The Jeep

The storm has been building for days. The heat is getting unbearable, the air thick and murky. Clouds that gather during the day always disperse in the wind before any relieving rain can fall. So the heat and the humidity build. Even the birds are too hot to move. The heat builds. The clouds build. The clouds disperse.

Until today. Today it is going to rain, and when it rains here, it really rains. Torrents streaming off roofs, rivers in the streets, sheets of water instantly drenching anyone who steps outside down. A constant deluge for hours on end. Today it is going to rain like this. Today, the day my windscreen wipers stop working.

Such is life with The Jeep.

The jeep in her natural habitat

Now, possibly the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my PhD is that logistics can totally screw you over. You can be as bright as a button and have the best ideas and analysis in the world, but if you can’t get from A to B then you’re stuffed. So I had to buy a car. Buying her was fairly traumatic (see Los Coches y el Cochino) but she repaid my perseverance by repeatedly, and in a variety of interesting ways, trying to ruin my life. Obviously there were standard car problems: the radiator dying, the clutch dying, the battery… dying. Essentially everything that could die, dying. But this is probably pretty standard if you buy a fourth (fifth?) hand vehicle that’s had the living crap kicked out of it in it’s short life (why would you buy such a vehicle in the first place? I hear you ask. I refer you to Los Coches y el Cochino and the desperation thereby induced. Plus I’m a fucking idiot). It’s the other things that are a bit more trying.

Like the fact that there aren’t any windows. I mean there’s a windscreen, so that’s a bonus, and some plastic rear windows that you can zip on if you feel like it, but nothing for the front. You could again reasonably question my decision making at this point, but in my defence I asked where the windows were and the guy motioned to the pile of plastic for the back ones – at the time I assumed they were all there. Anyway, this isn’t too big a problem – I’m in the front, shielded by the windscreen, it’s the poor bastards in the back who suffer. But with hindsight, I now know to always check the existence of windows when buying a vehicle. Especially if you’re planning to do fieldwork. In the tropics. In the rainy season.

I might only be a beetle but at least they've got windows...

I might only be a beetle but at least they’ve got windows…

At least the windows don’t actually endanger lives through their absence, unlike the tires which have, on occasion decided to go AWOL. Now I’m no mechanic, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t supposed to look like this:

Also note the exceptional wiring

Also note the exceptional wiring

Again, you might again ask why I bought a car looking like this, but this time it wasn’t my fault! I bought a car with seemingly faultless tires, only to have them treacherously commit harakiri whilst I was storming down a motorway. The overflowing rubbish dump we’d just driven past may have had something to do with it, but I suspect it was just The Jeep trying to kill me.

That time I was too good for her. Pausing only to swerve violently into the oncoming traffic and swearing piteously in at least two languages (there might have been a bit of Mayan in there too) I guided us to safety and waited to be rescued. We were only a few miles from home on a busy road so it wasn’t too big a deal. But she learned from this, and the next time waited until the perfect moment…

In my first year, my supervisor came out to visit and we went on the mother-of-all roadtrips. From Cancun we headed south to Chetumal and then across the base of the Yucatán Peninsula to a seriously awesome Mayan site called Calakmul, which is in the middle of nowhere.

All that way in a car that wants you dead

We spent the morning fruitlessly searching for manatees and so by the time we were properly in the middle of nowhere it was late afternoon and we were hurrying to make sure we got there before dark. “A-ha!” says The Jeep “now is perfect”. So she stopped working. We were going downhill, so I didn’t notice at first, but she just died. We rolled on a bit. I tried the ignition. We rolled a bit further. I tried the ignition again. This was repeated for a mile or so until we reached the bottom of the hill and stopped.

“Hmmm” says I.

“Yes… hmmm” says my supervisor.

“Uh….hmmm” joins in Becky The Long Suffering Field Assistant.

Having clarified the situation, we decamp and open the bonnet. My supervisor, to be fair, probably knows something about cars, having suffered similar traumas in Africa during his PhD, but I’m pretty clueless and I don’t think Becky will be offended if I put her in the same category. So we stare at the engine.

