Madagascar Adventure Part 6: Students and Scenery in Matsedroy

Be-a-utiful sunrise at Matsedroy.

This is part 6 of my Madagascar series. To start at the beginning, click here.

Matsedroy camp was a kind of paradise. It felt too nice to be existing in such an extraordinarily beautiful place. The sky was always bright blue and the sun was always hot. The openness of Matsedroy camp compared to the shaded Mariarano base camp meant that the heat was always on you. I loved that, and I quickly developed the tan to prove it. (Or was it just a constant layer of dirt? Both.)

Matsedroy camp - By Hannah Williams.
Matsedroy camp – By Hannah Williams.

My first week at Matsedroy was quite busy with plenty of school students, research assistants and dissertation students about the place. I spent a lot more of the first week hunched in the common area working on my dissertation than I did conducting botany plots. One of the highlights was being able to supervise some of the school students collecting data for their projects while out in the forest.

Towards the end of the second week everyone left base camp except for a handful of us. It was a brilliant contrast to the crazy, ever-busy noisiness that I had become accustomed to in the last three weeks. It was so peaceful and so pleasant, often the Malagasy scientists would play guitar and sing together outside. It was beautiful and contributed to the ethereal, dusty beauty of the place. I began to forget about the world outside, and conversations frequently occurred over whether we could just live here permanently.

Matsedroy - By Lewis Kramer
Matsedroy – By Lewis Kramer

The peace was quickly shattered by an onslaught of school groups arriving at camp. They always turned up shattered, dusty, and completely fearful of their surroundings. They often couldn’t comprehend having to wash their own clothes by hand, or having to shower with water from a lake. They asked for advice on how to deal with the dusty earth which got everywhere; in your shoes, tent and lungs. They panicked over small scratches and the fact that scorpions could be found on camp. Some groups recovered quickly and enjoyed the new experience, others simply pined for home and expressed regret for coming here in the first place. Those tended to be the kids that didn’t have to fund-raise.

It reminded me of going on a school trip to Iceland with a private school that I had attended when I was a teenager. I could not for the life of me figure out why they all wanted to stay bundled up on the bus, complaining of the cold and the wet and refusing to get out and see the incredible gorges and waterfalls. WHY would you go to a place literally called the ‘land of ice’ if you can’t stand the cold and wet (although I was told it had something to do with a hope of meeting ‘hot Icelandic boys’, that didn’t work out). I didn’t understand why they had come at all if they just wanted to talk over the guide who told amazing stories of ancient history and folklore, and complain bitterly about every journey and every destination. They could’ve just rented a coach and parked it at school and sat in it whining and bitching with each other for 10 days and had exactly the same experience. I don’t know if you can tell, but I did not like school.

Iceland - Definitely worth getting out the bus for.
Iceland – Definitely worth getting out the bus for.

I really can’t understand this kind of behaviour, and the only thing I can link it to is extreme privilege. When you think about the number of teens who would give anything to visit and learn in wild places like Madagascar, like Iceland, it’s just sad and deeply unfair.

Having complained about the stroppy school groups, there were thankfully far more excited and engaged students to be found. On one particular night me and Ali went out frog hunting with a group of students who were so enthusiastic. They were fascinated by the toe-biters and the possibility of crocodiles being nearby. Though their initial response upon seeing a tenrec was mostly along the lines of ‘oh it’s just a hedgehog’, after a brief explanation they soon realised how lucky they were to come across it.

Toe-biters... No need to explain the name! By Frank Vassen.
Toe-biters… No need to explain the name! By Frank Vassen.
Tenrec - By Frank Vassen - Flickr: Lowland Streaked Tenrec, Mantadia, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0
Tenrec – By Frank Vassen – Flickr: Lowland Streaked Tenrec, Mantadia, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0

I began to lead forest plots with the school groups. These went a lot better than my first attempt, and I enjoyed them enormously. Forest plots are straight forward; a 20m by 20m plot is laid out, tree circumference and height is measured, saplings are counted within a 2m by 2m plot within the main plot, and canopy cover is calculated. To my surprise I quickly discovered that forest plots were not the favourite of most students. Indeed, they somehow found searching for lemurs and reptiles along transects and catching bugs and frogs around lakes more exciting. Who knew? I worked out that the best way to help them enjoy the process was to make it all into a game. They got points for vocalising their intense enthusiasm and passion about trees, for singing songs, and for finding cool stuff in the forest. It was actually a heap of fun, a highlight was when one group sang ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ in the middle of the forest plot. They won the game.

