by Helina Parnamagi
If you decided to do you final year project in the Aberdare National Park, Kenya (like me) then hold on, you are in for a bumpy ride! It all starts by almost missing your plane and running for your life through the Brussels airport, throwing away ALL your toiletries to pass the security gates and finally making it with shaky knees and tears in your eyes.
Next thing is to get used to the fact that nothing works as you expect once you are there. You might be promised many things but sometimes they just don’t happen. It’s something you have no control of and will just have to deal with it (however, having Brad with you makes many things happen a lot quicker). We had a policy that we were allowed 10-15 minute rant to get all the frustration out of the system and then we put on calming music.
When you finally get out on the field you are so excited and so confused at the same time. How the hell does this GPS work? Am I measuring the ground cover correctly? Who’s poo is this? And many more questions. Give it a week and you will feel like you’ve done it for all your life. Measuring the first plots will take ages but with time you will develop a well working “measuring machine” where everyone knows what they’re doing. No doubt you will still argue with your fellow field scientists about the correct use of tape measure. Actually you will argue about pretty much everything, but it’s all part of the fun.
Get to know your rangers and maintain good relationships with them, they are pretty amazing. They might be the most reliable people you meet out there and they know what they’re doing! They might try to convince you to give them your iPhone (don’t take it too seriously) but they will definitely bring you out from the densest bush you have ever been in and when I say dense, I mean DENSE. They will also find all your camera traps after you have tried to find them for about an hour with your fancy GPS and failed. Most important: do what they tell you to do. If they tell you to run because you have stumbled on a herd of elephants, run!
Then there are the people you are in this with. They might be your course mates or you might meet them the very first time. I was very lucky to share my experience with Tommy and Vicky. They will be your best friends. You will have your inside jokes that no one else understands. You are there for each other when it’s difficult. You will worry together and cheer together. Yes, you will get tired of them every now and then but there is nothing that can’t be cured with a good nights’ sleep. You will also get to know your lecturers. They might cook for you and buy you a bottle whiskey when you really need it, plus, they have some pretty cool stories to tell!
Weather! Don’t let yourself be fooled by the idea that you are going to Africa where it is supposed to be warm. You will constantly be over 2000 m above sea level and it is pretty much like English summer. You will need a proper waterproof coat, two pairs of field trousers (you have to wear them on top of each other: bottom pair to stop nettles stinging and second pair for the thorny bushes) and good walking boots. You might get a couple of nice days so take SPF with you because if the sun shines it is strong! But even though it might not be baking hot, make sure you drink enough water or you will have to take a trip to the hospital (everybody else praying they don’t have whatever bug you have picked up) and, hopefully, come out with just dehydration.
You will face countless problems: broken cars, missing drivers, fog, unhelpful people, too little data or too much data, too many lost days and the list goes on. Sometimes it really is very hard and things you are not expecting to happen might happen. But at the end of the day when you are driving home along those bumpy, red and dusty roads, trying not to accidentally headbutt each other, there will be a view behind a bend that will take your breath away or there will be a leopard just chilling by the side of the road, or you will see a buffalo who looks like he is wearing a wig and you laugh yourself silly. There will be something every day that reminds you that what you are doing there might be the most awesome thing you ever do.
However, you will find yourself sitting in front of your computer screen next September, staring at an extensive Excel table filled with numbers and abbreviations that only you can make any sense out of. Even the thought of starting analysing it makes you feel like fainting. The only advice I can give you is to keep close to your supervisor and the academic support teachers. It will be alright in the end.