Tag Archives: environmental learning

Thunderstorms, Termites and Tarns

Dodging potholes brimming with muddy water and splashing through the torrents rushing along farm tracks and over the road, we wondered at the wisdom of a mid-summer break in the ‘berg. However, as we emerged from the Kamberg Valley, gaps in the clouds revealed the Giant having an afternoon snooze, oblivious of the thunder. Yes, it is always worth simply heading out whatever the weather – one never knows what is actually in store. Besides, occasional glimpses of the mountains simply make them all the more mysterious.r snowflake 182


An early evening stroll along the banks of the Mtshezi (Bushman’s River) provided plenty of opportunity to chat about erosion, river valleys and smooth stones. As the rain stopped, hundreds of termites emerged from their underground haven into the calm evening, sitting on our arms and fluttering off across the river.

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Later we found another mound that was in the process of being repaired. The new section clearly illustrating the ‘air-conditioning tunnels’ we had described earlier.

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We had packed our miniSASS kit in the hope of overturning some rocks in the river and finding invertebrates that we have never come across in Mpophomeni streams. The Bushman’s River was flowing too strongly and we gave up. Bright Hesperantha coccinea was flowering on the river banks.

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Some of us simply had to swim and soon got used to the cold water.

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Others explored the river banks, rock hopped and took plenty of photos.

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Some sat quietly simply absorbing the splendour.

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After looking through the ID guides and books about Giant’s Castle and watching the mountains through the binoculars, we enjoyed supper on the veranda and a cosy evening beside the fireplace in the cottage at Snowflake.

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Pouring over the map of the area after breakfast the next morning revealed two tarns located on the plateau we had planned to head towards that day. So we plotted our course – up the forested ravine then along the ridge towards the ‘Berg. Two black storks flew by as we set off.

Wildflowers & Waterfalls

The grass was long and wet, water was pouring off the hillside – delicious, cold and fresh.

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Peak flowering season was over, but we did find many lovely specimens of Gladiolus crassifolius

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Other memorable flowers included Eucomis autumnalis, Dicoma anomala, Gladiolus ecklonii, Crassula vaginata, Commelina Africana, Persicaria attenuate, Satyrium macrophyllym & cristatum, Habenaria lithophila. We saw lots of lovely beetles too.

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Proteas are always a favourite when found on our trips to natural areas. This one was Protea roupelliae, one of five species found in KZN.

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We found the tracks of buck and of jackal – both fresh – with the jackal definitely following the buck.

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An antlion rested on the tip of tall grass.

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We spotted a Cussonia paniculata (umsenge) in flower and on closer inspection discovered it was growing beside the stone wall of an old livestock enclosure. Clearly, previous inhabitants of the area had been pastoralists, although there were no cows anymore.

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We came across really big specimens of Aloe maculata that everyone recognised from Mpophomeni – particularly because it is part of the Mpophomeni Conservation Group logo.

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The sound of a waterfall enticed us to keep climbing. Nkulu and Bulelani could not resist standing beneath the icy water, clambering across huge boulders to get there.

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Asanda was fascinated that the stream disappeared into the rocks before emerging as a waterfall and set about finding the route it took through the rocks – discovering it was just a small crevice that he could fit his arm into.

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Tarns & Tadpoles

On top of the plateau, we all wandered off in different directions to find the tarns. Asanda particularly enjoyed the time alone, following the sound of birds that he thought might lead him to the water. “I really enjoyed this trip without lots of small children making noise.” he said quietly.

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Christeen followed the frog sounds and found them eventually – not really what we had expected. The pools had been invaded by grass and it was more of a wetland now with just a few pools of water. It was really beautiful and unusual.

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Along with the rest of South Africa celebrating Leap Day for Frogs, we had hoped to find a few of our own. With our eyes closed we identified four different calls, but all we found were lots and lots of dead tadpoles. We wondered if the water had been struck by lightning in the storm the day before. (Jeanne Tarrant of EWT suggested it might be the amphibian fungal disease – chytrid)

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We spent some quiet time absorbing the peacefulness and incredible views.

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Discussing ecology, religion, climate change and life, as we walked.

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We had hoped to bump into an Eland, but only found an old bone.

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We flushed a Marsh Owl on our way back through the grassland, characteristically it circled around us before heading off, giving us a wonderful opportunity to have a good look at it. Pretty damp, we were jolly pleased to head for home at Snowflake to page through the bird book and learn more about this owl,

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Everyone pitched in to get lunch ready as quickly as possible – we were starving.

