Farewell from a Nature’s Valley Trust volunteer
So here it is. My stay at NVT is coming to an end, and it’s time for me to look back at the events of the last two months. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the completely crazy and the adrenalin-pumped events which have combined to create some of the best months of my life so far.
Currently moving into my 4th year of studying Zoology at the University of Sheffield, I wanted my summer months to be productive in terms of gaining experience in the field of biodiversity conservation, along with quenching my thirst for exploration and travel. When I arrived in Nature’s Valley after two days of journeying, the faint tang of travel still clinging to my clothes, I was dazzled by the beauty of the place, the forested mountains rolling into the golden beach and the roaring sea. Two months later I still have to wait a moment to take it all in when I step out of the house in the morning. Having lived in suburban Manchester and Sheffield in the UK all my life, the almost pristine conditions of the valley aren't exactly something I've been able to get used to during my visit.
As a volunteer at the Nature’s Valley Trust, I was able to assist with the field research that takes place here on a monthly basis. This means I could take part in the collection of data with the NVT interns for a variety of projects, including the Fynbos pollination-system project, fortnightly bird ringing, invasive fish species monitoring and seine fish netting in the Groot River estuary, and macroinvertebrate sampling in the river itself. In one of the more exciting bird ringing incidences, we drove around the countryside laying traps for and capturing raptors to ring, resulting in some pretty thrilling encounters with jackal buzzards and a black-shouldered kite.
Since my current interests are more insect-orientated, I enjoyed spending many an afternoon inside the office identifying the families and species of samples collected from the Groot River for the macroinvertebrate research project. As a result, my knowledge and identification of aquatic insects has increased indefinitely, which I think will be extremely useful for a project I want to complete in my final year of study in England. What’s most surprising is the interest in the Fynbos plants that Kellyn, a long-term volunteer here at the trust, has managed to spark in me during my stay. I mean I’m no botanist, but at least I can identify a few of the different species (albeit with questionable confidence).
But it’s not all labour and toil at NVT – I definitely approached the situation with a ‘work hard, play hard’ perspective. In my first month here, the weekends were spent exploring the valley and doing some pretty exciting excursions in the locality with Olivia, who was another UK volunteer here during July. In amongst our walks along the beach and occasional dips in the ocean, we hiked the notorious Kalanderkloof, glided across the Tsitsikamma waterfalls on ziplines, abseiled and jumped our way along the Salt River (‘Kloofing’, apparently), swam amongst the 5000 strong cape fur seal colony at Robberg and even managed to throw ourselves out of a plane in a moment of madness (attached to a parachute, mind).
Although I was very sad to see Olivia leave, as we had formed quite the friendship, I managed to carry on the legacy of the adventurous volunteer by doing the pretty famous bungee jump off Bloukran’s Bridge, riding horse-back through a game reserve and befriending elephants at The Crags elephant sanctuary. I have also developed quite a taste for ostrich burgers and diving into the sea whatever the weather.
By volunteering with the Nature’s Valley Trust I have managed to practice the field skills required for ecological research whilst gaining invaluable insight into the legwork behind running a conservation NGO. As well as the environmental and biological lessons I have learnt whilst volunteering, I now have a better understanding of the importance of the education side to conservation, and how vital it is for such a small NGO to engage with the community whilst carrying out their research in order to gain their support. I also got the opportunity to participate in the Fynbos Forum which took place in Knysna, allowing me to witness a scientific conference for the first time. Hence, I have also gained some awareness of the importance of communication and interaction between researchers.
On another side of things, I have learnt a great deal about some of the social and cultural issues present in South Africa, which I think are important to understand when working in this field. By staying in a house with the NVT interns, I have had the pleasure of discovering a whole new culture through listening to their stories and spending time with them. I feel like I’ve made a new group of life-long friends, and I will miss them all significantly.
But it’s not all bad. Staying here and falling in love with the country has opened my eyes to new opportunities, such as potentially returning to South Africa to study for a Masters or PhD degree in the future. So NVT, watch this space!