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Rock Collecting While Watching for Crocodiles, Leopards

Crocodile warning signs are common. Credit: Jill VanTongeren

On Saturday morning, Ed and I left Pretoria for the next phase of our trip: field work near the Loskop Dam in Mpumalanga Province where a large volcano once existed about two billion years ago. No one has been able to find where this ancient volcano stood but lava flows in the area suggest there was once volcanic activity. We will be collecting rocks and analyzing their structure to piece the story together.

On our way, we passed through Witbank, one of South Africa’s largest coal-mining operations. From the road, we spotted the coal plants’ big cooling towers as well as coal trucks parked along the road.

Lava flows like this one indicate a volcano was once active here. Credit: Jill VanTongeren.

The Loskop dam area where we will be working for the next several days is more mountainous than Pretoria, with cliffs and rolling hills. The dam is also a spectacular structure that has created a large lake where crocodiles and hippos like to hang out. Unfortunately, the extensive mining in this region, at Witbank and the Bushveld Complex, has taken an ecological toll. Acid from the mines has drained into the lake, gnawing away at the bones of the crocodiles living there. Only juvenile crocodiles live there now.

One lava formation that we will be studying is called the Damwal, or “Dam Wall.” Nearby are several game reserves where Impala, Kudu, Zebra, and Wildebeest are raised. The game keepers have warned us about the leopards that live in some of the surrounding mountains and valleys. We’ve been told about a wild leopard breeding area in the valley across the river where animal carcasses are often found dangling from the trees.

Tall fences keep the wildlife at bay. Credit: Jill VanTongeren.

Luckily for us, a tall wire fence lines most of the road where we are working and the only animals we’ve seen so far are baboons. We typically sample along the road, not out of laziness but because this is where the rock is most exposed. (Road building often involves blasting away rock, creating fresh surfaces that have not been exposed to weathering for very long.) It is much easier to collect here than to dig through layers of sediment or hammer away at boulders.

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