29 March 2009

(E&E)² tales: The summit of Mount Mabu [4/4]

It had been raining heavily all night long. Leaves glistened in the stifling understory; mist rose from the damp ground. Alan’s backpack was soaked through and the Garmin GPS kept cutting out, making it difficult to pinpoint the coordinates of some of the plants they collected. He was secretly glad when Olivia stopped to refill her water bottle. Above them, insects throbbed their mating calls on the limbs of trees. His quads burned from climbing uphill virtually non-stop for two days. The things he’d seen. He was teetering at that narrow interface between exhilaration and exhaustion.

The site was amazing: 7,000 hectares of virtually unexplored medium-altitude forest. The only access road ended several kilometers away at a disintegrating tea estate, long abandoned. They had left the Land Cruiser among the collapsing ruins and hiked the rest of the way. The name Mount Mabu does not occur in classic plant collection records from northern Mozambique. After decades of civil war, local people were only now returning to the area. Most were unaware that the mountain even had a name. And now the scientists from the Darwin Initiative had already collected more than 500 different specimens of plants and animals here. They’ve done pretty well themselves, Alan thought. He’d recorded almost thirty succulents so far, and collected a number of specimens. If only he had coordinates for all of them. Cataloguing is going to be a nightmare when he got back to UCT. Olivia was growing more sullen with each step, though; there was still no sign of the Polystachya orchid. She’d hardly spoken a word in the last four hours.

Olivia straightened. ‘My God, Alan, a huge snake,’ she said levelly.

‘Just stand back and don’t bother it,’ Alan responded. ‘Just let it pass.’

‘I think it’s dead, actually. This big guy isn’t going anywhere.’

‘Are you sure it’s not just playing dead?’ Alan exhaled, slowly.

‘It’s a Gaboon viper, Bitis gabonica. I don’t think thanatosis is in its repertoire.’ Olivia meticulously stripped the leaves off a fallen branch. ‘But massive amounts of haemotoxin is,’ she continued. ‘They’ve got the largest fangs of any venomous snake. Here, look.’ With this she forced the dead viper’s jaws open with the end of the branch. At the lips and especially surrounding the giant fangs, the inside of the snake’s mouth was studded with glistening brown ticks. Alan wanted to look away. ‘I guess it must have died of infection,’ Olivia said, dropping the branch. ‘Ticks are vectors for all sorts of diseases.’

In a nearby sycamore fig with peeling yellow bark, samango monkeys twittered like birds. Elephant shrews scurried around in the dark, somewhere in the underbrush. A chameleon jerked and staggered towards a mantis, actors in their own silent film. The blue and brown discs of bracket fungi were slowly decomposing a fallen trunk, already in the shadow of saplings that raced skyward to fill the tear in the canopy. It was so hot. This forest seemed inordinately alive. Metabolic. More so than any place Alan could remember from previous fieldtrips. It was almost unimaginable that somewhere outside this verdant realm people busied themselves with their own cycle of birth and life and death. Nurses administered drugs to expectant mothers so that their unborn children wouldn’t share their fate; teenage heads of households sold scrap metal on the dusty streets of Mozambique’s villages; men woke up in the dark to stand in line outside clinics, not aware that their tuberculosis is multidrug-resistant; women planted maize where Renamo militia once planted landmines. Alan thought of all this as he clambered over lichen-covered boulders after Olivia, who was randomly taking photographs. Suddenly they broke through the canopy at the summit of Mount Mabu, and the light was bright, and there were white butterflies everywhere.

The forest they had traversed rolled into the distance beneath them. Above, every layer of the sky was filled with small white butterflies. Some of them were so high up, lifted by air currents, that Alan couldn’t be sure whether they were butterflies or just floaters in the vitreous humour of his own eyeballs. It was quiet. Millions of minute wings flapped continuously, soundlessly.

