Monday, 23 February 2015

Pre-historic travels

This post is going to be a little out of the ordinary, partly because it's a "request-post" and partly because it's delving deep into the past. "Request post?" I hear you ask - "we didn't know we could request posts!" Well, don't get your hopes up, I won't be writing interesting and illuminating things just for any old person, only for special people. Or ones who ask really nicely.

So the request has been put in by my lovely young cousin, not only because she's special, but also because she asked very nicely. She's in fact a completely amazing person. She's 12 and has already raised money for leukaemia research by shaving her head, and is currently raising money to participate in a World Challenge expedition to Cambodia and Thailand to explore other cultures and help other people. Since she knows that I went on an expedition to Uganda back in the mists of time, and since I'm supporting her fund-raising as a "thank you" to her grandparents who supported my expedition, she's asked to know a bit more about what I did all those years ago...


A long time ago, in a continent far, far away... OK, perhaps it was 1997 and equatorial Africa, but you get the idea. It was before my cousin was born, so that's more or less pre-history these days isn't it? I'd just graduated from university, and having worked in an industrial placement for a year before university, and indeed during my university holidays, I decided that if I was going to have any kind of adventure, this was the time to do it.


I've always had an affinity for Africa. My father was South African, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and random other affiliated family members were all South African or Zimbabwean and though my father had settled in England after marrying my mother, the rest of the family still lived there, and we went to stay every other Christmas, and I have always loved it. I love the quality of the light, the smell of the parched earth as the first heavy raindrops hit the ground, the space, the birds, the animals, the bushveldt and the highveldt.

Crossing the equator


 Any of you historically-minded, politically-aware types will have spotted that if I left university in 1997 and had spent the years up to that point visiting South Africa every other year, I was basically there during the height of the apartheid regime. So my exposure to anything other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestant South Africans was somewhat limited, something of which I was always painfully and slightly shamefully aware. Now was an opportunity to go to a part of Africa that would allow me meet the other side of Africa, to discover more of the continent, and at the same time to do something useful. So I applied to take part in a Frontier conservation expedition to Uganda. (I should point out at this point that from the looks of the Frontier website, they've changed their focus somewhat in the past couple of decades, their by-line used to be "conservation through exploration" or somesuch).


The expedition was ten weeks, camping on the Ssese Islands in the north-west corner of Lake Victoria, and carrying out baselines biodiversity surveys of two areas on Buggala Island. Our work was linked to Kampala University, to provide them with data that would allow them to monitor whether the native environment of the islands was being dedgraded over time. Only by knowing what's there can you know if it's disappearing.

African Paradise Flycatcher

Some of the work was an absolute delight, enchanting and magical. And different people found different aspects of the work enjoyable. For me the absolute highlight was working with two ornithologists who came to join us to net and ring birds. Alongside them I was able to hold and release back into the wild the most beautiful, delicate, fragile birds - an experience it's hard to describe adequately. The silk-soft feathers, the extraordinary lightness, the warmth, the tiny fluttering heartbeat.

Some of the work was back-breakingly hard. We cut transects through the forests and swamps to carry out vegetation surveys. This involved hacking through dense vegetation, often up to our thighs in mud and water, and counting every trace of tree and sapling within 5m of the path: alive, dead or felled. The path had to be cut due east-west, and run for 500m, with the vegetation survey divided into 50m sections. And to do all this what equipment did we have? Several pangas (machetes), one compass, one 30m tape measure, a pad of paper and a pencil. It's suprisingly difficult to hack your way through a swamp in a straight line for 50m with only a 30m tape measure. And it's even harder to keep accurate notes in the pouring rain standing knee deep in swamp. Oh, had I not mentioned the rain yet? Don't worry, I'll get to the rain soon. It was the rainy season. The rainy season in equatorial Africa is really rainy. Rainer than that. Nope, rainier than that too.
Actually rather a nice swamp. Wet though.

A third aspect of the work was interesting, and in a completely different way, very challenging. As we were surveying both the flora and fauna, we had to accurately record the types and distributions of creatures in our survey areas. Birds we were able to spot (and for a short period net, ring and release). Everything else we had to kill and preserve to be taken back to Kampala University for formal identification and cataloguing. This may seem a little harsh, until you realise, for example, that there are some species of shrew that can only be distinguished from their skull shape. There was also a possibility that, being an island, there were species on Buggala that were in the process of evolving away from the species on the mainland and could be caught in the act. So, we set traps of all shapes and sizes, and checked them three times a day, collecting, killing, recording and preserving all of the creatures we found. That included snakes, lizards, shrews, mice, rats, frogs, toads and even one small crocodile. I never thought when I set out that I would become proficient at injecting preservatives into the major muscle groups of a frog, or removing the skull from a shrew intact, without damaging the skin (tip: essentially you take it out through the mouth). I'm not sure that this aspect of the work was entirely pleasant at all times, but it was interesting, precise, methodical science that appeals to the interesting, precise, methodical side of me. It was also ultimately successful, as we later found out that at least one of the rodents we slaughtered collected was identified as a new sub-species, unique to the islands. I am also particularly proud of having led the bird-spotting activities and helped to add 32 species to the list of birds recorded on the islands.

