Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Swaziland: the Enchanted Kingdom

In February, my student Kathleen invited my students and me to join her for a weekend in Swaziland. For those of you who didn't know this was a country (this includes the customs agent at JFK on my most recent USA sojourn), I refer you to the map below. As you can see, Swaziland (aka Dirty Swaz) is a small country approximately 120 miles long and 80 miles across that is surrounded almost entirely by South Africa.

The flag above and the Royal Seal (top of page) reflect the strong Bantu origins of the Swazi people, who moved into the area somewhere around 1600AD. The Lion on the Royal Seal represents the King, or "Ingwenyama", and the Elephant represents the Queen Mother, or Indlovukati (the latter translates to "She-Elephant"!).

 Swaziland is one of the last seven absolute monarchies in the world (I'll bet you can't name the other six), and King Mswati III features prominently on the currency, along with other Swazi economic bastions such as cows, corn, and pineapples. The currency is pegged to the South African Rand (1:1), and with "God as our source," appears in no danger of Zimbabwean-style collapse anytime soon.

Crossing the Swazi border isn't the fearsome experience you might predict given how daunting it is to get into the USA these days. Out of respect for national security I didn't photograph the rather small but efficient border post. However, ramshackle enterprises like this one extend outwards in either direction from the border crossing for a mile or so, giving the whole enterprise a relaxed, 'African' vibe.

Kathleen's place turned out to be a tidy little trailer on the farm of her boyfriend Phil and his mother Isabelle. Above, the farmhouse with sections that date to the early 1900s. Below, Kathleen's stoep. From left: yours truly, Isabelle, Kathleen, Phil, Blair.

More traditional Swazi homes are made of bundled grass in this typical beehive shape. 

As payment for a weekend of fun and adventure, Kathleen asked us all to deliver talks about the palaeontology of southern Africa to the Natural History Society of Swaziland. Their monthly meeting takes place at the opulent Mountain Inn in the capitol city of Mbabane (population 30,000; sister city to Fort Worth). Clockwise from top left: The Mountain Inn hosts Swazi's most popular Irish bar, O'Reilly's; A view from the Mountain Inn showing the lights in the valley below; Kimi tells the Society about Massospondylus, Kathleen tells the Society about palaeontology in southern Africa.

Swaziland is host to the famous southern african music festival "Bushfire" (, held annually at a beautiful music venue called, perhaps unimaginatively, "House on Fire". The venue is directly across from Kathleen's house, and features strange art, hippy stonework, and so forth. 

Swaziland is also known for its waxwork. This candle (!)  almost came home with me.

The restaurant by the Swazi candle shop has made the north african dish shakshouka a local specialty. It's sort of a tomato relish with peppers and onions in which eggs are poached and cheese is melted. You're given homemade pita to dip in this divine concoction.

Pineapple is an important cash crop and vast fields of pineapple plants like this one are a common sight.

The country is also well-known for its game reserves and parks. Here I'm swimming in pristine water coming out of the Mdzimba Mountains. Up at the base of the waterfall it's too cold for crocodiles, but in the lower stretches of the river, swimmers are strongly cautioned to watch out for what are known locally as "Flat Dogs" (see below)!

Of course, there's no swimming without a huge barbecue lunch and beer!

These Vervet Monkeys are not to be of them made a daring raid on our lunch spot and escaped with all of our rolls. We were left eating chicken with our hands.

Other less pestiferous members of the wildlife community include these mound building termites...

...and this blue-headed agama, a South African (and Swazi) endemic.

We ended our Swazi trip with a visit to Ngwenya Glass, an amazing local success story. Originally opened by a charitable organization called Swedish Aid in the late 1970s, the shop had gone bankrupt by the mid 1980s. It was purchased by a South African family who now produce a full range of stemware and decorative objects. All of the glass in the shop is recycled from local sources (the shop pays school kids to clean up their neighborhoods in exchange for glass soda bottles), the furnaces run partially on recycled motor oil, and items are shaped and packed in recycled newspaper. But what's coolest is that their mascot is a "flat dog"!

Monday, March 2, 2015

The rest of the new house

Sorry for the delay, but here are the panoramics of the rest of the new house. No, we're not living in a cubist paradise - the panorama program has serious difficulties inside. And no, we haven't yet set up the guest room or the guest cottage - guess you'll just have to visit to take a peek at those.

So here's the backyard again, from a different perspective:

And here's the kitchen, complete with the AfrikaanAmerikaan bull (and bulldog):

And here's the living room/dining area:

Our most cubist room, the den:

And a quick peek at the master bedroom complete with clawfoot tub:

Hope to see you all here real soon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sneak peak: new house, back yard

It's been a busy month of new years, new jobs, and new homes. Speaking of new homes, here is a sneak peak of the backyard for you to ogle. This is my first experiment with these online 3D panoramas, so stay tuned while I tweak the settings:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Building the Legend: Fieldwork near Dordrecht and Lady Grey, Eastern Cape

Yep, yet another fieldwork post. This one's a bit overdue, but I thought it was worthwhile sharing anyway. 

