21 August 2019

Technically it’s still winter here, though it is now getting hot enough to use the pool. I’ve enjoyed the winter we’ve had – it felt good to sleep in the cold nights and the constant sunshine brought temperatures up to the 70s every afternoon. I’m wondering if I might struggle with the coming heat as the Australians had with this “cold” all winter. With the heat has come more activity of wildlife. The hornbills (Zazus) are cruising around the reserve, lizards barking (yes – barking), and of course, the scorpions are becoming active.

On a recent exploratory hike around the reserve, with my pal who I wrote about losing the lug nuts in the last post, we noticed this burst in life out of the desert. And death. We were looping around the back of Dune to Nowhere (popular place to gather to watch the sunset) and found a huge dead eland. Elands are the largest species of antelope on the reserve, I remember seeing one on my first day here and not having a clue what it was. They have a hump behind their head and a large flabby neck and horns. This one must have died a long time ago – the hide was dried out and as tight as a drum around its skeleton. We found it at the base of a small bush, curled up like it had just laid down to sleep and never woke up. It was strange that nothing had scavenged it – I’m still trying to figure out why it would have been left alone for so long. Curious how the inside of the animal had remained I flipped over the body by the horns –it was crazy how light it was! Maybe 30 lbs for an animal that weighs 1000 – 1500 lbs! Underneath was rich soil and in the middle, an angry scorpion. Pincers out and stinger curled above it’s back, it was not amused we intruded on his home. We gently replaced the carcass back over it. Finn considered his footwear choice (barefoot), shrugged, and we continued to follow game trails to avoid acacia thorns. A few hundred feet from the eland, we breached another dune and were crossing some flat shrubby land when the Earth broke under my feet. It felt like breaking through ice and my reaction was to spread out my arms to catch myself. Once everything stilled, I had plunged into the ground up to my hip and my foot was still dangling. Not knowing who lived in the burrow I had just busted through the roof of, I scrambled out quickly. It was probably a porcupine burrow, though even after further inspection we couldn’t determine for sure. Sorry dude!

A crew of undergraduate students from Zurich are visiting so we had a braai all together at the other side of the reserve. The housing here was much nicer than ours, usually used by schools or film crews. A sheep had been killed the day before and was staked out over the grill to cook. Unfortunately, the volunteers at the project and visiting students didn’t really mingle well. I ended up hanging around the other managers and local workers. I listened to stories of how things used to be on the reserve and how southern Africa was changing. We discussed the recent news of the elephants that had been poached in Botswana for ivory and poisoned so that the vultures wouldn’t give away the body location. When the bodies were finally discovered, over 500 endangered vultures were found dead. We were left with our thoughts as the weight of how much future work is needed in conservation was felt.

https://www.france24.com/en/20190620-500-vultures-die-botswana-after-eating-poisoned-elephants

On a much smaller scale, this is happening in our region. Farmers on surrounding plots have been putting out baits with poison. The bait is eaten by small mammals, which die almost immediately, then scavenged by the jackals. I’m not sure why but there is a consensus by the farmers that there are too many jackals around. Any prey or jackal carcasses we find, we report to the project. (I considered if this could have caused the death of the eland but when I asked, it was not a concern for large ungulates).

As is always the theme, change and turn over of people are constant. Two more volunteers I became close to have left – one to India and another to Scotland. I will miss both of them a lot and hope to see them again someday, somewhere. We took a town trip to Van Zylsrus for lunch to celebrate. The town is very small – a gas station, liquor store, small convenience store, church, a school, and a hillside of houses. I bought a chocolate candy bar at the store, it was really really good. We were the only ones at the bar when we ordered a drink before our lunch. It was interesting to be back in civilization with my coworkers, it had a surreal, dreamy feel to it. Perhaps even more jarring was watching a few become absorbed into the rugby game playing on the television. Lunch was amazing, especially because it was a meal we didn’t have to make ourselves. On the drive back, our vet noted that she hadn’t seen as many vultures around this season – we wondered if it was linked to the Botswana incident. The vultures are truly huge and in a landscape like the Kalahari, travel far for food.

We bottled the last brew together as our trio. The two other managers will be leaving in just a couple weeks so we wanted to have enough ready to throw a party before they go. The Meerkat Juice looks great – the orange peels we brewed with left a nice taste and the ABV is around 4%. The 7L coconut stout though – not so much. It will be a chewy beer… we may have been a little too enthusiastic adding the desiccated coconut and the mix of whatever malts we had left. It tastes like coconut but about half of each bottle is sediment. We’ll figure something out to filter it, or dump half the bottle out before drinking it.

We had to euthanize two meerkats due to advanced tuberculosis this week. I was able to watch our vet do the autopsy and see the lesions that form on the lungs and sometimes even on the organs of the digestive system. The spleen and liver were also inflamed. Pretty grim. Our vet is wonderful and every time I talk with her I learn so much. I appreciate her intelligence as well as her approach and practicality to the nature of her work in such a remote place.

I’ve felt a little more homesick this week – home is not just a place but the people who make it up as well. The desert as a habitat is open and exposed and I’ve found it useful to explore my thoughts and feelings in this environment. Even on the days that I miss the mountains and my people the most, I find something here that reminds me of how amazing this opportunity is. It’s been a wild ride so far.

One last update – a new girl in my block does kickboxing. We found a punch bag in our “gym” (pile of weights and stuff in the corner of the farmhouse). We’re meeting on Thursdays – she brought her gloves. Pretty stoked to add this to the random shit I learn in the desert.

All my days – Alexi Murdoch

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