My first international conference: IASWS, South Africa 2014, by Mattie Biddulph

After nearly a full year of waiting with a mixture of anticipation and fear, it was finally time to make the long journey to Grahamstown in South Africa, to play my part in an international conference! The conference was relatively niche, indulging purely in sediment water science, so perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was looking forward to potentially understanding most of what was going on for a change!

It was a long journey south, involving 2 planes, a minibus, and many, many hours of waiting. On arrival I was glad that I had managed to cram almost my entire wardrobe into my luggage, because it was absolutely freezing- I had only just acclimatised to the unseasonably hot July we were having in the UK! Anyway, I finally made it to my accommodation at Rhodes University almost 24 hours after leaving my house in England- at least there was only an hour difference so no jet lag for me!

Winter in South Africa, once I was used to the unusual temperature, is actually ideal for the likes of me: no muggy heat and much fewer spiders (I can’t help this ridiculous fear). I was there for just over 2 weeks, and it was crisp, bright and sunny every day, perfect! Grahamstown is a funny city, with a quirky mix of South African and British settler feel to it, and the university campus is beautiful, dotted with lovely old buildings and a botanical garden, from which you can see the entire city.

The conference itself was daunting, as I had to both chair a session and give a talk, in front of two of my supervisors and various other people who are far more knowledgable than I felt. Themes covered: sediment fingerprinting, vegetation-sediment relationships, biogeochemistry, connectivity and catchment scale processes, finishing with “framework and tools for management”, which is where my talk slotted in. I presented part of my PhD research, which involves finding the best methods for testing the effectiveness of mitigation measures, which have been put in place to reduce agricultural sediment pollution and their associated pollutants in England and Wales.

River systems in South Africa and the UK are very different, particularly due to climate and geology; there is a much bigger focus on water shortages than on flooding and pollution. Despite this, there were some useful ideas to be shared, as there is a strong argument for landowner responsibility, using cheap, sustainable materials and low maintenance methods for improving water quality. I was absolutely terrified before my talk, but I think it went well and has at least set me up for a future of gradually less terrifying public speaking experiences… I hope!

My principle supervisor, Professor Ian Foster, does a lot of research in this area of South Africa, so he organised a trip to his sites for the second week of our stay. We were joined by two masters students and a PhD student from the geography department at Rhodes, as well as Dr Simon Pulley, a former PhD colleague of mine at Northampton. We took the trip to Nieu Bethesda and Compassberg, where we would be staying for 3 nights; this part of the country is utterly breath taking, quite barren in the dry winter months, but mountainous and dramatic wherever you look. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that you’re probably the only humans in at least a 15 km radius.

We stayed for the first three nights (the first of which being my birthday) in a cottage on a guest farm called Ganora, where I was lucky enough to score a double bed with an electric blanket… Simon got a bunkbed, sort of forced chivalry! On the night of my birthday we sat on a dried up reservoir with some beer and watched the sun set behind Compassberg mountain- the sky at night was incredible, the milky way and stars were unbelievably clear.

A hike along a beautiful river in South Africa, close to Nieu Bethesda.

A hike along a beautiful river in South Africa, close to Nieu Bethesda.

For these three days we were helping one of the masters students, Kat, with her fieldwork. It was interesting to work on some unfamiliar river systems and geomorphological features, but using techniques that I knew very well, such as working out river discharge using flow meters, and estimating bed storage load using disturbance experiments. The rivers here are a lot cleaner than the ones full of cow poo that I work on!

Bennie, Kat and Jordan from Rhodes University, learning how to do disturbance experiments.

Bennie, Kat and Jordan from Rhodes University, learning how to do disturbance experiments.

On the last day, we drove higher into the mountains to Compassberg, where we collected some samples for Ian’s research, followed by a night in an old farmhouse, which had no electricity, but a roaring fire, plentiful candles and enough gas to make a very welcome stew. The brandy helped too.

Badlands of Compassberg, looking for some long lost erosion pins!

Badlands of Compassberg, looking for some long lost erosion pins!

After over 2 weeks in the Eastern Cape, I was sad to leave. I had grown to love the South African ways that are so different to ours. The cows lolling around the streets, the guard dogs at almost every house you walk past, the favourable exchange rates, their hatred for wifi (which made you feel guilty and internet dependent), the random wildfires and water shortages that they brushed off as a minor inconvenience, and their enthusiasm to show you and tell you everything that they know about their country. It was a fantastic experience, so much so that Simon is still out there, about to begin his post-doc!

Mattie Biddulph

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