Tuesday, 28 August 2007

First post about the island despite my having been here for almost two weeks.

The first views of la Isla de Robinson Crusoe are spectacular, although I’m filming them so I don’t notice at first. In my small fuzzy view screen is black rock and blue sea with white along the edges where they meet. Then I raised my eyes and took in the full shivering detail of the sheer cliffs, delicate surf and rolling greens on top. I am often wary of taking my video camera about with me; often you can either film a moment or live in it, not both. But so many times since I left the baboons (which I filmed plenty) I’ve wished I had a decent digital camera. I even considered buying one but have told myself that a cheap one won’t take really good pictures – not to mention the fact that I’m currently spending far too much on plane tickets and am now officially unemployed. So I remind my self that I’m poor (which makes one feel rather noble) and focus on absorbing the image instead – oh, and steal other people’s photos later! :)

I don’t know quite how to describe this island and this town to you. Rather than tell the story in the order that I saw it I want to describe this place in terms of the life here. I’m going to be here another two months at least, doing our work (studying hummingbirds, for those of you who are wondering what on earth I’m on about) and living in this small town (where everyone pretty much knows, and often is related to, everyone else) – and I want to have my own life here that I am in control of and am myself and comfortable within. But after ten days I’m only beginning to get there (while being very philosophical about it too) which is why I’m not sure I want to describe this place to you yet. I think I’ll wait for my feelings to balance out and reach a nice equilibrium – because you can’t describe pure fact without emotion and mine are all confuzzled so I’m going to be irritating and leave it. Despite the fact that I suppose you’ve all come here to read it, as opposed to my mad ramblings.

I’ll just give you the basics to keep you going:
Hi! I’m on Robinson Crusoe Island! Weather is always cold and generally muddy (a perfectly valid descriptive term for weather, and possibly even climate). Have seen lots of hummingbirds! Got tipsy in local bar last night – fellover in mud. Am learning Spanish! Most used phrases: No entiendo. No hablo espanol. Thinking of all you guys – hope you’re enjoying the end of summer, appreciate it! xxx Shamini

P.S. Sorry about the whole posting three things all at once thing and then confusing you into reading the story backwards which would clearly have made no sense. This may happen frequently from now on - I like having more shorter posts and am writing them down in my notebook as I go along as opposed to typing them all up here. Anyway, my suggestion would be to look at the "archive" list down the right hand side and see how many I seem to have added since you last read!
P.P.S. Thanks so much for the comments guys!

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Finding Santiago

In my first terrifying foray into Spanish I had successfully (I think) made a reservation at the Hotel Foresta. After arming myself with more Spanish phrases and then failing to find a baggage enquiries office, my bag had mysteriously appeared on the carousel with all the others, so I took a van from the airport with a few other people in. As we were driving I kept having to remind myself to look out of the window – to see where I was, what it was like. I was in Chile! What was Chile? I had no idea what to expect. I remember those first taxi rides from the airports in Hyderabad and Bombay, how I would always drink in the atmosphere, the experience of India! The only feeling I got from Santiago was that of a city. Just any city. I got to the hotel where the clerk spoke enthusiastic English, a little old man carried my heavy case up in the lift, I tipped him (probably not enough) and finally collapsed on the bed in the small room looking at stripy wallpaper with flowers on.

