Things I have learned:

– How to wash underwear in the sink.

– How to drive on the left-hand side of the road.

– A few more words of Shangan.

– How to pass tourists in the park without getting fined or arrested.

– How to change a tire when your jack is too small.

– A plethora of new tree species, and when you disagree over an ID with your game guard, how to argue with them tactfully in the case that they are carrying an elephant rifle. [Me: Ok, so this is Combretum zeyheri, hm. So… how do you tell the difference between Combretum zeyheri and Combretum collinum? Game guard: You can’t, they look the same. Me: … ookay, so, if they’re side-by-side, for example, would you be able to tell the difference? Game guard: Probably not. Me: Uhuh, well, um… (trails off). Ah! Well, I have the ID book here… Game guard: (looks at book) This is CZ and this one is CC. Me: Oh wow! You’re right! Thank you so much!]

– How to deal with mechanics and haggle over repair fees (Pro-tip: Get so angry that you honestly don’t care anymore).

– How to clean monkey blood off the inside of your car windows (which includes taking proper precautions against Ebola and similar. (Yeahhhh, forgot about that, and I got fairly severely reprimanded too.)

– That distinctive odor of monkey blood, over monkey shit, over the varied odors of the week’s groceries strewn about and concentrated in the closed-air of your truck.

– The way to the hospital –> Very important.

– Far more about radiators, fan belts, coolant, and general truck maintenance then I had ever thought to learn in a lifetime.

– How to differentiate between a long ass stick and a Long Ass Cape Cobra in time to avoid running over the latter.

– The sound that wild dogs make (they sound like birds), and many antelope species (they sound like dogs).

– How to scare off a herd of elephants (Clap and whistle). Pro-tip: this only works when they aren’t pissed at you.

– Just how malicious elephants can really be. They toppled my five-foot diameter marula tree. In a night. And ate all of it. And then arranged the branches by size and general shape just to mock me.

– About these awesome 3 rand chicken/onion/muffin things that are fucking delicious that they sell at the Pick-And-Pay at Hoedspruit. I’m sitting in the airport and eating one now.

– How to jimmy curtains using cloth you bought at the Pakistani store and some clothes pins.

– To trust in serendipity. The only reason I saw the leopard was because I got lost in the staff village and was spat out randomly in the middle of the bush, on the road between Kruger gate and Skukuza.

– To keep my patience (and hold my tongue) when trying to get around a tourist traffic jam. Sometimes they really are God-Damn-Fucking-Impala-Gawking-Tourists, but sometimes there’s a leopard.


– A shit ton about nitrogen gas canisters and regulators (with many thanks to Dad!)

– How to find the confidence to disassemble just about anything with your Leatherman, and believe you can put it back together again afterwards.

– The true size of the rhino. (Actually I already knew this, but Rejoice was convinced that they were about three feet tall at the shoulder. She argued with all of us, including the game guard, and drove Hloniphani to angry tears of frustration. When she remained resistant he went for days muttering: She thinks it’s the size of a dog. Luckily she finally saw one and graciously informed Hloniphani that he may have been right.)

– Kruger park geography (it certainly took me long enough).

– That very particular kind of despair when your research camp “runs out of internet” and refuses to buy more until the end of the month (you pay for it by the Gig here).

– What a beautiful hole looks like (and the realization that you wouldn’t be able to identify a beautiful hole unless you had experience digging one yourself. There’s something to be said for the importance of shared experiences and, in this way, teaching yourself empathy. I gave my game guard all due admiration and praises.

– How much time you have to think working alone on the veld.

– How many weird fucking things there are to think about.


It’s a dangerous world out there

– “Drive! Drive! Drive!” The Shingwedzi game guard yelled. Thomas was a taciturn fellow, and this was the most animated I had ever heard him. Of course being mock charged by a bull elephant will have that effect on just about anyone. Luckily the car was already in gear, and I have a lead foot at the best of times. Time to go.

– I have concluded that the cape buffalo is my anti-spirit animal. To be perfectly blunt, they are trying to kill me. In 2008, the closest I ever came to death was when I walked around a bush and startled a solitary buffalo (solitary individuals being far more dangerous than the ones in herds). I walked away from that experience with just a small scare but it certainly left an impression. This go around, it seems nothing much has changed except this time I’m not so young and stupid as I used to be, and so I’m even more aware of how stupid I am each and every time this happens.

– It was our last day in Skukuza. I had accompanied Hloniphani into the park to help him with his work, but had taken this final day for myself in order to analyze samples at the park lab. Hloniphani had a final site to do and had left early that morning. This left me without a car, but it was only a short walk from the research camp to Scientific Services, and a quarter of that along the main paved road. I knew there were animals about; in fact I was counting on it. Just the other day I had seen a family of Kudu in the nearby creek, and some hyena cubs along the road, and since I was now on my own time I hoped to finally get some wildlife photos. I wasn’t disappointed: the kudu were right where I left them, and, wonder of wonders, I was stampeded by a tiny hoard of mongooses (mongeese?), and all this after a mere fifty meters of walking. Already feeling pretty good about the day, I began the short climb up to the main road. And ran right into the buffalo.


– The first thing I did, and I’m not proud of this, was stop and take a photo. I hadn’t gotten a photo of a buffalo yet, you see, and this one was all of ten feet away, and I was still in picture-taking mode. Then I realized how horribly fucking stupid I was being. So the next thing I did was look for a nearby tree to climb. There wasn’t one, but by that point I had been standing there like an idiot for a good seven seconds and if the buffalo hadn’t charged yet that probably meant it wasn’t going to. Slowly, I began backing away… straight into another buffalo.

