Two months ago at 3am on my 24th birthday, I was sat on the floor of my bedroom wide awake surrounded by mayhem. Had I just stumbled in from a night of celebrations? No. I was frantically packing for my research trip to Madagascar for which I would be leaving in an hour.
I’ve never been good at packing. If I pack in advance, I always have to pull everything out again five minutes later to get to that one item packed right at the bottom that I need right now. And how do I know exactly what I want to bring with me until the moment I’m leaving? So I leave it to the last minute.
This was taking the mickey though. I’d started packing at around 9pm and 6 hours later I was still struggling to fit in everything I needed. First there’s the sleeping bag and sleeping mat, then there’s the clothing, mostly mens shirts and snazzy zippable short/trouser combos. The giant pants from primark I mistakenly thought were a good idea, and the foldable hat which actually really was a very good idea. Then there were the little bits of gear and extras like my camera, laptop, headtorch and binoculars. And finally, a problem which seems to be exclusive to me, how to decide which notebooks to take? I have about 14 different notebooks on the go at any one time, all serving separate purposes. Did I need my brief to do list notebook, or my more comprehensive everything-I’m-ever-going-to-need-to-do-ever notebook? Not to mention I’d just got an amazing planner for my birthday which weighed a ton and was obviously essential. Do I bring journals, or do I write on paper? How many writing magazines should I take? So many difficult decisions. In the end I had one bag almost exclusively devoted to stationary. What can I say, we all have our priorities.
At 4am I was in the car with my parents and my poorly packed bags. I sent a snapchat of what I thought was an excited face to my friends, but I’d been awake for so long I looked like I was trying to communicate with my eyes that I had been kidnapped.
My mother took the obligatory ‘my daughter is leaving the country again I hope she doesn’t die’ photo. As you can see below, my plane outfit (and incidentally, favourite winter outfit) is just an excellent example of glorified pyjamas. The jumper had a multi-functional purpose, serving as my pillow for the 6 weeks I would spend in Madagascar.
I was so tired during the flight that I don’t remember most of it. I met with about 20 other people who were also going to the Operation Wallacea site in Madagascar. We were easily identifiable as backpackers who were handling this whole ‘transfers’ thing pretty badly. In a perpetual state of confusion, we stumbled through airports and into queues, somehow managing not to miss any flights. I perfected the art of introducing myself; “Hello, are you with OpWall? Great! Me too, it’s my birthday.” I would then get a chorus of “happy birthday” from a load of tired strangers before forgetting to tell them my name. I also managed to rack up half a bag of malteasers and a warm can of coke in presents. Thank you kind strangers. On one of the flights they served a small chocolate cup cake. This, of course, was my birthday cake. They must’ve known.
I didn’t sleep on the plane. I’d made the terrible decision of buying a fancy shaped award-winning expensive travel pillow, under the impression I would be able to actually get some sleep on the flight if I did. The pillow had three prongs and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to use it. At one point I woke up and it had moved round onto my face, making it look like a soft alien creature was attacking me. Therefore I sadly only managed snatches of naps which may have accumulated to almost an hour.
We finally arrived in Madagascar on what was still technically my birthday. In my journal, I documented my first impressions upon leaving the plane; ‘1) It smells like fish 2) It’s dark and 3) these stars are wobbly.’ I was very, very tired. I am pretty grumpy when I’m tired (just ask literally everyone) so the wonders of being on an entire new continent, in the country with the highest amount of endemism hadn’t quite hit me yet.
After a real adventure through immigration to obtain our visas (one which would come back to haunt me on my return journey… stay tuned!) we met Armand, a saint of a human who escorted us all the way to and from the OpWall site. We loaded our luggage onto the busses and I experienced my first and thankfully only attempted theft, when a bus driver from elsewhere snatched a small bag off the luggage trolley next to the bus. I ran after him and after a lot of ‘sorry’s’ on my part (I’m sorry you stole something which was obviously part of the massive group it was next to?) I lent over into his bus and got it back off the drivers seat. We then drove 5 minutes down the road to our hotel; The Manoir Rouge.
We were paired up and allocated a room. It was about 1am now and after a very long time of no sleep I was utterly exhausted. I was paired with another dissertation student, Lara, who would be studying lemur behaviour. We entered our room excited by the prospect of sleep and saw… a double bed. Oh. I usually like to know people a little longer before I get into bed with them, but hey ho. Luckily it wasn’t awkward as we talked excitedly for hours about the adventure to come before finally falling asleep.
We were one of the few who had opted not to set an alarm for the next day, so when we finally woke up at 12:30, the hotel was pretty deserted. Having recovered slightly from our journey, and now able to embrace the fact that we were actually in Madagascar, we wanted to go exploring. We quickly accumulated the legend that is Joel, a research assistant, and happily wandered into the street outside our hotel in Antananarivo.
