Monday, December 23, 2013

Dino dig III

In late November, I took my students Blair, Kimi, and Kathleen (and Blair's archaeologist girlfriend Tash) on a trip to the Eastern Cape to dig up a new dinosaur specimen. 

The dinosaur had been discovered by local farmer Selby Vorster's herdsman, and in a previous attempt to dig it up we realized that more people and more power tools were necessary to complete the job. This time we resolved to get the beast out of the ground. 

My crew were joined by Dr. Billy de Klerk of the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, his preparators Armstrong and Lindikhaya, and his best volunteer Leo. 

All of the following photographs were taken by Kimi during our trip.

Our first order of business was to "check-in" to an abandoned farmhouse that a local farmer allowed us to use for the field project. Oops, this is just the barn.

This is the real farmhouse, which we quickly dubbed the "Murder Ranch".

From the state of the interior, I'm sure you can see why.

Still, with some clever broom construction by Tash and a little TLC, we were able to put together a nice little homebase for ourselves.
Notice the bed without the sleeping bag. You can guess who's that is...must have left it in Johannesburg.

We soon set the mood with some lighting and a few drying pairs of underwear.

The murder ranch's indoor plumbing was not entirely functional, so we dug ourselves a beautiful little long drop. And then another long drop. And finally a third long drop.

We also improvised ourselves this cozy braai area.

When we'd left the site last May, someone had stolen the femur, so we'd covered the entire area in a foot of topsoil with help from a roads crew working nearby.

With a little help from the ladies on the trip (okay, it was mostly the ladies), we quickly uncovered our fossil. 

I was getting quite a workout supervising (and enjoying the incredible view pictured below)

As Kimi shows you here, once we removed all that loose dirt, we were happy to find that the fossil was undamaged and un-further-pilfered after its interment. 

Next order of business: get those power tools out!

We both rock-sawed and jack-hammered a much much larger hole around the fossil so that we could remove it a few larger pieces.

Local farmer and retired journalist Ben Maclennan joined us for a few days in the field and asked insightful questions of the crew for a piece he wrote in the Barkly East Reporter.

Meanwhile, the ladies were plastering up the dinosaur for its ultimate removal...

And finding awesome things like this theropod tooth:

Here's where we stood after day 3

Day 5:

Day 7:

and finally, Day 8:

Meanwhile, in the next valley over, veld fires were burning seemingly everywhere. This one is close to the Mountain Shadows Hotel.

Despite the fires, nights were COLD! We quickly ran out of wood, necessitating some removal of local vegetation. Note that a rock saw is not a viable means of producing kindling (nor is Billy's axe).

Luckily the fearless leader had a foolproof solution.

Once wood concerns were attended to, we managed to cook over the open fire, using the locally popular "potjie" pot. Blair has mastered the art of making curry in it.
Later in the trip, rain forced us to improvise an indoor cooker (here with Leo and Billy supervising).

All the dusty work required daily bathing. The local river had a couple of great spots.

...but the generous folk at the Mountain Shadows hotel also let us take a warm shower on two occassions. We repaid the favor by having a few snorts at their well-appointed bar (and were joined by Selby and his wife Marguerite).

The last day dawned looking like this:

but luckily we had finished our excavation, so we piled into the pickup truck and drove around the area collecting plants for Kelsey.

Billy's prep crew is hard at work pulling out dinosaur from the rock, so we'll know if we have a new species very soon!

The Wizard and Susan take on Africa

November was a fun-filled, hectic month here in Melville. We had our first visit from real US-based Americans! And one was even family! 

Well done, Dad (aka "The Wizard"), you win the "first to visit us in Africa" award!

Our itinerary was jam-packed - below is a sampling of our favorite highlights. I should note that two days after the Wizard and Susan landed, I made them run (ok, I let them walk) a 5km Zoo Trot. They were troopers and completed the whole track.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the first stop on the Wizard's month-long African Odyssey was South African Brewery's "World of Beer". 