Having arrived on Sunday evening, I ended up staying another two days in Santiago before flying out. Having found the two other volunteers for the project who were also due to catch the same plane, I set out to find Chile. I found mountains! They had snow on!!!! I may have been illogically overexcited by this, but – there was snow! And they were huge! Just sitting there next to the city! Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow-covered mountains before so I thought that was pretty cool. We also found a zoo, in which lived elephants, lions, tigers, two polar bears and some condors in some quite small enclosures. The condors’ cage did not resemble jungle. We found various unhealthy types of food, a posh Italian restaurant that didn’t open till 8pm, cheap clothes that we didn’t have room to buy, museums that were all closed on Mondays and some hummingbirds on a hill. On the night before we were due to leave, after dinner and a hot chocolate, we failed, for some time, to find an ATM at which to withdraw all the money we would need for our 2-3 months stay on the bank-free island. We eventually reached a room of cash machines in the centre of town which you used your card to get into and withdrew some quite large sums of money – I had 200,000 Chilean pesos (about 200 quid) stuffed into my back pocket. It was around 10pm. Coming out of the ATM room I didn’t see anyone hanging around looking suspicious which was reassuring, and we set off back to the hotel. We were particularly wary after an incident earlier in the day when two young guys had run into us from behind (quite hard) and then made off down the street followed some time afterwards by a poor man yelling; they had made off with his laptop and he seemed to have little chance of catching them. Halfway back to the hotel Kelly (who it turns out graduated from APU in 2005) commented that she may have been being paranoid but a guy with a lip-piercing had passed us while we were getting out money and had then changed direction twice and had been following us. Worrying, but he’d luckily disappeared. At the next crossroads a skinny guy passed in front of us then started up the same street on the other side just slightly behind – “that’s him” muttered Kelly. I decided she wasn’t being paranoid. We marched back to the hotel really rather fast, hardly speaking until we got there. We decided that next time we’d get money out in the day time.

On Wednesday morning we left early in a large multi-seater and ended up in a pretty posh-looking lounge in a building round the back of the international airport. In the car park-sized space in front of us were two small planes and a helicopter. The luggage allowance was 10kg so I was charged 25 pounds for the extra 9 kilos of my large suitcase, but luckily not for my suddenly 87kg person. I drank my first latte – it was very nice. We squeezed onto a plane with about 10 seats in the front and the luggage in the back and the pilots visible through the open curtain at the front. I accidentally sat on my lunch, packed into a brown paper bag. Less than half an hour in we had left the coast of mainland Chile behind us.

At the airport, wish you were here.

I spent the entire flight from Jo’berg to Sau Paulo worrying about missing my connection (partly to avoid having to watch Spiderman 3 again). I had 40 minutes to catch my plane to Santiago, Chile, with a completely different airline, and I was constantly thinking about how late we’d left, how much the wind would slow us up, whether the original ETA was still accurate, whether that included taxi-ing, how long it would take me to get off from the back of the plane and what I was supposed to do before being able to get on the next flight. In the back of a small notebook in my bag I found all the Portuguese phrases I had written down when Adam and I got stuck in Brazil due to a gone-bust airline and thought we’d have to spend the night at the airport last summer. Instead we got flown first class to Frankfurt (reassuringly in-Europe) but I wasn’t planning on relying on such good luck again. I disembarked with five minutes until my flight was supposed to leave with no idea whether I had the slightest chance of being on it; I rushed anyway. I arrived at the gate far quicker than I had expected/feared. Some people looked at my e-ticket and nodded and talked in Portuguese. I got handed over to a helpful looking man. It was 16.30 – the exact time my flight was supposed to leave and I was standing in front of the gate. “Ah,” said the man looking at the print-out, “you’re supposed to be on this flight!”. Yes, I nodded, that was the problem. Typing things into his computer he commented that it was too late, the doors had closed. I resisted the temptation to go to the window and watch my plane leave in a tragic-looking way. The man handed me something – it was a boarding pass. He’d put me on the next flight in two hours. Oh! Well that was ok then! I was so relieved I forgot to ask what would happen to my luggage. I waited for the next flight at the suspiciously familiar-looking departure lounge (where over 12 months before I had emerged from the toilet to hear a mangled version of my name on the tannoy and then failed to understand why they were changing our boarding cards) and decided that Sau Paulo airport was more fun when Adam was there.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The rejuvination of my career as a marine biologist.

It is also the first post from Chile and a ´nueve entrader´ but I´m afraid I´m too behind in updates!

On the evening of the naked mole rats with which I left you I got a text from Alta asking if I could come out on the boat with her again since some other people had dropped out. Despite the fact that I knew I would feel differently once the sea-sickness set in I readily agreed!

