2016-17 Winter Intersession Study Abroad: 27 Dec 2016 – 14 Jan 2017
Open to non-VCU students
The course focuses on major river watersheds of the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, specifically the Tugela, Buffalo (Mzinyathi), & Pongola rivers, to explore the relationships between water resources, biodiversity and human history as we travel from the peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains to the marine protected areas of Kosi Bay. This fast paced traveling course takes an outdoor adventure expedition-like approach, immersing students in the landscape. Although large distances will be traveled by vehicle, much of our exploration will be under “human power”, including long days of field work, hiking, rafting, and sit-on-top kayaking. Accommodations are primarily in tents, students are expected to play an active role in camp life.
Partner “African Insights” will meet the course in Johannesburg. From there we travel to our first camp, Bashoto cultural village rest camp, in the Golden Gate National Park near Phuthaditjhaba, capital of the former apartheid era “homeland” QwaQwa of the Bashoto people. From here we will hike to the top of the Drakensburg escarpment via the “chain ladders” route and walk along the top of the Amphitheater to the headwaters of the the Tugela River and the where the river plunges over the escarpment at Tugela Falls – one of the highest in the world. What is the fate of a raindrop that falls on this high plateau? What animal and plant life might it support on its journey? How has this flowing water shaped the course of human history? In what ways does modern society rely on this natural resources? These are some of the questions that originate from this place that frame our journey. With the stage now set, we spend the next week exploring the human and natural history of the upper Tugela River.
First we visit sites on the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme and discuss the benefits and challenges associated with interbasin water transfer systems. Once rain falling above Tugela Falls would have ended its journey to the sea in the Indian Ocean. Now, through a series of dams and shunts, water from the Tugela watershed may end up in watersheds that drain into the Atlantic on the opposite side of the continent. Here we will explore questions such as: How has society benefited from being able to control water in this manner in terms of irrigation and hydropower? What environmental challenges have been created by connecting watersheds that we not historically connected? What are the political consequences of inter-provincial water transfer in a relatively water poor country? How is climate expected to change in this region and how could such change impact these issues?
Next we explore Royal Natal National Park. We will hike along the Tugela River in the amphitheater to the base of the falls, looking up hundreds of meters to where we stood a couple of days earlier. Here we will study the ecology of the upper Tugela focusing on macroinvertebrates as indicators of stream health, native fish communities of the Drakensburg escarpment, and the impacts of non-native fish introductions by Europeans. The introduction and management of trout is a hot button issue in South Africa, trout support recreational fishing but also impact native stream biodiversity. This is a great issue with which to explore the multidimensional challenges associated with managing non-native species in freshwater systems.
We then travel to downstream on the Tugela to the small town of Colenso where we rendezvous with partner Zingela Safari and River Company. The Tugela River formed the frontier between Zulu, English and Boer cultures in eastern South Africa and has played a key role in the struggle for regional power. The Battle of Colenso of the second Boer War in 1899 provides an excellent example of this, where difficulty in crossing the river was instrumental in the British defeat. The evening at Colenso we will camp next to the river on a private farm, and will also have the opportunity to meet the farmer and talk with him about the degree to which commercial agriculture in this regions relies irrigation water from the river and how interbasin water transfer schemes current and future might impact his livelihood. An emerging issue is the possibility of a large coal-fired power plant in the area, and we will discuss the possible trade-offs associated with such development as well.
The next two days are spent traveling down the Tugela River gorge to Zingela Game Reserve by raft, camping along the riverside. This section involves exciting class III-IV whitewater and an opportunity to continue our study of the river’s ecology and water quality guided by Dr. Peter Calverley who grew up at Zingela and went on to get his PhD in Zoology from VCU’s partner University, UKZN. Zingela is a private game reserve, and in addition to running a rafting company, the Calverley family manage their land for wildlife, and giraffes, kudu and other antelope are abundant. While at Zingela we can see the legacy of past land use, from ancient iron smelting sites to impacts of past over-farming and discuss how the Calverley’s families efforts to restore riparian habitats.
At this point in the trip we leave the Tugela watershed traveling deeper into Zululand to connect to other rivers on our journey to the sea. En route we will visit Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Battlefield Parks. Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. The British Army suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous army armed with basic weaponry. The subsequent battle at Rorke’s Drift, in which a small garrison of British troops successfully defended the mission against a much larger Zulu force is one of the most famous in British military history. One of the challenges that faced the British soldiers retreating to Rorke’s Drift from Isandlwana was the Buffalo River, a tributary of the Tugela, which was then in flood. Many soldiers and horses were lost trying to make this crossing. Following the “Fugitive’s trail” we will retrace the steps of the fleeing British from Isandlwana to Rorke’s Drift.
