Base Camp Life in Madagascar

Mouse lemur - Taken by Lewis Kramer

After a much needed 10 hours sleep, I awoke to the sounds of the ever-loud and excited base camp. I decided to spend the morning out in the forest doing a forest survey. What surprised me the most about the forest was that it didn’t feel totally different to other forests I’ve been to around Europe. Sure it was hot and dry which obviously marred my ability to make any comparison between this forest and the UK, but the trees of dry, deciduous forests have to be experts at retaining water and are therefore limited in the size that they can grow. This resulted in the trees being relatively short and quite thin. It was a shame that very few of the plants were in flower at this time of year, making the majority-endemic tree species even harder to identify.

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Tree in Mahamavo forest – Taken by Hannah Williams.

I love forest surveys because they give you the opportunity to get to know a forest more intimately than other surveys allow. You go off-trail into the forest, stomping around in the undergrowth and tripping over logs just as you should be. Also, trees don’t run away from you and hide. They just sit there waiting to greet you. You can study them as closely as you want and, as I said before, I enjoy the natural obstacle course that it takes to get to them.

A forest plot in this instance consisted of going to a predetermined site and marking out a 20mX20m transect. Every tree within that transect would then have their circumference measured at breast height and their height estimated. The canopy cover would also be recorded and a separate 2mX2m transect would be laid out in order to take a sapling count.

Back at base camp I had my very first jungle shower; a bucket and cup in a sectioned off area of camp. It was awesome actually. When you get back from a survey all dusty and sweaty with the contents of the entire forest in your hair, as I often did, it was so refreshing to pour a bucket of water over yourself. On my way back to the tent I had my first encounter with lemurs. There is a colony of Coquerel’s Sifaka’s that passed over camp almost every day. Their main aim seemed to be to steal bait from the lemur researchers but they seemed almost as interested in us as we were in them. One of my friends had a dream that the lemurs were conducting a human behaviour survey on us from the trees. Sounded about right. It was brilliant to watch the way they moved, jumping between the trees like a gang of extremely agile babies.

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Lemur colony
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Agile babies
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look at them fly!
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SO climby
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Lemur Love <3

I also had a stab at doing my laundry, this too was a bucket based system (one which umpteen visiting sixth former’s would complain about). The Malagasy staff had it on point, the western staff did not. I just chucked everything in a bucket with some soap and swooshed it around a bit until it didn’t smell quite so bad anymore. I later found out from my friend Rindra (spelt Reindra throughout my journal, thank goodness for facebook), a botanist from the capital city Antananarivo in Madagascar, that it was normal for the vast majority of people all over Madagascar to hand wash clothes. She found it strange that most people, even the poorer people in England, have washing machines. She’d also never heard of a dishwasher before which was fun to explain. (You put all your dirty dishes in a machine, close the door, press start and go shopping. When you get back, it’s done). She thought that English people must be very lazy, and I couldn’t really argue with that.

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Staff members Ali, Michael and Jenni demonstrating beautifully.

I also took time out of my busy first day to take part in one of the most important activities in Madagascar; lying in a hammock. Hammocks are man’s gift to the world and I would like to thank Dr. Hammock for bringing such a glorious invention into being. I napped in hammocks, I chatted to friends in hammocks, I read in hammocks, I stared at the lemurs passing overhead from hammocks and I recovered from hangovers and stomach bugs in hammocks. Since returning to England, I am now the proud owner of a hammock. But it’s basically winter now so will have to wait another year for that one week of summer.

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Fun game – how many people can you fit in a hammock without it falling down? Answer: not four. L-R Georgie, Emily, Jen and me, all dissertation students.

Lunch was rice and beans. I don’t just mean on this day, I mean every day. There were small beans, big beans, medium beans, large beans… Everyone had a favourite bean. What started out as ‘hmm, this is actually quite nice, healthy too, maybe I should make this sort of thing for lunch back in England’ quickly became ‘If anyone so much as shows me another bowl of rice and beans I will drown their face in it’. Our saviour came in the form of Grazella who was at base camp making and selling the most delicious samosas I have ever put in my face. They were often my substitute for lunch, and when she started selling bread it was samosa sandwiches all round. Grazella was making and selling samosas to save money for a master’s in agriculture, so I thought the right thing to do was to buy as many as humanly possible, for Grazella of course. The sacrifices I make for my friends.

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Grazella

Late in the afternoon it was finally time to meet with my supervisors to discuss my dissertation. I was pretty confident that I had a well thought through and feasible proposal which just needed a tweak here and a smoothing out there. One of the supervisors emphatically disagreed and it was back to the drawing board for me. That was a bit of a downer, I have an enormous fear of being found out as a fraud, of people going ‘hang on, she’s actually really stupid and crap at science’. I know I’m not alone in this, and I’m not just talking about science. It was a bit of a setback and I spent the rest of the day (and night) in my tent fretting about what to do, reading over the limited number of papers I’d been able to download before arriving on camp where there was no internet.

