18 October 2019

Creatures with 4+ legs are out in full force. It started with a millipede on a midnight bike ride for a birthday celebration. Riding the ebikes in the dark is both exhilarating and a little terrifying clocking near 30 kph through sandy roads torn up by volunteers learning to drive manual (myself included). Hit some of these washboards at full speed and you’ll feel like you’re in a rodeo as the bike bucks and twists beneath you. We had a few flying dismounts but no casualties so decided this was in fact a good idea that we should continue to do. But maybe on nights with a fuller moon. I had been scanning the bush for eyes and missed the millipede cruising along the side of the road. When I heard brakes on the tires behind me, I too screeched to a halt and looked around. The Giant Kalahari Millipede looks like an example of evolution overkill. Its legs move like waves, some not even touching the ground. Being the size of a small snake, it was interesting to consider that  instead of slithering these guys coordinate 300 – 400 legs to move through the sand. They curl their head to push through the sand like a bulldozer while their track like legs push them forward. Though that was the highlight of this ride, we also got pretty close to bat eared fox, which before I had usually only seen their bushy tails running off. I was hopeful to see a genet but quickly realized that looking up into the trees with my head torch was correlated with more wipe outs and crashes.

A solifugae (camel spider) was found in the living room creating a wave of volunteers jumping onto the couches shrieking. Then one was under the picnic table that we eat dinner at on the stoup causing similar chaos. I was the next victim while in the bathroom when one shot out from behind the toilet and ran over my feet giving me a fright (people say that here instead of “it scared me” and I love it!). At first I wasn’t aware they could bite and took interest in getting close to inspect them… but apparently they can and it really hurts. So knowing that and how fast they can move is spooky. I think it’s time for close toed shoes at night – as if the masses of scorpions scuttling around wasn’t reason enough.

The sandstorms are just as common as the thunderstorms right now, and I think they’re expected to become more frequent. The first clues that they’re on their way are small dust devils ravaging the ground in the afternoon. I watched one tear by ten-block (my block) then through the dump throwing up debris high into the air before dissipating out in the flats. Then, as evening nears, you can hear the wind howling from far away, picking up speed as it flows across the flats. And finally, the dust. It looks like fog or smoke in the distance, then almost like a snow whiteout (but brown) where visibility is only a few meters. I absolutely love watching these and can usually be found on the stoup trotting sporadically back and forth in awe and excitement of the power of the storm. They also make for amazing sunsets when the last light of the sun bounces off the flecks of dust still in the air. The last evening this happened, we decided to climb up onto the fire tower to watch one just after the winds subsided. Soon however we saw there was still quite a bit of remnant lightening scattering across the sky. We still finished our beers before heading back down but agreed it was probably not a great idea to be on top of the tallest thing on the reserve.

Two members of the project are South African and for their birthdays (both in the same week), I was invited with them to partake in a braii at the staff housing nearby. The staff consist of the cooks and workers that basically allow the project to function. We brought over some red wine and the birthday girl brought her guitar. Her and I live a room away from each other and we couldn’t be more opposite. But as I watched her play her dust covered guitar, switching easily between English and Afrikaans songs, in her long skirt half unbuttoned and boots that looked like they’d never been outside, hair part pink and part blue from her Harley Quinn Halloween costume last weekend (fully sent with “daddy’s little monster” plastered across her chest), I could see her complexity and maybe a little bit of the person under the act she pulls off. She had everyone’s attention captured as she sang beautifully and confidently around the fire. Full of sheep meat and roosterkoek (bread rolls baked over a fire), we listened as her voice carried across the sand and the moon peaked out from behind the clouds.

Something about the twang of a guitar moves me. The songs weren’t necessarily sad but they sounded lonely. I had always wanted to learn how to play but lack the skill to read or make music. Listening to the dusty, slightly out of tune, guitar strings broke my trance of who I am here. I wondered what it would be like to stay still, grow roots, and build lasting relationships. This lifestyle is full of goodbyes masked in see you laters – each one as hard as the last but they are becoming more frequent. If what I’m building myself to become is successful, I will constantly be moving around and trying to see as much of the world as I can. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Sometimes though a few guitar chords reveal a part that I’ll be missing.

A 4 AM wake up alarm drowned out those thoughts though and I found myself with a shovel in hand digging sand before the sun came up. I offered to help out the wild molerat team in digging, finding tunnels, and laying traps. Molerat colonies are found by the mounds of perpetually wet looking sand that they push up to the surface in mounds as they dig their tunnel systems and “sweep” the sand out of the way. We found a series of mounds and tried to play connect the dots to determine where the highest probability would be to find a tunnel. The two of us worked on our own predictions and fortunately both struck tunnel systems at the same time. It was sort of like digging for treasure but instead of a THUNK of hitting something solid like a treasure chest, your shovel hits an air pocket and collapses the sand. They had been working on this colony for the last week trying to find tunnels so we were pretty excited to be successful. We got the live traps laid just after taking a break to watch a stunning sunrise and before the heat of the day hit (lately 100+F). This morning I was told the traps were successful and they had already caught 5 animals from the colony for sampling and measurements. They said I was good luck and that I should go out with them more often though I think they really would just take any extra hands to dig – it’s tough work.

I’ve got a new skull to add to my collection! I believe it is another wild cat, though much smaller than the one buried outside my room. I think a boiling water bath and good scrub will clean it up nicely – I really like the teeth.

Our weekly presentations continued last night with my packrafting, wolf tracking, globe trotting, bad ass French friend presenting on her proposal to use traditional knowledge from local communities to assist in wildlife conservation in Siberia. We have been working on our respective proposals together for the last few weeks. She’s amazing and strong and ambitious and wild. If she got it and there was the potential to do genetic work, either with scat or snow tracks, she said she’d love to have me up there with her. I told her I wouldn’t need any convincing. We are currently planning a holiday together in March – top idea right now is Mount Kenya.

It’s “roving” season for our meerkats which means I will have more bloods for dominance changes as males and females compete for dominance among different groups. Another manager joked it was roving season for members of the project as well – I can hardly keep track of who is hooking up with whom at each party. Tis the season.

Sweet Sublime – Ruby Waters

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