31 October 2019
We pulled off the dusty road down an embankment where we could find some shade. Grabbing our meat pies and “cool drink” (soda), we hopped on to the hood of the bakkie and watched a herd of sheep weave their way around and under the mess of corrals for cows. Soon after they had munched the remnants of the hay and scooted back out of the enclosure, a farmer herded his cattle in and through the maze until they were in the desired pen. The cows looked young, not calves but maybe yearlings. The pies were about the size of a fist, mine was peppered steak and Finn’s was mushroom and chicken. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since meat was a main part of a meal I ate. I was free that day and quickly agreed to tag along to return the petroleum tank to Van Zylsrus and stop in the small shop for some treats. We took the Dog, the cruiser I had been learning to drive around the reserve in. It’s a tank of a truck and a powerhorse meant for charging through sand and up dunes, but not for going very quickly down the washboard roads into town. While we sat on it, the engine cooled and the metal ticked. The cool drink was mango flavored and though it tasted like the main ingredient was sugar, it was a tasty break from the cycle of coffee, water, and cheap beer we have at the reserve. On the way back we found a dead bat eared fox on the side of the road. We contemplated about leaving it behind but decided the skull would be pretty cool to add to the collection so I hopped out and tossed it in the back.
This week marks 5 months of living here. Sometimes the time warp makes me feel like I just got here and other times I feel like this is normal life and I must have been here forever. The weeks go by so quickly marked by notes in my calendar like: sunset on big dune, bike ride to perimeter fence, camp at fire tower, beer brewing, bake bread, yoga, lunch with someone to discuss some idea or plan, braii, alta, or someone’s birthday celebration. And at times I wish time would slow down a little more because the people who I’ve grown so close to are nearer to the end of their time here. We all have an expiration date for this place, but hopefully not for the relationships developed here despite wherever the wind carries each of us off to next.
Scorpions and camel spiders are still very common on walks and around the buildings and the excitement to see a cape cobra or puffer adder snake is still high. But I’ve given up on sleeping in a tent, it’s not the same to sleep in the desert without a star ceiling and its just too hot. Instead, I put a rainfly down under the yoga mat with the assumption that I’ll hear some legs tapping against it if something crawls my way. It’s worked so far and every 2 or 3 days I find myself shoving my sleeping bag and yoga mat in my red pack and wandering off somewhere after dinner. It’s so bright and warm in the morning, it’s easy to wake up early enough to make it back to the lab before work. Last Monday was the Orionid meteor shower. A large group of us hauled mats and mattresses up Dune to Nowhere and set up camp to watch it. We passed the time with jokes and stories while we waited for the show. It wasn’t until after midnight that someone realized the shower was peaking on the opposite side of the Earth and that was the reason we weren’t seeing any. But a few days later when we camped along the riverbed we saw 7 shooting stars within a couple of hours – so bright they continued to burn across the sky.
Our weekly presentations continued last week with a talk from one of the molerat field volunteers, Megha. Her talk was titled: “Not just tigers and snake charmers. Being an ecologist in India.” She designed a wildlife survey to span across a large state of India. Her and her boyfriend walked, hiked, and motorbiked through the state documenting bird species. They found new species in areas where they had not before been documented and published a few papers at the end of their 6 month study. It was really inspiring.
We had a snake safety talk which was basically don’t mess around with snakes. But it was cool to see a cape cobra and monitor lizard (yes not a snake but they can also bite and scratch). There was also a python but I was late to the talk due to bloods. The cobra was beautiful, yellow with brown spots and speckles. I did feel bad for the animals being transported around in a box and then taken out in front a group of people. The cobra was seized as an illegal pet from somewhere in South Africa, I’m not sure about the monitor or python. But the talk was informative and basically concluded that snake bites are rare and almost always instigated by the person who got bit. I haven’t seen a cobra yet on the reserve, hopefully I spot one sometime.
Clouds dot the sky where months prior I would be so stoked to even get a glimpse of one cloud. This has made for some even more stellar sunrises and sunsets. I take photos nearly every morning and evening but it never fully captures the magic felt in real life.
We’ve brewed our first batch of beer though definitely messed up the sparging step and only ended up with about 4L of beer when the goal was 7L. It hasn’t started bubbling yet and it’s been a week. I think I’ll boil a few more liters of water, let it cool, add it, and then add more yeast. I guess I underestimated what it took to be a brewmaster and not just a helper. My crew may have lost some faith in my abilities but I’m determined to learn from this mistake and hopefully fix this brew. If it turns out, it will be sort of an amber IPA with amber malt and cascade hops.
A wildebeest study came to an end resulting in culling the experimental animals to retrieve the data loggers floating at the base of the stomach, as well as a few control animals. Field was closed for most of the day after the meerkatters got back from their morning tracking and weights. I didn’t get to tag along but it sounded pretty interesting and included some intense data collection. As soon as the wildebeest fell, the team collected tissue, blood, hair, stomach contents, the data logger, and tons of other samples. If I remember correctly from the presentation they gave a few months ago, the study will look at how the warning climate affects wildebeest temperature regulation and diet. Once they were done with sample collection, the carcasses were butchered. Most of the meat went to the staff and some to communal. If there is any left over, it will be available for researchers to buy. I’m tempted to try cooking some of my own over a braii.
I’ve added a hartebeest skull to my skull garden – there was still some hide left on the skull so we buried it below the leak running off my room. It sort of looks like I’m growing a demon, the hartebeest horns are so cool and evil looking. I’ve added a wildebeest skull above my door and will add the other skulls on the other eaves once they are ready (springbok, steenbok, hartebeest, and gemsbok without the horns). I’m not sure what to do with the carnivore skulls yet (cat skulls and fox), they seem too delicate to leave outside. I practiced driving out there in the dog and cruised up and over the dunes without a problem. I’ll take as much practice as I can since I’ll be renting a car in Cape Town next month for holiday and all of the options are manual. On the drive we passed some oryx (aka gemsbok) which always look well dressed with their sharp black markings against their grey coats and long black horns.
Bloods are slow due to no new dominance changes and the vet being away. Last week though I did have quite a few for an inbreeding experiment. The molerat lab is testing if inbreeding occurs if related molerats are not familiar with each other. The experimental groups are: related/familiar, related/unfamiliar, unrelated/familiar, and unrelated/unfamiliar. The immune challenges that I do to the cells are only a small part of this study though, a lot of data will come out of the experiment.
We’ve reached full capacity recently and the parties have gotten pretty wild. Granted they are fun and expected with a group of 20 something year olds living together. At the last party, we broke one of the dinner tables by dancing on top of it, I fell off the roof after apparently becoming adversed to staying on the ground, and 4 new couples hooked up. Sunday was quite quiet. Work hard, play hard? There’s some talk of a party for my birthday next weekend, I’m not sure I’m ready for another one yet. If it happens though I’ll make sure to stay on off the steep, steel roof – it’s pretty slick.
And though we don’t really celebrate it here, HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I strongly recommend listening to Dirtbag Diaries Tales of Terror Vol. 10. But before the last story, when Fitz recommends grabbing a teddy bear, don’t be like Finn and cling to your radio because it will inadvertently sound off at the climax of the story and give you quite a fright 😉 Hoping to wrangle some people to watch a horror flick tonight or pull some pranks and get some screams. I really do love Halloween.
Hooked on Jeremy Loops lately: Down South