We next spend three days at African Insight’s base at Somkhanda Game Reserve focusing on the terrestrial biome surrounding these rivers. When the Gumbi Tribe won a successful land claim over a substantial tract of prime Zululand bushveld, the result was the consolidation of a number of privately owned game and hunting ranches into a 12,000ha continuous Somkhanda Game Reserve. Currently the Reserve has white and black rhino, leopard, hyena, African wild dog and a comprehensive range of all the common ungulates and smaller predators that historically occurred in this region. African Insights has developed a curriculum and has trained staff/guides to take advantage of this unique situation affords the opportunity for students to track animals in their natural surroundings using radio tracking telemetry, learn various ecological and conservation principles and techniques and to be involved in variety of wildlife and vegetation monitoring programs. Students will rotate daily between different projects accompanied by experienced facilitators on each project. Generally projects include theoretical discussion, practical field data collection, data-management or specimens are prepared for preservation, and and data analysis. All research and monitoring contributes to the Reserve’s baseline data collection as well as assist ongoing conservation and biodiversity management of the Reserve.
Armed with more intimate knowledge of terrestrial wildlife and flora our journey returns to the river, now the Pongola River. This Pongola has also been dammed, but for a different motivation than the Tugela and perhaps with different consequences for the ecology of the river downstream of the dam. Launch tours of the reservoir formed by the dam usually offers opportunities of seeing a wide variety of water birds, crocodile, hippo and perhaps elephant. During which there will be a discussion on the ecology of Jozini Dam and the consequential effects of damming a major river and the environmental, economic and social impacts. After the launch cruise , we transfer to Zingela/Pongola River Company’s put-in location on the river downstream from the dam and spend a couple of hours kayaking to get to their camp situated on the river banks. The next day we continue paddling down river and sleep along its banks. During both days we revisit issues and sampling conducted along the Tugela and compare with our findings on the Pongola.
Leaving the Pongola River behind, the group meets up African Insight again for a short transfer to Tembe Elephant Park, home to the last and largest free roaming elephants in South Africa, the other “Big Five” – lions, leopards, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, the suni – Africa’s smallest antelope, and >300 species of birds. Here we transfer to open safari vehicles and head through the park to our overnight accommodations. We stay in the park for two nights and spend the days in exploring aspects of the unique Sand Forest ecosystem, ecology and biology of the various wildlife see encounter.
Finally, we reach the freshwater lagoons and the sea at Kosi Bay. Kosi Bay is situated in the far North Eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal – on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. It forms part of the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park – the first natural World Heritage Site in South Africa to be accorded this distinction. Kosi Bay epitomizes the incredible splendor of untouched Africa at its most pristine, as are its people, resources, ecology and culture. Kosi Bay system comprises 4 lakes ranging saline that feed into the ocean. Ancient fishing kraals (traps) erected from local materials and tendered by the resourceful Tonga people still exist in the protected area. Kosi Bay has been described as “a wonderful aquarium and the most gorgeous aviary.” The crystal clear, warm water offers tranquil swimming and snorkeling on coral reefs. The program for this section will be largely determined by the tides, but will include: presentations on the ecology of the Kosi lakes and estuarine system and on the history and social economic factors influencing this region ; a hike to the mouth and visit to the traditional fish traps with a local fisherman; snorkeling; and a night walk on the beach at low tide to try and see leatherback sea turtles, the largest of the sea turtles, nesting.
The last day African Insights transports us back to Johannesburg to connect with an evening flight home (flight must be after 19h00).
Primary instructor: James Vonesh
Pre-trip orientation: Monday 12 Dec 2016 (if off campus can SKYPE in)
Class size: up to 18
Eligibility? This program is open to all students, regardless of major, who have at least a 2.0 GPA. Students who apply to the program will be interviewed (in person or via Skype) by the program director prior to approval. An academic letter of reference will be required.
This program *is* open to non-VCU students.
Program cost: $2,400 + airfare + tuition
The program fee is $2,400 and includes the following:
- Pick-up and drop-off at the O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa
- All accommodation (mostly tented camps)
- All meals (but 1)
- All transport (e.g., vehicle, raft and canoe equipment rental, boat launch)
- All South African guides and guest lectures
- On-site Program Director support
- Pre-departure orientation
- International Student Identity Card
- VCU administrative fees
- Application deposit
The following are not included in the program fee. Students are responsible for:
- VCU tuition and fees (credits count toward spring semester)
- Passport application or renewal fee, if applicable
- Personal discretionary spending
- Personal equipment
Airfare: Estimated $1200
Participants will book their own flights. Return flights from Washington, DC to Johannesburg, South Africa for December 2016 January 2017 cost an estimated $1,000 – 1,500 (Based on price search in May 2016).
Interested or Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Also keep an eye out for the posting at VCU GLOBAL Education