Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Chillin' in the Desert

Following my Zambian adventure I popped down south to Windhoek. From there I travelled to Walvis Bay via a long-distance combi (which is always and adventure), where I got picked up by a crew of students and interns from the Gobabeb Research and Training Center for a rather exciting night-ride along gravel roads to a set of buildings that are literally in the middle of nowhere: Gobabeb. The goal was to visit a good friend of mine from Grinnell, Jaimie Adelson, as well as another Grinnellian whom I hadn't known as well, John Guittar, at their GrinnellCorps post in the Namib Desert. For those of you (like me) with minimal knowledge of Namibian Geography, here's a map showing the Namib. The desert is formed from a deposition of silt and sand that flows out of the Orange River. Because the river has no delta, for some reason which I haven't figured out yet, all the sediments from the river get pushed out to sea, where a rather strong current and wind system push them north onto the coast. This created the Namib, which is a true desert just large enough to be termed a "Sand Sea" at 34,000 square-kms.

Ok, so maybe the map didn't come out as well as I'd hoped, but you get the idea. Gobabeb is situated on the edge between the Sand Sea and the Gravel Plains, on the banks of the Kuiseb river, which is ephemeral (doesn't run all year). Mostly, the river is an outlet for floodwater, but it supports a surprising array of vegetation and wildlife.

My visit to the Namib started off with a day-long excursion with the Namibian Geologists Association. Because Jaimie was supposed to be creating a teaching module about the Namib's geology she was accompanying them and taking notes, while I just got to come along for fun. And what a great trip!

The leader of the trip knew so much about the area it was almost unbelievable. And he wasn't too intellectual to dumb it down for us non-geology PhD's either, so it was a great trip. We got to see the river bed and how it changes and influences the geology of the surrounding area, the gravel plains, the sand dunes and fossil beds in the dunes, and some old diamond claims in the dune field. Apparently, the river is the only thing holding back the dunes on the southern side of the Kuiseb. Sand moves with sand, and not without it unless there are exceptionally strong winds. So every year the flooding in the Kuiseb bed washes away the side of the dune that's trying to make it's way north into the river bed, and the progress of the dunes is halted there. It's acutally amazing to think that this one river bed can stop the entire 34,000 square kms of sand from progressing over a stretch of 100 meters or less, but it's true. That's what creates the gravel plains on the other side of the river and what keeps places like Walvis Bay and Swakopmund from being overwhelmed by the northward progress of the dunes. Anyhow, enough of my geological ramblins. If it were that fun to be a geologist all the time I would abandon Chemistry! It was an absolutely fabulous day.

Beetle tracks on a dune

But other than that excursion I mostly just got to see life "as it is" in a place like Gobabeb. I was surprised at the amount of deskwork involved in a "normal" day out there... somehow you would think that more field work would occupy the scientists stationed in the middle of the desert. But it makes sense, in a way. The station is admirably outfitted with amenities that one wouldn't expect to find in the desert. Solar power fuels the station with more than enough electrons to keep their lights, computers, refrigerators, etc. running and water is sucked out of a deep aquifer just across the river bed. Internet and phone are available via a sattellite connection (although the reliability of this is somewhat unpredictable) and the workers have plenty of gas available for cooking stoves and ovens. They even have their own sewage recycling system to pump their used water back into the environment and hopefully recharge their aquifer. Overall a pretty impressive achievement for a place in the middle of nowhere! Even if it is run by nerds and scientists! And as an added plus, they have a nifty water tower that looks a little bit like an air-traffic control tower, or maybe a UFO. Definitely adds character to the place!

Trip to the Dunes with the Gobabebians

Most of my time was very sedate out at Gobabeb, but that doesn't detract from its worth. I absolutely love the sand dunes and the opportunity to be completely isolated from every other human being on the planet. You can laugh, shout, sing at the top of your lungs... and not a soul in the world can hear you. Except the multitudes of insect life, that is. Truly, you cannot appreciate the wonder of this place without visiting. The sunsets are exquisite--watching a sun set behind dunes has to be one of my favorite views of all time.

Especially when I'm sitting on another dune with a cool drink in hand, just enjoying life. Even just the view of the night sky would make a visit to this desert worthwhile--you can see every star in the sky. You can see the Milky Way so well that you can pick out the "Coal Sacks" where debris creates dark spots by obscuring our view of the stars, you can pick a planet out of the sky instantly by its luminescence, size, and color. You can even see starts that twinkle in all different colors like a disco ball. And shooting stars are so common you don't even remark on them after a few nights! A stunning view, and worth every instant that I spent staring at it. Unfortunately, my lame little Powershot can't capture such beauty... so you'll just have to take my word for it.

(Gobabeb in Fog!!)

Even in a week's time at Gobabeb, I wasn't able to see everything that the sight had to offer. Apparently there are scorpions inhabiting the trees in the riverbed that fluoresce when viewed under UV light, Welwitschia plants that get their water from condensing fog (they are pretty crazy, actually), higher dunes to hike around, much more of the riverbed to explore, and probably more that I'm not even aware of. But I'm glad that I got to spend a week there to get a sense of the place and the work that goes on there. It could have been my life this year, after all!

So many of you are probably wondering at this point (especially after I've gone on and on about how amazing Gobabeb is) whether I think I made the right choice by accepting the Watson Fellowship instead of choosing the Grinnellcorps position at Gobabeb. And my answer is this: how can we ever know for sure? I certainly have experienced a lot in my travels on the Watson that I never would have at Gobabeb... marimba being only the most obvious aspect. I also think that my time at MaP on its own weighs the scale towards the Watson, simply because I can't imagine a more fulfilling experience than teaching and playing there. But, on the other side of things I can see myself being very happy at Gobabeb because I tend to thrive in small communities where I can make a home for myself and dig in. In some ways I would have resented all the desk work because this is supposed to be my break from that sort of thing, but I also might have learned a lot of really crazy and interesting things about the desert. So all in all, I am not unhappy to have chosen the Watson, but I also respect the opportunities I would have had at Gobabeb. And as much fun as I would have had working there with my friend Jaimie, I think it's better for both of us to encounter new people and spend time away from our old friends from Grinnell. I don't think either of us is the person who walked away from Grinnell last May!