Last August, my friend Roger Benson came to Johannesburg to do some fieldwork in the Elliot Formation near the small Eastern Cape town of Lady Grey. Roger and I were in the Gobi desert together, and the title of this post refers to something that one of our superiors said - in effect, every field trip should 'build the legend'.

Previously, we'd met some friends that run a fantastic bed and breakfast down around Lady Grey, and we knew they had dinosaurs on their farm. What's more, we knew that area had some volcanic deposits, perfect for getting an absolute age of the rock layers (and hence the dinosaurs in those rock layers) Nearby, in the town of Dordrecht, our farmer friends Ben, Hannie, and Nellie had also found some good fossils on their farms. So together with my grad students Blair and Kimi, we went down to check it out. 
It's a LONG drive down to Dordrecht, a small town in the Eastern Cape Province. You can see that winter was still in full force - sunny skies, 65 degrees (F), and low golden grass everywhere. 

Our first stop was my friend Ben's farm, a charming old place that he fixed up himself, including building a solar-powered outdoor shower. 

Just outside of Ben's house is this typical old farm cemetery. I've shown you pictures of these things before, but the intimacy on these farms between life and death is quite striking.

As the sun was setting on the first day (after a solid 10 hours of driving), we pulled into our destination, Hannie and Nellie's cousin's place. This is the view from his backyard.

 This is the outdoor tub and shower, but because it was winter I never built up the courage to use it.

Next morning we were up early, surveying some nice looking outcrop. I'm standing on a seriously important piece of sandstone - this is the boundary between the Molteno Formation (famous for its fossil plants) and the Elliot Formation (famous for its fossil dinosaurs).

Blair (behind the rock), with farmer Hannie's help, had previously found some good fossil material, and we started a fairly serious excavation. Here Blair and Roger lift a massive stone out of the way...

...and Kimi mugs with my jackhammer.

Within a couple of days, we'd opened a serious hole in the ground, and isolated some pretty nice fossils.

These sort of windmills (funnily, the most common brand is called "Climax") are ubiquitous in the Karoo and are used to pump water out of wells. I've climbed this one to have a peek at the mechanism that drives the pump.

Here Blair is getting the fire just right to make chili in our field potjie. Some of the nights were extremely cold (32 Fahrenheit!).

From left, Blair, Kimi, me, and Roger on one of our last field days near Dordrecht.

A fairly good haul for a week's work - a new quarry and a few blocks of rock containing fossils. We'll be back again this year to excavate the rest.

From Dordrecht, it was off to our friend Vlok and Cora-Mart's farm near the town of Lady Grey. We'd visited them the year before and they said they had some dinosaurs on the property.
This magnificent animal is a Boer greyhound - one of two that Vlok and Cora-Mart use to hunt rabbits and control jackal.

They kindly let us use their quads to go prospecting (although Roger and I decided it was safer on foot).

Among our finds - this dinosaur bone perfectly preserved in sandstone...

A low flat area just crawling with dinosaur bones (look closely)...

And this unimpressive fellow, which is actually crucially important because it's a volcanic tuff - an ash layer that allows us to determine the age of the rocks.

Here's Kimi showing just how hidden the volcanic tuff layer was.

Roger and I going over the day's collecting at Vlok and Cora-Mart's bed and breakfast.

We were joined in the field by my colleague and friend Zubair, a sedimentologist at Wits. These guys are watching with jealousy as I "build the legend" by engaging in what we like to call "Feats of Strength." The first event was a log toss.

Second event: Lift Zubair's car. This resulted in catastrophic bumper failure.

Final event: whiskey toss. A poor idea that resulted in catastrophic whiskey failure and nearly cost us one of our trip participants. Legend built.

This is the view from the top of Vlok and Cora-Mart's farm. Not bad at all.

After prospecting Vlok and Cora-Mart's place, we branched out to other farms in the area to look for dinosaurs. It was lambing season, so this was pretty fun.

And at one or two places we had some luck. This is a piece of dinosaur limb sticking out of the gravel. We didn't have enough time to excavate this, but we'll be back next year.

Our last stop were some outcrops near the town of Lady Grey, which like many Karoo towns has a sandstone church at the center and is tucked up against the hills.

While in the town , we were instructed to talk to the "Dinosaur Lady," who turned out to be a retired teacher with a strong interest in geology and an impressive collection of fossils and rocks that looked like fossils.

Here we are identifying some of the nicer pieces in her collection.

And here I am enjoying a little break from prospecting by ruining the seat of my pants sliding down the hill with the Dinosaur Lady's grandson.

Our final stop was the township next to Lady Grey. The Dinosaur Lady had taught in the township school, and inspired many young people (now grown) to walk the hills nearby, looking for fossils. We saw a nice little collection (all catalogued on long-term loan from the National Museum in Bloemfontein), and talked to some local dinosaur experts. Next year they'll join us in the field.