Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Panic stations!

So I've been fluctuationg between enthusiasic and productive, and sitting in a heap wanting to cry. It rained all weekend, so I used the opportunity to sit in a heap and not do much, and then had a great trapping day yesterday. today was brutally hot, I saw about 7 or 8 lizards and proceeded to spend all day in the hot hot sun not catching any of them. I got myself a pretty impressive case of sunstroke, and a talking-to from a friend back home becasue apparently I shouldn't have taken aspirin for the headache that came with the package. Seriously, it's like tickbite-fever bad but without the glamour of the fever and the nausea... actually I think I prefer sunstroke!

Anyway, I am one of very few people in this world who has a custom-built lizard treadmill. It's of vital importance for my work, nd was built by a combination of an engineering student friend (who, back in the day, beat up another kid for pulling the tail out of my My Little Pony) and a friend from my class at university. It's had it's issues, as it was designed and built with very little by way of specifications (I gave them a size and a speed required) by two people who have never worked with lizards.

I spend a lot of time ever few weeks fixing up little gaps with duct tape (a lizard can squeeze through a microscopic gap! and adjusting it and so on. This trip it's been working perfectly though, until tonight! I was running a set of lizards when one of them managed to get his tail between the belt and the rod thingie that it wraps around. It happens occasionally, and usually you just stop the treadmill and extricate the lizard. This guy had really got himself stuck though so i had to dismantle part of it, remove lizard and then put it back together.

Then it started acting p. Nothing major, just the belt slipping to one side, or it went too slowly, and I had to play with the tension a bit. Finally, it all looked like it was going to work properly when it ut stopped. There was an aweful noie from the motor and nothing moved.

So I'm going to be spending tomorrow in town trying to hunt down an engineer (fortunately there is a university with an engineering department nearby) to fix it, and if I can't fid anyone here I will have no option but to put it in the car and go home for a day or two to get it fixed by the engineer who made it.

To tell the truth, today was a really unpleasant day, and I would like nothing more than a day or two at home to 'recharge' a bit, but at the same time the weather is good for lizards, and I never know when I'm going to lose time to rain, so going home seems like a waste. At least the masters student is rriving tomorrow so I'll have someone here to feed lizards if I have to go.

So anyone at home: watch this space, you might be running into me in the near future!

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Remember that song on the mission impossible soundtrack called "So..."? It's stuck in my head right now. Nothing too exciting to say about it. Except that I am not a Mission Impossible nut, just that I was about 10 at the time and the soundtrack was my first ever CD. I didn't even have a CD player yet, but after my brother and I had run in to the CNA (a newsagent) for the gazillionth time and listened to the theme song on the dodgy "try out your CD first!" headphones, my mother ether let me buy it or bought it for me. I can safely say that I think I knew every note and every word and everything on that CD by the time I was 12 or so, as well as developing a slightly weird addiction to Songs by Skunk Anansie (however you spell that. I was 10!). Weird because I was a pretty quiet kid who's only other CD was by Shampoo. Yes, I'm cringing now!

Anyway, it's been a rough week. I was going to post about how miserable I was yesterday, but I only finished all the work I had to do by about 10pm and I didn't have the energy - considering that it's been so hot I have to get up at about sunrise to get any decent trapping done before it gets to molten-lava level of hot.

I was enjoying the quiet of a KIDS-es free house, when we got hit by a mega heatwave. It's supposedly spring, but I've been here in midsummer and it was never this hot and humid before. I HATE hats with a passion, but it got so hot that I had to wear one, which meant that I was running around with hat-hair and a hat-induced headache. Since as long as I can remember I've hated having things on my head or on my hands. In cold weather I will give in and wear gloves, but I really, really hate hats.

Back on the topic - I caught a single lizard in two whole days of trapping! And I wasn't being lazy either, the lizards were there, and I was working darned hard to get them and they were all evading me. There is a series of huge boulders where a bunch of them live - I've caught a bunch their before by putting a circle of traps around it and in the little spaces in between rocks. this time though I'm not sure what happened, maybe one of the storms, or a tree falling over, but there was sand EVERYwhere and I couldn't trap a bunch of the usual spots. And the lizards ran past giggling occasionally.

