A Quick Ride on a Fast Machine – and Phil Pulls a Prank

Originally the plan called for driving to the Geopark for a second day of filming footprints. Faced with a full-scale revolt from the party, an alternate mode of transport was quickly arranged: speed boats. The plan worked more or less well. The less part pertained to the beginning. The two boats arrived 50 minutes later than the 8 a.m. departure that we planned. When they arrived the operators went ashore in search of fuel. They returned after a while carrying plastic containers of gasoline and puffing away on their cigarettes. We wondered if they were going to extinguish their smokes before fueling. Instead of refueling they tied the containers onto the exterior of the boat for later use. It was not until 9:15 that we actually departed. The boats had canopies for cramped interior seating. Phil helpfully observed that water taxis such as these are called ‘flying coffins’ in Brunei. Thanks loads, fella!

The 'flying coffins'

The 'flying coffins'

The boat he and I rode in was designated as the cargo transport for the camera gear. Cases were loaded into the back to allow for seating up front. As the boat sank lower and lower in the water we both began to think that this might not be the best idea, and we refused further cases of camera gear, preferring to share the bounty with our colleagues in the next boat. We set off rather nervously down the river, and the driver instructed us through Kelly, our fixer (and much beloved Chinese intern), to start passing cases forward. He seemed satisfied with the adjusted trim, but frankly we were less than 100% confident. We intuitively searched for the nearest exit from the boat, and duly noted the pile of life preservers in the back. The driver did seem to know what he was doing. Obviously we made it there and back in safety or there wouldn’t be a blog. It was actually a pretty quick smooth ride. We covered the 20 km in 35 minutes, although our friends made it in 30. Our engine had 115 horses, theirs 160! We arrived feeling relaxed and relieved that it was actually a pretty pleasant and swift trip. The difference between the plodding ferry and the swift boat reminded me of the difference between driving a pleasant byway and driving on an interstate. You see so much less at high speed.

Phil, the dinosaur

Phil, the dinosaur

The early morning murk dispersed and left us with quite a glorious day of clear blue skies. By mid day people were shedding layers of clothing. We feared for the worst weather and got the best. Phil was in his glory at the footprint site, as he did his Ph.D. at Sheffield on dinosaur footprints. He cavorted about the inclined rock face impressed with the imprints of more than 1300 foot-to-ground contacts. He came up with interesting interpretations that drew on soil,  mechanical and water content properties of the substrate, and changes of pressure patterns within the structure of the foot.

Tracking Peter

Tracking Peter

His interest is in the biomechanics of locomotion and in behaviors revealed by footprints. He is somewhat contemptuous of ichnotaxonomy (the ‘science’ of naming genera and species of prints, which tacitly assumes that footprints have intercourse with other footprints and give rise to baby footprints). He demonstrated the use of powerful new LIDAR technology to provide three-dimensional mapping of footprint sites within a very few hours, a technique that was entirely novel to me. His ‘toy’ costs $150,000! Due to the demands of filming he was not able to spend nearly enough time observing the fossil treasures the site offers. He has strong incentive to return at a later date for serious scientific collaboration and study.

Phil and Peter and the LIDAR

Phil and Peter and the LIDAR

We pledged to terminate filming by 4:30 p.m. (and actually shut down only 7 minutes late. We did not want to be on the water after dark. The river was like glass on our return trip in the rich golden sunlight of late afternoon. It is easy to appreciate what a highway a broad river can be in an area of rough terrain such as this.

Yellow River sunset

Yellow River sunset

We approached Yongjing and were only about a quarter of a mile from our dock around the bend when our engine cut out. Kelly told us that the engine had run out of gas! Sure enough the boat was drifting backward in the swift current. The driver nonchalantly climbed out the front window and disappeared from our sight. We didn’t know whether to be annoyed, alarmed or amused. Phil helpfully suggested that the driver had donned a life jacket and abandoned ship. The rest of us doubted that. But we needed to communicate with our colleagues on the dock as the distance between us and them was increasing. We first tried the walkie talkie to no avail, and then Phil got out his cell phone and tried to call Eric, our fixer on the other boat. It took several attempts to get through but finally Eric answered. Phil got a wickedly mischievous look on his face and reported “The boat has broken down. We are sinking. Blub blub blub!” Then he hung up. Within moments the walkie talkie was squawking. It was Pip, sounding somewhat dubious but mildly alarmed as well. Phil repeated the same routine. This time it was not as convincing because of the peals of laughter in the background so Phil had to fess up that all was well. We told them we would call back if we actually needed help. But a short time later the engine sprang back to life and we were at the dock in five minutes.

We got back to Lanzhou by 7:30 p.m., and had a farewell dinner with Daqing, his wife and his crew. We hosted the dinner and warmly toasted our new friends for their outstanding cooperation and also for the outstanding quality of their scientific offerings. They will look good on television, that is for certain. Daqing runs a superb operation.

Tomorrow we return to Beijing, but only after a grueling day in Lanzhou.


1 Comment

  1. Patti Kane-Vanni said,

    October 27, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Great blog!
    Love hearing the adventures, esp. Phil’s prank!

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