‘Mass migration,’ Olivia said from a nearby rock. ‘They’re all heading northwest.’ Alan didn’t say anything. For in the back of his mind, an awful thing had sprouted. A parasitic thought had innervated his brain, like dodder inserts itself into the vessels of a host plant. I am going to die here, he thought. In that very moment, their whole excursion seemed like such a dreadful mistake. Planned in secret, organized in haste; the head of his department didn’t even know that he was gone. Was he really that arrogant that he thought this would work? He’d never done anything this impulsive before, and suddenly it terrified him. He was getting sick, he knew. Even with the heat and the humidity, he knew that he must have a fever. He awaited the quivering of his soft palate, that gentle prickling at the back of his throat that heralds the onset of symptoms. It was just a question of time. He had to hide it from Olivia. Avoid panic. Don’t let her know -

‘Dr. Schroder!’ Alan looked up. He had a vague notion that Olivia had been calling his name for quite some time. ‘I said, I’ll give you the photos, so you can share them with Daniel. We may never see such a thing again. Marvelous creatures, insects.’ It was late afternoon, and the butterflies had not stopped. ‘I’m just a bit disappointed that we never managed to find a Polystachya songaniensis. We recorded so many natural clearings and stream banks. I really thought those would be prime habitat.’ Olivia sighed. ‘Perhaps it just doesn’t occur here after all.’

‘Yeah,’ Alan ventured. ‘Perhaps you’re right.’

‘I guess I could always try and get DNA from one of those epiphytic orchids you collected earlier today. What was it, Mystacidium?’

Aerangis. But I’m not sure of the species.’ The wind started to pick up. The heads of thunderclouds were abuzz with lightning on the horizon to the north. Another wet evening was coming. What do butterflies do when it rains? he wondered. ‘Listen,’ Alan said and cleared his throat. ‘Don’t you think we should start looking for a suitable spot to make camp? It’ll be dark sooner than we think.’

‘Alright,’ Olivia said, strapping on her backpack. ‘Let me just take a picture of those clouds.’ She stepped right up to the edge of the summit, her eyes fixed on the screen of her camera. ‘The light is really good right now.’ And with that Olivia slid on some loose rocks and plunged down a ravine.

To Alan it seemed like he was watching it from outside himself, from a viewpoint away from the summit, somehow suspended next to the mountain in mid-air. He watched as she fell several meters towards a rocky ledge. He watched as her left ankle was jammed between large boulders studded with aloes, their succulent leaves sparkling like jade in the afternoon glow. He watched as the momentum of her descent swung her around, pivoted her around her jammed ankle with an audible snap of bone and tendon. He watched as her skull connected with the rock of the cliff. He watched all of this from outside himself. A few seconds of quiet. Olivia’s camera smashed into pieces at the bottom of the ravine. Alan’s next thought was that he would now never be able to share the butterfly migration with Daniel.  The weight of her backpack wedged her ankle firmly into the crevice. Olivia hung down there, out of reach and limp, like someone who had been crucified upside-down. Unconscious? Dead? Alan had no way of knowing, and no way of getting to her.

It was all such a dreadful mistake. Shouting her name had no effect. Alan had to get off the mountain as fast as possible, seek help. He did the only thing he could think of: he ran. It didn’t matter that it took them two days of hiking to get there from where they left the Land Cruiser. It didn’t matter that the nearest civilization was half a day’s drive away. It didn’t matter that his skin was ripped by thorns and branches slashing at him as he ran. Nothing mattered, apart from his muscles propelling him down the jungled slopes. He tried to ignore the soreness at the back of his throat, tried to ignore the swollen lymph nodes down the side of his neck. This is how you die, Alan thought. Not in a car on the highway. Not on the treadmill in the gym. Not in a comfortable bed, surrounded by people you love. This is how you die: small and alone in the woods, by claws and venom and poisonous sap. Viruses wait in the dark forest for you, have been waiting for thousands of years for people to come and reawaken them and absorb them and take them to the cities.

It was dusk when Alan ran into a forest clearing. Alan stopped to catch his breath and take a drink. It was a rocky patch next to a stream, populated by grasses and aloes. The soil was too shallow for large trees here. Growing between the rocks, almost hidden by tall grass, Alan saw the orchid. From Olivia’s descriptions and botanical illustrations at the Compton Herbarium, it was undeniably Polystachya songaniensis. None of that seemed to matter now. Rosettes of green leaves supported tall inflorescences with several small blooms. They were everywhere in the clearing, all around him. For some reason, Alan had assumed the flowers would be blood red, but they weren’t. The flowers were pink.