My car inspection stance

My car inspection stance

“Hmmmm… I think… I think it’s a problem with the … um, yeah that…”

“Yeah, could be. Or the… um the other thing….”

“Hmmm…”

Glad to have identified the problem, we set about solving it. For various tedious and largely inexplicable reasons, we couldn’t get towed (actually the big reason was fairly explicable: we were in the middle of frickin’ nowhere). So I intrepidly set off to a nearby ranch. Which it turned out was not in fact nearby and was also not, in fact, a ranch, but just a field with some horses.

“Hmmmm.” I keep walking. The jeep and the other disappear from view behind a hill. I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, but it sure as hell isn’t a sign telling me it’s 30 clicks to the next town. “Hmmmm. ” I keep walking. The hill that hides the jeep disappears from view and I realise that I probably could have explained my plan to the others. Oh well, it’s a little late for “could haves”. I keep walking. And then, unbelievably, I come across my very own Robert Downey Jr. era Sherlock Holmes to combat The Jeep’s Moriarty. Admittedly, he’s pretty well disguised as an overweight Mexican picnicking with his family, but I couldn’t care less.

He’s remarkably unsurprised at finding a random blond foreigner walking down the highway in the middle of nowhere and asks what’s occurring. I explain and, incredibly:

“Ahh, OK. Soy mecanico. Sí quieres, puedo checkar tu coche?”

“HmmmMMMMM!!!”

Fuck you, Moriatyjeep, I’ve found a guardian angel in the form of a random Mexican man picnicking with his family by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere! Gratefully I jumped into his car (plot twist: he was a kidnapper! Nah, only kidding) and within ten minutes our new best friend had fixed everything. If you’re interested, a tiny but apparently essential connection hidden away underneath had maliciously disembowelled itself. A bit of polycarbonate cement and some TLC and we were as right as rain.

Sadly, The Jeep did have the last laugh as the delay meant we turned up in the middle of the night at a terrifying jungle campsite run by an equally terrifying Quasimodo-esque woman and where the permanent tents had names like “Mantis” and “Tarantula” and were filled with… mantises and tarantulas. Or actually, creatures far more dangerous and sinister… but that, as always, is a story for another day…

One day, when you're old enough, I'll tell you about this creature

One day, when you’re old enough, I’ll tell you about this creature

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Horror update – cartwheeling spiders

You might have seen a spider rolling across the desert sands in the recent BBC Africa series (if not, here’s a wee clip, you might be able to find the Kalahari episode online).

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Fairly horrifying, but as it’s getting away from a fate worse than death (a parasitoid wasp. If you don’t know about it, you probably don’t want to), I think we’ll let him off.

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What Spidey is rollin’ from. Seriously nasty stuff, photo from SuperStock

This guy, though? What the hell? Forward flips? Imagine being hunted down by this – not only terrifying, but also hugely humiliating.

 

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Photograph by Ingo Rechenberg, via National Geographic

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The Horror… the horror…

I am a conservationist and a zoologist. Put another way, I am a professional animal lover. I bloody love ’em. I watched far too much David Attenborough when I was little and was well and truly instilled with a sense of the world being full of amazing, awe-inspiring, and utterly, ridiculous animals. I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff like David A and the gorillas.; or ridiculous penguin thieves; I’m also talking about the little things. Things like wasp-mimicking orchids, ants that are brainwashed by a fungus and mating leopard slugs. Awesome. Well done evolution, you rule. Unless you’re this tree:

Evolution

Sorry, I couldn’t find the source 😦

Occasionally, however, evolution does a bad thing. The times it creates hilarious mistakes have been well covered elsewhere, as have inadvertent, secretly terrifying creatures, but I’m struggling to find decent homages to the times when natural selection just seems to go “you know what? Let’s making something utterly fucking awful today. Something to put the fear of a vengeful, Darwinian god into any poor bastard who stumbles up this”. So I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Harvestment

I was put in mind of this because t’other day when walking through some nice Yucatecan forest (by which I mean spiky death scrub) I found some harvestmen. You might know them as daddy longlegs or something else, zoologists call them Opiliones. They’re basically spiders’ nice, slightly useless cousins. Like Fredo Corleone, or a French bulldog compared to a pitbull. Somewhere there’s a nice video of a male tending his eggs and being adorable, but I couldn’t find it.

