23 July 2019

Last night – It’s nearly 11 PM, the half moon rising prominently over the dune. My hair and down jacket are infused with smoke from the braai. It’s almost finished – lamb, cow, even pork, simmers over the coals we burned for hours before. There are a dozen of us together for a send-off for one of the volunteers on the mole rat project. We gathered at the home of our onsite veterinarian and her husband, who is a handyman for the reserve. The braai pit is similar to a hibachi grill raised up from the ground – except instead of one pit, there are three circular pits welded together in a triangle to cook on. We quickly learned each circular pit is used to rotate the meat on, cooking hot at first and then gradually cooling over smaller piles of coals. We pass aged dark rum, indulge in the amazing food, and eventually stare into the fire mesmerized. Despite speaking in different tongues – Afrikaans, French, Spanish, and English – it felt like we all understood each other and laughter is universal. As we ended the night half past midnight, a strong South wind was picking up. It is forecasted to be the coldest days in South Africa this week, though with the balmy breeze it seemed hard to believe.

Today – The wind outside reminds me of a winter snowstorm in western New York, howling against the sides of the buildings and hearing the sound of ice crystals hit the walls. Except, instead of snow, it’s sand. We get covered in a film of sand leaving us with itching eyes and burning skin walking between the buildings, and worse for the meerkat volunteers who take the brunt of it out in the field. The sky is gray, not from clouds but from the front of dust racing across the desert. The power in the building with my lab has gone out and is currently running off of a struggling generator. Luckily I hadn’t gotten any blood samples to process today but I am worried about the equipment – like the incubator that needs to maintain 5% CO2 at 38°C degrees and the -80°C ultrafreezer with years of samples stored inside. Looking out the window from the lab, I can see birds fighting to find purchase in the trees and being blown around in circles when they decide to abandon them.

This storm may delay our brewing plans, but this evening we hope to brew a small 7L batch of stout beer. Last Friday we bottled the IPA we brewed after letting it ferment for 1 week. We brew in the kitchen but bottle in the bathroom in one of the manager’s thatch huts – it made sense being a cool, dark place with access to the shower for a somewhat sterile environment. We bottled in an assembly line fashion using a tube as a siphon to draw out the beer leaving the chunky remnants of hops and wort behind. Then they passed it along out of the way to me, who used a device called “Emily” to seal the bottles with the caps. The ABV (alcohol by volume) was around 4% when we tested the specific gravity, so not too bad for a homebrew. I think I’ll push for an oatmeal stout tonight – we would like to work on clarity and adding an interesting flavor.

This past week has been busy with bloods and ordering new equipment for the genetics lab extension. I’m really excited to set it up. The space is 3.5 m by 4.7 m so it will be a game of Tetris to get everything to fit inside to make it fully functional. It is the room marked “wet lab extension/storage” below. I feel like I’ve already learned so much here in the last two months and I’m looking forward to more responsibilities with the new lab. I don’t think I truly realized how much I would gain from this appointment when I decided to take it.

This week I noticed and appreciated little day to day things– my commute to work is a 3 minute walk through the sand, I sleep in my bright orange sleeping bag every single night, in the past 2 months I haven’t heard a siren or car alarm or horn, I’m barefoot most of the day, and I get an endless dose of Vitamin D. Every day I see something new, whether it’s a new area of the reserve, or new bird, bug, lizard, or mammal.

The volunteer who is leaving gave me her “chandelier” of twisted, dried pieces of wood with dyed fabric tied around it for my room. It’s pretty cool – though I’m sure it will scare the shit out of me dangling from my ceiling one of these night.

I’m currently reading “On the Trail of Ghengis Kahn: An epic journey through the land of nomads” by Tim Cope. It’s a thick book I found in our library about a solo 10,000 km journey the author takes from Mongolia to Hungary on horseback. I highly recommend it.

Update: We brewed a coffee vanilla oatmeal cocoa stout and named it “Cochovan – Operation: Desert Storm.”

Orange Sky – Alexi Murdoch

One thought on “23 July 2019

  1. I’m glad to see it’s not ALL work there and that you can do fun things too. I would never sleep if I had ANYTHING hanging over my head in bed!

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