– I did, in fact, make it to Scientific Services alive (spoilers), and to be honest my close call hadn’t really sunken in yet. That happened as I passed one of the section rangers in the driveway (a big, burly Afrikaner who specializes in lion tracking), who, after hearing what had happened, stared at me stoically (they’re very stoic people) and asked, “So, did you make it then?” I was rather at a loss, since, well, here I was, but I finally managed, “They didn’t seem that interested in me.” To this, the ranger shrugged and said, “Everyone has their off days,” referring (I ultimately realized) to the buffalos. Bemused I continued on and ran into my old OTS course mate and now colleague, Rheinard, and one of the grizzly, veteran ecologists you always see walking around. Again I related my story, and was met with two new versions of horror (the ranger had also been horrified, you see, it was just harder to tell with him). Rheiny’s horror was more along the lines of “Oh god, we just had a narrow miss with bureaucratic hell,” since a young, foreign girl getting gored on the very doorstep of the largest rest camp in Kruger would have been a problem for everyone, to put it mildly. The ecologist just straight out gasped, “My god, how frightening.” I hadn’t actually thought it was all that frightening at the time, but after these three concurrent reactions I certainly did.

– Skip forward a few weeks. I was working in the Northern part of the park, an area called Letaba, with Rejoice, who had come along as my field assistant (Hloniphani: “No, don’t worry, she has nothing to do but sleep all day. The exercise is good for her.”). It was a miserable, drizzly morning (Me: “Rain? In the fucking dry season.” Rejoice: “You said that last week.”  Me: “I know. What the fuck?!”) and I was in a foul mood because the weather was ruining all of my measurements. As a wonderful metaphor for the situation, I was crouched down in a muddy hole, up to my shoulders, trying to collect soil samples without contaminating them with rainwater. The game guard and Rejoice were chatting several meters away as Rejoice took porometer measurements (which were also getting contaminated, I was thinking with irritation), and beneath the rhythmic patter of the shangan I realized I had been hearing noises. Not noises (rainfall, cracking trees, wind), but noises (, a distinction one quickly learns in the bush. So I peaked over the lip of my muddy hole and stared into the mist (If the game guard hadn’t been giggling over something it would have been a very tense moment). I heard it again, noises, and a moment later an entire bushy shrub 7 meters away from me began to shake. The mind is an amazing thing. In an instant, my brain did the following mental calculations: Size of shrub + force needed to shake said shrub + nature of noises + dark patches filling in gaps through shrub = cape buffalo = oh holy fuck. I turned slightly in my hole and (eloquent as always) said “Hey! Hey!” and pointed. The game guard looked over, obviously hearing the alarm in my voice, and unslung his rifle. “What is it?” I stared at him, caught up in the memory of the stoic-faced Afrikans ranger (‘Everybody has their off days’). “A buffalo?” the game guard intuited, somehow. I nodded. His expression took on the same, rigid quality, “Come. Here.”

– The sound of my mad dash to safety effectively scared the buffalo away, but I’m really starting to worry over the number of extra lives I’m losing. And this isn’t even counting the most dangerous animal of all…

– South Africa is a fascinating place. It has all the bells and whistles of a first world country and, in some areas, such crippling poverty as to rival the best of them. This was a fact I learned on my first visit here. My second has taught me another lesson entirely, and I must credit Rejoice for the phrasing: “Money is evil. Life is cheap.”

– Against my better judgment, I’m going to state explicitly that the following stories are all true. I realize this just sets them up to be entirely unbelievable, but since they’re entirely unbelievable to begin with I figure it’s a small loss and it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the fact. Even worse, I have a glancing connection with each one of the unbelievable events, which in my experience just makes these sorts of stories even more untrustworthy, but it can’t be helped and I suppose you’ll just have to come along for the ride, or not, and draw your own conclusions. 

– You can hear lions at night from Caraville. The first few times I heard them (and this is embarrassing), I thought the people in the hut next to me were having wonderful, unbelievably loud sex. But no, it was lions, and they were several kilometers away, which just goes to show you. These aren’t “wild” lions, but special, albino lions kept at a game reserve that borders Wits Rural, a very special attraction to bring in tourists. These rare, valuable lions have an extremely morbid history. The previous owner of the reserve (he’s in jail now) used to drive into Acornhoek, looking for day laborers. The men he picked up never returned (and I can see you rolling your eyes already). Eventually people learned to not go with him, but somehow he always found someone desperate enough to chance it. “Oh come on,” I hear you saying, “Why didn’t they tell someone? Why didn’t they call the police?” Money is evil. Life is cheap. The game reserve was too small to provide adequate hunting grounds for the lions, and they weren’t wild in any case. The owner would have put himself out by thousands and thousands of rand buying beef for them every week. Far cheaper to pay off a few police officers; then you just have to cover the price of petrol and a box of bullets every few months or so. Eventually the bribed police officers were turned over and the man was arrested, and the game reserve is under new management now. The lions are still there, though, and one wonders how they can afford to feed them.

– Kruger is in the middle of a poaching crisis; its white rhinos are being slaughtered for their horns in order to supply the market in Asia. As a result, a turf war is unfolding even as I write this; not between the law and the poachers, but between the park rangers and the South African army. “You see,” Desmond, our Phalaborwa game guard explained, “they called the army in to help the rangers, but they don’t work together, and this has led to many problems.” What kind of problems? “Just last month, the army shot a section ranger, an Afrikaner, in the stomach. He’s still in hospital, they don’t know if he’s going to survive.” This horrified me. The first thing I did when I got to South Africa was email one of the park liaison officers, who replied with an elaborate, scattered, emotional message, that ended with explaining her good friend, one of the section rangers had just been shot and she wasn’t going to be reachable for the next few days. At the time of her message, they had still thought poachers had shot him. By all accounts this had been an accident; he left in the middle of the night during an ambush and then approached from an unexpected direction. But given what’s happened before, nobody really knows. “What happened before?” A ranger was on patrol when saw a man walking through the bush. He fired, and then ran to the spot to confirm his kill. What he didn’t realize was there were two of them, and they were soldiers, not poachers. The surviving soldier hid in the bush, and when the ranger ran up to check the body, the soldier shot him several times from close range (“Bam! Bam! Bam!” Desmond added, to get the point across); killed him dead. They had two funerals, one after the other, for both of them. “How could he not realize he was a ranger?” Of course he realized, but the ranger had killed his friend, so he got revenge. “Horrible,” Hloniphani said, and I murmured agreement. Desmond looked at us in confusion. “No, it makes sense. If one of those army guys shot you, I would wait and when he came up, Bam! Bam! Bam! Because he killed you, you see?” Wouldn’t you lose your job? “Of course not. I was just defending myself, how could I know he was an army guy?” Murder in cold blood to revenge the death of some ecologist he’d barely known for less than a week? Life is cheap.