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Later, relaxing with cups of tea, Christeen explained how the Drakensberg Mountains were formed. Reaching back in time to about 180 million years ago, just before the break up of Gonwana a super continent that was originally part of Pangea, and consisted of Africa, South America, Madagascar, India, Antartica and Australia; a mantle plume ruptured the earth’s crust, causing a vast outpouring of lava on the surface of most of what is now southern Africa. In places this basalt layer was up to 1.5km in depth and the remains still form the mountainous areas in Lesotho.

About 150 million years ago Gondwana began to separate, and continues to move apart in what is known as continental drift. In an imaginary ‘fast-forward’ India flew north west into what is now Asia, causing the formation of the Himalayas. Madagascar and Australia moved east, Antartica moved south and South America moved west of Africa. Huge cliffs dropped down to the emerging Indian Ocean on our east coast of southern Africa, further raised by another mantle plume centered beneath southern Mozambique. These cliffs were gradually eroded back from our coastline, mainly by water drainage, eventually becoming the Drakensberg.

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The Drakensberg is therefore a cliff or escarpment, forming the backbone or continental divide of southern Africa, stretching from Mozambique all the way down to the Eastern Cape. It is also the southern African watershed, east of the Drakensberg, rivers all drain into the Indian Ocean and to the west the main drainage system is via the Senqu River in Lesotho, becoming the Gariep (Orange) River and eventually draining into the Atlantic Ocean on South Africa’s west coast.

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In KwaZulu-Natal the Drakensberg is also the international border between South Africa and Lesotho. The escarpment is known by the Basotho as ‘The Cliffs of Natal’ – we imagined herdsmen peering down on us from the top of the cliffs. Bulelani commented “You have made our dreams of seeing the Drakensberg come true.”

Moonlight & Main Caves

Late at night, the moon lit up the landscape. The star filled skies were absolutely astonishing.

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“Waking up to the flow of the river, with birds singing and mountains staring at you is amazing. This is a stunning and peaceful environment.” said Asanda the next morning. After breakfast we prepared a picnic lunch in anticipation of our visit to Giant’s Castle Reserve, as the autumn sun streamed in through the kitchen window.

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As we drove to the Reserve, waterfalls pouring down the hillsides around us provided the perfect opportunity to talk about the role of the Drakensberg and foothills as the ‘water factories’ of KZN. Intact grasslands are important for storing rainwater in wetlands or as ground water which is gradually released throughout the year. We discussed how important it is to protect these areas which sustain the flow of clean water, supporting the lives and livelihoods of 5 million people downstream. Other ecosystem services provided by these grasslands include pollination, soil production, flood amelioration, carbon storage, cultural and recreational amenities and support to subsistence livelihoods.

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We were in plenty of time for the next scheduled tour of the Rock Art at Main Caves, so savoured the views of the cliffs and the river, watched raptors swirling and kept our eyes peeled for eland and baboons.

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Here we really got the feeling of being close to the mountains.

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A bridge over a stream provided a perfect photo opportunity,

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a chance to have another dip amongst the rocks beneath the forest trees,

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and to spend time with a spectacular grasshopper.

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On the path to the Main Caves, there were overhangs to explore, huge rocks to scramble up, and flowers to admire like this daintly Stenoglottis fimbriata.

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Right up at the cliff edge, large chunks of sandstone had fallen creating an interesting landscape.

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In the caves, Mncedisi was our guide as thunder rolled above us – it felt as if the whole hillside vibrated with the sound.

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The display depicted life as it had been in the 19th Century. He explained how the Bushman had lived in small groups of about 15 individuals with two shamans (one to go hunting and another to stay with the home group). He described their trance dances and spiritual beliefs and had us all practicing clicks saying icici (ear ring) and ixoxo (frog).

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A simple display of the various artefacts found in the cave by archeological excavations showed that hunter gatherers lived here 5000 years ago. We gasped in horror to hear that British soldiers had shot at some of the paintings – the bullet holes were clearly visible.

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The earlier paintings depicted Eland, other antelope and a puffadder, later cows and horses featured as other tribes and groups arrived in the area. Implements like digging sticks and fire making stones offered us a glimpse of their lifestyle. They traded honey, game and ostrich eggshells and for metal and ceramic items, livestock, maize and tobacco with the early colonists and Black farmers. Nkulu was intrigued by the display and paintings – it was a highlight of the weekend for him. “I can’t wait to show my grandfather the pictures,” he said.

