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Quiet Gerty’s career giving back to nature

Gerty Holtzhausen has lived in the Agulhas Plain – one of the ‘hottest’ biodiversity spots in the world – for all her life. She shares her personal story and a glimpse into how she and her team have been contributing to caring for this special conservation-worthy landscape, at the southern tip of Africa.

© Heather D’Alton
Pictured: Gerty Holtzhausen has been involved in the invasive alien clearing work since 2005.
From resolve to rewards

It’s not easy to remove dense stands of invasive alien plants every working day. In fact, it requires physical strength and resolve. And yet, every day, Gerty Holtzhausen gets up at 4am. She leaves her house in Bredasdorp, in the Overberg region of the Western Cape, to collect her team of six people. And then she heads into the Nuwejaars wetlands, to clear ‘thirsty’ alien invasive plants from this irreplaceable wetland system, in a project supported by WWF South Africa.
Gerty and her team are employed by the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area (NWSMA), situated close to Africa’s southernmost tip. With the support of WWF, they have cleared 221 hectares in these wetlands and rehabilitated a 5km stretch along the Nuwejaars River over the past three years.
“It really brings me such joy to see the results of our work. Making a difference counts for a lot,” says Gerty. “I’ve seen and experienced it time and time again: everywhere we work, we see the water resources not only come back, but they give back to nature.”

Purple Heron Nuwejaars
© Heather D’Alton
A purple heron hunts for prey in the wetland grasses along the Nuwejaars river.
An ‘introvert’ who believes in family

Gerty and her team may be the champions of this natural world – as their work helps, not only to release water for nature’s needs, but also to provide to downstream communities and towns. But she doesn’t like the limelight and prefers to get the job done quietly.
“I’m an introvert,” she says. That’s one of the reasons she likes to work with a close-knit team who are more like family than employees. Three of the six have been team members since around 2005, when Gerty first became a contractor in the government’s Working for Water programme. The other three joined a little later but have remained by her side for many years.
“The fact that I can provide work to others – that’s the most important thing for me. I know my people; I know their likes and dislikes. I also know when they’re having problems. That’s the bond that one builds up with a team like this.”

Gerty's team
© Heather D’Alton
Gerty and her team doing clearing work at the Nuwejaars wetlands. Here they are removing Australian myrtle (Leptospermum laevigatum), an extremely aggressive invasive species across the NWSMA.

Although Gerty has worked in natural resource management for 16 years, her love for nature was sparked long before. As a very young child, she grew up beside the ocean, in the small fishing village of Waenhuiskrans in the Western Cape. “My father was a fisherman. So as a young child, we enjoyed living close to the ocean. We slept under the milkwood trees, without a care, and enjoyed nature. These memories of my childhood are wonderful.”

The “difficult years”

When she was only seven, Gerty and her four siblings had to move to Bredasdorp after their father died.
“These were difficult years,” she recalls. “My mother had to raise five children on her own, working as a domestic. She taught us to be independent, and to care for ourselves from a young age.” Today Gerty’s 77-year-old mother still lives close by, and they still enjoy a close relationship.
In fact, nothing is more important to Gerty than family. She lives with her four sons in Bredasdorp, and spends time with them whenever she can. “I would say we live in a poor community, where unemployment and social ills are a problem. But the good outweighs the bad elements. And we help each other when we need to.” 
What’s more, she wouldn’t swap her life for anything. “People here know each other. Neighbours spend time together. And you don’t have to go far to be in nature.” She adds, “I don’t love hiking. But if you put me next to the ocean, I could walk all day. There’s a peacefulness to living close to the ocean in the Agulhas Plain. But this does not take away the beauty of nature that I get to connect with while working with my team in the Nuwejaars wetlands, especially the unique plants that keep the wetlands functioning.”

Nuwejaars Palmiet
© Heather D’Alton
Gerty and her team also rehabilitate the area which allows natural vegetation such as palmiet – an indigenous ‘super plant’ that helps to filter water and reduce erosion – to grow.

While she worries about the loss of the natural world, she sees this as an opportunity to bring about change. “We can see what’s left in nature, and what should be here. And we can show this to our children, so that they also appreciate nature. We should realise that this natural world is our children’s future. That’s how I see it.”

Heather D’Alton Photo
Heather D’Alton, Communications - Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area

Heather is part of the LoveGreen Communications team, providing communications support on all things nature and the environment.

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