From the blog

Once Upon a Time on the Black Sea

It’s a long drive from southern England to the Black Sea, or to be precise, Kherson Ukraine, before slowly driving off-road across soft sand to the far end of Kinbunska, a long spit opposite the port of Nikolaev.

The journey there was ridiculous. I had a co-driver, who refused to drive: Autobahns were too fast (she was German, believe it or not), the roads in Poland too rough and pot-holed and Ukraine just plain scary, she tacitly implied. Add to that, a deadline: we had to be at some nature park office on a certain day and time. I was so tired near the outskirts of Krakow that I pulled up in an empty car park in a wood in the pitch black of night. Rest here I said, I need a break. Oh no, that won’t do, I’m the bosses sister, you head into town like we’re supposed to do, find the hotel, she said. Like a tired mule, I carried on, entering the city, confused by the traffic and rude driving, my frazzled eyes no longer able to focus properly. I found the hotel, ate and went to bed. But I was so wired, I couldn’t sleep. The following morning, after a long wait for my co-driver to get up, I paid the hotel bill. Stunned at the expense, I asked why was it so much. You drank a lot, they said. Not me, was it you, co-driver? Yes. Well, you are the boss’s sister, after all.

Poland wasn’t yet in the EU and the border crossing into Ukraine was pandemonium: cars, lorries, open backed trucks full of everything imaginable, people everywhere. I was in a disordered queue of several lanes of traffic. Nothing was moving. Fortunately, my translator knocked on the window. Among the really beat up vehicles, mine stood out like a beacon. A large brand new, sponsored Land Rover, full of logos, jammed packed with equipment and a roof rack piled high. He couldn’t miss us. Taking the wheel, Alek drove around the hubbub and straight into immigration. It was undercover, like a holding bay in a warehouse, and we were told to get out. Strangely the Land Rover wasn’t searched, and nothing was asked of me; I had a visa and a permit for all the electronic equipment I was carrying to set up a walkie talkie system in the nature park we were heading for. But I did have to declare my cash: twenty thousand euros, more or less; they seemed unfazed at the amount.

Pulled back in time, shadows of the past of things that never happened, I drive through ghosts. Longing for something I missed or never knew, it’s unbearable. This was my sentiment entering Ukraine. Miles upon miles of old deserted roads, dense flowering bushes lining the edges of the crumbling tarmac, huge forests, dark and ominous, seemingly going on forever, and fields of wheat so tall you could have hid in them. The stillness was extraordinary, mesmerising. Even the warm air rushing through the open windows had serenity. Flying insects, so numerous they covered the windscreen in spatters, and, on this hot still August morning the wipers were constantly in use. As I caught a view, down across straw coloured fields to far away forests, the blue sky showing puffs of white cloud, I was in make-believe.

No one spoke much until we were stopped by a solitary policeman who had blocked the road with his car. Big and burly with a wide smug grin, he had a brief verbal spat with Alek. What does he want, I asked. Money, always money, this is what the police do here, he replied. Tell him I work for the Embassy. That shut him up, he went quiet and moved his car. Over the next few months this would become a well rehearsed routine, comical even. Fine for me in my expensive Land Rover and far-away passport, not fine if you were you were a local being forced to hand over a few hard-earned shillings.

A little before dusk we arrived at Alek’s Grandma’s house, a small concrete dwelling with stone floors, reminding me of a large summer house. It was very sparse, a few rooms and a kitchen, all on one level with only one door, the same level as the garden. Outside were a covered patio and bountiful kitchen garden, the air thick with moths and insects.

Twilight, sitting on the patio surrounded by fruit trees, vegetables and flowers, Alek’s Grandma told me that she had once needed quite a serious operation at a nearby hospital. Instead, she went to a healing spa on the Black Sea in Russia, drank special spring water and ate herbs. In a few months she was completely cured and, at the age of sixty, her doctor suggested that she took a few shots of vodka each evening. She said she had never felt so well in all her life. Relaxed and fun, living on her own vegetables, she looked the picture of perfect health as she knocked back her medicine.

