Environmental Services

Patterns in the Landscape

Patterns in the Landscape

Biodiversity Specialist, Robin Jangle gives us a look into the early days and how his passion for the environment was sparked and why we should appreciate and respect all of nature’s wonders.

Robin Jangle getting to know his new friend

I haven’t always been interested in plants and vegetation.  As the natural environment goes, aquatic ecosystems were my first interest...and fish.  Well actually it was fish first.  I am a fanatical angler and in my mid-teens I joined an angling club and started fishing competitively.  Soon I was awarded Western Province colours for freshwater angling and was fishing every weekend. To catch fish consistently you have to understand fish.  Out of that developed a deeper appreciation of fish, where they lived, what they ate and what ate them!  All that time along rivers and dams trying to catch fish developed into a passion for aquatic ecosystems.  And a strong desire to protect them – I had already witnessed how a development and sewerage discharge had altered the Diep River estuary. Gone were the elf, kob, leervis, stumpnose and steenbras. Gobies, blennies and mullet were the new kids on the block.

A storm was brewing in my mind.  A decision was made.  I was going to study Nature Conservation.  This was quite a change of career plan but it felt right.

It was in my very first semester that I found myself standing at the bottom of a slope clothed in renosterveld one late afternoon, early winter.  The sun was low in the cloudy sky and it accentuated the texture of the vegetation.  Still fresh in my olfactory memory bank is that harbinger of winter: the earthy peppery smell of moist soil and leaf litter.  Just above the path, in a lichen-painted rock outcrop, a clump of suurknol (Chasmanthe aethiopica ) were in full flower, the bright orange flowers an outlandish sight in the gloom.  I was hooked.

Plants became an obsession.  Every little open space was scoured for plants.  Some exciting discoveries were made.  Some embarrassing misidentifications were also made. Species long-lost in the Kogelberg suddenly turned up in Bothasig! I quickly learnt that common things occur most commonly.  I also learnt that those rarities are rarely seen. Rarities became the new treasure.  Every weekend had a purpose: explore the back-country and find rare plants.  Dots on maps with obscure names: Baardskeerdersbos, Heerenloggement, Meerhofkasteel, Douse-the-Glim, Strawberry Hill. All visited and gleaned from one open patch to the next.  It is fun being a tourist in your own country.

Take the time to appreciate the majesty and beauty that nature has to offer

Go out and be a tourist in your own country.  So many people can tell you about Clapham Junction or Soho but don’t have a clue where Meiringspoort or Valley of Desolation is – let alone been there!  This picture is me in absolute awe at the waterfall in Meiringspoort.  Take the time to appreciate the majesty and beauty that nature has to offer.

I remember visiting Sutherland with Cliff Dorse. We were searching for Gethyllis longistyla, an obscure 'koekemekranka' with only two specimens in the Compton Herbarium.  We had just driven through from Matjiesfontein and stopped at the only convenience store.  I asked a ‘tannie’ where the campsite was.  She replied (quite sternly) - “Seun, as jy hier buite slaap sal jy verkluim.”  Roughly translated:  “Sonny boy, if you sleep outdoors here you will die of exposure.”  Needless to say we went searching for a guesthouse.  There was only one called 'The Cottage'.  It was owned by a Born Again Christian biker from Goodwood- no jokes.  What a ‘jol’ that turned out to be.  He had a huge music collection and a full- sized pool table, rock on!  We never did find Gethyllis longistyla that weekend.

To catch fish consistently you have to understand fish, this is the same for plants.  I became good at finding plants, because I started to understand the associations. The soil, the aspect, the hydrology, the other plants that preferred the same suite of conditions.  I noticed the patterns.  I did not know them as vegetation units, only as recurring patterns that certain target plants were associated with.  A love and appreciation for vegetation was born.  Vegetation is nothing more (or less) than an association of plants in response to environmental conditions and biotic effects!  Basically every living thing has a range of tolerance that dictates where it will thrive, where it will survive and where it will die.