The day everything went wrong:

3.30am: Wake up. Wish I´d gone to bed earlier.
6am: Alta finally arrives 30minutes late.
It turns out Alta hasn´t slept having been up all night making decoys. The phrase "I really shouldn´t be driving does nothing to reassure me. We drive through Simon´s town but the pharmacy isn´t open yet and the shop doesn´t do motion sickness tablets.
When we get to the harbour Alta realises that one of the small keys for the two motors is no longer on the keychain. Damn. We look around futilely. We go to check the boat and get it ready (somewhat optimistically I felt but aparently we can work on one motor). While using a rope to let myself down to the small row-boat we use to get to the bigger boat and have to perform a stretch which proves too much for the crotch of my rather inflexible waterproof trousers. They now have a huge tear in them - but I decide this may be an improvement in terms of climbing ability; I can also now sit in an unladylike fashion with my legs apart. Alta fails to find the key in the boat. I go ask some random navy people. Also futile.

By this time it was getting light. Most predations happen early when the sun is low making the silhouettes of the seals more easily visible from below. We could have gone out on one motor but by the time we got out there we’d have missed most of the predations anyway, so Alta decided it was more important to get the key copied (since the one we had fit both engines). The reason for this was that the priority of the day was to get onto Seal Island which would require another skipper and preferably two working motors. We were going to collect the skipper George, and Alta’s supervisor Justin, and then Alta and Justin were going to get onto the island to get two months worth of data from a box which recorded the presence or absence of tagged seals. We were supposed to be picking the others up around 10am and getting back around lunchtime, so we had time to go off and get the key copied first.

We tried about three different places nearby, none of which could make a copy of the unusual boat key. The up-side to all this driving was that I was able to find a pharmacy and purchase some motion-sickness pills! At some point during all this we had a call from Justin – skipper George couldn’t make it. No matter, said Justin, he could drive the boat; I think his phrase was “How hard could it be?”.
So finally, a key, motor and skipper short, we set off towards Seal Island. The tourist boats which come to watch the shark acrobatics had gone so there was just us and an interested looking marine police boat. Now Seal Island is basically a big flat rock covered almost entirely in seals and a flock of cormorants. Can they be a flock when they’re sitting down? Anyway, they kept to their own little patch away from the seals. Oh, and I also spotted a couple of penguins! I think they were Jackass penguin, which is actually the new name for African penguins; the other kind they had at the aquarium were Rockhopper penguins.

So, this rock is inconveniently lacking any sort of pier, harbor, slipway or any kind of sandy beach. We drove round it a couple of times looking at the large slippery-looking sides against which the waves were crashing. In a probably illegal manner, Alta taught Justin to drive the boat, then we waited for the marine-police people to get bored and leave, and picked a nice looking rock. Alta stood at the front of the boat with a backpack containing a plastic bag of useful/expensive equipment including the laptop for downloading the data. Justin drove the boat slowly towards the rock, freaking out the mass of seals in the water in front of us. At the moment that the boat started bumping into the rock, Alta stepped carefully off and Justin hit reverse. Alta was safely on the island!

We drove off to a distance and watched Alta slowly edge towards a grey structure in the middle of the island with some solar panels and a light on top. She had to move a few steps at a time then wait for all the alarmed seals to lumber out of the way. The entire flock of cormorants took flight and started circling the island repeatedly, like a storm with Alta in the centre. While she reached the computer and started opening it up and fiddling, Justin and I sat on the bobbing boat chatting. The sea-sickness tablets worked amazingly – it was brilliant! Alta took a looong time. We discussed naked mole rats, annoying teenagers, and whether I was any good at genetics (answer no, although apparently there is a PhD waiting to be done on the baboon genetics; Justin is also Tali’s supervisor). I was perched happily on the inflated side of the boat (less than a meter above the surface) when Justin looks behind me at some seagulls circling the water and says “I think there’s a shark there”. Even as I got up (rather quickly) and turned round, an enormous Great White appeared in the water a couple of meters away. We had a beautiful view as it circled and swam right under the boat – we even caught a glimpse of its teeth! Justin was as excited as I was, laughing when I jumped away from the side and exclaiming “you owe me a sandwich!”. He certainly had food on the brain, having been disappointed to find out that Alta had not brought lunch.

Alta really was taking a long time – it was getting past lunchtime. All the seals had stopped being freaked out and had filled in the gap. When she finally returned, she didn’t have the data; apparently the solar panels weren’t charging the machine and there wasn’t enough juice for the download.