The following afternoon, south of Kherson, we stopped at the Park HQ, at least I think it was the HQ, I had no idea. A large prefab with a visitor centre, some offices and a lot of uninterested surly faced officials in uniform, who were probably scientists or managers. At the time, I mistook this as old Soviet tenor rather than inefficiency and laziness. With hindsight, it was probably both. We didn’t stay long, no coffee, no hospitality, before we set off again. Kinbunska had no available fuel to buy and I filled up the vehicle and four large jerry cans at the last gas station. A sharp-eyed, scruffily dressed man, looking like a weather-beaten working farmer, wandered around the pumps with a machine gun slung around his chest, an index finger resting near the trigger. Maybe protecting the fuel and all the cash that paid for it. I never asked.

My make-believe had long evaporated, left behind in Alek’s Grandma’s kitchen garden.

I still had my co-driver, who was now telling me off for driving through potholes. I had long dismissed her: just a trying but necessary passenger; and to her, I was probably the worst kind of person to be at the wheel of her brother’s eye-catching sponsored silver car.

Across the marshy estuary of the Dnipro river, the broken roads became tracks, cutting through hamlets, where people sat outside tiny houses, the men without shirts, listless in the afternoon sun, as if waiting for something they knew would never come.

Walls of high reeds full of small birds and insects edged the tracks. I had to brake and take care not to run over tortoises that were now inching their way across the road. And then there was sand, only sand. Sinking and wheel spinning through its soft texture was a slow and complex affair. For a moment, I could have been in the Sahara. Kinbunska was an extraordinary landscape: brackish lakes, lagoons, swamps, isolated thickets of forest, watery reed beds, and sand everywhere. It was a nature park on its way to becoming a national park, so long as the science deemed it special enough. My job was to run a team who were to establish just that: a bird scientist from some university department, whom I will call Professor Bird, a wildlife biologist from Kiev (Dr. Mammal) and a large number of volunteers and assistants, plus various helpers, most of whom I didn’t have a clue about. The park director, who was mainly absent on other work, was a crucial link in getting things done; he was also Alek’s father. However, it was me that had to somehow keep the project together; by hook or by crook I was told. Unfortunately, the reality meant I needed to be a bit of a hard bastard. How exhausting.

Houses were few, scattered around the landscape, often hidden behind dense semi-tropical vegetation, behind which were the most lush kitchen gardens. Kinbunska may be a brackish lair but it sits on a shallow fresh water-table; dispersed around the numerous sandy salt flats and saline lakes were small fresh water ponds teeming with insects and small birds. At night these pockets of rich vegetation were alive with the throng of insect chorus and the rustles of animals. In spring, frogs sing, I was told by Alek’s sister.

I stayed in a compound with some dilapidated dormitories, a few large sheds and a cook house. The garden was full of small hedgehogs. The cook lived there, and, besides Alek, was a constant companion; but she was so mean in her portions when feeding the volunteers, I near had mutiny on my hands. She was skimping on the food to make more profit. I just bribed her, simple as that. Everybody was then happy with the food and I ate her special home cooked local food. All that cash I held now made so much sense. But what to do with all that cash, it was a small fortune in Ukraine back then. Alek had a solution. We bought a safe in Kherson, near killed us getting it into the Land Rover. We put it into one of the locked sheds which had yet another locked room inside where the cook had her own vodka still. She was in production: local medicine that sustained a population. Valuable stuff. Now I understood why everyone seemed so slow; they were mostly drunk, sunrise to sunset and on to oblivion. I never touched a drop, much to local dismay. Only the very young, the very old, the sick or the crafty don’t drink, I was told. No prizes for guessing what they thought of me!

The volunteers were in two camps: a bird camp and a mammal/reptile camp.

Bird camp was on the west shore, just behind some small dunes. The weather was hot and still, but an occasional slight sea breeze kept camping conditions just bearable. The volunteers also had the sea to cool down in, once they got over their fear of jellyfish the size of dinner plates floating thick along the shoreline. These odd jellyfish gave a slight yet bearable tickle itch sting. They just looked incredibly scary. There were no houses in sight, just sandy spits, salty ponds and reeds. The light was harsh, the Black Sea dazzling and the sky cerulean blue. Bird camp’s mission was to record all birds and their flight direction. There was also a bird net which was checked constantly. Small birds would fly into it, drop down into a pocket. They would be retrieved, weighed, ringed and set free. All very scientific, if you took vodka out of the equation. At night, along this shore, I saw brilliant displays of multicoloured fluorescent plankton. I swam among it, my skin sparkling as the plankton made contact. When we left the sea, we were shining, dripping in stars. We also itched from all the jellyfish we had swum through.

