The spring Southern Star Party at Night Sky Caravan Farm (you can visit their Facebook Page here) was a success despite the fact that the weather did not really play along. All in all, 60 people registered, but due to unforeseen circumstances there were cancellations and the final total was 55.
Since the previous SSP in February we have had enough to keep us busy. We were involved in or presented the following events between the previous SSP and this one.
An outreach event at the Kogelberg Farm Hostel for Elkanah House Private School.
A Deep Sky event at Leeuwenboschfontein where we had Klaas and Wilma van Ditzhuyzen from the Netherlands as guests.
The Museum Night at the Iziko Museum in the Company Gardens.
The Friends of the Helderberg Nature Reserve in the Helderberg Nature Reserve.
The Eco Rangers in the Helderberg Nature Reserve.
The Old Age Home in Porterville.
A public event at the Golf course in Porterville.
Four talks at the Durbanville Public Library.
Five public events at the Pierhead in the V&A Waterfront.
Eight days for National Science Week at the Iziko Museum in the Company Gardens.
An outreach event at the !Khwa ttu San Cultural and Educational Centre.
An outreach event at Labiance Primary School.
On Monday the 24th of October shortly after 07:00 Lynnette, Snorre and I left Brackenfell. This time we did not have to work right through the night to finish everything as I had the able assistance of my son, John-Henry. It was not only his physical assistance that made a difference, but his far better eye for what fits in where was a great help. We started unloading as soon as we arrived and during the course of Monday afternoon Tersius and his crew from Bonnievale Verhurings (go here to see more about their activities) arrived to put up the tent.
Alan and Rose Cassells arrived on Tuesday and immediately started setting up their camp site. On Wednesday Eddy Nijeboer arrived with Auke hard on his heels and Barry and Miemie Dumas not far behind him.
This time round the mobile reception was worse than it had ever been at Night Sky and Lynnette and I had no signal whatsoever. This meant that we had to drive back to the R317, where we had a good signal, to receive and read mail. Everyone seemed to have the same problem to a greater or lesser degree except Rose and Alan.
During the course of Wednesday Pamela Cooper, Marius Reitz, John Richards, Wendy Vermeulen, Louis Fourie, Pierre de Villiers, Bennie Kotze and Peter Harvey arrived. By then Night Sky was starting to look populated and discussions were taking place all over the place as people wandered around renewing old acquaintances and making new friends.
On Friday everyone else pitched. Just before the SSP our speaker from Bangalore in India, Amar Sharma had let us know that he was not going to make it due to visa problems. These problems revolved around the slap-dash attitude of the South African diplomatic staff in Mumbai. Amar runs an astronomy tourism operation in Bangalore, (see here). Our other disappointment was that a second speaker, Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced the blind astrophysicist from Puerto Rico, had fallen ill and was hospitalized just a day or two prior to the SSP. We had especially brought along our material used in astronomy outreach for the visually impaired, so that Wanda could demonstrate it. We settled for an exhibition of this material in the tent and it drew quite a lot of attention.
The weather on Friday evening cancelled any possible viewing efforts. Barry Dumas kindly presented a very complete and quite technical talk on optical equipment and what to do and not to do when cleaning it. His talk gave lots of information on the construction of various eyepieces and how special protective materials were applied to both protect and also to improve their optical functionality. After the talk we dispersed and in general spent the rest of the evening watching the clouds and socializing.
Chris Forder was kind enough to lend a hand with some of the younger aspirant astronomer’s telescopes during the course of the weekend. The youthful telescope owners and their parents were all left much the wiser after Chris had finished his explanation.
On Saturday morning I kicked off with the beginners. I handed out all the required paperwork and printed information and talked them through the basics of using star charts. After the beginners, we started the main program and kicked off with Prof. Herman Steyn’s talk on satellites and his work with the University of Stellenbosch’s satellite research section. He was intimately involved with the Rosetta mission and shared many of his experiences with us.
Pierre de Villiers presented a very interesting coverage of the Solar System Model designed and constructed by the Hermanus Centre. This project aims to increase the astronomy awareness of the general public and serve as a permanent outreach installation. The model now forms part of the well known scenic cliff pathway in Hermanus. After Pierre’s talk we had the usual lunchtime braai. Lynnette organized the braai drums as well as the laying and lighting of the fires with the very able assistance of Marius Reitz and Barry Dumas as well as other able bodied assistants.
After lunch we handed out the prizes for the Lucky Draws. This year, instead of depending on the traditional drawing of numbers out of a hat, we did something different. The first person to register, the first person to pay, the first couple to register and the first family to register all received prizes. Auke also decided it was Evan’s birthday and that he should also receive a prize. The fact that it was his birthday was as much a surprise for Evan as it was for the rest of us.
Then it was Auke’s turn to talk about the Centre for Astronomical Heritage. He was followed by Martin Lyons who presented a talk on how to look after your telescope optics. Martin could quite easily take his presentation on tour. With the appropriate musical background and some fancy dance steps it would be an instant comedy hit. However, please do not let the fact that it was funny detract from the value of its very sound practical advice on how to care for telescope optics. It was interesting to compare the differences in cleaning regimes between Martin and Barry.
After Martin’s talk we took the group photo. It is a great pity that not everyone pitched up for the group photograph as one likes to have everyone that attended on the photograph. Thanks to Auke’s efforts we also have a You Tube video of the behind the scenes efforts to get everyone setup for the photo. Go here to view the video.
