On the The Other End of the Story

Recently I was contacted by a Rhodes journalism student who was in the process of completing an article about snakes for the Grocotts Mail. Although strange to admit, given my current path as a MSc zoology student focusing on snake genetics, I was once in her shoes, completing my hours at the Midrand Reporter in pursuit of my second year Rhodes Journalism and Media Studies credit.

Although I am very much a ‘science kid’ now, I was once undecided, I was once a BA kid. My original intentions when I came to Rhodes were to do a Bachelor of Journalism and afterwards, pursue a career as a journalist. Although its safe to assume I did not take this path, my three years in journalism are an invaluable asset which I would not give up even if I was given a second chance. Yes, I have been mocked profusely by conventional science students because of my unconventional undergrad, but it doesn’t bother me because this website, and many of my other achievements are a direct result of the lessons I learnt in journalism.

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In addition to teaching me how to write eloquently, edit media and talk to people, journalism taught me how to market myself, something that is invaluable in a world galvanized by social media and the internet. Journalism has however been unsuccessful in curing my bad habit of going off-topic because what I was trying to say is that its weird to be on the other side of the questions. After so many years of asking the questions and writing the stories, I have got to say, its nice to see my name in the paper especially when its in reference to something I love.

The article which is termed ‘Snakes alive’ discusses why snakes are so common in Grahamstown in the summer months, what  the most common snakes in the area are and what to do in the instance of a snake encounter.

Snakes are my passion, and although I had to give up my comfortable position on the byline to pursue my dream career, I wouldn’t change a thing because even though herpetology may not be as financially secure as lets say journalism, it gives me joy and fulfillment, something that very few people get to say these days. And if this article is anything to go by, I must be doing something right to get into the newspaper, because idiots don’t get into the newspaper… usually.

P.S. Thank you to the author for considering this topic and thank you to Grocotts Mail for publishing this article, the information in articles like this go a long way in reptile conservation because they dispel theories that often lead to unnecessary snake mortality.

 

Zoology Department Photo Competition

So although I started last year, and even though I have a lot… I mean a lot to learn about reptile photography, I am happy to say that I placed third in this years department photo competition. My picture of the two very cute brown-backed tree frogs now hangs on the wall, in the foyer of the Zoology and Entomology Department, amidst the other photos which placed in the top three for the competition.

Thank you to everyone who voted for my photo and thank you to the frogs who sat so patiently for me while i invaded their personal space in an effort to capture the perfect moment. Although that magic moment is ever-fleeting, i will continue to take photos in pursuit of this mystical goal.

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One Step Closer

I am one step closer to becoming a professional herpetologist and its all because I was too stubborn to listen to my science teacher. This past week was graduation at Rhodes University and I am happy to say I got my honours degree In African Vertebrate Bioiversity with distinction. This all comes after performing mighty averagely for the past few years, especially in school where I was the ‘average kid’, capable of only high sixties and on the the rare occasion, and in the presence of misdirected pity, a low seventy.

I remember very clearly that in grade 10 I was called into the deputy headmasters office, after choosing my subjects, to be told that I should probably drop science because I was not capable of completing the subject at a high school level. Luckily I did not take his advice, because today and at this very moment, I am doing what I love, a luxury very few people enjoy.

I guess what i am trying to say is; follow your dreams, no matter what others might say. People might not always see your potential, so it is up to you to see it, and act on it to be the best version of yourself. In addition to me receiving  my honours with distinction I was also fortunate enough to receive full academic colours, a position in golden key, the ZSSA award for best zoology honours student and finally the Ewer Award for best combined Zoology and Entomology honours student for 2016.

I am not trying to brag, I am just trying to say that my success was not the product of an abnormal intellect, bribery or luck, it was the result of me putting a lot of effort into something I love. Its very much like what Albert Einstein once said:

Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.

Lastly, thank you to everyone who has helped me get this point,  hopefully I can continue to do what I love, something we should all strive to achieve.