Mammal camp was constantly moving around. Usually set in thick forest away from the coast, its mission was to record signs of wolf, pig, deer and other mammals, along with vipers and the mysterious three-toed Jerboa, which had never been caught on film before. Mammal camp set up many camera traps, often changing their location, but nothing was ever caught on film. These mammal camps were hell; the air still, heavy with heat, not a shred of breeze to be felt and the tents so stiflingly hot nobody slept. Volunteers rotated between camps: bird camp being pleasant with a holiday vibe; mammal camp interesting, varied with a lot of hiking but where one was beaten daily on the sun’s anvil. My job, among many, was to keep these two camps supplied with water (which I hand pumped out of a well at the compound), food, batteries for the gps and camera traps, and all the daily paraphernalia that makes a camp work efficiently. Sometimes I took the mammal scientist and volunteers for a ride to remote and beautiful spots, often crossing shallow sea to get to a spit or to avoid a deep lake. I had to walk the sea first to make sure the Land Rover would make it without getting stuck. We crossed salt pans, bathed ourselves in healing black mud baths, saw watermelons that had been munched by wolves and listened to local tales of times gone by. Nothing much had changed: the wolves roamed as they always had, to the end of the Kinbunska spit and back to the swamps of the Dnipro and forests near Crimea. At the time there was still a hundred dollar bounty on a wolf, seen as vermin, watermelon thieves. Being remote, road-less and sparsely populated, Kinbunska had long held back the tide of eco-destruction. I found my job meaningful.

It beggars belief, but both camps, both scientists, found ways to have constant vodka deliveries, through park workers and foresters who wandered by on foot, or from the cook when a camp visited the compound. This supply chain was never broken. Whatever the reasons, both scientists drank huge amounts: Dr. Mammal had it under control, he could drink for Ukraine and still function; Professor Bird was a different case: he drank for Ukraine, Russia, the Crimean war of 1853, the lost souls from Stalin’s purges and to all the rusted tractors that had ploughed the Soviet bread basket, the wheat fields of Ukraine. He even secured a strong supply from small passing fishing boats. I kid you not. Early on in the project, I was unaware of just how much the locals drank, it took time for me to see it, and believe it. Alek pointed out drunk workers repairing wooden houses, staggering about; he said you could get them to dig a deep latrine pit for a bottle. Every house we entered offered homemade vodka. Not everyone drank, but they were a minority; rare birds indeed. Sad to say, some volunteers found this raucous drinking attractive.

A group from the British Army arrived, about six soldiers. I never really understood why they were volunteers. They came as civilians but acted like working soldiers. I was technically their boss. They were old-school men, sticking together, with all the jokes and camaraderie one would expect. One evening, a large dinner party was being held in the grounds of the compound; tables set under leafy trees, and a lavish feast prepared by the cook. The air was warm and still. Everyone was there: park director, scientists, hangers on, assistants, volunteers and who knows who. An army guy made a joke about dinking the Ukrainians under the table, this was going to be a competition. I said please don’t, you don’t understand, it won’t work, you can’t win or even reach the finish line. They scoffed, totally ignoring me. I could have laid the law down, got heavy, but risked spoiling everybody’s fun; besides, it was their livers being pickled in suspect moonshine, not mine. It was tradition for everyone around the tables to make a toast. That meant around thirty speeches and thirty odd shots of moonshine each, but the drinking had already started long before the meal and would continue into night, until the drink was all gone or the empty glasses could no longer be filled, let alone raised to stupefied lips. I had juice or beer in my shot glass and went to bed in my little quarters before the dinner ended.