Image credit: Road to Mount Mabu © Julian Bayliss, Kew. Read more about the real expedition to Mount Mabu here.

28 March 2009

(E&E)² tales: The summit of Mount Mabu [3/4]

A tremendous cacophony rumbled through the Hospital Rural de Mocuba as a troupe of vervet monkeys rattled across its corrugated iron roof. The village of Mocuba was to be the botanists’ last stop-over, the last outpost of civilization, before they reached the forests of Mount Mabu.

 ‘I’m surprised by how organized everything is. I kind of wasn’t expecting that,’ Alan said, idly scratching at an insect bite.

‘With new funding, is possible,’ Eduardo said. ‘We start our ARV program soon.’

‘ARV?’ Olivia asked.

‘Antiretroviral treatment program,’ Eduardo explained, without elaborating. In northern Mozambique, living with HIV is seemingly as normal as living with pollen allergies in Cape Town. ‘Come, I show you cholera ward. Is new.’ Alan and Olivia followed Eduardo down a long unlit corridor. In the hallway was a little bench on which five women, dressed in colourful skirts and tattered T-shirts, were waiting to be seen by a clinical officer; they passed them in silence. Both botanists were sweating, but the small Portuguese doctor didn’t seem to notice the heat or the humidity at all. They turned into a large room that smelled of fresh paint, containing forty low stretcher beds in neat rows.

‘European Union initiative,’ Eduardo said, gesturing to all the empty beds. ‘Now after the civil war, is possible for Mozambique to prosper. ’ Each stretcher bed had a circular hole cut into the canvas, with a plastic tub positioned underneath it. Alan briefly thought about what the plastic tubs were for, and shuddered. He could tell by the look on Olivia’s face that she had thought about it, too.

‘Seems like you’re ready for the worst,’ she said weakly.

‘We had a big cholera outbreak in the spring. Many hundreds of people were brought here, but is not possible to treat them with drugs. This cholera is resistant to tetracycline antibiotic, you see. Is only possible to give oral rehydration therapy. Then we hope for the best.’ Alan desperately wanted to go outside. The paint fumes were giving him a headache. It was time to leave the village.

‘Dr. Texeira, it’s been a pleasure and an honour to stay with you and meet your family. May you continue to do good work here at the hospital,’ Alan said, shaking Eduardo’s hand.

‘Give my love to Christina. She’s been so kind to us,’ Olivia said.

‘Please, the pleasure has been all ours. Good luck on your little trip. I hope is possible to find the flower, yes?’

Pressure drops. Temperature rises. It was still sunny, but thunderclouds the colour of basalt were piling on the horizon, beyond the plots of cassava and fields of sugarcane. The Land Cruiser was loaded and ready, but Olivia wanted to buy sundried fruit and cashews from the roadside vendors before they left. There were children everywhere: balancing rusted scrap metal on their heads, laughing; chasing chickens; kicking a weathered football around, their toes stained red from the dusty streets. It was so hot. They walked past a crumbling Portuguese church, shot to pieces twenty years ago and never rebuilt. Some houses had roofs of corrugated iron, others were thatched with palm fronds. All had stands of banana and papaya growing by the front door. Alan caught himself wishing for a moment that he could share this with Daniel, that Daniel was with him. A group of girls were washing clothes in the Licungo River. Although Alan had been told stories, he hadn’t actually seen any crocodiles on its banks so far, nor did the girls seem much concerned by the possibility of reptilian predators lurking in the brown water.

The shacks were built right up to the banks of the river, right among the reeds. They would most certainly all be submerged during a flood, he thought. He was right. This is the place where nature wipes the slate clean. This is the place where people start anew, building on yesterday’s tragedy.


Image credit: Hospital Rural de Mocuba © Christopher van Belle

27 March 2009

(E&E)² tales: The summit of Mount Mabu [2/4]

Olivia squeezed lemon juice over her calamari salad. It was a quiet evening at Arnold’s on Kloof Street, which by Cape Town standards meant the average wait for a table was around 15 minutes.