Just to make things better, I decided that having cereal for dinner wasn't a good thing after about 3 days and so I made some very nice pasta-sauce type stuff with the vegetables I got last time I went into town. I didn't feel like the whole schlep of making pasta, so I thought I'd make myself a baked potato.

The bonus of living here is that we have an awesome microwave with a bunch of AUTO settings. So for a potato, you put a potato in, press POTATO and when it finishes you turn said potato over and press POTATO again. Voila, a perfectly baked potato! So, I got a potato, cut the eyes off and so on, put it in and pressed POTATO. After a minute or two it was done, so I turned the potato over and pressed POTATO. I have done this many many times and never had a problem. I realised a little while later that the potato had been in there for a rather long time. I dismissed the thought and went back to what I was doing. Then I heard a strange noise and I went to investigate.

I am not kidding when I say that the potato in the microwave had full-on burst into flames! The smell was awful, there was black smoke seeping from around the door and the potato was flaming away, rotating slowly inside the microwave that was STILL COOKING IT! I had the presence of mind to hit the off switch and leave it closed in the microwave to stop it getting any more oxygen and rushed around opening doors and windows before removing the charred potato.

Bearing in mind that I'd had a horrible day, been in full sun for several hours and not had much success, I wanted to cry. Instead, I decided to make some pasta and eat my dinner. So I lit the gas-stove and made pasta. The pot has handles that get really hot, so, as usual, I used a cloth to take it off the stove and pour the pasta into a colander. Once I'd done that I looked down and realised that the cloth was on fire - it had obviously dipped into the flame.

For the record, the pasta itself was fine, the dinner was delicious, and i had leftovers to sustain me for two days.

Today was cloudy and cold this morning so I got to sleep in until 7! The sun came out mid-morning so I dashed off to the most dangerous outcrop on the farm and managed to catch 4 lizards! I was really happy - this particular outcrop is really steep and slippery, and can either be fantastic for finding lizards or absolutely abysmal, but it takes so long to get there that if it doesn't go too well you've effectively lost a day. I guess after everything being so difficult, I thought about life a lot and came to a lot of conclusions. I won't share them here just yet, because they're a bit whiny and I have a headache from wearing a stupid hat. Plus it's past dinner-time so I should go and burn some stuff now. But the bottom-line is: I'm feeling better about everything, and I hope I can hang on to my inner-optimist for a while!

Friday, September 19, 2008


The anti-poaching guys finally left! I was so happy about it! Then, as I was enjoying my newfound slitude, I got a message .

Last year we had the same thing, which was totally disastrous as over 20 kids arrived, got completely trashed and were all over the house, in my equipment, throwing up in the bushes, screaming at me...

This time there are only 6 of them, they've been really polite so far - I know them pretty well from teaching them over the years. Unfortunately they also know me from trips where I'm not doing my own research, so they're a little bit too relaxed... I would like them to be in a state of mild terror, afraid of touching anything of mine... instead they've already set up a sound system the size of a small power plant and are moving between cooking dinner, rolling joints and smoking outside, while the musi thumps through my house...

I'm glad of th company, but I really really wish this didn't make me feel so old...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Machete-ing is an art form!

So yesterday I went back to one of the new sites, caught 3 lizards pretty easily and went after a fourth - the problem was that the fourth was under a thin flake of rock, halfway up a very sleep slope, so I couldn't do anything from above...

I tried to give up and go across to the other new site, but after I got stuck in my millionth thorn bush I gave up. Let me just add, that I HATE thorn bushes! I understand that the plants don't want to be eaten and so on, but can't they do it in a way that doesn't hurt me? Like tannins, or growing taller or something... my arms and legs and hands are covered in scratches and I don't like it, because I'm always just sunburned enough to make it sting a little bit more than I can ignore...

So I went back and tried to get the last lizard. The problem was that although I could just about reach the area where it was, the whole base of the slope was covered in thorn bushes, trees and dead branches from thorn trees that made a kind of thorny mesh that was completely impenetrable. I managed to get through and break off enough of the dead branches to make it almost accessible, and then climbed up a few feet to set traps. About half an hour later when I hadn't had any luck, I went back and adjusted them. I climbed a few feet higher to be able to work more effectively, ,and then, a few minutes alter, realized that the foothold I was using was not only smooth granite, but smooth granite with lichen and twigs on it. I might have done it myself from disturbing so many trees, but either way, my foot slipped and I tumbled off the rocks and into the thorn mesh...

