Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The end of 2012

Wow, I haven't blogged in 6 whole months. In truth, I really haven't felt like it - when I've had the occasional good day I've thought about things I might like to post about, but before I would get a chance to I'd be back to feeling miserable, which was how I felt for the majority of the last 6 months. But with pretty much every blog I follow doing New Year-related posts, I decided I would quite like to round off this New Year's Eve by writing one too. Plus, it was interesting to recap on last year's posts, in particular my list of 5 hopes for this year. Aside from number 1 (to get a good degree classification, which I suppose I did, although I'm now disappointed that my 2:1 means I'm basically the same as the majority and have nothing to make me stand out) and possibly number 4 (to keep my relationship going, but ore on this later...) none of them materialised. I didn't travel more, I didn't make more friends, and although my job pays well I'm basically a cleaner, so not really where I pictured myself being.

I should point out at this point that this post will probably have a fairly down-in-the-dumps tone, which is fair as it accurately depicts my feelings this year. I also figure that no one reads this anyway, so I can write what I want without having to paint this perfect life blogger image that is projected in almost all of the blogs I follow (aside from those which are craft related, and thus have very little to do with lifestyle). However, on the very slim chance that someone does happen to read this, I'll end the post by talking about things that happened this year that did make me feel (albeit temporarily) happier within myself.

So, in a brief summary, what's happened this year?

January saw me spend 2 weeks in South Africa, and I have posted my diary in several instalments during the year (but I still really need to get round to finishing it...).

Most of February (and March, too) was spent writing up my research project (equivalent of a dissertation).

March saw my last lectures and the end of uni, and the end of my time as a student (possibly forever...)

April was an endless round of revision for exams.

In May I sat my exams.

In June I finished my exams, and found out my results and that I achieved a 2:1 for my degree.

In July I moved back to the homeland of Surrey/London, but went back to Cornwall a couple of weeks later for my graduation ceremony. I also went to Legoland twice - once with Steve, then once with my mum and brother.

August was spent doing... not a lot really. Went up to visit Steve for a few days, and did the long summer stint at my brother's school.

In September I had 2 weeks work experience at the Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow Airport, and got a casual/part-time job at the end of it.

I saw Steve again in October for a few days when we went to Bath as a delayed birthday thing for me. Oh yeah, and I turned 22. I also joined a new SJA division, so I am now part of the South East Region/Surrey County and in a proper adult unit instead of LINKS.

In November Steve came to visit again and we did Runnymede, Windsor Castle and Hampton Court, and I settled into being at work (albeit only a couple of days a week).

And finally, in December, I carried on working, and Alan came home for his annual 5-day Christmas visit (which was extended by an extra half day this year due to a combination of having to pick up 2 extra students before they got to Alan, awful weather and torrential rain, and horrific traffic everywhere - they normally arrive to pick him up at around 1pm on the 27th, this year they weren't here until 9pm...). I also, finally, got myself a pet Syrian hamster named Boris. He's a lovely honey colour with a white semi-band across his back (that was a really awkward way to write it but I coudn't think of a better way - basically the white band doesn't join in the middle of his back, so it kinda looks like he's got 2 white stripes on each side that meet his white belly).

Aaaand there goes the clocks (and hundreds of fireworks, and Jules Holland) signalling the new year, so it's now officially 2013.

In summary 2012 doesn't sound too bad of a year, but I had a lot of desperately low moments and worked myself into a complete sobbing mess more times than I'd like to remember.

I thought I would feel overjoyed, an amazing sense of freedom and a renewed enthusiasm for life upon completing uni, but it was shortlived and as soon as I started thinking about jobs and where I was going to live and my relationship with Steve and my future in general, I got really stressed and anxious and upset and everything felt horrible and overwhelming.

I thought I would feel relieved about getting a job, especially one that pays well and esentially allows me to pick whichever hours I want (as I'm only casual staff, so I only go in to cover shifts when they're short of people). However, on the first day of my work experience placement there I found that I would be with another girl, and she seemed to know loads more than me about all the animals that came in, she was doing an animal management qualification (which was a lot more relevant than my Zoology degree), and she had much better people skills than my non-existant-and-massively-awkward ones. I went home that evening and spent the entire night in floods of tears and feeling absolutely awful about myself and how shit I am. Turns out that this other girl was all talk and wasn't as good as she put herself across - hopefully I've learnt a lesson from this. But even when I started as a paid member of staff, I still couldn't (and still can't) shake the feeling that I'm not good enough - I'm basically a cleaner, I'm not trusted to do anything more advanced than that, and I still don't even have a damn key fob to let myself into and around the building. I don't feel valued at all, which really isn't helping my self esteem, and just adds to the giant pile of worthlessness that I feel I am at the moment. But I need to stay in this job, as it's good money and no one's going to want me for any other job, and anything I may possibly be vaguely qualified for is likely to pay at most 2/3rds of what this job is paying me.

I'm still in my relationship with Steve, although I'm not entirely sure how it's going to play out as he's now got a fancy grown-up job and lives in North Wales. I've seen him a grand total of 4 times since finishing uni, and it seems to be increasingly harder to find the time (or his willingness?) to schedule a visit. I'm going up to Wales this weekend, but that's only because I got really upset one night which in turn made him upset (or guilty?) so he decided that this weekend was free after all. Long distance is hard - it doesn't feel like I'm in a relationship at all as I see him once a month, if that, and I don't know what sort of future we have (whether we'll ever see each other regularly, as this will involve me getting a job and moving up to Wales, and I doubt the job part is likely. I also have no idea what sort of timescale we're talking about before this happens - 3 months, 6 months, a year, longer than that...?).