South African Breweries produces an unbelievable array of beers (and girlie malt beverages), here are just a few: 

After the tour, we stopped in the bar to sample two of the finer brews. Tickets must be present at time of sampling.


Perhaps a bit more surprising, however, was our second stop: the Bird Garden at Montecasino. This resort/casino/South African Las Vegas is just 20 or so minutes north of us and offers "Saffers" a solid taste of what it's like to be an American.

We were magically transported to Italy!

And then we were almost magically transported out of Montecasino by the bouncer because no photos are allowed beyond the fountain. Photos of the casino floor were strictly prohibited.

Below are a few of the animals we saw:
The Grey Crowned Crane, a lovely African bird.

An albino constrictor, not a common South African snake. Among the birds were a variety of snakes, most of which were not native to South Africa. I have to say, I'd prefer this guy to almost all of the snakes that live here. 
Constrictors ja, Vipers nie!

Peek-a-boo! This love bird was a little camera shy. 

One of the coolest things about Monte was the bird show, Flight of Fantasy. Here is one of the stars of the show,  a falcon whose name escapes me.  There was also a crow that would take money out of your hand and put it in a tip jar.

After seeing what Joburg had to offer, we took Dad and Susan on a tour of the countryside to one of our favorite places in South Africa: Clarens.

No trip to Clarens is complete without a quick stop to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. 

The view as we entered Golden Gate National Park.

We treated Dad & Susan to a night at the Highland Mountain Retreat, possibly one of the best places to stay near Clarens.  Glaring oversight: Dad's vertigo. Who knew!?

The Wizard spied some wildebeest in the distance. Note the firmly planted feet on the deck and the professional positioning of the binocs.
Susan, Jonah, and I saw a blesbok while on our short hike up the ridge.

The view from our chalet.

Mountain flowers in bloom as we drove back down to Clarens.

Jonah, ever the paleontologist, took us off the beaten path to show us some neat dinosaur vertebrate peeking out of the rock. 

A common quail! This guy was well hidden in the grass, but not too hidden from this girl!

We took a game drive along a windy mountain road called the "Blesbok Route" to see who we could see. We were lucky enough to see a herd of Zebras just on the roadside, with a little guy tagging along.

Nap time, no photos please.

Back in Clarens, we stopped by several of our favorite bars and restaurants. Above are Dad and Jonah enjoying some local Clarens brews.

Here we are at Roter Hahn, the best German place in the Free State. Earlier, while taking our short hike at the Highlands Mountain Retreat, Jonah and I had met the owners of this fantastic joint. They are lovely people, especially because they treated us to a free round of beers! Customer loyalty: check.

From our table, we could see this peculiar thing in the mountains. Using the 'awesome' zoom on my camera, we were able to determine that it was a smiley face. The bartender at Clarens Brewery, Aiden, told us that the smiley face was a means to improve cell phone service.

It's cherry season in South Africa, and we were in the heart of cherry country. We decided to take a short day trip out to Ficksburg for the local cherry festival. Sadly, the weather did not cooperate and this muddy parking lot was all we saw of the festival this year. No KFC-eating contest for us.

On our way back to Joburg, we stopped at Lionsrock, a sanctuary for lions rescued from cruel zoos in former Eastern Bloc countries.

This grey heron we saw on the drive in appeared to be eating some sort of weed-covered sock.

This white lion female was beginning her recovery at Lionsrock.

Serious fencing helps keep the overweight lions from sampling local farmers' flocks.

On their last Monday in South Africa, I brought Dad & Susan out to the Cradle of Humankind. More specifically, I figured that if my dad can't handle heights, let's take him underground! 
Here they are with underground pachyderm. 

Luckily my dad's vertigo did not extend to deep underground caverns, but turns out his claustrophobia did. Hey Sterkfontein, got any vodka?

At the end of the tour, you can swipe some luck or wisdom from Ol' Robert Broom. My dad chose luck in hopes that SAA204 does not run out of cool drinks this time.

Susan also chose luck, possibly in hopes that my dad will sleep for most of the plane ride.

All in all, we had a great time and hope they come visit us again some time!