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The road travelled so far...

By Thami Shezi, outgoing Botanical Intern, SAEON
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DST-NRF intern Thami Shezi has a strong interest in all things botanical

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Thami (left) and node field technician Paul Gordijn survey a bramble plot as part of the 30-year resurvey of the Brotherton burning trials at Cathedral Peak

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Fynbos Node technician Abri de Buys (left) and Thami programme a logger

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Thami discovers that fieldwork can be hard work at times

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Thami enjoyed the rainy afternoons doing fieldwork up the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Mountains

Thami Shezi joined SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node in April 2015 as part of the DST-NRF internship programme. He has a strong interest in all things botanical and a love for the mountains. In this article he reports on his wide range of experiences as a botanical intern at the node…

My love for nature began when I was a boy scout in primary school. In 2010 it came to life again during a hiking trip to Sentinel Peak. The outstanding beauty of the Maloti-Drakensberg and of its dams, peaks and rich flora rekindled my love for nature.

After successfully completing my degree in botany at the University of the Free State’s Qwaqwa Campus, I pursued my postgraduate studies in vegetation ecology at honours level. I was involved in a project of the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park programme in the Eastern Free State, which comprised a baseline study of the proposed Witsieshoek protected conservation area. There I worked with Dr Erwin Sieben (my supervisor) and other colleagues. The project helped me to grow as an upcoming botanist and opened new doors for me.

In 2015 I was placed at SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node in the city of Pietermaritzburg as part of the DST-NRF internship programme, which I had applied for in 2014. At the node I had the opportunity to work closely with Paul Gordijn (my mentor), Sue van Rensburg (node coordinator) and other colleagues.

The transition to a disciplined day-to-day work schedule has been a pleasant one. The joy of travelling up the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Mountains has been a great experience, as were the hot summer days in communal areas and the thunderous and rainy afternoons. The journey has been packed with learning experiences, hard work and frustration at times, but it has been fulfilling.

When re-sampling Dr Ed Granger’s vegetation plots established more than 30 years ago, we did not always expect to find the vegetation in the exact same condition, but what was most surprising was to find the exact people who were there when the plot was sampled more than 30 years ago. This was an added bonus to a day of vegetation sampling near the foothills of Cathedral Peak.

Office work

The first thing I had to learn was to draw up an annual work plan with goals and objectives to achieve. This was to outline and set up the roadmap for my internship programme.

One of my office duties was to learn how to apply Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which I managed to achieve by obtaining three ArcGIS certificates from Esri. One of the maps I produced is going to be published in Prof. Colin Everson’s paper in African Journal of Range and Forage Science. I also stepped into the shoes of a taxonomist by spending long hours at the herbarium identifying plants, which was pretty cool.

Working in an office means you’re not working alone, but working as a team. Working as a team makes life easy and you get to learn from others. This I learnt when SAEON was organising its biennial symposium, which was a success because of team work (#Themeda = Team member).

I furthermore got a chance to act as project manager when the node organised an invertebrate survey at Cathedral Peak, which took place in January 2016.

Workshops

The SAEON Technicians' Workshop was a whole new learning curve for me. One of the things I learnt was logger programming, whereby different sensors are programmed depending on what it is you want to measure. We practised setting up a weather station, which was ultimately deployed on an inselberg on top of the Drakensberg escarpment.

This weather station and the other instruments at Cathedral Peak are crucial for climate change detection and monitoring. I learnt the importance of these instruments and their pros and cons in science.

The 50th Annual GSSA (Grassland Society of Southern Africa) Congress was an eye-opener for me in terms of how far we have come and where we currently stand with grasslands management and conservation.

Correct recording of data and on-site problem solving have been fun, yet challenging at times. I have learnt to approach fieldwork as fun as opposed to frustrating. A lot of the fieldwork has involved hiking, which has helped me to stay fit and sharp.

All in all it has been great learning more every day about the diversity of flora that is out there. The Tomlinson and Cathkin Key vegetation surveys that I have been involved in, of “going back in time”, have provided vital clues for me as to the current state of our vegetation.

The future for science in South Africa is wonderful and exciting. The skills development and exposure that I have gained through SAEON is relevant to my field of study and beyond my scope of focus.

This year I am looking forward to pursuing my Master’s studies, looking at the impact of livestock grazing in communal and protected areas. The study area will be divided between the Eastern Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

The internship programme has assisted me greatly in formulating key questions for my Master’s.

#Themeda =Team member!

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