I think the long-distance aspect of my relationship feels worse than it otherwise would do as I have no friends anymore. The very few friends I did have at uni now live hundreds of miles away, and my friends from home aren't really my friends anymore - case in point being that they all decided to go to Bath, where one of them is at uni, for New Year, plans which they decided to talk about in front of me while Steve was down and we all went out for dinner, and I clearly wasn't invited. Bath plans then got cancelled so they arranged to go to someone else's house, to which I was then invited, but not until obviously after they'd all made plans so I was clearly an afterthought, so declined and decided to stay at home and spend the evening doing something I enjoy instead, even if it did mean being alone for yet another New Year. I've tried so hard to make friends, and I'm sure I've posted about my problems on this front before, but for some reason I seem incapable of making and keeping friends. This has been a major contributor to me feeling so low (I'm hesitant to say depressed as I know how much people can suffer with depression, but maybe I am depressed to a lesser extent?). My mum is out at work most days, and when she isn't working she's busy doing her own thing, so I spend pretty much all of my time alone. I'm used to going places and doing things alone, so that isn't really a problem, but it would be so lovely to have at least one person to share my interests with, tell funny anecdotes to or share my problems with. I'm somewhat resigning myself to the fact that I won't ever have friends again, as after 4 years of trying every method I can think of to make and keep friends I'm still without any, and if anything I have even less than I did at this point 4 years ago. But I do have an irrational fear that I'm going to die and be the subject of one of these desperately sad news articles you hear about people who have died alone and lain undiscovered for weeks as there is simply no one to notice or care that they've effectively disappeared...

And on that very grim note I think it's time I wrapped up this post with a list of things that I feel went right for me in 2012, and a list of resolutions/hopes for 2013.

Things that went right for me this year?
  • I finally got a pet! After 22 years of waiting and being an avid animal lover, I finally have a pet of my own. Granted he's only a hamster, but I thought that was the most sensible choice given where I am in life at the moment. Plus he's really cute :)
  • I got a 2:1 in my degree, which I know I've said I'm not particularly happy with, but it could have been a lot worse - with a 2:2 it basically wouldn't have been worth going to uni at all, so at least now I'm more employable than I would have been otherwise.
  • I went to South Africa, which was amazing.
  • I managed to keep my relationship with Steve going for another year.
  • I got a job that pays well and allows me a lot of flexibility with hours, so I can keep up with St John and have time for myself while still getting money in.
  • I got a job working with animals, which was the main goal.
  • I started taking driving lessons. I've only had 2 so far, but I've driven on a main road and my instructor seems pleased with my progress, which is good to know :).

So what about resolutions/hopes for the coming year?
  • Make at least one friend that I talk to regularly. I'm going to keep plodding away with this one forever I think...
  • Finish my Day Zero/101 Things in 1001 Days list
  • Find a job in which I feel satisfied and like I'm actually useful
  • Do a bit of travelling. Even if it's only within this country, I feel like I'm really stuck at the moment, so need to spread my wings a bit.
  • Keep my relationship going with Steve for another year. Hopefully move in together, but if not I want to at least get to a place where I'm comfortable with the long-distance-ness
  • Get my room organised. I know this is a bit contradictory towards my last point as I said I want to move in with Steve, but I can't imagine that will be for at least another 3 months (more likely 6) so I've got plenty of time to get this room sorted first!
  • Attempt the 52 craft projects in 52 weeks challenge again. I failed miserably at this the last time I tried a couple of years ago - I think I went about it all wrong (I wrote a list of the projects I wanted to do, and the pressure of trying to fit in those projects, which were all fairly long and time-consuming, was enough to put me off so much that I gave up on the whole thing), so I'm going to try and take a more relaxed attitude to it this year.
  • Keep writing in my 5 year diary. I've got a very slack on this for the past couple of months, so need to spend the next few days catching up.

If anyone does happen to be reading this, happy new year to you :) (it would also be lovely if you left a comment or suchlike :)  )

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The dreaded results day...

I had to wait a long 3 weeks before I got my results. Although I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to change the marks I was going to get, the fact that I wouldn’t just be getting my exam results but the overall classification of my degree was enough to make it quite terrifying.

Steve went up to uni to get his results the day before I was due to get mine. Annoying, as he finished his exams a week before me so he shouldn’t be allowed to get his results before me too! :P

I said to Steve that I would cover for him on the St John duty he was meant to be on. As the uni fairly often has ‘hiccups’ when it comes to technology and internet stuff, I spent the morning obsessively checking my student record page using the internet on my phone in case they slipped up and released the marks early.

I’d checked at least 20 times, but still no joy. Getting slightly bored, I decided to scroll down the page a bit further and look at my AS- and A-level results. There, casually hanging out underneath results that I’d long since stopped caring about, was my degree classification...

