Reality sets in
What with Dennis collecting the demographic data for the Cheetah Project, I have been able to devote most of my time to my follows. This is it, the real thing, the big time. This decides whether the previous 2 ½ years of work on my PhD has given me the requisite background knowledge and flexibility to be able to adapt as things go wrong. Because as any PhD student will tell you, stuff always goes wrong.
The theory is that I follow a cheetah or group of cheetahs for several days in order to record all of their hunts, both successful and unsuccessful. Cheetahs are mostly diurnal and I assumed that they wouldn’t hunt or move around at night, and if I left them at dusk, they would be in the same general area at dawn the next day. This is proving to be not always true. Sometimes it has worked, especially with mothers with small cubs, but more often than not I really struggle to find the cheetahs again the next day. So far I have not managed to follow one group of cheetahs for more than 3 days without losing them. Males especially are distressingly active at night. I have tried to follow 2 named Bradley and Cooper several times. Their mode of operating seems to be to sleep all day, rouse themselves around 6 pm, have a bit of a stretch and a groom, and then take off to scent mark on everything in sight. By the time it gets dark, they are still walking. The times I have been able to find them again
the next morning (after much laborious searching), they have been 4-5 km away from where I left them at dark. My inability to observe 2 consecutive successful hunts in the past month means that I may not be able to use time between successful attacks as a parameter in my models as I planned. I suspect I will have to rethink a chunk of my PhD. That is never a comfortable thought, especially when already in the field and ability to access and read scientific papers is a bit limited.
However I am getting better at camping. I have a platform and mattress in the back of my car, a gas stove, and a trunk full of miscellaneous camping gear and food.
Cheetah at dusk
Looking in through the backdoor of the Landrover
Brothers named Bradley and Cooper do some bonding
Before I start out I boil and filter a large amount of drinking water, make some sort of vegetable mush and rice to eat the first two nights, buy the freshest vegetables I can find, obtain bread, and make doubly sure I have enough toilet paper and tea. As I do not have a car fridge, I try to cool/freeze as many bottles of water as possible and use them in cool boxes to keep the cooked food, the vegetables and the cheese cool for at least the first day. The lack of fridge means no cold drinks, yogurt, milk, or cheese past the second day, but I do fairly well for myself despite that. That being said, I am quite lazy when it comes to cooking while camping, so my menu tends to minimize the need for the stove. Breakfast consists of tea, bread with peanut butter, and jam or bananas. Car camping means I can bring fragile things, so for lunch I have glorious avocados. I really like this aspect of car camping. Sandwiches with some combination of cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, green peppers and avocados suffice for lunch. I still have half of a sausage that my mother sent me from France, it provides some very welcome change from vegetables. The first two nights I eat what I cooked before I left, and the second two nights are instant noodles jazzed up with whatever veggies are still around. So far I haven’t gotten sick of it.
Much to my delight, my body has not yet rebelled against being in a car for 5 days at a time. I try to do whatever exercises are possible in a car. If I can park the car with the cheetahs on the far side, then I can open my door and do crunches, or get out and do leg lifts. However there are other considerations about the position and angle of the car. I need a decent view of surrounding prey, I want to be at an angle where I am not sitting in the sun, and in an area with internet access (access can disappear within 10 meters). Since I follow the cheetahs during the daylight hours, when I am camped it is dark, and I don’t feel comfortable doing much exercise in the dark (you never know what is watching) so my ability to do anything cardio is quite limited. Spending 23 hours a day, 5 days a week in my car has made me appreciate things I never cared about before. Things like car cleanliness. I found myself diligently cleaning the inside of my car before my last follow, something I have rarely done before.
One of the best purchases I made was a smart phone. I bought it used and the primary language of the keyboard in Russian, so I have my doubts about its antecedents, but it has proved to be a lifeline. Having internet connection in the car while on your own for 5 days is great. There is the usefulness of being the do email and take care of issues without having to go back to base. But the mental health benefits should not be underestimated. Not only is it a way to stay entertained, but through facebook and twitter I can keep up to date on news and doings of friends and family which really helps lessen the feelings of isolation. I have become rather a manic user of Twitter, sending out live tweets of what the cheetahs are doing. It exposes a large audience to the work I am doing, and people in cramped soulless cubicles can get to the minute updates (with snarky commentary) on cheetahs eating a gazelle on the other side of the world. I have come a long way from the luddite tendencies of my youth, but that is no doubt a good thing.