BLOG_004: Where the Buffalo Roam

Combining adventure with research is something that I have been trying to visualise for quite a while now. My experience in research has been one of travel and meeting fantastic people whilst contributing to a research field that I find extremely interesting. This is a fortunate position to be in and it is not something that everyone gets to experience. Why is this not an experience that more people have at the minute? I am not sure I know the answer to that, but I am convinced that it can be. It is all a work in progress, the idea is there and I feel that if it is to work then I had better get on and attempt to do it.

 

My research is mainly in viral hepatitis, particularly hepatitis E virus (HEV). HEV was first discovered by a Russian scientist, Dr Balayan, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. There was an outbreak of unexplained hepatitis amongst soldiers at a Soviet military camp. As an experiment the good doctor ingested the virus by making a cocktail we shall call a “Brown Russian” or perhaps a “Poo’na Colada”. (I am sure I can do better). As you can imagine this made him very unwell, but the new virus was discovered and called HEV. 

During most of medical school my limited experience of research consisted of sitting in a lecture theatre talking about statistics and looking at databases. This was uninspiring as you can imagine. However, during my third year I was assigned an ambitious project as part of a special study unit with the gastroenterology department at my hospital.

 

As a medical student it is rare that you are given any responsibility and trusted to get on with something. There I was, an inexperienced student on the bottom rung of the ladder, exploring new areas of medicine. I was inspired to push boundaries and explore medicine in a new way. It showed me that you do not have to be a wizened old professor to do this. I had the the right support and guidance from someone willing to give me a chance and who made it fun. Now that I have a little experience I want to see what I can do to offer that support and guidance to other people. I want to try to keep exploring the obscure frontiers of my medical field, to make it easier for people to explore with me, and to explore a few really wild frontiers along the way.

 

Cosmo-poo-litan?

 

The idea of this trip was to combine research with adventure and that anyone can get involved at any stage in their career, just like my experience as a medical student. The plan is to drive a Land Rover Defender from New York to Alaska and then down to Argentina. Along the way we will give a few talks and complete a few research projects. I want to set up new collaborations for research in new places with new people. Above all we plan to have a bit of fun as we go.

 

Iowa was our first research stop. The invitation was to meet the heads of the Hepatology and Gastroenterology research department at Iowa University Teaching Hospital for a “chat”. After that, I was to give a lecture to the department. I had been building this “chat” up in my head for a while. During the two-day drive to Iowa I had burrowed into the back of the landy in the world’s most uncomfortable office. This would not be my first ill prepared talk but I was much more concerned about my upcoming “chat” with a few of the biggest wigs in my field. In the hospital cafeteria Dan waxed on about something while Sam quietly ignored him in favour of a particularly engaging ham and cheese croissant. I was lost in my own world of anxiety. Suddenly I felt cold. Not emotionally cold, not the cool, steely eyed feeling of Rocky before a fight.  Literally cold, on the front of my shirt and in the lap of my beige chinos. For a moment I was puzzled and looked down at the cafeteria table. I had missed said table with my glass and dispensed its contents over my front 8 minutes before one of the more important meetings of my life.

 

The boys were bent over double laughing. Using my laptop, I covered what looked like a childhood nightmare on the first day of school and walked calmly to the entrance of the hospital.  The other members of my nightmarish kindergarten giggled in my wake. Next to the accessible parking I could see my salvation, a solitary shaft of sunlight beaming through the clouds onto the flowerbeds.

 

As I lay awkwardly among to the chrysanthemums watching patients file through the revolving doors, I thought to myself “this is NOT how I imagined this would go”.

 

Thankfully Iowa was unseasonably hot that day in October and, buoyed by my trouser drying success, I strode upstairs to meet my new colleagues a little more like Rocky on the steps of Philadelphia art museum.

The adventure side of things for me started when I realised that due to the delayed shipping of the Landy we might get frozen out of Alaska.  We would have to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time and it would be hard going. After hundreds of long miles through the great plains and a series of impromptu camps in various off road locations we made it to a stunning part of the world in South Dakota, the Badlands.

The Badlands has over 11,000 years of human history filled with Indian wars, legends, gold and ghost towns. The paleo Indians were the first to settle here, they were the mammoth hunters at the end of the ice age. The area was first called “Mako Sica” or “land bad” by the Lakota Indians. It has been home the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, Crow and Sioux. They relied heavily on the buffalo herds to see them though the harsh dry conditions of life in the Badlands. In the 1700s the French Canadian fur trappers came to explore calling it "les mauvaises terres a traverser" also meaning “bad lands to travel through”. Over the years many explorers have cut their path through the Badlands. We were just a few more on a long list of people curious to explore this uninviting moonscape.

