Give me a wheelbarrow and I will move the world

By Davide Gaglio

Who would I be today without traveling? Well… I cannot imagine it! I’ve always been willing to discover new places, people, and the wilderness. I’ve loved experiencing new challenges and through them, learn more about myself. In the last 10 years, I’ve been lucky enough to join several research projects as field assistant, which has allowed me to visit parts of the world that otherwise I would never have seen. I have worked in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa…what great experiences!! While traveling, I’ve met awesome people, learned several life lessons, found out what I really like about research and last but not least, I met my girlfriend, who will become my wife in four months’ time!
Field assistants are crucial for the collection of data of a research project, especially for a research like mine, where my focal species only breeds for a very short period of time during which I need to gather as much data as possible. If I don’t grab all the data that I can get, I can’t just re-run an experiment like lab scientists do – in fieldwork, you can never turn back time to the start of a breeding season, and the animals can disappear, never to be seen again. So, I really want to thank all the field assistants that have helped with my project over the last 3 years.
I would like to share with you the experience of Maël, who was my assistant for a few months in the last field season:

maelMy name is Maël Leroux, I’m a 21-year-old French student in zoology. I came to South Africa last September in order to add some practical experience to my theoretical skills. After few months around South Africa trying to find an internship, I was spotted by Davide, who offered me a position as field assistant for his PhD project. He told me I was supposed to work on Robben Island (Cool!) studying the behaviour of Swift Terns (what tern??? I have never heard about them before!!) Well… I was very curious and intrigued so I accepted immediately!
Davide explained to me a bit about the project by email and I knew from the beginning that it would be a fantastic experience. I meet him a few days after I arrived in Cape Town, and not even a week later, I was on a boat, direction …Robben Island…wow!boat to Robben island

As soon as the boat left the waterfront, I was fully into this adventure, and as a good start I saw a whale for the first time in my life…(wow again!)!

Spot the whale!
Spot the whale!

I arrived to Robben Island in the evening, and Davide decided to take me immediately to the colony. There I met those wonderful terns in the light of a stunning sunset. From this very moment, my journey in South Africa became magical!

terns at sunset

After I met my study species, I met the team living at research house. I enjoyed my time sharing the house with the “penguin people” … especially for dinner, when everybody would come back from their long day and always have some funny penguin story to tell (in front a nice glass of wine, of course). I have to say, between Italians, Frenchies, Brits and South Africans, the dinners were diverse every day and I loved it! Braai, pasta, frogs (no, I’m kidding!), cakes and pureed, sooooo good! Food for the belly, not just for the soul.
Obviously, it wasn’t only beautiful landscapes, nice dinners, or discovering the wild side of Robben Island. I had to work, a lot, and hard. During the first month, I had to analyze the data we collected using video cameras, which was interesting, but long and tough. To bring the video equipment in the field was a long wheelbarrow to workjourney every day as the bakkie was not working, so we had to use a wheelbarrow…


But luckily after we banded the chicks, I started to work in the field all day long. It was so interesting that I didn’t even realize time was passing! (Ok, perhaps this wasn’t true every day…) Studying their behaviour, observing some unusual interactions, which often Davide had to explain to me, combined to form a very unique working experience. My work in the field was intense and really stimulating, with plenty of surprises. Like the first time I saw a hartlaub’s gull brutally steal a fish from a baby tern! Well, I didn’t know those neighbours could be so nasty ☹.

After this experience I am now thinking to continue my studies and start a PhD myself. Thanks, Davide!”

I respond to Maël in French “de rien!” I really enjoyed my time with him in Robben Island.
In the last few years I have grown as researcher, switching from working as a field assistant myself to having my own project with my own field assistants. It gave me the opportunity to receive help from other people and in return help fuel their skills and passion for research. It’s not only for the data collection or for the PhD project itself. It’s sharing time with interesting people, it’s learning something new every day, it’s sharing dreams and fears, it’s the life of a biologist!

New beginnings — moving out East

By Keafon Jumbam

Seven hours into the journey from Cape Town to my new campus in the Free State, it dawned on my hired driver that he didn’t know where we were going! This was a long distance driver, highly recommended by friends; surely he should know his way around? “What is the name of the place again?” he asked, looking bewildered. “Phuthaditjhaba” I responded, alarmed at this sudden turn of events. “Heh!” his voice dropped to a notch, “I think I’ve driven past it before. It is very far — on the way to Durban,” he sounded tired. Silence enveloped us like a wet blanket, with only the faint grunts of the car’s engine protesting the sudden speed increase. The sun was beginning to set and we were in the middle of nowhere. I started to panic.

That day had begun on a bad note when both my alarms failed to go off in the morning. I woke up late and disoriented but managed to squeeze all my belongings into my car, thanks to the packing skills of my Zimbabwean flat mates. Then I hit Cape Town morning traffic, which slowed me down even more. By the time I met up with my driver, it was 10h00; hardly a great start to a trip estimated to last 10 hours!

I was heading back to school to start a PhD in Zoology after a six-year break from studies. My resignation from a cherished position I held at an outreach project was met by gasps from colleagues who exclaimed, “You didn’t tell us you were interested in foxes?!” and church folks who emphasized “It is flat country over there, very unlike Cape Town, hardly any mountains!” Sure enough, I was going to miss Cape Town and my job which had even brought me in contact with the former Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor.

Meeting minister Naledi Pandor (Credit: Iimbovane archives)
Meeting minister Naledi Pandor (Credit: Iimbovane archives)

But I had become desperate for a new challenge, and this PhD was exactly the kind of mental stimulation I needed to grow and widen my horizons.


What I hadn’t anticipated was this bumpy start. By midnight we were still nowhere near arrival. Countless stops later, and with most petrol attendants clueless about our destination, we miraculously made it to the gated campus at 02h00. Sleep deprived but cheerful nonetheless, a residence head student ushered us in. “I think you will like it here,” my driver said, smiling for the first time and admiring as much as I did, the neat pavements and freshly manicured lawns. We were led to a newly built residence named Tshimolohong, or “New Beginnings,” — a befitting name for a freshman like me.


My new home and new beginning, Tshimolohong!
My new home and new beginning, Tshimolohong!

I wish I could say I lived happily ever after, but eish, the challenges had only just begun. I had arrived right in the middle of school break and campus was vacant. I didn’t know a single soul, supervisor included — talk about starting over on a clean slate. But the pressing issue was to get registered immediately since everything depended on it: funding release, access to online academic material and even access into residence. It didn’t help that my arrival also coincided with a litany of public holidays! To keep sane, I went on an adventure, exploring my new town and taking in the breathtaking Drakensberg Mountains surrounding my campus. Thanks to these mountains, I can boast of experiencing snow up close and personal.

Qwaqwa campus has lovely frosty lawns in winter...
Qwaqwa campus has lovely frosty lawns in winter…


Fast forward to two months later and I’m voyaging yet again, only this time I’m venturing into the Kalahari Desert for fieldwork. I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see; it felt like I had driven from a rural Sotho kingdom (i.e. campus) straight into Europe (i.e. Kalahari research community) without even attempting to cross a border, talk less of leaving the continent! I had never seen so many European researchers, most of them Brits, congregated in one place like this before. While on campus, I often repeated myself to be understood, despite being in a predominantly black community. Now, here in “Cambridge in the Desert,” don’t even get me started on the assortment of accents. And did I tell you I happen to be the only black researcher in the mix? Yep, life just got interesting…