Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Into the Real Middle of Nowhere

I will preface this by saying this is by far the longest post I’ve ever written. It made it to 4 pages in Word)

Way back in the day in England there was a tradition of what a family did when they had three sons. The first son was the heir of the estate, the second went into the military, and the third became a clergyman. So you’re probably wondering, what happened if a family had four or more sons? Well apparently, they were just like, we don’t really have anything to do with you, so usually they moved to either America or Australia. One such family had a fourth son who moved to South Australia and was in the Flinders ranges when he was drowned in a flash flood. His sister then thought him important enough to take a tombstone and travel a bunch of miles and take the tombstone to be placed at the place where her brother was killed (which was essentially the middle of no one). Where was I going with this? Why I am telling this story? Oh yes, travelling. With regards to the wildlife camp that I went on, there were a few people who weren’t from Australia. One came from Hong Kong, which really isn’t that far away. There’s an abundance of Asians in Australia. There was one from California, but essentially, all she did was cross an ocean. There was one from northern Virginia, which was pretty far, but me, I took the cake. I travelled the furthest distance (the absolute other side of the world) to go to essentially… nowhere. Yeah, the outback is pretty much the most of nowhere I’ve been. It’s just desert and some shrubs. This story was told by our professor at the end of camp (very much in that manner with him forgetting why he was telling the story, lol) and I won a mini kit-kat bar for the award for travelling the furthest distance. Yay Jersey!!! Anyhow, now that I’ve told you the end of the story, I suppose we should rewind a bit and start at the beginning.

So I got to have another adventure, and as a result, another chance to grow personally. The courses here are a lot less flexible as to when you can take them here, which is a big difference to my university where you can take pretty much anything in any order after your first year, and definitely after your second (with a few exceptions). Anyhow, I say that to say that most of the people in each year, know one another. The way my courses are set up is that I’m taking two 3rd year courses and two 2nd year courses. The two 2nd year courses that I’m taking are biochemistry and wildlife management, the latter of the two is what this field camp (into the outback) was for. Biochemistry, however, is taught to both the animal sciences and pre-veterinary students and all the friends that I’ve made in that class just happen to be pre-vet, with the exception of one, and because the camp was split into two groups, she went on the first one, and I went on the second. So I was walking into this camp, knowing absolutely no one, and going, once again, to a new place with the preconception that everyone knew each other, or at least knew someone else already…it was like first arriving in Australia all over again.

I boarded the bus, but surprisingly, I was hoping that no one would sit next to me at that point because although it would have been a seemingly easy way to meet someone, I was very tired from having had little sleep the night before, and frankly I was also somewhat emotionally drained from something that I was dealing with in my personal life. Fortunately, the bus was large enough with few enough people that most people could afford their own seats. So I popped in my headphones and very shortly I was in the state of zzzzZ. It was about a 3-3.5 hour ride to Calperum station which was the location of our field camp. I slept for most of the trip, but it still wasn’t quite enough, and in fact, that entire four days was just me digging a deeper hole of sleep deprivation. We had to be ready to leave at 6 am each morning and so for me that meant waking up at 4:30 each morning (only by God’s grace did that happen). To add to that sleep deprivation was people boisterously gallivanting throughout the halls until like 1 am. However, I had a blast, and learned a few things, both about wildlife and people. First I’ll talk about the people, because they’re a lot less interesting and not nearly as exciting.

The main thing I learned about people, which I’ve seen in many to other circumstances as well, is that we’re too hard to please. If you know me, next time I’m complaining around you, call me out on it, and just straight out tell me to get over it! I was so sick of people’s griping and complaining. “We have to wake up too early…” “There’s too much free time…” “It’s (the weather) too hot.” “It’s too cold.” “Blah blah blah blah blah” I felt like I was stuck in the wilderness with the Israelites (I was halfway there with the wilderness part). Don’t get me wrong, not everyone was complaining, but there were quite a few. They just couldn’t enjoy themselves because they weren’t constantly being catered to every moment of the day. But now on to the exciting.