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The heavens opened and it poured with rain as we were about to leave the caves. So we asked plenty of questions and read all the information boards in the hope that it would stop. It didn’t. Bravely we set off back to the camp sloshing through torrents on the pathways and getting thoroughly drenched in the process. “I loved walking in the rain, splashing in the puddles, even though it was freezing!” laughed Philani.

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Baboons and Goodbye to the Bushman’s River

Back at the car park we were thrilled to come across a troop of baboons picking acorns from the oak trees and calmly crunching them very near to us. We watched them for ages.

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Chilled to the bone, we built a fire while we ate the picnic we had carried up the mountain and back. Bulelani thoroughly enjoyed all the meals, but this one right in the fireplace was most likely his favourite!

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We bid farewell to the mountains, the river and the charming cottage. Mzwandile said hopefully “I think  there will be another weekend just like this coming up soon.” Nkulu added “This is the trip that will NEVER be forgotten.” Sihle echoed everyone’s thoughts saying “We had a supercalifragolisticexpialidocious weekend!”

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Thank you to Gina and Chris Brown for the use of Snowflake and Christeen Grant for contributing her mountain knowledge, enthusiasm and love. These generous contributions enable us to stretch the N3TC funding for our Environmental Learning and Leadership Programme a whole lot further.

Photos in this compilation were taken by ALL participants in the excursion.

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Selfies with Snakes!

The newly launched Rosetta/Nottingham Road Conservancy kicked off the New Year with two great talks by renowned snake expert, Pat McKrill. They were each a great success and we look forward to inviting Pat to talk to us again in the future.  Sarah Ellis compiled this report.

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The first talk was primarily aimed at farm staff and gardeners and proved to be a real hit. We had approximately 75 locals, staff and a few school kids attend a very informative and interactive lecture under the trees at the NRLA Hall grounds which had everyone spellbound.

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Before the talk I asked Pat how good his Zulu was and he replied that when he had a live snake in his hands, he always had 100% concentration from everyone and everyone understood everything he said, even if he wasn’t 100% fluent in Zulu and how right he was!

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Pat explained that snakes were very like us and were only interested in finding food (mostly rats and frogs), a house to live in (such as woodpiles and dark areas to hide in) and that they also spent time looking for boyfriends or girlfriends! He had a couple of harmless and slightly venomous local and exotic snakes in boxes which he held up for us all to see and he encouraged everyone to hold and touch them.

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This was something most of the audience were extremely reluctant, if not terrified, to do but by the end, quite a few people had had a turn holding and feeling a snake and had experienced their cool non-slimy skin.

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It was interesting to note that most of the older men in the audience couldn’t bring themselves to do this but that most of the younger members were happy to do so and that they all wanted to pose for cellphone photos of themselves with a snake to show their friends!

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The event even turned into a bit of a photo-shoot which was a very unexpected and positive spin-off from the talk as they delighted in talking about the “show and tell” sessions they would have later with their friends.

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Pat also demonstrated very successfully how snakes would never harm us unless they felt threatened. He released snakes onto the ground within a circle of people who stood absolutely still and they quietly slithered around looking for a gap to escape without harming anyone – an American Boa also calmly slithered over a seated lady while on its way!

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The message was loud and clear: if you see a snake, stand still and it will move off as we are too big to be considered dinner and PLEASE don’t kill it as they do an enormous amount of good eating (mostly) rats.

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After the talk at Rawdons that evening we all decided that Pat should have his own TV show – he was so entertaining and interesting with all his animated snake facts and anecdotes. We were fascinated by what he had to say and could have listened for hours – do you know that a lady snake can keep sperm for up to 4 years until she decides to “use” it? He showed us a red-lipped herald which was now full of eggs even though he had had her on her own for 3 years! This talk, which was also pleasingly attended by about 75 people, was obviously more detailed and interactive and also provided an opportunity for interested people to handle these misunderstood reptiles.

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This talk was funding by N3TC through the MCF Environmental Learning and Leadership programme.  Thank you Pat for a wonderful start to our monthly Conservancy talks!

iNtaba iFihlekile

This iconic midlands peak is visible from the hills surrounding Mpophomeni – it has long been a dream of some of the boys who enjoy hiking, to climb it. “Intaba ifihlekile” was the comment as we drove out through the Dargle valley – the hill was indeed hidden, shrouded in cloud.r inhlosane dec 2014 057

Undeterred, we set off up towards the peak anyway, with a chorus of Cidacas echoing through the plantation, hoping that the cloud would lift for a little while at least so we could see the views. The first indigenous plant we came across on emerging from the plantation was protea. Everyone reminisced about seeing them on the trip to Hlatikulu in 2013.

