Having read all of the books by Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas I felt pretty prepared for my first expedition to primate habitats…but in reality I was far from it, and so I have decided to write a blog to give young budding primatologists a rough guide on what to bring to the field.
I like to travel light, as it’s inevitable that plans can rapidly change at the blink of an eye and so lugging an entire wardrobe on my back was never a pleasant thought. On my first trip I went with the few clothes which Birute took with her to the field including just two pairs of trousers! I quickly realised that trousers get ruined extremely quickly, a small rip terns into a big hole and then suddenly there are mosquito and yes…ants in your pants. I also took very light weight clothes and had a fairytale image as described by Jane of hiking up mountains in the nude whilst it pours rain and then putting on clean dry clothes at the top- this is impossible to comprehend when working in cloud forests where mosquitoes eat you alive and chiggers (small flies which lay eggs under your skin!) and ticks cling to you in the most undesirable of bodily places. Do not be fooled by the stories of our intrepid female primate icons-they were crazy!
After learning the hard way-short shorts and linen tops were a sure way of ending up hospitalised from infected bites, itching rashes and swollen limbs…here are a few tips:
- THICK CLOTHES: Always wear thick long-sleeved shirts where there are mosquitoes- if you’re anything like me (a pale red head, apparently very desirable to insect heathens) they will make your life hell if you don’t cover up. Although thick clothes can get heavy when drenched in sweat and rain they will prevent insects biting through the material and entering your skin. You will last a whole day in the forest in 45 degree heat wearing a thick shirt and less than an hour if wearing a short sleeved/light weight top.
- TROUSERS: you can survive for months at a time in the field with only two pairs of trouser, you can-but my advise is that you take three-that’s not much extra weight to carry and you will appreciate it once you start a long journey between field sites and have yet to find the time or resources to clean the two pairs you have inevitably destroyed with your own sweat and insect repellent. No one wants to sit next to that person on the bus-trust me.
- HAT: I am a huge fan of tilly hats, they have a life time guarantee and the tilly stories are rather impressive including one guy who’s tilly hat was eaten by an elephant three times and each time was worn again (once washed!). A durable hat is your life-line, it will keep you shaded and cool making your work much more pleasant. The most important thing I found about wearing a hat with a large rim is that there is a lot of surface area there-ideal for monkey urine and monkey poo! No-one wants monkey poo in their hair or face, and I would put money on it that no primatologist working in the field or captivity has never been pooed of peed on-its a glamorous job.
- TORCH: Bring a torch!! The amount of times I slept in places without running water or electricity, in areas where big cats roam at night and I have forgotten to bring a bloody torch and have to scramble around in the dark trying to find a convenient place to urinate preferably away from forest trails but near enough that I can find my way back-nightmare. Wind up torches are the best as they are extremely light weight, cheep and obviously never run out of juice.
- HAIR BANDS: Have long hair? Fancy that long hair dripping down your back and in your eyes and falling into poo samples and getting caught in trees? Well tie it up-bring a LOT of bands as you will loose them, and if working with monkeys up close they will rip them out, apparently they make for good chew toys (no metal bits on them please for this reason).
- PANTS AND SOCKS: One set for every day of the week-you will always need dry socks to keep your feet healthy, never underestimate the powerful force that is a foot blister-you can be out of action for days in the event of a hardcore foot blister, keep your feet dry at all costs!
- TOWELS: Spend a little money on a super-dry towel, again they are lightweight, take up little room in your rucksack and will be the only thing which makes you feel remotely human at the end of a long day with a beautiful bucket bath of cold water under the stars (best feeling ever). Drying yourself with a dirty towel is beyond grim and can cause health issues if you are suffering from irritant rashes and insect bites which inevitably you will be at some point. If you are days away from medical aid you must be responsible and keep your skin healthy by any means possible.
- WATER BOTTLES: Do not scrimp out on your water bottle. I took a water platypus with me to my first expedition and regretted it immediately-the sealant was thin and so within three hours I had water pouring down my back which then removed the red dye from my rucksack and the result looked like I was injured as everything I owned was soaked in red blood-like liquid. I then had to attempt to fix it (albeit without success) as I was days away from the nearest shop. Platypus’ are great but don’t get a cheep one and if possible test it before you go.
- SANDWICH BAGS: So you’re in the field, and you are collecting the usual bio samples, monkey poo, bitten fruit, even urine (if you’re lucky!) You will need to have a dry and separate place for all your samples which can be easily labelled (masking tape and pencil is best as these are water-resistant). There is nothing worse than coming back from the field to set up your microscope and then spending days trawling through all your samples in an attempt to work out when and where and from which monkey they were collected from: Piss Poor Planning makes for Piss Poor Performance! -Don’t be the one responsible for producing unviable data. In addition, sandwich bags can be used as make-shift gloves in the event of messy and surprising work (I once had to sample human poo in a zoonotic parasitic study where we wanted to see if humans and wild monkeys shared parasites).
- PENCILS AND PAPER: Say no to ink and be careful with technology. Ink runs so your data can simply disappear, whereas technology fails. I once almost lost my entire database when an electrical storm eradicated everything electrical for a mile around me…no more lights, no more fridge and no more laptop. Luckily, I had all my paper copies and so a laborious few weeks got me back on track. GPS coordinates can be lost by the click of a wrong button, vocal data can be wiped or distorted when recorded in close proximity to UV lights (be careful about your torch choice!), batteries can die, and equipment can get stolen. Back up everything! Which leads me to the most important tip:
- THINK! Do not leave electrical items unattended or plugged in when fully charged, take batteries out of equipment when on planes, have your medical insurance details on hand at all times, keep clean, keep calm and enjoy the unpredictability of field work in tough terrain. Practice your miming and pictionary skills for those awkward moments when your new found language skills fail you, and smile. Never stop smiling, you will get further with a smile than you will do with the best equipment and money in your pocket! People will always help you out if you’re smiling…even if that entails them jabbing you in the bum with a surgical needle to administer medication……but that’s a story for another time.