Adorable as their behaviour is, however, they are still a bit freaky to look at. A few months ago, some poor bastard found this out to his detriment when he found, and poked, a weird bundle of black hair on his boat. I don’t think he, or anyone else, expected it to erupt with thousands of eight legged beasties running towards him like Trekkies who’ve just spotted George Takei [warning, link is to The Telegraph]. It was this kind of thing that I found in the forest, although fortunately less numerous and more dispersed. But like I say, it got me thinking about some of the less savoury things I’ve encountered. I made a list and… well basically I hate arachnids. But I don’t think it’s a phobia, I think it’s a pretty rational reaction to some of these bad boys and their attitudes to other living creatures.

(1) Spiders

Yeah, I know, a cliché but a valid one. At the field station in Borneo we had a light trap for looking at moths and a nice ‘pider had set up shop on the roof of the shelter over it.

Wandering Spider

From memory, she was about 15 cm across, but I could be exaggerating

Isn’t she pretty? I was told she’s a wandering spider, which are well known for (a) being laughably poisonous (b) being the fastest things on too-many legs (c) having an approach to violence that makes Begbie look like Ghandi. There was a photographer at the station at the same time as us and he reacted to finding this beaut by trying to catch her. In a plastic bag. Did I mention she was probably pregnant? Lairiness upped to a whole new level. We tried to find a priest for his last rites but fortunately the spider decided it’d rather escape his attentions by scampering away (I can confirm: they move like greased shit), than by killing and presumably devouring him.

My spidey-senses were tingling a bit after this and so I wasn’t best pleased when, a couple of days later, a remarkably similar looking spider dropped on me in the shower. It was washed off by the water and clambered out of the shower and up to the stall door, which it obviously couldn’t get past. And I swear it looked up at me as if to say “c’mon, I can’t bloody open it, can I?”. So I reached over and opened the door. Spidey nonchalently walks out (didn’t say thanks) and leaves me standing there realising I’ve become an arachnid’s doorman.

More to follow…

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New Google ad shows my colleague exploring the lost forests of Mount Mabu…

Julian Bayliss exploring lost jungles in Mozambique!

Dr Kirsty MacLeod

The lovely work of Dr Julian Bayliss:

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The Boy in the Bed

I wasn’t sure if this was worth a post or not, but on the basis that I’ve been predictably terrible at keeping the blog going, I thought I’d give it a whirl.

I was on a brief break from fieldwork and had run away to a nearby town for a few meetings and a bit of R&R. Being knackered I had a couple of beers and went to bed nice and early in a top bunk in a 24-bed dormitory. All is well and good until some time in the witching hour when I’m woken by someone climbing into my bunk.

Being a manly type of man I let off some kind of girlish shriek and largely lost my shit. My main memory of this moment seems to have fused with the weird teleporting guy from x-men, so probably isn’t to be trusted too much, but the point is that there was someone getting into bed with me. After I lose my shit, the guy jumps down and apologises, revealing him to be both human (rather than x-man) and extremely drunk.
“OK amigo, no problema” and I roll over and go to sleep.

The glowing eyes at least. Not so confident about the weird tail thing this guy has got going on.

Pretty sure this was what I woke up to. Photo is from http://www.empireonline.com/

Or do I?

I hear him scrabbling around the bunk below me and then come up to the head of the bed and lean close to my head.

“Excuse meeee” [Pretend to be asleep! Pretend to be asleep!]

“Excuse meeee” [Keep on pretending…]

“Excuse meeee” followed by a tap on the shoulder. Bugger.

Donde puedo comprar agua?” OhthankGodhejustwantswater.

Me: “En la recepción, cuestan 10 pesos” [Roll over and try to go to sleep]

Him: “OK… and you?”

Me: “Um, yeah, tengo agua, quieres?” Please just take it and let me go to sleep

Him: “No… sorree… are you… uh…

…are you… gay?” Oh GOOD!