The next morning I was woken by loud banging on my door. The cook stood there, ranting in Ukrainian or Russian (although she spoke good English), holding a thin mattress, absolutely furious. She took me to the dormitory. We stood by the open door. Oddly, no one was around, not a soul. The volunteers must have staggered back to their camps miles away or Alek must have used the vehicle to drop them off. I never did find out. But the soldiers had stayed, and the cook, who also owned the compound, was pointing at the vomit and piss-stained mattresses and mess all over the floor. I didn’t venture inside. She wanted compensation, money for the trouble, money to replace the bedding. I had to think about it for a moment. No, you sold them the vodka, you made a pretty profit, this is not my responsibility. She looked shocked. I didn’t want a row with her, I needed her onside. And then she burst out laughing, yes, it had been a gloriously profitable night. I didn’t see the soldiers for some days and a few of the other volunteers were ‘missing’. Crashed out in reed beds, suffering alcohol poisoning in a hot tent? I dismissed it all and when I did see the soldiers again, they wouldn’t meet my eye.

At Alek’s father’s house, a rustic two-story shack set behind bushes in the dunes, thick with insects and chirping birds, I sat around a table with some park workers, Alek’s sister, who was an eco-scientist, and her husband, a large man with a black beard, sitting there topless in the scorching heat. He was holding court, a real raconteur, eating Salo (cold slices of salted pig fat), often standing to make a speech before knocking back a shot. I must have been looking at him strangely because he turned to me and said in perfect English: ‘We are not enemies of our health, you know’ Not replying, I wasn’t certain he was right, at all.

The camera traps had become a problem; either there was no wildlife or the traps were being set wrong. During the day, I had seen a fair amount of wolf and pig evidence and, at night, their huge eyes shining in our headlights; a few small deer and an odd looking badger. Badger holes were everywhere, dug deep into the steep banks of secluded dunes, which were often hidden behind isolated groups of trees and shrubs. Alek’s father had secured a domestic pig head from a slaughterhouse, which we chained to a tree in a dense thicket and set a camera trap. Surely passing wolves would stop and have a snack. It wasn’t touched, not a nibble, eventually rotting down, devoured by swarms of buzzing flies and their squirming maggots. Neither did we film the elusive badger. Dr. Mammal was upset, turning his attention to the three-toed Jerboa; filming it would make this fantasy rodent a scientific reality. So I set the traps. Jerboas are tiny creatures but the camera traps were designed for a significantly larger animal. It took an age setting the camera traps inches away from small holes, that we could only assume were entrances to Jerboa burrows. And, if they were, were they even home? I had to fastidiously fiddle with the light, time and sensitivity settings, until the camera triggered at something smaller than a match box, moving fast in the pitch black of night, less than a foot away. It took a long time. But patience paid off. A few days later, I had a jubilant call from Dr. Mammal. We had done it, caught the three-toed Jerboa on film for the first time in Ukraine: fifteen seconds of black and white film, showing the Jerboa running out of a hole at night, stopping to pose in front of the camera on its hind legs before running back down the hole. Apparently this was a very special and significant fact to help push the Nature Park towards becoming a National Park.

Between our rotting-pig-head inspections, camera trap sojourns and supply collections and deliveries, Alek and I explored the peninsular, driving to the most remote locations just to see what was there. Occasionally we found a gem, later returning with volunteers and Dr. Mammal to record findings. Along the southern coast, crossing countless small brackish lakes, beyond the salt pans was a biosphere-reserve, large and devoid of people, no different from Kinbunska, except it was totally undisturbed. We didn’t enter. I bought honey from an isolated house where a man had hives behind wild hedges, thick with flowers. On the northern shore, opposite the mainland was a large area of reeds and rushes, easy to get lost in; here, in spring, the park rangers dug a wide trench from the sea to the reed beds, flooding the entire area, allowing millions of small fish to spawn. These fish were food for Osprey and other birds of prey. On these journeys, the vehicle regularly got stuck, the four wheel drive unable to negotiate the sand; it took an age to dig it out, placing sand-ladders under the tyres, and even then, we often immediately got stuck again. Before I left the UK for Ukraine, I had been on a week long intensive off-road driving course. On farm tracks, loose gravel and in wet controlled environments, these vehicles do the job; take them seriously off-road, they’re useless. They look good, have history, prestige and ample storage space, but are only good for gentlemen farmers or for looking hip on an urban street, not for much else.

