Exploring with botanists

I've come to the conclusion that there are two types of travellers in this world: those who take in the details, and those who form impressions.

Neither is better than the other, and neither makes you a more successful wanderer. 

I've always been an impressionist... in life, in love, and also in travels. When I get back from a journey, it's not the exact colours of the sunset I can describe or the precise words the guide used to explain a certain historical site. It's a combination of conversations, colours, scenes, sounds and smells that come together, leaving me with a certain feeling.

However, I recently had the opportunity to indulge that small and underfed, nitpicking side of my travel personality, when I joined a troupe of passionate botanists for a plant-seeking adventure in the Northern Cape's Nama Karoo

Forming part of the fifth annual Toyota Enviro Outreach and the ongoing International Barcode of Life initiative, the 10 day expedition set out to discover and document the plant life in this remote and poorly explored part of South Africa.

Botanists at work. (Nadia Krige, News24 Travel)

Plant life? In the arid Nama Karoo? Surely it would have taken all of an hour to find the sum total of greenery in the area?

I hear you and let me tell you, that's exactly what I thought too! However, after half a morning of stepping lightly, eyes glued to the ground I was amazed at the incredible diversity of life, small, but tenacious and, at times, even exuberant under my feet.

Led by Professor Michelle van der Bank of the University of Johannesburg the goal of the whole expedition was to collect material for herbarium specimens and DNA barcoding, as well as information about species distribution, population surveys of threatened species, habitat and threat assessment data while also recording information about plant utilisation.

In other words, the ultimate journey of details!

It all started with an early flight from Cape Town International to Upington Very-Much-Not-International in a small and intimate SA Airlink aircraft. Touching down at this acclaimed regional airport was altogether charming. None of the stiff formality of larger airports applied: as we disembarked a middle-aged man came strolling out of the terminal with a free range (i.e. not wearing a leash) Springbok-jersey-wearing Jack Russel by his side. They casually made their way past the larger aircraft and unceremoniously hopped into a tiny version of their own.

Upington Airport. (Nadia Krige, News24 Travel)

We collected our bags within five minutes and were warmly received by the Toyota Enviro Outreach team, who ushered us to their miscellaneous fleet of wonderfully airconditioned 4x4 vehicles. 

Next stop? Klein Pella Guest Farm, our home base for the next two days, located about 20km outside of Pofadder, just of the N14. Yes, pretty much the middle of nowhere. 

The work started before dawn the next day, when we were once again ushered into the waiting Toyota convoy for our trip to the Gamsberg, a mining area close to the town of Aggeneys, where the plant survey would take place. 

So, what did our day in the field yield?

Well, between Botterbome (butter trees) with brittle bark that smells exactly like butterscotch when bruised, Verneuk halfmense, prickly, cactus-like plants, an assortment of succulents disguised as stones and even a communicative Tok Tokkie, the team of botanists actually managed to discover a brand new plant species!

The Trachyandra. (Nadia Krige, News24 Travel)

Well, more accurately, the bulb-like Trachyandra (a kind of wild asparagus) was first discovered 7 years ago but there were no pictures or samples to support the finding, so it could not be described. Various efforts to locate another specimen followed, but none were successful. That is until Michelle's colleague, Dr Anthony Magee from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and his team of students stumbled across it this time round.

According to Anthony, the discovery was a huge lucky strike, and would maybe never have happened had they visited the area a week earlier or later.

Toktokkie. (Nadia Krige, News24 Travel)

After Klein Pella, the outreach team continued their botanical exploration on into the Nama Karoo, spending time in Raap-en-Skraap and the Hantam Mountains close to Calvinia. 

During their 10 days in the field they collected more than 600 species, including a few that they did not expect, like the Trachyandra and another specimen called Eragrostis sarmentosa. The scientific team will now spend the next few months sorting, identifying and DNA barcoding their plant collections.

So what's it all really about?

Northern Cape plants. Clockwise: Quiver tree, Verneukhalfmens, pretty pink flower, Aloe and Botterboom.

The Toyota Enviro Outreach project forms part of the Canadian-led research alliance, the International Barcode of Life, which spans 26 countries including South Africa and brings together hundreds of leading scientists in the task of collecting specimens, obtaining their DNA barcode records and building an informatics platform to store and share the information for use in species identification and discovery. 

By 2015, iBOL participants will gather DNA barcode records for five million specimens representing 500 000 species, delivering a highly effective identification system for species commonly encountered by humanity and laying the foundation for subsequent progress towards a barcode reference library for all life.

Check out Northern Cape roadtripping for tips and things to look out for while travelling in the forgotten province.

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