The bucky heaves and kicks its way up the dune, spitting sand behind it. We all latch on to the bars extending up from the truck bed. Constellations glisten above, dim though from being washed out by the full moon. I see a shooting star. We tip downwards, after cresting the top, and it sounds like the driver cut the motor. Guttural noises come from the diesel engine and we coast our way down, as if in free fall. He drives with his headlights off most of the time while we sweep the landscape with the red spotlight. We’re on a night survey driving transects of the reserve to look for nocturnal wildlife.
Once the manager put up his schedule for the surveys, we all scrambled to scrawl our names on to the whiteboard above the chest freezer. Five people could volunteer to go each night he ran transects. It’s winter here, I will keep reminding you because it is strange even for me, so we bundled up with every layer we had. I had thick leggings on under my carhartt pants, then a long sleeve, fleece sweater, 2 buffs, puff jacket punched out and re-taped to try to salvage what feathers I have left, hat, and gloves. Body heat did not help being dispersed across the bed of the bucky looking out in all directions.
I borrowed a pair of binoculars but soon realized I would be struggling to identify the animals. Most of the wildlife here is still new to me, and even if I recognize them I am still learning the names. This challenge plus trying to identify species based on a blurry shape and the reflection of their eyes made me wish I wasn’t the one with binoculars. Most of the gleaming eyes watching back at us were springbok (antelope) bedded down in the valleys for the night. We also saw springhare, duiker (a strange little omnivorous deer – they eat insects and carrion), and a chubby bat-eared fox.
My legs felt gumby after standing in the back of the truck for 3 hours patrolling the grounds. We had missed dinner, but it was plated for us. It’s after 10 PM and despite being hungry, I stashed it in my bin in the fridge for lunch tomorrow and decided to write.
I’ve felt a shift this past week from being new here to becoming a part of the place and community. There are still times when I wonder what the hell I was thinking when I made my decision – I don’t doubt it at all, I just honestly wonder how I processed making the choice. I find that my brain sort of goes on autopilot as I try to make decisions objectively. I left a lot behind and committed a lot to this project. I have had some homesickness for Washington, especially for summer. I know my pals are probably ramping up and stacking their weekends with amazing trips to the mountains and ocean, or planning beach bonfires, or meeting up at breweries after work. I do miss all of these things. But I also remember the restlessness I was feeling in Seattle. My memories from Washington are gold and I am so lucky to have had 2 years in a place that I love. After I feel some of the heart pains, I remember feeling that it was time for me to move on. My job felt stagnant (though I loved the work) and the city and crowded crags and trailheads were taking their toll. The roadmap of Washington hanging on my bedroom wall had traces of all the places I had driven my van and then retraced multiple times over. And there was the underlying curiosity to see more of the world.
Sometimes I wish I could settle in one place and be content. But that isn’t me, at least not right now. So while I miss the Cascade and Olympic mountains, and the Pacific coast, and all of the magic of the Pacific Northwest, it’s okay to be gone. It will still be there if I decide to go back.
This past week I began exploring more of the reserve. The project has a couple of battery assisted fat tire bikes to take out on the dunes. On an afternoon off, I took a bike out with one of the mole-rat lab volunteers. Our first stop was a watering tank that they call dams here. It’s about 5 feet tall with a diameter of maybe 15 feet. It was full of water and in the middle of it, a dead bird floating face down. We decided to bury it next to the dam and dig it up in a month for the skeleton. I offered the suggestion that we do “bone patrol” every week on the bikes to check dams and trails for dead things, so we’re doing that. I’m not sure if I’ll be the best influence on this kid… but we’ll learn about dead birds and probably get to put together some pretty cool skeletons. Later on in the bike ride we found an ostrich nest. We climbed the fence to have a look and it felt like stepping into Jurassic Park. I half expected to hear the running footsteps of a dinosaur bird charging us as we crouched around the nest. The eggs were still warm. We also spooked a herd of wildebeest, saw a gemsbok majestically silhouetted against a sunset sky, and found a springbok skeleton. I have the springbok skull with horns and vertebrae in my room. So far I think gemsbok are my favorite ungulate here. They’re large and solitary, have a cool black and white face, and crazy long horns (average length is 85 cm).
Since my mini cell lab is within the mole-rat laboratory, I have been adopted into their family. Every morning we brew strong, gritty coffee and sit around the metal lab table for a slow start to the morning. Much of the conversations are debating about the correct word for things since we are all from different countries – the latest was pancake/flapjack/crepe/hotcake. We also share stories of where we’re from and what it was like growing up. Sometimes our coffee break overlaps with “pup check” and we bring out some of the newly born mole-rat pups for health checks, feeding (milk, cucumber, and probiotics), and hair dying for identification. I still haven’t decided if the mole-rats are cute, ugly, or so ugly that they’re cute. We had the braai last week and this week we decided to go on a drive around the reserve during sunset. We took a bucky, a different one, and piled into the back. The sky was on fire for sunset. We saw some of the fowl and ungulates on the property, but mostly talked and laughed with each other as we bounced along the dirt roads. On the way back we collected firewood for the farmhouse, a lot of it, which everyone appreciated.
I’m really enjoying my role here as the vampire. I get pretty excited when I find out I have bloods to process. By now I have the protocol memorized, it is very simple, and I blast music, mostly The Black Keys, in the 8×8 foot lab all day until they’re done. There is a meerkat meeting in Zurich this week and I’m told they will discuss the potential to start genetic work here. That would be really cool. We already have the lab space for it and I’ve been reading a lot about smaller, more durable, versions of equipment needed for a genetics lab in the field that can be solar powered. I hope we can get started soon.
For vacation, I get 4 weeks off for the year. I’m considering planning something for October – options so far are either a climbing trip in South Africa or Kenya (if I can find a partner or convince one of you to come visit me), or a trip to Kruger National Park, or Botswana. I will do most of my traveling after my appointment ends here since my Visa will still be good for a while after. I think this next year will go by pretty quick so getting plans started seems important to not miss out on anything.
And I’m still working on my idea for the next big thing.
Lastly, we have a whiteboard with our names and nicknames for checking off when we get our dinners. At breakfast the other morning I cracked my neck louder than I expected and now my nickname on the board is “real crunchy dude.”
Song of the day: Psychotic Girl – Black Keys