Gary The Vance at Langebaan Lagoon

Back from camp! Hi folks, get ready for a long one.

On Friday last week I left from varsity for a five-day field camp for my ecology class. Our stay was located in the West Coast National Park near the town Langebaan. There are about 60 students in my class, so as you can imagine there was a huge caravan of about 12 kombis with trailer loads of equipment. Only an hour and a half outside of Cape Town, the West Coast National Park encompasses the Langebaan Lagoon, which is created by a 10 (ish) mile long peninsula creating Big Bay, Small Bay, and the lagoon. Only about 15% of the lagoon is completely protected by the park, but still is a huge amount of land/water. We only arrived in the park around 6pm not allowing any time for any fieldwork. Our accommodation was a refurbished horse stable turned into what is pretty much a hostel. There were about 20 stables with bunk beds and mattresses and a mess hall with a large kitchen and enough tables and chairs to accommodate everyone. Groups created within the class prepared the meals (breakfast and dinner). There were plenty of vegetarian friendly dishes for me to eat easily and end the night comfortably full.

The Stables

The camp consisted of 4 days of research in the field and back at our mess hall doing analysis. There were 6 different activities each day, so I didn’t get to do all of the fieldwork available at the camp as our schedule was predetermined. The first day, Saturday, consisted of “Trek”. Originally I thought we were going to be hiking a lot and doing some sort of trail analysis, but I soon realized I was entirely incorrect. Trekking here involves a giant net that is cast into sea from the shore (walked out into the current by us undergrads) and pulled back in to observe the fish species present. We managed to do three treks at two different sites, so six treks in total. To my complete surprise, the first net we pulled in contained more than just little fish species. We had about seven sand sharks and a stingray! Almost all of our catches were kept for count analysis later, including the sharks, but our project leader released the stingray carefully. It was the same species that killed Steve Irwin. I didn’t get too close, ha. The rest of the day consisted of mindless counting of about 20 different fish species from all of the catches.

The trek net being pulled in from the bay

Day two was “Rocky”. Rocky was all about the populations of mussels and barnacles on the upper, mid, and lower levels of the rocky shores throughout the tidal movement. The waves coming in from the Atlantic were enormous so we weren’t able to sample completely, but managed to scrape some samples for analysis. The third day was “Botany”. At first, I was not terribly excited about this field work because plants, I must be honest, are the most thrilling of things to be looking at after days of sharks and crashing waves. To my surprise though, it actually turned out to be quite an interesting day. Our project leader was completely obsessed with plants and kept getting excited about things we were finding. We managed to dig up a sample of a type of plant performing what is known as “root suckering,” which involves a plant sprouting out roots and forcing up another stock to pretty much create two plants attached to the same root system. Anyways, what at first I thought seemed to be diamonds because of his excitement, actually turned out to be a rare specimen of root suckering. Woo!

Happy botanist

The final full day of field camp was “Plastics”. This was, by far, one of the longest days of my biology “career”. We spend the entire morning, around 8:30am, and through the afternoon, about 4:00pm, completely filtering out a 50x50 meter section of a beach with sand filters and sieves to find plastic pieces. At first it was quite astonishing to see how much plastic was in the sand, but soon the day turned for the worse and my arms started burning. As I type now, my arms still feel like someone is taking a blowtorch to them. The toughest part about the day was the fact that we couldn’t pick up trash that was outside of our sample area because we had to completely sort and count all of the pieces of trash. The most ironic part of the trip came here when I found a recycling bin buried in the sand that washed up on shore. I wonder if the bin was made with recycled plastic…

Plastics beach

The camp didn’t only consist of ecology work; we also got to enjoy our evenings in a beautiful park with some pretty awesome people. Most of the students, except for a few study abroad students from the US, were either South African or from southern Africa. It was really nice to be forced to hang out with people I probably wouldn’t get to know if it weren’t for this camp. Naturally, my American-ness was brought up consistently with all of them. I have never met so many people curious about what the states are like! Hearing them talk about America and the stereotypes they know was hilarious! It was difficult to explain how different the regions of the states (Midwest, East, West and South) really are. Also, life as a kid in high school or college is nothing like “Laguna Beach” or “Greek Life”. People are so curious about fraternities and sororities in the states.

Eventually, people were calling me “Wisconsin” since I wore one of my school t-shirts one of the days. My nickname soon changed though. I am now known by almost everyone in my ecology class as “Gary the Vance”. Explanation: They were quite amused by the name Vance and the fact that my entire name is pretty much three first names. Gary comes from one of the girls, Catherine, not knowing my name after meeting me and calling me Gary. Everyone cracked up when she said that and now I am Gary the Vance. The name is typically spoken in a southern Tennessee accent (according to what they thought was a Tennessee accent in the states). Most people from South Africa who have been to the states have only been to New York City or Florida. I figured since Florida is warm and close, that makes it popular, and of course New York being one of the world’s most known cities.

The last night at camp we all walked out to a bird watching hut that was a dock out into the lagoon and watched the sunset over the peninsula with some beautiful clouds showing the color. It was nice to have a relaxing beginning to what was otherwise a quite hectic night. Since the drinking age is 18 here, most everyone at university is of age to drink. The professors know this too. The list I was given of what to bring for camp included “sufficient amounts of your favorite tipple if you wish to imbibe.” Nothing is kept behind closed curtains here, ha. Watching the sunset really reminded me of Minnesota, especially the Boundary Waters, because it felt like we were on a decent sized, pristine lake. It once again, as Costa Rica did, made me realize how great home is and how much it has to offer. I could have watched a similar sunset at home and thought I was sitting over Langebaan Lagoon. Not to discredit where we are at all, since this place is unlike any other, but it makes me appreciate where I am from and what a beautiful place it is!

A beautiful sunset over Langebaan Lagoon

Shark swimming in the lagoon at sunset (it's a small guy)

I got home this afternoon and now am about to leave for soccer practice, yay! The weather is definitely changing and getting cooler at night, which I enjoy more actually. I like wearing jeans and sweaters at night but still am able to wear shorts and a T during the day. I started a Mr. Movie account down the road to keep myself occupied for the next four days while my entire house is either in Botswanna or Mozambique. Taryn and Arianna are the only people home, but Arianna is with her mom around the city so she isn’t going to be around here too much. Taryn and I will be watching movies for a few days while we procrastinate our papers due next week. Sounds nice! Off to practice…

High-five everyone.