I scrambled furiously at the rock, but wasn't able to stop myself, and succeeded in scarping down an adjacent rock with a very sharp edge. In the chaos, with me falling, bits of rock falling, traps falling... the lizard finally made an appearance and hid under a rock the as completely covered in thorn bushes. I gave up and gathered my things, to feel something cold on my leg. I looked down and realised that I'd cut my leg open -a long gash along the inside of my calf, from my knee to my ankle, and it was bleeding quite impressively.

The worst part is, besides losing the lizard, i went to the other site today, armed with a machete for the thorny bits, an found that it's actually incredibly unsuitable. It's all big boulders, which are fun to climb, but almost impossible to trap, and the lizards that live on boulders are invariably more intelligent than the ones on flat outcrops.

For the record though, swinging a machete is both incredibly therapeutic and incredibly ineffective! But from the way my arms are feeling, it's also a good workout!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An action-packed adventure saga!

I just finished another exciting evening of playing with numbers and scary formulae... and decided that rather than having the world see me as a total and utter loser (I had a breakthrough and got very excited) I would talk about the last few days.

Firstly, I haven't blogged in absolute ages. we had a heatwave - on a cool day (I think it was Wednesday) when I enjoyed myself because I wasn't dying of heat, I measured that it was 28 degrees in the house, 31 in the shade outside and 34 in partial shade. I was too scared to find out what full sun was, as I'd just finished a morning sitting out in the sun and didn't want to know. In Fahrenheit, for you non-metric people (I will save up the rant about Fahrenheit for a day when I have a few cool points (no pun intended) saved up), that's 82 inside (I love old houses for their ability to be cool on a hot day and warm on cold day), 88 in the shade outside and 93 in partial shade).

I know that the weather will only get hotter, and I managed 10 weeks of proper summer (I'm here almost a month earlier this year than last year), but I'm not used to this yet, and I think I got a bit of heatstroke and felt really sick after drinking about 4 litres of water in a few hours - I was desperately thirsty but couldn't drink anymore!

So anyway a few days ago it went cold, and I relished the opportunity to spend a morning in bed (I had a fever and therefore insisted on a morning off) and go into town to get a few groceries. It's almost an hour drive to the nearest shop, and it's quite a pest because when the weather is good I hate having to take an afternoon to go shopping or go to get petrol for the bakkie, so I've learned by experience to use the bad days as much as possible for things like laundry, shopping, writing up results and the all-important sleep.

Quite often though, the rain will last for up to 4 or 5 days, and then you sit and go crazy because you were super-efficient on the first rainy day (or just don't feel like working). Last year my 6-week trip became a 10-week trip because of the weather, although I must admit, I have developed an incredible talent for predicting the weather from looking at the sky in the evenings. One day I will write a list of all the extra things Ive learned on fieldwork and that will be on it.

Back to the point - the day after that (yesterday)it rained, so I couldn't even go for a walk or anything. Fortunately, although it had been cold, it was dry the day before and I'd taken a long walk in the early evening so I was able to sit in the house without going nuts. I predicted that it would be rainy this morning but clear up in the afternoon, and I was wrong - it was partly-cloudy and cool, warming up in the afternoon. I spent the morning driving around exploring new tracks around the conservancy with mt traps and everything ready in case it cleared up. After about an hour I gave up and sat at the house pretending to work, but actually listening to music for an hour or two. Then I realised that the weather was perfect to take a hike to where I thought there might be some nice lizard habitat, which I thought might be near to or connected to a big outcrop just up the road from the house. It was quite a walk to get there, there are a lot of tiny thorn bushes that can scratch through your clothes in quite a painful way. Then, while you try and untangle yourself you invariably walk past a couple of thorn trees. I got away with a few minor scratches today, and no big thorns to the scalp - unlike Tuesday's getting stuck in a thicket saga (ouch!).

