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Published: December 5th 2016
Doing actual geology
These rocks are the second oldest on Earth; radiometrically dated at 3.2 to 3.6 billion years.
The PhD brought me to South Africa. Fieldwork to date had involved two month-long trips to Ethiopia last year and now I was on the hunt for another type of shallow aquifer with the potential to provide water for irrigation rather than relying on increasingly inconsistent rains. The timing was unfortunately impeccable as southern Africa is currently (in November 2016) two years into its worse drought since records began a little over a hundred years ago.
Whereas in Ethiopia I went and did most of the fieldwork alone, the people I was collaborating with in South Africa said this would not be possible here. The crime rate is high which you are constantly reminded of by the electric and razor wire fences surrounding households, private security companies patrolling about, and advice to never go anywhere ever by most locals. Although I felt nothing but safe and welcome wherever I went, there were stories on the news each night that suggested perhaps I should take some of the warnings seriously.
The trip began with a little one week holiday past Blyde River Canyon to Kruger National Park, through Swaziland to the coast and finishing in Durban; some of
which I’ve talked about in the previous blog on Swaziland. I then flew across to Cape Town where I had my coldest ever scuba dive (and I’d dived the Farne Islands off the northeast coast of the UK the week before) through kelp jungles in crystal clear but 10C water. Two wetsuits didn’t help. Then the train to Stellenbosch. A train which later everyone told me I was crazy to take. “You will definitely get robbed on the train my bru. Everyone gets robbed on the train. I mean, I’ve taken it like fifty times in my life and never had a problem but everyone gets robbed on the train.”
I was based in Stellenbosch for a week and a half working out of CSIR’s (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) office. Stellenbosch is a fantastic town. The location is stunning; set amongst vineyards and surrounded by dramatic and prehistoric looking mountains. Unlike the drought elsewhere in the region, the Western Cape is still green and Stellenbosch’s pretty white houses on lush tree lined avenues can make you forget there’s a serious water shortage problem everywhere else in the country. You can easily forget about the crime problem too
One of the few African animals I had never seen and really really wanted to. The bunch of pups had been messing about for a while when mum showed up to share a chunk of some poor beast.
as people stroll about in the evening carefree next to houses not surrounded by super high security. Scampering up one of the mountains is really recommended for a view of Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope and both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Also recommended is Stellenbosch parkrun (look up parkrun.com if you don’t already know about this wonderful global phenomenon); one of the biggest in the world with regularly over 1000 participants and run entirely through vineyards with a farmers market at the end serving delicious breakfasts.
Then it was time for the fieldwork. A 2-hour flight then a 6-hour drive and we were still in South Africa though at the opposite corner of the country in the far northeast, close to the Zimbabwe and Mozambique borders. Having to go into the field with collaborators has the advantages of learning from their experience and being able to discuss findings and ideas on the spot. However, it has the disadvantage of not being in control of the locations visited each day and how long was spent there as they have their own agenda and research interests.
It was immediately apparent that the hydrogeology of the
The mountain behind is the one I climbed where most of the ther mountainy photos were taken.
area was very different to what I had expected and extremely different to the Ethiopia field site. The planned investigations were mostly impossible, impractical or irrelevant for this location and I quickly had to reformulate a plan of attack. Unfortunately, time ran out – we only had a week – and I came away rueing what I could have and should have done but didn’t get the chance. (Further reading and discussion since I left South Africa has led to a growing list of further required field investigations in order to have enough confidence in the study to get some sort of journal publication out of it. Thus, I’m currently looking for funding for a return visit in the spring.)
In case you are interested, here is the situation; there is a river which hasn’t flowed significantly since 2000, except for a bit of a trickle every year or so. The “river” is essentially a long strip of sand. The area is mostly native scrub and it’s extremely hot and dry. Fieldwork wasn’t easy at temperatures of 38-39C and it is not yet the hottest time of year. Despite this seeming aridity and despite the worst drought on record,
dig your feet a little way into the sand and you’ll find water. A few farmers dig pits and pump the water out, the pits filling up again as you watch. Where does the water come from? How much water is there? What if more of the bankside farms started using the water in the sands? Will it run out or is it being constantly replenished? I’ll hopefully be able to get back to you in a few months’ time with answers to those questions.
Quite a fun event was a workshop with the local farmers to disseminate CSIR’s research findings. The participants consisted of seventy farmers and two tractors (see photos) with the session kicked off by a sung prayer which was lovely. I was told the night before that I would be expected to give a presentation so one was hastily prepared. It ended up being more of a learning experience for me as I spent most of my ten or so minutes asking the farmers questions and getting them to share their experience with everyone else. Notably, only four of the seventy used water from the river sands, the others having boreholes which they complained that
I found water!
But why is there still water in the sands after two years of drought?
climate change was causing to dry up. No such problem was expressed by the farmers using river sands.
Then the long drive back south and a few days in Pretoria working from the office of IWMI (International Water Management Institute). Again, this was really valuable time to learn from their experiences. Although, their current groundwater research in South Africa focusses more on the large farms which grow food for export as this contributes to the national economy, rather than the poor rural farmers who I am focussed on who struggle with food security and poverty.
Overall, I enjoyed South Africa. I felt much safer and more welcome than many would lead you to expect, it’s a beautiful and extremely varied country, the food is great though I’ve never eaten so much meat in my life, the wildlife is spectacular, it was nice to see friends who I last saw when travelling through South America together 13 years previously, and these river sands really seem to have the potential for greater use – I’m very enthusiastic about taking the project further. I just need some cash to go back and get more fieldwork done.
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