On the opposite side of the world

by Bianca Harrison

I had the privilege of yet again joining the Digermulen Early Life Research Group, but this time in their preferred environment – the field. In the span of four days, I had travelled via aeroplane, car and boat just to arrive in their home for the next two weeks.

Working in South Africa presents its own challenges during fieldwork but I thought it would be interesting to see just how different working in Norway really is. The nature of fieldwork itself is no different – wake up, eat some food, work till you drop and repeat! However, there are some startling differences working in Norway. The biggest and the hardest thing I found adjusting to, is the midnight sun (figure 1). In essence, there is no end to fieldwork as it never gets dark. Apart from the initial challenges, 24 hour sunlight can be a HUGE advantage. There is no risk of losing your way back to camp after dark or stumbling to the toilet in the middle of the night. It also allows you to work until you are satisfied with what you’ve accomplished in one day. Often in South Africa, you race against the clock to achieve your goals.

Fig 1
Figure 1. The view of the campsite at 22h00, where in my opinion, it should be completely dark. Photo: Bianca Harrison

Another significant difference is that there are almost no dangerous animals in the field as it is too far north and thus, too cold. In South Africa, we have all sorts of dangerous critters ranging from snakes and spiders to baboons. This means you have to be extra careful where you walk or pick up a rock as you never know who may be there. So far, it seems the only real hazard in Norway is yourself! The main wildlife observed in the field includes seagulls, eagles and reindeer. This is similar in regards to South Africa as we also have birds of prey and small buck – but these largely include duiker and springbok. They are much smaller than reindeer, so it is quite amazing to see the larger reindeers grazing the hills (figure 2).

Fig 2
Figure 2. A herd of reindeer running through the hills (photo Bianca Harrison) compared to the smaller antelope of southern Africa (photo Wikimedia).

Field logistics are another story. In Norway, the mode of travel is generally the BMW 2 Series, i.e. your feet, and setting up and moving campsites requires a boat. This is where you may encounter the most challenging problems. Recently, we experienced rough sea conditions that made leaving the campsite impossible (figure 3). The sea was too rough and the boat too heavy to leave shore. In contrast, fieldwork is conducted with 4×4’s on farm roads in South Africa. The most common problem is getting stuck in the sand or mud and instead of waiting for the sea to calm, you have to go and find a farmer to tow you out.

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Figure 3. The Norwegian team being buffeted by waves whilst trying to leave shore compared to the dirt roads typical of fieldwork in South Africa. Photos: Bianca Harrison

The last strange concept (to me) is finding edible food in the field. The overarching control is the difference in climates but it is simply amazing to find mushrooms in the field to add to dinner or small berries to serve as snacks on long hikes (figure 4).

Fig 4
Figure 4. A – A mushroom collected in the field for dinner (Photo: Bianca Harrison). B – Patch of wild blueberries (Photo: Heda Agić). C – Crushed blueberries used as a pancake filling (Photo: Heda Agić). D – Blueberries and cloudberries growing in abundance (Photo: Wendy L. Taylor).

At the end of the day there can be nothing said for being in the field – whether in Norway or South Africa. Each environment comes with its own terms and conditions but these are quickly forgotten in light of the amazing discoveries that are made.

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