#ENJOY

At home in fynbos

Martina Treurnicht calls herself a fynbosser – someone energised by all things fynbos – and brings a love of nature and the outdoors to her role as BotSoc’s conservation project manager. Discover why mountain bikes, paper maps, gravel roads and salty snacks help make her tick.

INTERVIEW BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN

At home in fynbos

Martina Treurnicht calls herself a fynbosser – someone energised by all things fynbos – and brings a love of nature and the outdoors to her role as BotSoc’s conservation project manager. Discover why mountain bikes, paper maps, gravel roads and salty snacks help make her tick

INTERVIEW BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN

Martina took this photograph descending in the beautiful afternoon glow into a valley in the Groot Winterhoek wilderness area on a weekend hike amid the conebushes (Leucadendron salignum) and brunia. Photo by Martina Treurnicht

 

Tell us about your early life . . .

I was born in Cape Town’s northern suburbs and grew up mostly between Kenridge and Durbanville. I matriculated at Durbanville High School. I have four siblings and we grew up spending a lot of time in my parents’ garden and on our farm near Eendekuil, which I am grateful for.

What were your early adventures in nature?

We also spent five years in Fairland, Johannesburg, when I was in primary school, and I remember going often to the Johannesburg Botanical Garden, now the Walter Sisulu NBG.

More especially, family camping holidays and safaris were very much part of my childhood. I have very fond memories of our family visiting the national parks of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe during school holidays. These days we still go camping as a family over long weekends and, when I can, a hiking trip is also a priority.

How do you remember your first hiking trip?

About 25 of us teenagers did a four-day hike with our church (‘jeug kamp’) in the Cederberg. It was an eventful and strenuous few days as we had to endure carrying all our food and gear while we were hiking. At the end of each day, we still had to set up camp for the group and cook our own meals.

I have found that the simplicity of walking relatively long distances, carrying only what you need, excites me and gives a special type of energy and peace. During a hike you also learn various valuable life lessons – such as not to devour all your snacks in one go but to rather save some for later! My favourite hiking snack is biltong – of course – salted almonds or other nuts, and a cracker with cream cheese. That sounds more like a meal!

Overnight hiking in the Cederberg wilderness (Sneeuberg in the background) is a favourite escape for Martina. Photo by Barbara Seele

Where are you likely to head for a hike?

My all-time favourite hiking place is still the Cederberg. It is an easy escape from Cape Town and has a special place in my heart. I like to hike with a small group of friends during the in-between seasons when it is not too hot or too cold in the mountains.

I have hiked the Fish River canyon a few times and enjoy hiking it every time. High on my bucket list is the 120-kilometre Naukluft hiking trail in western Namibia. I love Namibia’s rugged landscapes. It is such a magnificent destination – perhaps it resonates with me because my grandmother was born in southern Namibia . . .

What symbolises the outdoors to you?

Mostly printed maps and gravel roads! Desktop and mobile apps are certainly useful to explore the world but I still really like looking at maps for contour lines and topographical features to explore – they combine better the structure, predictability and unknown of adventuring in landscapes.

Where are your favourite places and why?

In South Africa, places like Dwarskersbos, Doringbaai and Hondeklipbaai on the West Coast, the Little Karoo – especially the Swartberg – and Namaqualand are really special to me. I feel drawn to the openness of these landscapes and relatively drier Mediterranean-type climate.

How did you become a scientist?

I always enjoyed biology at school – learning how little cellular structures fit together as an entire organism was fascinating to me. I found it very satisfying to learn and study the tiny details of life on earth, things like cells and mytochondria, and drawing chloroplasts and amoebas felt like a satisfying exercise.

During high school, my initial plan was to study veterinary sciences but as I learned more about other scientific fields, I looked more into zoology, botany and biodiversity-related programmes.

 

As a researcher, Martina has worked on understanding the impacts of ongoing global change on about 30 species in the protea family and their ecological niches.

What made you study plants and conservation?

 

When I was in Grade 11, at careers day I heard about a course studying conservation ecology at Stellenbosch University. It was a broad programme covering nature, wildlife and ecology and felt right for me. I thought I could always specialise afterwards.

In my third year I realised that plants are really cool – that we humans depend on them for our survival and that our Cape region is home to an amazing number of endemic species that occur nowhere else in the world. Inspired by the Cape region’s unique biodiversity, I went on to do a master’s. I was excited to explore the economic feasibility and ecological and social implications of sustainable wildflower farming in the Agulhas plain in a two-year research project. 

Bridging the gap between conservation and agriculture is still something that lies close to my heart. 

What intrigued you most about research?

Research seemed like the logical next step for me and it was a pleasure to find that it was something I enjoyed. It requires careful planning, executing certain tasks before a deadline, critical thinking and – which surprised me – creativity. 