There followed many technical discussions (once we’d managed to avoid waves coming from two directions and get Alta on the boat again). A plan was formulated by which Justin would carry the ridiculously heavy battery from the non-working motor to the island. We found a new, less wave-battered rock to use as a stepping stone; it was also covered in mussels providing more grip. His jump onto the island was accompanied by a painful-sounding scraping of hull against mussel-shells. He went, connected up the battery, and came back. As Alta steered the boat in a wave pushed as sideways away from the rock, so she decided to go in for another try, but Justin didn’t seem to want to wait and leapt across the bow ending up sprawled across the front end of the boat. While more technical discussions were taking place I split the remains of a small bar of chocolate between us and guiltily consumed my one cheese sandwich. Alta hopped back onto the island to reattempt the download, preferably finishing before the swell/waves increased which was forecasted to come in at around 5pm. Once again she was gone a looong time. I saw spray in the far distance across False Bay and caught a glimpse of a whale body pushing out of the water and crashing back in. We saw some dolphins, presumably herding a school of fish since a group of seagulls turned up and started diving into the water.

Justin was really frustrated not knowing what was happening and worrying about the potential loss of two months of data; he kept saying “she’s taking too long!” and running through the various possibilities in his head. Somehow all the mobile phones had ended up in bags on the island which was not so helpful. When it got to the point where Justin was considering swimming I finally said (somewhat redundantly) “Do you want to go?” and persuaded him to let me maneuver the boat. How hard could it be?

I’m sure you’re all expecting some disaster story now but I’ll have you know my first ‘command’ as a boat Captain was a great success! My steering skills were wonderful if I do say so myself. I sat in the boat by myself drifting away and having to steer back to the island every so often. Five o’clock came and went without the advent of huge thunderous waves and my excellent piloting skills were able to retrieve Alta and Justin and the equipment successfully from the rock! The retrieved battery didn’t appreciate all the jumping about and started leaking acid into the backpack, dissolving the back of Justin’s water proof trousers. Other than that it was all a success!

On the way back we saw more dolphins who couldn’t keep up with us, and the back of what was presumably a Southern Right whale quite close by. I would have liked to stop for a look but the sun was setting, Justin had missed his 3 o’clock meeting and no-one had eaten properly all day.

When we got back the harbor Justin skedaddled off back home and Alta and I put the boat away in the dark. Alta managed to drop her keys off the side, necessitating a rope-assisted clamber down into the little boat in order to retrieve them (the keychain has useful floaty part) in the pitch black. It seemed that after successfully obtaining the data (which I may have forgotten to mention in the midst of extreme exaggeration regarding boating skills) our bad luck felt the need for some vengeance. While steering the big boat (aka the rubber duck) out of the bay towards the buoy in the dark, Alta hit a piece of metal on the side and punctured one of the inflatable sides of the boat. Not good. Although that was our last mishap for that day, the harbor master called Alta a few days later to tell her that the boat had capsized. The last I heard Alta and Justin had rescued the boat and were trying to dry out the engines – so fingers crossed!

I got back to the flat that evening after 8pm, some 14 hours after I’d left. It was a long day; and a long story! I’ll spare you details of BBQing, drinking too much wine and saying goodbye, and leave my adventures in South Africa there!

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Final Post from South Africa! :(

Hi guys. Well this is it, I'm flying off to Chile very very early tomorrow morning so I just thought I'd write a note to let you know that I have no idea what internet access will be like from now on!
I also owe you a post on the rejuvenation and reincarnation of my career as a marine biologist but I fear that it may have to wait.
In the mean time all comments are welcome, since I'm writing this for you guys (I'd never have the motivation to do it for myself!) but if I don't know if you're appreciating then my motivation is less. Even constructive criticisms are welcome! Erm, unless they relate to the numerous typos I don't have time to fix - sorry! :(

PS I just spoke Spanish - my first Spanish conversation! It sort of worked. At least, I think I have the hotel booked for the right occasion! Though I did keep saying 'perdon' and I'm not sure if this actually means 'sorry' or just 'excuse me'. Oh dear. Why did I do deutsch in swanmore? Well I know why but I feel Spanish could have been more helpful.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

The Best Animal Ever

Hello again people. Still lazing around in Cape Town at Lena's! Mostly.

After Sunday Morning's sea-sickness disaster, that afternoon instead of sleeping (which I really wanted to do) I decided to go to the aquarium where I could watch fish floating around...floating...bobbing...up and down... and sideways...ohhhh....
Ahem. No actually it was fine, I blame the 4hours interrupted sleep the night before for my needing to sit down for a rest occasionally! It was absolutely brilliant though - the most gorgeous creatures - lion fish and little sea horses, huge sea urchins and giant alien crabs (See stolen photos below)

I arrived for predator feeding time - the ragged tooth sharks gently took big pieces of fish off prongs held by two divers, a big short-tailed ray kept flapping all over them and an adorable loggerhead turtle got annoyed when the sharks were fed first and tried to bite the divers. They also had a really cool kelp forest, penguins (both African and Jackass) and seals - the seals were swimming around continuously - I could have watched them for hours. Ooh and I also touched a star fish and a great big sea anemone...mmmm sticky...and that's actually because of the tiny harpoons they're firing into your skin you know! :P

I don't know what I did with the next few days. Sleep mainly I think (I can't remember, since I was asleep). How I love just not getting up in the mornings!

I do recall going to see the Simson's movie - much lolling, and then paying 50 Rand (that's like almost fours pounds according to my maths!) an hour for internet at the touristy waterfront.

Tuesday I went into UCT's Zoology department and saw the most amazing animal in the world (possibly). They're not big or especially fast, they can't fly or breathe fire, but they do have thermoregulatory physiology and a social system unique among mammals (which is almost as good).
I'm sure all sensible biologists will know what I'm talking about by now...it is of course, the Naked Mole Rat. *sighs with adoration* They are small and pink and wrinkley (and I refuse to see any similarities to tiny willies), completely blind and have huge front teeth. They live in burrows underground where a single female 'queen' has all the babies (just like in ants or bees) which makes them so amazingly interesting I can't even describe it since not having babies (worker sterility) is a big deal and only previously known among insects. They run around (sometimes backwards for some reason) and bump into each other, then clamber around all over each other. They are very cool. Here is another stolen picture (this is quite a big one):

I shall leave you with this beautiful image and hope that you will take it upon yourself to join the Naked Mole Rat appreciation society on facebook, or possibly just build a small alter at which to worship them.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Touristing in Cape Town!

So, the winter field work season over, I have about a week to spend in Cape Town before flying off to Chile. I am staying with Lena, a friend of the family who used to visit us often when she was studying in England, and her boyfriend Ganesh. They have a lovely flat in the centre of Cape Town with views of Table Mountain (which I have yet to climb) and Signal Hill (been there!) where they fire a cannon at noon for some reason.

The first job was shopping - I am now the proud owner of a lovely new digital watch! And I'll have you know I went into a very posh looking shop all by myself to buy it - fortunately when you translate it into pounds everything is very cheap here which is great!

Then on Friday afternoon I visited the nearby South Africa Museum. I wasn't sure what to expect but when most of it turned out to be Natural History with a bit of Anthropology thrown in I was very happy! Most of it was really awesome, with great detail in some of the displays - particularly the section on whales and sharks and things. I was also excited to find lots of fossils of mammal-like reptiles recovered from the nearby Karoo (a dry area with lots of succulent plants). Mammal-like reptiles are pretty obscure really - which is why I was so pleased to find them - us scientists do like our obscure knowledge as most of you will know. :)

Sunday was the day on which my career as a marine biologist began and was cruelly cut short. Alta is another PhD student who was staying, with her own team of volunteers, with the baboon people in the house at Kommetjie. She is studying the response of the Cape Fur Seals at Seal Island to predation by Great Whites, but since all the seals bred late this year, the whole season has shifted, and all her volunteers have gone home. So I went off to be a seal-person for the morning along with a random Masters student who she called in at the last minute. I left the house at 5.30am and we drove to the harbour to set-up the boat. It's a smallish boat, the kind with an inflatable ring round the outside - she kept calling it a 'rubber duck'; it's bigger than a car, maybe about the size of Jenny's old hovercraft if any of you saw that. We sped off at alarmingly high speeds to Seal Island - a big flat rock covered in seals - which is some way out.

The idea of going so early was that the seals, which stay near the surface, can be most easily spotted from below when the light is at an angle i.e. sunrise and sunset. The adults have generally learnt to come and go from the island under the safe cover of darkness (a behaviour which may be unique to this population as a response to the predation threat) but the juveniles are a bit thick. Some of you might have seen what happens next on 'planet earth' and I have provided an illustration below. Basically - say hello to the flying sharks. They come leaping out of the water, a behaviour called breaching, and grab the poor seals.

Being a bit late due to various problems that morning we didn't manage to spot any good predations - when seen Alta collects data on the age and size of the seal (if possible) among other things. However, not to be beaten we made our-own shark-bait (I say we, I think Alta stayed up most of the night with pieces of foam, polystyrene, scissors and a staple gun). Behind our boat we towed two 'fake seals' cut out from black material, pulled along with long pieces of rope (our boat is aproximately shark-sized, so the long is important). The experiments Alta has been carrying out up till now have shown that the sharks tend to (7 out of 8 predations) go for the larger of the two cut-outs, i.e. the adult rather-than juvenile sized seals. As a control we towed two adult-sized cut-outs at different distances from the boat (necessary in order to separate the two, though they still sometimes get tangled).

We managed to get three breaches on our decoys that morning - it was awesome! Although the third time I was daydreaming about whether a 'rope burn' was in fact a 'friction burn' and remebering the time Jayames ended up upside-down in a tree after relying on me to pull on the end of a piece of climbing rope, and when I absent-mindedly noticed "ooh a shark, that's good" I forgot to let go of the rope quite quick enough - ouch. After each 'predation' we waited a bit, then turned the boat around to recover out pieces of dismembered foam seal. The scariest bit was having to get close enough to the broken and intact decoys to pull them into the boat while praying that the shark wasn't still around and planning another leap!

The reason that morning also ended my shark-watching career was I got appallingly sea-sick, mainly when we were stopped and fiddling around trying to untabgle the long ropes. NOT good. I spent all the bit in between decoy-towing trying to be asleep. It was very irritating as I've never really been sea-sick before, but at least now I know. :( I think it was worth it though!

Monday, 6 August 2007

The final days of babooning - part II

Sorry for abandoning the story before - it shall now be continued at the expense of extortionate waterfront (touristy) internet place prices!

So I left off in the morning with Kanonkop and us roaming the hills and Buffel's keeping a low profile - fair enough, Kanonkop is at least three, if not four times the size (having the whole troupe in sight at once to count them can be tricky, but our maximum is 44!).

So, suddenly BB King (head of the Buffel's clan), watching from the Dunes below decides he's had enough of keeping a low profile. In he charges at top speed causing widespread panic. The troupe, previously scattered over the hillside, suddenly bunch up trying to group together for safety (or possibly just trying to hide behind each other). BB charges round and round like he's herding them; everywhere he goes baboons are literally leaping over each other to get out of his way. The whole troupe are in one big circle and BB goes runs around launching apparently random attacks with no apparent preference for age, size or sex. As the mass of baboons sways this way and that in their attempts to get away it dawns on Tali and myself that we are standing rather close to them; that, in fact, there are only a few metres of low scrub between ourselves and a horde of mad stampeding baboons. We beat a hasty retreat up the hill, and then over to one side - which turns out to have been a good move when Kanonkop retreats that way a few moments later. We pass a random lone male wandering casually over a hillock towards the sound of the screaming and hastily move out of his way attempting to look innocent. All BB's females are standing on the Dunes watching and yelling - presumably shouts of encouragement. A few of them come over and the large loner (presumably a Kanonkop hanger-on) also rushes into the fray that is now unfortunately obscured by the hill we vacated. Some time later BB and his females go streaming back to the rest of the Buffel's bay lot over on the Dunes. We come over the hill and eventually locate Kanonkop foraging serenly in the bushes of the same valley both troupes had been in the day before. There are numerous questions, and of course that was the day I didn't bring my video camera which could have helped! We're not sure what BB was actually trying to achieve - he basically seemed to be just beating them up! Did he get bored - or was the male we saw the dominant one and saw him off? The males that were present were pretty pants, hardly doing a very good job of defending the troupe - were they just the younger and perhaps older ones? Did BB notice that the alpha had gone? Was he sussing out their defence, did he want a take over, or was he just warning them off?

