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Plugging the Big Hole

By the SAEON Arid Lands Node Team, Kimberley
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Kimberley boasts something special no other South African city has: the SAEON Arid Lands Node office. Five years ago, SAEON established this node so as to close the observation gap across the arid western half of South Africa. There is no better place to plug this big hole than from Kimberley, the very place so famous for its Big Hole, an open-pit and underground diamond mine claimed to be the largest hole excavated by hand.

It is precisely because of its past, as womb of modern industrial South Africa, that Kimberley continues to intrigue and attract (Brian Roberts, 1975: Kimberley, Turbulent City. David Philip Publisher). Kimberley is the largest city in the arid zone, though small enough for ready access to local decision-makers with jurisdiction over a third of South Africa. It captures a strong passion for the drylands, and attracts adaptable, resourceful, independent-thinking Kimberlites, gems at heart, happy when it rains: Pula Nala (peace, rain, prosperity).

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A flock of Lesser Flamingos at Kamfers Dam, Kimberley (Picture courtesy of Brian Culver)

Many environmentally oriented, educational, academic and provincial institutions in Kimberley have embraced SAEON, foremost being South African National Parks (SANParks), whose premises SAEON shares. The growth of SAEON helps stimulate revitalisation of several old local institutions and develop a cadre of young arid-land scientists, a process which has gained further momentum with the establishment of Sol Plaatje University, which now also teaches BSc Natural Science students. To paraphrase Roberts, more than any other city can Kimberley today claim to be the womb of modern arid lands ecology in South Africa.

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Kimberley’s Big Hole in perspective

Because the operational reach of the Arid Lands Node straddles great distances – up to 1 000 kilometres – it is more efficient to have local presence at places frequently requiring feet on the ground, e.g. to monitor instruments and record data on an ongoing basis at SAEON research platforms as widely apart as Kimberley is from Middelburg in the eastern Karoo, Prince Albert in the Succulent Karoo, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project near Carnarvon in the middle of the Karoo, Namaqua National Park near Springbok, and Hakskeenpan in the southern Kgalagadi. SAEON’s satellite office at Prince Albert, managed by SAEON research associates Sue Milton and Richard Dean, demonstrates its value, especially given SAEON’s responsibility for Tierberg-LTER, the best studied patch of Karoo and thus the best site for future high-flying science.

Enhancing stakeholder networking in the Karoo’s secondary gateway in Cape Town can be very important during project development stages. Thus the node’s establishment of a temporary satellite office in Cape Town, managed by Simon Todd, makes sense due to the proximity of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and several universities with which SAEON partners and draws inputs, gains expert advice and involves students during the development of environmental monitoring projects relating to Karoo shale gas mining and the SKA.

Recruitment of good scientists is key to the development of the Arid Lands Node. It is thus opportune to tap into scientists already residing in the arid zone, even if they are unable to relocate, but interested, qualified and suitable to fulfil important roles for the node. For example, Helga van der Merwe established a satellite office in Calvinia near her farm, 700 km from Kimberley.

Local capacity development by SAEON in Kimberley is most important for the node to grow into becoming a fully functional science hub with critical mass, enough brains working in synergy to boost the node’s performance and ability to effectively meet its purpose. Furthermore, the node’s budding Science Education Outreach programme stands to benefit by more scientists participating.

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Aerial view of the SAEON Arid Lands Node office (left front wing) attached to SANParks offices

Once upon a time... the mighty De Beers had humble beginnings                                         

The node's budding Science Education Outreach programme stands to benefit by more scientists participating

Everybody knows by now that there is no place better for arid environment SAEON scientists than Kimberley. There is no place more suited from which to manage the operation of SAEON’s arid lands research platforms, such as Tierberg-LTER focusing on ecological mechanisms, or SAEON@SKA focusing on land-use changes and global change, or monitoring stations, as different as the eastern Karoo, with its increasing rainfall trends is from Namaqualand where fog plays such a critical role. Not to forget South Africa’s great river, the Orange and its tributary, the Vaal - key lifelines for Kimberley, people and environment. SAEON monitors the pulse.

You may have been wondering why there is not yet a modern New Rush towards Kimberley, this time not making the hole to get at the best gems from Kimberlites, but plugging the hole by applying the best gems Kimberlites can muster, such as SAEON.

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