It’s dark out. The moon has yet to rise tonight. I am sitting on a rock in the middle of the desert, pretending to be a camel spider. Or, more precisely, pretending to be a solifuge, a creepier, faster moving cousin of the spider. I crouch down, trying to stay as concealed as possible, while remaining in character (think: hairy, saucer-sized, with large pincers). From across the darkened expanse of the gravel plain I see the beam of a headlamp, and know that my pursuer has picked up the trail. Alas, despite my best effects at exemplifying arachnid stealth, I know it is only a matter of time before I am discovered. For unlike most solifuges scurrying around the desert, I am carrying a tiny transmitter that is beaming my location to the headlamped tracker across the plains. The purpose of this rather one-sided game of hide and seek—and my futile attempts at spider mimicry—is to help Matt Beckwith, an undergraduate researcher from Oxford, test out a method for tracking the movements of solifuges. Once he has captured a couple authentic solifuges, Matt will affix these tiny transmitters to their backs and then track them as they go about their business in the desert in an effort to better understand how they navigate. But right now, Matt is still getting the hang of using the transmitter antenna, an unwieldy meter and a half long bit of metal. I watch as Matt’s headlamp makes its uneven but inexorable progress towards my rocky hideout, and contemplate the curious things I do for my job here at Gobabeb…
Life at Gobabeb is nothing if not varied. Apart from impersonating arachnids, my job as the RITS Fellow encompasses three broad roles: IT support, research assistant, and intern coordinator. Numerous miscellaneous “as-needed” tasks, from editing the station newsletter to giving “star talks” to visiting school children, fill out the rest of my schedule, but it is the former three tasks that demand most of my time.
My first responsibility is as the onsite IT support person, a job that entails everything from network administration to fixing the everyday computing ails of the station’s staff and visitors. In the latter endeavor, I seem to be blessed with the same beneficent healing touch as my predecessor when it comes to fixing computers with my mere presence. Frequently, when people ask me how I solved a particular problem, I am forced to explain that I did the exact same thing they were doing, but additionally beamed comforting thoughts at the computer in question. However, not all computer problems are so receptive to my soothing aura, and when the “touch” fails me, I remain ever grateful for my tenure in the TC Corps at Grinnell. The IT aspect of my job at Gobabeb has the steepest learning curve, and, while sometimes it feels like I have a one-to-one ratio of creating problems to solving them, I’ve come to feel much more at ease in my role as the station’s resident IT expert.
When I’m not healing computers, I also get to help out in the research section at Gobabeb. Fifty years ago the Centre was founded as a desert research station, and Gobabeb continues to engage in an exciting and varied array of research projects. My role in the research section is that of a general research assistant. I spend some time assisting visiting researchers, such as Matt Beckwith, with his solifuge tracking, but the majority of my work in the research section focuses on continuing Gobabeb’s own projects. One of my favorite research-related activities so far has been assisting one of our interns, Miya, with a project she is conducting on the habitat of the Husab Sand Lizard, in conjunction with a larger study Gobabeb has undertaken on this endemic lizard species. Part of helping Miya with her project entailed testing out her field methods for actually caching the lizards. This exercise involved a lot of scampering over rocks chasing after the incredibly quick little creatures with water guns filled with ice cold water, which slows the cold-blooded lizards down enough to make them possible to catch.
In addition to terrorizing lizards, I also spend a fair amount of time assisting with a couple of Gobabeb’s long-term monitoring projects. My favorite of these is checking the pit traps set up across the three different ecosystems around Gobabeb; the dunes, the gravel plains, and the riverbed. The pit traps (which are just small buckets set up flush to the ground) are used to monitor the diversity and abundance of beetle species in the ecosystems around the station. One of the selling points for starting the station in the first place was the incredible diversity of beetle species in the area. I’m getting pretty good at my beetle identification and every once in a while am rewarded with interesting “by-catch,” the euphemistic term fishermen and scientists use for “stuff you didn’t actually mean to capture.” I am especially fond of the colorful little geckos that turn up; less so of the voracious orange-bodied solifuges, which have a tendency of beheading and eviscerating the helpless beetles trapped with them.
When I am confined to my office and safe (for the most part) from errant solifuges, I attend to my remaining duty, which is acting as the station’s intern coordinator, a job that encompasses finding, hiring, and orienting all of the interns that work at the station. Interns come to Gobabeb from all over Namibia and the world, and while they are here they collect data, conduct research projects, help out with the Centre’s training and environmental education programs, and maintain the library. Interns definitely make up the heart and soul of the station—both at work where they are deeply involved with all the activities and projects of the Centre, and in Old House, the central hang out of Gobabeb’s young staff members. My job as intern coordinator involves a somewhat different skillset than my other roles at the station—less beetle identification, more email writing—but has proved to be just as interesting and fun.
A superficial experience of the desert suggests a place that is vast, timeless, and unchanging. However, years of scientific studies and my own experience concur that the only constant here at Gobabeb is change. Some years you get no rainfall, others you get floods. Some days are sunny and 95 F, others are chilly and cloaked in fog. Some days you spend answering emails and fixing the printer, other days you get to help the park wardens fight a wild fire. Some nights you lie snug in bed with a well-worn paper back from the Old House library and other nights you sit on a rock in the dark pretending to be a spider.