Arghhhh, there it isssss!
 It was actually a bit of an anti-climax, as I was pretty sure beforehand that I was going to get a 2:1. If I’d got a 2:2 (which was possible, given that I thought I’d completely messed up at least 2 of my exams) I would have been disappointed, and if I’d got a 1st (highly unlikely, but I was clinging to a vain hope that something would magically pull my marks up) I would have been over the moon, but I got what I expected, so my reaction as basically this: “... meh.”

By the time I got home uni had emailed round (obviously realising that some people were clever and had found out their degree results already, which the department hadn’t intended to happen) saying they were going to release all the rest of the results a day early. Somehow the thought of getting results for my exams made me more nervous than getting my final degree result haha.

However, as is always the way when you’ve been waiting for something, getting my exam and project results didn’t go according to plan – the student record system crashed and I couldn’t log on. Argh!

Later on that evening though, I did finally manage to get my results. Here’s the damage:
  • Marine Vertebrate Conservation exam (the one I thought I’d done really well in): 71% 
  • Animal Life-History Diversity and Conservation exam (the one I was sure I’d completely messed up): 68%
  • Africa Field Course exam: 64% 
  • Wildlife Forensics exam: 55% 
  • Research project: 70% 

I find it quite funny (and very reflective of my mental state!) that my exam results got progressively worse with each exam I did. Slightly ashamed of the 55% one, as that’s the lowest mark I’ve ever got for a uni exam, but the rest were ok. I was chuffed to bits that I got a 1st for my project (albeit on the borderline of the 1st/2:1 boundary!), because I put an awful lot of work into it and would have been so gutted if I didn’t do very well.

Overall, I got 68% for my degree, so I missed a 1st by 2%. So annoying, as I only just missed it and I now blend in with the masses (some of whom may have only got 61%, yet we still have the same degree class...), but hopefully my other transferrable skills (such as first aid/St John) will make me stand out from the crowd when it comes to applying for jobs.

Speaking of which, I now feel like it’s time to start in earnest with the job application process. I don’t really want to apply for jobs, as I still don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, and all the things I like the look of are all unpaid voluntary positions, which as cool as the positions may be aren’t going to pay for me to live :(. I also want the chance to enjoy my last summer of proper freedom where I feel like I can get away with only doing what I want – after this summer I’ll always feel obliged to be working, and that any gaps of unemployment in my CV will look really suspicious and reflect badly on me :\. That being said I’ve just applied for a part-time job at Hobbycraft haha (getting to play with craft stuff all day and getting staff discount, what’s not to love? :P), so that will get me a bit of money while I work out what I really want to do as my career.

So, the end of uni was not the triumphant and amazing experience I was expecting it to be, but I definitely feel happier now than I have done in a long time, now that the weight of assignments and exams is off my shoulders. But now the pressure of job hunting and The Rest of My Life is beginning to bear down on me and I’m beginning to feel ever so slightly terrified again...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


It’s been a long time since I last posted any “life stuff”, because in this time I’ve been slowly going insane, then trying to regain my sanity by stupidly filling my days with as much stuff as possible. Now I’m finally getting some down time, so it’s high time I updated anyone that may be reading this with where my life’s at right now. I’ve got quite a lot to talk about, so I’ll probably split this up over a few posts.

Sooooo let’s start with exams.

Finishing revision and getting through all my exams was such a struggle. There were many times when I thought I wouldn’t make it to the end because I was feeling so miserable (I don’t know if I was depressed – I doubt it, because I’m feeling much better now – but it was definitely the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life and it felt like I would never be happy again). I even had my first ever argument with Steve because I just couldn’t take it any more : (. Having to get up every morning and sit and read and read and read until it was bedtime was really not good for me. Plus I really messed up my revision “strategy” (if one ever existed...) – I spent far too much time revising for my first exam (Marine Vertebrate Conservation, in which I got my worst ever mark for an assignment, so I felt like I needed to try hardest for the exam in that module in order to pull my grade up), and that meant I neglected the other 3 and did nowhere near as much work as I should have.

Each of my exams this year was 2 hours long (twice as long as all of my other uni exams). I had to answer 2 questions in each, each question being one essay. I had 4 exams for the 4 modules I did this year – Marine Vertebrate Conservation, Animal Life-History Diversity and Conservation, Africa Field Course, and Wildlife Forensics.

My first exam, Marine Vertebrate Conservation, went pretty well – when I opened the exam paper I instantly had stuff to write about, I managed to get in my evidenced of outside reading, and I even managed to cite a couple of scientific papers (which I’ve never been able to do in an exam before). I came out of that one feeling pretty confident, but slightly panicked that I only had a week to revise for another 2 whole exams...

My second exam, Animal Life-History Diversity and Conservation, was quite possibly the worst exam I’ve ever done. I opened the paper and went completely blank. I had a choice of 4 questions, 2 of which I ruled out straight pretty much straight away as I had nothing to say for either of them. I managed to think of a few points to include for the other 2, but my answers completely lacked structure, I missed out loads of key things, and I had no outside reading examples. I could see the marks disappearing before my eyes :(

The third exam, the day after the last one, was for my trip to South Africa. It went a lot better than the second exam, but it still wasn’t brilliant – I ended up having to make up basically everything in my second question and try to give it some semblance of truth. But I knew it couldn’t be as awful as the previous one, so I wasn’t too worried.