FRONT – SEATED: Auke Slotegraaf, Lynne Court, Kiona van der Merwe, Juanita van Rensburg, Chris Vermeulen, Paul Kruger, Edward & Snorre Foster, Lynnette Foster, Rose Cassells, Alan Cassells, Caycee Cupido, Abigail Cupido, Caitlin Cupido. MIDDLE – STANDING: Deon Begeman, Ronelle Begeman, Pierre de Villiers, Bennie Kotze, Lea Labuschagne, Chris Forder, Lena Smith, Miemie Dumas, Johan Brink, Laura Norris, Pamela Cooper, Wendy Vermeulen, Rachel Norton, Peter Norton. BACK – STANDING: Peter Harvey, Jannie Nijeboer, Eddy Nijeboer, Robert Ketteringham, Ruth Kuys, Arné Esterhuizen, Evan Knox-Davies, Leslie Rose, John Richards, James Smith, Annatjie Kunz, Marius Reitz, Barry Dumas, Corné van Dyk, Louis Fourie, Gavin Cupido, Rogan Roth, Chris de Coning. INSET: Roelof van der Merwe.
ABSENT: André de Villiers, Martin Lyons, Rene Auras, Tyron Auras, Nicholas Kröner, Thomas Kröner, Nellie Brink, Dominique Brink.
The group photo was followed by the infamous Pub Quiz. Lynnette and I divided the attendees into six teams. This is quite a tricky operation. For starters, we know from past experience that separating parents from children or splitting couples are both big no-no’s. Then there is the really difficult task of trying to balance astronomy knowledge in the teams as well. Although the teams might have looked unbalanced numerically they were quite even as far as the knowledge levels were concerned. This is borne out by the fact that the final scores were quite close; team one (16), team two (20), team three (28), team four (22), team five (26) and team six (17). Each team had to choose a leader and Evan, in team two, was by far the most efficient team leader of the evening. After six rounds team three, consisting of Lynne, Juanita, Kiona, James, Lena, Leslie, Martin and Laura, was a clear winner. They had, in fact, maintained their lead since the end of round four.
After the team section we asked each team to nominate one representative to take part in the individual section. A further four rounds of questions followed and then we had a clear and very worthy individual winner in the person of Chris Forder. Congratulations Chris.
Strange how some people, even in a fun exercise like this, cannot resist resorting to looking up answers electronically or in a book. Some even erased answers and corrected them after the correct answer had been given thereby gaining an unfair advantage.
After the Pub Quiz there were still clouds around, but we decided to give it a go and Auke got the Constellation Exploration group (ConEx) together while I set up a telescope for the beginners. As luck would have it, just as we started, the clouds covered Venus, Saturn and eventually Mars too. We managed to discuss a few constellations and some objects of interests, but eventually people drifted off, as the clouds alternately advanced and retreated. For the most tenacious beginners there was eventually a fairly clear view of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) before we all went to bed.
Nobody had done the observing challenge, so there were no certificates to hand out on Sunday morning. Lynnette and I were up at 08:00 to say goodbye to the early leavers and share a cup of coffee with them. By Sunday evening Lynnette and I, Auke, Barry and Miemie, John, Alan and Rose and Snorre were all that was left of the crowd and, as usual, we had a nice braai before setting op the telescopes to do some observing. Yes, you guessed correctly the weather cleared as soon as the SSP was over! On Monday afternoon, only Lynnette, Snorre, myself, Alan and Rose were left. On Tuesday morning we departed leaving the entire camp to Alan and Rose. Tersius and his team took down the tent on Tuesday afternoon and loaded up the tables and chairs, bringing down the final curtain on the 2016 Spring Southern Star Party.
A special word of thanks to our generous sponsors, because, without their help and support there is no way we could present a Southern Star Party.
Night Sky Caravan Farm
Promotional Printing and Signage
Chris de Coning
Visit to the Durr Family in Malmesbury,10 May 2014
In Die Burger of 21 April 2014 an article by Blanche de Vries titled “Seun met swak sig maak deurbraak” (Eng. Boy with poor sight makes a breakthrough) caught Lynnette’s eye and she filed it with the intention that we would try and include Pieter-Jans Durr in our outreach plans for 2014. Lady Luck was on our side because in the meantime, Dr Wanda Diaz-Merced, the blind astrophysicist from Puerto Rico, paid South Africa a visit, and was based at the International Astronomical Union’s Office for Development on the premises of the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town.
We mentioned Pieter-Jans to Wanda on Friday during discussions following her farewell lunch at the SAAO, and she expressed interest in meeting Pieter-Jans. So when we arrived home, Lynnette set about contacting the Durr Family. There were five numbers listed for the surname Durr, but the very first number she tried turned out to be the jackpot: it was Pieter-Jans’s grandmother. Wanda was due to address a combined parents and teachers meeting on Saturday morning at the Athlone School for the Blind in Bellville South but she would be finished by 10:30 or shortly afterward. We picked her up shortly after 11:00 and headed for Malmesbury. It rained intermittently on the way to Malmesbury, but we arrived on time at the Durr residence where we were warmly welcomed by Mrs Marie Durr, Pieter-Jans’s mother.
While we waited for Pieter-Jans, Marie filled us in on the family background. Pieter-Jans is the youngest of four children and he and his two older sisters all suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, generally abbreviated to RP. His eldest sister attended the Pioneer School in Worcester before transferring back to a mainstream school in Malmesbury to complete her high schooling. She then went on to complete a BA (Law) degree at the University of Stellenbosch. The second daughter matriculated at the Pioneer School in Worcester earning a place amongst the top ten in the Western Province. She is currently working on a master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch. Pieter-Jans’s brother has no visual impediment. He is a very capable Rugby player and is currently completing a degree in Physiotherapy at the University of Stellenbosch. Pieter-Jans himself was until recently a pupil at the Pioneer School in Worcester, but in 2014 he had expressed the wish transfer to the Swartland High School in his hometown, Malmesbury. By the time Wanda had related her background to Marie and we had finished the coffee and melktert, Pieter-Jans arrived.