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The mist got thicker the higher we climbed. At least it wasn’t baking hot on the slopes as it could have been – even at 8 in the morning.

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Plenty of summer plants were in bloom, so opportunities to stop and discuss them, the animal tracks, and the insects allowed us to catch our breath.

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The last part of the 2,2km ascent to the ridge is very steep through large dolerite boulders. “My best moment was reaching the top and the gentle blow of the mist and cold wind. I needed that after the steep, sweaty hike.” said Asanda. The mist swirled, offering occasional glimpses of the valley below.

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On reaching the beacon, we sent photos and messages to those who were unable to join us due to family commitments “Sesisenhlosana, we are 1947m above sea level.”

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A discussion about the name Inhlosane followed. Hlosa means to ‘develop’ – the shape of the hill from a distance looks like a young girl’s developing breast.

Everyone took turns to take photographs and videos (thanks Sue Hopkins!), capturing the colours on the rocks, the tiny flowers, the skinks, the graffiti on the beacon and of course, one another.r inhlosane dec 2014 197

We explored a little and settled down for a picnic amongst the rocks.

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A group of hikers emerged through the mist to join us. Rose Dix, one of the group, was delighted to meet the boys saying “Oh I know all about you, I follow the blogs and Facebook and see pictures of all your adventures and everything that is happening in Mpophomeni!”

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While we finished off our brunch, the intrepid hikers set off down the other side of Inhlosane for a distant waterfall where they planned to stop for lunch and then walk about 6kms along the road, back to the carpark. I enjoyed meeting people who were old enough to be my grandparents on top of the mountain.”   commented Asanda.

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The cloud lifted and the views were wonderful. We could see the Drakensberg and had fun pointing out Howick, uMngeni Vlei, kwaHaza, Lion’s River, Midmar and Albert Falls dam. “Where is Zenzane in Balgowan?” Philani wanted to know, having made new friends who live there, on the MCF excursion to Shawswood recently.

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Taking the opportunity to sit quietly listening to the sounds that floated up from the valley,

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and imagining we could fly! r sihle inhlosane dec 2014 crop

When it was time to leave, the boys skipped like mountain goats down the slope. Philani and Sihle were intrigued by the cairn of rocks that marked the path. “Well done to the people who came up with that idea to show the way, it is great.”

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Not wanting the adventure to end, halfway down we sat a while in the grassland, enjoying the views and using the binoculars (thanks N3TC) as magnifying glasses to look at the details on the flowers surrounding us.

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On the way home we stopped at the Mandela Capture Site, to visit the sculpture that they had only seen on television before and wander through the displays. “Awesome, Perfect, Mnandi” were the comments in the visitors book from Mpophomeni. These words described an entire day of interesting revelations, actually.

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Midlands Conservancies Forum believes that giving young people opportunities to be in nature stimulates creativity, curiosity and imagination, interest in local flora and fauna and respect for, and connectedness to, nature. These experiences are essential to produce tomorrow’s creative thinkers and change agents.


Waterfalls and Wilderness

Standing under a waterfall is always a wonderful experience. When the waterfall suddenly shifts 10metres along the cliff to include those who thought they would avoid the experience, you know it is extra special.

This is the magic of Grey Mare’s Tail Falls in Karkloof. From the grasslands above, the stream plunges 101 m over the dolerite cliffs into the mist belt forest. It gets its name from the swishing action – the falls move constantly from one side to the other – just like the tail of a horse.

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For the 40 learners who spent a few days at Shawswood education centre last week, the 3 hour climb to Grey Mare’s Tail Falls was worth the effort. “I’m dying” puffed Nomfundo Mlotshwa when the falls were just visible through a gap in the canopy. She trudged on along the path through the forest, climbing a wooden ladder, crossing streams and rock hopping. Soaking wet after splashing in the pool, all tiredness forgotten, she beamed “This is wonderful!”.

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This excursion was part of the MCF Environmental Learning and Leadership (EL&L) project that organises wilderness experiences for young people, believing that in order to value and protect something you need to have experienced it. Time spent in natural environments is often life changing and certainly instils an appreciation of nature. MCF EL&L is funded by N3TC.