‘How’s the ostrich?’ she enquired, absently licking a finger.

‘Rather tender,’ Alan responded, still mulling over the expression on Daniel’s face when he’d dropped him off in Observatory on his way over. ‘Although, I’d prefer it more well-done. I never claimed to have a very sophisticated palate.’

‘Apparently, they suspect arson. Too many bushfires at too many locations to just be random. Such a shame. All those grapes. All that wine.’

‘I wonder if it will spread all the way to the Hex River Valley. They have some really excellent vineyards there,’ Alan sighed.

‘Oh, that’s where I grew up!’ Olivia brightened. ‘De Doorns, with the snowy peaks of the Hex River Mountains all around!’

‘Now I understand how you got into botany. There’s a lot of cool stuff that grows there and nowhere else.’

‘And now you understand why I’m totally crazy and you shouldn’t be going on collecting trips with me. My dad always said I had a little bit of The Witch in me,’ Olivia said, bringing a glass to her lips.

‘Witch?’ Alan asked, perplexed.

‘You know. It’s a folktale. The Witch of the Hex River Mountains.’ Olivia squinted at Alan’s apparent ignorance. ‘It’s even got an orchid in it. Surely you must have heard it before. No?’ So the evening progressed with Olivia telling Alan the story as her lips were stained successively darker shades with glass after glass of Pinotage.


In the whole of the Hex River Valley, there was no-one as beautiful as Eliza, the only daughter of Jacob Meiring. Charmed suitors came to the Meiring farm from far and wide to court her, but none could win her hand. The truth is that Eliza was too proud. Because of her conceit, countless men left the Meiring farm with empty hands and broken hearts. One day, a young man named Filip appeared. He was different from the rest. He sat upright on his horse. His hands knew what hard work felt like. He had a clear laugh, clear as snowmelt. Eliza knew that this was the man she had been waiting for. But she was still proud, and therefore decided to send Filip on a quest. She said, 'Pick the red disa orchid that only grows on the Matroosberg, the highest peak in the Hex River Mountains. Bring it to me so that I may know you are worthy of my love.' Without a moment's hesitation, Filip set off on his mission, riding upright on his horse towards the gravelly mountain paths. He tied his horse to a wild almond and continued on foot. Filip climbed the steep slopes with a smile, higher and higher. When he thought of Eliza, his laughter was clear, like snowmelt. Filip climbed up the dangerous mountains, his hands cut by the jagged rocks. Then he saw the red disa blooming above him on the sheer cliffs. 'At last. Come, my bride awaits,' he whispered, hugging the rock. But as he reached up and snapped the stem of the orchid, the rock beneath his feet crumbled and he fell to his doom. When Eliza heard of Filip's death, she became delirious. Her father locked her in the attic of the farm house, but to no avail. In her grief she found inhuman strength: one night she broke the shutters from the window and escaped, her despair driving her barefoot up the mountain paths. She was never seen again. Everyone who worked the Meiring farm searched and searched, but the only trace that remained of Eliza was a red shawl, snagged in a wild almond at the foot of the Matroosberg. Not long after, the people of the valley started talking, as people do. 'Her beauty bewitched a young man. Her pride cost a young man his life,' they said. 'The witch got what she deserved,' they agreed. 'Her soul will have no rest as she searches for her Filip, even though she will never find him.' Even today, whenever the wind howls around the peaks of the Hex River Mountains, it does so in the anguished wail of a witch. And when the moon glimmers on the first snows of winter, they say that Eliza Meiring walks the mountain paths of the Hex River Valley.


Image credit: Hex River Valley © Mike

26 March 2009

(E&E)² tales: The summit of Mount Mabu [1/4]

Alan awoke to find his pillowcase covered in blood. Harsh mid-morning sun streamed in through the window. Daniel must have opened the blinds before he left for work.

Alan tightened his grip on the toothbrush as he calculated that this was his fourth nocturnal nosebleed of the year. The first quarter at UCT was still six weeks away. He rinsed the razor under the tap as the reporter on 567 CapeTalk mentioned that Sir Lowry’s Pass was closed to all tourist traffic because of choking smoke. There were fires everywhere. From the historic Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West to the township of Khayelitsha out on The Flats, it seemed that the whole peninsula would eventually succumb to the blaze. The hot and windy weather was set to continue all through January.