I’m a classic case in that I constantly have to battle through the feeling of ‘I am finding this task difficult, therefore if I don’t try at all then I can still convince myself that I am good at this thing’. I think writers especially are notoriously bad for this. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve given up on a story or novel because I found the first draft too difficult to get through, it’s taken me years to get past that. At the end of the day, failure is good. If you don’t try hard at something you are allowing your fear of failure to outweigh your determination for success. It’s best to just view your failures as the foundations on which to build your successes.

The following day, after a lot more reading and conversations with my other supervisor Joe, I managed to come up with something that had a bit more structure and a bit more focus. For day two I was quite pleased with that, and now that I could relax a little I was actually pretty happy with how seriously our projects were being taken, and how quickly the scientists were working with us to make sure we developed a clear structure for ourselves over the next six weeks.

I spent the rest of the day recovering from the trauma that is interpreting strings of scientific papers for hours. This recovery was mostly hammock based, see below.

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This is the worst photo I have ever seen of myself, and that includes the ones taken of me whilst going through puberty.

In the evening I went out on my first invertebrate night survey. I’m not a night time person and all of my research was conducted during the day so I often spent the evenings working on my project or fannying around with other staff and students. (Sidenote: I’m also not a morning person. I’m really more of a 10am-3pm kind of person. Modern life is a struggle for me.) This survey was easily my favourite night survey that I did whilst in Madagascar due to the amount that I saw, and the excitement I felt with it being my first time out at night. There is something magic about the forest at night time (unless you’re somewhere like Luton of course, then it’s just scary and you should leave). The moonlight hits the leaves and branches of trees overhead creating ethereal shadows as you stumble through, trying to make out the outlines of any creatures around. What I’m trying to say is, my headtorch didn’t work very well and I fell over a lot.­

I saw oustalets and Angels chameleon’s as well as mouse lemurs, spiders and a praying mantis. We were actually collecting moths which I was pretty terrible at, but the place was just teaming with wildlife. I’m pretty bad at keeping my camera on me for these kinds of things. I do love photography but I sometimes find if I carry my camera around I have this niggling feeling in my chest that I need to be documenting everything, and honestly I’d rather just enjoy the moment and write thousands of words about it later. So instead, here are a load of photos that I’ve stolen from my friends:

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Oustalet’s Chameleon-taken by Dave Andrews
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Angel’s Chameleon – Taken by Dave Andrews
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Mouse lemur – Taken by Lewis Kramer

When we returned to base camp, we played one of many, many hundreds of games of bananagrams (speed scrabble) that took place during the expedition. We also played ‘dirty words only’ bananagrams and I’m still pretty proud of myself that I managed to get ‘rimjob’.

The next morning saw me go on the first of many hundreds of botany plots. This was where the bulk of my data was coming from, and also where I first properly met my friends Rindra, Liantsoa (whose name I have spelt as ‘Leanne-Sue’ throughout my journal), and Harison (I managed to get his name right, give or take an ‘r’ here or an ‘s’ there). They were the funniest group of people ever to work with. They are all Malagasy botanists and knew a lot more than I did about literally everything. It was an honour to work with them, not to mention an enormous amount of fun. We definitely didn’t always understand each other, it is a pity but I can currently only declare myself fluent in English (though I’m coming for you, Spanish!), so I’m not much use when it comes to communicating in a foreign language, other than cracking out the occasional ‘Ou est la bibliotheque?’ or ‘Je suis on sort au cinema’. The Malagasy staff however nearly always had at least three languages on the go; Malagasy, French and English, as well as some knowledge of other Malagasy dialects. Wow. They would apologize to me for not getting a word exactly right in English or not understanding the fast-talking nonsense that comes out of my mouth. I’d say you definitely can’t apologise to me when my Malagasy is non-existent, and unless you want to listen to me talk about my cat for five minutes my French isn’t much more use.

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Only picture on my computer right now with all three of us… I’ll explain later. L-R Liantsoa, me and Rindra. Above is Laurence, another staff member and amazing singer!

 I did eventually pluck up the courage to learn a little bit of Malagasy from them, but I certainly did not do as much as I should have. It is a privilege to be able to communicate with people all over the world in all kinds of different cultures, and it’s sad that it is not inherent in us, mostly English-speaking people, to make the effort to learn other languages. For instance, we had an amazing guide from the local village called Theo who did nearly all of the plant identification for us. As there are so many different ecosystems in Madagascar containing so many different kinds of trees, not to mention that none of them were flowering, they were incredibly difficult to identify and tell apart. If we had had to go around with books there is simply no way I or anyone else would’ve been able to do their botany research, but because we had Theo it was possible. But I couldn’t communicate with Theo. Here was this awesome person with a mind full of ethnobotany and I couldn’t discuss anything with him. There was some translation through the others of English to Malagasy to a different dialect and back again, but it was difficult.

The way I see it, is that every one of us holds an entire library that only we have access to, and if you want to hear these other stories then you have to talk to people. But if you don’t study languages, you are missing out on the stories that are least similar to your own, and I do love a story.

That is why I now have French and Spanish duolingo.

More next week on botany research and camp life!

click on the link to catch up on last weeks post detailing my jouney fron London to Mahamavo: https://lifeforaforest.com/2016/08/29/travel-in-madagascar/

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