Between this and my next exam, basically everyone else I know had finished their exams – Steve had finished, my housemates had finished, and even other people on my course who didn’t do that module were finished. This made me really, really grumpy, and all I wanted to do was hide in my room and not talk to anyone until it was all over haha.

The last exam, a week after the previous one, was Wildlife Forensics. I don’t think I really had that much to write, but by that point I simply didn’t care and all I could focus on was the fact that 2 hours after opening the paper it would all be over and I would never have to revise again, hurrah! This made it extremely difficult to concentrate on the exam itself, so much so that I finished writing 20 minutes before the end (which never, ever happens), but again I simply didn’t care because freedom was within my reach. The end of exams was a lot less dramatic than I thought it would be.

As everyone else had finished days before the novelty had worn off for them, so I had no one to properly celebrate with. I went to The Stannary (our on-campus bar) and had a celebratory jug of Pimms and a Kinder Egg (because I’m secretly still a child haha), then went home and felt far too drained and exhausted to do anything else. Steve and I went out and had a tasty dinner at the Mexican restaurant down the road, but that was about all I could manage that evening before I just needed to sleep (plus the fact that I’m not a “party animal” so Club I was not an attractive prospect haha).

And so, what were quite possibly the longest and most boring months of my life were over, and all I needed to do was wait 3 weeks to find out whether it had all been worth it...

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

South Africa 2012: Days 9 and 10

I haven't fallen off the face of the planet, I promise! I was snowed under with revision, then exams, then trying to get myself back to some semblance of sanity after exams were over, then I've been sucked in to millions of hours on duty with St John, and I'm finally just about getting back to normal (just in time to move back home!). But more on all of this in a separate post...
For now, back to the last couple of posts about my trip to South Africa way back in January :)

Day 9: Wednesday 11th January 2012

Forgot to mention my horrific sunburn from the beach yesterday - it isn't actually that bad but considering how little time my skin was exposed for (literally about 45 minutes, if even that) I'm surprised how badly I burnt. I've got definite marks from my tankini straps and the top edge of my tankini top on my back, and my scalp is really burnt. The burn on my scalp is the owrst because it's blistered and weepy and gross, but I'm hoping the burn on my back will go away soon if I put aftersun on it (it did, it didn't linger like most other times I've been sunburnt and it was pretty much gone within a couple of days with hardly any pain). I feel so stupid for being so careful about sun cream and my hat, then letting my guard down for less than an hour and getting my first sunburn of the trip.

Today was spent driving to Addo. We were driving along the Garden Route, which is a really picturesque coastal route along the southernmost coast of South Africa. The drive was 10 hours long, and I managed to sleep most of the way which on one hand was good as it made the journey go quicker, but on the other hand was a bit annoying as it meant I missed most of the beautiful views.

We stopped lots of times along the way, refuelling with grape Fanta (which is really nice but also has a really artificial taste to it) and food bought in supermarkets and petrol stations we stopped at. In the countries I've visited so far in my life, one of the main things I've learnt is that you can buy Pringles basically everywhere...
Beautiful views of the mountains while we were driving to Addo. At first I was slightly sad that I wasn't on the side of the minibus that was facing the sea, but the views of the mountains on my side of the bus more than made up for that :)

We eventually arrived at Addo Elephant National Park at about 6pm. It's a really nice place, much posher than the last place we stayed, but it's obviously highly tourist orientated and it's got a huge camp site so there are a lot more people staying here though. We get our own little "section" for our tent which is nice, and we've got a bench with a plug socket next to it and a tree to sit under for some much needed shade. There's decent showers here again which is nice, although as the camp site's bigger I can see there being huge queues for them. There's also a pretty big gift show here, and it's got a supermarket-type section at the back too, so I'll be able to add a bit more variety to my diet and escape from the stodge!

When we arrived all the tents were taken out of the back of the luggage van for us to collect, but one group of arsehole boys decided it would be funny to steal our tent and leave us theirs - typically, this would be the group that had their tent broken into on the first day in De Hoop (the one where a mango was left lying in the middle of the floor...), so the front door to the tent is basically destroyed and there's a huge gaping hole in it (so we'll get loads of mozzies in tonight), a baboon has pissed on the floor so it stinks, and the boys left loads of toenail clippings and rubbish all over the floor. So gross.  But at least we managed to put the tent up properly this time as we had more space, so it actually touches the floor this time but it didn't in De Hoop...

HUGE cricket/grasshopper thing that we found outside the Addo Visitor Centre toilets. Haven't attempted to ID this yet, if anyone else can work out which species this is I'd love to find out :)
Off for a game drive at 5.50am tomorrow. I never expected to be getting up at 5am every day on this trip, but my body's really getting used to it now so it's not as much of a struggle as it would be otherwise.I'm really looking forward to seeing lots more animals, especially elephants (the animals that this park was set up to protect).

Day 10: Thursday 12th January 2012

Went on 2 game drives this morning - one before and one after breakfast. I saw zebra (Burchells zebra, a different species to the ones I saw at De Hoop), warthogs (which actually look pretty funny in real life, and they're a lot more ginger than I was expecting!), meerkats (which we got pretty close to, there was a group of them running and playing, it was so sweet), and the definite highlight of the drive this morning, was seeing loads and loads of elephants at one of the watering holes.

