Sneeuberg Mountain Habitat Survey

Jan 31, 2010

MISSION  5  OF  2010

Name of Mission: Sneeuberg Mountain Habitat Survey 
Date of Mission: 2nd February 2010
Aircraft used: Cessna 170 
Beneficiaries: Nigel Barker and John Midgley     
Pilot: Reid Wardle

Beneficiary’s story of the mission  :  By  NIGEL  BARKER

Objective of the Flight:
We wished to document the terrain of the Sneeuberg south facing slopes to identify key habitats of high conservation value (especially wetlands, seeps, waterfalls and forest pockets). This was done by means of digital photography and annotating 1:50,000 maps that we had with us in the aircraft.

The flight was a case of third time lucky.  Our original date to fly with Reid Wardle was aborted due to technical problems with Reid’s Cessna 170. The second date (the 30th Jan) dawned as a great day in Grahamstown, but Reid was stuck in Stutterheim unable to take off due to the clouds being almost at ground level.  The flight was thus postponed to the next day.  Reid had flown in advance to East London in order to ensure he could take off for Grahamstown. However, Sunday 31st dawned with frontal cloud and moderate to strong winds over Grahamstown. But – after I went out to the Grahamstown airfield I was able to confirm what the PE met office had told Reid – that the cloud ended 5 Km north of Grahamstown and I could see blue skies to the north.

Sneeu_3_Plateaux_near_Aasvoelkrans_Terrain
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So Reid took off, fought the wind, and landed in Grahamstown at around 10h00. The weather had not changed, and after topping up the fuel tanks from jerry cans Reid had brought with him , we (myself and my PhD student John Midgley) took off heading for Somerset East. We were soon out from under the cloud, but the frontal winds meant our ground speed was a little slow.  We arrived at the Sneeuberg at Bruintjieshoogde, to the west of Somerset East, and commenced our survey by flying along, and a little higher than, the edge of the escarpment plateaux. This allowed us to photograph both the cliffs and forest pockets on the south facing slopes, as well as the plateau habitats, which included wetlands and other vegetation patches (including some of the invasive alien Nasella tussock grass).  The flight along and over the mountains was a little bumpy, and after a couple of tight turns, motion sickness arrived.

After recovering from this brief gastric setback, we commenced working with our maps and tracking our route and documenting the landscape.  Having never seen this area from the air before, it took a while to work out the best flying angle and positions, but we were able to document some impressive cliffs and large patches of wetlands on the plateaux in the vicinity of Aasvoelkrans (on the farm “Stockdale”).  We continued in this manner, skirting the cliffs and mountain edge,

Sneeu_6_Near_Graaff_Reinet_-_overgrazed_and_eroded_land
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before flying into the valley or bowl of Asante Sana private nature reserve.  This property is a game reserve in which we have done a lot of our research, and includes an airstrip and fully functional cricket pitch as well as spectacular mountains.  It neighbours the property with the highest peak in the Sneeuberg – the Nardousberg (2429 metres a.s.l.).  Having slogged up to this peak on foot previously and witnessed snow and ice in the south-facing crevices, it was really interesting to see it from above.  On the day of our flight it would have been warm, if not hot, although the south-facing cliffs would have been cool, and possibly damp too.  From the air we spotted another of my students conducting field work on rodents at high altitudes, and after circling them for pictures (and getting air sick again) we headed for Graaff Reinet.  The descent toward Graaff Reinett took us over some badly overgrazed and eroded land – a sad sight, and indication of very bad farming practice.

After landing at Graaff Reinet, we waited in the heat for the fuel tanker and pump to arrive, ate a little to settle the stomach, and then took off again heading for the Kamdebooberg WSW of Graaff Reinet.  Once again we flew over some very badly eroded and overgrazed land, before approaching the Kamdebooberg.  This mountain has not been visited on foot by my research group, and so was of considerable interest.  There are some very impressive cliffs on the southern side of the mountain, and a smallish summit plateau.

Sneeu_9_Showing_vegetation_of_the_Boschberg
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After circling this mountain we headed back for Somerset East, to cover the Boschberg and Glen Avon area. Although part of one continuous mountain block, the vegetation of the Boschberg is very different, and reminds one of the Natal Midlands.  It is very similar to the Hogsback area, which is in the next mountain range on the other side (east) of the Fish River valley.  The rolling Boschberg plateau is excellent sheep country.  We then flew over the magnificent Glen Avon falls.  Having been to the foot of the falls on foot, the sight of them from the air was an interesting contrast.  The falls are on the Naudesriver, which drops into a deep rocky bowl.  Unfortunately, the falls were in shadow, but the scope and magnificence of the valley is obvious from the air. From here we headed back to Grahamstown.

Conclusion:
It was invaluable to obtain aerial pictures of the mountains, and see the size and scale of the cliffs and wetlands in particular. We took over 330 photographs, almost all of which are usable and clear.  Despite the bumpy ride at times, there seems to be little or no “camera shake”.  We have already started using the images obtained from this trip to plan ground-based surveys of wetland diversity, and to identify potentially useful cliff habitats – those that looked moist / wet, or with deep crevices.

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