HAA Conference 2017

Following our trip to the Transkei , Werner Conradie, Luke kemp and I departed for the biennial Herpetological Association of Africa (HAA) conference in Hluhluwe, Kwazulu Natal. We spent the night of the 22nd of January in my cousins beach house in Umhlanga and the next day we departed for Hluhluwe after a quick stop at Ushaka International Airport, to pick up Professor Bill Branch (World-renowned African herpetologist) and Ninda Baptiste (Angolan herpetologist).

We arrived in Hluhluwe on the afternoon of the 23rd and booked into our accommodation at Bonamanzi Game Reserve where Luke and I camped for the duration of the conference. The conference started the next day and ran until the 27th of January. The first and last days of the conference were half days and the three days’ in-between were all full conference days. A full conference day ran as follows: three hours of presentations in the morning, lunch, three hours of presentations in the afternoon and lastly supper.  All gaps were spent herping (the act of looking for reptiles and frogs) and most nights were spent road cruising (looking for frogs and reptiles on the road).

HAA 2017 Group PhotoHAA Conference 2017 group photo. Photo taken by Shivan Parusnath.

Even though we were no longer expected to collect specimens, as we did in Transkei, we took every opportunity to seek out the amazing herpetological diversity that northern Kwazulu Natal had to offer. Highlights of the trip included the keynote presentations by world-renowned herpetologists, the bush-braai and the HAA auction. The conference ended at midday on the 27th of January, and the rest of our time in Bonamanzi was spent herping with new friends made over the course of the conference. We departed early the next day, Luke caught a lift back to Johannesburg and I caught a bus to Grahamstown.

What I got out of the conference?

Although I had met several of the great herpetologists prior to the conference, the experience was directly responsible for me meeting Prof Branch, Professor Bauer, Dr Tolley, Dr Maritz, Prof Wuster, Prof Minter and Prof Du Preez for the first time, to name a few. The conference also succeeded in strengthening prior-made relationships. In addition to meeting some of the best herpetologists in the world, I also had an opportunity to meet aspiring herpetologists and similar-aged reptile enthusiasts. All in all, the knowledge and experience gained during the conference coupled with the networks created, will be integral to my future as an aspiring herpetologist.

Some of the cooler animals seen in Hluhluwe

collage of hluhluwe.pngA) Spotted shovel nose frog (Hemisus guttatus), B) Eastern tiger snake (Telescopus semiannulatus), C) Eastern natal green snake (Philothamnus natalensis natalensis), D) Water lily frog (Hyperolius pusillus), E) Brown-backed tree frog (Leptopelis mossambicus), E) Marbled tree snake (Dipsadoboa aulica), G) Flap-necked chameleon (Chamaleo dilepis). Photos taken by Chad Keates.

Two videos created by Luke and I which cover the conference for our Youtube channel ‘Snakes and their mates’. 

A trip to the Transkei

Text adapted from trip report completed by Luke Kemp and I last month .

Purpose of trip

Recently Luke kemp and I joined a data collecting trip in the Transkei forested region as part of an ongoing study, spearheaded by Stellenbosch University. There were many teams studying many facets of forest ecology but we, Werner Conradie (Head Herpetologist at Bayworld Museum) and Theo Busschau (MSc student at Stellenbosch University) were tasked with collecting herpetological samples. All specimens found by the group were captured and collected to be accessioned into the Bayworld museum for future research. All samples which fell within my research focus (spotted skaapstekers) were sub-sampled and taken. The reptiles and amphibian records were also uploaded onto the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) Virtual museum.

IMG_5918.JPGFrom left to right: Werner Conradie, Theo Busschau, Luke Kemp.

Baziya forest

Our trip started at 12:30 pm on the 12 of January 2017. We met up with Werner Conradie from the Bayworld museum in PE. After a five-hour trip through the scattered villages of the Transkei, we arrived at our accommodation in Baziya forest, east of Umthatha. We set our tent in the garden of the Merensky foresters office with the rest of the Stellenbosch team, East London, Albany and Umthatha museum staff. We spent the next four days with the herp team in the forests and escarpment around Baziya. We collected 6 species of amphibians and 9 species of reptiles in this area. Many records represented range extensions due to poor sampling in this area.