I was warned that as a foreigner there would be a lot of staring, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it. If I was back in Watford and an entire street of people were staring at me like that I’d be pretty concerned. We walked awkwardly about 100 metres up the street. It was amazing to be in such a new place, and find ordinary things so interesting. Like how there wasn’t a distinction between the sidewalk and road, just a wide track. Stalls lined the edges selling all sorts of fruit and fresh meat. It was busy and bustling, there were dogs roaming around with mopeds and taxis winding around each other to get by. After Lara was checked out pretty aggressively, we decided we were probably idiots and should return to the security of our hotel.
We arrived back disappointed. We’d seen barely any of Madagascar and everyone else had left in the morning to the lemur park. Myself, Lara, Joel and Matt (another research assistant we had acquired; Joel’s bed mate) were stuck on what to do. We asked at reception and they arranged for a taxi to take us to a nearby crocodile park. I am equal parts fascinated by and completely terrified of crocodiles from the two years I spent living in the tropical north of Australia. A crocodile climbed out of a drain in the city while I was there. A drain you guys.
I enjoyed the journey to and from the crocodile farm immensely. It was barely 10 minutes, but it was great to see a glimpse of life in this small section of Antananarivo. People were sat around piles of rocks, cracking the bigger ones into smaller ones. There were children running around the streets, one jumped off a wall and nearly landed directly in front of our taxi. There were little shacks next to bigger brick houses and people were everywhere.
We paid the entry fee, I have no idea how much it was because I had no perception of exchange rates at this point. I was completely delighted to be in warm weather again, although Malagasy people did try to convince me this was cold weather as it was winter there. I beg to differ.
We had a great time at the crocodile farm, and were introduced to the concept of tipping very early, though we were pretty oblivious to it. A man who we assumed was a staff member led us through the farm, where we saw chameleons, tortoises, fosa, rabbits and obviously crocodiles. When we reached the end of our tour he kept saying ‘geet’ and pointing to himself as he held out his other hand, so we shook it and went off for our lunch. It was only about 10 minutes later when I was sat down with my ‘cocktail’ (Pure mango liqueur. I think if I had drunk more than a sip I probably would’ve died) that I realised OH, guide, he was asking for money! Aah! What a faux pas on our part.
We had a delicious lunch, I ate crocodile, something I used to have at a pub with chips in Australia, and was now eating on a fancy kebab. So lunch was delicious, the day was beautiful and the crocodile park was great. Or so we thought, until we got back to the hotel and looked at our photos. The eyes of the chameleons were sunken, their skin flaky and damaged. They were dehydrated. Some of the crocodiles were badly hurt. The enclosure, despite looking huge at the time, was clearly to small. We also watched the video of the fosa. They paced up and down their tiny enclosures, two of them separated from one another. One of them with a severely damaged eye. Their enclosures had a cement floor and there were no trees for them to climb. We couldn’t see any water for them and witnessed one lapping up its own urine. They were deeply unhappy and in totally the wrong environment. It was fascinating to see these creatures, but I would’ve rather never have seen them than have that memory with me.
After speaking to Armand, it appears that Madagascar has only very lax laws to regulate animal care. With this in mind, this wasn’t a ‘nightmare zoo’ like those I’ve read about online. Some of the enclosures, particularly for tortoises and other smaller animals were fine. It looked as though they were trying to provide the best they could for the animals, but maybe lacked the knowledge or resources to do so. The fosa enclosure was by far the worst and most inexcusable.
In the evening, I met an artist who came to our hotel to sell his paintings. I was completely smitten by them and bought a beautiful black and white one depicting baobab avenue in the south. I asked him to write down his name because honestly, I’ve been to some fancy art galleries and I preferred his paintings by far. His name is Razafindzouinive Huguuc Fortunol. Or at least, that’s what it looks like he’s written down. He has asked me to pass on that his paintings are an excellent price. He’s not lying. My baobab one cost £4 and another I bought for my granny and her husband was £1! Bargain.
That night I could not sleep. Not a wink. I lay in the bed, eyes open for hours before giving up and spending the rest of my night writing at the little desk. I think my body was confused by how weird my sleeping pattern had got. Although, according to my journal, I couldn’t sleep as I was contemplating the nature of existence. So that’s great. In the very early hours of the morning, I heard a pig squealing. It was awful, it sounded like a very strong, isolated wind blowing through a patch of metallic trees. It suddenly stopped, so I found out just how fresh that meat is outside the hotel.