 Me: “No, sorry mate”

Him [clearly thinking he’s not made himself clear]: “No… are you…GAY?”

Me: “Again, no”

Him [not trusting his English at all]: “No, sorry… do you like… do you like the boys?” Oh OK, there I was totally missing the point.

Me: “OK amigo, te entiendo perfectamente, y no. No me gustan los chicos.”

He looks slightly disappointed at this, drops down from leaning on my bunk, gives me a little pat on the bum and, worst of all, the worst bit of the whole escapade… he moves on to the Aussie in the next bunk along and tries exactly the same thing. I wasn’t even special… 

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Birthday Blog!

It was my birthday last week! Hurrah for me for surviving another year. Or, as my delightful friend Rob pointed out, you can see it like this. [as an aside, if you haven’t wasted years of your life on The Perry Bible Fellowship, I’d highly recommend it. Pacific Council is a particular favourite of mine]. To celebrate this I took a whole evening and morning off fieldwork, drank rum infused with passionfruit (girly, you say? I don’t give a fuck, it’s delicious, I say) and then failed to have a lie in due to months of 4 am starts. Bugger. Anyway, then spoke to friends and family, did a large amount of bugger all and capped it off by driving 250 km across Yucatán in a tropical downpour (essentially driving down a river) to arrive in a jaguar-filled nature reserve, miles from the nearest town, which has 14 inhabitants. Capped it off by finding the desiccated corpse of a frog in the kitchen, dodging several thousand amorous beetles that descended on our lights and settling down to a pretty underwhelming birthday supper.

Supper

So, not the best birthday in the world, but a pretty good one as far as fieldwork goes. In many ways they are microcosms of fieldwork as a whole: some excellent bits, some shitty bits and some unintentionally hilarious bits. This, I think, is nicely demonstrated by another friend’s email on his birthday:

Birthday highlights:
i) Saw a sun bittern
ii) Got the GIS data I was hoping for 
iii) Had a nice relaxing morning, phone calls home etc. 
Birthday lowlights:
 i) Spent 10 hours in a car (mostly thinking about how screwed I am work-wise)
ii) Having to suppress my gag reflex at a roadside restaurant (I thought it has hard to screw up fried meat, but no..)
iii) They started fumigating the house I was staying in while I was still sitting on the toilet and mosquito netting is not a very effective smoke barrier 

 Birthday Tick

Certainly this year was better than the last one. As mentioned before, field season version 1.0 sucked In fact, it both sucked and blew. But, on the 7th of June (remember it!) after bloody months of failing to get anything done I went and collected my first data. Sounds good, eh? It wasn’t. For some reason I put all my fieldwork clothes into wash the day before and forgot to pick them up. So off I trundled to the field in my boardshorts. This is not a good idea. As well as getting scratched and stung to hell (the vegetation here is like a cross between barbed wire and some hideous land-dwelling jellyfish) I spent a merry hour or so after I got back removing ticks from myself. Not normally too grim (although there is something deeply personally offensive about ticks. Much worse than leeches, probably even worse than mosquitos) but at some point I had walked through a tick kindergarten and somewhere between thirty and fifty of the little darlings had burrowed into my upper thigh. Could have been worse, I suppose, had they been a few inches more adventurous, but as it was I had to resort to electrical tape to get them off. Yup, spent my birthday afternoon sat in a dingy toilet waxing my thighs. Now there’s an image that’ll stay with you. On the other hand, the nice students I was with bought me cake and beer, so I can’t really complain.

Mountain Birthday

The year before that wasn’t technically fieldwork, but it was of a similar ilk, so I’ll crowbar it into this post. Me and three friends had decided to walk the GR20, a long distance footpath across Corsica and Europe’s Hardest Hike[citation needed]. Not sure about the last bit, but it’s certainly pretty damn hard. Actually, the whole expedition was so woefully organised it probably deserves it’s own post, so I’ll stick to my birthday. It  was day two of the walk, which is the day you really discover that you have brought far, far too much stuff (binoculars, two SLRs, more than a book a person and food literally for a week in our case. And one of those books was War and Peace. Owen is an idiot); that you aren’t as fit as you thought you were; and that camping sucks. So not an auspicious day all told, made more cheerful by the light drizzle that was falling but then totally saved by my fricking awesome companions presenting me with a cereal bar birthday cake (OK, a cereal bar with “Happy Birthday” in icing) and a card they’d smuggled along. I was sharing a very small tent with Owen for the trip and his note in the card read “Happy Birthday! Bet you didn’t think you’d turn 24 four inches from my face!”.

