Ralph Clark

Cape Town - Some of the historically least-studied mountains in South Africa are in the domain of traditional authority governance – often in former homeland areas.

Such areas are also typically economically marginalised, with relatively research-poor tertiary education institutions compared to those in urban centres.

Yet partnerships between traditional authorities, the tourism management sector and local academic institutions can release multiple benefits and reverse these narratives.

The Batlokoa Royal House traditionally administers the eastern portion of the former QwaQwa homeland (now part of Maluti-a-Phofung Local Municipality, eastern Free State). This includes Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge and a sizeable portion of the Free State component of the Maloti-Drakensberg – including the famous Sentinel Trail and Chain Ladders, and the poorly explored but spectacular Namahadi Cut-back with its “Hanging Waterfall”.

This area forms part of the “QwaQwa Malotis” – still one of least-known parts of the Maloti-Drakensberg system.

Since 2018, the Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) – the flagship research group of the University of the Free State’s former homeland QwaQwa campus – has built a close association with Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge and the Batlokoa Royal House for mountain research in the 7 000 hectare area administered by the lodge on behalf of the royal house.

The ARU has a strong cohort of staff and students of high excellence, most of them early career, emerging and previously disadvantaged.

Through its network of local and international partnerships, the ARU has raised a substantial research funding portfolio – a sizeable portion of which is concentrated on the Witsieshoek precinct.

A mutually beneficial memorandum of understanding was signed with the lodge by which the ARU (and collaborators) provided priority research access free of charge and with a 20% discount on accommodation.

In exchange, the ARU shares outputs and visual material with the lodge for their marketing and social media and provides specialist knowledge services.

The novel relationship has leveraged new opportunities for both the ARU and the lodge, resulting in mountain research that was not possible before in South Africa.

For example, the first climate change experiment in the alpine zone of the Maloti-Drakensberg using open-top chambers (“RangeX”) was made possible through the lodge’s jurisdiction over the Free State component of the Mont-aux-Sources area and their social relationships as part of the Batlokoa community (enabling community security services).

A UFS lease for 250ha of alpine land – which includes two of the three highest peaks in the Free State and the old Namahadi border post – was signed with the lodge last year, enabling the establishment of the first alpine research base in South Africa (perhaps in Africa) last year.

This is the first time a university in South Africa has achieved these – and the first time a research facility has been established on a mountain under traditional authority management in South Africa.

Other significant firsts include the first full-weather station transect (1 500m–3 100m) in the Maloti-Drakensberg (three of the four weather stations are located in the Witsieshoek area, the fourth in Royal Natal National Park); the first alpine + transboundary Long-term Social Ecological Research (LTSER) site in Africa; a new Mountain Invasion Research Network (Miren) transect; and the site of the discovery of the first known lizard pollination system on the African continent.

An ongoing biodiversity research project (Bioblitz) at Witsieshoek (2021–2023) has yielded several novel localities and taxa in different animal groups (bats, rodents, invertebrates). Research at Witsieshoek has contributed to numerous student graduations and UFS staff promotions.

By combining the helicopter services of Berg Flying (Westline Avian) to its activities, the ARU has generated a completely new research dynamic (and a whole lot of local excitement!) at Witsieshoek, making mountains that were previously only accessible on foot or by pony a normal part of the QwaQwa campus research activities.

In addition to intellectual input, benefits to the lodge and the Batlokoa community are numerous. For instance, regular use of lodge services (accommodation, meals, guides, porters, shuttle transfers, security guards) by ARU researchers, students and collaborators (local and international) provides an additional income stream and a new form of livelihood support for local community members.

This proved particularly valuable during the dramatic tourism income slump resulting from Covid-19.

The ARU provided an alternative (if modest) form of income to the lodge as some academic activities were considered “essential services” during lockdown.

Significant events at the lodge (and income) have also resulted from ARU referrals (including the Trait Train workshop in December this year). Ongoing and new ARU projects continue to generate information that assists the lodge to steward the spectacular mountain heritage of the Batlokoa community.

The relationship between the lodge and the ARU culminated with the lodge being WTM Responsible Tourism Awards overall global winner in 2022 (London, UK), with the ARU cited as a significant player in this achievement.

A rural campus, a rural community and a rural tourism facility have successfully partnered to make our mountains better known and our mountain communities better off, and in the process creating some African firsts for science and an economically more resilient local community.

Clark is a Director for Afromontane Research Unit and Associate Professor at the Department of Geography, University of the Free State.

Cape Times

2023-05-31T14:17:41Z dg43tfdfdgfd