Colours of Wildlife Special: A Trip to the Leolo Mountains, 4-6 November 2016

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A Trip to the Leolo Mountains, 4-6 November 2016

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Campsite at Leolo Mountains

Bronwyn Egan, botanist of the University of Limpopo, a few other people, and myself – nine in total – made up the team conducting the botanical exploration of the Leolo Mountains. They lie in a region called Sekhukhuneland, quite a vast area in the Limpopo Province, west of the Transvaal Drakensberg mountains and south of the Strydpoort Mountains. It is a region in which many unique plant species grow that are found nowhere else, and in which not much botanical exploration has been done. The goal of our outing was general plant observation and collection, with the aim of finding rare or even new species. I don't know yet how successful we were at that! We found many species we could not identify, but the botanists took samples and will now go about the task of comparing them with herbarium specimens to find out what they are!

We aimed to start on Friday but there were some hold-ups; we only arrived at our camp site in the late afternoon, and set up our tents in the dark! But even then there were interesting plants: a low-growing species amidst the burnt grass, which we suspect to be an Oenothera, with flowers opening only in the evening. They're large and striking, with a characteristic four petals. We couldn't even find the plants during the day! By torchlight I looked around at some of the other plants around our site and was happy to see that there was great diversity.

We were camping on tribal land...we had permission. The chief is actually quite sympathetic and Bronwyn went to see him on Saturday; she told him about global warming and he was alarmed and asked what he could do! Bronwyn told him that actually he and his people could tell us city-types how to live with less! But one thing that he could do – which she suggested somewhat diplomatically – is keeping the mine companies in check. If left to their own devices they'll mine the whole area to shreds … never mind the many unique plants and wildlife. At this time we saw lots of signs of new settlements even high up in the mountains. The chief explained that the region recently got electricity and now many people are moving in from more remote locations. Bronwyn reckons we should find out from where they're coming, since those areas will consequently become depopulated and thus better sites for nature reserves. There's only a single, small nature reserve right now in Sekhukhuneland, in the far north.

Our camp site was at an altitude of about 1800 metres … not much lower than the summit of the range. I was worried that at that height the nights would be very cold – I had not brought much warm clothing – but it wasn't too bad. We turned in around ten. It took a bit long to fall asleep on the uneven, rocky ground poking me in the back and ribs but I soon managed. I was up at around five the next morning. I did a bit of exploration just around the site; our team got 'officially' going a bit later and we strode up towards the nearest mountain crest. The mountains are very rocky, with lots of exposed boulders and large, flat rock sheets. The vegetation is mainly grassland, which unfortunately in many places are being encroached by Leucosidea sericea trees and shrubs, and Lopholaena coriifolia (pictured) bushes. This is a sign of poor veld management – caused by overgrazing, or too frequent fires, or both. Much of the region had been recently burnt. There are also bush clumps in more sheltered places, containing shrubs, climbers and small trees. Near the peaks there is a kind of vegetation called 'fynbos' or 'fine bush' – lots of small shrubs that are very twiggy and densely branched, with small and rather rigid leaves, some scale-like and some almost looking like the needles of pine trees (which do not naturally occur in South Africa). The rock sheets have distinctive vegetation in the shallow pockets of soil collecting on them and around their edges, dominated by dense, spreading clumps of a kind of Xerophyta, a small and fibrous Monocot (with just one seed lobe) with mauve flowers; also a pretty plant making small, neat rosettes, a Craterostigma; and the Resurrection Plant, Myrothamnus flabellifolius, which during drought turns brown and looks dead but revives miraculously and turns green as soon as new water falls on it.

My own interest is succulents; at such an altitude not many succulents grow, but we found lots of aloes – primarily Aloe castanea but also some smaller, spotted ones – and several species of Crassula. As for the other plant species, there turned out to be a great diversity, and I can't do proper justice to them all, so I'll just summarise which ones stood out for me. Perhaps the most charming discovery was of a small clump of Sundew plants, Drosera, at the base of boulders. They're tiny but with exquisite little leaves, each with lots of long, hair-like projections, glistening with drops of a sticky liquid they exude. Insects get caught in these sticky globs, and then the leaves curl around and enfold them and the plant digests them! It's therefore a true carnivorous plant, unlike the carrion flowers, which many people think are carnivores but which only attract flies to use as pollinators. Sundew plants are carnivorous to supplement them with vital nutrients since they often grow in poor, boggy soils. The ones we found had lovely pink flowers but unfortunately on the photos I took the flower was out of focus! But you can clearly see the glistening leaves.

In the grassland we found a species of Rhoicissus, popularly called Bushman's Grape, which differs much from the common species Rhoicissus tridentata, in that it grows as a low shrub but with thick branches, and quite large leaves covered in rusty hairs. We took samples and will soon try to determine if it is one of the endemic species of the region. I don't have a photograph of it, but I have a cutting which I hope will grow!