Umthatha and surrounds

On the 16th, we broke up camp and moved to the luxury of the Umthatha backpackers. After camping in the rain for the previous four days, the small bungalows were great and our gear and cloths could finally dry, not to mention the welcome of a hot shower. Our accommodation was covered by Mike Cherry (Head of the research project) but using, FBIP grant money, we paid our fair share for food. The next six days were spent sampling the forests and vleis north of the Umthatha dam and further north into the escarpment near Tsolo. We collected more animals and got the forth record of Mountain Caco (Cacosternum parvum) for the province. In the end I succeeded in getting a specimen of my study animal, spotted skaapsteker (Psammophylax rhombeatus), and the Stellenbosch team also recorded their study animals. On the 22nd of January, we packed up and left for the HAA conference in northern Zululand.

mthatha pics.pngFigure  A – D) Some of the habitat we sampled. E) Our campsite at Baziya. F) Curing specimens late into the night with Werner Conradie. G) Photographing a Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) with the herp team. Picture by Luke Kemp.

What I got out of the trip?

Although well-traveled in the Eastern Cape, and irrespective of prior herpetological experience in the field,  I learnt a lot from this field trip. Werner Conradie was a remarkable source of information, and through helping with fieldwork, I gained invaluable experience in a professional scientific setting with trained scientists. In addition to networking and learning from Werner (a major contributor to South African herpetology), I also got the opportunity to meet and build relationships with scientists, both young and old, from similar and very different fields of study. It was a great opportunity for me to learn and network and through going on this trip,  I have made invaluable connections which I may not have made so easily on my own.

All in all it was a great second leg, to Luke and I’s nationwide, month-long, herping adventure. Next stop… Hluhluwe, for the Herpetological Association of Africa (HAA) conference 2017.

Species list

Class Species
Common name Scientific name
Amphibia Plaintive rain frog Breviceps verrucosus
Bushveld rain frog Breviceps adspersus
Bronze caco Cacosternum nanum
Boettger’s caco Cacosternum boettgeri
Mountan caco Cacosternum parvum
Clicking stream frog Strongylupis greyii
Striped stream frog Strongylopus fasciatus
Common river frog Amietia delalandi
Mascarene grass frog Ptychadena mascareniensis
Raucous toad Sclerophrys rangeri
Common platanna Xenopus laevis
Painted reed frog Hyperolius marmoratus
Reptilia Rinkhals Hemachatus haemachatus
Puff adder Bitis arietans
Natal black snake Macrelaps microlepidotus
Thread snake spp. Leptotyphlops spp.
Red lipped herald Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia
Brown water snake Lycodonomorphus rufulus
Spotted skaapsteker Psammophylax r. rhombeatus
Cape skink Trachylepis capensis
Variable skink Trachylepis varia
Speckled rock skink Trachylepis punctatissimus
Cape girdled lizard Corydlus cordylus
Drakensburg crag lizard Pseudocordylus melanotus subviridis
Tembu flat gecko Afroedura tembulica
Spotted gecko Pachydactylus maculatus
Delalande’s sandveld lizard Nucras lalandii

 Some of the cooler specimens we found

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Plaintive Rain Frog (Breviceps verrucosus)
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Bushveld Rain Frog (Breviceps adspersus)
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Brown Water Snake (Lycodonomorphus rufulus)
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Natal Black Snake (Macrelaps microlepidotus)
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Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus)

A Trip to the Northern Cape

Recently Luke Kemp and I ventured to the Northern Cape in search of some of South Africa’s most insane herps. Although we did not find everything we set out to find, we found a lot and had a great time doing it. The trip was filled with some memorable moments and some even more remarkable finds. Thanks Luke for making it such an adventure, and easily the best herping trip I have have done in my life… thus far.

