ARU helicopter tender
Pictured, standing from the left: Teboho Manchu, Moleboheng Matsoaboli, Dr Ralph Clark, Marius Van Wyk (Berg Flying pilot), Dr Martin Mandew.

The Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) awarded Berg Flying a three-year helicopter tender, a move that will make it easier for the unit to access all points on the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains for research work. Dr Ralph Clark, Director of the ARU, said apart from the glamour factor, having helicopter services readily available would make it easier to conduct research in the higher, remote parts of the mountains, and enable the unit to conduct more research work as well. Bringing the glamour effect to the campus grounds, the helicopter landed on the Qwaqwa Campus sports field on Monday morning, before taking some UFS researchers on a few trips to visit current research sites.

Dr Clark said before helicopter services were insourced, research teams could access mountain sites by hiking or by using a set of chain ladders attached to the rockface, which are accessed by hikers who are hiking to the top of the Amphitheatre and on to Tugela Falls and Mont-aux-Sources. Most research sites are in the alpine zone on top of the mountain and run all the way to Afriski in Lesotho.

“The low altitude and high elevation up there saps your energy because of low oxygen, and the terrain is pretty bad. We quickly realised that we weren’t going to achieve our objectives for alpine research in the Qwa-Maloti area. A chopper can do in five minutes what it would take us a day to do on foot, so we’re very excited about this tender,” he said.

Adding a new dimension to mountain research

Touching on the exciting research being conducted up the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains, Dr Clark said the helicopter added an extra novelty to the already ground-breaking research that the ARU is conducting in Southern Africa. The current projects include RangeX, which is looking at the biodiversity and ecosystem functioning of range-expanding species under climate change, as well as a biodiversity project surveying animal and plant species found on the mountain and how it supports the livelihoods of people in Phuthaditjhaba – to mention a few.

“The helicopter has added a whole new dimension to what we can do and what we can achieve on the mountains and has opened up the sort of projects we can have and how many can run simultaneously,” Dr Clark said.  

According to Dr Clark, the tender would not have been possible without the support of the Department of Finance. Moleboheng Matsoaboli, a key player in the success of the tender, said it involved a lot of intensive research and consultation with experts in the aviation industry in order to meet the specifications and requirements. “The tender was facilitated through an open tender process. Witnessing the helicopter landing on campus felt like a déjà vu moment, as something that was merely a specification on paper actually came to life. It was truly remarkable, and I am happy that this will aid the ARU and ensure continued success in their profound research.”

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