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Part time researcher, full time mechanic

Okay so mechanic’s assistant might be more accurate. I’m sure a lot of field researchers end up feeling this way. We are reliant on our vehicles to get the work done and places like the Mara are not always kind on the vehicle. That means that a large chunk of time and mental space is spent on maintaining and monitoring the car. Every morning you are giving everything the once over and checking the fluid levels, large bumps have you apologising to your car more than your passengers and every new rattle or strange noise has you concerned you are about to break down in the middle of a rainstorm or herd of buffalo. This year the car has been the main source of headaches, I seem to spend at least one day every fortnight helping my trusty bush mechanic Julius figure out what is wrong with it and I have spent so much time at the mechanic in Nairobi that they have joked I should move my office there. In fact as I write this I am sat waiting to hear from Simon, the Nairobi mechanic, if the car is ready for me to collect. On the plus side spending this much time handing Julius the right spanner or discussing with Simon what the latest problem is has taught me a lot about car maintenance and I can now do a number of small jobs solo if I have the right tools even if I do always seem to end up covered in more oil than anyone else.

I ended up much dirtier after this photo was taken... maybe it’s time for my own set of overalls?

When the car is cooperating, it is full steam ahead on the fieldwork, we are now coming to an end of this field season and I am collecting the camera traps and Audiomoths which have been up for the last month of the survey and will enable us to record the sounds of birds, bats and insects to add to the mammal biodiversity indexes we can generate from the camera data. We had 100 of these Audiomoths to put across our camera gird each of which collect 128Gb per month which means a lot of data!

When I am not in the field or working on the car these days, I am at the computer transferring data off SD cards. We get roughly 1 million images per month, that combined with the audio data means terabytes worth of data. All this data is stored on hard drives, but hard drives are notoriously unreliable which means we must have multiple copies of all the data so that we have back-ups if something happened to one of the hard drives. Currently I have two copies stored in my tent in the Mara and a third stored in Nairobi just in case something happens to my tent like it floods (we are right by the river and the short rains have been doing a very good impression of the long rains this year) or is raided by baboons (not inconceivable). The problem with having large hard drive (8Tb) is that they must be plugged into mains electricity to work which means that we are reliant on it being sunny enough to charge the camp batteries so that I have enough power to keep on top of all the data transfer. Between the car and power issues interfering with data storage it sometimes seems like as soon as we fix one issue the next appears, but being able to work in such an amazing location more than makes up for it!

The rains this year have been much heavier than usual even making the news back in the UK I am told by family. It has added an extra level of stress to collecting in the cameras with rivers so swollen they aren’t crossable and half of the Mara Triangle has become a marsh. It has really been putting my driving to the test and I have found the car going sideways on a number of occasions. Usually I am complaining about the dust getting everywhere but right now it is the mud, the camp is so wet that I can’t even walk from the dining room to my tent without ending up splashed in mud, especially when the camp dog decides to join me! But with only a week left before heading back to Nairobi there isn’t time to wait for it to clear and to be honest with the current conditions out here I am looking forward to sleeping under four walls and a solid roof for a bit before heading back to the UK for Christmas!

At least the wet weather was good for the wildlife!

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Ilsay Ston
Ilsay Ston
24 feb 2023

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