Being in a remote spot, picking up fuel in Kherson was a complete day trip. I needed an alternative. Opposite Nykoliov, the Kinbunska spit narrows until it becomes a thin point of land jutting out into the Black Sea, where the houses on the mainland could be clearly seen. Here, a small open boat, holding no more than eight passengers, would ferry people to and from the mainland a few times a week. They were taxied around the peninsula in an extraordinary six-wheeled-drive bus that looked like it had come straight off a Thunderbirds set. It could go anywhere. We asked the driver to sell us some diesel, which he did, but it was a low-grade fuel that powered his monster and probably old boats. My modern sensitive, touchy feely Land Rover couldn’t cope with this rough and ready macho fuel and, a day later, the fuel pump started whining. I knew it would pack up at some point, and as there were no Land Rover dealers or workshops in Ukraine, it was going to have to wait. The whine increased daily until it was nearly screaming. Later, and just in time, Land Rover UK managed to find a replacement pump.

It was back to Kherson to fill up. On these long days to re-fuel, we did some interesting things. Once, in a fit of inspiration or complete madness, Alek and I drove many hours to Askania-Nova, Europe’s last virgin steppe reserve, located just above Crimea, that, at the time, held the largest breeding population of Przewalski’s horse. Arriving unannounced, the authorities wouldn’t let us in; apparently we needed ancient Soviet style permissions that were near impossible to obtain. So I paid a donation. We were gladly received, being shown the horses and a few European bison, and given a tour of the scientific buildings. Quite a privilege.

Kherson itself was uninteresting, poor and neglected, the boat yards dry, ships listing and rusting. Manhole covers in the roads had been stolen for scrap-metal and I had to watch out, a wheel down a hole would have sheered the axle and taken the wheel right off. Driving at night was not an option. There was only one decent cafe, a trendy place that sold good coffee and cakes; outside were brand new black cars with blacked out windows. We needed permission to enter: this was no cafe trying to make a business but a meeting place for well-dressed tough looking men with bleach-blonde women in tow. The city was a potential construction bonanza, and I didn’t ask what was being bought and sold. I drank the coffee and never went back.

During this time, I had been setting up a long-range two-way radio communications network for the park. The company I worked for had officially imported this system (via the Land Rover), which had been sponsored by a well-known international electronics firm. My job was the practical graft to get it up and running. We had a base station in the compound with a very tall radio relay antennae fixed to the top of a big pole, two vehicle radios and a multitude of hand held radios. All the radios had to be taken to Kherson to an electronic specialist who programmed them to some government specification and frequency. It all took an age, of course, as nothing was done quickly. But when everything was finally done, it was so powerful that we picked up Nykoliov train station communications. And they could hear us and our loud music. We even picked up clear conversions from passing ships. At least it was a success, although we had so much air power that some sort of row transpired between the train authorities and the park. No music in the Land Rover when using the radio, was the compromise.

The radios were useful but had one downside for me: I was suddenly available. People put orders in for food, beer and who knows what and that meant a drive to the local shop which wasn’t a shop but a place you put an order in and your goods turned up at an unspecified time. I soon switched the vehicle radio off, only checking into camps a few times a day (they had their own radios now). But the drive to the shop was interesting, passing a dried up mud pond, which must have once been the centre of a village settlement; it was surrounded by a few houses and at one end was a church. The church had no roof with tall trees growing out of the ruins. No-one could remember what happened, or maybe they didn’t want to; there were no plans to rebuild it, they said.

