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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year's at Three Falls

To ring in the New Year, we were invited by our friends Bruce and Charné to visit their family farm in Mpumalanga, the "misty province"

We were joined by, from left to right: Charné, Bruce, Sally, and André (Bruce's brother). Pictures of the rest of the family to follow. Here our little party is enjoying a sundowner at the top of the farm. 

This is the main lodge at the farm, blending fairly well into the landscape. Named "Three Falls," the farm encompasses nearly 2500 acres of open fields replete with antelope, streams flush with trout, and forested areas ripe with baboons.  

The farm also produces some commercial timber for the paper industry, and this rather large blue gum (Eucalyptus) is one of the several types of trees grown there.

Upon arrival, we were ushered rapidly down to the Foofey Slide, where we chilled our bones after a 5 hour ride.

Sunset on the first day was occluded by low clouds (a recurring weather theme on the trip) but nonetheless spectacular.

The next morning, we were challenged to stock the trout streams on the property with Bruce and André's father Pierre. This meant getting up at 6am...

...getting kitted out with massive nets...

...and rushing around like crazy people moving enormous trout (this a 5-pound rainbow) from pond to truck...

...and from truck to weir...

...occasionally rescuing the odd escape artist.

After all that stocking, it seemed a shame not to try our luck in the now fully-stocked weirs.

Since fly-fishing is mandatory on the Three Falls acreage, Kelsey got a few quick pointers in the gentlemanly art of trout tickling.

After not fishing for 10 years, Jonah's skills were a bit rusty.

But Charné showed them how to get 'er done!

Here Kelsey pursues some lunkers. Good thing the scenery was nice!

Success! At our last stop of the day, Jonah's skills came roaring back and he nabbed this majestic beast:

Which Kelsey proudly held for a record 45 seconds, satisfying a challenge issued by Pierre, Bruce's father.

It wouldn't be a South African camping trip without some fireplace wizardry. Bruce and Charné cooked up a bangin' Lamb Potjie and Beer Bread for New Year's Eve... 

...and we followed that up on the next night with a chicken and chorizo paella.

Now it wasn't all fishing, we also practiced our photography. Kelsey took rapidly to the macro lens, and produced this and the following few shots:

A crab spider lurking

A woolly angiosperm

"Devil's Dice" or Fool's Gold or iron pyrite crystals in the bedrock.

This majestic throne was built for the guest's convenience at "The Platform," a prime sundowner spot at the top of the farm where we had a quick doppie on New Year's Eve.

And here's the family, from left and back to front: Pierre, Cheryl (Bruce's Aunt), Terry, Janice (Bruce's Mom), Bruce, Sally, André, yours truly, Charné, and also yours truly.
Let the festivities begin! We rang in the New Year with an Argentinian tradition borrowed from our friends Pia and Alex. First, 12 sips of a grape-based beverage, each followed by a wish for a month of the new year.

Second, an airing of foreign currency at the top of a ladder, for prosperity in the new year.

And finally, a ride around the house on a broom, with luggage in tow, to ensure a year robust with travel.

Our record-setting time: 4 minutes 10 seconds, with proof of our gadgetry.

On the first day of the year, we visited the nearby town of Dullstroom. The local Raptor Rehab Center has daily flight shows of their recuperating birds of prey. Kelsey is holding the star of the show, a Jackal Buzzard (sister taxon to the Red-Tailed Hawk of North America).

Next up was Daffy, a human-imprinted Spotted Eagle Owl who enjoys sitting on men's heads...

...and eating whole baby chicks.

Bruce and Charné introduced us to the awesome world of light-writing, where you use a long exposure and a light source to draw interesting patterns on the scenery. Here, a crocodile threaten Bruce and co.

They also showed us how to take star-trail pictures. 

A view from the escarpment on the other side of the farm on our last day, looking north and east towards the town of Nelspruit and ultimately Kruger.

Goodbye 2014! Let's have a year of travel, prosperity and champagne! Many thanks to the d'Hotman family for making it a memorable way to wrap up 2014!