Kanonkop didn't actually leave Buffel's 'territory' - they wandered along the shore and, alarmingly, Buffel's casually followed some distance behind. Tali and I couldn't stop casting nervous glances over our shoulder and made a particular effort to overtake Kanonkop so as not to be in the middle of the two troupes. Eventually Buffel's headed away on one of their usual routes back to the visitor's centre and Kanonkop carried on foraging in the short grass just above the rocky beach. We found another of their sleeping sites that night - yet another rocky cliff - which is very important for being able to locate them in future.

The next day they came down from their cliff and onto the short grass. Some hours later they moved a little bit to the South. Then a few hours later a bit more to the North. Then, late afternoon, back to where we started again. It does make a change from cliff scaling and 'jungle' traversing - but they did nothing all day! We made up for it by educating each other - Tali gave me a quick course on South African history and I attempted to relate to Tali the story of the Ramanayanam. You know the thingy with Rama and Sita and Lakshmana and their other brother Benjamin. Ok so I forgot some of the names. And some plot points. I did manage to include lots of bits that were completely irrelevant to the main story though!
I just must say about apartheid though - my god, I can't believe how recent it was! I mean Gandhi gets chucked off a S.African train (well that's what happened in the film anyway) and then goes to India and creates social reform and India gains independence by 1947. The South Africans then invent the apartheid and go around being appalling untill the early 1990s! I mean jeez!

And to take a brief foray into modern South Africa - two things strike you. 1. Security measures everywhere like grilles on all the shop doors and the have to buzz you in and things. 2. All black people are poor and white people are rich. As simple as that. Which changes the whole way you make assumptions about people - in England it might be because of their job, clothes or accent. Which apply here too of course, but now it's largely race and you're like - oops, this is suddenly really bad.

Interesting diversion into the social sciences over - back to zoology - sorry SPSers!
So the next morning, at the same place, me and Tali tell the baboons that we have nothing left to say to each other so they darn well better do something today and they reward us by suddenly disappearing over the top of the cliff. While Tali remains to collect poo samples (another joyous part of the research for someone else's project on intestinal parasites - we get to much up still-warm baboon-poo in a little plastic bag then put it into little tubes) I heave myself over the cliff to see the whole troupe in the distance having crossed the valley and heading over the next hill. I raced after them, using great restraint to only collect two of the lovely poo samples I see long the way, shoving the little sandwhich bags into my pockets for later. We might have lost them had Tali not proved to be fitter than me, catching up and overtaking me and managing to spot them going over another hillock in the distance. The rest of the day was a trans-peninsula trek from one sea to another (except that they're both actually the Atlantic but never mind) during which time the seat of my nice new blue combat trousers became turned inexplicably blue. We collected more poo, we followed the baboons, and we finally reached the end of our last 11+hour day.

I was sad that it was over, despite being exhausted after a four-day stint. Tali, who can come back anytime, was mainly just happy - apparently she can go back to her life now!

Last Thursday we packed up our things, tidied the house and took all the perishables from the fridge. And that is the end of that.

Except the bit about the sharks which I shall have to tell you next time!

Saturday, 4 August 2007

The final days of babooning.

Well now it's done. We have left the beautiful seaside house at Kommetjie and I'm sitting in an internet cafe somewhere between Table Mountain, Devil's Peak, Signal Hill and Table Bay. This means I'm in Cape Town for those of you who gave up Geography in year 9. And yes of course I knew all of this before I came here...*gives a shifty look incompatible with S.African keyboards*...

There is much to tell but I think I should begin where I left off and describe the last few days of following Chacma Baboons round the Cape of Good Hope.

The weather luckily cleared up (for the most part) for the last week of the field season, which ended up being mainly myself and Tali (the masters/PhD student type person) collecting the final data for the Kanonkop troupe. Most of the other volunteer's had left, although South African Simon did stay until the night before 'Varsity' (ie Uni) started again.