Kudu hiding in the scrub
Kudu! (we ate one of these in a rather tasty stir fry for dinner one night)
What I saw for basically the rest of my time in SA - the view from the minibus
This is what a real-life meerkat looks like when it's not dressed up in gentlemen's clothes on a series of really irritating adverts...
Addo Flightless Dung Beetle, which is native to this area of SA
Weaver bird nests - these hang from trees
Southern Chanting Goshawk. Very proud of this photo, considering it was taken with a simple point-and-shoot rather than a fancy DSLR that a lot of other people in the group had.
A two-headed zebra? :P

You can apparently tell the difference between certain species of zebra by the size of their stripe over their bum! Some, like these, have a narrow stripe (like a thong), and another species has a wide stripe (like granny pants). HAven't yet managed to find further proof of this anywhere online, or what species has wich stripe width, but I will investigate further and report back later.
The park makes these watering holes artificially to ensure that the animals in the park always have a supply of water, but this one was surrounded by roads so came across as being put in more for the convenience of the tourists (and to guarantee them their precious sighting of one of the big 5) than for the convenience of the animals. That being said, it was still amazing to see so many elephants in one place - elephants are social animals so you're always likely to see more than one at a time anyway, but there must have been at least 2 groups there because there were probably more than 50 individuals. The matriarch (mother, head of the group) from  a group was also there, and I was really surprised at how much bigger she was than all of the others - elephants are big animals anyway, but she was HUGE, easily a good 2 or 3 metres taller than the others.
The matriarch, surrounded by other adults.
Bath time :)
A lovely reassuring sign...
Mummy and baby warthogs :)
After the second game drive we were given some free time, the first we've had on this trip! I went to the shop to get some souvenirs, and decided to do some washing afterwards, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. It's been about 38 degrees Celsius today and yesterday, so when I was doing my washing I was standing in a dark room with the door completely open to let air in, yet I was still sweating more than I ever have in my life when I was simply standing still. Obviously doing my washing made me even hotter, but it needed to be done otherwise I would have run out of wearable clothes tomorrow...

Lunch was sandwiches containing some kind of orange highly processed cheese stuff (stuff is literally the only word I can think of to describe it, as much as it tried to be it was definitely nothing resembling cheese), plus an assortment of other odd bits and pieces including some really chewy energy bars. Not impressed. Take me back to the lunches at De Hoop!

Another game drive after lunch so we could do a practical on distance sampling. The idea was for us to get an estimate of the biodiversity and biomass of larger herbivores in the park by driving along the road and counting how many animals we saw, what size they were and how far away from us they were. From that, plus the distance we travelled, we were supposed to be able to calculate the herbivore biomass in the park. It was actually really difficult, and the results from each of the groups were all pretty widely varied.The lady who's filming us for the course promo video decided to interview me while we were doing the sampling, and she had to turn the air conditioning off in the minibus to make sure that she could pick up my voice properly in the recording, which made the temperature in the bus rocket (it must have been at least 42 degrees Celsius in there...) - I bet I look highly attractive, sweating buckets and stumbling over my words (I've been included in the video, so when I post that after I've finished my diary posts you'll be able to see how truly awful I look haha).

Tonight's group discussion was on the distance sampling method. I think we all agreed that it was a bit shit, but it's actually a really widely used technique - there's flaws in every method you use, and this one has many pros including that it's cheap, easy to do and easy to repeat, so I can see why it's used a lot.

Dinner tonight was carrot soup, chicken pasta, chocolate mousse and ice cream. Yay, a varied meal with relatively little stodge! And yay, nice dessert!

Tomorrow we're going for a long hike up a mountain - we're being dropped off at the top then hiking our way back up. I'm literally dreading it, we're starting the hike at 7am I think so it's going to get hotter and hotter as the hike goes on - as I've been sweating loads just standing still for the past couple of days, that kind of heat plus hiking up a mountain is going to be unbearable...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

South Africa 2012: Days 7 and 8

Day 7: Monday 9th January 2012

Not much to write about a today was pretty boring and repetitive, and entirely spent in the courtyard collecting data from the grasshoppers. Thankfully we got along a lot better today - there was not shutting me out, I was listened to and we had a laugh. It was quite a frustrating day as it felt like we were doing so much work and getting so few results - a lot of grasshoppers kept escaping on gusts of wind before we could even measure them, some we couldn't recapture and some we only got 2 data points for (not the 3 we needed) before they disappeared. They're really hard to spot and capture, even on the concrete, because they're surprisingly well camouflaged.

We finished data collection at 6pm and I went and had a shower before dinner at 7pm. When C and I got back to the tent we discovered we'd been babooned again - baboons came in yesterday and caused no damage other than ripping a hole in the mosquito net in the big door, but today they ripped another hole and stole A's carton of juice that she'd left on the tent floor. We found it outside with the lid off and the juice spilled everywhere.

Dinner tonight was stir fry - I'd just been saying earlier in the day how much I would love a stir fry to make a change from all the stodge we've been having since we got here!

Just realised I've forgotten to mention the species I've seen! I've seen some Cape Mountain zebras, ostriches, baboons, bontebok, eland and probably some others I've forgotten. The zebra were definitely my favourite - it's so amazing to see them in the wild where they belong, and it's finally sinking in that I'm actually in Africa!