It was very exciting, the outcrop I've seen tiny bits of turned out to be quite ice and big, and as I got there the sun came out from behind the clouds and a beautiful lizard ran out and looked at me. I half expected to hear a chorus of "oooooh!" from the clouds at the same time. It was also quite a nice vantage point for a couple of hills that I've never really considered trapping on before, and I could see another outcrop nearby that's not as nice, but definitely is worth trapping at for a day or two!

I decided that I didn't want to go back through the thorn bushes today and I knew that I was relatively close to a huge outcrop that overlooks the house. we call it the Sundowner rock because on most undergrad field-trips we take the KIDSes up there for sun-downers one evening. I didn't realise (possibly because I'm usually on TOP of said sundowner rock)that it's surrounded by a thick tangle of thorn bushes. By the time I realised that an intelligent person would have turned back about 20 minutes before, I was kind of in a get-hurt-either-way situation so I kept going. It was amazing, after the huge thorny hedges (for lack of a better word) I ended up in what felt like coastal forest, with a relatively clear floor and huge vines. A lot of the branches belong to a weird tree that only has leaves for a few weeks a year or something, but the branches are covered in giant thorns. I don't know what it's called but we use a branch to teach the undergrads about thorn structure at the beginning of their plant-identification course. I had never expected to be stuck in a maze of them though!

Part of me was really sad that I never came here as a little kid, there were all kinds of awesome places that I would have loved to play in when I was little! I remember spending hours under the hedge in our driveway... using the petals from the flowers as currency, yellow was highest if I remember correctly. But, I digress, back to the adventures: so I managed to climb over and under and around the thorns without too much damage to myself. A lot of the branches were dead or rotting and I managed to clear a bit of a path. Then I finally reached the base of the sundowner rock (rock sounds small, it's probably nearly a square kilometer, and made up of a bunch of little outcrops connected by a ridge of grass along the very top). and realised that I was facing a 50-100 metre sheer granite wall. I realised that I hadn't been thinking too clearly - this is the East-facing side that I've never trapped on because it's too steep for me to climb down without someone else there to call the ambulance if something goes wrong (drama-queen? me? NEVER!. Fortunately it was dry, even after all the rain - climbing on wet granite is to beg for a Darwin Award - and I clambered up a big boulder to where I could see a deep fissure running up the length of the slope - looked like the best spot to hold on! On top of the boulder was a smaller, but still considerably large and stable looking rock, so I climbed up, to feel it rocking gently underneath me. I froze and climbed back onto the bigger rock very carefully and then tried a few other routes up. Nothing felt safe enough for me to try. I'm not a stranger to falling, and I usually don't mind pushing my limits somewhat, but the idea of falling that far down onto a tangle of the massive thorns... not so much.

I looked around and decided that my best option was to get off the rock and walk along the base of the cliff (for lack of a better word) to where I could see there was a bit more of an incline and a few handholds and things. there was a big tree at the base of the rock, so I leaned my foot against it so I could shuffle down and jump off. Well, to cut a long story short, the tree was hollow and rotten and fell over. I got the fright of my life and did some spider-man-style backpedalling and then jumped off the side of the rock.

After all of that the climb was pretty uneventful, the incline was slopey enough for me to climb and my shoes were fantastic. I got new shoes a little while ago because my old field-shoes were all but worn out. I had to try a different brand and I haven't liked them too much so far, but today they definitely did the job!

to jump topic completely (it will make sense shortly) one of my favourite memories is of a school trip when I was 15 or 16. The staff at my school stated calling me the "happy camper" because that was the week where I came out of my shell and actually poke to people and participated. I had always been super-shy but for some reason that trip I wasn't and I think it was very much the turning point for me where I stopped being quiet and well-behaved and became... me. Anyway the trip was a week of kayaking, raft-building, archery, obstacle courses, hiking and... rock climbing and abseiling. I was near-phobic of heights, to the point where I could hardly stand on a chair without getting shaky, and that week i started my long journey of getting over it. I think if I could show my 15-year-old self the places I climb now, I would never have believed it! I managed to climb the 20 metre rock face, which was a huge step for me! Of course, most people did it in five to ten minutes, and I took almost an hour, stopping only to swear loudly at a sometimes friend of mine (I think I was the most-quoted person on the trip as nobody had ever heard me swear before either). i felt quite bad about it later as she had been trying to shout encouragement, while I had been trying to focus, but she claimed to be proud to be the person who finally got me to yell obscenities. For the record I didn't manage the abseiling, going into hysterics and climbing back up after a few metres, but I can still remember the cheering when I made it to the top!

