Having already spent six months of the year away from home on my university placement, I was a little hesitant to leave again, especially as my previous two three-month trips were such a success! How could I be sure that South Africa was going to live up to my expectations? Was I going to enjoy it as much as I did New Zealand and Ecuador? In short, yes! Working for the Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) for the last three months has been an unforgettable and incomparable experience. I am so lucky to have been able to live in such a gorgeous part of the world and call it ‘home’ (even if it was only for a short while!). The NVT and South Africa completely exceeded my already great expectations and knocked my other two placements out of the park. Looking back, I now think, how on earth could I have doubted myself?! I would not have given this experience up for the world.
There was such a broad spectrum of projects that I could participate in and gain hands-on experience in the field. A definite highlight for me was the bird ringing; despite the early morning starts! It was incredible to see the different types of birds that can be found in and around Nature’s Valley and to have the opportunity to hold and release them once the rings were placed around their legs.
Despite the fact I complained heavily every time we did it, I did actually enjoy the mosquitofish sampling in the estuary. It was great fun getting into the water and using the net in an attempt to catch the tiny, invasive creatures. Whilst the water was rather cold and unforgiving, the experience was good fun and typically ended with one of us (usually me) neck deep in the estuary!
Other research tasks included the marine debris study, CWAC (water bird counts) and the shorebird studies. Collecting data for the marine debris research was a humbling experience as it made me realise and better understand the impact of washed up plastics and other debris on the shoreline, and I was shocked by the amount of microplastics that we found. The monthly CWAC counts were also great fun and gave me the chance to have undisturbed views of the beautiful estuary and the wildlife teeming in and around it. Mark, Kellyn and Britt are extremely knowledgeable about the bird species found in Nature’s Valley and were always more than willing to identify and give more information on the animals whether during a CWAC count or bird ringing session. I also spent a thoroughly enjoyable morning on the beach undertaking shorebird research where we were looking for plover nests and eggs in order to set up protective boundaries around the area. This is also when I learned of the soap opera style drama that occurs between the mating and nesting pairs of plovers, affectionately named “Sands of Change” by the team. I firmly believe these dramas should be turned into a mini-series of short stories. Chapter 1: “The Many Lovers of Ed the Plover”. It certainly has a ring to it, don’t you think?
Alongside the ongoing research projects, I was able to take part in some of the conservation education aspects of the NVT. Helping Lauren and Kirwan with the school lessons (Adopt-A-Beach and Birding Masters) showed me the importance of teaching children the basics of conservation from a young age (even if it’s not something I’ll ever do in the future!); to instil a sense of pride in the environment and the importance of looking after the world we live in. In addition to the school lessons, I had the chance to partake in the local celebration of Mandela Day where the NVT worked alongside groups of school children and other invested partners to ‘re-green’ a local community with trees. Seeing people of all ages getting involved with saving the planet was such a pleasure to see.
Working with the marine team once a week was also a fantastic opportunity to interact with the marine wildlife and help out with their various ongoing research projects. Helping Minke with her PhD research was another definite highlight as I got to track dolphins and whales from the land using ‘Theo’ (the theodolite) and monitor their movements and behaviours. I also had a couple of opportunities to track from the boat which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be up close to the animals (the slight seasickness was definitely worth it!).
Above everything else, my absolute favourite moment was taking part and helping with the release of five African penguins on Lookout Beach in Plettenberg Bay. Watching those little rehabilitated birds waddle their way back towards the ocean was an incredible opportunity and something I’ll most likely never see again.
My free time in Nature’s Valley was spent lying on the beach, soaking up the sun and revelling in the peace and quiet of the valley. And more often than not, I was found in the kitchen baking yet more cakes or batches of brownies, blondies and flapjacks (UK style of course!). I grabbed every opportunity I could to take Patricia, the project car, out on weekend adventures – my favourite being a long weekend spent in Addo Elephant National Park on the recommendation of the NVT team. Other trips included visits to the local wildlife sanctuaries, farm stalls and Plettenberg Bay.
Nature’s Valley is a truly spectacular place to live and work and I am so lucky to have had the chance to have been here for three months. I cannot thank Mark, Kellyn, Brittany and Kirwan enough for everything they’ve done to make me feel welcome in Nature’s Valley; for allowing me the opportunity to take part in every aspect of their research efforts and conservation education projects; and finally, for eating every baked good I threw at them – thank you!