Back to this evening... We've spent most of the evening in the dinner hall trying to do the stats for our poster and presentation tomorrow. I think we've been really over-thinking it though so we all decided to give up and try again first thing tomorrow morning. We have to have our poster finished by 12 before we go on a dune walk and for a swim in the sea, then between 4 and 5pm we have time to practice our presentation before we have to give it to the rest of the group at some point between 5 and 7pm. We're having a wine tasting afterwards which I'm really looking forward to.

There's been a wedding going on in the garden by the restaurant tonight so we've been having fun listening to the music. They've got fairy lights and spherical paper lanterns hung from the trees which looks so beautiful. The couple got married on the beach earlier on in the day. Sounds perfect - I'd love it if my own wedding was like this!

Off to bed now as yet another early start tomorrow... my body's getting used to 5am starts now so it's waking up automatically at that time :(

Day 8: Tuesday 10th January 2012

Up and in the dinner room by 6am this morning to finish the stats for our presentation about our project. The other girls in my group basically took over most of it so I had nothing to do when I'd finished the bit I was doing, so I attempted to start the poster but it sounded like they didn't agree with what I wanted to do so I gave up as I didn't want a repeat of Sunday.

We eventually got our poster and stats finished before lunch and decided to write our speeches after we got back from the beach.

We picked up lunch bags and drove down to the sand dunes.  I still can't get over how white the sand is - when we first drove in to De Hoop I thought it was snow on top of mountains! (yes, I really am that stupid sometimes...) It was so nice to be able to take my shoes and socks off and walk barefoot in the smooth, warm sand. Everyone lined up along the top of a dune and we walked along so we could have a group photo taken and be filmed for a promo video being made for the course (which is coming up in a post soon!). Somehow I ended up at the front and people were shouting instructions at me from the back of the line but I had no idea what they were saying so I think I made a bit of a fool of myself.... The next photo opportunity was making us all roll down a giant sand dune which was really fun, up until the moment when someone kicked me in the head and I ended up nearly being sick from the mouthful of sand I ended up with. I was really dizzy by the time I reached the bottom too - I was surprised how dizzy rolling down  hill sideways made me!

We then headed on to the beach where we were going to swim - it was a little sheltered pool so hopefully the sharks and jellyfish should be kept out! Lots of people got in and wan straight out, but I was quite happy to bob about in the shallows with another girl as neither of us are brilliant swimmers. There were lots of rocks in the pool so it was really difficult to stay safely in one place without risking grazing/cutting your legs or getting your foot trapped under a rock. The waves were really strong and quite a few times I got carried a good few metres towards the beach by them, and once I even got completely washed ashore by a big wave! It was a lot of fun but too soon it was time to head back to the camp for project presentations.

African Oystercatchers

We got our speeches written and headed outside to the lawn/courtyard next to the restaurant and sat under one of the huge trees to do our presentations. Thankfully the lecturers had put us into 2 big groups so we didn't have to sit through about 25 presentations! My project group went second; I'm so glad we got it out of the way as otherwise I wouldn't have been able to concentrate until it was done. I think I did quite well as I made sure I didn't just read from my script and I think I gave a good answer to the question I was asked. It was interesting seeing everyone else's projects too - a lot of people did the same or similar things on bonteboks or proteas or insect diversity in dung but I think ours was the only manipulative experimental study and the only one about grasshoppers or a single insect family.

Giving our presentation about our project. I'm on the left.
After the presentations we had a wine tasting. A couple of women from Strandveld vineyards came down, and they brought 3 white and 3 red wines for us to try. I really liked the first white wine, which was First Sighting sauvignon blanc - it was nice and fruity. The second white was way too dry for my liking, and the third was nice as it wasn't as dry but it still wasn't as nice as the first. I didn't like any of the reds - I don't think my palate is refined enough yet! (they also told us one of the reds had a chocolate taste to it, but I definitely tasted no chocolate and thought they all tasted like mud...)

After dinner I headed to bed fairly early because we've got another early start tomorrow to pack up tents ready to leave for Addo at 7am. I don't think I've had a lie in once on this trip! It's a long drive to Addo - probably 10 hours - so I'm sure I'll spend most of the journey asleep, but we'll be travelling along the Garden Route, the really picturesque coastline of southern South Africa, so I'll try my best to stay awake to make the most of the views!

Monday, 30 April 2012

The third year research project

Since the beginning of this academic year in September, I've been busy designing, doing, and writing up my research project. In my degree (Zoology), instead of doing a dissertation like most other universities, we have to do an independent research project. It's basically a piece of scientific work - we decide a question we want to answer, we design an experiment to try and find out the answer to this question, we do the experiment, we statistically analyse the results, and we (at least attempt to) work out what it all means and what implications it'll have for science as a whole.

My project ended up being about how noise in the environment affects zebra finches (which, for those who don't know, are these little birdies...)
When we started thinking about projects at the end of my second year, I decided I didn't feel brave enough to go for a self-generated project (where you design everything for your project yourself), so I wanted to let whoever my supervisor was pick my project for me. Except when I was allocated my supervisor, he basically said I could do whatever I wanted to (definitely not what I signed up for. Thanks(!)). I was partnered with another girl (as we weren't allowed to do field work by ourselves for insurance purposes), and as my uni campus is currently a bit of a building site we decided we wanted to do a project on how noise might affect the behaviour of birds around the campus.