While at Matsedroy I often made plans with friends to meet them at 5am while it was still dark, hike up the hill and watch the sun rise. I would subsequently abandon these plans as soon as my alarm went off, and often missed the departing groups of sunrise enthusiasts. The one time I made it I’d gone to bed a little drunk at about 1am, woke up at 5am without realising I was still drunk, and subsequently hiked up the wrong mountain in the dark. I realised I was missing the sunrise, just about managed to snap a distant picture, then got lost on my way back down. I arrived back on camp just as light was creeping in covered in cuts and scratches where I’d lost the path and just bombed it through thorns to the bottom of the hill instead.

Be-a-utiful sunrise at Matsedroy.
Be-a-utiful sunrise at Matsedroy.

To be honest I regret nothing, it was a lovely sunrise and I find myself great company, even when drunk. I did however spend the rest of the day wrapped up in hangover-hammock as my body once again smashed me headfirst into a disproportionately aggressive hangover.

But if you are going to feel like your insides have been chewed up, spat out, kicked around then shoved back down your throat again, Matsedroy was not a bad place to do it.

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Moving to Matsedroy

Wading through rivers to Matsedroy - photo by Jenni Lucy.

Welcome to part 5 of my Madagascar travel series. To begin at part 1, click here.

After two weeks undertaking botany surveys at base camp in Mariarano, it was time to move on. On the morning of the 3rd of July, myself and several others made the three hour trek to Matsedroy satellite camp.

Matsedroy - photo by Lewis Kramer
Matsedroy – photo by Lewis Kramer

The trek to and from Matsedroy was one of my favourite things about switching camps. The same rice paddies that we crossed at night searching for snakes, frogs and chameleons, we now crossed in the daytime, jumping over rivers with our heavy backpacks and politely passing zebu roped around trees.

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Walking to Matsedroy – photo by Jenni Lucy.
Zebu - photo by Jenni Lucy
Zebu – photo by Jenni Lucy

Luckily the majority of our luggage was taken by zebu cart to camp, as our walk involved some very deep rivers. At one point I was wading up to my thighs along a murky brown river, reminiscent of the ones I deliberately avoided when living in Australia due to the probable presence of crocodiles. I managed to get across by enjoying the beauty of the overhanging plants and trees, looking out for lemurs and constantly reminding myself that it was dry season and no crocodiles were currently stalking me. (And even if they were, there were definitely shorter people than me for a crocodile to go for.)

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Our luggage was taken on zebu carts such as this – photo by Jenni Lucy
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River crossing – photo by Hannah Williams.
Wading through rivers to Matsedroy - photo by Jenni Lucy.
Wading through rivers to Matsedroy – photo by Jenni Lucy.
Definitely could've been crocodiles here.
Definitely could’ve been crocodiles here.

The forest we climbed through was a dry thicket of spiny plants and I couldn’t wait to get started identifying them with the rest of the botany team.

photo by Jenni Lucy.
photo by Jenni Lucy.

When we reached the lip of what was known as ‘phone-signal hill’ (I’m sure you can work out why), the lake where the camp was based came into view, though the camp itself was hidden by trees.

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It was a stunning sight, nestled in a valley of forest on the edge of a lake, we gazed from our vantage point as birds flew below us and rested on naked branches, providing the ornithologists with much enjoyment.

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The first week at Matsedroy I suffered from a weird case of homesickness for Mariarano. I missed the lemurs running overhead each daytaking part in the local culture and let’s not forget the pub, or ‘route 10’ as we had to call it around visiting school students.

A night out on 'route 10'. L-R: Lewis, Michael, Lara, Anjy, Claire, Dom, Conor, Ali, Me, Jenni and Jeneen.
A night out on ‘route 10’. L-R: Lewis, Michael, Lara, Anjy, Claire, Dom, Conor, Ali, Me, Jenni and Jeneen.

Frankly, Mariarano had begun to feel like home. Madagascar had begun to feel like home. The people I met in Madagascar were warm and welcoming, easy to befriend and so easy to talk to and learn from. It didn’t take long before I settled into Matsedroy and began to see the benefits of its more isolated location.

Wildlife in the lake - photo by Jenni Lucy
Wildlife in the lake – photo by Jenni Lucy
View from the common area - photo by Lewis Kramer.
View from the common area – photo by Lewis Kramer.

The amenities were similar to those of base camp. There were bucket showers, long-drop toilets and an open common area.

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Showers and clothes-washing facilities – photo by Jenni Lucy.
Common area - photo by Jenni Lucy.
Common area – photo by Jenni Lucy.

There were plenty of hammocks and a small shop run by locals from a nearby village, where you could get Dhazma rum (thank God), something which looked like chocolate but did not melt in the sun, and therefore had a flavour more akin to plastic (not that I noticed at the time, I was desperate) and fizzy drinks.

