23 January 2020

I curl deeper into my sleeping bag just before the sun peaks over the dunes. The sky turns blood red and a cool breeze caresses the part of my face that was left exposed. I wake up gently to it and roll over to hear the soft snores of my friends next to me. This morning there were three of us – we each had placed our own bets on the shooting stars the night before. If they spanned the sky from left to right it meant one thing, right to left the other. We accepted our fates after some gasps and laughter, tried to learn some new constellation, and finally passed out. The morning clouds light up in layers – red, pink, orange, yellow, then dark blue. This is my favorite way to start the day. I rub my feet together to take in the last moments of the comforts of my sleeping bag, then sit up and stretch, pack up my things, and walk the 10 or so minutes to the lab to start work. Bloods come early now since the meerkats also wake up at this time. I’ve been rotating through just a few sets of clothes now so it’s not noticed if I rock up in the shorts and tank I slept in the night before. I flip on the UV switch to sterilize the fume hood, start de-thawing the reagents that I need, check if I have any messages while I make a  strong, dark cup of coffee, and then wait for the “Kelly, Kelly” radio call signaling that the bloods are on their way (I’m the only Kelly now so the Kelly Tung radio call is dead!). I put on my lab coat and gloves, pick a playlist to blast through the lab, and so it goes, a routine I find I enjoy rather than rebel against.

I’ve been sleeping outside more nights than inside. The daytime temperature heats up the rooms so much that, to me, it’s not worth it to sweat through a night’s sleep. So far I’ve rotated between sleeping on Dune to Nowhere, Scorpion Island, the ridges beyond Scorpion Island (two named so far – Slippery Slope and Sandy Crossing), and (my favorite) on top of the fire tower. Unfortunately, the fire tower is positioned right next to a road that the field crew takes in the mornings. I don’t want to push my luck (I don’t think we’re supposed to be sleeping up there) so I try to use that spot sparingly and wake up and leave before field o’clock. The tower is high enough to escape the bugs, catch a cool breeze, and is an amazing star gazing spot. I’m pretty sure people think I’m nuts – but sometimes they join me. Someone joked it should be a KMP bucket list item to camp with me somewhere before they leave. When I head out, I bring a rain fly to put beneath me for mental protection from snakes and scorpions (they probably don’t like crawling/slithering on slippery material right?), a yoga mat if it’s just me or a few couch mattresses if it’s a crew, and my overkill sleeping bag that I rarely fully sleep inside. I figure I get between 5 and 6 hours of sleep since I head out after dinner around 10, find a spot by 11, listen to music/chat/watch the sky until midnight, then wake up by 5 to catch the sunrise. This ultimately means afternoon siestas during the heat of the day.

The rains have temporarily (hopefully only for now) subsided but the effects of the moisture persist throughout the reserve. I’ve actually gotten a little mixed up during my walks and bike rides – the sandy dunes have been my landmarks and they are now covered in vegetation. The green is accompanied by butterflies, blooming flowers (some amazing lilies!), and more wildlife movement. It truly has transformed into a completely different landscape. I’m lucky to be able to watch a full year of transformations of this desert.

We discovered a scorpion pit behind the molerat lab one day and made a mission to return after dinner with a UV torch. It was unclear if they were stuck, so we made a ramp for them to escape (and return if they wanted to). We counted 13 scorpions ferociously killing and eating the moths drawn in to the pit. Surprisingly they seemed to coexist just fine with the giant millipedes.

With the addition of every new volunteer, the lab organizes a sunset game drive. I’ve missed the last few drives but squeezed into the back of the truck on this one. Well actually more like climbed on top of the rails surrounding the bed so I could fit. We saw some antelope, a tortoise, and a beautiful sunset while the rain moved in. The lab is the fullest it has ever been, 3 managers and 7 volunteers – lots of data collection!

I’ve discovered a slackline beyond the farmhouse. It looks pretty rotted by the sun but so far hasn’t snapped while I play on it. I’ve gotten a few other volunteers to give it a try. It’s really fun to watch the quick progress they make after shaky legs and flapping arms on the first few attempts. A misstep and fall is punished though with some thorns to the feet.

I’ve managed to actually take some photos of one of our study species – the meerkats! This was a new group we are habituating. The adult here is not the mother of the pups but a babysitter. The social structure of the meerkat groups is really quite cool.

We had an Olympics themed party – my scar came in use to make the South African flag (thanks Sarah). Overall my team got second place in the Olympics but first in the three-legged race which I’m pretty proud about.

Last year I applied to join an all women mission to study microplastics in the oceans: exxpedition.com. I recently heard back from them following my application that I made the first round. For the second round, a short 60 second video was required to introduce yourself and explain why you’d like to be part of the crew. Here it is:

And finally, the big news. My application to study in Chile in the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve next year has made it through the first round. The National Screening Committee of the Institute of International Education for the 2020-21 Fulbright US Student Program recommended my application to the supervising agency abroad for the next stage of the reviewing process. The waiting game isn’t over yet, but I’m stoked to have made it this far in the application process. A final decision will be made sometime between March and June. I received the email this morning after waking up on the dunes to the blood red sky – I had a feeling it was going to be a good day, but I didn’t expect this news. I’m excited and dreamy and wary all at the same time.

Believe – Amen Dunes

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