Pieter-Jans admitted to knowing very little about astronomy, an omission which Wanda soon set about correcting with the aid of the posters from the “Touch the Invisible Sky” and “From the Earth to the Sky” series. She also presented him with the material she had brought along specifically to give to him. Wanda soon had Pieter-Jans completely at his ease, and before long they were engaged in a lively discussion about the posters which Pieter-Jans eagerly examined. Marie showed a keen interest in the posters and the discussion too, especially when Wanda pointed out the fact that only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible to sighted people. By far the greater part had to be interpreted using instruments in any case, which is why she promotes converting signals to sound as a means for visually impaired people to participate in astronomy, because of their more acute hearing.
By the time Pieter-Jans’s father, John, arrived we were ready for the second round of coffee, melktert and rusks. John slipped effortlessly into the discussions and in-between talking, and sipping his coffee also took time to look at the posters. After coffee, John excused himself as he had promised to attend a rugby match in which his other son was playing. Before he left though we did take a photograph of the family.
Lynnette and I would like to thank Marie and John for welcoming us, total strangers, into their home and on such short notice too. We intend going back as soon as possible to visit Pieter-Jans and to expand his astronomy knowledge. On subsequent visits, we also hope to discuss astronomy with his classmates and his science teacher.
Johan Marais from the African Snakebite Institute and Dr Gerbus Muller from the Poison Centre at Tygerberg Hospital presented this course at the Medical School of the University of Stellenbosch.
08:30 – 19:00 Registration. 09:00 – 10:30 Identification of important venomous snakes including a live snake demonstration by Johan Marais. 10:30 – 11:00 Tea and refreshments. 11:00 – 12:30 Management principles and anti-venom by Johan Marais. 12:30 – 13:00 Management of scorpion and spider bites by Dr. Gerbus Muller.
Dispelling the snake and snake bite myths: Johan ran us through the dangerous snakes in Southern Africa. In the process he also dispelled myths and Old Wives’ Tales left right and centre and I list just a few of the casualties here.
Myth: The Mole Snake (Pseudaspis cana) is non-venomous, therefore harmless and can be handled by anyone with impunity. Fact: A Mole Snake has numerous short, sharp teeth and, when it bites, it moves its jaws back and forth in a sawing action. The lacerations a large Mole Snake creates will require stitching and treatment with antibiotics.
Myth: The Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) can only bite you on a finger or the edge of your hand because it has a small mouth and its fangs are at the back of the mouth. Fact: The Boomslang can open its mouth more than 170 degrees, which is quite wide enough to bite you anywhere it likes. Its teeth are also not at the back of its mouth but somewhere in the middle; roughly under the eye.
Myth: The Puff adder (Bitis arietans) causes most of the serious bites in Southern Africa. Fact: That dubious distinction belongs to the Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica).
Myth: You can pick up any snake, as long as you know what you’re doing, by gripping it firmly just behind the head. Fact: The Stiletto Snake (Atractaspis bibroni) can rotate its fangs in any direction and, in so doing, stab you in a finger, no matter how you hold it.
Myth: A Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) will chase you to bite you. Fact: All snakes become aggressive if cornered or threatened, but no snake in the world will chase you.
Myth: Black Mambas have been known to strike at passing vehicles leaving deep fang marks in the metal. Fact: A Black Mamba’s fangs are so fragile one can break them with the flick of a finger.
Myth: An adult Black Mamba can raise more than three-quarters of its body off the ground to strike. Fact: A close examination of the Mamba’s anatomy shows that this feat is anatomically impossible for the snake.
Myth: The Green Mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps) hangs from tree branches striking at passers-by below Fact: Absolute rubbish.
Myth: To keep snakes away from your house or campsite, purchase a can of snake repellent or Jay’s Fluid and spray the area. Fact: Not a single one of these repellents has been proven to have any deterrent effect on snakes.
Myth: Electrotherapy is an effective treatment for snake bites. Fact: These instruments do not have any beneficial or curative effect on any snake bite.
Myth: Snake stones and traditional herbal concoctions provide protection, not only against being bitten but also against the effects of the venom should you get bitten. Fact: Neither the stones or the many herbal concoctions have the slightest effect whatsoever.
Important characteristics of snake bites and snake venom All sorts of other interesting snippets of information about snakes also materialized. Snakes apparently do not always deliver the same amount of venom when biting. Many bites are “dry bites” in which no or very little venom is delivered. Unfortunately one does not know this at the moment of the bite and the only way to be sure, is to wait and see if any symptoms develop. The risk here is obvious, so my advice would be to head for a medical facility and do your wait-and-see-thing on the way there.
The venom from the same species of snake, but from two different geographic locations can have different levels of toxicity. This seems to be the case with the Cape Cobra (Naja nivea), which appears to be less venomous in the Northern Cape and Southern Namibia than in the Western and Southern Cape.
People also have different levels of allergic reaction to snake venom, which means that the effects of a snake bite can vary considerably from person to person. Different people also vary in the degree of reaction to the anti-venom’s equine component, which further complicates treatment regimens. This underlines the necessity for careful, post-bite monitoring by qualified medical personnel.
What to do and not to do when rendering snake bite first aid Johan stressed that the administration of anti-venom should be left to suitably qualified, medical personnel. The purpose of first aid was to stabilize the bite victim while getting them to a medical facility where medical personnel could take over. The golden rule when treating a snake bite victim is to always treat the symptoms and not the bite.
