We celebrate International Mountain day every year on the 11th of December, but every day is Mountain Day at the new Afromontane Research Unit, established recently at the University of Free State’s QwaQwa campus. The QwaQwa campus is a rural campus, and has had a difficult history, being the satellite campus of the University of the North and very much ignored for about 40 years. Once allocated to the much closer University of the Free State, it began to put itself on the map as a credible teaching and research institute, with around 3000 students at any one time. Around 1000 of the students are residential students, an advantage for them because of the remoteness of the campus. Interestingly, during the 2014 – 2016 drought, the campus had to invest massively in water tanks as the campus and surrounding town of Phuthaditjhaba had no water at all, other than borehole water. This is one of the many challenges of living and working in a remote mountain region.
At the 2016 ARU mountain research colloquium in mid-November, the researchers and international collaborators met to listen to very good presentations on issues of mountain research and discuss potential projects and collaborations. Although the colloquium was held at the Golden Gate National park hotel, delegates also got treated to a tour of both the campus and Phuthaditjhaba. Overall, there was a very nice ‘buzz’ about mountain research at this meeting. It is really wonderful, too, that the ARU is encouraging their students to communicate their research, and for example, the poster session encouraged the students to actually discuss their work with viewers. How many of us have been to conferences where the poster session is merely walls of posters with not a person in sight? In terms of communicating their successes, the ARU should also consider engaging with the media and local broadcasting stations, as the research of ARU truly belongs in the surrounding rural communities of QwaQwa.
Delegates of the ARU 2016 colloquium on the outing to Phuthadijhaba
The iconic Brandwag formation outside the Golden Gate National Park hotel, the venue for the 2016 ARU conference.
QwaQwa, which is a rural area within the Free State Province, South Africa poses many challenges worthy of research, and many of the findings would be of relevance for other mountainous areas, mainly livelihoods in remote areas, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and the social interactions and preparing local people for the future, and indeed, these are the three research themes for the ARU. Possible future programmes of work could include the development of an online master’s degree in mountain science, the establishment of ecosystem health monitoring for the Maloti-Drakensberg, perhaps using insects as bio-indicators, and seed-banking specific vulnerable plants from the Drakensberg region, to safeguard these species against climate change through ex-situ conservation.
View of Phuthaditjhaba, the main city of QwaQwa, South Africa with the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains in the background.
The population of Phuthaditjhaba is around 500 000 persons. The ARU is in an ideal locality to research mountain environmental and social issues.