Monty's Year at Gobabeb Training and Research Centre, Namibia

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June 16th

I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the Kuiseb River is still flowing.  As of today, the water has flowed 9x the average of ~2 weeks and 6 weeks longer than the previous record.

I went on an awesome barefoot run upriver yesterday – the water is mostly mid-shin depth now with only occasional patches of quicksand – a tough workout all around.  Living with the Kuiseb has totally changed my perception of “a river.”  Now that rains have long stopped, I keep asking myself where the water is coming from.  I don’t think I’ve ever wondered that about a normal perennial river before…

While the intense heat of February to April has dissipated, winter has arrived in force.  Days have been sunny, dry (try 3% humidity on for size!), and basically perfect, but night time temperatures sometimes dip down to 40 degrees F.  Last night there was a total lunar eclipse.  The progression of a brilliantly bright desert moon into a blood red orb framed by the milky way and back into a full moon will not be forgotten anytime soon.

Enjoying a week of leave (hence time for this quick update…), but only a month to go until I will have to leave Gobabeb.  Then three weeks of traveling with my brother and mom, and then ??

My third quarterly report was recently published on the Grinnell College Website – check it out.  I also (finally) updated my Flickr as well.

and, 4 months later…

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Hey everyone!  Sorry about the major lapse in posts.  Since January, I’ve:

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I write to you from a very different place than the Gobabeb of January 7th’s last post.  For starters, it’s green here!  GREEN.  Like the rest of Southern Africa, the Namib has had an exceptional year in terms of rainfall.  A longer and more powerful rainy season than normal (caused in part by La Nina) has transformed the central and eastern Namib into a sea of grass.  The other day I saw over 100 springbok and ~50 ostrich (many of them babies) within a few kilometers of Gobabeb!

Yesterday we broke 2 records (!): 1) annual rainfall total and 2) number of flow days for the Kuiseb River.  A series of heavy rainstorms today pushed us over the previous rainfall record (127 mm in 1976) by 30 mm!  Although the flood documented in my previous post dried up after only a week, another strong flow came down on January 31st, and it hasn’t come close to stopping since.  104 days of the river and still coming strong (breaking the previous record set in 1974)!  Although it’s strength and the amount of suspended sediments changes daily, the water is mostly warm and clean.  I’ve found a number of deep pools which make sweet swimming spots and try and get down to the river whenever I can.  This is a video I created in mid-February when I thought the flood was almost over.

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In other news, our hybrid (solar/diesel) energy system was hit by a lightning bolt over a month ago.  This has meant that we’ve been operating off our back-up diesel generator since then.  Aside from the smell of the diesel fumes, the resulting power curfew has been fun – candlelit dinners, even better stars, and healthier work habits.

My life/work has been divided among a few key projects.  I’ve been helping to run a 5 month internship course for three recent graduates of Namibian universities.  The course is designed to promote scientific leadership, and each one of the students is working on independent projects relating to restoration ecology.  I am also helping to increase the effectiveness of our environmental education programs for local school children with funding from the Finnish government.  Finally, but definitely not least, I was tasked with organizing this years “Open Day,” a public event where people come to Gobabeb to learn about the Namib.  With contributions from schools, universities, government, and environmental organizations this has been a major challenge, but everything seems to be coming together just in time for next weekend.

Ok, more later.

THE KUISEB FLOODS!

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Only one day after an unexpected dust storm rolled through (see below), we were surprised again when the Kuiseb River came flooding past the station for the first time in almost two years!  Although we haven’t received measurable rainfall since November, massive cumulonimbus thunderheads have floated over the far eastern horizon for the past week – directly above the watershed of the ephemeral Kuiseb.

At around 10:300 pm, just after lying down for the night, Nathan rapped loudly on my bedroom door: “The river!  The river!!!”

The word had traveled just in time from one of the Topnaar settlements upstream; the flood was coming down, and fast.  I quickly got my things together and ran down into the (still dry) riverbed to meet the other Gobabebians that had already congregated there.  Where was it?  We eagerly began hiking upstream to meet the flow.

It seemed impossible that anything unusual was about to happen.  Above, a brilliant star-scape floated above the darkened silhouettes of dunes and tree tops.  All around, the riverbed’s typically sporadic night sounds and the rustling of leaves were barely audible.  In a way that has become familiar over the past six months, the soft sand and silt filtered through the cracks between my toes.

Suddenly, a low rushing sound was carried to us from the darkness ahead of us.  A gust of wind through the trees?  As the sound became louder it  grew undeniable: the river!  Moments later, still out of reach of our flashlight beams, a powerful and earthy smell overpowered our desert accustomed nostrils.  Then, traveling at a full meter/second, the leading edge rolled into us.  Within a matter of seconds the initial wave of sludge and detritus evolved into a rapidly deepening flood.  A minute more, and one had to remain vigilant just to stay standing.