We were assigned a sort of sub-supervisor (who's thankfully been a lot more helpful!) as she does research into how noise affects all sorts of things in zebra finches (stress responses like heart rate, hormones, behaviours etc.), and she helped us develop a method we liked - we were originally a bit ambitious and wanted to see how their patterns of movement changed, how their behaviours changed, and how their foraging rates changed, and we wanted to use 6 different noises. We had our cages all set up and did a first few trials with birds... except the birds sat around and didn't forage at all. Nightmare!

Cue a rapid change in project idea... we cut it down to 3 noise treatments - traffic (an anthropogenic (man-made) noise), rain ( a natural noise) and silence (so we could see what birds naturally do). We also got rid of the idea of looking at movement patterns, and we also got rid of the idea of just looking at foraging rates (because they didn't forage at all...), so we decided to look at how behaviour (mainly vigilance), location within the test cage, and proximity to a companion bird change between the 3 different noise treatments.

Spending hours upon hours in the windowless aviary was very long and boring, but analysing and writing up the data was even longer. In the end, we found that the birds spent the greatest amount of time being vigilant (watching out for predators or other threats), vigilance was highest during the rain noise treatment (which I didn't expect, I would've expected the highest vigilance in the traffic noise that they weren't used to) and lowest in the silence periods (which was exactly what I expected), and birds spend more time vigilant in the second trial we did on them than they did in the first trial (which, again, wasn't expected - I thought they would spend less time vigilant in the second trial because they were used to the noises). Location and proximity didn't change though, which was a shame as it wasn't quite as interesting as I'd hoped.

Writing up my project was a bit of a nightmare. Compared to the traditional dissertation that most uni students do, which is normally 10,000 words, my 5,200-word offering seems a bit pathetic. But designing the project, carrying out the experiment and doing all the statistics on our data, on top of writing the report, ended up being a bit of a mammoth task.

I had everything done ready to be printed and bound into a nice little booklet on Thursday so I could hand it in on Friday (with the deadline of today (Monday)). On Thursday afternoon off I trotted to the reprographics department on campus, I gave them my PDF files of my project and they printed it on nice thick paper and bound it into a professional-looking booklet. I was feeling really proud of myself because woooo, project finished!... but that feeling didn't last long, as when I got home and was showing it off to one of Steve's housemates, he straight away looked at my risk assessment and said "... 3 x 1 doesn't equal 4...". What. An. Idiot. I'd done it twice on the same page too, so no hope of claiming it was a typo.... . A table on that page hadn't printed right either, and when I looked at my reference list I realised I had some citations in the text that weren't in my reference list and some references that I hadn't cited in the text. It irritated me all that evening... do I try and tippex the mistakes in the risk assessment and just hope they don't notice the reference list? Or do I just forget about the £15 I spent on printing and binding and bite the bullet and get it all done again so I can hand in a mistake-free piece? In the end I went for the latter, and once the decision was made I felt so much better about it.

So, on Friday morning, I wandered off up to the library to print it all again. Thanks to a helpful tip-off from a friend about how to print for free on campus (seriously, big thanks, it saved me £7.50), I got it all printed again and got it bound.

Here it is, in all its finished and (hopefully) mistake-free glory...
Isn't it beautiful! *sheds a little tear*

I missed the office opening hours so that I could hand it in on Friday, so I had to get up bright and early to go and hand it in this morning. I did  a little bit of an internal celebratory/victory dance once it was out of my hands, and thanked some sort of god that I wasn't in the same position as one of my housemates (who is only about 1500 words in to his 10,000 word dissertation which is due on Thursday, but that's another story entirely...).

Yaaaaay, it's done! Only exams to go now and then I'm a free woman!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

South Africa 2012: Days 5 and 6

Day 5 – Saturday 7th January 2012

Got up at 5.30am this morning for a 6am walk around the camp at De Hoop. We saw loads of flamingos flying across the lake and then they came to rest on a little sandy island in the middle. When I had a look through my binoculars I saw 2 pelicans on the island too which was really cool. We also saw a barn own which was nesting in an old grain store tower or something, it was cool. It was slightly annoying that we would only stop to look at birds, and whenever I tried to stop to look at a lizard or something I would get told to hurry along. But hopefully this won’t matter and I’ll get loads of time to explore over the next few days (this never happened which was really annoying, especially as the reason why I had no free time was because of something I tried to prevent, but more on that in later days).

The walk was baking hot even though we were only out walking until about 7.45am! I’m really hoping I adjust to this heat quickly as it’s only going to get hotter (I was very right on that point! That morning was mild compared to some of the weather we had the next week!)!
Flamingoes! (plus a pelican, it's the slightly bigger looking bird towards the top left. You can see it if you squint)

I just about managed to have enough free time to cram in a shower before breakfast.I didn’t manage to get a seat at the table again at breakfast (I didn’t manage to get one at dinner last night either) – why me twice?! (just proves how cliquey and selfish people on my course are...)