– (As a small aside, every day before heading out to work, I have to call the section ranger who’s area I will be working in, to let him/her know my site location and to give my vehicle information. If I can’t reach them by cell, which is pretty much all the time, I have to physically drive to their headquarters, sometimes fifty kilometers out of my way, and pray they’re there so I can tell them in person. I have to do this so I don’t get shot. By someone. It need not be said that I don’t complain too much about the drive. On our way to Letaba last week I made the call and actually got someone, only to be messaged a few minutes later, telling me to come to section headquarters anyway. When I arrived the yard was filled with men in uniforms, milling about and carrying rifles. The section ranger strode out of the crowd and asked me, where exactly was I going to be? I showed him on the map. He stared long and hard, “All right. Just don’t go south of there.” Ok, I said agreeably. “Stay North of this road. Don’t cross it. At all.” I continued to agree. “Because there will be men there. So don’t go South.” Seriously, dude, I am going no-fucking-where near that place. There will be no road crossings. I will not even look in that direction. No worries.)

– (A final small aside: one time Hloniphani forgot to check in and our vehicle was reported to the section ranger by some tourists. Two rangers showed up, and after yelling for a bit and telling us we should have hidden our car in the bush (oh right, because nothing says we have the legitimate right to be here like camouflaging our vehicle and hiding it off the road), they threatened to arrest us. Our game guard was alarmed and Hloniphani was incensed, but I could not muster up any sort of appropriate response, mostly because I was thinking how awesome it would be to tell everyone the first time I was arrested was in South Africa for rhino poaching.)

– On the way to Skukuza, Rejoice broke the long-standing silence by turning to Hloniphani and suddenly erupting into a flurry of Shangan. It was a short exchange, and they quickly fell silent. I was curious, there was something in Rejoice’s tone that had caught my attention, so I asked them what was up. “Those men in the truck we just passed are from Acornhoek,” Hloniphani said. I had seen the men he was referring to, and I had noticed a half wave as they went by, but Hloniphani’s tone certainly didn’t suggest we had just experienced a strange and happy coincidence, running across friends far from home. “You know them?” I asked, hesitant to pry but still curious. “They just got out of jail.” Rejoice interrupted. This put me back a bit, but nobody offered anything else, so finally I asked the obvious question: “What did they do?” At this Hloniphani turned all the way around and stared out the window, and mimed plugging his ears. Rejoice nodded without surprise, “Hloniphani doesn’t want to hear about it.” Oh? Now I was really curious. “Those guys. They scare the shit out of me.” Hloniphani explained. And that was the last he had to say on the subject. Rejoice told me the rest of the story.

– There is a gruesome, flourishing business in Acornhoek: organ harvesting. Sex organ harvesting. …WTF, no, really, What.The.Fuck? “But… but… why?!” I interrupted, “who would even want that?” Sangoma, the traditional healers in South Africa, practitioners of a fascinating mixture of homeopathic medicine, medical herb lore, ancestor worship, and white and black magic. This went a long way in explaining things for me; I was no longer surprised, at least about that aspect of it. “So, they just, take people?” I asked. Yes, women, men, all members of the community, especially after dark, especially when their victims are drunk, wandering home, alone. Why didn’t they take drifters? I wanted to know, it would seem to make more sense to kill people with no local ties. To put it bluntly, they didn’t care, and they could get away with it. They had murdered a man just two months ago, killed him in his home. In fact it was this murder that finally roused the community into demanding the police do something and arrest them, the evidence was that overwhelming. “If they murdered him two months ago, how can they be out of jail already?” They bribed the police officers, like usual, everyone who can afford it does it. If the police are caught, they lose their jobs, but that’s it. No trial, no jail sentence, it isn’t illegal for the police to take bribes, and there are no legal consequences for it. I thought on all this, then finally asked, “What are they doing in the park?” They run a thatching service, replacing old thatch on roundavel huts. This sent a chill up my spine, just the other week I had worked near people replacing the thatch on one of the Wits Rural huts. The incident had stuck in my memory because the men had been watching me, and it had made me feel uneasy. “The same company that was at Wits Rural last week?” No, their relatives. Officially they run a rival business, but at night, after hours, who knows. That was the end of the conversation, but there was a follow-up several weeks later, after I relayed this story to Hannah and she pressed for details I couldn’t supply. So I went to Rejoice to get the answers: “How can the police accept the bribes, if they know they might be killed themselves later?” The guys would never kill the police officers that accept bribes. That wouldn’t be good for business. “But what about their friends and family? Don’t they realize that someone they care about could be killed next?” Rejoice looked at me sadly. “They don’t even think about it. Money is evil.” Life is cheap.