What to do. Do get the victim to a medical facility as fast as possible. Do keep the victim calm. Do immobilize the bite area. Do elevate the bite area to level with, or slightly above the level of the victim’s heart. Please note that elevate does not mean lifting the bite area as high as possible above the patient’s head.
What to do, but only with discretion. Only use a bag valve mask if you are properly trained in its use. Only apply a crepe bandage if you are absolutely certain that the venom does not have any cytotoxic characteristics.
What not to do. Do not cut or incise the bite. Do not apply suction. Do not apply a tourniquet. Do not apply anything to the bite area or give the bite victim any medication.
The Live Snakes Session! This gave us all the opportunity to become more closely acquainted with a number of live snakes. First came a harmless American Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) and that was followed by a fair sized Mole Snake and a very dark, young Cape Cobra. Next up was an older and larger Cape Cobra and then, the pièce de résistance, a beautiful Puff adder. Despite Johan’s assurances many of us made sure that we maintained a more than adequate distance, just in case.
Scorpions and spiders Although Dr Muller’s time was rather limited, his talk was certainly no less interesting. He identified Parabuthus granulatus as the most dangerous scorpion in this area and stressed that children were especially vulnerable with mortality rates running close to 20%. A close second on the venomous list is Parabuthus transvaalicus, but it is only about a third as venomous as P. granulatus. Both venoms are neurotoxic and the anti-venom, developed from P. transvaalicus, is effective for both bites.
Unlike snake venom, no allergic reactions to scorpion venom have been recorded but, in about 20% of the cases, there is an allergic reaction to the anti-venom. The symptoms of scorpion venom develop very rapidly, often in less than two hours. Deaths have been recorded within one and a half hours of the victim being stung.
As far as spiders are concerned Gerbus reported that the main culprits responsible for envenomation were the Black Widow, (Latrodectus indistinctus) that has a neurotoxic venom and the Sac Spiders (Cheiracanthium sp) and Violin Spiders (Loxosceles sp.). The latter two have cytotoxic venoms. An effective anti-venom is available for the Black Widow spider. The symptoms of bites by these two spiders and in particular the Black Widow, are referred to as Latrodectism. If you are looking for more information on spiders and guidelines on how to identify Norman Larsen answers questions on Iziko Museums of Cape Town’s Biodiversity Explorer page.
Gerbus pointed out and important distinction between the South African Black Widow Spider and the spider with the same name in other parts of the world. The South African spider does not have a red or orange hourglass mark on the underside of its abdomen, but in the rest of the world it does. However, the South African Brown Widow Spider (Latrodectus geometricus) does have the orange hourglass marking. It also has a neurotoxic venom that is only about 25% as toxic as that of the Black Widow.
It is important to remember that spiders do not run around looking for humans to bite. They only bite when they are threatened, usually by means of applying pressure on them. As spiders are small and generally secretive, people often apply pressure accidentally and then get bitten.
Dr. Muller emphasized that only a small percentage of patients, brought to the Poison Centre at Tygerberg Hospital with lesions, had actually been bitten by a spider. There were many other possible causes of lesions very similar to those caused by cytoxic spider’s venom.
Field trip with Dr Juri van den Heever and the honours students from the Department of Botany & Zoology at the University of Stellenbosch. 17 – 22 March 2014
This is a diary of the six day event with lots of pictures to illustrate the text. I must first give some background about the tour and its origins to put all readers in the picture. Juri van den Heever, the architect of the tour, moved from the South African Museum to the Department of Zoology at Stellenbosch in 1987. In 1988 he took the first of these tours as part of the Honours course and has been taking them ever since. I had been with the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University since 1985 and, as Juri and I had been at school together, we were able to renew our friendship when he came to Stellenbosch. This led to him asking me if I would like to participate in the tours and fill in on the Biochemistry of plants as well as some other aspects. The tour provides the students with information on Geology, Vertebrate anatomy, Palaeontology, Plants and plant usage, Insects, Birds, Ecology of the areas visited, History, Culture, Geography, Astronomy and, last but not least, the opportunity to participate in discussions on science in general and the philosophy of science and being a scientist.
So, from around 1994 or so, we have been in this together, although I skipped one or two due to pressure of work at Biochemistry or some other immovable commitment. Over the years we have also taken members of the public, high school learners and fellow colleagues at the University on these tours, whenever there have been seats open in the vehicles. These “outsiders” have very often made valuable contributions to the range and depth of the topics touched on during the tour. One interesting feature of these trips over the years has been the large number of our University colleagues who have annually committed themselves very enthusiastically to participate in the next trip only to pull out at the last minute. This year we had 14 students from the Department of Botany and Zoology and one member of the public, Peter Müller, a retired Wood Technologist.
Monday 17th March
Just after 06:30 on Monday the 17th of March, Lynnette dropped me off at the University’s vehicle park where Juri was already inspecting the two Toyotas and completing the paperwork. We hooked on the two trailers and shortly before 07:00 we were parked outside the Department and the students could begin to load their gear, the supplies and other equipment for the week. Shortly after 07:00 Juri gave the first briefing and then we embarked and headed out of Stellenbosch toward the West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaanweg. Our route took us through Malmesbury, which has a tepid, sulphur chloride spring that once attracted many ailing Capetonians to a Sanatorium that was built there. A shopping centre now covers the site.