En-route to Augrabies

Rock monitor (Varanus albigularis)img_4774.jpg

Variegated skink (Trachylepis variegata)img_4715

Bibron’s gecko (Chondrodactylus bibronni)IMG_4762


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S774n-W9Da4&t=26s


Augrabies

Tremelo Sand Frog (Tomopterna cryptotis)img_4779.jpg

Guttural Toad (Sclerphrys gutturalis)img_4806

Turners Gecko (Chondrodactylus turnerri)img_4831

Brown House Snake (Boadeon capensis)img_4843.jpg

Spotted Bush Snake (Philothamnus semivariegatusimg_4898.jpg

En-route to Port Nolloth

Western Rock Skink (Trachylepis sulcata)img_4950.jpg

Purcells Gecko (Pachydactylus purcelli)img_4963

Hadogenes phyllodesimg_4917.jpg

Port Nolloth

Western Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion occidentale)img_5023


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwV_cGnPKn8&t=9s


Spotted desert lizard (Meroles suborbitalis)img_5056.jpg

Spotted barking gecko (Ptenopus garrulus maculatus) img_5102.jpg

Parabuthus granulatusimg_5115

Pink blind legless skink (Typhlosaurus vermis)img_5129

Namaqua dwarf adder (Bitis schneideri)img_5252

En-route to Spingbok

Dwarf plated lizard (Cordylosaurus subtessellatus) img_5345.jpg

Armadillo girdled lizard (Ouroborus cataphractus)img_5325.jpg

Quartz gecko (Pachydactylus latirostris)img_5372

Karoo girdled lizard (Karusasaurus polyzonus)IMG_5268

Common giant ground gecko (Chondrodactylus angulifer angulifer)img_5374

Springbok

Coral shield cobra (Aspidelaps lubricus lubricus)img_5305.jpg


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xs7Ares7SFc&t=22s


Aggeneys

Good’s gecko (Pachydactylus goodi)img_5513

Parabuthus schlechteriimg_5421.jpg

Brown house snake (Boaedon capensis)img_5479.jpg

Spotted barking gecko (Ptenopus garrulus maculatus)img_5537.jpg

Southern rock agama (Agama atra)IMG_5417

Namaqua mountain gecko (Pachydactylus montanus)img_5523.jpg

Opisthacanthus gigasimg_5407.jpg

Common giant ground gecko (Chondrodactylus angulifer angulifer)img_5532


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwRFZS1AV2w&t=5s


Herping in KZN

Recently I visited Durban, and more specifically Westville to see my cousins after a long year of work. While I was excited to see my cousins, and catch up, I was also excited to see some new ‘herps’ in Kwazulu Natal, one of the provinces with the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians in South Africa. What I didn’t expect was just how much I would see.

Westville

Whilst there I spent my spare time searching around my cousin’s house and around the river that bordered their property. Just on their property I was lucky enough to find a brown water snake, several frog species and a red-lipped herald mid-meal. Although great, none of these were ‘lifers’ for me and so in order for me to find the fabled KZN diversity, I enlisted the help of two well-known KZN herpers, Tyrone Ping and Nick Evans.

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Red lipped herald (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia) eating a guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis)

Midlands

I met Nick for the first time on the 8th of December and he invited me to join himself and fellow ‘herpers’, Dylan Leonard and Courtney Robert Hundermark, on a trip to the Midlands. Before we went to the Midlands, a trip that was set for the evening, I tagged along on an last-minute, morning search for the endangered Smith’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink (Scelotes inornatus) in the Bluff. I am happy to say, I saw it… well some of it. To be honest, I only saw the tail of the lizard, because before it could be scooped out of the soft, coastal soil, it burrowed, never to be seen again. Soon after my first Smith’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink’s tail, I returned back to my cousin’s place in preparation for the evening, an evening in the Midlands.

That night I saw my first rhythmic caco (Cacosternum rhythmum) and Natal Midlands Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion thamnobates). It was an awesome experience and whilst chameleons have never been my favourite, I must admit that the Natal Midlands Dwarf chameleon is one cute individual, well worth the search. Thanks to Nicks knowledge and experience in the area, I was able to cross two new ‘herps off my list’.

