Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Simple living and Asian dumplings

Recently, I have been helping an upmarket safari company put together a guide of recommended restaurants in Cape Town and the Winelands. Unsurprisingly, trawling restaurant websites made me think about food. And it also made me appreciate how unponcy my world is. Some of these restaurants made me laugh at their pretentiousness. For example, one restaurant talks about how the simplicity in their food is deceptively complicated to achieve and then it has a full-page glossary at the end of their menu so diners can translate the names of their dishes and ingredients. This does not seem particularly simple. Additionally, I’m not convinced that simplicity is overly complicated. I peel a banana and I plonk it in a bowl. Noggs eats it. Not complicated. Although, if this was served in a posh restaurant it would have a name like ‘banane dans la bol’ and be sold for 30 dollars on a giant white porcelain plate with five drops of jus de naartije  (simple translation: orange juice) scattered around it. A lot of the restaurants I wrote about boast innovative and exciting combinations of flavours.  One posh restaurant served Gorgonzola ice cream avec posh spices. Gorgonzola ice cream seems like a weird combination, and not the kooky fun Gonzo from the Muppets type of weird, more like the creepy possible sexpest kind of weird .

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Paw paw.

So I’m glad we lead an unponcy life. I’m glad that when we go on safari, we mostly camp and self-drive, and put up our own tent and carry our own gear. I’m glad that we don’t go out and buy new designer clothes all the time, but instead we sew up the holes in the ones we have. Yes, having money is very nice so you don’t have to worry and you have a safety net for tough times and occassional splurges, and that is a state we are would certainly like to achieve. However, it’s nice to be happy with what you have, look forward to treats, have an environmental conscious, and be approachable. And the more I read about raising children, the more I think that simple is a good way to go. Chef Gordan Ramsey was in the media recently saying that when he flies with his family, he and his wife sit in first class and his kids fly coach because “they haven’t worked anywhere near hard enough to afford that”. That’s pretty extreme but I get where he’s coming from. Values and hard work are important.

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Back to food, despite slagging off poncy restaurants, we do like good food. We are lucky to have a monthly farmer’s market nearby and lots of fresh local fruits, which we use to make  smoothies every morning. Noggs is generally a good eater and we are so grateful since feeding can be a battle with toddlers. He will try almost everything, especially if it is on someone else’s plate. He loves meat, pasta, and fruits. Every evening we eat dinner on our porch as we watch the sunset. The colony of bats that lives in our house flies out in a big procession as we sit down. Sometimes animals like nyalas, zebras, and warthogs come near and we watch them graze. Noggs grabs a handful of his dinner and extends it out to them even though they are 20 metres away. He wants to share. Most of the time we listen to the birds and to Noggs listing all the animals that he thinks are sleeping (“Big giraffes sleeping, baby giraffes sleeping, zebras sleeping, owls sleeping…”). This is his favourite dinner time topic. We burn anti-mossie candles and when we are done eating Noggs loves blowing them out and watching the smoke rise. Then we wash up and pack lunches for tomorrow. It’s simple and nice.

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Asian food is my favourite. Our trips to South Korea and Japan were incredible food wise. I would go back there in a heartbeat. Even the food from 7-11 in Japan was mind-blowing. I love all the seafood. I love sitting on the floor. I love green tea. I love almost every part of their diet but especially dumplings (gyoza in Japan and mandu in Korea). I could scoff those tasty little nuggets of joy all day long. Unfortunately, our town in the South African bushveld does not have many Asian options, either restaurant or ingredients wise. So when we go to Cape Town for the South African Wildlife Management Association conference in September, we will be seeking Japanese food and filling our luggage with ingredients so we can cook them at home.

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Gyoza that we made at a cooking class in Kyoto.

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Japanese gyoza from 7-11. Amazeballs. Just Amazeballs.

So basically as I get older, I am realising that I like most things undeceptively simple, down to Earth. I  drive a Landy and wear Birkenstocks. I’m not looking for fancy or showy.  We have more than enough and I think living in the African bush helps us appreciate that. It’s a slower, softer, honest life. Giraffes eat leaves and work hard to get those leaves and they seem pretty content. I imagine that people often feel hungry when they leave posh restaurants.

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Cooking up a storm. Plastic eggs, peas, bacon, and corn – now that’s a meal.


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Bye bye baby

Noggs turned two yesterday and we had a lovely celebration with cake, presents, and balloons. At age two and very almost fully potty trained, it feels like we have just about left the baby years behind and I for one could not be happier.

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Loving birthday balloons and stickers.

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Celebrating his birthday at preschool.

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Sharing birthday cupcakes with friends.