As I think I've said before, the home range of the Kanonkop troupe is HUGE and they will happily travel across all of it in a day. So, if you've been sitting at home hiding from the rain the day before you basically have no idea where they'll be the next morning. So the usual start is - we drop Tali at one car-park to check the sleeping site there and then walk for about 50 minutes to the central sleeping site, while me and Simon drive all the way down the Peninsula to start at the other end and walk up to the other sleeping sites that we know of. I did once see a very convincing baboon shaped bush...but apart from that no luck.

We checked out another set of cliffs that they once slept on from the road with binocs but couldn't see any. Our next plan was to go north and head for 'Kanonkop' mountain itself where they tend to spend the summers, but we decided that we deserved a treat and started heading down South towards the visitor's centre where one can find tea and coke and chocolates (my interests clearly being in the latter)! We spot some baboons on the road - right near the visitor's center which is where the Buffel's bay troupe like to sleep. Hmm. Must be them. Tali stands on the car and peers into the bushes - it soon becomes clear that numbers of baboons we have are somewhat greater than Buffels' ten. Maybe the Cape Point Troupe then? The matter is settled when a hoard of juveniles appears on the road behind us - it's Kanonkop - hoorah! That was some serious luck there, it really was - Tali has spent whole days before looking for them!

We were quite excited too since they were pretty much in Buffel's territory - what would happen if they met? Kanonkop has about six recognisable grown males though only a few of those are proper adults with big shoulders. Buffel's has just one adult male - BB-King, and he's on the small side.

We followed the troupe through almost-impassable reedy swamps (i'm just glad there aren't too many snakes around here - I was ploughing my way through the reeds with no idea where I was putting my feet) and peered through the rain to spot them in the bushes; We went right past the back of the visitor's center, pole-vaulted over a small stream, trekked over sand dunes and finally lost them again in more bushes. The trouble with these guys is if you try to follow them through the bushes you can't get close enough to see where they go because they're too nervous - it only really works if you're literally on their tails and sometimes not even then. So I decided to stay on the road and espy them in the valley from the comfortably-tarmacked tick-free vantage point.

They tend to spread out a lot so I was catching glimpses of heads and tails here and there. Then I spotted a couple walking past a gap a little to the left and heading up hill - then another, and another and another. I thought I saw about ten heading that way - which I figured was better than the odds and ends Simon was trying to follow down in the valley in front of me so I called to him that I was going to keep up with this little group! They hit the road and graciously decided to walk up it so I followed them easily, trying to count how many were there ahead of me. They glanced at me but didn't seem too afraid which was good. I eventually settled on the original figure of ten - one adult male, several females with infants and a couple of juveniles. I'd left Simon quite away behind and was feeling very pleased with myself to have managed to hang onto such a big group of them all together when I spotted the tail of one of the mums. It had a kink in it just like that adult female 'Cher' from the Buffel's Bay troupe..........sh*t! I'd spent the last 15 minutes following the wrong baboons! Far from the fireworks we'd expected - the resident troupe has simply slunked carefully and quietly away and were heading home to the visitor's center completely ignoring the 'invaders'!

Later on Kanonkop also headed off to bed - towards the Buffel's sleeping site trees at the visitor's centre! The Buffel's troupe could be seen at a safe distance hiding behind a bush on the dunes, only coming forward and climbing the trees once Kanonkop had gotten out of the way on the other side of the building. The next morning they once again quietly disappeared in the opposite direction - the Kanonkop mass looked up as the left but didn't seem to have any inclination to follow. We followed Kanonkop again as they headed over the Dunes and onto a scrubby hill - we could see Buffel's picking on some tourists in the background but had given up hopes for exciting clashes.

I'll have to leave it there for now - it's ten to six which means sunset and I've gotta get back to the flat before dark. If I'm very clever I may write the next post on Lena's (the family friend I'm now staying with - yes, they're everywhere!) laptop and transport it here by some magical means tomorrow. Anyway - part two of the exciting baboon-following adventures in the next couple of days!

(Here's a teaser - we got our fireworks)