Leolo Mountain Outing 2018

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Leolo Mountain Outing 2018

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!"

This was my second outing with CREW (Custodians of Endangered Wildflowers) to the Leolo Mountains. These mountains fall in a region called Sekukuneland (also spelled Sekukuniland or Sekhukhuneland) which is a region of amazing botanic richness and uniqueness. More than 100 known plant species are largely or wholly restricted to the area. Our outings have as their goal the location, identification and collection of as many of the special species as possible, and perhaps even to find new species. 'Collecting', botanically speaking, means getting samples of the stems, leaves, flowers and sometimes roots. These are pressed in special plant presses that the botanists take along; each specimen gets a number and we also write down notes about the environmental factors of where it's growing. For very special ones we also wrote down GPS coordinates. Apart from the dedicated botanists, we also brought along a bunch of kids who were doing their own thing, enjoying a mountain adventure while us older folks were at work.

Sekukuneland is a region that has been set aside for the Pedi People in 1885. It is named for Chief Sekhukhune, whose reign started in 1860. Later when South Africa became a republic, and with the goal of Apartheid being to separate the different population groups, Sekhukhuneland became part of the intended homeland of Lebowa, for the North Sotho/Pedi people. When Apartheid ended, the homeland project ended as well, and now Sekukuneland is (mostly) part of the Limpopo Province. Tribal chiefs still exert authority and in our dealings we needed to get permission so as to camp and explore. Bronwyn, our expedition leader, spoke with a chief before we came, and after we set up our camp, went to see the chief – and then found that the chief she spoke to was the wrong chief! The area where we were in were actually under the authority of another chief, but luckily she got his permission as well. But later we learnt of yet another chief, who was supported and recognized by the mining companies in the area, and who is in a dispute with the other chief. It seemed a bit of a political mess! But we didn't encounter anybody trying to make trouble for us, and got a good deal of botanizing done.

Our outing started on Saturday, 8 December, and lasted until Monday, 10 December. We arrived in the late morning. We pitched our tents just beside a road going up into the mountains, where there was a rocky outcrop with some trees and bushes. Those at least gave us protection against the wind. The Leolo Mountains reach a height of 1932 m, and our camp was at about 1800 m. We checked weather forecasts and lots of rain was predicted; we hoped we would have some fair weather for our exploring! We did indeed get rains, but amazingly they fell just 'around' our excursions: on the first day, weather permitted a bit of strolling about the campsite, and then it started raining in the afternoon. Next day was clear weather and we could do our thing all day long – but the evening after we got back it started raining heavily! A couple of us had some water getting into the tents – I was lucky to have remained dry. Monday again started fair; being our last day, we packed and then did another few hours of botanizing before driving back. Again the weather held. Only when we were heading back in our cars did the rains start again – and with a vengeance! In several places there were 'rivers' of water flowing across the main road and we were lucky to have made it through. But I am happy about the rain – up here in Limpopo right now we really need it.

The expedition itself was a blast. On each of these outings one gets to meet new people and to feel as if you know them well … chatting as we stroll through the veld or telling stories around the fire each evening. One of the best things about climbing mountains is the beautiful views of the countryside one gets. Looking for rare plants is rather like a treasure hunt, and every special thing found, is a thrilling reward. Unexpected events come one's way. On the first day, after coming back to camp from a bit of an excursion, I found excitement around a newborn calf whose mother seems to have been scared away by us; Leo, an exchange student from Germany, picked up the calf and carried it towards its mother. But then when he put it down, the calf wanted to stay with him! But at last it did realize its real mother was close and went to her, and they set off peacefully. The last day, as we were climbing one of the highest peaks, Tama Kgoshi (which the English speakers kept pronouncing 'Tamagotchi'), a couple of sheep followed us, appearing very intrigued by what we were doing. The one had an amazingly human voice; before I actually saw it bleating, I thought one of the kids with us were mimicking a sheep! At one point one sheep even attacked a small tree, with its head and with its feet trying to detach a branch, as if it was also trying to collect a specimen!

As for our main goal of finding collecting interesting, unique and beautiful plants, that went quite well. So here are a few of the plants we found.

Zantedeschia jucundaZantedeschia rhemanniiStreptocarpus dunnii

The first special thing we found was this lovely yellow arum lily, Zantedeschia jucunda. This species is endemic to Sekukuneland – it grows nowhere else. The plants reach about 1 m/yard in height. The flowers (technically, the spathes, which are bracts sheathing the actual inflorescences) vary from pale to very deep yellow, and the heart-shaped leaves are green with fine white speckles. The plants grow between rocks, with deep tubers, making them very hard to remove and thus protecting them against collectors. This is the first time we found them flowering – and there were some lovely mass displays of them.

We also found another kind of arum. Zantedeschia rehmannii, the pink arum, differs in the leaf and flower shape, being rather 'narrower'. The flowers vary from pale creamy through light to deep pink. Ours were rather pale but still pretty. There weren't as many of them; those we found, were along a rocky ridge almost at the very top of the mountains.

In theory, we also might have found two more arums in the region, Zantedeschia pentlandii (also endemic to the region) which also has yellow flowers, but unspotted leaves, and Zantedeschia albomaculata which has white flowers and white-spotted leaves. This makes Sekukuniland the most arum-diverse spot in South Africa.