Then, with great excitement, we opened two presents that Owen’s girlfriend had given to us. One was a suspiciously weighty foot long cylinder and the other a small pot… surely some kind of delicious biscuits to fuel our mighty strides up the mountain! We were under strict instructions to open the cylinder first, which we duly did. I believe my exact words were “What the fuck [girlfriend’s name]? What the fuck?” as I revealed a lovingly wrapped roll of clingfilm. Perfect for a mountain hike! Utterly bemused, we opened the second present and found a very nice, and totally baffling pot of foot scrub. I believe words failed us at this point and we silently packed up our tents and moved on. The clingfilm did not come with us.

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Tales from Tibet

The last few weeks have been worryingly free of hilarious trauma… I mean I’ve had to bribe a few policemen, I got not the wrong bus but an entire wrong bus station and I’ve been swimming in a cenote where there are definitely monsters, but all this seems fairly standard by now. So, to keep you supplied with staggering incompetence in the name of science, I hand you over to a good friend of mine. Given what follows, they’ll remain nicely anonymised. They’re a geologist studying Tibet and this was in their first field season. Due to incompetence/malice on the part of either the Chinese authorities or my friend, they didn’t have the correct permits for messing around collecting rocks. Rather than be put off by this (I mean, China’s pretty chilled out about TIbet, right?) they decided to enter under the brilliant disguise of bumbling tourists and collect 75 kg on rocks on the sly. A plan stunning in its simplicity and stupidity.

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Here be monsters

I’ve edited out the worst of the geology geekery.

Dear all,

WHAT A PALAVA. I left you last time relaxing in the hotsprings West of Tibet. I have since been escorted by police, considered a spy and deported from the region!

We travelled back to Lhasa and then E to my second main field area: Basum Tso. This is an idyllic glacial lake, fed by an amazingly steep sided valley surrounded by 7000m peaks. We spent a few days reccying the valley and collecting samples, with a view to a detailed mapping season next year, and the results were immense…though I won’t bore you with the geological implications!

We then carried on E via some amazing eclogites that pop up in the middle of Tibet (go figure) to the other PhD-chap-on-this-trip’s area. However this area is adjacent the Indian border, where apparently an invasion is imminent (!?) so a large army base is established in the vicinity. Likewise the geology is exposed along the road, so you are more than conspicuous with hammer in hand. Furthermore we don’t actually have official permits to do geology…essentially our permits were revoked at the eleventh hour unexpectedly but too many things were booked, so just went with it cowboy style. Our get-out-of-jail plan was the two important Chinese geologists that were joining us for this part of the trip. Stunningly one claimed an ill mother in law and the other is under investigation in Taiwan for a fire that has destroyed his lab, so couldn’t leave the country. [I love the offhand tone here – “oh, by-the-by, my main collaborator is an arsonist”]

The first day passed without incident, though a fair few army trucks went by gawping at us.

The second day took us right to border, following which we were aware that our movements were being tracked. At the final outcrop of the day (a 2-mica monzogranite for anyone that is interested) an unmarked police van pulled over, crucially as we were pondering a Chinese geological map. The Chinese authorities are terrified of any maps. More crucially it transpired that our map said SECRET in big Chinese letters at the top! So we were promptly escorted to the regional police station by the meanest looking policeman. Without our get out of jail cards. Without our permits. With lots of samples and other maps. Bugger.