Using the wipers, Alan removed a fine layer of ash that had accumulated on his windshield, before driving up to Kirstenbosch. Table Mountain looked much like it always did, but there was something weird about the light today, as if everything was observed through a layer of insipid tea.


The modest 1930s architecture of the Compton Herbarium hugged the lower terraces of Kirstenbosch. It held almost a million specimens in its collection, mostly of South African plants, but also a few important species from other parts of the world.

‘Dr. Schroder,’ Alan repeated to the young woman at the front desk. ‘I have an appointment with Dr. Kennon at ten-thirty.’

‘Ooh… okay,’ she said eventually, lifting the receiver. ‘I’ll check to see if she’s in. Please sign the visitor’s book and have a seat.’ The girl seemed really young and a tad overanxious. Must be a first year student on a summer internship, he thought to himself. They always end up spending most of it indoors, making copies and manning the front desk.

‘Alan, after all the emails it’s great to finally get a chance to talk in person.’ Olivia Kennon appeared in the doorway. ‘Although, I have actually heard you speak, at that sustainable development conference in Johannesburg last year.’

‘I hope that didn’t bore you too much. I tend to go off on tangents at times.’

‘No-no, on the contrary, the tangents were a welcome break from all those boring talks on carbon credits and environmental policy. Please.’ Olivia showed Alan to a small conference table in the library, which smelled of crumbling monographs and ozone from the photocopier.

They started drawing up equipment lists and designing an itinerary. It was an impromptu thing, this fieldtrip, hardly more than a month or so in the planning.

‘So the main thing I want to do when we get to the site is to collect DNA samples and herbarium material of Polystachya songaniensis.’

‘That’s a terrestrial orchid, isn’t it?’ interrupted Alan.

‘Yes,’ continued Olivia. ‘Now, it’s known from Malawian accessions, but has never been reported from Mozambique at all. I believe that genetic analysis of this little orchid would provide me with supporting evidence that all of the isolated islands of Afromontane forest used to be connected in one large megaforest that pretty much covered all of south-eastern Africa.’

‘That is, until the climate changed and all the species had to seek refuge on the cool, wet mountaintops.’

‘Exactly.’ Olivia was thrilled that Alan saw the connection. ‘Oh, and I also promised a colleague in Pretoria I’d collect some lichens for him. He’s quite excited.’

‘I’m just excited to get out there. Ever since those Darwin Initiative guys from Kew discovered it, I’ve been dying to go and do a proper census of all the caudiciform succulents, perhaps with a slight emphasis on the Euphorbiaceae.’ Alan grinned.

‘Should have known you’d be interested in all that weird stuff.’ They tried to stifle their academic chuckles in the quiet of the library. ‘Are you going to involve any of your students?’

‘No, it’s too short notice, really.’ Alan paused. ‘You realize we might get several papers out of this,’ he said, imagining the grants pouring in.

For more than two hours, the botanists talked excitedly, bouncing around ideas, debating dubious taxonomy, arguing about GPS receivers and the merits of different malaria prophylactics. Then, Olivia looked at her watch and said, ‘Well, Dr. Schroder, I am glad we had this opportunity to discuss our expedition. Unfortunately, I have a series of afternoon meetings I need to attend.’

‘That’s always how it goes at the start of the year, I guess,’ Alan said, getting up from the table. ‘I suppose I should get to campus. I’m lecturing a second year course in plant diversity and I still need to draw up some sort of study guide.’

‘Why don’t we continue this tomorrow over dinner?’ Olivia suggested. Alan found himself strangely attracted to Olivia, on a cerebral level. They shared an intellectual connection, something Alan felt had been lacking in his life lately. No matter how much Daniel seemed to care about him, he never did laugh at Alan’s science jokes.


Image credit: Cape Town Fire © Web Design Cape Town

24 March 2009

What was that?

In the dark of the forest, something stirs...

Image: 'Checkerboard Forest' © Keith Alexander