Invasive Species in the Tristan Group
- Cape Argus
Mpumalanga rope artists take on a real cliffhanger
September 3, 2004
By John Yeld
Inaccessible Island with its towering cliffs and steep slippery slopes is ... well, pretty inaccessible, to say nothing
of being inhospitable and downright dangerous for people, if not for its millions of resident seabirds.
For a pair of highly-trained alien vegetation clearers from the Mpumalanga section of the Working for Water programme,
the challenges posed by this isolated island deep in the South Atlantic ocean are simply something to take in their stride.
Yesterday, Lourence Chiloane and Given Moreku sailed from Cape Town aboard the SA Agulhas, part of a four-man team bound
for Inaccessible where they will be undertaking critical ecological restoration work
That will involve dangling on ropes from cliffs several hundred metres high while hacking out invasive New Zealand flax
Inaccessible, a proclaimed World Heritage Site, is one of three islands in the Tristan island group, a British Overseas
Territory in the central South Atlantic Ocean and about five days' sailing west of Cape Town.
The other two are Tristan da Cunha - the only one of the three islands currently occupied - and Nightingale.*
As the sparse natural vegetation on Tristan became rapidly depleted following the establishment of a permanent
settlement in 1817, flax was introduced from New Zealand to thatch houses and create wind-breaks.
From there it spread to Inaccessible.
The island's management plan, published in 2001, identified the removal of the flax as the top conservation priority,
and funding was made available by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2002.
But it required the specialist skills of the Working for Water team, backed by the logistical support of South Africa's
Environmental Affairs and Tourism department, to make a clearing operation feasible.
"New Zealand flax has probably has been on Inaccessible since the island was briefly 'colonised' from Tristan in the
1930s," explained Peter Ryan, a scientist at the University of Cape Town's Percy FitzPatrick Institute for African
Ornithology who is leading the clearing team.
"But fortunately it remains reasonably localised, confined mainly to a section of near-vertical sea cliff.
"However, this position seems set to change unless urgent action is taken. Between 1990 and 2000 the population (of flax
plants) is estimated to have increased almost tenfold, possibly linked to climate change, and so there is a need to act
now if the plant is to be controlled and eventually eradicated."
Ryan, who did his doctorate studies on Inaccessible, will be visiting the island for the sixth time.
The fourth member of the team is Jaco Barendse, also an experienced alien invasive plant remover who has spent several
months tackling another alien weed on nearby Gough Island.
Chiloane and Moreku are highly experienced rope-workers, having trained and worked on the rugged cliff-faces of the
They have a combined total of some 6 000 hours of rope-work, and both recently qualified for membership of the
International Rope Access Trade Association, which means they can work in places like the European Union and Australia.
Chiloane, who has been with the Working for Water programme for seven years, said he wasn't daunted by the prospect of
working on Inaccessible's formidable cliffs.
"I'm not nervous at all. This climbing thing, I'm okay with that. And the best thing about this is that I'm going to
places that I've been dreaming about, so I'm happy."
But he also confessed: "There is something that is making me a little bit nervous, actually - it's sailing, because I've
never been in a big ship."
Moreku, who has been with the programme for four years, also confessed to being "a bit nervous" about the voyage out.
Chiloane said his girlfriend had been worried that he might not return. "But I managed to convince her it was okay," he
The team will have a full three weeks' work tackling the flax before being picked up again by the SA Agulhas.
"And hopefully over a couple of visits over the next five or so years or so, we'll be able to remove it entirely," Ryan
He pointed out that they were taking a kilometre of rope with them. "We're going to be dangling on ropes for three
weeks," he quipped.
He added: "We wouldn't have been able to do it with anything like the level of professionalism without the input of
these guys from Working for Water. It's a great partnership."
©2004 The Cape Argus. All rights reserved.
* Gough Island is also part of the Tristan Group. BC