Debbie and I left the house around 7:30 for the 90km trip, allowing an hour and a half for all the slow moving trucks on the rural road. It’s a gorgeous drive, hilly with areas of natural bush, vast fields of sugar cane and smaller vegetable farms with rows and rows of cabbages and onions and what looked like some kind of lettuce. We crossed several bridges over muddy rivers and watched as birds soared overhead, with Debbie expertly identifying them!
We turned off the main road just before Ixopo, onto a muddy dirt road, and were grateful to be driving Mick’s bakkie – a Toyota 4x4 – as the road got pretty slippery. African houses dotted the sides of the roads and hillsides, and people were walking every which way. I assumed they were walking to work but as we hadn’t passed any towns or settlements, it would have to be Ixopo, 7k away! There were some taxis waiting on the side of the road as well.
The Retreat is a sprawling complex on beautiful grounds. Peaceful and serene as a retreat should be.
We were the first to arrive as people were coming from Pondoland, on the South Coast and from Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and there was a lot of traffic as the Dusi (a huge, international river kayaking event) was running.
After checking in at the office, Debbie and I and a couple of others headed out. Debbie had given me a picture of the plant we were looking for, the Dioscorea Brownii, but when you get out there, and the grasses are as high as your head, it’s difficult to distinguish one plant for another. Initially, we stayed on the trails, but to get a better look, we pushed through the veld, peering through tall flower-bearing plants, slipping and sliding on the slick grass. It was overcast and slightly misty, making everything soggy.
More of the group appeared and we ended up with about 10 avid botanists – three professionals and the rest of us amateurs! Of course, I was clueless, but the other volunteers obviously do this often and all knew each other, and were taking and comparing notes!
I took pictures!
There were wonderful stands of yellowwood trees, and walking with these people, I learned to shift my focus and find different plants, many of them almost hidden in the long grasses. The area is also a blue swallow zone. Debbie identified one, but I didn’t see it – mainly, I think, because I didn’t know what I was looking for! The swallow is listed as Vulnerable on the Endangered Species list.
We walked and looked for three and a half hours, at one time (by mistake) walking through tall, tall weeds. Our leader kept right, when we should have gone left, but as a guest along for the fun of it, I didn’t point it out to her, and by then we were so deep in the bush, it didn’t make sense to go back, so kept moving. We ended up climbing through a barbed wire fence and came out on a hilltop with spectacular views down the valley.
Houses and small farms dotted the hillsides, and you could see where the farming has depleted the soils, and they (the farmers) simply moved to another plot, “destroying the biodiversity” as ecologist Debbie said.
Debbie and I took a more leisurely walk back to the Retreat, both of us feeling the effects of the heat and prolonged exercise! If I did that kind of exercise every day…
Lunch was a wonderful lacto ovo vegetarian meal, with a delicious Malay bobotie made with lentils instead of beef, roasted veges, rice, caramelized onions, salad and homemade bread! We ate outside with a couple of the women who work at the retreat in the office. A beer would have gone well with it, but we were offered water instead!
It is a busy place, able to accommodate 45 people and they bring in specialized people to teach yoga etc. It would be a great place to go to de-stress for a few days, meditate under the trees or do walking meditations on the trails.
Coming home was a faster trip, with a lot less traffic. I was happy we didn’t go back out into the field with the diehards as I was beat! And after all that, the elusive Dioscorea Brownii (no common name) wasn’t sighted!