– So I don’t end on a horrible, morbid, depressing note, I’ll share a story I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time. A few weeks into my stay at Wits Rural, Hloniphani asked if I would like to attend a special, Father’s Day Sunday sermon at the local Protestant church with him and Rejoice. He sold it as a cultural experience, and I was certainly interested, so I got up early on Sunday morning, put on the nicest clothes I had brought (jeans and a black, three-quarter top, how embarrassing), picked them up (all decked out in their Sunday finest, which really is “finest” here, making me feel even more horribly shabby) and drove to Church. The church itself was one of those cinder block constructions you see everywhere, only half completed with some of the walls still missing and no roof. Since the building was still a shell they had erected a large white tent in the open space in the middle, but for all that I felt like I had walked up to a Ritz Carleton. There were stewards dressed in elaborate uniforms flanking the walkway in pairs, and each time we passed a pair we would stop to shake their hands. Luckily by this point I had mastered the three-part handshake that is common here, a deceptively simple exchange that is actually rather intricate and rhythmic in its details, involving a ninety-degree rotation of your wrist, up and then back down. At the door of the tent we again shook hands with two ushers, and again directly inside. Then we were directed to our seats. We were seated in one of the wings, far on the left-hand side of the stage. The stage itself jutted out into the audience so that there were people seated on all three sides. The service was already in progress and consisted mostly of a choir and a classic band ensemble (drums, guitar and keyboard + percussion), rocking out and drumming up the crowd. It was very enjoyable. One of the pastors got up to talk, and she was a fiery lady with a very powerful voice. I was absolutely fascinated because her husband got up with her and provided English translation. She would say a sentence in Shangan and he would jump in with English before she had even finished speaking; if she switched to English he would flawlessly begin speaking in Shangan, and it took on a sort of broken rhythm cadence. Since they were speaking at almost the exact same time I couldn’t make out much of the sermon, but it was something about Noah, and taking the Grace of God with you wherever you went. When she finished the main pastor took the stage and delivered his own half-singing, half-shouting sermon, often times holding hands with the translator and dancing with him. Again because of the simultaneous translation and almost whimsical switch from Shangan to English and back again on both their parts, I couldn’t make out much except for when he sang triumphantly “And the curses become reversed” again and again and again.

– It was around this point that I began to notice something odd. The pastor and the translator almost always faced our side of the audience. Sometimes they would dance over to the other side, or face front, but they would always return to the left-hand side again. I couldn’t make out who was on the other side of the stage because of the band (which played the whole time, even during the sermon), but I thought I could make out a large amount of kids, so I decided that maybe the other side was the kid’s section, (Though there were two little, little boys directly in front of me who kept me thoroughly entertained the entire two hours with their antics). After the main sermon there was more singing, and a fascinating moment when the entire audience began talking at once to God (I assume), which was like being at an incredibly loud cocktail party, and then some dancing in our seats.

– This was an interesting and fun experience all on its own, but what made it really memorable was what I learned afterwards. Apparently, the sermons aren’t usually translated into English. The translation, and the preaching to the left-hand side of the audience, was entirely for my benefit. This was a big place, I hadn’t even realized the pastors knew I came in (actually I had congratulated myself on keeping a fairly low profile as the only ‘white’ person in attendance). Well, I was utterly mortified. Utterly. Mortified. And I was so happy that I had paid attention the entire time, and donated at the end. Thank god I didn’t realize what was going on, or else the thought of those two hundred people watching me be singled out (and me in my hobo clothes) during the extra special Father’s Day Sermon would have frozen me rigid in my seat. I did feel a little better when Hloniphani told me that some of the other people who attended didn’t know Shangan either (like the guy from Nigeria in front of me who was wearing traditional tribal garb and a kickass hat), so they were ‘glad that I came.’ 

– Me to. But damn, two hundred people? Shiver. It’s a dangerous, frightening world out there.

Some days are half bottle of wine days

– “The adventure is over” I said, and fate said, “HAH!”

– This morning, man, I can’t even.

– So. For the past two weeks, Rejoice has been helping me with my fieldwork. She agreed to face danger and great personal discomfort for the promise of some pocket cash and the chance to see lions. Rejoice really really wanted to see lions. She worked with Hloniphani and I a month ago in Letaba hoping to see lions. No lions. She worked with me last week in Shingwedzi hoping to see lions. No lions. Then she came to Skukuza, and we even got up one morning at 5:00am to get out before the tourists to see lions. No. Lions. In her own words, Rejoice was sad.

– I told her, ok, my fieldwork is over, but lets try one more time.  Again, we got up at 5:00am and charted a route to Lower Sabie, the fated lion holy land according to one of our game guards. Getting ready to go took a lot less time than usual, as there was no need to pack the car full of gear, find munchables, pick up the game guard, etc etc all the work that usually accompanies a day in the field. But as we were walking out the door I looked over and saw my leatherman, lonely and abandoned on the bureau, and I thought, eh, why not, the car might break down. Aha. Ha. ha…

– Even at the time it wasn’t that funny, because this has happened before. I alluded to it in the leatherman entry, but one morning in Letaba we had just picked up our game guard and were about to head out into the field when the car refused to start. I was driving at the time, so of course this would happen just in time to make me look incompetent in front of the game guard and everyone. Hloniphani tried with no luck, so we popped the hood to take a look at the battery. A friendly guy named Thomas lent a hand and his tools (and my leatherman put them all to shame) and after swapping out the battery and other mucking about we decided that the battery was fine and the problem was elsewhere. (Thomas was slightly less helpful when he jerked the emergency break so hard it snapped, but that will go unmentioned). Hloniphani and I experimented with plugging in random stray wires with no result, so finally we decided to just tow it into town. Thomas again proved his helpfulness and lent his truck for this purpose. After hitching up the car, Hloniphani and the game guard began towing the truck while I remained in the cab to steer and work the break (because otherwise the truck would not stop at stop signs, which is illegal you know). This was an adventure all on its own. Hloniphani would accelerate too quickly coming out of stoplights and every time I thought he was going to jerk one of the bumpers off. Then he would signal at me “let your foot off the break” and I just had to sit there and seethe. The game guard didn’t help matters by telling me later, “Don’t worry, you did good!” while I glared at him through a stiff smile.




– And that wasn’t the only thing! (Oh and if you’re curious it was the car starter that was broken. We fixed that, the hood (a long standing problem), replaced the back license plate that fell off 200kms ago, and the emergency brake) A week later, when Rejoice and I were on our own with the game guard, we were driving to Letaba when one of the truck tires blew out. Again I was driving, but this time I handled things fairly well. I found the jack and the sprocket wrench, I got the spare out of the trunk, I tried to help with the actual changing of the tire but I was waved away. In the end it turned out our jack was too small and we had to call for a road service vehicle anyway, but by the time the guy got there all the hard work was done. It turned out that a patch on a previous blow out had blown again, so I ended up having to buy a new tube.


– And all that is beside the point, or not so much beside the point as proving the point that This Truck, man, *shakes head* … just, this truck.