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Rhythmic caco (Cacosternum rhythmum)
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Natal midlands dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion thamnobates)

Umhlanga

For my last evening in Durban (11th of December) I organised to meet up with Tyrone Ping. This was not my first-time meeting Tyrone, as I had first met him earlier in the year, when he came down to Grahamstown in search of the yellow-bellied house snakes. This time was different however because unlike last time, I was new to the terrain I was ‘herping’. Although excited, I was also very sick but irrespective of pain, I mustered the strength to join Tyrone on a ‘herping’ trip to Umhlanga, the area he knew best, and I have got to say, the reward was well worth the pain. With Tyrone’s expertise and knowledge of the area, I was able to see and photograph nine new species of reptile and amphibian, a great day by any standard.

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Natal tree frog (Leptopelis natalensis)
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Pondo flat gecko (Afroedura pondolia)
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Water lily frog (Hyperolius pusillus)
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Delicate leaf-folding frog (Afrixalus delicatus)
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Kwazulu natal dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion melanocephalum)
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Natal sand frog (Tomopterna natalensis)
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Flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepsis)
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Tinker reed frog (Hyperolius tuberilinguis)

My trip to Umhlanga was a great end to a very great ‘herping’ trip to Durban, especially since I was only ‘herping’ on the side. Thanks to everyone that ‘herped’ with me in the great unknown that is Kwazulu Natal and thanks once again to Tyrone Ping and Nick Evans for their time and knowledge.

Herping in Hogsback 3.0

Once again I found myself in Hogsback, and this time I was determined to catch and photograph (properly) the Amatola Flat Gecko (Afroedura amatolica). This trip to Hogsback was however not intended for herping or adventure but rather as a farewell for the Rhodes Zoology Honours class of 2016 who were staying on a nearby Hogsback farm for the weekend. Unlike my classmates who sought to study in the spare time between meals, I opted to use the Saturday afternoon to find my arch nemesis gecko, which had thwarted my photography session weeks earlier.

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The gecko which got away just weeks ago

The day was neither pleasant nor neutral, it was kak, giving new meaning to the misty mountains, mountains which were so wet they ran the risk of slipping off the map. After mustering up the will and once I had acquired a rain jacket, I was on my way. I was dropped off at the base of the mountain by my friend Ella who quickly disappeared into the mist after pulling away. The mountain which usually towered over Hogsback, was nowhere to be seen, a product of the mist which obscured landmarks just metres away. Using my bad sense of direction and a fervent desire to catch the regionally endemic gecko, I set off in the direction of the mountain I had ‘herped’ just weeks earlier.

2016-11-05-13-35-48

Every step was wetter than the last, and I soon realized, the rain jacket which I so proudly wore did little to retard the constant stream of water falling from the sky. After what seemed like an eternity of walking, I reached a familiar hill, and I decided to flip a few rocks in hopes that I would find a natal black snake. Granted I was not in the right area but I saw no harm in trying, that is until of course I heard something growling just 20m away. The direction which the growl emanated from was obscured by a pile of boulders so I couldn’t quite decide if I was going to die or not. The growl sent shivers down my spine, and after contemplating the fabric of my existence, I cycled through a list of possible ‘growlers’. The list included but was not limited to: caracal, leopard, baboon and feral dog. It’s safe to assume that nothing came of the growl because you are reading this now but at the time it was frightening to say the least. After cycling through the list of possible ‘growlers’ I mustered the courage to walk ‘quickly’ away from the scene of the growl.

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I ventured further up the mountain, following a winding road which hugged the slope. I followed the road to its highest point and then moved off into the pathless terrain in pursuit of the flat sabs of rock at the wedged inside the hill. At this point I had already found two short-legged seps, one cape skink and a cape girdled lizard but I was itching to add some snakes and hopefully an Amathole flat gecko to the list. Once I reached the first step in the steep mountain, I decided that going any further alone would be dangerous given the conditions I found myself in.

