Red Soil, Mountains and Thorns

After a tiresome 46 hour journey spanning 3 continents, 3 planes, some busses and car rides, I arrived at Lajuma Research Centre. Everything here is so novel: The soil is red, monkeys don’t seem to mind you as they saunter by and the weather is HOT. Yesterday, I sat on a rock to read and a baboon meandered over and groomed himself in the sunset 20-3o feet away! I made some affiliative sounds at him (lip smacking) and he proceeded to get a boner…so toning down the friendly from now on.

The living accommodations (called The Barn) are surprisingly comfortable (a brick house with a metal roof where you can hear bushbabies scurrying across at night) and there are several other students here (another American girl from New York, 2 brits, an Australian, a German girl and a Dutch girl). I’m sharing a large room with the German girl but will be getting my own room this week as two students move out to go home.

After my first day orientation, I am now extremely paranoid about black widows, black mambas and pythons that spit in your eyes…but everyone says this goes away and as far as I know, there’s been no deaths as of yet…I’m still checking my sleeping bag every night though and shaking out my clothing and towel. The key here is don’t get sick or hurt since it’s a bumpy and long drive to the nearest hospital in Louis Trichardt (also known as Makhado).

All the vegetation has these goddamn thorns on them (to dissuade herbivores) and my arms and legs are already covered in scratches. There is one acacia specie that has thorns on top of thorns! Why?! There are vines everywhere and the fig trees are amazing. I’ve already started scouting out boulders to climb on and will attempt some trees later this week as soon as my fear of local poisonous wildlife lessens.

On my second day, I climbed Lajuma (highest peak on the Soutpansberg Mountain Range) with a British student and some Venda students (who called themselves “Endemic Species of Africa”) to collect samples for a climate change study. The view was amazing and you could see the border of Botswana off in the distance!

On the following day, we went out to collect more samples on the northern side of the mountain–stopping by Vivo. I’m so glad I live on the southern side where there are trees and GREEN–I’d go crazy in the desert. The VW van (named Rocky after that Stallone movie, because it’s all beat up but keeps on truckin’ on), was having issues. At one point it got stuck in the hot sand, so we had to get on our hands and knees and dig it out (Oldrich, he’s like a supervisor, remarked that I was getting the “full African experience”). I was completely fascinated by the pink, soft sand and animal tracks everywhere (saw a Giraffe!). Then the fan wasn’t working because the battery was running low and the car started overheating. One collection area involved traversing through a ravine that had a small pond with lily pads  and dragonflies in it–an amazing site in the hot desert.

A few hours later, we found ourselves running low on fresh water in a van that wouldn’t start. We had to pour all our water out in the van to prevent it from overheating and started looking for waterholes to fill up. Luckily we found a creek (that had a dead Kudu head by it, we were wondering where the body was), and filled up all the containers with water to keep the van cool…but it was too late, the van was dead and we were stuck at the bottom of a hill with no cell phone reception, no fresh water, no food and in 43 degree C heat…with a fire burning on the mountain somewhat near us.

Perfect. I’m going to die of heatstroke my third day in Africa!

The men, bless their sturdy hearts, trumped up the mountain to collect the rest of the samples and find an area with cell phone reception to call for help. Without fresh water, us girls were very concerned for them but none of us were in any shape to attempt the trek up in the blazing heat (joking that we would make it half way up and die), so we stayed behind with the van. Three hours later, rescue came and we made our way back to Lajuma.

My work for the British PhD student has mainly been conducting transects of local vegetation in the area. So far I’ve been too afraid to go off on my own as I’m slowly familiarizing myself with the area (everyone says this goes away too) so the Australian has been showing me around as I get used to navigating through the brush and clambering over rocks and boulders. I’m getting quite good at slithering between vines, under branches and around thorns.

I’ve gotten to see four of the five species of primates that live here (baboons, vervet monkeys, samango monkeys and a greater bushbaby) along with warthogs, kudus, and other grazing antelope species that I don’t remember the names of. I’m also getting used to waking up early (around 6:30 AM) and going to bed early (around 9:30 PM). Everyone gathers around for dinner after a day in the bush and it just gets so dark so early (6 PM)!. During down time, I spend a lot of time reading and have already finished Into the Wild, Adrift and The Wild Trees–highly recommend all three!

We had a party on wed night with the local Venda students and all the foreign students–dancing under the stars with a fire and Bob Marley. We taught them the Macarena, Thriller, and “white people dancing” (lawnmower, shopping cart, etc.) and learned some dances from them. Last night, we had a low key fire to say goodbye to the American and British girls who are heading off today…and so our house shrinks down. By next week, we will only have four of us as the Dutch girl prepares to leave…I hope more students come soon so it feels less lonely here.

I feel slightly homesick but everyone says this goes away too as you adjust to life on the mountain. The most annoying thing is not being able to look up something when you have a question so I’ve been writing everything down a lot to look up on Town Days (mondays).

I’m hoping to explore more of the mountain this week with the others and adjust to the altitude (feel so out of shape along with the asthma!) We hiked a small overgrown trail that leads to a gorgeous waterfall in the bush (I tried climbing up it but the rocks got too slippery halfway up). Continuing on, we came into a large field surrounded by mountains and found a lemon tree! The Australian batted two lemons off from the top (the lower ones were eaten and we couldn’t climb the tree since there were of course, thorns all over it). Apparantly earlier settlers here planted lemon trees on graves, so we were told that we were eating the nutrients from dead people.

Conservation here is a big issue as there are a lot of endemic plant and animal species here. It’s also one of the last strongholds left for leopards as their numbers dwindle. Listening to Oldrich talk about his dream for this place (as en eco-tourism consevertion park to work with local people, provide jobs and protect the animals), I’m hoping to get more involved in other projects around here and possibly start my own on the baboons or on lichen (or both).

The biggest problem here for me is cooking! Without internet to look up recipes, creativity is a plus as you just toss everything together and hope it ends up yummy–so far it’s been OK but I plan to buy some proper ingredients today (didn’t buy any cheese, meat or veggies last time so this past week I’ve been craving real food). Many conversations also center around food with talks about pizza and hamburgers and ice cream.

I think the key to keeping my sanity is staying busy and planning weekly or monthly trips so there is always something to look forward to. This week, we are planning a day climbing trip to the Bloeburg (spelling?) Mountains. My personal project is to get on one of the horses that wander around Lajuma. I’ve been feeding them apples and brushing them every other day to get them used to me. Next month, some of us are planning a trip to Kruger!

We even had a day of “Seattle” weather (rain, fog and cold) which was extremely refreshing and lead us to build a cozy fire in The Barn. The summer rains will start in the next couple months and the terrain will completely change and burst with Green!

Overall, I miss my family and friends but I am completely in love with the mountain!

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1 Response to Red Soil, Mountains and Thorns

  1. Mokgatla 'a Kgoshi says:

    It feels like yesterday!!!
    I remember we made you climb the highest peak on your first days 🙂
    One can never get enough of Lajuma.

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