– Where was I? Oh yes, grabbing the leatherman as I headed out the door. We hit the road and not 5kms outside of Skukuza Rejoice saw a lion. “Stop! Keala stop stop!” I had driven right past it and never saw it, and by the time I reversed it was long gone. But Rejoice was happy, and I was relieved that at the very least she had seen a lion. I asked her about it, how big, male or female, and listened to the excitement in her voice as she relayed the brief experience. We continued on to Lower Sabie (because you never know, right?) and a few times I got the whiff of something like burning rubber, but the temperature gauge showed everything was fine and I had gotten the water and oil checked just yesterday so I wasn’t too concerned. Then, about 2kms from our turnoff onto a dirt road, the car engine just died. Completely. At 40kms/hr. I coasted onto the side of the road and barely had time to turn the blinkers on when smoke started pouring out of the hood.

– We checked our phones. No cell reception. We checked the map. We were 14 kms from Lower Sabie. We had no game guard, so I couldn’t get out of the truck to check under the hood. I was about to do this anyway, when Rejoice grabbed my arm. There was a pride of lions around the car. A Fucking Pride Of Lions. Around the car. That was broken. With no cell reception. Hours before tourists are usually allowed out of the research camps. Great.

– So we sat there. I tried starting the car a few more times with no luck. The lions didn’t leave. At this point (the point at which I was fairly sure we weren’t going to die), this was actually still pretty cool. And hey, Rejoice really got to see her lions. Eventually some tourists came by and we flagged them down. (“Excuse me, hi, do you—“   “Did you see the lions??!!”   “Aha, yes, we saw the lions, but do you have cell reception? We’re in a bit of a bind.”)  They didn’t have cell reception but they agreed to inform someone at Lower Sabie about our plight. We watched our knights in shining armor drive into the sunrise… for fifty meters… and then stop… and then sit there for ten minutes … and then turn off onto a dirt road going entirely the wrong direction. Fuck. Other attempts to get help were equally (un)successful, so finally we decided we had to help ourselves.

– By this point we had been sitting there for over an hour, so I tried the ignition one more time, and it worked! I told Rejoice that we were going to drive very very slowly to Lower Sabie, at about 15 km/hr. She was all for this plan until I mentioned that at that rate going the 14 kms, would take about an hour. Then she was less okay. This was all aggravated by the fact that we needed to check out at 10am. We had missed our check out the previous day and Patricia at the Skukuza office had graciously allowed us to stay an extra night in a new house. If we missed check out late again I was afraid she’d be pissed for good and forever. And I have to work with her next year. So it was all very stressful, not even taking into account the whole stranded in the bush with lions situation.

-We made it to Lower Sabie and, after popping the hood, I discovered a seven inch crack running down the length of the radiator hose. A friendly gas attendant did an absolutely gorgeous patch with electrical tape, duct tape that I provided (which is called cello tape here), and pvc glue, and told us to drive back to Skukuza to get help. We set off with five 2-liter pepsi bottles filled with water and another gas attendant who agreed to make the trip with us just in case. Things were going great. And then things starting going differently.

– It was the Friday at the end of the month; Pay Day. Skukuza was utterly deserted. Only Patricia was left (we managed to check out, if not on time, then before she exploded at us. Actually she was really sympathetic). So we couldn’t get any help but we got a recommendation for a mechanic in the nearby town of Hazy View that sold parts. We left the park (and so couldn’t get back in) and got to the mechanic at around 3:30pm. It was a broken down, open air place, with dead cars everywhere, and my confidence continued to decrease from there. The first thing they did was rip away our beautiful patch. The second thing they did was to say, ‘yep, that’s a crack.’ The third thing they did was dig around in a pile of crap: bent metal, shards of glass and plastic, bits of rubber, looking for a ‘replacement’ hose. Yeah right, and no surprise when they didn’t find anything ‘sufficient.’ One of the guys said he was going off to buy the part somewhere else. I was skeptical. It was already 4pm and most places in Africa close between then and 4:30, and that’s when it’s not Pay Day. But off he went, and then people proceeded to ignore us. This would have ben fine.. –ish. Except they also continued to fuck around under the hood of the truck. What were they doing?! There was nothing to do until the part arrived. To make matters worse it was starting to get dark….


– We waited and waited. At one point a guy came out and told us they would work on the car tomorrow. Like hell they were! Where were we supposed to sleep? The cement? He told us, we’ll get you a lift home. To Acornhoek? That’s two hours away, no ways man. So he shrugged and left. Finally the other guy came back with a hose that was obviously the wrong shape (I was paying very close attention by this point). He sawed it in half, and then sawed our hose in half, thereby destroying my plan B of patching it again myself and getting the hell out of there. He then proceeded to put them together. By this point it was 7pm and I was starting to… well, not panic exactly, but get fairly concerned. The gate at Wits Rural closes at 10pm and neither Rejoice or I had a key, and we still had a two-hour drive in front of us. I was also wondering if this wasn’t just an elaborate ruse to keep us there until after dark and then take our organs (see next entry). Finally, finally he finished and waved us over. And thank god because they were starting to roll all the broken cars into the compound, change clothes and go home. He told us, this will last you until back to Skukuza. Come back tomorrow. Excuse me, what? We’re going to Acornhoek, I’m leaving for the States. I can’t come back tomorrow. (“You’re from the States? From where?”   “FOCUS you imbecile!”) So that changed everything. No he wasn’t done, no this wasn’t going to hold us until Acornhoek. 30 minutes later it was the thermometer that was broken and needed to be taken out. What would this involve? Dissembling the radiator. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?! Perhaps sensing our displeasure and the decreasing likelihood of paying whatever exorbitant fee he was going to charge us, he adjusted our fan belt for us, because it was “loose,” and he wanted to be “nice.” It’s now 8:00pm. The sun has been down for hours. We’re freezing, and hungry, we’ve been up since 5:00am with nothing but stress during every hour of the day. Finally he finishes. I refuse to pay his fee and give him 500 rand, which we had to take out of the wages I paid Rejoice because it was all the cash we had and they didn’t take cards. Before we left he gave us his phone number and told us to call him ‘if something goes wrong.’ Suspicious? Slightly.

