Twenty four eco-conscious Midlands kids knew they were going to the mountain (Entabeni), home of the Hlatikulu Crane and Wetland Sanctuary. However, they had no idea they would be making friends with a crane named Boston who thinks she is a person and behaves like a friendly dog! On arrival, Boston wandered over immediately to say hello.
“I never thought I could be so close to this beautiful bird” said Nondumiso, gently stroking the grey feathers and feeling the different textures of her soft leathery cheeks, spiky crown and woolly black cap. She nibbled our shoelaces and fingers and danced with her favourite boys.
Boston was determined not to be left out when we went out for the afternoon session of orienteering – finding markers on the map and following our noses.
As we wandered through the wetlands we found many interesting plants. Most spectacular were the Red Torch Orchids – Disa chysostachya or umnduze wotshani ombovu.
Much to the delight of the Shea O’Connor School Eco-Club, who had attended the Midlands Bioblitz the week before, SANBI had lent them three cameras and a tablet to conduct a Hlatikulu Bioblitz. Everyone busily taking photos of everything that flowered, crawled or flew, of animal tracks and scats too. Nkululeko Mdladla, a budding filmmaker, took the best shot of the entire excursion:
We saw songololos everywhere and stopped to admire their red legs every time. Many were moved to the edge of the road to ensure passing tractors would not harm them.
The vlei was filled with white Knipophia albescens attended by bees, tiny Aponogton juncus, Ranunculus multifidus and lots of interesting sedges.
The excursion was arranged by the Midlands Conservanices Forum (MCF) in collaboration with the Midlands Meander Association Education Project and KZN Crane Foundation who work with the learners at Shea O’Connor Combined School and the Mpophomeni Enviro Club. It was sponsored by N3 Toll Concession. Arranging fieldtrips is challenging for schools, despite being an important part of the curriculum. MCF has tried to assist schools with this requirement during 2012. Educator, Antonia Mkhabela said “How wonderful it is to observe learners applying the knowledge they have gained in class. Now they have the full meaning of what they have learnt.”
Despite the walk to the forest being strenuous, once we arrived everyone was thrilled to visit ihlathi lesizulu. Sitting quietly, watching the birds, tasting the water and feeling the soft soil was an experience new to everyone. “In the forest, I think I hear it trying to tell me something I don’t know. I hear a voice making me think about my future and the environment in our community.” wrote Mtabaleng.
In the evening, we reminisced – watching photos gathered from the last 6 years of activities the children had participated in. These ranged from visits to the Karkloof Conservation Centre, Biodiversity Days at Umgeni Valley, solar cooking competitions, marching for Climate Justice at COP17, litter clean-ups and recycling, creating a food garden for 10:10:10, giving speeches, receiving awards, learning about birds, imifino, medicinal plants, carbon footprints, wetlands and planting trees. What a thrill to see oneself on the screen, to see ‘cool’ new friends when they were much younger, and to remember interesting times spent learning about environmental issues with the MMAEP.
The next morning we walked over to the Crane Centre to learn more about the three Crane species. Sandi explained how wonderful the new iso-rearing facility which the KZN Crane Foundation is in the process of building in Nottingham Road will be. They will be able to rear the ‘second eggs’ collected when the first chick hatches and increase the population (only 250 Wattled Cranes left in the wild). One of the boys dressed up in the ‘crane mama’ suit to demonstrate the lengths they go to to avoid the birds imprinting on humans (as Boston has).
A couple of girls were thrilled by the idea of becoming ‘crane mamas’ and delighted when Geoff collected discarded Wattled Crane feathers for them to keep.
We followed the frog calls to the dam. Hlatikulu Vlei is an Important Birding Area (IBA) and in 1996 the sanctuary was declared a national “Site of Conservation Significance”. We listened to the completely different sounds in the wetland compared to the quiet time spent in the forest.
Boston was curious about what we were having for lunch and poked her head into the dining hall. Croft Farm in Dargle had provided free range chickens which were pronounced “Delicious, so soft and natural, better than the shops” by Nondumiso. Vusi said “At least the chicken had a happy life.” Sanele added “I’m going to speak to my mum, we don’t need to eat so much meat.”
Everyone took great care of Samkelisiwe, the littlest participant. Holding her hand when she was nervous, answering her questions and making sure she was wrapped up warmly after getting wet. Despite her size, she had a huge appetite and was always the first one for second helpings at meals and keen for the tuck shop to open. She bowled everyone over when she decided to donate half of her tuck shop allowance towards bringing more children to Hlatikulu.
Back at camp everyone poured over the field guides, trying to identify the species they had seen during the day. The Snake Guide, Mushroom and Wildflower guides were the most popular choices.
The evening entertainment was environmental poems, drama, songs, dances and rap which the children created during a thunderstorm which had us all running for cover. Vusi received a standing ovation for his contribution:
We came here sheep, seeking to learn more about nature
We came almost empty, longing to be filled
We came here captives, trapped by societies opinion
Enchained by the ignorance of others
Too weak to break our constraints, but longing, longing to be free
We found ourselves at a place unfamiliar to us, but reminded of our distant past
We came thinking we were cups full of knowledge by soon realised that we were empty vessels
We arrived empty, now we leave full
We came here haughty, now we are humble
We came here sheep, now we leave as lions
Mother Nature’s wellbeing we shall keep
We came here captives, now we will be free.
Thembela’s rap (with a cellphone providing the backing beat) really got everyone going and Wendy’s passionate plea for the environment ended with “Viva Nature Viva, Phansi Pollution Phansi”!
On our final morning we feasted on free-range eggs donated by Highveld Eggs before climbing Mount Lebanon. Stopping along the way to learn about rock formations and finding examples of the different types of rocks. As we hiked, we discovered more flowers, animal tracks, protea bushes and a stinkhorn mushroom. Lungisani said “Every species is living in harmony here, each has it’s own habitat and there is balance. This is a place in it’s natural state. I have learnt so much.”
In the distance we could see a waterfall and hear the river running swiftly nearby. Just as we crested a hill a stream lay ahead – a perfect spot for splashing, swimming and relaxing.
The boys headed under the waterfall, while the rest of us paddled, drank the cool mountain water and admired the view.
Before the African Insight bus arrived to take everyone home, we spent time reflecting on what we have experienced. Each person sat alone with their thoughts for 20 minutes. “I have never done that in my life” said Thembela “I always am with my friends unless I am asleep. It was wonderful and I will do this quiet time more often.”
We fell in love with Boston and bid her a tender farewell. Everyone left determined to do their very best to take care of the environment.
Bulelani concluded “We have to stay passionate about the environment. We are the future leaders. Now we have more information and more contacts to do this.” Antonia Mkhabela added. “These kids are the drivers of change. Now they are motivated to actually act and make a change in their families, which will spread to the community.”
Everyone took home copies of environmental movies donated by GroundWork, pencils made of recycled materials and colourful notebooks filled with their thoughts about a very special trip. Special thanks to Lindiwe Mkhize and Penny Rees for their assistance in making this trip a success.