A beautiful tree found in the rocky bits is the Greyia radlkoferi, the Woolly Bottle-Brush, which is not at all related to the Australian bottle-brush trees, but belongs to a family that is restricted to South Africa, with just a few species in a single genus. Here you see the gnarly tree, and here are close-ups of its lovely flowers.

The genus Crassula contains mainly small, succulent species. We saw several kinds, including the Bonsai-like Crassula sarcocaulis not shown here, and the common Crassula swaziensis, which makes pretty, spreading clumps on and around rocks, and this final, delicate species we found in small rock crevices, with very tiny leaves arranged in four rows around the thin stems.

A beautiful and charming find was this Eulophia streptopetala, a kind of orchid. The flowers are actually much more complex than they look in this photo. We took out a couple of bulbs and I'm going to try to grow it! Just a note that we had permits to gather specimens … without a permit it's illegal to remove orchids or any of their parts from the wild. This species is actually not rare, but it's the first time I see it.

We also found two kinds of Dioscorea or wild yam. Many of these have striking above-ground tubers, becoming huge in the Elephants-foot, Dioscorea elephantipes. But these had buried tubers, only the thin, twining stems visible above-ground. This might be because of the altitude and cold, where a buried tuber will be better protected. Still, Dioscoreas have lovely leaves, which you can see here in my photo of the second species we found. I hope we can determine the species since there are some rare ones in Sekhukhuneland.

I show you here a densely twiggy plant of the Daisy family, we suspect of being an Euryops. The daisy family is extremely diverse in these high grasslands, most species being Helichrysum or relatives. Many of them are ridiculously tiny! We found some which would need a powerful magnifying glass or even a microscope to see properly … I mean, flowers less than half a millimetre across! We found a great number of such tiny plants, also in the Legume or Pea family, and tiny bulbous plants including species of Hypoxis and (we reckon) Xyris which stand just about 5 cm tall. This is the first time I really notice how many of these absolutely tiny plants there are. It might be because the grass – early in the season and much having been burnt – is still very low. Just slightly taller and it would be completely overshadowing these mini-plants.

I watched the botanists at work. Each specimen gathered got a number and had to have info entered in a file. We tried our best to guess at least the genus. For many we recorded GPS coordinates. We noted in what habitat we found the specimens, if they were in shade or open sun, the kind of soil, the aspect (slope facing north, south, east or west) and anything we could not determine from the specimen itself – how big the entire plant was, for instance. We were concentrating on plants with flowers, which always makes identification easier. The samples we took were for instance twigs with leaves, inflorescences and flowers. We carefully put these in bags, putting in a few drops of water to keep the more tender plants from wilting, and then later at the camp-site we pressed them. Each pressed specimen got a little tag with a number, the number being entered in the file with the info. They're pressed in plant presses with wooden frames on the outside, and on the inside sheets of newspaper and rigid cardboard to keep the different specimens apart. The presses are then left out in the sun to dry … we even sat on them to press the plants nice and flat! But for many plants we just took photographs. We don't want to harm especially rare plants so for specimens we concentrated on ones of which there were many in the environment. We made duplicate specimens for Barbara to take to the Buffelskloof Nature Reserve's herbarium. Now back in the herbaria Bronwyn and Barbara will start the task of trying to identify the many unknown species!

We missed many of the things we were looking out for, like the lovely Zanthedeschia jucunda, a bright yellow Arum Lily. But we'll be back!

We came for plants but there was much other wildlife in evidence. Highland birds included Buff-streaked Chats, Rufousnaped Larks, White-necked Ravens, Cisticolas, Sunbirds (Malachite and Greater Double-collared), Longtailed Widows, Francolins (partridge-like birds), and several raptors gliding on the mountain updrafts, including Cape Vultures. We heard jackals in the night, scaring our student Gift from the University of Limpopo. Lizards included skinks, flat lizards, and a chameleon Bronwyn and her family found on the last day. We saw many insects, including beautifully camouflaged grasshoppers (probably Lamarckiana), praying mantises, moths, big and fuzzy carpenter bees, and an amazing hoverfly with a long proboscis. Other invertebrates included this lovely, big scorpion! Would you take in your hand? I did! It didn't want to stay there, though. It is not particularly venomous, as you can see from its thin tail, using its large pincers to capture its prey.

All in all, an amazing outing, and, for me, a wonderful and enlightening experience! So thanks again to Bronwyn, Barbara and all the others!

Crassula SwaziensisDelicate CrassulaDioscoreaDistant view
Crassula swanziensisDelicate Crassula DiscoreaDistant view
DroseraDrosera leavesEulophia streptopetalaEuryops
DroseraDrosera leavesEulophia streptopetala Euryops
Greyia radlkoferiGreyia radlkoferi flowerheadGreyia radlkoferi flowersLeolo summit
Greyia radlkoferiGreyia radlkoferi
Greyia radlkoferi
Leolo summit
Lopholaena coriifolia  Oenothera Rocky HillScorp
Lopholaena coriifolia Oenothera Rocky HillScorp

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