2016-11-05-15-06-42

Luke and I had sought to climb this mountain weeks earlier but were defeated by the terrain which took us down a dead-end path, a path which ultimately led us to fall asleep on the same dirt road which I had decided to follow this time. In addition to looking for the gecko, this herping trip doubled as an attempt to find an easier path up the mountain, because Luke… and now I, believe that the top of this mountain holds ‘unherped’ secrets, the subject matter of any ‘herpers’ ‘wet dreams’.

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My secret mission was thus complete because although I was unable to find the gecko on the way up the mountain, I was able to find a route which Luke and I could use in the future to climb to the peak of the mountain. On the way down I decided to peak into the gaps of the last big slab of rock left in my path. I saw gecko eggs and one gecko just out of reach. Just when I thought I would not get it, I found not one but two geckos nestled between a loose piece of rock stuck to the slab. I was over-joyed and after snapping some pictures, of the now-soaked geckos, I put the geckos back and set-off back to the pick-up point with a smile stretched across the entire length of my face.

img_2812

I was picked up soon after and while I was unable to find a natal black snake nor any snake for that matter, on this trip, I was able to find a ‘lifer’, making this trip a trip worth getting soaked for.

For more pictures of the Amatola flat gecko click here:

Amatola Flat Gecko (Afroedura amatolica)

Herping in Hogback 2.0

This weekend saw Luke and I on the road again. This time we traveled to a far more magical place – Hogsback, the home of fairies, hobbits and more importantly, Natal black Snakes. We had been to Hogback several months prior and in the grips of winter, we had found many species from a large range of taxa.

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Red-Lipped Herald

Last weekend held much promise because unlike last time, it was summer. We were in for a big surprise because the first few hours of our expedition were marked by the discovery of only one crab and one frog, meager findings by anyone’s standards.

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Clicking Stream Frog

We traded in the forests and marshlands of Hogsback’s lower reaches and ventured onward and upward in search of the high-altitude species.  Luke found two red-lipped heralds, several clicking stream frogs, and several more scorpions. What I lacked in discoveries I made up for in comic relief, for the journey was filled with many laughs, most of them directed at me.

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Scorpion

On our expedition through the mountains we were greeted by the sighting of many a lizard. However, few of these touched our fingertips because our recent bout of tick bite fever had made us clumsy and slow on the jig saw puzzle of rocks at the top of the mountain. Species that eluded our camera lens included the Red-Sided Skink, the Drakensburg Crag Lizard. Luke managed a few good shots of the regionally endemic Amathole Flat Gecko, but sadly I did not. Before I could lift my camera to capture her beauty, she was gone, leaving me with just a single blurry picture.  Luke found the whole escapade rather amusing, it’s just a pity he didn’t choke on his pie while laughing at me.

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Amathole Flat Gecko in the process of escaping

Soon after the gecko embarrassed me, we were off hiking further up the mountain in search of the berg adder, a species that was recently found in the region. However, we did not reach our destination because soon after setting off, we found ourselves on a dead-end animal path in the middle of a rather dense stand of vegetation. Our navigation error resulted in us having to push through the sharp, unforgiving thorns for quite some time in search of a clearing. After much cursing, and many an ‘ouch’ we found ourselves on a dirt road. We lay down, propped our heads on our backpacks and slept in the middle of the road. Our expedition literally took a ‘dirt nap’, and upon awaking 20 minutes later, we decided to give up on the mountain. We knew we were beat, so we headed back down the mountain and ‘herped’ on the way.

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Luke surveying the mountain area in Hogsback

We managed to get a few more species on the way down, and for the first time I felt like I made a significant contribution to the trip. I managed to find two Short-Legged Seps, a beautiful lizard species which I had only ever found in Hogsback.

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Short-Legged Seps

Soon after taking pictures, we decided to leave. We stopped at a trail on the way out of the town and flipped a few rocks. We hoped for a Natal Black Snake but found only moss. Our trip thus came to an end, and whilst we didn’t find exactly what we were looking for, we still had a great time looking for some pretty exceptional reptiles.

Chad Keates and Luke kemp