October 10, 2012

Accretionary Wedge #50: Camel Sunrise

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Sunrise over peridotite mountains in downtown Muscat, the capital of Oman.

I have the honor of hosting Accretionary Wedge #50 here at Georneys. The topic I chose for the September (Deadline: October 10th) Wedge is:

Share a fun moment from geology field camp or a geology field trip. You can share a story, a picture, a song, a slogan, a page from your field notebook– anything you like!

I have many fond memories from Dartmouth’s geology field camp (called “The Stretch”) in the Western USA and also from various geologic field trips I’ve taken over the years. However, for Accretionary Wedge #50 I’ve decided to share a moment from some fieldwork I did in the Sultanate of Oman for my PhD thesis research.

I participated in two ~1 month long fieldwork seasons in Oman: January 2009 and January 2010. For the first field season one of my PhD supervisors came along to help me with mapping and collecting samples. For the second field season neither of my two PhD supervisors were available to help me with my fieldwork, so I had to recruit another helper. I ended up bringing along my husband Jackie, who was my fiance at the time. Jackie was already working full-time as an industry geologist, but fortunately he had accumulated significant vacation time from several months that he spent at sea and in the field. So, Jackie cashed in 3 1/2 weeks worth of hard-earned vacation time… and then spent his vacation helping me do more geology work!

Jackie and I worked hard during the field season. We worked long days, eating a quick campfire breakfast of oatmeal with tea or coffee and then heading off to the day’s sampling location. We would map and sample until a couple of hours before dark and then head back to camp. Even though January is the middle of winter for Oman, the days were often sunny and hot. Temperatures in the 90s were not uncommon, and we had to be careful to keep our heads covered and stay hydrated. We usually drink plain water when hiking, but working in Oman is so hot that we frequently mixed Gatorade powder into our water bottles as the electrolytes seemed to help prevent dehydration. We usually arrived back at camp a little before sunset. Some nights we arrived at a new campsite and had to pitch our tent and set-up the rest of the camp. Other nights we returned to a campsite and just had to help make dinner. Most nights we joined up with a group of scientific colleagues who were working in similar field areas. A few nights we camped on our own and made a small makeshift meal, generally out of canned supplies that were perhaps supplemented by a few local ingredients from a nearby town. No fresh food stays fresh for very long in 90+ degree temperatures. We ate plenty of canned hummus and tahini, that’s for sure!

My PhD fieldwork in Oman mostly went smoothly, but there were some challenging days. During my first field season in 2009, we experienced a rare torrential downpour, and our hotel in Oman’s capital city of Muscat flooded. We had to dart around our rooms picking our bags and other gear and putting them on top of beds and sofas as the floors turned into rivers. I remember walking down the hotel stairs to inform the hotel management about the flood and feeling as if I were climbing down a waterfall. There was no need for me to inform the management– they were already rushing around with mops and buckets and trying to placate several disgruntled guests. During the 2009 field season we also had problems with goats invading one of our campsites. One of my scientific colleagues gave a half-rotted apple to one adorable goat that wandered into our camp, and within a few minutes all of the goat’s friends arrived– more than a dozen friends! The goats started eating through the cardboard boxes that contained our vegetables and fruit, eating the cardboard along with the food!

A rare Muscat rainstorm. This storm was in 2010, but we experienced a similar storm during the flooding event of 2009.

A small goat invasion.

Jackie and I had a few challenging days during the 2010 field season, too. One morning we were packing up our tent when suddenly Jackie jumped away from the tent and screamed. I asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “There’s a spider under the tent fly.” I rolled my eyes and asked, “Is that all?” Then I looked under the tent fly and started screaming myself. Underneath the tent fly was an enormous camel spider. Now, I knew that camel spiders are relatively harmless: they aren’t poisonous, and accounts of them attacking people are mostly urban legends. In fact, they aren’t even spiders; they are solifugae.  There is actually a variety of poisonous spiders, scorpions, and snakes in Oman, so camel spiders are really the least of your worries when camping in the Oman Mountains. However, camel spiders are very large and can run very fast, and for some reason this makes me– and I guess also Jackie– petrified of them. Eventually, we managed to gently coax the camel spider away from our tent with a stick. After carefully checking the rest of our tent for other critters, we packed up camp and started driving to our next sampling location.

Jackie and I at the start of the 2010 field season. Already, we look sunburned! That's Muscat in the background. Notice the old fort in the far distance.

Towards the end of the 2010 field season, we had a couple of very difficult days. One morning, I woke up and felt horribly ill. I think I must have caught some sort of flu. I don’t think it was food poisoning because I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink that was out of the ordinary, and no one else in our group fell ill from the food that we shared. Whatever I had, I was very, very sick. I immediately vomited up any food or water. All day, I could only keep a few sips of Sprite down. I left a certain public bathroom in a certain little Omani village in a terrible state. One day, I must go back and do something nice for the village– maybe donate a sparkling new public bathroom. By the end of the day of vomiting, I was becoming dangerously dehydrated. Jackie ended up driving me to a rural hospital, where a kind doctor treated me for free. The doctor did ask if perhaps I were pregnant with another child and experiencing morning sickness (note: Jackie and I have no children; I guess he thought Jackie and I were old enough to have a couple of kids), but once we assured him that I was not pregnant, he diagnosed me with flu, rehydrated me, and gave me some medicine to take back to camp. After a day or two I felt much better, just a little bit weak. However, I can’t say that I’d like to repeat the combination of having flu and camping in hot weather anytime in the near future!  Poor Jackie ended up catching my “death flu”, as we called it, a few days later. However, I didn’t feel too sorry for him because he had “death flu” in the nice air conditioned hotel room with a proper bathroom in Muscat.

However, there were also plenty of wonderful field moments during the 2010 field season to make up for the challenging times. I wanted to share one moment in particular: a camel sunrise. As Jackie and I were driving out of camp early one morning along a dirt road, we stopped to observe four camels in the distance. As we stood by our Land Cruiser, the four camels slowly walked towards us and came over to say hello. We pet all of the camels, and a juvenile camel was particularly affectionate. After awhile, the camels continued on their way, stopping now and then to nibble on Acacia trees as they shuffled along. I have a vivid memory of the few minutes we spent watching the camels– the early morning light was beautiful, and for that moment all the world seemed to contain were the two of us, our Land Cruiser, the camels, and the mountains. In a busy, often crowded world, I’ve learned to treasure such moments. It was one of those moments that makes you remember why you became a geologist. It was one of those moments that makes you remember why you keep going into the field–  floods, goats, camel spiders, “death flu”, and all.

Approaching camels.


...And Closer...

...And Closer!

The affectionate juvenile camel.

Cuddling with a camel.

Petting one of the adult camels.

Shuffling away. The adult camels had their legs tied together with ropes to keep them from wandering too far.

Every day I'm shuffling.