Pickled frog anyone?


There were a group of twenty volunteers taking part in the project, mostly either pre- or post-university, and we were working under the guidance of several experienced team-leaders. OK, one experienced team-leader and one new team-leader who was woefully ill-informed and knew considerably less about almost all matters botanical and zoological than the rest of us. But we ignored her. I mean, she actually asked "Is a lizard a reptile?" How was I supposed to respect her after that?

We divided our time between two sites, both of them based next to villages - Kidiba and Makoko.

Part of our work was to talk to the locals and discover how they used the land and its resources, what they valued, what they didn't, what they used and what they ignored. We also attempted to understand their superstitions regarding certain animals (particularly reptiles) and if we could to persuade them not to simply kill them on sight. That was a tough one, not only because it's hard not to appear to be an ignorant, arrogant foreigner, swanning in and telling people they're wrong, but also because we were merrily going about the place trapping and killing the local fauna. Do as we say and not as we do? That aside, meeting people living in such an isolated area, seeing how they lived and where their priorities lay was enlightening and humbling. There were negligible creature comforts - nothing as exotic as electricity or running water. In fact the only water was taken directly from the lake, and whereas we treated our water with iodine (and still came home with a variety of exciting tropical diseases) the locals simply drank the water direct from the lake. AIDS was endemic on the island, with an estimated 20% of the population being HIV positive. Malaria and bilharzia were rife, and who knows what other diseases. And yet... there are universal human traits that shine through no matter the circumstances. The desire to sing, to dance, to laugh. The need to adorn and decorate yourself and your home. The joy of a child running through long grass. The fascination with the unknown (in this case us) that leads to both confusion and laughter at the absurdity of other people.


Ah, no, I meant "weather", but "whether" fitted the theme of my headings better, so I went with it. There really was a lot of weather. Mostly it was warm, and a lot of the time, particularly in the afternoon, it was sunny. And when it was both warm and sunny it was absolutely glorious. And then there was the rain. Oh, the rain. Torrential, lashing rain. Rain that required us to leap up in the night and dig additional trenches around our tents to divert the rapidly-forming rivers from flooding us out. Rain that created ever deeper and swampier swamps for us to wade through. Rain that meant that our boots never dried out and eventually began to rot on our feet. Wind that whipped the rain under the tarpaulins of our tents and then in one mad flurry ripped the tent pegs from the ground leaving the tarpaulins lashing back and forth and the rain teeming down upon us and the lightning cracking above us. It was nice when the sun shone though.

The Long House. Our not-exactly-watertight home.
Working in the sun was quite lovely though
Now that I've put that picture of "the long house" in, I can't help myself but mention the smell. Oh the smell. 10 weeks, intermittently submerging ourselves in swamps, getting hot and sweaty, living on a diet of beans and rice and only washing in a bucket of cold water every few days. I don't think there are words to describe the... fug... that evolved in that tent.

 And me?

When I set out on this expedition, I didn't know what to expect. It was not like anything I'd undertaken before. I'd travelled before, but always in a safe and controlled way - visiting family or friends, or on an organised trip, again either with family or friends. I'd been away from home for extended periods before - I lived away from home for a year before university, and had then been at university for three years. But those were both close to home, in my own country.

It turned out that my biggest challenge was not the limited and tedious diet. It wasn't the hard physical work. It wasn't the weather. It wasn't the total absence of creature comforts. It wasn't learning to trap and kill small animals. It was overcoming my own demons. It was fighting against the voices inside me that tell me that I can't do it. It was battling anxiety and a crippling lack of self-confidence. There was a day, after about a week, when I sat sobbing on my bedroll, when I should have been heading out to check the traps. I was utterly convinced that I shouldn't be part of the expedition, that I would never be "one of" the other volunteers, that I would never make friends, that I would be ignored (or worse, laughed at) by everyone else, that I would simply not be able to function. The girl who slept beside me in the tent happened to come back at that point and find me. With infinite gentleness and sympathy she talked me round, and as has happened so many times since, she tried to fathom how my view of myself could differ so markedly from how others see me. She tried to show me how she saw me. And as has happened so many times since, I tried to believe her, and yet couldn't quite. 17 years later, I am still friends with some of the people from that expedition and I might finally admit she was right. 17 years later, I still battle the same demons. 17 years later, I have sought help and found ways to try and change my way of thinking about myself. But that's a story for another post.

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