Another special of the region was this, Streptocarpus dunnii. There are several Streptocarpus species in South Africa. They are all strange for having no stems – the leaves root directly, and they typically grow on rocks or trees rather than in soil. The velvety leaves are handsome enough – and sometimes quite large – but they are especially fine when in flower. Those are tubular and can be white, pink, purple, red, or shades in between. Some showy cultivars have been created for flower lovers, but I always like the wild ones best. Streptocarpus dunnii is largely confined to the region, growing in the mountainous eastern parts of Limpopo and Mpumalanga, also occurring in Swaziland. Its leaves can be quite large. As in the other species, the flowers arise from the base of the leaf, and in this species they are prettily pink-red. The species typically grows in crevices between rocks, often completely in the shade, but it looks like the ones exposed like this are more likely to flower.

Euphorbia clavarioidesRock formationsBrachycorythis pubescens

Not so much special for its flowers, but still a wonderfully weird and interesting plant, was this cushion Euphorbia, Euphorbia clavarioides. These I found on the summit plateau close to the eastern escarpment (a sheer drop with some spectacular cliffs). This species has finger-like stems arising from a tuberous root, squeezed tightly together to form a cushion-like mound. This is only the second site in Limpopo where I know it to grow. There was a small colony of them, exhibiting some amazing patterns in the arrangements of stem-tips. The largest ones formed small mounds like this. The genus Euphorbia is incredibly species-rich and diverse (some botanists ascribing 2000 or more species to it), and especially in South Africa forms a major part of the succulent flora. This is one of several cushion-forming species. It often acts as a 'nursery plant' for others in cold mountain areas; the mounds these form are apparently not as cold as the surrounding ground, and species germinating in the mounds are protected until they finally can weather the, well, weather, on their own.

Just for interest's sake, here is a shot of the kinds of rock formations we found close to the escarpment, where I found the Euphorbias. They look like sculptures made of rocks stacked on each other!

Another little thing we found close to the campsite was this orchid, Brachycorythis pubescens. It grows in grassland and is widespread in the eastern parts of South Africa. The flowers are white, yellow and pinks and look like little human figures.

Craterostigma wilmsiiCheilanthes quadripinnataPachycarpus transvaalensis

Much of the summit plateau of the Leolo Mountains consists of expanses of rock with shallow soil on them or around their margins. In this soil there grows a distinctive kind of flora, that can withstand waterlogged conditions as well as drought, seeing as this soil gets drenched when it rains but dries out quickly in the sun. One of the characteristic plants of such places is this, Craterostigma wilmsii. There are certainly hundreds of thousands if not millions of them, their pretty little rosettes with thick, furry leaves crowding closely together. But very few were flowering! Of all the thousands we encountered, only two were flowering, this being one of them. If this thing could be cultivated it would surely be a hit! When dry, its leaves curl upward, contracting the rosettes, but if moist, the leaves spread out. Craterostigma belongs to the snapdragon family.

Though we were technically looking for flowering plants, ferns were also in evidence. Several species in South Africa are drought resistant enough to grow in open grassland, often amidst rocks, the most common of which are bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, and a species without a common name, Pellaea calomelanos. In somewhat more shady spots, we found several other species. This one with its amazingly intricately divided leaves is a Cheilanthes quadripinnata.

In the grassland, we found these strange and beautiful flowers. They belong to Pachycarpus transvaalensis, a member of the milkweed family, the Asclepiadaceae. I don't know much about these, but the strange club-like formations in the inner flower must have some relation to some special kind of pollination trick. I'll see if I can find out more. Several Pachycarpus-species occur in South Africa, all of them unusual and impressive.

DelospermaBronwyn and ProteaWet rocks

Climbing Tama Kgoshi was a wonderful experience in how plant growth changes with altitude and aspect (that is, which way the slopes are facing). Just below the summit, we found on ledges and in cracks many of these little succulents, Delosperma, members of the Mesemb family. The genus is very large and it is difficult to distinguish the species, so I can't tell you exactly which this one is.

On the summit itself we found a patch of 'fynbos'-like vegetation. Fynbos is characteristic of the Western Cape province; it is dominated by hardy, shrubby plants. While properly the vegetation is restricted to the Cape, there are fynbos-like elements on mountain slopes more to the north, up into tropical and eastern Africa. Up here, the fynbos elements included many shrubs with small, tough, needle-like leaves, and also characteristic groups such as Ericas and Proteas. Here Bronwyn is examining a small flowering Protea tree.

The rains we got, while inconveniencing us just slightly, were extremely welcome. I leave you with this shot showing sheets of water coming down the rock faces. These will feed small streams and eventually rivers, and also fill up 'sponges' and bogs, which will hold onto the water for the rest of the season.

That wraps it up. We shall, I hope, go to the area again soon. We seem to find new things each time. Time, however, seems to be running out. Mining and settlement is expanding, and the wilderness is slowly drawing back. We saw new houses and yards and croplands since when we were here last, and even at our campsite we heard cars driving past in the night. Human activity is sure to be having a huge impact, with even the un-mined and uncultivated land being grazed by cattle, goats and sheep, while people remove large amounts of firewood. I hope our excursions can help catalogue the floral riches of the region and give some support to conservation efforts. I don't want to be a mere witness to the extinction of the floral treasures of my country. I wish that others after me, decades and millennia into the future, should all have the opportunity to enjoy the wilderness and to see these wonderful things.

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