It is extremely rewarding to see what patterns emerge from analysing one’s data and to apply your mind to interpret the findings and identify potential gaps for further exploration.

What kept you going through your research?

It is probably a combination of things that we find within ourselves and also around ourselves. I often felt discouraged during my doctoral studies which took six years to complete. Probably most important is to have support – the friend or family member who sends a message while you are writing up or away for field work saying, ‘You’re nearly there’ and ‘You’ve got this!’ And the caring parent or friend who drops round a meal or a small token to keep you going – reminding you that to eat, to rest and to take a break or go for a walk is as important as putting in the hours. It’s best to try and be as balanced as possible in your daily routine – it will all come together in the end.

 

Having spent several years at Stellenbosch University, the Jonkershoek mountains have a very special place in Martina’s heart – even when this chilly winter picture was taken in July 2021 when the snowline was exceptionally low. Photo by Martina Treurnicht

 

How did you come to do a PhD that took you to France and Germany to study Cape plants?

The opportunity of doing a PhD came about when I was helping two German PhD students in 2012 collecting data on protea communities in the Cape winelands. Towards the end of their projects, German funding became available for a South African-based PhD candidate to study protea demography and traits across the entire Cape floristic region.

I was intrigued by the project’s geographical scope across the entire Cape region and that it would include about 30 protea family members, both protea and leucadendron species. The fieldwork component of the research would of course be based in the Cape for at least 12 months but the write-up and analyses would be conducted in both Germany and France, although strangely enough I wasn’t particularly excited about the latter part.

How did that work out?

During my fieldwork year, I came to know my study species closely and visited more than 2 500 study sites across the Cape region. It felt quite daunting to leave all this for three years in Europe.
Initially, our working group started at the University of Potsdam, Germany, for a few months, then moved to the University of Montpellier, France, and finally to Stuttgart, Germany. My PhD research was very much linked to other projects at the time and due to my supervisor moving to these universities to collaborate and establish academic ties, the working group also followed.

It was certainly a dynamic – and nomadic! – time but when I look back, it provided so many opportunities to connect with intellectual gurus, and explore cities and regions unknown to me.

Right: Martina enjoys a weekend visit to Toulouse, France, while she was a visiting researcher at the University of Montpellier during her doctoral studies.
Photo: Martina Treurnicht collection

What struck you about your time in Europe?

Both France and Germany were strikingly social, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But what resonated with me most of all was the mountains, breathtaking landscapes, rugged terrain and exciting outdoor experiences of southern France. And, of course, in the Mediterranean region especially, with its shrubby vegetation and diverse landscape, they reminded me of home.

Mediterranean regions are renowned for their rich biodiversity and high levels of endemism compared to other parts of the world. As someone passionate about plant conservation, I appreciated the unique flora and fauna of this biome and the importance of preserving its biological diversity.

How did you build on this?

After graduating with my PhD, I received a post-doctoral fellowship with South African Environmental Observation Network and Stellenbosch University. Since then, I have worked as a researcher on several projects aimed at studying proteas and their ecological niches to help us understand biodiverse responses to ongoing global change.

The administrative element of this – meeting deadlines, managing field work and data collection, drawing up funding proposals and writing academic publications – grounded me in project management and helped prepare me for my current position as BotSoc’s conservation project manager.

Martina stops for a break during a 350-kilometre cycle on gravel roads across Namaqualand, from Kleinzee to Springbok. “We were always greeted with open arms at our accommodation end of the day,” she recalls. Photo by Dorette du Plessis

How else have you contributed to conservation?

My first work experience was as an intern in 2011-2012, working for the Table Mountain Fund and for CREW, based at Kirstenbosch. This provided a solid foundation for me to explore the plant diversity and habitats of the Cape floristic region biodiversity hotspot and to build relationships with conservation stakeholders.

Much later I joined the committee of the Fynbos Forum and served as chairperson of the Fynbos Forum non-profit company from 2021. The forum hosts an annual conference where fynbos fundis get together to exchange information about their research and conservation work and navigate the future of fynbos conservation.

Tell us about spreading your wings with BotSoc.

After spending almost a decade researching proteas and their niches, in September 2023 I shifted gears and became BotSoc’s conservation project manager. This means I now have quite a broad range of projects under my wing, as well as supporting and working with BotSoc’s network of branches in their local conservation initiatives.

This role excites me since BotSoc’s conservation footprint offers a tangible opportunity to connect plants and people through conserving South Africa’s rich natural heritage.

What do you generally do to recharge?

For exercise, I enjoy mountain biking in the Cape winelands. I used to invest more time in creative, mindful activities such as painting and pottery but nowadays it is sadly hard to find time. Luckily, I can indulge in botanical explorations in my work, or blog about them, to boost a bit of creativity which is comforting.

Contact Dr Martina Treurnicht at: m.treurnicht@botanicalsociety.org.za; or follow her on Instagram or X: @fynbosser

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