Between 2011 and 2014 I was working at the Quaternary Dating Laboratory in Denmark. For part of my work there, I was involved with the So’a Basin Project, headed by the University of Wollongong, Australia. Some exciting new finds from the project have just been published in Nature along with their age and stratigraphic context and so I thought I would share some of my fieldwork experiences from my time working on the project.
The So’a Basin is in the middle of the Indonesian island of Flores, 75 km east of Liang Bua – “The Hobbit” (a.k.a. Homo floresiensis) cave. The basin contains sediments up to ~ 1 million years old, and has long been known to contain some interesting vertebrate fossils, such as stegodons (ancient elephants), and Palaeolithic stone tools. This makes it an ideal location to try and find fossils of the ancestors of “The Hobbit” (spoiler alert if you haven’t been to read the Nature paper yet – they found some! Sadly, the fossils were found after changed jobs, so I missed all the excitement, but I’m still really pleased that I was able to contribute to this exciting work.)
Basecamp for the Soa Basin Project was in a small village called Mengeruda, where the project rented a couple of houses to accommodate the visiting scientists. Mengeruda was only connected to a (relatively) stable electricity supply a couple of years before my first visit, so the accommodation was fairly basic. One of the houses had the luxury of flushing toilets and running cold-water but if you were staying in the second house and needed the facilities in the middle of the night, you had to treck to a small shed across the yard.
Needless to say, there was no air conditioning, other than leaving the shutters open at night. However, this natural air conditioning system meant that we shared the house with a whole host of creatures. One of the first things I was told on arrival was to always check my shoes for scorpions before putting them on. I didn’t find any nasty beasties in my shoes, but I did find a scorpion in my bed on the first day (many thanks to the ladies who managed the house for pulverising that with a broom for me!). A couple of Huntsman spiders were free roaming in the house, which took a bit of getting used to. While my Australian colleagues assured me that they don’t bite, I am a bit of an arachnophobe, and getting to sleep the first few nights wasn’t the easiest. The best night’s sleep I had, however, was the night the giant gecko hung out in my room. I love geckos anyway, but this one was about 30 cm long; apart from being absolutely beautiful, I knew it would probably eat any spiders or scorpions that came in the room :-).
On my second trip, I managed to avoid close encounters with scorpions and spiders in the house, but did have to get help evicting a giant hornet that started trying to become my roommate (many thanks to Gert for his efficient wielding of a Marie Claire Magazine to evict it). Evenings were often spent sitting on the porch, writing up field notes, where the lights attracted everything from moths to a praying mantis. Unsurprisingly, there are no street lights in Mengeruda, so at night, away from the house, the only light was from stars or the moon. This meant some great views of the stars on moonless nights. Somehow, the local people were able to walk around in the dark without using a torch on nights like this – I still haven’t figured out how!
Days in Mengeruda started early; even if you were able to sleep past the dawn chorus of birds, dogs and farmyard animals that began around 5:30, it was rare that it was cool enough to sleep past about 6:30.
A truck left Mengeruda, driving to the main excavation around 6:30 every morning. The journey on the truck took ~ 25 minutes, or it was a 45 minute walk with 2-3 stream crossings. The truck would start off fairly full with the just the Project team, but the excavation hired many people from Mengeruda and the surrounding villages, and some of them them would jump on the truck as it passed through the village, so it was often overflowing by the time it arrived at the excavation site. At the end of the day, the truck was often full of fossils, to be studied at the basecamp and later transferred to the Indonesian Geological Survey in Bandung, leaving less room for passengers, so most people walked home.
The track between the village and the excavation presented some amazing scenery. There are hot springs at the end of the village that are used by the local people as a bath (a great way to relax when a cold shower just isn’t enough to scrub off the many layers of volcanic ash, sweat and suncream that can build up during a day of sampling); early in the morning, before the air heats up too much, these produce lots of dramatic steam.
After the springs, the track climbs a hill and then offers wonderful views across rice paddies and rainforest filled valleys towards Ambulobo Volcano; this is even more dramatic early in the day, before the sun burns off the morning mists rising up from the valley. Ambulobo is an immensely pretty volcano, of which I took far too many photos – expect to see more of them in future posts 😉