I thought the camp was awesome! Firstly, I got to go to the outback!! So I’ll give you the rundown of what we did. When we first got there, we had to go pick a room, there were rooms that had 3 beds, and some that had 4. Completely by chance, I walk into a room where two other girls were and asked if there was room for me. I introduced myself and asked them what they were studying. One girl was studying biochemistry; she was an exchange student from the University of California. The other was a biology major from (yes Nicole if you’re reading this) William & Mary. (just a sidenote: I feel like there are like 32 people here from W&M, so Nicole, I’ve decided that at some point, you need to visit Adelaide since you didn’t come here when you were a student there, lol) What are the odds that I ended up sharing a room with the only other 2 exchange students on the trip? So I’ll admit it was somewhat likely, since as I mentioned with my preconception of everyone knowing everyone, although it wasn’t completely correct, most of the people there were second year animal science students and did know one another. The only two other people who I’m sure weren’t animal science students were guys, so I wasn’t going to be rooming with them. Anyhow, after finding our rooms and stuff, we had a lecture by the ecologist that worked there, which I pretty much completely slept through (told you I was tired…and frankly, he was pretty boring). After his lecture which felt like hours, we were somehow ahead of schedule or something so our professor, we’ll call him Phil (cause that’s his name), decided to move the lecture planned for the next night, to right then, and I slept through parts of that one as well. I am so thankful that he moved it though, cause had it been the next night, I would have missed the whole thing.

That evening we went out to our field site. We got to ride in 4 wheel drive vehicles that were kind of like army bunkers (where you sit on benches facing one another in the back of the truck). We rode through sand to get to the “main road” which was only paved right at the entrance of the station, and unpaved everywhere else (apparently this was a “highway” that led to Sydney). We then turned off the road onto more sand and there was a fence blocking off the area we were going into with a sign basically saying that “unauthorized visitors would most likely receive no help if something happened to them.” Thought that was pretty funny…and they were serious. Anyhow, the program went as follows: There were two types of traps we were using. The first was called a pitfall trap which was a bucket buried in the ground forming a hole for animals to just fall into. This was used for catching reptiles (hopefully not snakes) and small land mammals. The second was an Elliot box trap which was baited and used only for the small land mammals. So before going out to check the traps for the first time (which were in the bush) we were briefed on the different dangers present. Basically the things to look out for were spider webs (which were more of an annoyance and would be a freak out moment if you walked into one more than a danger), my new arch nemesis spinofex grass, and snakes. The two snakes of the area were brown snakes (which are also present on the campus) which are venomous but have very shallow fangs, and death adders…’nuff said. Ok, I’ll say a bit more. Apparently they bury themselves in the sand and poke their tails out like a little worm to bait birds and other prey. They move slow, but strike fast, and they were the ones to most likely be hidden in a pitfall trap. In the case of coming across a brown snake, we were to make noise (stomping=vibrations to get the snake to leave) and inform our team of the snake’s presence. If the snake was right in front of us, we were to stay still and just wait for the snake to leave. We were instructed to always check the pitfalls with a snake hook for death adders before reaching into it with our hands to take something out. Any questions? Ummm yeah, of course you had me to ask the question which seemed very much obvious but no one else was asking: “What if we find a death adder in the trap?” (personal growth point) You know I’m not getting near it if there was. We were to call Phil or the other dude who’s name I don’t remember, to get the snake out, because they’ve had snake handling experience in the past. So that first evening, we placed our 50 Elliot traps (about 10 meters apart from each other) in a line and 15 meters away on either side of our pitfalls traps which ran in a straight line down the middle. (so there were 25 on each side of the line of pitfalls) There were 4 groups based on direction, I was in the northwest group. Our first night, we found one lizard, and I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that it was a bit difficult to identify because many lizards are quite minute creatures and you need a microscope to look at many of the features that are in the key for identifying them. To add to that, the guide in the book often had things written like “spots usually (or sometimes) present on the tail” or even better, “eyelids transparent or not transparent.” ßthose 2 are exact opposites if you didn’t notice (cause the writers of the book clearly didn’t. Anyway, that took a while, and then my group went spotlighting. Before going on the trip, I didn’t know what that meant, so I realize that some of my readers may not be familiar with the term. My advice to you if you are that reader, is to Google it. I’m totally kidding! We got in the truck and had these 3 giant lights that we pointed out of the window to look for larger wildlife. You could also do this on foot with a flashlight, but we were covering a larger area of land, so a vehicle was much more useful in this situation. We saw about 8 or 9 kangaroos, a rabbit, some moths and some spider webs. The kangaroos were cool. Most were red kangaroos (which are ironically mostly grey in color and white at the bottom…I think) and there was the western-grey kangaroo (which was red and dark at the bottom). Apparently in past years, there had been a season of drought, so the kangaroos would be highly concentrated in one area. However, since there has been heaps of rain lately (relative to Australia’s aridness…so it really hasn’t been that much) but as a result, there’s more food available, so they were more spread out. I was fortunate to be in the first group so we got back around 10 and Yay! Bed! Unfortunately, my classmates thought it’d be fun to get completely trashed and be extremely loud while I attempted to sleep (sidenote: since I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that I live quite an unintentionally sheltered life…I miss that). I finally got to sleep probably around midnight, and woke up around 5 to one of my roommate’s alarm, since my 4:30 one failed to go off. She snoozed; I went to the disgusting ant infested bathroom. I still can’t figure out why they were attracted to swarming in there; I didn’t take a proper shower the entire time I was there. Anyway, we were gathered to leave at 6 and the staff was quite unhappy about the shenanigans that took place the night before. Phil threatened to send people home if it happened again. We got to our trap site and to our surprise, we caught 12 mammals! At that time we also closed our Elliot traps because they were made of metal and so we didn’t use those to catch lizards during the day because it would be too hot. I guess I should pause here to say that we collected the small mammals in the morning because they are nocturnal, and the lizards in the evening because they would be active and get caught in the traps during the day. We had to identify the animals so within our group we broke down into pairs and triplets to try and get the identifying done quicker. There were three mammals in the area. The house mouse, the Bolam’s mouse, and a carnivorous marsupial called mallee ningaui (I don’t know if I spelled that right, but it’s pronounced mal-lee nin-gow-ee, or at least that’s how we were pronouncing it). The house mice were pains because they smelled bad, they were super hyper and constantly trying to escape by jumping out of the bucket, they refused to be still, and one bit my finger. The bolam’s mouse was super cute and calm. The carnivorous marsupial was somewhat in between behavior-wise but it was cool because it wasn’t a mouse and they were rare to catch; the house mouse of course was always the most commonly caught. We marked their tails with a dry erase marker to avoid double counting them. We measured different features to determine whether there were juveniles present in the population to determine whether there was reproduction occurring. Later that day, we did a habitat assessment, which was basically measuring the density of shrubs and grasses and bare ground, surrounding our pitfalls to determine what type of habitat each animal was most likely to reside in. That evening, after releasing our mammals and collecting our reptiles (we only ever caught reptiles in our 10th pitfall trap for some reason), my group learned how to use the GPS units so that we could record the locations of our Elliot traps.

