Afrikaanse Veltassistant (EN)
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Afrikaanse Veltassistant (EN)
The repetitive ringing of the phone wakes me up. It is 4 a.m. Reluctantly I abandon the warmth of the blankets and sit on the edge of the bed. A faint reflection of white light casts itself on the floor from the window set beside the bunk, and throwing my gaze out of it I glimpse the full moon in all its majesty typical of the southern hemisphere. I shed my pajamas and put on beige cargo pants, black boots covered at the neck by orange gaiters, a brown shirt, a gray sweater, a field vest, a black jacket, and a black woolen hat over which I wear a large LED headlamp. While Taylor is still under his 6 blankets and the fan he turns on to cool his face is working idly, and while from Frank's sleeping bag come subdued insults in French against that infernal fan that keeps him awake all night, I take the hallway with the creaking parquet floor to the kitchen. There I cross paths with Marta, the Portuguese PhD student whose job today is to prepare breakfast to be made in the field, who dedicates a sleepy "bom dia" to me. I break off some oryx biltong and hide it inside an empty candy packet, which I slip into my jacket pocket.
I walk out the office door facing the cold that permeates the savannah every night, and begin charging the 20 car batteries and the rest of the equipment in the back of the bakkis, the off-roaders. From the red sand-covered yard, I see the lights of the research station come on one by one as other colleagues wake up.
It is still dark when the rest of the staff crosses the small garden leading to the shed, headlamps on, and then climb into the Toyota hylux, while Taylor and I crawl between all the equipment in the back of the old, patched-up Mazda. We cover our faces with bandanas, because the sand kicked up by the wheels manages to seep into the trunk, covering our clothes with a red layer, as the convoy pulls out of the gates of the research station and into the maze of dirt roads leading to Colony 21.
In the back of the bakki we lean against the rear window to look up at the starry sky, pointing to each other at the southern cross, the scorpion constellation, orion, the milky way. The headlights of the bakkis surprise groups of sleepy springbok grazing in the tall, dry grass with their yellowish light. Taylor tells me all about every animal we pass in our South African wanderings, the aardwolf and its damn deep burrows into which the bakki wheels get stuck, the very elegant secretary bird with its reddish crest, the otocione with its huge ears, and the rarest animal in the whole reserve: the black-footed cat. I tell him about the alps, the Iberian mountains of Valsain, where I worked until a month before, and the underwater secrets of the Mediterranean.
After an hour or so of travel, the convoy stops and the lights go out. The hum of the engines gives way to the icy silence of the savannah. Stepping out of the trunk, a little sore, we are greeted by an endless expanse of dry grass, in which large green acacias grow rare. We share nets, ladders, tripods, and sacks: everything we need to carry on our backs to the 21st colony of social weavers, birds that sew together the long blades of savanna grass to make a huge nest among the branches of the large acacias. Having finished erecting the three-meter-high wall of nets, all strictly in the dark and in complete silence, we take the narrow road carved into the grass and covered with a span-deep layer of crimson sand, toward the waiting bakkis. We pull out small tables and chairs, which are not enough for everyone, and with cup of hot water in hand Rozenn and I sit on the toyota's covered trunk while we wait impatiently for the first rays of the African sun. And there, at last, the whole line of the endless horizon begins to be tinged with deep orange, and the warmth of the sun's rays accompanies our ensuing march through the sand toward the nets set up to guard Colony 21.