A Tale of Two Swamps – Where is the boat?

We were met with a scene from the Marie Celeste.  The tents were there and we saw the guys’ personal belongings strewn around; we saw fisheries and boat gear everywhere; upturned pirogues and a small metal boat in the swollen waters of the lagoon below us.  And on almost every surface were fish; some big but the majority juveniles.  They were being sundried on mats, across canvas tents, even on the bottoms  of upturned boats.  Ian took a good look round to get a feel for the different species; nothing really surprised him except the sizes – there were so few larger fish, and some looked as if they might have been caught with below-regulation mesh size nets.

With all the fish and old wooden boats; two things were missing, the modern aluminium boat and the captain to drive it.  We waited round for about twenty minutes but with no mobile masts or radio sets, we had no way of getting in contact with them.  We deduced that our delays at the hotel first thing and the lengthy meeting at the park compound had meant the captain had decided to go off without us, or else there was some emergency that had taken them away.  There was nothing much else to be done.  I took a wander out to the edge of the lagoon and watched some ducks waddling to the water’s edge.  I say edge, but like many of the lakes here, the water flowed up over the vegetation so it was difficult to say exactly where the border between land and lake occurred.  I watched a flock of storks fly over the lagoon and peered off into the glassy lake just in case a speedboat was heading towards us.  It wasn’t.

We returned a little down to the national park centre compound; and to make use of the time we had I the day,  Ian asked if he had any data on stock and catch, a so called Frame Survey.  We were driven round the compound to a row of offices and were given a tour.  Considering the remote location with only generators for sustainable electricity, there was a lot going on here; large ledgers containing sample fish sizes – length and width – just as I remembered from my days at the Fisheries Department in the British Virgin Islands.  There were a couple of laptops from which Ian was able to glean lots of data – none of it analyzed to any extent but carefully collected, and we saw some laboratory equipment where testing of fish was going on , and several specimen species and posters showed at least a reasonable level of knowledge of the local fish stocks was being cleared.  At least we got some useful information even if we did not meet the villagers that day.


Plenty of birds – but no sign of a boat

It seemed like one of our precious days in the field was going to miss a major element – the community meeting with the villagers on the river.  We wandered a little way along the lakeshore and found a hard gravelly area with one or two boats moored up – the clearing of the weeds showed that this was a fish landing site – where catches from the flats were brought by boat to be transhipped to lorries that carried catch to market in Lusaka or further afield.

The Highest Country in the World – Past the Golden Gate

Many small towns in southern Africa are fortuitously off the main road – to let the huge trucks make their noisy gear changes and brakings beyond the residential area.  We turned off the main road and headed up a steep hill – Clarens was perched on a small plateau above a couple of rivers. Our accommodation was a villa on this hillside just below the town centre, a well appointed house with a big open plan centre, and best of all, a massive deck from which we looked east down the valley.  Becky and I had done a shop in the Pick’n’Pay in Maseru after picking up the car, so we pretty much dumped it all in the kitchen and headed out into the town.  We had decided that we would have a quick lunch and then do a sightseeing tour of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, saving a tour of the town of Clarens till the Sunday morning.

So after a quick burger and a chance to say “Hmm this place looks good”, we set off along another good road.  After several miles of farmland and forest, we reached the park entrance.  The scenery had been stunning since we entered South Africa but now it took on an extra edge.  Above us on either side , steep weather worn cliffs looked down on us.  The colours in the sandstone ranged from washed out grey to deep orange red, with camel, khaki and yellows in between, where exposed looking like a layer cake of sponge and cream topped with the green icing of grass.  The rocks were soft and eroded into marvellous shapes, caves scoured out by wind and rain, and where the top level was harder than the lower, huge stone mushrooms appeared to grow out of the valley sides.

Where exactly the “Golden Gate” is somewhat open for debate.  There are several viewpoints that give you the perspective of your route passing between huge golden coloured barriers.  Maybe the gate was the whole valley.  At the far end of this long wide canyon the elevation drops substantially and maybe that could be  the gateway.  Whatever the final definition of gateway, I could see that above the natural wonders, this was a supremely important pass.   Beyond the highlands of Lesotho to the south, the Rooiberge to the south east being the first manifestation of these, Golden Gate was the first sensible place to pass through to get from the Northern Cape and Free State into Kwa Zulu Natal and the Eastern Trans Vaal.  The pass and the fertile terrain rich in game was much coveted both by the British and the Boers, and the Basotho and other African tribes were keen to maintain their presence there.  This meant the region was the site of many conflicts and regularly passed from hand to hand.  Given we were in amongst a crumpled topography of mountains, the Brandwater Basin supplied a useful hideaway location too, which had been used to good effect in the Boer War.  However, the restricted number of exits from the valley, the Golden Gate being one of them, meant you could also get trapped in the basin.  Boers in the Boer War came under siege that way in 1900, and were forced to surrender.  In theory the view from the top of the pass should give lookouts ample opportunity to spot activity coming up the mountainside.  The nooks and crannies of this terrain, though, are often hard to discern as an inexperienced outsider.  Deep streams, low ridges that are invisible amongst the grass can keep you hidden, and once in the mountains themselves the caves, rocky outcrops and screes still provide good cover despite the lack of trees.

Capturing the Diversity – exploring the Green Mountain trails

In between the monitoring it was another great way to explore the island and get some exercise in.  Most of the paths on Green Mountain were set up over 100 years ago by those who were experimenting to grow commodities and crops there.  They tend to reach a certain elevation and then wrap themselves around the mountainside at that level.  Some pass through tunnels and where a ravine gets in the way there are vertigo inducing bridges.

With the moist air up here in the cloud forest, these paths need a fair bit of maintaining.  Vegetation and moss grow everywhere and Stedson and his team have to strim the pathways regularly to stop them becoming completely overgrown.  Loose rocks need removing and the tunnels need checking to ensure that they are safe to pass through.  The bridges cause the most problems as the wooden parts rot and the metals parts rust.  Fixing those take more than Stedson and his team can do.  Fortunately, being a military island, various bodies pass through Ascension on the way to the Falklands or can use the island as an exercise area, so several bridges have been repaired by the UK Royal Engineers, and since they have access to helicopters, getting the raw materials in to these elevated positions is not the logistical problem it might have been.  But it is an ongoing task and one of the bridges Ash and I had to negotiate had large holes in the walkway where the rust had eaten right through and you could see the bush in the ravine way below.

We saw a lot of crabs that day; they often hang around the rat bait boxes; and although it is hard to guess a crab’s mood, apart from crabby, I guessed there were a tad frustrated they could smell food but not get their claws inside the holes to retrieve it.  Remember these crabs are about half again as big as a rat and not so flexible so the boxes tend to be proofed against their invasion.

Cronk’s Path is one of the lower trails and the vegetation is on the more Mediterranean end of the spectrum, more so at the far end as it lowers down to the ruins of the North East Cottage.  Greggy on the next path up had been visible several times to us and we had walked around the mountainside almost in parallel, so the two parties reached the ruins about the same time.