 

Driving into the Badlands was surreal after a long period of the flat grassland prairies. Being welcomed with an amazing backdrop of sharp mountains shooting their way into a vibrant pink and orange sky was breath taking. As the sun was setting we took a rough track through the valleys to see if we could spot any wildlife. We had no expectations, but there is no better feeling than being on safari in an iconic vehicle that is designed to do it. Seeing buffalo roaming the open plains and hearing the howling of wolves in the distance as the night drew closer was a feeling I will not forget in a hurry. The last time I had been on safari was in South Africa. It was a special experience as we roamed about with an Afrikaans guide in a pristine Series III Land Rover drinking gin and tonic. This time was different because it was my own safari in my very own Land Rover observing wild animals in their habitat.

 

We set up our first proper wild camp in the lowlands, it felt new and we were still getting into the swing of it. As Sam cooked up an epic stew, I set about some maintenance of the Landy, greasing the universal joints and prop shafts (something I had forgotten to do back in Cornwall). As the cooking pot bubbled away, cold beer in hand (a car fridge is a wonder) the time had come to rationalise some of the myriad items hurriedly packed, often in triplicate. Space is at a premium with three in the landy and every item of gear must warrant its position. “The Cull” is a diplomatic process that involves eloquent and vigorous defence of various essentials in order to spare said item from Dan’s insatiable lust for sacrifice. In spite of my efforts, many a useful item found its head on the chopping block… Including two spare chopping blocks.

 

As we three argued our various positions on whisks and barbecue tongs my eyes caught the flash of another pair of eyes in the dark. Out of the shadows briskly strolled a gang of buffalo stepping right through our camp! Dan dropped his beer, Sam leaped up to protect the stew he had invested so much time into and I stood paralysed with fear that the landy would be smashed to bits by a few tons of fur and horns. Thankfully the only casualty of the trampling was the third back up whisk.

 

Waking up at dawn is not something that is usually part of my life at home without good reason. When camping however it is a fantastic experience. Waking up in the Badlands did not disappoint. The sun climbed slowly casting a vivid golden light through the morning mist and drying the dew on the ground. Steep hills rose around us on three sides and an open plain of burnt ochre grasses speckled with trees was revealed before us.

 

This was quite the welcome to sit and have my first coffee of the day, a luxury that I am quite useless without. I cannot usually complete full sentences or contemplate the simplest of tasks.  It had become a regular occurrence at work in Cornwall for a very kind member of the ward staff to present me with my morning fix of caffeine in order to expedite my transition into a functioning member of society. Dan and Sam were yet to learn this.

 

As Sam lazed in the sun catching a few flies I sat sipping around the grounds floating in my “cowboy coffee”. Dan was up to his usual habit of disappearing without a word to hunt for photographs. He usually returns some time later with a photo he is pleased with and a grin, not unlike that found on the face of a spaniel returning with a small animal he has found amongst the hedgerows.

 

From my viewpoint on the bonnet I could see Dan in the trees, stalking quite a large grisly looking male. As Dan approached, the buffalo took a few steps back looking at him as he did so. I could hear the faint click of the camera. Grisly took a few steps forward towards Dan, suddenly the tables had turned. The stand off had lasted for around 20 seconds. I wondered if Dan had noticed the change in dynamic of this dance. Within a split second this huge animal had set off in the direction of Dan closing the distance between them. Dan was still snapping way as he had not realised what was happening. As the buffalo came within what looked like a few inches Dan suddenly reacted and set off like Usain Bolt towards camp. As he got closer I could see he was as white as a sheet and I could hear the adrenalin shaking his voice.

(Sing-a-poo Sling?)

 

For 12 months I have been stealing 20 minutes here and 20 minutes there to research, organise and hammer this trip into reality. The car, shipping, visas, multi-fuel stoves, high power compressors, artic sleeping bags. There was always something to do and each job was more complicated to complete than one would first think. The romantic delusion of living on an adventure, full-time, seemed so distant.

 

As I sat on a toughened polymer utility box looking out on the adventure I was never confident would happen, I said to the boys, perhaps for the 13th time “I cannot believe we are here doing this now!”. The dream was real and the dream, it turns out, was hairy cows and hills.

 

“Moscow Stool”, that’s it! I knew I would get there.