Always Bring a Bowl, and Other Lessons from the Field

By Michael Ross
Data Technician, Arabian Leopard Initiatives

Arabian leopard

February 10, 2022

In his first two blogs, Data Technician for the Arabian Leopard Initiatives, Michael Ross guided us through his trials and tribulations on his journey trying to find the critically endangered Arabian leopard in Saudi Arabia. Now, he has returned. And he’s back to his shenanigans once again, getting stuck in heaps of sand... 

Coming to Saudi Arabia, I expected there to be a lot of sand. Given the country is 95 percent desert, that seemed like a fair assumption. I expected to become well acquainted with the sand, mainly by capturing beautiful sunsets over the dunes, and potentially by racing down their slopes on homemade sand boards. I expected to get stuck at some point. And indeed, during my previous field work stint, Lucy (my wonderful girlfriend) and I got stuck. We had to put rocks underneath the tires, but after about five minutes of rock placement and a little bit of digging, we were out. I did not expect us to get very stuck, and I certainly did not expect it to happen thrice. 

The kind of encounter I was expecting with sand in Saudi Arabia.

After almost a year of sitting behind a desk, I had returned to Saudi Arabia for some much-needed time in the field. There are only so many camera trap images of domestic animals one can look at, and I had reached my limit. The remainder of my life will be significantly better if I never again encounter another picture of a domestic goat. In case you missed the previous installments of a South African field technician let loose in the great expanses of Saudi Arabia, I am part of a field team currently looking for the critically endangered Arabian leopard in mountain ranges across the country. What follows is not the typical blog post you might expect, though Panthera has many of these, but rather an account of the slightly more humorous encounters that come our way. I hope you enjoy. 

“Don’t you dare write about us getting stuck in the sand Michael.” Whenever someone calls me “Michael,” I know I’m in trouble, or at least I soon will be should I fail to comply with whatever they’ve just said. But some stories are just too good not to share, and I think this is one of those. I hope he’ll forgive me. 

The first time we got stuck in the sand happened following a comedy of errors. First off, I failed in my job as chief navigator and directed us beyond where we were supposed to place the cameras. Rookie mistake. Then Ross (my teammate) tried to drive us back to the camera deployment spot along a different route, which was somewhat sandier and less well traversed. Ross was in too low a gear, and we experienced the sinking feeling of gradually losing momentum and coming to a complete stop in deep sand. Usually getting stuck is somewhat salvageable, but our final mistake was to try to drive ourselves out of the sand. The only progress we made was digging ourselves into an even deeper hole, and eventually the base of our vehicle was resting on the sand. At this point, we knew we were in trouble. After confirming that we were very stuck, we turned up the air conditioning and had lunch in the car – because, priorities… 

The idea of spending a few hours digging ourselves out under the baking hot Saudi sun with only our hands was not one that appealed to us (note from the project leader: they should have had at least one spade in the car). We decided to send a message with our satellite phone to a nearby teammate asking for help towing us out. This was somewhat risky considering he spoke only Arabic and we spoke only English, but we were confident in his ability to use Google Translate. In the meantime, we set up the two cameras at the nearby station, figuring he would arrive soon. Half an hour later, he still hadn’t arrived, so we found some shade and sat under a tree waiting. I took the opportunity to have a power nap, letting the time pass more quickly and allowing for some much-needed rest after an early morning. After waiting for a couple of hours, it finally dawned on us that help was not on the way. We would have to get ourselves out of this on our own. As we dejectedly trudged back to the car, we found an abandoned bowl and plate, two implements we could use to dig ourselves out.  

We spent the next 45 minutes furiously digging away and positioning rocks under the tires. And eventually, with some slightly more skillful driving than got us stuck in the first place, we were out. Off we went, lesson learnt – concentrate while driving in the sand, maintain momentum, have digging implements and don’t dig yourself into a hole! Or maybe not.

This was clearly not an ideal situation.

Our next encounter with sand was somewhat similar – not paying quite enough attention, being in too low a gear and trying to cross some rather deep sand. The result was similar, with us getting properly stuck. We clearly hadn’t learnt all the lessons we could have, but this time, however, we immediately set about digging with the help of our trusty sand clearing bowl, which we had kept for just such a time as this. Thankfully, we managed to get ourselves unstuck in 45 minutes.  

Déjà vu

The final time we got stuck was undoubtedly the most embarrassing. Firstly, we were less than one kilometer along a frequently driven route, one which we had driven along multiple times. Secondly, there was a perfectly good road just next to where we got stuck, which a helpful German tourist pointed out as we rested deep in the sand. Thirdly, we had to get towed out. There is nothing more discrediting than needing to get towed out, especially by the environmental police from the region in which you are supposed to be working. I was sure we looked like such clowns.  

The comical series of events went as follows: we were laughing about some teammates who had got stuck the previous day and approximately ten seconds later we were stuck ourselves, which was significantly less funny. We tried to drive ourselves out and succeeded only in ending up with our chassis on the sand. We dug out as much sand as we could and packed rocks under the tyres to no avail. We lowered the tyre pressure and tried again. We encountered the friendly German tourist who pointed out the correct track less than 10 meters away from us. After thanking him for his astute observation, we returned to our car for a snack. We were dragged out of the sand by the environmental police, but were too enthusiastic about getting out and rear-ended the police car (fortunately neither car was damaged). Finally, we were free from the sand and headed off along the correct track to continue our camera trapping. Thankfully things improved markedly thereafter, and we had a successful end to the day! 

At least the view was spectacular!

I would like to think that these experiences have taught me some valuable lessons. I should hope that in the future I will be less likely to get stuck, and if I do get stuck, I will be better equipped to dig myself out. Having these experiences, however, has taught me things I wouldn’t otherwise have learnt — how to adapt and improvise, and turn a rusty bowl and a pile of rocks into a rescue device. But most of all, I’ve given myself stories I’ll be able to look back on fondly for the rest of my life. While ideally, we would like everything to go according to plan, no one remembers the ordinary days and it is the unusual ones which stick with us forever.  

Fieldwork can, at times, be somewhat repetitive. Every now and then, however, there are little moments which you’ll never forget – be it a beautiful view or a funny incident. I've had my fair share of both. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of the experiences I have shared and that it affords you the chance to live vicariously through me in the wild dunes of Saudi Arabia. 

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