2 and a half days later, the water is still flowing, although it’s height has gone down significantly.  Another pulse could happen at any time as rain clouds continue brooding in the East.

January 4, 2011

Just another day at the office…

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Going Solo: New Years, 2010

I made the best use of my backyard this New Years and went on a solo trek into the dunes.  Leaving mid-afternoon on New Years Eve, I hiked about 7 miles into the sand (far side of Kahani Dune).  After marking the last sunset of the year with some Namibian wine (thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Pavlovic!), I descended onto one of the interdunes to enjoy the celestial show… shooting stars and all.

The following morning, I woke with the sun and hiked a circuitous route back to Gobabeb (and water).  Tracks in the sand attested to a typically busy night for the animals of the Namib  – evidence of springbok, jackals, fox, beetles, spiders, gerbils, golden moles, geckos, lizards, chameleons, larks, goshawks, side-winding adders, and digger wasps.

Cresting a dune on the way back, I was surprised to come across a human.  Gobabeb’s station director had gotten his car stuck in the sand on one of the research tracks (an easy thing, even for experienced dune drivers).  I helped him dig and push out – my first act of good-will in the new year!

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Quarterly Report #2

Happy New Year!  Here’s my second quarterly report for Grinnell.

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Happy Holidays from Gobabeb!

It’s December 27th at 2:00 pm.  The temperature in the shade of my open-air office is a pleasant 80 degrees F.  Red-eyed bulbuls and cape sparrows chatter in the branches of the greenery in the courtyard, but other than that the station is quiet.  Everyone (save two interns and myself) has shipped out to spend the week with family, yet Gobabeb’s predictable cycle of morning fog, intense daytime sun, and cool evening breezes continues as it has since I arrived.  Despite the disappointing addition of new security lights at the main complex, one does not have to walk far to find an inspiring number of stars.

The last month has been filled with many great experiences, most of which I haven’t found time to write about: a trip to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho for an American Thanksgiving with other Grinnellians, the start of the a summer course on land use in northern Namibia with university students, and a backpacking trip through the Kuiseb Canyon.  More on all that later!

I’ll use this entry to describe the !nara plant (Acanthosicyos horrida), upon which many of the Topnaar people living this region of Namibia depend.  Saying the word !nara correctly is difficult things for foreigners, but is usually forgiven by locals.  The exclamation point indicates one of the four clicks used in Nama (! = alveolar click).  You can work on it…  my strategy is to ignore the “n” completely.

!nara survive in large numbers in the loose sand, especially in the dunes and in the delta of the Kuiseb River.  Accessing groundwater via  long tap-roots (>30 meters), they are able to thrive where very few plants can.  Separate male and female plants sprawl over many hundreds of square meters, each individual causes the creation small hummock dunes around their base.  It is considered a keystone species, and many types of beetles, snakes, lizards, and rodents depend on the spiny protection at the base for shelter.

While not planted or cultivated, melons from wild plants are harvested by Topnaars.  The harvesting of the plant used to be part and parcel of their nomadic lifestyle, but now people have settled around water points and boreholes.  Thus, smaller parties have to travel hundreds of kilometers via donkey carts for week or month long harvesting trips in order to collect the fruit.

From the !nara melon (think: big, round, spiky cucumber), the pips (seeds) can be extracted, and the pulp is spread into sheets to make a delicious fruit leather (called !nara chocolate).  According to my conversations with harvesters, only the sweetest melons are used for this purpose.  Recently, a company based out of Swakopmund has been pressing the seeds to extract oil from which cooking oil and body lotion are produced.  Some of my family and friends should be enjoying this soon!

For many people in the Kuiseb, sale of dried !nara pips forms their only source of cash income.  A recent study by Masaaki Ito suggest annual profits from this sale of these pips average around $300 U.S per person.

Here are some pictures I took in mid-November when some anthropology graduate students from Kyoto University in Japan came to Gobabeb to learn more about harvesting and processing techniques.

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Rain!

The last 48 hours have included some of the most outstanding moments of my life.  The pictures don’t capture half of it!  Gobabeb’s annual preciptation is 27 mm / year.  This event was only 5 mm (not enough for grass germination), but still amazing.  No more rain since yesterday, but the lightning is still rumbling on a darkened horizon…

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The People of the Kuiseb: Topnaars, Gobabeb and the Namib-Naukluft National Park

Entrance into the Namib - Naukluft Park via the poorly maintained "river road"

There are two ways to drive to Gobabeb Training and Research Centre from Walvis Bay, the nearest town.

