It is late in April, my first day at a new job in the heart of Nature’s Valley. The sun is shining and I have already been on a bike ride to the lagoon. I have not ridden a bike in over 10 years – it filled me with giddiness and took me back to a place of deep nostalgia. ‘But how does a small town ‘farm girl’ get back on her bike, here?’ you may ask.
Let us start at the beginning: plants, animals and the natural environment have been a true passion of mine for as long as I can remember. I do not know exactly where it all started but being surrounded by various pets (from the mainstream dog and hamster to the unlikely goose and sheep) and having a devout plant enthusiast for a grandfather has played a major role in shaping the person I have become. As you may have guessed, from the unusual pet choices, I am from a small dorpie north of Cape Town, called Malmesbury. This is where I have spent most of my sheltered and slow-paced but wholesome life.
A move to Cape Town soon followed my Matric year – sad to leave home but excited for changes and challenges to come. I completed my undergraduate’s degree at the University of Cape Town in Marine Biology and Ecology. A great feat for me: an Afrikaans speaking girl giving it a go in a fast-paced city, at a predominantly English university. I developed a thirst for understanding our ecosystems and the plants and animals that form part of it. I decided to quench this need by completing my honours in Botany (Marine and Terrestrial) and my master’s degree in pollination biology of the genus Erica (commonly known as heaths). This experience had provided me with a plethora of theoretical skills but I felt like I needed to balance the scales and gain some practical experience.
This is when I started a year internship with CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers). This programme involves citizen scientists in monitoring threatened plant species in their home ranges and documenting potential threats. While there, I was able to expand my knowledge on fynbos plants and animals as well as meet amazing volunteers and give back to communities and scholars through Environmental Education (EE) Programmes. Apart from the amazing people I met and grew to love, I found the EE aspect to be one of the most rewarding aspects of this internship. It’s important to educate our communities on living sustainably and caring for nature; we need to take ownership of our environment and do our part in ensuring the persistence of resources that are ever depleting. A wise man once said it best: ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’
This is the journey I took (and the lesson learnt) that wound up with me 550km from home, living in a house overhanging with lush trees and going to sleep to the sounds of croaking frogs and, in the distance, waves lapping against the beach. But don’t be fooled by the picture I have just painted, I am told there are furry bandits roaming the mountains and valleys, ransacking houses and easily confronting you with their fangs. I look forward to the first encounter with the baboons of the area but… I think from a distance and maybe through some binoculars!
I have now started my internship as a research assistant, with Nature’s Valley Trust, assisting with fish surveys within the lagoon and estuary, and the various Fynbos research programs. My first long-term tasks are focussed on determining marine fish species abundance and the impact that the introduced mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) has on these native fish species in the catchment and estuary. The research will also assess this alien critter’s impact on the abiotic conditions in the water body. Additional to canoeing in the lagoon, this first week also has bird-ringing and fantastic fieldtrips on the cards.
So far, this has been an amazing experience and a perfect next step for a young graduate. Amazing colleagues (and housemates) and a passionate and supportive boss have only solidified this notion. At first, I was a bit apprehensive of being so far from home but this looks like it will become my home away from home.
Postscript from Mark: The NVT team is excited to welcome Brittany as the new WWF-SA Environmental Leaders Intern. Brittany has joined us for 18 months, through this fantastic WWF program funded by Nedbank Green Trust. She will work closely with Mark on the research programs NVT runs, and brings great experience, energy and enthusiasm into the team!