After turning off the N7 onto the R45, our route took us across the undulating hills of weathered Malmesbury shale that form the wheat fields of the Swartland (Black Land), These were once covered in Renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis), which is the signature plant on weathered shale and mudstone throughout our area. Its dark colouring, when seen from a distance, was probably the origin of the name Swartland. Once past the Moorreesburg turnoff, the countryside gradually changed to alluvial sand covered in restios interspersed with small and medium sized shrubs. Just after the small settlement of Koperfontein we passed the brand new 66 MW Hopefield wind farm owned by Umoya Energy. The farm became operational in February 2014 and develops sufficient energy to power 70 000 low-income homes or 29 000 medium-income homes, when the wind blows. Go here to read a short article on this wind farm.
The R45 bypasses the town of Hopefield, a fact which has turned the town into a virtual ghost town. Between Hopefield and the Air Force Base at Langebaanweg, the markers of the pipeline bringing water to the West Coast from Voëlvlei dam can be seen at intervals on one’s right and, shortly after Langebaanweg, we turned off the R45 into the Park. The Park was originally a Chemfos phosphate mine, but after the closure of the mine in 1993, it was declared a National Monument Site in 1996. The Park, now covering about 700ha, was officially launched in 1998. It is currently under the control of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and is managed by Pippa Haarhoff. It has recently been declared a National Heritage Site. The following site gives more information on the Park. The fossils date back about 5.2 million years to the late Miocene/early Pliocene era. Go here for more information on this exceptional area. After some refreshments at the visitors centre we got back into the vehicles and followed the guide, Wendy Wentzel, down to the dig site.
The dig site is in the old ‘E’ Quarry area and displays an astounding array of fossils. Wendy ran us through an informative description of the various animals found at the site, the conditions thought to have existed when the animals died and the methods used to uncover the fossils. The majority of the bones visible seem to be those of the short-necked giraffe or Sivathere but there is evidence of wales, seals, various elephants and different sabre toothed cats as well. The only bear south of the Sahara was also found at the Park in the smaller dig site adjacent to the larger one visited by the general public. Shark teeth found here are evidence for the existence of a behemoth that would have dwarfed the infamous cinematic Jaws. After the talk we moved outside to the sorting trays where everyone had a go at finding the fossil remains of the smaller animals such as mice, frogs and moles. Then back to the vehicles to return to the visitors centre for a quick bite to eat, something to drink and a visit to the essential amenities before departing on the next leg of our journey.
We retraced or route past Hopefield and shortly after Koperfontein we turned left to Moorreesburg. On that stretch of road we had an excellent view of the ancient termite mounds or “heuweltjies” that give the fields such a lumpy appearance. These mounds were already alluded to by the 18th century Astronomer and Geodesist, Nicolas-Louis De La Caille. Go here to read the section in Dr. Ian Glass’s book on De la Caille. For a more recent and scientific coverage of the topic you can go here to read an article published by the Department of Soil Science at the University of Stellenbosch. We passed through Moorreesburg which considers itself the “heart” of the Swartland wheat industry and actually boasts a wheat industry museum, one of only three in the world.
We then headed for the twin towns of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel. Just outside the former we passed the cement factory of PPC (Pretoria Portland Cement) where one can visit the restored house in which General Jan Christian Smuts was born. Smuts, educated at the Victoria College, later the University of Stellenbosch, and Christ’s College at Cambridge University, went on to become State Attorney of the Transvaal Republic, a successful general in the Anglo-South African War and eventually Prime minister of South Africa. Daniel Francois Malan, the first Prime Minister to actively apply the basic principles of institutionalized apartheid after the 1948 elections, was also born in Riebeek West. These two towns lie on the slopes of the Kasteelberg. From these two towns one has a sweeping view of the Northward tending arm Cape Fold Mountains from the Limietberg behind Wellington through the Winterhoek west of Tulbagh and on into the Cederberg where the peak of Cederberg Sneeukop can just be made out.
We left Kasteelberg behind, crossed the Berg River and just after passing the hamlet of Hermon, we turned left on the R46. Our route took us past the blockhouse that once guarded the railway line during the Anglo-South African war and then Voëlvlei dam, one of the major sources of water for Cape Town and the West Coast before passing into Nuwekloof through which the Little Berg River exits on its way to join the Berg River several kilometers beyond the village of Gouda. In 1739 the head and right hand of the infamous Estiénne Barbier were placed in this area after his execution as a gruesome warning to anyone contemplating an uprising against the VOC. In Nuwekloof one can still see the dry stone wall supporting Andrew Bain’s road which was in use for more than a hundred years until it was replaced by the present road in 1968. The road then passes into the Land of Wavern, south of Tulbagh and heads up the valley of the Little Berg river with the Witzenberg rising on the left and, on the right, the Elandsberg which is replaced by the Watervalsberg once one has crossed the watershed at Artois. It then swings to the left, passing North of Wolesely and shortly afterward entering Michell’s Pass.
In Michell’s Pass we stopped on the only section of Andrew Bain’s road that has been preserved. Out came the tables and food and, while a light lunch was enjoyed, Juri spoke at length about Bain, the founding of the town of Ceres and the true origins of the town’s name as well as the tremendous importance of the pass at the time it was constructed. After lunch we packed up before inspecting the impressive dry stone walls of the old road and then drove the last bit of the pass into Ceres where we filled up with fuel and everyone had an opportunity to visit a small supermarket. Our next stop was the pharmacy to so that Benjamin could buy medication for the Otitis Media he had developed. We finally left Ceres heading for Eselfontein, the farm of Gideon and Janine Malherbe where we would look for fossils in a quarry and spend the night in their Ecocamp. Driving out to the farm the road ran across extensive beds of Bokkeveld sediments with the Skurweberg’s younger sandstone layers sloping down under them from our right. In the distance on our left were the cliffs of Gydoberg and the Waboomsberg rising high above the northern edge of the Ceres valley.