Sweating profusely we secreted our samples [where?! best not to ask, perhaps?], before deciding honesty was the best policy. A three hour interrogation followed, mostly in Chinese, involving increasing levels of command. Two things finally went in our favour. Firstly it was getting quite late and the chief’s stomach was grumbling. Secondly, a man in tweed arrived, who (hooray!) was a geologist. He then elected to search our belongings at the hotel, including all of our photos, while the police went to dinner. We were still petrified [is this a geology joke?] as our hotel room was rammed with rock samples and satellite imagery. One look at those babies and our game, and PhD, were likely up. We hatched more plans, ditching the honesty policy, and swapped key cards with our drivers, throwing some of our belongings around in our room to make it look lived in! Miraculously tweed-hero-man only searched our supervisors’ room thoroughly and got bored by our thousand photos of yaks.

It was then decided that we were to be escorted out of the region, never to return,  hilariously by the academic in a less than imposing VW Polo. We were still scared the next morning that they would come to their senses and properly search our 4WDs (rocks hidden under luggage) but for reasons unbeknownst to us this never happened and finally we were able to breath a sigh of relief and ride on out of there. By a pure miracle we escaped with all of our samples, without ourselves or our guides in prison and without our ‘secret’ map (freely available in most geology departments worldwide).

At this point we decided to cut our losses (we had seen the most important geological areas, and police presence was only going to get worse) and head back to Lhasa to ship our samples out. However the ordeal was far from over as the drive back (the length of Bhutan) was the most terrifying experience of my life. The road is single lane, heavily used and runs up a narrow gorge. On one side is a cliff, the other a ravine. Yaks (!), pigs and children constantly run on the road, and the great building project that is Tibet requires endless lorry convoys that drive bumper to bumper. None of these things dissuade the drivers from going for MENTAL blind overtakes, merrily beeping away as if this will some how protect them from the physics of collisions. Three times we had to do emergency stops off the side of the road. Three times we were so, so lucky there was a hard shoulder. Anyway, we made it over the 5000m plus pass and back to Lhasa for dinner, and then merrily packed away ~75kg of samples into some wonderfully rustic tin boxes.

The adrenaline wore off the next day and I had a bit of a downer that the trip appeared to be coming to an abrupt end, especially as there was no clear way for me to get home. However finally something went our way and our insurance company agreed that this was unfair curtailment (again long fairly amusing story, [see below]). My disappointment is offset by a number of factors: we had virtually finished in my field area, our samples are safe and superb, the story is hilarious and we have agreed not to come back next year if we don’t get official permits…with Plan B being in the HIMALAYAS! Celebrations were dampened by an incredible slip down a flight of marble stairs, bruising not just my ego, but I shall see you all soon, relatively intact!

The flights – possibly embellished in my memory

In sorting out the flights home, something is lost in translation between our hero, the university and the insurance company, presumably because “three hour interrogation by Chinese military police” sets off an alarm bell somewhere. Not wanting the scandal of a student rotting in a Tibetan gaol, the university pulls out the big guns.

I like to think the following conversation happens in the middle of the night. Our hero’s phone rings…

Incompetent Geologist: “Bleugh… hi, who is this?”

Voice On Phone (possibly Liam Neeson): “IS THAT **********?!”

IG: “Uh, yeah, who is…”

LN: “WHAT IS YOUR LOCATION?”

IG: “Um, Kathmandu… what….”

LN: “OK SIR, THIS IS BLACK OPS EXTRACTION SERVICE, THE CHOPPERS ARE IN THE AIR, GIVE US YOUR COORDINATES AND WE’RE COMING TO GET YOU”

IG: “What?! What the shit?!”

LN: “WE’RE COMING TO GET YOU OUT OF THERE SIR!”

IG: “Shit, no! I’m not in prison any more!”

LN: “DON’T WORRY SIR, WE’LL GET YOU OUT OF THERE”

The university no longer insures people to go to TIbet.

 The next field season

Sensibly, the plan was not to return to Tibet without permits for the second field season. Unbelievably, this plan was ignored when, 12 months later, permits were once again refused. This time there was no interrogation due to a plan of fleeing to incredibly remote hills with no one but a sherpa and a donkey. They did get snow blindness though and were apparently attacked by an eagle, so it wasn’t all plain sailing.

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