It is with a very heavy heart that I have to inform you that we will not be departing for Snow Hill Island in the next few days. We’ve been forced to make the difficult (and costly!) decision to postpone the trip by a season or two for safety considerations. This is not an easy call to make, especially with the heavy emotional, financial and time investment we all have made in the expedition, but we believe it is the right course to follow.
As you are no doubt aware, the ice conditions in the Antarctic are at a record high this year, which has made the approach to the Antarctic Peninsula uncertain within our time-frame. This led to the two team members doing penguin research to withdraw or risk losing their research window this year. After a lengthy discussion and much examination of the ice data, the remaining 6 team members decided to continue with the expedition.
It came as a heavy blow when (only 10 days before departure) one of the core team members was also forced to withdraw at the eleventh hour due to a life-threatening illness in his immediate family. Faced with unusually bad ice conditions and a team now dangerously reduced in numbers, we have elected to postpone the expedition. Effectively, this means we will have to try again next October or the year thereafter.
We see this not as a failure, but as a challenge and change in schedule. We are now in a stronger position, having laid the groundwork for all the logistics, gathered vast amounts of data, done endless preparation and provisioning, and ironed out many potential problems with equipment. The knowledge, contacts and systems we have developed will facilitate our next effort.
For our planned physiological research, we see this as an opportunity to expand the conceptual basis. We have already (in the last week) embarked on two projects which were deferred to get the expedition underway, but will actually enhance our fieldwork. Taking a long view, this may be a blessing in disguise. We have already opened some doors (through the Snow Hill preparation) that may accelerate the research far beyond what we envisioned on this expedition…exciting times ahead.
On a personal note, Franelise and I will still be traveling to the Falklands in a few days, where we will sort out, store, and recover some of the expedition gear. We’ll be meeting with role players there and putting the pieces into position for the Snow Hill Island Expedition to come. Thereafter we’re going to disappear into the mountains and fjords of Patagonia for a well-needed break 😉
We are deeply indebted to the individuals and companies that have been so supportive of the expedition, and will be doing our utmost to meet your expectations now and in the future. We take to heart the words of Roald Amundsen: “Obstacles are merely things we overcome”.
We were camping at the Khaya in the reserve with friends over a long weekend, and I grabbed the maiden flight for the area on the first evening just before sunset. The wind was very strong the next day, so we went on a 4WD trail instead, but our last morning dawned with a favourable forecast: Light southerly winds turning south-west later in the morning. I had planned a few routes to take advantage of all wind directions, flying into wind on my outgoing leg and then using a tailwind to return. The area is remote, with alternating mountain ridges and flatland valleys leading up to the Witteberge themselves. True to the Karoo, it’s a whole lot of desolation scattered with a handful of isolated farms; the mountains themselves have many hidden, trackless valleys. Not the sort of place you’d like to be stranded… but the rewards are great. Many of the old farms have been converted over the years to game farms and nature reserves; the WPNR and my planned flight path adjoin the Anysberg National Park. I packed spare water, energy bars, flares and survival kit and filled my tank to the brim. Launching at 3000ft above sea level with a heavily loaded and fully-fueled paramotor is not for the faint of heart, but the Ozone Speedster lifted off without difficult and carried me off into the unknown.
My first leg took me out through the southern end of the central valley of the WPNR into a beautiful flatland area. A few kilometers east I could see the boundary of the Anysberg National Park, and the land unrolling beneath me was soon dotted with curious springbok, twitching their tails in uncertainty as to whether I was a threat. I was flying into the gentle southerly, but with trims wide open maintained a comfortable 40 km/h ground speed. Although it was early, the sun breaking through patchy clouds was generating small thermals. This called for constant throttle adjustments; I tried flying at various levels but eventually settled for cruising at 300ft above ground and riding out the blips and dips. After 20 minutes of progression to the south I turned west along a valley, and was rewarded with views of some ruined native stone farmhouses and dilapidated kraals. As I crested a small neck and dropped into the lower section of the valley, a hefty eland bull regarded me with contempt while his two cows batted their ears.
The valley widened out, and in the distance I could see a large farm replete with actual dirt road, in use. This was my first accessible bail-out point – after flying 50 minutes – and I checked my fuel carefully. I had been observing that the wind, forecast to be south or south-west, was very westerly for the section I had been flying, which was limiting my ground speed and increasing fuel burn. I wasn’t sure whether this was due to the topography or if the forecast was wrong, but my fuel situation was just acceptable: more than one-third into my planned route I had used 5 of my 14 litres supply. To be a little safer, I decided to shorten the route, and instead of flying all the way around the western end of the Witteberg range I’d climb through a valley 10km closer. Turning north, I ran low-level thorough a beautiful vlakte devoid of any sign of human influence. A startled group of rribbok cantered off on a tangent; a single massive but elegant gemsbok shook its long horns at me; I began to climb into the mountains.