Since leaving Gobabeb I have been hanging around in Swakopmund on the coast. It has been a rather interesting week of just chilling in cafes, sitting on the beach, and reading a book or two. I have enjoyed myself immensely--Swakop has great cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, as I left Gobabeb I was beginning to develop what I think was an ulcer in my esophagus. Gross, right? Well, it was also very painful for a while and lessened my enjoyment of the above mentioned cafes and restaurants, but now that I am feeling better I don't mind so much. I'm guessing that the whole episode was a consequence of my long-term ibuprofen use for my back problems combined with the doxycycline that I am taking as an antimalarial, but whatever it was, I'm glad that I'm mostly healed at this point.

Yesterday morning I decided that I wanted to finally do something with my time here, so I signed up for a Dolphin and Seal Cruise. What is that, other than the obvious chance to go out on a boat and see dolphins and seals? Well, it's a chance to drink a lot of alcohol (apparently, although not for me with my esophagus the way it is), eat seafood for lunch (also not for me... vegetarian), and have really strange encounters with other tourists! Don't get me wrong, it was a fun morning, but there were some elements of the ridiculous to it.

The first problem was my lack of warm clothing. I sent my warm jacket home with my parents in December because it was bulky (and the temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day) but it turns out that I am left with a combination of rather pathetic sweaters and one fleece as my "warm" stuff. Of course, until now that has been more than enough! But I had no hat, scarf, gloves, jacket, or even closed-toed shoes (left those in Windhoek... who would have thought I'd need them in the desert?). So it was a bit chilly at 9 AM out on the fog-covered Atlantic ocean. But it was easy to forget about this as a rather large, wet seal jumped up into our boat and slithered along the seats! Apparently they are trained to do come aboard so that the tour operators can show them off to passengers (I don't even want to think about the environmental implications of that one). So our guides fed the seal some frozen fish out of a cool-box they had on deck and explained about how the seals hunt, eat, etc. The funny part was when the guide tried to get the seal off the boat! They're trained a bit too well that there's free fish on board. Later on we had two or three other seal visitors... they would just haul themselves on board whenever we stopped to look at something. It made an interesting trip!

We also got to see some interesting things that weren't on the boat. The oyster farms were our first stop--the oysters are imported when still almost microscopic in size and fed on artificial phytoplankton until they're big enough to put in a net and string up on a platform in the middle of the sea off of Walvis Bay. Apparently the nutrient concentration in the Namibian waters makes these oysters grow to an edible size in 8 months, which is almost twice as fast as anywhere else in the world! They're supposed to taste good too, but I wouldn't know :). It's funny to put together all the bits and pieces I know about Namibia when I hear things like this, because I know all about the nutrients available in that part of the ocean from a great upwelling zone off the Namibian coast. But that's from back at Grinnell...

There were plenty of dolphins and pelicans where we went, too, and some adventurous seagulls who kept trying to steal the fishy bribes that we used to get them close to the boat. Overall it was an interesting trip... but not the best cruise I've taken. It was certainly an interesting way to spend a morning, though!

Every so often I run into situations (like out on this boat) where the nerdy-sciencey-intellectual part of me wants to break through. It's a bit funny that I've spent my whole life trying to gain knowledge and intelligence so far, and now I'm playing dumb. But people here get a bit uncomfortable when they realize that you're "a smart one" so I often do try to put them at ease and bypass that side of my personality. Last night was a stunning example... those of you who know me well won't be able to believe this! I was trying to find a nice restaurant to have dinner at (since I could finally eat again) but everywhere I wanted to go was booked solid. Surprising for a Wednesday night, but that's how it was. So I ended up sitting at the bar at a place called the "Lighthouse Pub and Grill" near the beach. It's a place I had been eying for a few days, so I was happy to try it out, even if I had to sit at the bar. So I pulled out a book--a nice one, actually: African Laughter-- and I was enjoying my Hunter's while I waited for my food and read about Doris Lessing's post-independence visits to her home in Zimbabwe. Now, apparently that's not particularly common behavior for anyone here in Swakopmund (not that too many people ever seem to go out for meals on their own, anyway) and I got accosted and greeted by a man who came over to the bar and sat down. He seemed nice enough, so I chatted with him for a while... only to learn that he was an American from Texas who was the CEO of an oil investment company called EnerGulf. So here I am... sitting, chatting with a middle-aged man who likes to hunt game (the more endangered the better), pollutes the environment with oil prospecting, speaks with a Southern accent, and is incredibly arrogant. Sounds like my kind of guy, huh? And as amusing as this is... this very moment I have had to refuse a call from his number. Ugggh. Maybe I should turn off my phone! I was too honest to give him a false number last night. But anyhow, it was just a weird situation and I'm hoping to just slip away into the mists without having to fend off any more invitations to come along on oil prospecting or hunting trips.

Anyhow, that's where I am and what I'm doing! I'm heading back to Windhoek tomorrow for some shopportunities... I need a winter jacket! Or at least some sort of jacket :). And I can bum around there just as easily as I can here. Maybe I'll even get some work done on my transcription project--you never know!

PS--more photos on their way!

1 comment:

Randy said...

Sounds like an amazing time. How John Guitar managed to look cleaner in the middle of the desert than I ever saw him here is beyond me.

Hi from percussion ensemble as well.