable activity while on the beach…coring and sifting sand for eight hours a day. Then on top of that we have to carry all the samples out, usually a mile or so to the car. The extra 75 pounds doesn’t make for a very pleasant walk back. That’s field work though, and despite its unpleasantness, I’m still glad to be out here and having the experience.

On Monday (Aug. 30th) I am heading down to Port Elizabeth where I will be helping out with a different project – a month long ‘research cruise’ to Cape Town collecting mussel larvae samples. This should be quite an interesting experience as I have never spent more than a few hours on a boat before, and here I am about to embark on a thirty day voyage, but nevertheless I am very excited (and a bit nervous…my mom gets very seasick and I can only hope that she didn’t pass those genes on to me). Should be a great time though, as long as the weather doesn’t act up. I must say, the waves in South Africa put those in America to shame. I’ve paid particular attention to the waves while I’ve been helping out with the beach project because I will soon be out there on the water, and noticed that they are extremely big! In fact, it is not uncommon for 15 foot waves to come crashing to shore. A bit unnerving when I’m about to ship out, but hopefully nothing too overwhelming. Anyways, should be a good time!

Walking to our sample site along the beach
The samples we are collecting