The westerly wind was blocked in the valley I entered, and in its absence the thermals had been building. Feeling the familiar lag of the wing dropping back as we entered a strong thermal, I throttled back in anticipation of the exit, but after a few seconds was still climbing. A brain-switch flipped; suddenly I wasn’t a paramotor pilot but an XC paraglider. Leaving the throttle I threw my weight over, pulled in the trims and was soon lazily circling at 1.8m/sec upwards in a beautiful morning thermal. What a pleasure…and good for fuel consumption! The bliss was prematurely terminated; reaching ridge-height the thermal rapidly became turbulent and then broke up. I checked my drift and realised the cause: the westerly wind was in fact a north-westerly that had been channeled along the valley, 90 degrees off the forecast direction. This was not good news: I was now 1h15 into my flight, had burned 9 litres, and still needed to fly across a head-wind for part of the route. Opening the trims again, I settled on the best course, angling to the only access road leading back to the reserve and then following it for the rest of the journey. A small herd of zebra ran along my path for half a minute as I overtook them, almost as if to offer encouragement. Reaching the road, I turned east along the valley and kept low, using the hills to funnel the wind into a tailwind. My fuel was receding into the last well at the bottom of the tank, but now I could see the mouth of Elandskloof and the WPNR ahead. I gave up on checking fuel and ticked off landing fields one by one as they passed below. Turning into the valley, I made a quick radio call: “Witteberg International, WMX approaching the field low-level from the north, requesting expedited landing runway 01.” I could hear the laughter in the background as my wife answered from the “tower” (a camp chair next to our tent): “WMX, land at your own discretion!” The Speedster deposited me gently through the turbulence, and I took a few minutes to enjoy the silence and smell of mountain fynbos before checking the fuel one last time. Just over a liter remained… but my tank of experiences was full to the brim.
Despite the shortened route (which proved, retrospectively, to be a very good decision) the flight track generated a 58km FAI triangle – my best yet.
Tom Lewis and Frik Linde have a dream, and have built a partnership to translate it into reality. After creating a very successful outdoor experience with 4×4 routes voted into the Top 10 in South Africa at Mont Eco near Montague, they clearly have the necessary skill. Their passion, however, is to make a true wilderness lifestyle accessible and sustainable to those who share their love of wild open spaces, black night skies lit only by the stars, and air tainted only with the fragrance of fynbos. The Witteberg Private Nature Reserve is the embodiment of the dream.
The Wittberg Mountains lie near the southern border of the Karoo within the Western Cape Province, South Africa. Readily accessible from the N1 national highway between Touwsrivier and Matjiesfontein, they are 2.5 hours drive (about 250km) from Cape Town. Like most of the Karoo, it is a harsh semi-arid area where large scale farming is tough and the terrain precludes expansive infrastructure. With an average altitude of around 1000m, it is a place of rugged fynbos-covered ridges interspersed with vlaktes, and secret kloofs. Bitterly cold in winter and scorching in summer, the beauty here is subtle and requires a shift in pace and perspective to appreciate. Frik’s family have farmed in the area for generations; indeed, the property which is now the nature reserve was once their land. They cultivated hardy salt bush in the valley to support ubiquitous Karoo sheep and later harvested the indigenous Proteas from the mountains, leaving gravestones, dry-stone wall enclosures and some whitewashed houses now reaching national monument status. Frik, however, joined in the endeavour by Tom, has had a different vision. Trading the vegetation-depleting sheep for naturally-occurring wildlife and converting the precipitous flower-harvesting trails into 4×4 routes, they have spent the last 5 years turning a farm back into a wilderness… and the result is breath-taking.
Although I was mostly taking laid-back ‘holiday photos’ during our trip to the Witteberg Private Nature Reserve this past long weekend, the chance to photograph these two specimens of the fascinating “Cat’s Claw”/”Katnaels” plant Hyobanche sanguinea was too good to ignore. The small bright red plants are easy to spot along the routes through the Karoo scrub, and their soft ‘furry’ texture really does remind one of a cat’s soft feet. The lack of anything resembling a normal leaf puzzled me, and I was therefore interested to learn that H. sanguinea is in fact a holoparasitic plant, extending an underground stem which extends dendrites that tap into the vasculature of host plant roots, allowing the parasite to extract water, minerals and substrate. A single Cat’s Claw can grow to 15cm (most we saw were less than 5cm) and can tap into many different host plants. More info on the plant and related species here. Like so much in nature, beauty hides the savage truth…
Wow…what a weekend away at the Witteberg Private Nature Reserve. I’m filled with experiences, thoughts, views, fresh air and photos waiting to be published. I’m also completely bushed. Here, therefore, is a photographic teaser (courtesy of the camera of John Roos):