One morning at the compound, getting ready for the day, I had a distress call on the radio. The caller was obviously very upset and my help was urgently needed. Alek and I headed towards bird camp, having absolutely no idea what we would find. I had two more distress calls on the way. Bird camp was a permanent set-up, very tidy with a group of tents, a fire place for evening socials and a shady gazebo with chairs, tables and equipment where all the research was carried out and logged. It even had a washing line. From the outside, it looked professional. People were going about their work but the atmosphere was tense. What’s the problem? Some volunteers were visually upset, had been crying: Professor Bird had not woken up and two small birds had died in the nets. For a moment, I was perplexed. Take the nets down, I said, but some pro-active volunteers had already decided to go ahead without the guidance of Professor Bird. I looked over to his tent. He was a giant of a man and his fully booted feet and trouser legs were sticking out the tent. Maybe he was ill, but the others put me right. No, a fishing boat had pulled up to the shore and Professor Bird had drunk with the crew all night, a real drinking festival, well, an extra one as he drinks all day anyway. Oh, so he’s hung-over, shit-faced, is he. No, he went too far this time. Everyone was sick of him. I shook the tent, shouted out his name, but there was no response. Was he alive? I opened the tent and pulled at his legs. He stirred, turned around, his bright blue eyes trying to focus. Come on, get up. He said nothing and dropped his head back. I didn’t know what to do and everyone was looking at me, expecting a robust response. I grabbed his boots and started pulling him out the tent. He held on to the central pole and I actually dragged him and the tent for a few feet until the pole broke and the tent collapsed. He lay there under piles of cloth, his huge frame clearly visible. It was so comical, I laughed. There wasn’t much else I could do. But the tent collapse had exposed a hefty bottle bank of empty vodka bottles, some half filled with pee, that he had kept hidden between the back of his tent and a dense tamarisk bush on the incline of a dune. And this was just his personal stash, let alone all the ‘public’ bottles that had been drunk. The fishermen appeared, two weather-beaten men and a woman. They explained that they couldn’t stop him, he just kept on drinking; they looked apologetic and rather sheepish, but, as they themselves weren’t asleep or dysfunctional, I knew I had a real problem on my hands that needed, right there and then, to be sorted out. He must have known something was amiss because he finally wriggled out the tent and stood up, unable to speak. I called my boss in England. He had been a captain in a parachute regiment and was quite formidable. Fire him immediately and don’t pay him, he shouted. Well, that was clear. Professor Bird had an assistant working with him who had just shown up, another scientist who also enjoyed to drink. I should have asked him to leave when he had arrived, as he was unofficial, but had decided to look the other way. He had a car. So now I told them both to leave, get in the car, drive away and don’t come back. They were shocked. One chance, I said, go now and I’ll pay Professor Bird for the work already done, or you can make a fuss and not get paid at all. Opting for secure money, Professor Bird left with his friend and never came back. Alek’s father arranged for another scientist, non-drinking I was told, to take his place.

Sometime later and rather suddenly, it was time to leave. My boss and the park director had had a major falling out, which I never did fathom out, and I was instructed to remove absolutely everything and drive the lot back to the UK. That meant even more load in the vehicle as there was also gear and equipment at the compound from previous trips to be taken back. Even the entire radio system had to be dismantled and driven out. It was confusing and, quite frankly, rather embarrassing, as I had no idea what was going on or how to explain my sudden departure: but, with hindsight, it was just a job I was paid to do.

Alek helped me with everything and we drove towards the Polish border, stopping in a few places, including Lvov, where I visited the Opera House. I had been assigned another co-driver, a woman reservist in the British army (unrelated to the previous army lightweight drinkers). She was nice enough, we got on well, but I must have had a co-driver curse because she fell asleep at the wheel, not once but several times, the vehicle drifting across the motorway. It was lucky that I was awake each time it happened: her eyes would close, open, close again, her head would drop and then bounce back like a nodding dog until she was asleep and the car drifting. From the Ukraine/Polish border, I was once again the sole driver, racing to meet a deadline to drop equipment off. However, I was better off sleep-deprived than a total road wreck.

Poland was now in the EU, the border crossing had no waiting vehicles, or even any foot travellers. I was their only customer. Two very smart women border guards, both in tight fitting blue dress uniforms and stylish leather boots and caps, were only interested in my cash. Fortunately, I still had my original entry declaration form; otherwise, I would have been making a rather generous donation. They didn’t ask about the radio equipment, which now officially belonged to Ukraine, by the way. Alex was told to leave and I drove home.

And that was that. At least my co-driver enjoyed a good rest and the occasional splendid view. Maybe she only came for the ride.