11 November 2019

Late last night – sitting crossed leg on one of the chest freezers in the kitchen, playing the card game Speed, while our bread baked in the oven. Still 90+ degrees in the kitchen, causing the cockroaches to be more bold than usual. It was a game of whack-a-mole to try to keep them out of the bread dough while we were kneading it. The oven dials don’t really work so you never know how warm it heats up to or if the heat is coming from the top or bottom. We had already burnt one bread experiment that ended in an embarrassing radio call after it was left unattended and smoked out the kitchen. To avoid that, it’s better to just sit and wait out the baking process. Finally, a few rounds of wins later, after remembering this game from childhood and reflexes kicking in, it was done. Garlic rosemary (picked from the garden behind the molerat lab) and multigrain (from brewing) bread. 

I’m completing another lap around the sun, and turning a scary number closer to 30. I’m not sure if 28 year olds should be living this carefree and without really much of a plan besides more adventures that hopefully carry me around the world. I’ve shared this conundrum with a few friends here and their reactions are always  – But you’re young at heart, age is just a number. And while they aren’t far behind me, I am the oldest here out of my crew. By societal norms I should probably be more settled down by now (or at least feeling the pressure to), maybe with a house, and working towards a stable career. Instead the only stability I have is my van as home, some skills that can hopefully help me keep doing science in new places, and an unquenchable thirst to keep moving forward.

When I get a little down or distracted about the unavoidable march of time, a quick way to snap back to reality is to remember that every year has only gotten better. And 28 is looking promising to top off the wild and exciting year 27 has been. In a few weeks, I’ll finally be taking a vacation to Cape Town to explore where Finn grew up. Plans are loose but general shenanigans involve hiking around Table Mountain, surfing, exploring the coast, hopefully climbing if I can track down gear and a rope to rent or borrow, and backpacking in the Cederberg. We’ll be traveling cheaply, camping or sleeping in the back of the truck I’ll rent. I am SO excited to see the sea. I also just got approved for 2 weeks off in March to roadtrip around Southern Africa with my friends Lena and Joaquim. Lena and I decided Mt Kenya would only be doable if we could get 3 weeks off – that will have to wait til later. So instead, our plans are to drive to Namibia to see the petrified forest of Sossusvlei, drive the Skeleton coast up to Torrabaai, head East to Etosha National Park, then (hopefully if I can find gear) rappel into Dragon’s Breath Cave (largest underground lake in the world) just to the South. From there we will continue East along the Caprivi Strip to the borders of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls. We’ll then start our loop back by driving Southwest into Botswana to Maun to explore Nxai Pan and the Okavango Delta (Watch the film Into the Okavango!) before making our way back to South Africa. I’m hoping to stretch the two weeks over the weekends as well to give us about 2 and a half weeks – the drive is 5699 km total. From there I’ll have 2 or so months before my position ends at the project. Then the big plans will begin of traveling around Africa for a few months (funded by what I’ll have made during this appointment) before returning to the states, picking up the van, completing the AAC grant canyoneering/packrafting trip in the Escalante, then pointing South to drive the Pan American HW to Chile… So ya 28 should buff out.

I’ve felt work stress for the first time since I’ve started this job. The last two weeks I’ve been preparing to ship about 700 blood samples from here to Duke University, NC. This has been a nightmare of permits, getting dry ice delivered to the middle of the desert, finding historic samples in a -80°C freezer which crashes whenever it’s opened since its 40°+C outside lately, and figuring out customs both out of SA and in to the US. I have the numbers of racks and boxes scrawled in pen all over my arms to try to reduce time in and out of the freezer. I think I’ve got it figured out, found all of the samples except for 11, and will be packing them up with tons of dry ice tonight to send out with the project manager. It seemed like everything that could go wrong, did. But that’s just how it goes.

Another exciting (and more positive) development at the project is the go ahead for me to start ordering benches, lab stools, and equipment to build the Genetics Lab. To set up the lab for DNA extraction, it will cost about R100,000 which is around $6700. This doesn’t include consumables like extraction kits, tubes, chemicals for buffers, tips, etc. And at some point we will fit it out for PCR and genotyping as well, but that’s down the road. It was really exciting to work with the project manager who put my ideas into his CAD drawings to figure out the sizes of the lab benches/freezer/shelves to order. Since there is only one door in the room, we will be putting in a window for safety (fire) and of course a view. We spent over 3 hours measuring and designing the lab and discussing improvements in the project. I’m really stoked to build this thing! 

Later on I tagged along to learn about our maze of water pipes and how we get water to the project. As we bumped along the washboard roads around the reserve I learned that all of our water is drawn from a borehole dug 60 meters (if I remember correctly) below the desert. It is then drawn up and piped to our various dams – we have 8 dams I think. They all fill one at a time – the dam at the lowest elevation filling first until a float pushes a lever that drops a piece of metal across the pipe closing it off. Then the water is pushed up to the next dam, and so on, until the tanks that supply water to the farmhouse (drinking and washing) at the top of the reserve is filled. All of the water is run through a pump with salt before getting piped into a building. Yesterday we thought a pipe may have burst somewhere in between the dams since water wasn’t flowing, but after manipulating the water path by adjusting pumps and valves, we got water pumping in to the farmhouse tanks again. Later on, when we checked after dinner that all was full, we climbed up on top of the tank to watch the never ending stream of shooting stars and some lightning off in the distance.

Sunsets have been stellar. I’ve made a time lapse with my GoPro of one we watched from the fire tower a few days ago (but don’t currently have enough internet to upload it).

We camped out on scorpion island last week and made fire bread (Roosterkoek) with wiledeest sausage. We brought back some charcoal to decorate the plain white brick walls of 10 block. This was so fun and the idea spread, soon everyone was drawing on the walls. I haven’t gotten into too much trouble yet for it…

A new guest is residing in 10 block now. I’ve been looking all over the goddamn desert for these guys and one decides to rock up in the bathroom one morning. Poor Jai was the first to discover him but didn’t have his contacts in and heard a hissing when he opened the door giving him a fright – a cape cobra was sighted near the farm house the other day. The tortoise hisses but he is quite friendly and is just trying to escape the heat/shower with us – we call him Dash.

Some residents of 10 block have other roommates – that bite. We’re not sure what got George but she is suffering from bites all over and one exceptionally bad one on her foot. The blister is huge and protrudes far out of her skin. We’ve drained it a few times and a thick yellow liquid oozes out. I realized my med kit is pretty useless out here, maybe I should have bulked up. She ended up being driven to the medical center at Tswalu (expensive game reserve nearby) to have it dressed. She still can’t feel her toes… but the swelling seems to have gone down. Guesses so far are blister beetle, ground beetle, some type of spider, or a tick. 

I’ve added more skulls to my garden and love watching the sunset in my hammock, or on a small cushion that I found, making the stoup feel even more homey. Typical nights involve friends coming to my end to hang out and have a beer. Once the sun sets I light a few candles and we listen to the barking geckos and watch for shooting stars. It’s a funny life here – when strangers become family.

40 Day Dream – Edward Sharp & The Magnetic Zeros

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