It’s incredible how 2020 evolved. Before we arrived in Jeddah, the world was in a total shutdown! This is new territory for all of us and it’s strange to think that we were even able to travel at all! But just before that, I lost my car in a fire while guiding on Table Mountain, all my work was wiped out overnight and as we all found out, plethora issues compounded in the most unsatisfactory of ways. For me, this unfolded as a deep depression and the start of my own battle to confront it properly for the first time. It set in slowly as it had done before but this time I disappeared into a dark, unforgiving hole of self-pity and self-destruction. Thus, an expedition in a country that I had never sincerely bothered research became a beacon of light and the start of some new and bizarre. It became a place where I could rebuild myself, my esteem and general excitement for life through good old fashioned field work.
Venturing into the field was a mighty shock to the sensors. Having withstood the heat and humidity of Jeddah was one thing, but not having the luxury of retreating to an air-conditioned hotel made the first field sites challenging in ways that I had never experienced. Jabal (“mountain” ~ Arabic) Uthrub, our first field site, had plenty of signs of being an ideal site for leopards. Stretching 200 square kilometres, the area has an elevation difference of around 1000m from its lowest to highest points. Half of it is a dramatic escarpment where deep “wadis” (ravines) carve up the porous rock. These wadis can be devoid of life while others can be thick with vegetation. As it flattens at the base of the escarpment the vegetation becomes almost non-existent due to the sharp increase in temperature. Staying at the top of the escarpment saw the evenings as being cool and pleasant while after a 30-minute descent down the pass had us drenched in sweat by 6 am. Very quickly the mercury would climb to the mid-’40s and we would do our best to not pass out as we ventured along camel tracks and past Bedouin hamlets.
Marine and I, who had been accompanied by a local Saudi named Abdullah eventually got into a flow of sorts. We downed litres of water saturated with rehydration salts and powders and tried to navigate our way through the unfamiliar landscape looking for cameras-traps. Our breath laboured, we climbed hundreds of meters and many kilometres into the wadis which turned into ovens as the powerful Arabian sun baked the rocky river beds. We’d arrive, change batteries, download data, reattach the cameras to a tree, stake or any rocky sculpture the initial team had created and then head onto the next. Marine, Abdullah and I became more in sync as the days went on and while hiking quickly is good the most important point is when you arrive at each camera station. Faffing around can easily cost you 45 minutes at each station and most of the time you under the full intensity of the sun. Rule #1: don’t get heat stroke!
Days blurred together and the fatigue built up. Steep hiking and long drives in this kind of heat was a new beast and while a lot of sites were similar, there were a couple that took hours and saw us return to the cars after dark.