In an old colonial-looking restaurant that served ten kinds of steaks, I met up with an experienced explorer and a local farmer, to have dinner and discuss plans for an upcoming research project that would be managed by The Explorer and that would partly be on The Farmer’s land, which adjoined a rather extensive and remote wilderness area. I don’t remember a lot about the conversation, but one memory of the evening stands out: That was when The Farmer, rooting around in a bag for some cash to tip the waitress, pulled out this big-ass gun … a small cannon, really … that was in the way. For just a moment, the gun came out of the bag and went on the table, then back in the sack. I wondered if this was a random event or if it was a not too subtle way to let everyone around see that This Particular Farmer was packing Major Heat. I’d seen that move before in this part of South Africa, which is where, by the way, this dinner was being enjoyed.

Earlier that day, The Explorer, whom I had commissioned to be my field logistics manager, drove me out to a possible research site — an island centered in one of Southern Africa’s more significant rivers. The island had once been part of a farming project, now defunct, and at some point a levy was built there to divert water into an irrigation system. The now defunct and overgrown levy was about four kilometers long, flat topped, and exactly the width of a vehicle’s wheel-base plus 30 centimeters. There were numerous erosional cuts on both sides of it, so as The Explorer drove our truck along the top of the vegetation-covered berm, the wheels would take turns dropping into these open-ended Potholes-Of-Death. I wondered what would happen if we hit an erosional gully that was a bit bigger than the others, or two at once, and just as I was wondering about that, The Explorer uttered some words that made all that seem less important. (more…)