Thursday, March 21, 2013

Clarens needs St. Patrick

Last weekend, Jonah was invited to Golden Gate National Park near Clarens to talk to honorary rangers about the dinosaur diversity. 

After about three hours on the road (of course never exceeding the speed limit of 75mph [120km/h]), Jonah hangs a right and I found myself at the Highland Water Project. This massive water project takes mountain snowmelt in Lesotho and brings it to Johannesburg to flush our toilets in exchange for 100% of Lesotho's energy needs via hydroelectric plants (plus 9 million rand/day in fees). You might remember this from an earlier post where I had no clue what the big circle was. Now I know that circle is a liner for the massive tunnel that brings water for my hot showers and it's pretty neat.

This water is unbelievably clear. Africa just doesn't do clear water usually.

Clarens (pop. 4000, of which 400 live in the town proper), has a brewery! And the famous German restaurant, where Jonah et al always go to eat without me. We broke our low-carb diets with schnitzel and beer and watched the lightning hit the Malutis.

Above, Clarens town center, an artist's haven.
Below, the brewery (a palaeontologist's haven) and German restaurant.

And of course, the Highlander, home of the best pizza in the Free State. Also good beer.

...and dessert

Of course, after all this binging, then we had to drive along mountain roads in the dark to our accommodations.

This is the driveway (5 miles long) to our chalet. In the light of day, you'd see the sheer cliff on the right.

But this is the view we woke up to out our bedroom window:
Note that the Highlands Mountain Retreat, where we stayed in Golden Gate National Park, is pretty eco-friendly. Each chalet (there are 6, all very close together) is built with a green roof and into the mountain. They're comfortable, sturdy, and it's hard to tell that anyone is nearby. If you visit, we will go.
Can you spot our chalet above?
Our chalet in the morning
Looking out over the mountains, the chimney in foreground is the only indication of another building.
The Maluti Mountains at dawn. No sleeping in for us!

Check out the craftsmanship in these simple log cabins. Second, note the butter dish. Some things, although common in South African homes, are nearly impossible to buy. A butter dish is one such thing. However, it was readily available in our chalet. 

Checking out the view from our balcony...

One of the cool things is that you can see so much game while drinking tea. Here are some friendly local Zebra (pronounced Zuhb-rah)

And these lovely peaks are the Drakensberg, elevation ~9,000ft

Hiking in these hills, I was attacked rudely by a massive fairly large,  18" snake. It bit my boot and I dragged it for two or three steps before I reached back and brushed it off. Of course I was not at all afraid, and did not shake my legs and run off screaming. Nor did I require a stiff belt of whiskey  to calm my nerves at 7:30am.

UPDATE: The snake, of course presumed to be a black mamba, was later identified as a Skaapsteker (sheep stabber). Not harmful to humans, unless the humans have a unnatural fear response. 

This is the environmental education center, where Jonah had to teach his course. 

And this is the road to get there...

Which was guarded by trash-loving baboons.

While Jonah taught his course, I checked out the local flora. This is Crassula sp. flowering abundantly. It's a relative of the jade plant (may Cleopatra rest in peace).

And this is a Euphorbia, kind of like a cactus but not a cactus.

Heading home after the infamous snake encounter, we stopped for breakfast at Sugar and Cinnamon, a charming roadhouse. 

It's fig season, and this means breakfast is amazing.

Finally, three days, one sheep stabber, and 1000km later, we arrived in Johannesburg just in time to get caught in traffic. More later about our new Wormwood-farming friends and our adventures on the border of Lesotho!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Magaliesberg Adventures

March 8th is International Women's Day and I celebrated in style with a few lady friends from the BPI. Aurore (a recent BPI graduate) emailed to ask if I was interested in joining the ladies for a day in the Magaliesberg. I was interested because we haven't had the opportunity to explore the mountain chain closest to Joburg. However, I balked slightly at the proposed activities due to my healthy fear respect of scary and potentially dangerous adventurous activities, but this time, I put the scary-cat away, and was a brave little chicken.

What did we do, you ask? Why we strapped ourselves into harnesses with carabiners and swung along cables above the treetops in the beautiful Magaliesberg, of course!

Here we are, just about to set out.
From Left to Right: Aurore, Christine, Rachel, me

Our first 'real glide' after our short training. 
Basically it goes like this: hold on gently (you'll burn through your leather glove if you don't!), keep your 'brake hand' behind you, don't look down, and enjoy the scenary.

We paused at the third glide (of seven) for KitKats and water before climbing the tower--approximately 3.5 stories above the ground. At the top, we could see monkeys enjoying some tasty leaves in the trees below us.

What do you mean I have to climb up that?

A successful glide for me! Reminder: don't wear shorts.

After gliding, we picnicked in a Nature Reserve about 45 minutes away. At this road, we took a right, headed towards the Scorpio Rally (even though 3 of 4 of us in the car are Aries with April 16th bdays). You'll notice we were also headed towards areas of recent unpleasantness. 
Luckily, life has calmed down a bit out there.

Our picnic was at this lovely pool at the nature reserve. What a view, eh?