I follow several mummy blogs so I can compare parenting experiences with other people since I don’t have many mum friends nearby. Some of the blog posts I have read discuss how hard some parents find letting go of their baby and allowing their child to become independent. I have not struggled with that. If we were a family of birds, we would be something migratory and a bit funky like hoopoes. And if we were birds, I think I might have nudged chick Noggs out the nest if he wasn’t flying on his own. Off you go now. Spit spot.

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Baby stuff is hard to keep up with – vaccines almost every month, bottles to sterilise, constant feeding, rarely sleeping, solid food introduction, baby food mashing, sleep training, constantly moving up clothes sizes, teething, etc. And it isn’t often rewarded with much interaction from your infant. In the first year Noggs was cute but a bit non-descript and not super robust. Even dressed like a bear cub, he lacked most bearlike qualities other than fuzziness.

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Baby bear.

It has only been in the last year that Noggs has acquired his wickedly awesome personality. We have loved watching him develop and become funny and sociable. Now we have conversations, cuddles, do pretend play, and go on proper adventures. This morning Noggs and I went on a walk to splash in puddles, throw rocks into the river, and watch beetles and shongololos cross the road. I am happy to say bye to the baby years and welcome all the fun of the toddler years. We are ready for the ‘terrible twos’, although I think it is going to be a pretty spectacular year.

 

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Cuddles and adventures.


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The two stories inside every PhD

In association with the publicity surrounding an article that we published recently on leopard population declines in the Soutpansberg Mountains, Durham University invited me to write a blog for them about my PhD experiences. If you would like to read it in situ, please follow this link – otherwise I’m going to post it below. It’s been a real pleasure doing some guest blogging recently. I am doing some guest lecturing about leopard research and conservation at the end of the month for an Africa Conservation Experience group visiting to the Hoedspruit area. Bits and bobs, keeping things interesting. Speaking of interesting, a giraffe walked right behind me for about 10 minutes yesterday and I saw a massive black mamba at dusk. Noggs also vomitted all over us and the sofa today. Keeping things interesting.

 

The two stories inside every PhD

 

I enrolled at Durham University for the first time a few days after my 18th birthday. I had never lived in the UK or away from home before and I felt like I’d landed on another planet where I couldn’t understand the language (Geordie). But I quickly found my way, my people, and my confidence.

 

I spent my twenties doing a Masters, travelling the world, working, and getting married. Just after my 29th birthday, I enrolled at Durham again, this time as a PhD student. As before, I had some initial (but very different) reservations. I wanted to do a PhD but I also had career ambitions and I wanted to start a family in the near future. Luckily, the flexibility of the programme and my supportive supervisors enabled me to find my way.

 

I did my PhD in an untraditional way and it was tough, messy, stressful, and incredible. I spent the majority of my PhD living in a tent on a mountain in South Africa while managing Professor Russell Hill’s Primate and Predator Project. And this was great. In between fieldwork and writing my thesis, I collared leopards and baboons, assisted farmers with human-wildlife conflict, supervised volunteers, worked with film crews, and wrote a children’s book for local schools. My PhD was a big priority in my life but it wasn’t my only priority. My job was also very important to me. Halfway through my PhD, I had a baby and appeasing a small angry human became another significant part of my life.

 

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Although doing a PhD can feel pretty all-consuming, I found that it is possible to pursue other pursuits as well. Reflecting back on the four years of my doctorate, I realise that although it was a crazy time of submitting chapters, checking project data, catching cobras in houses, and mixing up baby food, the variety helped me enjoy my PhD more and it suited me. I was so busy multi-tasking and writing to do lists that I seldom become frustrated by my PhD or bored of my thesis. Getting a solid hour to work on my thesis was a rare luxury that I looked forward to immensely and embraced.

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Recently, I finished my PhD, took some time to breathe, and entered the mystical post-PhD beyond which consists of job hunting and publication submissions with a two year old running around bringing me cups of imaginary juice while pretending to be a frog. My unconventional PhD experience has given me something extremely positive to write about in cover letters for jobs. It shows that I am dynamic, organised, and ambitious. I’m not a one trick pony. I’m Doctor Many Ponies and I’m just as proud of that as I am of my thesis.

 

In conclusion, doing a PhD does not have to mean that everything else in your life goes on hold, but it certainly can if you want. Doing a PhD is about doing it your way at a pace that suits you. One of my friends spent a term in Iceland through the Erasmus Postgraduate Scheme. Another friend had two children during her PhD. A course mate does his PhD part-time so he can manage a huge annual rally and motorcycle show. I ran a field site in Africa and recited this little piggy on my son’s tiny toes. The list goes on because at the end of a PhD, there are two stories – the one you write in your thesis and your personal experiences. Just as no two theses are the same, no two PhD experiences are the same. You have to make both your own. 

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