Anyway, the guy who was running the climbing section became a good friend of mine on the trip. he was a huge Afrikaans guy with dreds, called Isaak and we used to chat about life in general most evening. He was the type who would go crazy staying in one place for more than a few months and had backpacked around Botswana a month or two before, and I asked so many questions about his travels that it amazes me that he didn't smack me on the head and tell me to shut up.

so, to the point of the story, while I was climbing today I kept hearing his voice in my head saying "the trick to rock climbing is to stay as close to the rock as possible. Don't lean back, lean forward. Plan your route up and then hug the rock. Stay as close to the rock as you can." It was kind of weird. I haven't thought about that trip for ages! For the record, a friend of mine went to work at the camp a few years later and the staff there remembered our group. Might have to do with an unfortunate injury I inflicted on the boss during a game of pool volleyball/rugby (word of advice: if I have the ball do NOT grab on to my foot from behind. I will kick. Hard). Isaak has, of course, moved on by now and nobody hs a clue about where he is.

So after all that I sat at the top and admired the view of the farm. The rain has cleared the dust haze and I could see forever! Plus it gave me a chance to recover from the adrenaline-shakes. And I walked across the outcrop and down the path to the main road. The other day when I missed the path and got stuck in some thorn bushes I smelled something odd and thought I'd stepped in some baboon dung. The smell was worse today, and pretty unmistakable. An animal has died, near the path. How on earth people do jobs with decomposing bodies, I have no idea, I ended up running back to the house to escape the stench. Which was fun - not the stench, the run. Last year I went running nearly every day but I haven't yet on this trip.

And then I sat and fought with formulae and numbers and finally finished a section of what I've been working on for the last 6 weeks. So all in all it's been a good day! And now that I've finished my evening cup of Rooibos and evening biscuit I'm going to head off to bed so I can get up early and machete an easier path to the new sites before I have to start trapping.

Either way, I think I've more than made up for the recent lack of posting by the length of this! I didn't realise how long it was getting...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

I am such a nerd

I've been batlting with a particular dataset for about a month now, and I just got it to work. And I did a happy-dance around my living area. I think the anti-poaching guys think I'm nuts...

For the record, I'm really not making massive strides, but little steps make me happy...

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A random day

I'm writing this while itching with sunburn - yes, it warmed up today, no, it's still windy as anthing and the lizards aren't cooperating.

I should have known that it wasn't going to be a normal day, when i slept through my alarm this morning, and then woke up and dashed off to the field site, to find baboons and giraffe all over it! I've got to know the giraffes relatively well, there are usually 3 of them and they stay in a pretty small area. It's so dry at the moment that I'm seeing a lot more of the big mammals than usual, I think they're battling to find food. There was a fourth girafe today, which was quite exiting! I used to get stuck behind a single giraffe on the road all the time, I wonder if that's him, if he's made a few friends... I hope so.

I should have gone to a different site straight away, the lizards are very wary when it's cool, and something like giraffe trampling around means that they might not coe out of hiding for at least several hours, but it was still windy, and this site is one of the more sheltered ones, so I stayed. Bad move.

Firstly, my back and arms got fried today! I'm usuall realy good about sunscreen, but with the wind blowing it didn't feel too hot, so I forgot about it.

Secondly I decided to bite the bullet and trap one of my least favourite sites on the outcrop. It's very sheltered and away from the worst of the giraffe-baboon invasion and I can usually bank on getting quite a few lizards there. Basically it's a long, smooth slope at about 45 degrees, kind of convex, with big boulders at one end, a long crevice at another, and a long convex rock in-between. the rock has been named "the bitch" because it's about 5 metres long, and every single lizard in that area runs under it at some stage during the day. this means that it's incredibly important to set traps under it properly, and incredibly difficult to do so. Generally it involved a lot of me setting three or four and then falling to the bottom, swearing as I do it!