Climate plays a major role on a global scale.  On a regional scale it comes down to climate and geology.  Locally it is nutrients and hydrology.  Especially hydrology – water is essential to life and for plants there is a further significance: concentrations of nutrients. To understand the processes is the first step towards understanding vegetation on an abstract level.  It is a surrogate for ecosystems and ecosystem processes.  To paraphrase the title of this blog: viewed from a distance that is what vegetation is.  Or more specifically, patterns relating to processes in the landscape.

It’s interesting how things come about. My other great passion besides the natural environment is creative expression.  Early on I had decided on a career in the commercial arts – graphic design.  Besides enjoying drawing I have a strong affinity for the spatial arrangement of objects as well as the juxtaposition of the objects themselves.  Graphic design seemed a natural choice.  And then the gobies, blennies and mullet took over the Diep River estuary.

And so, standing in the gloomy late afternoon in early winter it began.  Actually it was more like the awakening of something that had been dormant. 

My interest in vegetation and flora has been a catalyst for growing my understanding of ecosystems and their functioning.  These insights have enabled an understanding of what impacts we have and what pragmatic mitigations we can implement. I could go on for quite some time about the intricacies of vegetation and flora and what this means in terms of conservation and environmental management.  I will follow up on this in my next blog post but if you have any questions please feel free to e-mail me: robinj@ncc-group.co.za


 Some pictures from being a tourist in my own country:

Kogelberg Sandstone Fynbos at Groenlandberg

This is quite possibly the most species-rich and unique temperate vegetation in the world.  The species-level endemism is staggering and it even contains two endemic genera!  Besides the mind-boggling statistics it’s also makes for pretty pictures -  this one’s not too bad.

Sea pumpkins and sand dunes

I have always lived within sight or sound of the sea.  Sand dunes have always been a special place for me.  As kids we would tumble down them.  In my teen years they were a place for quiet reflection and a beer stolen from my Dad’s bar fridge! They are a magical and beautiful place.  I tried to capture that with this picture taken between Macassar and Wolfgat in False Bay.

Deathly calm

It is hard to believe that this is one of the rivers responsible for the decimation of Laingsburg.  In 1981 bloated beyond capacity by the Wilgerhout and Baviaans rivers, the Buffels River carried away the southern portion of Laingsburg and 104 people.  It is hard to imagine the carnage when presented with such an idyllic scene.  But such is nature: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  And people still think they can overcome the forces of nature.

The Tanqua

This is the habitat of one of my favourite plants: Didymaotus lapidiformis.  It mimics the dark brown stones – lapidiformis means “stone-shaped”.  Only after downloading this picture did I notice the old game path running through the centre of the composition.  It made me wonder about how long ago this path must have been used.  The ‘trekbokke’ – the name given to migratory herds of springbok that once moved through here, are no longer in living memory.  Even Didymaotus is fast disappearing – a borrow pit rendered it “Vulnerable” in one fell swoop. I look at this ‘trekbokpad’ and wonder if we’re all on the road to nowhere.

  ‘Want ek wou, op pad na Tradouw’  / Because I wanted to, on the way to Tradouw

Well it was on the way to Tradouw Pass that this was taken.  And I had to.  It was the first time I had encountered blue water lilies in bloom.  It was raining and the mood was perfect.  The photographs after this were interesting – I captured some with the camera at the water line.  And for that I had to wade into the dam – Naked!  I only had one pair of jeans with me and I was not going to get them wet.  You just can’t put dry pants over wet underpants. So  'kalgat’ it was. ‘Want ek wou, op pad na Tradouw’.

The Upper Karoo

In the Karoo you don’t have to travel too far away from the N1 Highway to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.  This was only 55km away from Beaufort West on the way to Carnarvon.  And what a special place it turned out to be.  I finally found Gethyllis longistyla!  Twelve years after the fruitless search in Sutherland.  Even without the Gethyllis it was still a beautiful place with icy cold crisp air, crystal clear skies and a sense of wilderness.


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