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In collaboration with the MMAEP, the Zenzane Enviro Club from Balgowan and the Mpophomeni Enviro Club were invited to make new friends, learn new things and taste clean, cold, fresh water straight from the stream.

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The morning began with introductions beneath the cliffs. MCF has found that bringing different groups together stimulates learning and sharing. Knowing that there are people in other parts of the Midlands as passionate about environmental issues as you are creates bonds that last for a long time.

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Then water bottles and lunch bags in hand, we set off on a hike. Through the surrounding homesteads, greeting cows with new born claves and crossing a stream into the plantations.

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Michael Keefer, education officer for Shawswood, pointed out the impoverished habitat, the low diversity of plants and animals and explained the differences between forest and plantations. The difference was clear to Sihle Ngcobo: “There are fewer types of trees in the plantation and bigger spaces between the trees. In the forest there are more worms and insects, there is not much sunlight and it is cooler.” he said.

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Shawswood is a great place to learn about ecology, biodiversity and human impact on the natural environment. They support the IUCN’s environmental education definition ‘The process of recognising values and clarifying concepts in order to develop skills and attitudes necessary to understand and appreciate the inter-relatedness among man, his culture and his bio-physical surroundings. Environmental education also entails practice in self-formulation of a code of behaviour about issues concerning environmental quality.’

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Once inside the forest, the air cooled and the biodiversity increased. The temperature in a forest is pretty much the same whatever the season. We observed the layers of plants, some with big leaves to absorb more light, others climbing through the canopy to get some sunshine, saplings simply waiting for a big tree to fall over and create a gap to let in light for them to grow. Philani Ngcobo was fascinated by the tall stems of uMsenge, the Cabbage tree reaching for the sunlight. “It was interesting that when the trees fall down, the insects go into them and help the tree to decompose.” he commented. We heard Samango monkeys but could not spot them.

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A gurgling stream provided a refreshing stop to drink from the river, fill our water bottles and have a snack. This stream is a tributary of the Karkloof River which flows into the uMngeni River. The group from Mpophomeni commented that the uMthinzima Stream through the township was also a tributary of the uMngeni.

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The trail mostly follows the old logging path created by early settlers to harvest the big trees – especially Yellowwoods. We came across many hollow Lemonwoods, an Ironwood that had its bark all nibbled at the base (porcupine perhaps?) and many giant Strangler Figs. Everyone was fascinated to learn how these trees can squeeze the life out of other trees.

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We learnt that the cure for the forest stinging nettle that created a bumpy rash on our skins when touched, grew right beside it – a member of the Plectranthus family. Forest Magic.

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We caught a glimpse of the Grey Mare’s Tail Falls through the trees. “How far?” became a constant refrain. Before the final ascent to the bottom of the falls, we sat on the rocks a while to catch our breath. Surrounded by fragrant Clausena anisata, large clumps of Scadoxus clinging to the rocks and Streptocarpus tucked in the shadows.

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The final stretch involved clamouring over huge rocks, the mist from the falls increasing with every step. The vegetation changed considerably in the constantly damp environment.

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Laughter ran around the cliffs as the youngsters slid on the rocks and splashed in the pools. “It’s so cold! It stings! I feel so good!”

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On the way back down for afternoon tea, we spent a while completely quiet. Listening to the sounds of the birds, the water, the horseflies buzzing; feeling the cool breeze on our skin and the damp leaves on the ground; surrounded by the sweet air and earthy fragrances so far removed from our usual lives. Asanda Ngubane loved the quiet time in the forest “It calmed me down and I felt so relaxed.” he commented.

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Free time to make new friends, play soccer and shower was a rowdy affair! The cosy dormitories are converted stables, a donkey boiler provides hot water and the views of the surrounding hills are stupendous. Sitting around the fire in the evening is ideal for imaginative storytelling. Altogether, this is a fabulous spot for a weekend in nature.

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The next morning, woken by birdsong, it was time to complete an obstacle course. Sisanda Hadebe really enjoyed this “It was fun and we learnt to work as a team. I made some new friends too.” An inspiring creative activity using waste materials, and games, brought the weekend to a close. “That was amazing. I imagine I can still feel the drops of water from the waterfall on my face.” Nomfundo said afterwards.

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Many of the photographs included in this story were taken by the learners.

hiking is a conversationres.crop.