Unfortunately it's been a while since the last burn (and with this dry wind it will be a while until the next one) so the bottom of the outcrop is surrounded by thorn bushes, shrubs, fallen branches from the windstorms and a lot of dead leaves - all in all not the sliding and thumping own on my feet onto earth that I'm used to. So I went aong the bottom, wading through the leaves, and traping the long crevices as I went. When I got to the bottom of the big rock, I started laying traps along the edge, and then climbed a bit up and set some more. this was all carrying a large, purple bucket full of traps! When I couldn't reach anymore I mnaged to somehow get the bucket wedged at the top of the rock, only raining a few raps down onto my head, and started to climb. I was only a few metres off the ground when I realised that I was completely and utterly stuck. I couldn't turn around to slide down because I had switched feet on the one and only foothold in my direct vicinity and there was no way of switching back. the nearest hndholds were out of reach, and the closest little nubs of rock weren't enough (with my female-typical upperbody strength) to pull myself up. My other foot was splayed across the rock face onto an almost-foothold, but more to stop the cramps in my other foot than for any actual purpose. I've climbed a lot of rocks here, and I understand that almost foothold + almost handhold = a bad idea.

I couldn't go back down, I couldn't jump down without risking a pretty bad injury, and I ouldn't go up at all. My left leg, which had been supporting me for about 20 minutes on a pretty sharp piece of rock was cramping and I didn't know what to do. I used to be really afraid of heights, and it was like I was 8 years old on the high-dive board all over again. I coulnd't move, I was terrified, I started shaking.

Then something weird happened. I leaned across and put my right foot back onto the slightly rough patch of rock that might almost be a foothold and then I watched as my arms seemed to move by themselves, onto the almost-handholds and pulled me up. I could feel my arm muscles straining and my leg pushing as my left foot finally left the uncomfortable spot and my knee came to rest of a slightly rough seam of rock. I came to my senses enough to pull muself up to the top of the big rock (it's a thin, long rock, so its kind of a sharp top, but stable enough for the moment) and I sat down and pulled myself together before setting the rest of the traps.

The weird thing was that a while later I was at the bottom again, checking and fixing up traps, and I found myself wating to climb the rock again. I thought that I ahd done it, so it was possible, so why not? Then the logical part of m brain told me to shut up, and I went bak up the easy way.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


I don't have much to say except that today wasn't particularly fun. It was cold, and the lizards were barel active. I have a game-plan for tomorrow though, so I'm not feeling too bad. I had turned off the geyser for one of the bathrooms (there are two outside bathrooms with shower-stalls and toilet cubicles and stuff, as well as the two indoor ones) yesterday and I discovered when I came back from the ield, complete with oil and dust covering and oil in hair, that I'd actualy turned both of them off. I figured that i was tough enough for a cold shower - I've been on enough cmping trips and so on to know wht they're like. In summer here, when it gets super-hot I take them by choice! Plus when my girlie side makes me wash conditioner out of my hair with cold water (akes our hair shiier and doesn't fade your colour as much) I've had enough cold showers to be pretty ok with the concept.

Wat I didn't thin about was that it wasn't a very warm day, and I'd been in the sun all day watching out for lizards, so I was nie and warm. I also didn't think about the fact that we have a borehole, so the temperature of the cold water fluctuates pretty wildly depending on the weather (it's pumped into an above-ground reservoir).

The excruciating nature of the shower cannot be descibed. All I know is that it was the fastest shower I have ever taken, and I was almost blue afterwards, when I came inside and put on 3 layers of clothing and shivered for the rest of the day.

I took a nap a bit later, although I didn't sleep well, it got really cold. Anyone who has ever been camping with me will tell you that I don't sleep when it's cold. I drift around the campsite clutching a cup of tea, until I hit exhaustion and sleep the next afternoon, which leads to me sitting up all of the next night with my cup of tea...

I had some really bizarre dreams too! I can't reember them, but I woke up freaked out and disoriented. I turned on my laptop to liten to music while I made dinner to find that the first song that came up was "dream a little dream of me." Weird.

I find lately that I have weird dreams after I watch weird TV shows. Prison Break, anything random and scifi-ish, the new wizard of oz miniseries... and redaing Hrry Potter books - which is why I still haven't read the last book.