At around 5am I stumbled down to breakfast after pulling an unintentional all-nighter. While eating I met another dissertation student, Claudia, who told me she had been accepted to do a PhD in Australia. I was immediately jealous. We had a 12 hour bus ride ahead of us Armand said, so we needed to get our luggage out and onto the roof as quickly as possible. I was one of the first out and with a lot of assistance got my bag onto the roof of the bus so I had the pick of the seats. As it was such a long journey, it was important to choose wisely.
I chose poorly, and spent at least 11 hours complaining about my poor choice (the other hour was spent asleep). I sat at the back next to the window, which happened to be the only row of chairs which not only couldn’t lean back into a lying position like everyone elses, but seemed to actually lean forward. I was sat next to Matt, who has broad shoulders, and we were all crushed. I was pretty grumpy. I’d chosen this seat because it had a big window, so at least I had nice views.
I apologize for my terrible pronounciation of ‘Mahajanga’ in the video below.
Easily the best thing about the bus journey was the music. The minibus had a screen at the front playing Malagasy music videos the entire journey. Malagasy music was played everywhere, all the time in Madagascar. It’s great, it’s the most upbeat music in the world, combined with an ’80’s American hiphop style with a dash of African tribal music. I loved it. I highly recommend you play the below video for the rest of this blog post, in order to get into the vibe.
A lot of people think of Madagascar as luscious and green, but this was not the case. It was extremely beige. There was no distinct forest that I can remember on that first 12 hour journey. I am unsure however how much of that beigeness was deforestation, and how much was a natural ecosystem in its own right.
We arrived at our next stop; the Zaha hotel in Mahajanga, where we were greeted with glasses of cold fruit juice in sugar rimmed glasses which we were pretty happy about. We stayed three to a cabin right on the beach, not that I realised this when we arrived in the dark. I simply had my final hot shower and went to bed, finally managing to get about 6 hours sleep. In the morning we woke to the glorious blue sea which stretched out for miles, it was heaven and I felt quite sad to not be here as a tourist for longer.
The final stretch of the journey took place on a couple of massive army-style trucks. Thank goodness I had travel sickness pills with me. First we drove these enormous trucks down the streets of Mahajanga to a supermarket, where we stocked up on the essentials. For me this meant two bags of sweets and some apples. Essentials.
We proceeded on our journey down a long road, before turning off on to a dirt track. This was where the fun bit began! It was hilarious, and also extremely painful. There were two benches facing one another on either side of the truck, with all our luggage in the middle. There were many times where people, including myself, were hurtled across the width of the truck and landed on either the luggage or someone’s lap. It was incredibly loud to. I was sat next to a staff member, Sam, who would be working with invertebrates. He was right at the front of the truck and had to keep ducking to avoid being smacked in the face by a branch. There was one point where he was facing me talking and I saw a massive branch coming and in my head thought ‘oh no! I’d better say something urgently. What do I say? How do I say it without being rude?..’ so I actually did run out of time to warn him. Luckily he must’ve seen me looking concerned and turned round and saw the branch and ducked just in time to miss being knocked unconscious. So that’s the story of how I nearly killed Sam. I get quite relaxed in emergencies. Fight or flight? Nah, just chill out and wait for the whole thing to blow over.
We stopped at a beautiful little river. Some people swam, I passed out on the ground and just prayed for a nap. There is no possible way to sleep in those trucks. They throw you about violently. However that didn’t stop my body from trying. I had my wrist wrapped around a strap from the ceiling and would just nod off and be flung around like a rag doll. I kept having half-dreams where I was in the middle of a conversation with either Sam or the girl next to me, and would sort of wake up and turn to them to respond, then realise I’d just made it up and nod off again.
There was an exciting point in the journey where the other truck almost tipped over. We both had to drive with two wheels partly up the steep road sides to pass a bus coming the other way. Our truck, being large with our luggage in the middle, did it just about OK. The other bus however had their luggage strapped to the roof and when the truck tried to pass the bus at an angle with two wheels up the road banks, the luggage all slid to the other slide and the truck tipped! At one point the wheels on the road bank lifted up just a little and we thought that was it, they were going to fall onto the bus. But our drivers were all brilliant, and they managed to get everyone past safely.
We finally arrived at the camp and I was exhausted but happy. The camp was located beneath the forest canopy, with the undergrowth cleared for tents.
There was an open canteen area, with the walls built from mud and roof from plant material. This is also where people got on with work, though I’m easily distracted by noise and people, so mostly just had to sweat it out alone in my tent instead.
There were more modern looking camping loos, but with no running water. There were also drop dunnys and my favourite, jungle showers. These just had walls made out of dried palms and no ceiling, so when you showered you had the light and the breeze on you.
After a brief induction and food, I went to bed pretty much instantly. I was so excited for the next six weeks, and I finally had a good nights sleep.
Next Monday – the Malagasy adventure continues!