– About two kms down the road, the car started to shake and a horrible grinding noise sounded from under the hood. The fan belt. The thought jumped up immediately. I pulled over, got out of the car and checked under the hood. Nothing obviously on fire, and I didn’t have the proper tools in any case. We weren’t going back, no way in hell were we going back, so I made the impulsive decision to carry on. The noise continued, a truly horrendous sound at night, in the middle of nowhere Africa, when you’re hundreds of miles from a friend. We got lost. I pulled up google maps and just thought I had figured out a route when my phone ran out of batteries and died. I proceeded to make my way from memory. I told Rejoice we might have to sleep in the car. She was not happy with me.

– We found our way back to the highway, and were making good time, but even so it had reached the point where all the little things you can usually ignore were compounding on themselves to become almost unbearable. I had a pounding headache, my eyes stung, the car was still shaking and making grinding noises, cars were speeding past us and people coming the opposite direction refused to dim their brights so I was constantly afraid of running off the road. It sucked, man. It really, really sucked.

– We made it back in time (9:50pm) before the gate closed. The car never broke down. I dropped Rejoice off and staggered into my house, leaving everything in the truck. I remembered I hadn’t eaten since 12, so I chewed on a lemon cookie before giving up and downing a half a bottle of wine. And that’s about as much as I remember.





– Today was my last day of field work for the season, a bittersweet occasion as usual. I decided to celebrate by driving to the top of a lookout a few kilometers south of Skukuza for a proper sundowners (well, a proper sundowners would have alcohol, but that’s not allowed anymore). The work’s not over of course, the next few days will be spent processing my samples, but the probability of being gored/bitten/eviscerated has been reduced dramatically.

– I took advantage of researcher privileges to drive around a bit after dusk. No lions, but I was menaced by a tiny elephant and got to see a rock python (BIG).

– A few more blog posts to come, mostly chronicling some of the more interesting trials and tribulations of the last few weeks, but the adventure itself is about wrapped up. It’s been fun kids.

Can I take the bottle home with me?

– My eating habits lately have been… uninspiring. Ok, they’re pretty uninspiring at the best of times, but in South Africa they’ve been down right dismal. What you have to understand is, when you get up at 6, spend the day carrying out the masochistic exercise that is Ecology to collapse on your front door step by 5, goad yourself upright to finish data processing by 7 or 8, shower (which takes longer than you might expect), and then fall into bed again by 10, pretty much the last thing you want to do is spend any one of those precious free hours in food preparation. Well, it’s the last thing I want to do, you might have other priorities. Meals simply become a way to stop the annoying noises your stomach is making, and it gets to the point where you don’t really care what goes into there as long as it stops complaining (especially when you’re working with M.C. Escher’s oven-stove and no microwave). 

– They’ve got these wonderful things called Lunch Bars here. Rejoice calls them “chocolate,” but they also have wafers, peanuts, caramel, and “crispy rice.” Perhaps it’s not exactly a well-rounded meal, but they are called Lunch Bars, and I see no reason not to take them at their word.

– My hot dogs went bad the other day. I say, “hot dogs” but as far as I can tell they’re actually some conglomeration of chicken and turkey, and I say “went bad” but really it was just some whitish film on the outside of the casing. It was a whole package of hot dogs, like twenty of them. They were supposed to last a month. So I ran them under some boiling water and then put them in the freezer. This was far more physical contact than I had ever chosen to have with these hotdogs (aside from eating them) and it made me realize just how distasteful the casing actually was; rubbery and vaguely slimy feeling. So now, before I eat one, I peel the casing off. Have you ever tried peeling the tubing off a hot dog? It’s a suggestive and unappealing process. For those that are grossed out by all of this, obviously you’ve never had to do what needed to be done. Besides, I’ve eaten far less hygienic stuff backpacking and I’m still alive. Germophobia is why our country is in such a sorry state, the war on allergies demand that we all just relax.

– In happier news, I’ve made another convert to God’s chosen meal. Rejoice was very skeptical at first. You should have seen the face she made when she tasted the soy sauce. R: “…too salty.” K: (well, shit, I was happy enough to find soy sauce, and it had dust all over it. Low-sodium would be pushing it) “You only need to put a little…” R: “That’s okay. [two minutes later] It’s fine, but there’s not enough salt.” K: “… well, maybe, a little … soy sauce?” She was most amazed by the eggs. Apparently the idea of frying eggs in butter is just too crazy an idea to have ever been conceived of. She told me that they cook eggs in cooking oil here and so afterwards you can’t see the yolk when it’s done (I realize now that probably has less to do with the cooking oil and more to do with breaking the yolk, which seems laughably obvious except it didn’t even cross my mind at the time). Her eggs and rice were enjoyed with the additional condiments of ketchup and “Spice for rice,” a spice mixture they sell here that’s actually pretty good and will be brought home with me, and after she was done she informed me that she will be making “my” eggs and rice again. I think she was most enamored with the preparation time to satisfying meal ratio, as she’s used to spending over two hours cooking for herself and Hloniphani.