The quickest and most popular route takes one across the gravel plain.  The directions are easy enough: take the tarred road until it ends, drive another 40 kms east, and then drive straight south for 65 kms.  After about 2 hours (depending on the quality of your vehicle and your confidence driving on Namibia’s roads), you’ll see Gobabeb’s distinctive water-tower on the far horizon – the first sign of life, human or otherwise, since leaving town.

The other way to Gobabeb couldn’t be more different.  While both roads are almost entirely encompassed within the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the second route cuts the diagonal, following the long oasis of vegetation tapping the water hidden under the sands of the ephemeral Kuiseb River.  Skirting along this natural barrier of the Namib’s sand sea, the road meanders through blocks of beautifully pure colors: blue sky, orange dunes, green treetops, and alternating sections of black and white bedrock.  Yet, to me, the most striking part of this route is the fact that the neglected gravel road is more often traveled by donkey-cart than by car.

The "river road" cuts the diagonal of the longer but quicker route across the desolate gravel plain.

You see, the last 100 kms or so of the Kuiseb River’s narrow path through the Namib is the traditional land of the Topnaar people.  While a lot of the Namib-Naukluft Park is infrequently visited, this section is strongly influenced, if not dominated, by humans.  While the population of the Kuiseb Basin in not large – estimates vary from 300 – 800 depending on who you ask – their relatively large numbers of cattle, goats, and donkey’s have a significant footprint.

The Topnaar are a cultural group of Nama speaking Khoikhoi people, which factors along with their naturally isolated physical location, to marginalize them from the more dominant Namibian ethnic groups.  Traveling up-river, Rooibank is the first settlement in a long line of small villages, some of which are home to no more than one or two families.  Following Roibank comes Armstraat, Dawebdraai 1, Dawebdraii 2, !Ubas, Ururas 2, Ururas 1, Steekgras, Utuseb, Swartbank, Klipneus, Soutrivier, Gobabeb (and it’s ever changing make-up of strange foreigners), then Natab 2 and Natab 1, and finally Homeb.  With the glaring exceptions of Gobabeb and the primary school at Utuseb, these communities largely lack running water or electricity.  A few sad solar panels speak to what could be, but for the most part they have been poorly maintained.

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.                Sebedeus’ step father at their home in Klipneus.
There is a mechanical pump, but it has been broken for the last 9 years.   When Sebedeus was 5, a group of drunk South African soldiers stormed his village, shot up his family’s home and livestock.

The Topnaar people’s history is fuzzy at best, but it is known that they have lived in the Kuiseb basin for hundred years.  Traditionally hunting game and harvesting the melons of the wild !nara plants that thrive here, the people were forbidden to hunt after the establishment of the Namib – Naukluft National Park in the 1960’s.  Today people survive by mixing what little cash they can meagre together with a subsistence lifestyle focused around !nara harvesting and livestock ranching.

Ouma Anna, one of the Kuiseb's matriarchs, at Ouma Lydia's funeral. When Ouma Anna was younger, she was almost killed while riding her bike home by South African soldiers having "target practice."

Gobabeb’s aura as an outpost of humanity in a featureless and pristine wilderness, as romantic as it is, is also deceptive.  To approach the station along this road, instead of it’s alternative, is to confront an inconvenient truth.  These people, their issues and realities, as well as unsightly piles of trash imported from a foreign economy of metal, glass, and plastic, are shunted from view from most casual visitors to the park.  After all, desperately poor people are not something tourists like to face on an excursion into the “wilderness.”  It’s uncomfortable and challenges deep seeded perceptions of what the Namib is and should be.

The first pit toilet along the Kuiseb - built last week in anticipation of Ouma Lydia's funeral at Armstraat.

While life is hard for the Topnaars, and access to basic information about the world is difficult if not impossible to come by, for most, life is arguably better than it was just 25 years ago.  At least now, after independence and the end of Apartheid, the South African Army no longer uses their homes, livestock , and bodies for target practice.

Many Topnaar do have hope for the future, though.  The booming uranium mining industry could potentially bring unskilled jobs.  Or maybe some of the politically controlled cash flow generated from the tourism industry will eventually trickle down to create practical improvements for people’s quality of life.  Or, perhaps, just maybe, education and use of culturally sensitive, alternative technologies will improve the quality of life for these people, while at the same time preserving some semblance of their way of life and sustaining the sensitive environment they’ve called home for centuries.

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Quarterly Report #1

My first quarterly report for Grinnell.

Nathan Pavlovic’s first quarterly report.

Enjoy!

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