Great divide: The students studied the differences between the communities on either side of the water: predominantly game farmers on one side and subsistence farming communities on the other.
Intrepid UCT students and a University of Stellenbosch (SU) counterpart undertook the first documented walk and ecological assessment of the Eastern Cape's Great Kei River during the mid-year vacation.
Starting in the frigid Winterberg Mountains and ending at the balmy Indian Ocean, the interdisciplinary group of students hiked 450km in 30 days along the Great Kei, scaling cliffs and braving rhino poachers to collect water samples and study social dynamics on opposite sides.
Theirs is the first documented bio-monitoring assessment of the entire river and its tributaries - complete with a photographic journal of the flora along the Kei's meandering course.
The UCT students: Daniel Poultney, Carla McKenzie, Brandon Finn and Stefano Maiorana; and US student Kim Harrisberg; negotiated dense bush and difficult terrain en route, gathering over 200 water samples at GPS-logged points. These will provide information on pH, electro-conductivity, and oxygen and hydrogen isotope levels at various points along the Kei. This data will help researchers track the river's health, and later, the effects of climate change.
UCT scientists hope to establish a link between the river's biological status and the communities that live and farm along its course. Among the researchers who will study the water samples are Dr Kevin Winter (environmental and geographical sciences) and Dr Adam West (biological sciences).
The river communities were also the focus of a second study, with a sociological theme, as the group documented the social interactions between the two groups: game farmers on one side and small-scale subsistence farmers on the other.
"We were welcomed on both sides," said Finn, who is studying environmental science and media. "Many of the farmers speak isiXhosa and although we noted plenty of integration, there is still racism, and tensions were discernible."