– About three weeks ago, I realized I hadn’t eaten meat (the hotdogs don’t count) or had alcohol in over a month and I experienced a sad sort of existential crisis. I was in a pretty bad way, to be honest, and my cravings were starting to rival those of pregnant women (including the wine cravings, I would imagine). This was perhaps not the best frame of mind to go grocery shopping in. Now the meat they sell at the Pick-N-Pay falls under a strict dichotomy: microwavable, or comes-with-free-hacksaw. It’s also pretty expensive, as these things go. At any rate I found myself staring at an entire, shrink-wrapped chicken, and realized my food-apathy had just overrun my meat cravings and would soon take the war. Let this be a note on my character.  I still kept an eye out though, with a desperate sort of hope, and was drawn, as if by fate, to the open freezer section, where I found: Mama’s Pot Pies. Potpies are a big deal in South Africa, they sell them like they sell chicken wings at gas stations in the US. Most of them are filled with beef fat or pork and I simply cannot finish them. The ones I found in the freezer section were chicken and mushroom. This seemed promising. I flipped the package over and checked the ingredients. “This package may contain genetically modified organisms.” … organisms? Are these … chicken organisms? I could smell the pastry wafting off the package. Smell it, in the freezer section. It smelled delicious. There were oven directions on the box. …Fuck it. I put it into my basket. After that purchase I was invited to a braai, a wonderful, delicious, amazing, wine-filled braai, and all of my cravings were sated. The chicken potpies looked a whole lot less appealing after that. But eventually, inevitably, things reached a state such that it was easier to just pop them into the oven and pray for the best. When I cut into the pastry after they were finished, I was met with contents that can be best described as “dish water,” in appearance and consistency. If there was meat in there, I couldn’t find it. The pastry still smelled good though. I ate two of them. I regretted it. The rest were promptly thrown away and that’s the last that shall be said on the topic.

Ode to my leatherman

Oh leatherman, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

– Shiny, stainless steel; a kiss of iron wool and you are good as new again.

– Velco; still crisp, not a bit of fuzz. Never open when I want you closed

– Switchblade; always sharp, though I neglect you so. Happily you cut my salami, and my flagging ribbon when the plastic scissors have run away again.

– Scissors; hard to pry open, sometimes I wish you were tweezers, but never when there are stipules to be cut, in one dainty neat line.

– Flathead screwdriver; the GPS needs its batteries replaced. Thank god you are here, these South African coins are far too thick to fit the casing slot. 

– Jagged tooth saw; you look so fearsome, yet you are perfect for cutting away loose threads. Who would have known the back of you could turn the tiny screws of the flux device?

– Metal pick; some idiot thought it a good idea to miniaturize the installation CD. Why? WHY? In God’s name WHY? There is no IT department here, so you shall help me unstick it from my laptop instead.

(Oh, and help me kill this tick.)

– Philips head screwdriver; “Do you have a screwdriver?” the game guard asked, when the Kudu Kops decal fell between the car window and the panel of the door. I do indeed, good sir. Step aside, and I shall dismantle this metal plating post haste.

…So that is what it looks like, on the inside of a car door.

– Smaller flathead; the RH readings are too high. Please help me open the porometer head, so that we may change the desiccant.

– Engraved ruler, in imperial and metric; Leatherman, prepare for your photoshoot. I have lost the ruler, and have need of scale in these SLA photographs.

– Plier blades; what are you not useful for? Twig collections, thorn trimming, acacia bush clearing, breaking into locked cars—please come sit here, and never leave my side.

– Case; simple, inconspicuous, reserved, I should have lost you a thousand times over. But each time I find you again. It was meant to be.

– Metal file; the car will not start. Oh dear, the car will not start. First, let us file away the grime on the battery nodes, to ensure we have a good connection.

-Pliers; it is not the battery nodes, so we must replace the battery to see if the problem is there. These maintenance guys seem to be struggling, none of their tools can get a good grip. Excuse me, but maybe I could offer… Look at you little Leatherman pliers! Changing the battery all on your own!

– Leatherman handle; it is not the battery, we shall have to tow the car into town, on our own of course, because we are too cheap to pay for a tow truck. Help me ratchet this rope tighter, yes thank you, I will do more hand exercises when I get home.

(Don’t worry leatherman, it was the starter that was at fault, nothing you could have done there.)

– Can opener; you are a puzzle in this modern world, I have not used you yet. But someday I know I will be glad that you were there.

Savanna (mis)adventures

– I have gotten up at 5:30 in the morning for the last seven days in a row.

– Oh, the joys of field work.

– I have also watched the sun rise up into the African sky like a fiery inferno and listened to the zebras complain to each other as I sat in the grass beneath a marula tree, calibrating my equipment.

– Oh, the joys of field work.

– I experienced a strange moment the other day. It was 7:30 in the morning, already an hour and a half into my working day, and I was driving through a herd of impala, stuffed into my beat up land cruiser with one working seatbelt and two seats with three other people (one of whom was carrying a loaded elephant rifle) along the Eastern border of South Africa. Realizing all of this in a single moment of clear introspection, I had to ask myself: How in the world did I get here?

– A plane, obviously, plus some other minor detours and modes of transportation, but that wasn’t how I meant it.  No, it was more a metaphysical question, or at least a probabilistic one. As a senior in high school I had only flown a handful of times; I didn’t have a passport, I could barely speak French. Now look at me. How did this happen, and who would have thought?

– A brief aside: since then I have actually spoken French in France to French people. This is a hitherto unrecognized achievement that I am belatedly quite proud of. Japan will be next.

– As any field researcher knows (or friend/family member who has been drafted by a field researcher knows, which I’m assuming is quite a lot of them), working in the field is a very masochistic experience. It sucks, quite frankly. Bad things, frustrating things, uncomfortable things, painful things, really really painful things, really really uncomfortable things- they happen a lot. A LOT. You complain about this more or less constantly, to yourself or your field assistants or your friends (but not to your boss), and you mean it. But then again you don’t really mean it, because in between slicing open your fingers on the power drill (check) and working your way through a thicket of acacia thorns at the speed of 2 feet per 15 minutes just so you can wrap a tape measure around its trunk and lose a pint of blood in the process (check), you get to watch two hyena cubs tumble past, or get stampeded by forty strange stripped mongoose looking things (did that just happen?), or wave at the tourists who are watching you (sick with jealousy) from the road as you leave your vehicle behind and waltz off into the veld, …or, you know, you find a small handful of chocolate Smarties at the bottom of your trail mix bag (Score!). And then you come home and tell everyone how crappy fieldwork is and how you’d never give it up for anything and you can’t wait to go back. Masochistic, right?