It was evening and it was morning, the 2nd day. On the 3rd day, we were fortunate enough to only catch 5 animals (at each trap we were hoping not to have something, because 12 took way too long the day before). This morning was bizarre. As we were identifying the small mammals, one of the guys in my group was handling one of the mice and he wasn’t over the bucket and the mouse got dropped and escaped. Then there was me and the girl, Kim who I was working with. She was holding the carnivorous marsupial and I was trying to sex it (determine whether it was male or female), so I was attempting to move its fur and the little bugger bit my finger. As a natural reflex, I jerked my finger away, however, little to my knowledge, it was holding on with its teeth and as a result, I pretty much threw it across the room. Bye-bye little mallee ningaui. So we captured 5 and returned 3. However, we weren’t the only group dropping mice (well, I guess I threw mine, but that was beside the point). Every time you looked around, someone was chasing a mouse across the room or out the door. Some were caught, others escaped. Because it had rained earlier that morning, we had to switch the morning and afternoon activities. We were originally meant to do sand transects in the morning which basically involves smoothing the sand out so that you can see what animals cross the road and whether larger animals, such as foxes, use the road as an easier path than walking through the bush. The purpose was to see whether the road was an interruption of the animals’ habitat or whether they would be willing to cross it. Because the sand was wet in the morning, it would have made for an extremely taxing task, so we waited until the afternoon for the sand to dry out. So in the morning, instead of the sand transect, my group went bird watching which was really cool. I think I might pick that up as a hobby someday. We had a bonfire that night, which I stood by for a few moments, but then someone came and lit a cigarette, and I was tired anyway, so I just went to bed. Finally, on the last day, we released the animals we’d caught the night before as per usual (although that night, we’d caught a bearded dragon and a mallee dragon, the mallee dragon was absolutely adorable), and I don’t know how many we caught but we managed to get 2 mice in one Elliot, and other groups were using our bags I think, so we ended up with like 9 or 10 to identify (one guy was convinced one of the mice he’d found was dead so he stuck it in a plastic bag, but it turned out to be alive…glad it didn’t suffocate), and we had dish duty that morning. So three of the guys stayed behind to do the dishes so we could get a jumpstart on identifying, and we still finished last. We then went and re-released them, and assessed our sand transects. We collected all the traps, and after having lunch, and gathering our things, 4 pages later, we finally return to the beginning of this post.

I thought the camp was a great experience and I had quite a bit of fun, despite my lack of sleep. I slept on the return trip as well. I’ve already mentioned the blissfully sheltered life that I live, and I suppose that may come up at another time in more detail. But the other thing I’ve learned is that I am less afraid to talk to people now. I think I’ve gotten better at more easily finding common ground or topics to talk about, or I’ve just gotten less afraid to do it. The positive is that I’m growing! Until next time,

You can do all things through Christ that strengthens you (Phil 4:13)

Grow…Be BOLD!! (2011)


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