After breakfast we were told who we were in groups with for our projects – I’m with people I like which should be cool. We spent the rest of the day trying to decide on what to do for our project. Our first idea was to measure the insect diversity in different types of dung (different levels of digestedness, different ages/drynesses, different sizes etc). We went out and collected some samples and decided to mix them with water in order to break them up and see what was in them – it was so disgusting as bits kept flying everywhere and the baboon poo was really fresh and smelly and full of things that looked like tiny little white worms – the other 2 people (both girls) in my group didn’t look like they were bothered at all about touching it but I was really wary because I don’t want to get ill this early on! Luckily it was too difficult to break up the poo and it didn’t look like there were any insects so we gave up on that idea and decided to look at jump length in aposematic vs cryptic grasshoppers. We couldn’t find any of the aposematic species we wanted to use which was disappointing, but we tried out our method with out abundant cryptic grasshopper species anyway so we’re ready to start tomorrow.

Somehow me and one of the other girls in my group didn’t get told that dinner was at 7pm tonight not 7:30pm like it was last night so I ended up not getting a seat for the third night in a row! I found out at dinner that baboons have already started breaking into tents – one guy left a mango in the middle of his tent and the baboons ripped their way into the tent to get it. He was so stupid to do that, and now the baboons are going to keep coming back to go through the rest of our tents!
Beware the baboons... they are watching you from the trees with their evil little eyes, waiting to rip their way into your tent and steal anything that even remotely resembles food...

I didn’t get to go on the night drive tonight but I’m going tomorrow and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been finding it really difficult to get to sleep tonight because it’s far too hot and I’m scared of baboons coming in. More project work tomorrow. I’m hoping it goes well and we get loads of data and find our illusive rockhopper grasshoppers!

Day 6 – Sunday 8th January 2012

(Not very many photos from today unfortunately. Too much time was wasted on pointless arguments. Blergh.)

Yet another bright and early start this morning to go and look for the rockhopper grasshoppers we need for our experiment. The 2 girls I was working with kept wandering off and leaving me which was really annoying and made me quite upset. I was nearly included back in the group when I thought I’d found the a rockhopper, but it turned out I’d just found some with a little red bit in between their wings, not whole red wings like the ones we were looking for.

We went inside for breakfast at 8:30am and I managed to get a seat of my own for the first time! Breakfast had scrambled egg with it again – hopefully we won’t get it every day because it tastes a bit odd (alas, we did. Every. Single. Day.)
The teeniest lizard I've ever seen!
After breakfast we decided to have a rethink about our project. One of the girls suggested doing a predator defence/escape experiment out in the field involving walking along a transect and seeing how close the “predator” could get to a grasshopper before it jumped away and how far it jumped. When I tried to explain why I thought it was a bad experiment that would be almost impossible to conduct accurately, both of the girls just beat me down and refused to listen to my ideas to try and make the experiment work, and one of them said I was just dragging the whole group down. This really upset me and I was on the verge of tears – I was only trying to do the right thing and improve the project as it’s such a big part of our marks, and I knew that what I’d been saying was exactly what the lecturers would say when we asked them about our project.

Eventually one of the lecturers came over to discuss our new idea with us, and he said exactly what I’d just been saying yet all of his criticisms were instantly accepted! This made me feel bloody angry but also quite smug as I knew that I was right and they were wrong. After talking to the lecturer we finally reached a compromise and decided to use the same idea but do it on the lawn next to the restaurant using a grid system marked out with string to make rough measurement estimates. This turned out not to work either as it was really windy and the grasshoppers were still so easily able to disappear into the grass making it impossible to recapture them for the repeat measurements. I was getting really panicky by this point because half a day of our 2 days of data collection had gone and we still had no project.
Getting pretty close to an ostrich on the path
 FINALLY we agreed to do it in the sheltered, concreted courtyard, and thankfully when we moved there we were able to start getting some pilot data. Unfortunately the bad mood from this morning still remained so whenever we had a problem and I tried to come up with a suggestion for solving it I was either ignored or told we didn’t need to worry about that problem now, only for one of them to suggest the exact same thing later on – ARGH! I’ve been in such a foul mood all day because of this – I feel stupid and useless, and it just reinforces the idea that no-one on this course really likes me and for some reason I’m impossible to get along with (I still feel like this, and not just on this trip but in my life in general. Ho hum, in exactly one month I will have finished my last ever exam and be free from the miserable experience that has been university and free to (fingers crossed) make some new friends...) At least there’s only one more day of data collection left and one further day to do stats and presentations, then I won’t be forced to spend all my time with them. We’re getting to the courtyard for 6am tomorrow morning to do a solid 12 hours of data collection to make up for lost time – I’m absolutely dreading it but it needs to be done and hopefully we’ll all get along better.

Going out on a night drive tonight cheered me up. We saw bontebok, ostrich, a poor lame eland that was probably going to die soon L, and a nightjar (that I probably would have spotted before everyone else but I couldn’t decide if it was a rock or an animal!). I found it really difficult to see the animals’ eyeshine (light reflecting on their eyes, which is basically the only way you can spot animals when it’s pitch black. And I mean literally pitch black, there was zero light pollution like there is in any town or anywhere vaguely near a road), and I kept getting confused by light reflecting off insects! (it’s a really big thing on a course like mine to have super-sharp animal spotting skills, and there’s massive glory associated with spotting something cool / illusive / rare / that hasn’t already been seen on this trip. All the twitchers (hyper-dedicated bird watchers) were desperate to see a nightjar, and I was desperate to be the first one to spot something, so I was gutted that I only realised the nightjar wasn’t a rock when it flew up from where it was sitting on the road!)
A bontebok (not the one we saw on the night drive though, in case that wasn't obvious...)