– For example: I was measuring stomatal conductance the other day (it’s a thing, don’t worry about it), which involves walking up to a tree, clamping a probe onto a leaf, and holding still for thirty seconds (wash, rinse, repeat), before moving on to the next one. Sounds straight forward, right? Well sometimes leaves aren’t very close to the ground, and sometimes you’re short. These things happen. But wait! I just happen to be a halfway decent tree climber, though then again I’m loaded down with about twenty pounds of equipment (attached via various straps or stuffed into numerous pockets). I could, of course, take off all of this equipment, but that would take about five or so minutes, plus the five or so minutes to put it all back on again, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it compounds on itself when you’re climbing fifteen or so trees and you only have four hours to get all the measurements done (because of reasons), and really field work is a lot like inertia: once it goes, it goes, and you can’t stop it because then it’s never going to start again. So the gear stays on, but this leads to other difficulties of the life and limb variety.  Anyway that’s the scene. And curtain…

– … It was a tall tree (Philenoptera violacea, or Appleleaf, named for the sound when you crunch them), and the leaves were not close, but there were several strategically placed branches. After squinting at potential routes of ascent from various angles I decided it was reasonable. (And it was; aside from a brief moment where I found myself sucker punched by the trunk, maintaining friction by thigh strength alone, but we’ll hurry past that part.) Upon finally attaining the canopy, I contorted myself into a more or less stable position (and since I need both hands free to work the equipment this results in some pretty strange geometries), found a likely leaf and began to take a reading. About half way through the first measurement, I felt my hip crunch through something that I originally took to be some flaking bark. I couldn’t look down, but I figured it was a termite tunnel (termites construct tunnels of dirt and saliva up the side of trees so they’re protected from predators while they harvest leaves and wood; humans employ similar tactics when they’re storming castle walls), and aside from feeling sort of bad that I may have squashed a few termites I didn’t give it a second thought. As I finished with the first leaf and started on the second one, I glanced down to check the damage and was confronted with the fascinating tableau of thousands upon thousands of red, pin-prick sized creatures swarming up my hip and side. They were ticks. I had smashed through a nest of ticks.

– Now, I was precariously balanced several meters off the ground and I had several observations and choices to make. Observation number one: Were the ticks going to reach my face? No, they were very very tiny, and couldn’t move very fast; it was unlikely they would get that high any time soon. Observation number two: How high was I really? Pretty high. And there was that asshole Sicklebush below me. Observation number three: I had several more readings to get through; how long would it take to get back up here and finish the measurements, especially since the reading I was on would be invalidated by  jumping out of a tree halfway through? A pretty long time. Ok. Choice number one: Jump or stay? Well, I’d probably kill myself if I jumped so that one wasn’t really a choice. Choice number two: Abort the measurement to do something about the ticks? There really wasn’t much I could do about the ticks while delicately balanced in a swaying tree, loaded down with twenty pounds of gear, so I might as well continue with the measurement. Choice number three: Flip the fuck out? This is only rarely productive; I decided to stay calm.

– So I actually remained in the tree another ten or so minutes while completing my measurements before carefully working my way back down. I would check the red tide of ticks periodically to keep track of their progress. After swarming to mid-waist they stalled out and started exploring in other directions. Several hundred were being smashed every time I shifted against the trunk, and they were sprinkled across my notebook like red pepper kernels, unhelpfully getting smashed and smeared there as well. The whole thing was pretty zen after awhile; I hadn’t known ticks lived in nests. I wondered if they were hibernating over the winter or hadn’t really been “born” yet, or just liked the companionship. You experience all sorts of interesting things while doing fieldwork, and you never know what’s going to come next; it makes walking out the front door in the morning quite a thrill. Oh, and the silver lining for all of this? It’s a pretty awesome view from up in those trees, not to mention the overall sensory experience (wind in leaves, dappled sunlight, etc), and the essence of the moment got clarified beautifully when I zenned out, waiting for my measurement to finish with ticks swarming up my side.

– I bet you thought I was going to fall out of the tree at the beginning of this, didn’t you?

– Other field experiences: I was collecting seeds when I suddenly registered the sound of a pervasive leaf rustling, best described as shush shush shush. Glancing down I realized I was in the middle of a termite foraging party (yes, real termites this time, no, this is not a bad or alarming thing, they’re quite harmless). It’s extremely rare to see termites out in broad daylight, they’re always hidden away in their nests or their tunnels. There were so many of them that the sound they made as they chewed on leaves was audible to the human ear, and if that doesn’t amaze you, it should, and you should get out more. I carefully stepped out of the foraging party but unfortunately I had already crushed a few, and there were two that were half-crushed but not yet dead. This saddened me, as I knew I should put them out of their misery but I’ve never been good at killing things (except ticks). As I was contemplating their fate, silent and melancholy, I was distracted by quick movement in the grass several feet from where I was standing. It was an ant, an alarmingly large one, not moving with the usual searching patterns but with a deliberate directionality that I’ve found to be quite rare in insects. Curious to see what it was going to do (if anything) I watched it make a bee-line for the semi-squashed termite, pounce on it with all the ferocity of a lion making a kill, and carry it away, still struggling, into the grass. I didn’t know quite how to feel about this; surprised, relieved, horrified? And in fact I never did settle on one, but that’s nature for you.

– I mentioned that asshole sicklebush earlier. I really have a love/hate relationship with this tree. As the name suggests, it’s covered in modified twigs that are extremely sharp and pointed, in fact they can actually puncture truck tires (and do). But they’re also extremely easy to identify (well sort of), and have fun seeds in twisty little pods that the vervets love (my seed collection has been raided a few times, but that’s another story). The scientific name is Dichrostachys cinnerea, or written in shorthand notation: DIC CIN. I am ashamed to say that I have used this nickname as a pejorative on a number of occasions, like when I land in one or it blocks my way to another tree. What else can you say when it rips your shirt, or carries out an on-going tic-tac-toe game on your arm? Well I don’t know what you would say but I tell it it’s a f*cking DIC and it f*cking knows it and okay maybe my frustration has reached unhealthy and unproductive levels.

– One day I’m going to look back on all of this and laugh. Ok that’s today, but one day I’ll probably miss it.