Wednesday, 2 March 2016

CREW Workshop 2016: Sentinel Field Trip

For some, this field trip required a 05h00 start as the drive from the Backpackers Lodge to the Sentinel car park near Witsieshoek takes two hours. For others, exhausted by the long walk up Tugela Gorge the previous day, a later start was warranted. As it turned out the latecomers caught up to the early risers group within 50 metres of the entry gate to the Sentinel Nature Reserve - when botanising in this high-diversity biome progress is slow. The cold weather and low cloud probably contributed to the slow progress. On a walk at a starting altitude of over 2500m it is hard not to find rare or endemic species and so it proved as we moved along with guidance from Elsa Pooley, whose experience has taught her where to expect many of these special species. 

At the beginning of the trail the soils are derived from the sandstones which underlie the basalt cap of the Drakensberg. The first plant of interest was Brownleea galpinii, an orchid species which mimics Scabiosa columbaria in order to attract pollinators.

Brownleea galpinii
Scabiosa columbaria - the species being mimicked by the Brownleea

It was not long before we came across the rare Drakensberg endemic species Crocosmia pearsii with its bright orange trumpet-shaped flowers.

Crocosmia pearsii
There were several more orchid species at this level, many of which were from the genera Disa and Disperis. We found several sweet-smelling Disa fragrans and one or two Disa sankeyi, Disperis cardiophora, and, higher up the trail, Disperis tysonii.

Disa fragrans
Disa sankeyi
Disperis cardiophora
Disperis tysonii
Once we got closer to the basalt cliffs we found the first of the Nerine bowdenii subsp. wellsii - this population found growing below the Sentinel was recently resurrected as a legitimate subspecies.
Nerine bowdenii subsp. wellsii
A little further up the zig-zag trail we came across Gladiolus microcarpus and protruding from some basal boulders were Ornithogalum regale in flower.

Ornithogalum regale
After a few more zig-zags we were approaching an altitude of 2750m and had gone as far as we wanted to go, so we stopped for lunch near some swathes of Nerine bowdenii growing at the base of the basalt cliffs. Searching the grassland here I found Holothrix incurvata and a beautiful Huttonaea grandiflora, and near the path a Brownleea macroceras nestled amongst the grass.

Holothrix incurvata
Huttonaea grandiflora
Brownleea macroceras
After we returned to the vehicles Elsa suggested we travel slowly down the road and stop occasionally to see what else we could find. Apart from several other showy and interesting species we came across two Kniphofias, K. fibrosa, and a smaller plant which we think might be K. breviflora but this needs to be verified.

Kniphofia fibrosa

Kniphofia cf. breviflora
By that stage the sun was getting close to the horizon so we called it a day and went off to the Witsieshoek Lodge to relax.  

The sunrise on the Amphitheatre mountains the next morning was spectacular! It is almost worth staying at the lodge just to see these sunrises.

Sunrise on the Eastern Butress

Participants: 4x Pondoland CREW plus Elsa Pooley and a small remnant of the CREW Workshop delegates.

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