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:

1 comment:

  1. so i just typed this long response and it wiped out once i hit publish...dammit! anyway, it went a little something like this:

    i love all your pictures! i can see why you wanted to live there! (temporarily :)) can't wait to see it all for myself when i visit!

    selby's childhood adventures sound pretty entertaining with that thing. also, was that a real giraffe on the wall?

    i'm definitely missing a lot, but i'm too tired to think :) miss you two!!