We spent time in the quarry giving everyone the opportunity to experience the thrill of finding a fossil. That special feeling when you crack open the rock and see it, knowing you are not only the first human but the only human to ever have seen the creature that has been entombed in the sediment for several hundred million years. Many shell imprints were found from a variety of families as well as several fragments of trilobites. The prize find of the afternoon was Benjamin’s trilobite. Fairly late in the afternoon we packed up and drove up the fairly rigged road to the Ecocamp where we unpacked and set about preparing supper. Benjamin and Dale did their first of several stints at the fire on the trip, grilling the chicken to perfection. Benjamin’s approach is that he would rather cook every evening than wash dishes. Juri, Claire and Sheree’s potato salad went down very well too. Unforeseen problems with the water supply meant that we all had to wash in the adjacent mountain stream. There was very little interest in astronomy as most people were pretty tired after the long day but, nevertheless, the Moon, just one day past full moon, rising behind the pine forest made quite a spectacular site.
Tuesday 18th March
At 07:00 Juri started the day by getting everybody up and moving in the direction of breakfast after which we packed up, packed everything into the vehicles and the trailers and set off on the first leg of day two. This entailed a short drive in the direction of Lakenvlei dam, then past Matroosberg to Okkie Geldenhuys’s farm Matjiesrivier, where we collected our annual allocation of peaches. With the sandstone of the Cape fold mountains behind us, but still standing on Bokkeveld sediments, the view to the north of the farm gave us our first view of the Witteberg sediments.
Shortly after leaving the farm we picked up the R46 again and headed East toward the N1 and our first fossil stop of the day near the game farm Aquila. On the way there we passed Verkeerdevlei, the original water supply for Touws River and a forlorn looking Dakota aircraft parked amongst some scraggy looking pines in a military training area. About 300m before reaching Aquila, we pulled over and got out to look for Zoophycos, one of the few fossils one finds readily in the Witteberg sediments. After finding some examples and making sure everyone knew what it looked like we departed. As we drove away, we had a good view of Aquila’s huge automated solar energy installation that produces 60 kW of electricity by means of a Concentrator Photovoltaic system. The area around the solar panels also houses the lion rehabilitation pens as a deterrent to would be thieves. This system forms part of an eventual 50 MW installation currently under construction. Go here to read more about this exciting installation.
Our next stop was Touws River for acquiring refreshments and use of the amenities and then we were off again headed for the Logan Cemetery on the N1. Although the mountains around us were all Witteberg deposits, we were soon driving on the frist of the Ecca deposits and about 10 km north of the town the first patch of Dwyka tillite, a glacial deposit, appeared to the left of the road. Also fairly abundant along the N1 was the yellowish Kraalbos (Galena Africana), a pioneer shrub that takes over in disturbed or overgrazed areas. It can, however, proliferate to the point where it suppresses the regrowth of other plants. As we progressed in the direction of Matjiesfontein, we saw more and more Dwyka tillite on either side of the road and the Witteberg Mountains to the south also became more and more prominent. When parked at the Logan cemetery one can see good examples of Ecca, Witteberg and Dwyka.
On the way to Sutherland we took note of the various sizes of the drop-stones in the cuttings through the Dwyka tillite and also pointed out the various outcrops of the Whitehill Formation, a distinctive stratigraphic unit near the base of the Ecca group and stressed its importance as a repository of Mesosaurus, fish and insect fossils from the early Permian. As we progressed northward we crossed the Collingham Formation, a section of volcanic ash and eventually arrived amongst the Beaufort or Karoo sediments which were deposited on land by huge meandering rivers in a gigantic basin that stretched right across the present day South Africa. At a deep cutting about one km after crossing the Tanqua River, we stopped to look at the exposed mudstone and sandstone beds so typical of the Karoo sediments and also to explain to the students how the early Karoo Basin was filled in.
In Sutherland we visited Mr Eddie Marais, who in his youth had the privilege of collecting with Dr L. D. Boonstra. Mr Marais has a collection of artefacts that Juri used to explain to the students what they could expect in the field the following day and how to distinguish between calciferous nodules and actual bone. He also took the opportunity to discuss the development of the Karoo fauna and explained the gradual transition of true reptiles to mammal-like reptiles and later to true mammals which could be observed in the fossil record of the Karoo sediments. After enjoying the refreshments graciously supplied by Mrs Marais, we left to refuel the vehicles.
On our way to Fraserburg we passed the SAAO site where SALT and all the other South African telescopes are situated. On arrival at Fraserburg, we unloaded and Karin showed us to our rooms and as soon as the children in the hostel had left the dining hall, we moved into the kitchen to prepare supper. The end result of the kitchen team was a delicious pasta dish. After supper there was some astronomy discussion with various members of the group and most of the group went to bed in preparation for a long day on Wednesday.
Wednesday 19th March
We were in the dining room shortly after eight to have breakfast and then we set off for the local museum which is housed in the old Pastorie of the Dutch Reformed Church. The very friendly person in charge of the museum, Don Pedro Malan welcomed us at the museum and Juri set about giving a detailed explanation of the fossils on display. His explanation also covered the development of the various groups of animals that had been present in the Karoo basin during the period when it was filling up. After his talk everyone had the opportunity to look more closely at the fossil display and look around the museum in general before we set of to Droogvoetsfontein, where we met up with Mr Pieter Conradie. We all piled onto and into his pickup for a trip into the veld and then back to our vehicles which Juri and I then drove to the next stop while Pieter ferried the students there. Juri and I then rejoined the crowd on the pickup for the trip to where he had found a fossil, or at least bits of a fossil. As with many of the fossils in the Karoo lying exposed on the surface the elements take their toll and this one had not fared any better. All that was left, were a few scraps of nondescript bone not worth collecting and the surroundings also suggested that these had probably washed in from elsewhere in any case. Back on the pickup and back to the vehicles for a short drive before we dispersed in all directions to look for the elusive fossils. After about two hours I had found some pieces of rib bone and others had found another badly weathered fossil on the slope of a hill.
Back to the vehicles and off we went to Pieter’s farm, Dagbreek, where we prepared a light lunch in the shade of a tree. The new-born lambs were an immediate hit with the students. After lunch we set off again, but this time with Pieter on his motorcycle leading the way. After an interesting drive, we arrived at the next farm, Onderplaas, disembarked and set off on foot down a riverbed with scattered pools of water and muddy patches amongst the grass to trap the unwary. What was left of this fossil was still firmly embedded in the rock, but most of it had been worn away by the perennial flooding of the river. Disappointed we trudged back to the farmyard, said our goodbyes and set off for our next contact, also Pieter Conradie, the son of the first Pieter Conradie. He and his wife Marisa were waiting at the appointed place with their three lively children and our prickly pears. Pieter excitedly led us up a hill to look at his fossil, which unfortunately turned out to be a collection of calciferous nodules; his disappointment was quite tangible.
Our group did a quick recce, found nothing and then set off after Pieter Jnr for refreshments at his farm Middelfontein a few kilometres down the road. Refreshments, in addition to cool drinks, consisted of chilled prickly pears, ice cream and various delicious liqueurs to be used as toppings. I, for one, made an absolute pig of myself with the prickly pears and ate 50 of them! After some small talk with the Pieter and his wife and their three cats, we said goodbye and headed back to Fraserberg, anxious to get there before the shops closed as the beer supply was running low. We rounded the day off with a congenial braai, once again executed by Dale and Benjamin in a masterly fashion. We did some astronomy too for those who were interested and then went to bed.
Thursday 20th March
Today is the autumn equinox when the sun is exactly over the equator on its way north and the day and night should be the same length. It also signals the start of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and spring in the Northern Hemisphere. These facts did not really seem to impress anyone, so I didn’t push the matter. Anyway, we were packed up and finished with breakfast shortly after eight – at least most of us were! Then we set out on the Williston road to the palaeosurface on the farm Gansefontein. It is very sad to see the systematic deterioration of this site when we visit it every year. All Coenie De Beer’s efforts since he took a month’s unpaid leave from the Geological Survey in Pretoria 25 years ago and came down here on his motorcycle to map and measure the then freshly exposed surface, have been in vein. Well, not quite in vain, because an insurance company donated money to put a fence around the site and put up a notice board. What is really needed is a building to cover the existing site and money to uncover more of the surface around the existing site, but as things stand now, the non-preservation of this site is actually a disgrace for South Africa.
After the visit to the Palaeosurface we made a quick stop for biltong and dried sausage and then set off down the R356 toward the Theekloof Pass and our next destination. Theekloof Pass is potentially one of the most spectacular passes, if not in the country, then most certainly in the Western Cape Province. After the obligatory stop for photos half way down, we continued our descent into the lower regions of the Karoo. The pass also affords one an unprecedented view of the layered nature of the Karoo sediments with their alternating sandstone and mudstone layers, broken by dolerite sills and dykes in many places. Upon arrival at Rooiheuwel, the farm of Flip and Marge Vivier, we were enthusiastically welcomed by the Jack Russels and an overzealous Boxer before being taken inside for a welcome cool drink. Once that was done, we set off to look at a fossil on a neighbouring farm, which was “just around the corner”. Those of you who do not know the Karoo, should beware as this phrase could mean anything from 15 to, as we have experienced, 40 or more kilometres.
When we finally stopped and disembarked, Flip indicated that the fossil was “just over there”, pointing at a fairly distant hill on the other side of a dry riverbed, so of we went, The fossil was also a disappointment. Almost definitely a Pareiasaurus, but apparently lying on its left side with the tail, pelvic girdle, right limbs and ribs all missing. The head was very probably also no longer there, so we decided to leave it there to continue its losing battle with time and erosion. Back to the vehicles and to Rooiheuwel for a quick lunch and then a short drive to a place where we could get into the veldt to look for fossils again. Once again no luck, so we drove off to explore for likely fossil sites. One problem on this farm is that the vegetation cover is quite dense and the potential fossil areas are well hidden until you are right on top of them and finding traces of bone would then be doubly difficult too. We returned to the farm, said goodbye and drove to Merweville, our overnight stop. Juri’s vehicle was running low on fuel so he drove quite slowly to conserve what he had, but eventually we got there.
At Huis Mervia, the local school hostel, we unloaded and Juri set off to find the local parson of the Dutch Reformed Church, who had promised the group could go up into the church tower and out onto the catwalk to admire the view. He found him and off they went. In the meantime, the braai-maestros were getting the fire ready for their next culinary tour de force. As an entrée, we had slices of bread from two huge farm loaves baked by Mrs Blom, the hostel matron, and then it was Karoo lamb a la Dale and Benjamin, with onions and butternut wrapped in tin foil and grilled to perfection on the fire. Some astronomy after supper and then most of us turned in for the night.
Friday 21st March
It was a public holiday which we assumed would not affect us, but it eventually did. I went into town to refuel my vehicle, came back and had breakfast before we packed up and left to visit our fossil on Hendrik Botes’s farm Jakhalsfontein, which is spelt oddly as you can see. Juri thinks the fossil might actually be on Vaalleegte and we should really resolve the discrepancy someday. En route we passed the turnoff to the tragic Englishman’s grave, but that story will have to wait. Once on the farm, we unhooked the trailers for the long drive to our fossil dig site where we have been letting successive groups of students systematically excavate, what we hope is a fairly complete Pareiasaurus. It is quite a long walk from where we park the vehicles, but once there, we rotated and some hacked away with hammers while others scoured the area for other fossils. About two hours of hacking away and Juri decided to call it a day and head back to the vehicles. Eventually everyone was back and aboard so we could turn round, drive back, hook up the trailers go to an unoccupied house further down the road and his house is definitely on Jakhalsfontein. We had lunch on the veranda or, as it is called locally, the stoep. During the lunch break, some quinces were picked under Juri’s expert tutelage so we could have stewed quinces and cream for dessert that evening.
After lunch we made a quick stop at the café in Prince Albert Road and an essential pit stop for some members of the group before hitting the N1 and heading south to Laingsburg. This took us out of the Karoo sediments and onto the Ecca which were laid down just offshore in huge estuaries. We arrived at Laingsburg to find the liquor store open, but the supermarket closed so we had beer but no cream and we also needed sour cream for the potjiekos Dale was going to prepare for supper. We checked some of the other obvious possibilities for cream and sour cream, but none produced the goods. So we drove to the sports fields where we were going to spend the night in the clubhouse and, after unloading, I went and investigated one more possible source for the cream and sour cream, but that also turned out to be a dead end. Dale had found ways to improvise his way around the sour cream, but the prospects looked grim for the stewed quinces.
It is a pity the Flood Museum commemorating the disastrous flood of 1981 was closed as I would have liked the students to see it. If you visit Laingsburg pay the museum a visit and then drive down to the railway bridge, get out of your car and stand under the bridge. When you look up consider the fact that, on that fateful day, the water was lapping the rails on top of the bridge before the embankment at the eastern end gave way. Just for a moment consider the entire valley filled to that depth with churning, muddy water. It is a chilling thought I can assure you.
Dale’s potjiekos and rice was excellent. Actually it wasn’t, it was superb! After lots of philosophical discussions, there was some down to earth stuff too, we tidied up and went to bed. As I was having the last conversation with Juri, before we finally went to bed, he remembered that he had forgotten to cook the quinces. I had actually wondered about this after supper, but assumed the lack of cream was to blame.
Saturday 22nd March
While gathering the troops, it turned out that rather than make their own breakfast, everyone was in favour of picking up coffee and whatever from the local Wimpy and heading south as quickly as possible. A few kilometres outside Laingsburg, we crossed into the ancient lake basin again and could clearly see the tell-tale white slopes on either side of the road. Before long we encountered the first of the Dwyka tillite and shortly after that, the Witteberg Mountains came into sight on our left. Just before Touws River we encountered the first of several stop-and-go sections where the National Roads Agency was undertaking extensive road works all the way down to the Hex River Pass. Topping the rise just before the farm Kleinstraat, we had a good view of Aquila’s second solar farm with 1 500 panels, being built by the French firm, Soitec, which was nearing completion. The installation will provide 50 MW (peak DC) power and provide a 36 MW AC output to the local grid. This makes it one of the largest plants of its kind in the world. Go here to read more about the installation about the installation. You can also go to this link for more information.
From this point we were on the Bokkeveld shale again and, as we navigated the Hex Pass and skirted De Doorns and Orchard, we moved further and further into the sandstone layers of the earlier deposits. By the time we exited the Hex River Valley we had left the Bokkeveld behind us and the sandstone layers towered high above our heads. Shortly after leaving the Hex River Valley, we pulled into the De Wet Cooperative Winery where we traditionally stopped to sample their Muscadels and Ports. Just across the road from the winery was an impressive hill of Malmesbury shale lifted upward by the rising magma millions of years ago. As the magma cooled and formed granite, the heat baked the otherwise fairly crumbly shale into a hard metamorphic rock the geologists call Hornfels. This is mined in a quarry on the Worcester side of the hill and produces the blue-grey chips ubiquitously used in road making.
From De Wet we took a back road via Nonna, Overhex and Aan de Doorns to Eilandia and the quarry where we hoped to find more insect fossils and perhaps a fish or too and just maybe a Mesosaurus. At the quarry Juri and I were somewhat concerned by the fact that there had been considerable excavation since our last visit, and access to the specific section that usually produced the insects, was quite precarious; in fact rather dangerous. Apart from Juri having a rather nasty fall, it all went well. We came away with several Notocaris imprints, a fantastic leaf imprint thanks to Robyn and section of Mesosaurus backbone courtesy of Nombuso. A snap vote before we left decided against stopping for lunch so we would head straight back to Stellenbosch. One got the distinct impression that the students felt it was a case of “Home James, and don’t spare the horses”.
I stopped to take photos of the clearly visible termite mounds on the slope of a hill that we passed. Our route took us past Brandvlei dam and then through Rawsonville and Du Toit’s Kloof Pass where Juri elected to avoid the Huguenot Tunnel and drive over the pass, which is the route to take if you want to enjoy a spectacular view. After unloading at the Department and saying all the goodbyes I went and dropped off the trailer and then delivered the vehicle to the vehicle park, where Lynnette was already waiting. We stowed all my gear away and then went back to the Department to pick up Lona, who also lives in Brackenfell and had asked if we could give her a lift home.
All that was left for me to do, was to work through all 500 photos that I had taken and write this report. The report writing was seriously disrupted by the need to complete our application for a National Science Week grant from the NRF via SAASTA.