25 September 2019

Boots crunching dirt in the morning has always been one of my favorite sounds. This morning’s scuffs and crunches across the flats brought a big smile to my face as three of us headed back to work after sleeping out. A few weeks ago we had seen a ridge of white sand dunes and scouted it out. What we ended up being more interested in was a small island of white sand a few hundred meters from the ridge – it stood out against the scrubby valley. It was a slight rise with a few camel-thorn trees and some shrubs. The sand was rippled from the wind and it looked like a perfect place to sleep. A few days ago we left one of the typical Saturday night parties early (around 11 PM) and decided to walk out to the island to sleep, but without a tent. It was a windy night and as soon as we spread out our sleeping bags, I felt mine getting filled with sand. I made a small barrier with my pack that allowed us to open our eyes enough to gaze up at the night sky. A scuttling sound pulled us away from the stars. Quietly but quickly, my friend asked if I could shine my torch – I did and a large black scorpion was posed defensively right next to his head. We reconsidered our bivy choice and decided to bail and bring a tent for next time. The party was still in full shenanigans by the time we got back to the blocks at 1 AM. As we neared, we heard music blasting from the farmhouse and saw a silhouette of someone climbing up the flagpole.

Yesterday was Heritage Day so our staff had the day off to celebrate. We worked together to braai sheep that had been butchered the week before. I helped build the fire and cook the meat – it was a big braai! Forty-five of us crouched on logs and stumps around the bonfire sipping beer while my speaker pumped out Black Keys. Finn, Joaquim, and I snuck off early to pack our bags and hike out to the island – now named Scorpion Island. We brought tents this time. Wandering off into the night we stopped often to look at the stars. The Milky Way shone brightly as usual, splitting the sky down the middle. I noticed two more large circular clusters that we proposed must be far off galaxies. Shooting stars interrupted our conversations as we navigated most of the way without a headlamp, despite the lack of moonlight. We made a small fire between our tents and stayed up til the early hours of the morning sharing stories and slowly feeding the fire with twigs, as if to try to slow down time.

We had found a place near the riverbed to camp the weekend before within a tight grove of trees. Despite the thorns and spikes on nearly all of the tree species here, they are quite beautiful. We romped and ran through the riverbed into the night and saw elands and wildebeest watch warily from a distance.

It’s a tradeoff between warm nights and scorpions, so while camping season has arrived I guess I will have to haul a tent wherever I go. The saying goes, the larger the pincers, the less venomous the stinger is. So far we’ve seen all sorts of different size ratios of pincers to stinger. We dug around an old barn for more tents on the other side of the reserve. It was full of hay and brought back strong flashbacks from growing up – especially the smell. Behind the mound of hay, there was an old motorcycle covered in dust and cobwebs. I was told the gear box was broken, whatever that means. It looked like it was a really cool bike with big fenders and one large headlight.

Bone patrol currently has a 30% success rate. Jai and I buried 2 birds and 3 bats over the last few months. We rode out on the electric bikes with a plastic box and high hopes of digging up skeletons. Our first site yielded half of a bat and no bird – it was a bird of prey that we found dead in the dam nearby and would have been very cool to have the bones of. But apparently something with a good nose was hungry and dug it up. The carcass at the next site near the sheep pens was also a dam drowning fatality of a small black bird. We had barely buried this one under some rocks so we were amazed to see the beak poking out of the sand and a full body (with some feathers still attached) below. I kind of feel like a dog with a bunch of bones buried and sometimes struggle to remember where all the dead treasures are. Currently, I have the wild cat head buried outside my stoup, an oryx skull bleaching next to a big tree near our block, the bird is still in the box, and I added an ostrich egg that had been drained to my shoe rack. I think the cat head will take too long for the fur to decompose underground. I found a rodent cage in the dump (not sure why it’s here) so my plan is to put the cat head in the cage for insects to clean it – and to make sure nothing runs away with it. Might as well throw in the bird and oryx skull in there too so I can keep track. Do I still seem sane or maybe have I gotten a little too much sun?

My Sunday morning driving lessons in the manual bakkie (Afrikaan for truck) are going well – the Toyota is very forgiving. We swap driving after checking if the water tanks are full just past the farmhouse since I am technically not cleared to drive on the reserve. From here we drive along the perimeter fence while I practice shifting in the sand, on hills, and changing into 4×4 mode. I’ve only gotten pretty stuck once when I didn’t gain enough speed to make it to the top of a dune. I still struggle a bit getting it into 3rd (and not back into 1st instead) if I’m distracted looking around. Nearly every week now, we’ve seen wildebeest cross the road along our trip around. Last Sunday I spotted horses at a nearby farm. Once we returned the bakkie, we hopped on the electric bikes and buzzed out to the fence line, hopped the fence, and tried to get close. They seemed pretty wild – I’m not even sure which farm they belonged to. But it was really cool to see horses here, especially the large chestnut with a blaze down its face that stood out from the herd and watched us.

The molerat research team is here to trap wild molerats around the reserve. I’m not completely sure what comparisons they are making to the captive molerats we have – we have over 500 captives molerats here! I had the chance to go out on a release with them after they took samples from a colony they had captured the nights before. I think molerats are by far the angriest animals I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes it feels like my time here may not only be a gap year from reality, but from being a real adult as well. I think I’ve always been against the idea of growing up but I feel like a youthful energy consumes me here. Running and dancing around fires, climbing trees, racing around the dunes on the electric bikes, and drawing shapes of places on my maps and naming them things like Scorpion Island. But at the same time, I feel like this energy has unlocked potential for creativity in my work. While life outside work is wild and chaotic, the lab runs effectively and my notebook is filled with ideas and thoughts on cool projects and questions to ask. Future possibilities may be lining up and I don’t think I would have been in the same headspace to feel the drive to apply myself like I do here.

Speaking of maps – a sailing community in Chile has expressed interest in my proposal and sent me some really cool maps of which ports they frequently visit for potential eDNA sampling. Maybe it’s the font of the names of places or the personally drawn circles around different regions of the islands, but it feels like a treasure map for what I hope will be my next adventure.

The meerkat group Hakuna Matata is back at ten block so I’ve had some pals to hang out with at lunch.

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