This is Africa.

We took a short hike after eating, lounging and swimming in the pool. On our hike, we happened upon this cool rock that looks like a chicken!

So we climbed up to say hello.

Now, after these photos, I know ya'll are going to be lining up at JFK to come visit.
When you get here, we'll go ziplining. Promise.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Notes from the field (by Jonah)

Last week I visited my good friend and colleague Billy de Klerk down in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. Billy and his lovely wife Viv (below, with my old advisor Cathy Forster on right) are faculty at Rhodes University, and Billy is an accomplished palaeontologist.

Billy had called me when he heard I got the job in South Africa and told me that he had a number of great dinosaurs "lying in wait" to show me when I arrived. The purpose of this field trip was to decide which ones to collect.

We were joined on the trip by our philosopher friend, the epicurean Marius Vermaak (left).

The map below shows our general route out of Grahamstown. In general, we headed into the foothills of the Drakensberg, an area with great outcrops, lots of cattle and sheep farming, and very low population density.

I met Billy in Port Elizabeth, a large coastal city near Grahamstown. Having time to kill, I stopped in at Bay World, a sort of decaying aquatic Zoo and museum:

(Above) Two great WTFs from the exhibit.

A reconstruction of the giant sauropod Algoasaurus, complete with eyelashes.
An escapee from the African Penguin exhibit.

After a couple of nights in Grahamstown, we were off for the field. The rock deposits we were looking for dinosaurs in are collectively called the "Stormberg Group," which means about what you think it does.

Our first field stop was at the small (1000 acre) farm of our friend Ben. Ben retired to the Dordrecht area and has been restoring an old farmhouse ever since. Unfortunately, we arrived before the shower was finished (pile of rocks on the right), but based on Ben's other renovations I'm sure our next visit will be luxurious.

As you might guess, the roads are not in the greatest shape, hence the 4x4, and Ben's passive-aggressive sign about his culvert:

Ben's farm is called "Skilderkrans," which means something like "art hill" (note my Afrikaans skills). This refers to both his artistic bent and to the San bushmen paintings which are located all around the farm (more on this later). 

One of the cool things about the farms in this area is they are rich in family histories. Many of the farmers we met had been on the same plot for 4 or 5 generations. As you can see above, those generations still had a presence.

Mom, I put this picture in just for you - there's a lot of Merino sheep farming about....
...and also some serious Hereford beef farming, too. This fellow is an absolute monster. He goes by the name "Bruce," and he was moping around the house because he'd sprained his leg fighting the other bull for mating rights. The other type of cow that's very common in the area is called an Nguni, a native breed that is supremely tick and disease resistant. I bought an Nguni hide (they're also beautifully spotted) on the trip for about $150. Picture forthcoming.

Apart from the farmlife, the geology of Ben's acreage is incredible. Here's a shot of Ben posing at a ripple mark exposure (an old shoreline):

Not far from Ben's place is a farm with a great exposure of the red beds of the Elliot Formation. Ben had found this critter there, and we'll go back in May to collect it.

Below, a panorama showing you the area the fossil was found in:

Ben also brought us to a beautiful nearby farm where he'd found another interesting dinosaur, which I'm examining below:
After leaving Ben's place, well-satisfied that we'd return to excavate, we had a pleasant evening at the Rhodes Hotel (Rhodes the town, population 50). Best bar within 300 miles.

Here Billy and Marius enjoy a cocktail on the lengthy porch.

The bartender scuttles to make my cocktail.

After a much needed shower, we drove towards the town of Elliot (where the Elliot Formation type section is) to meet with retired farmer Selby Vorster. Selby has a great dinosaur (so close to a road I can't reveal it's exact location or show a picture yet), which we're going to also dig up in May.
The farm Selby grew up on.

This bust stands outside of the bar at the Mountain Shadows hotel and it probably weighs 150 pounds. Selby (right) dwarfs it by comparison, and he said as a lad he and his friends used to get drunk and carry the bust inside the bar, then sit it next to them until they got kicked out.

We stayed the night at the Mountain Shadows Hotel. It's this kind of place (above).

The altitude at Selby's dinosaur locality makes the sky the clearest shade of blue:

We were also near the 'Baster Voetpad' (bastard's footpath), a road built by farmers to access remote mountainous grazing. 

We drove the 4x4 up this path, stopping near the top to drink a very traditional whiskey and water from the spring.

The view from the top was worth the bowel-shaking ride:

and I also found some of Kelsey's study system:

That afternoon, we had tea with a local artist, Sarah Swart. Sarah lives in an old stone house, down a long dirt road, with no running water or electricity. Here she is posing with her "dinosaur," which is really a stick kind of shaped like a dragon head.

Finally, we stopped at Denorbin, a famous cave art locality. 

Here's just a sample of the 100ft long mural found on that farm:

Not shown are paintings of guys with enormous penises hunting these antelope (with bows and arrows, not their penises). More detail here:

The local farmers, artists, and retirees I met on this trip were interesting, hard-working, and incredible people. I think, however, that for many of the area's residents, apartheid isn't over: