We climb up and over the barbed wire fence, from no man’s land into Botswana – a crew of nine misfits who all found ourselves in the middle of nowhere for 6 months to a year. The barbs tug at our shoes and pants, and for some, their skin drawing out small pricks of blood. It doesn’t feel like we’re crossing the border as we hop down from the fence. It’s just as open and flat with a view of a large valley. I spot a rock band across the expanse and a small flutter of excitement rises in my chest wondering if the rock is strong enough to climb. It looks like it’s still on the South African side of the border so not as sketchy to check out sometime. We cross the paved road and climb the fence of rocks to the top of a dune. Soon after though, we hear a car coming up the road and jog back over, hop the fence back into no man’s land, and then the next back into South Africa. We have our “sundowners” on a rocky outcrop sitting perched pointed towards the red setting sun. A cold front was moving in from Cape Town but just before the freeze, gentle heat waves rolled through the valley.
The drive to Botswana from the project was a straight dirt road riddled with potholes. We took a Toyota truck and small car that reminded me of a Honda Element. Unfortunately I was tucked into the back seat of the Element-car and felt as rattled as the car sounded by the time we drove the hour to the crossing. At times, the road was so bad the car would fall out of gear and the windshield wipers would somehow be triggered to turn on. We couldn’t hear each other at all but when one of us spotted an animal we’d grab each other’s shoulders and point. The first I spotted- a horse on a neighboring farm galloping across a field. I had no idea there were horses this close to the project. We dodged antelope and when one jumped in front of the car I mistakenly shouted “Deer!” which I don’t think will be forgotten as long as I’m here – there aren’t deer here, just antelope. Deer are an American thing apparently. As we drove back after sunset, a giant lappet-faced vulture flew out from its perch on a tree by the road. The wingspan was incredible; I’ve never seen a bird so large. Cape fox, bat eared fox, and maybe a mongoose were also active and slinked off the road as we rattled down. And as we swung back onto the main road back towards farmhouse, a springbok leapt across the road and everyone shouted “DEER!”
My name on our dinner board has now changed from “Real crunchy dude” to “Oh a deer!”
My closest friend here left the project this morning. She will be back in 2 months so, though sad, it was more of a see you soon than a goodbye. Another mole-rat volunteer and I tried to bake her a cake yesterday and failed pretty miserably. It’s been 3 weeks since the last town-trip and personal food as well as general communal supplies is running low. We tried to swap out butter for vegetable oil and ended up undercooking the cake so that when we tried to take it out of the pan it broke. The goal was to shape the cake like Australia, where she’s from, but we abandoned that plan and tried to salvage what was left of it. I smashed some of the granadilla (passionfruit) I had left and mixed it with a little butter, cream cheese, and icing sugar for frosting and to try to paste it back together. It was a really ugly cake, but it did taste amazing. She left me with her hammock to borrow for the rest of my time here, now it really feels like home. We loaded up her bags in the truck at 6AM this morning and hugged her goodbye, then mooned the car as it drove off (a KMP tradition).
I’ve actually enjoyed the change in diet. While not everything is “healthy” it just feels better to eat. We don’t have junk food or processed meat like beef or pork. People do get pretty creative with deserts for parties or to quench a sugar craving. But in general we eat pretty clean – mostly rice, vegetables, fruit, and game meat. I have noticed I’ve lost a little weight, and unfortunately muscle as well. I try to run along the riverbed during my afternoon break and do whatever exercises I can on the stoup (porch) or in my room. My favorite thing to do when I run is to try to sneak up on a herd of springbok. They’re sort of like big goats and when they startle they jump with all four legs straight. This is called pronking – look up a video of it, it’s quite entertaining. I try to run with them for the few seconds I can keep up before they leave me in a dust cloud. Another benefit to running is that when I shower after, the cold water isn’t as jarring and actually almost feels nice.
So far, I’ve only been working on blood samples collected from meerkats. This week, I’ll start working on the mole-rat bloods as well. The protocol is similar except for a smaller initial blood volume (mole-rats are smaller animals) and I use a higher density of Ficol. Ficol is the chemical used to separate each blood cell type based on density gradient. Rodents have a slightly higher density of lymphocytes than mongooses (i.e. meerkats).
I’ve officially been here for over one month. I was able to video call home for the first time after some luck in getting enough reception (good job Mom and Dad for figuring out how to answer the call!). The last few weeks have gone by fast but I guess I also feel like I already have a lot of memories here for the short time it’s been. I’m slightly blonder, more freckled, and a little sun burnt. I dream about water frequently – rivers, the ocean, swimming – and about mountains. I guess it’s cool I can keep them as a part of my life while I embrace the desert, even if it’s just in my dreams.
I made the first step to start testing the waters for my next idea and sent some emails. It’s a shot in the dark, but maybe I’ll get lucky.
Today’s tune: Feel it still – Portugal the Man