One of many messy rum-based nights. Me and Lewis at the front, L-R Jen, Katy, Emily, Anjy and an anonymous blur.
One of many messy rum-based nights. Me and Lewis at the front, L-R Jen, Katy, Emily, Anjy and an anonymous blur.

The plus points were numerous. The tents were separated from the common areas and instead arranged within the forest, allowing for a quieter night’s sleep and greater privacy. There was an area to have a bonfire outside, and the view from the camp over the lake was stunning, particularly at sunset. There were usually fewer people around so it was generally less noisy.

Joel relaxing in Matsedroy - photo by Anjy.
Joel relaxing in Matsedroy – photo by Anjy.
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sunset at Matsedroy – photo by Hannah Williams.

The best bit about Matsedroy in my opinion was the lakes. As well as the one in front of camp, where our shower water came from and our drinking water was filtered from, there were more lakes further along the track. My favourite was lake 2, where my friends and I could happily strip off and enjoy one of white people’s favourite past times; sunbathing.

Me at lake 2 - the greatest sunbathing spot.
Me at lake 2 – the greatest sunbathing spot.

As the days progressed I settled in more and began to enjoy the new surroundings and locations for forest plots. The paths were more challenging and winding, making it all the more fun. As I was tying tags onto trees and learning the Malagasy names for each species, I had a sudden beautiful thought; 8 year old Steph would be so happy with 24 year old Steph. I am outdoors, trekking around and exploring new places as much as I physically can. This is exactly what tiny Steph wanted. Adventuring around forests, learning about them, trying to protect them and writing about it all.

Tiny Steph, Big Steph.
Tiny Steph, Big Steph.

Learn more about the challenges and fun times that I encountered in Matsedroy next Tuesday at 6pm.

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Lost, Sick and Deceived in the Forest

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Welcome to Part 4 of my Madagascar series. To start from Part 1, click here.

On Monday the 27th June I was thrilled to be given the responsibility of leading a forest plot on my own with a group of research assistants. It went about as terribly as it could have gone.

The site we were going to was deep in the forest in an area where there are plenty of pig trails criss-crossing the main paths. Our guide hadn’t been to this area for at least a year and couldn’t exactly remember the way. We got lost following a pig trail but luckily we had a GPS. Unluckily, the GPS seemed to only want to direct us straight through a pathless, thick patch of forest. This would’ve been fine if it was just us botanists on our own, but as I was responsible for a team of research assistants as well, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of dragging them through the spiky undergrowth particularly as one of them was very, very sick. It was scorching hot and after searching for an easier way into the forest, and deciding that if we wasted any more time we would probably have to carry the sick girl back to base camp, we left.

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In the afternoon Rindra, Theo and I went back out into the forest to do a botany plot alone. This went a hell of a lot better, we were becoming pros at this. 

In the evening I decided to go on another night survey. Without adequate sleep I revert back to a barely-functional, angsty and unbearable-to-be-around teenager. So I was understandably concerned that I would be back too late to cope with my early start for botany plots the next day. I was assured by my friend Georgie, another dissertation student studying frogs, that it was simply a 20 minute walk to the river, less than half an hour surveying frogs, a quick stroll upstream and back home all within a couple of hours. Great. Sounds great Georgie. Sure I’ll come Georgie. Yeah. Really great. 

Ribbit
Ribbit

Georgie is extremely intelligent, upbeat, hardworking, resilient and relentlessly cheerful. Whilst this is usually a beautiful combination of personality traits day-to-day, in the middle of the night, feeling sick, exhausted and beyond tired it is far less endearing (sorry Georgie) (not really Georgie) (YOU TOLD ME WE’D BE HOME WITHIN 2 HOURS GEORGIE. YOUR TIME ESTIMATION IS TERRIBLE. GEORGIE.)

Having complained bitterly about Georgie’s time prediction skills and emphasised how precious sleep is to me, I did have an awesome time overall.

The walk to the river (40 mins) was awesome, it was like the kind of thing you do at Go Ape, Or one of those other tree top trail things, just on the ground and over water. We clamoured over make-shift bridges and logs, over gullies and streams, balancing carefully to get across or clinging to sticks stuck in the mud, swinging ourselves around the rice paddies in the pitch darkness. The sky was massive and open and full of stars. The wind smelt earthy and it felt good to fill your lungs with it.

Walking to the River
Walking to the River

We soon got to the main river, as it was the wet season even at its deepest point it didn’t go beyond my knees. There was a large group of us, around 20, which was very rare. We all set about catching frogs for Claudia and Georgie to measure, weigh and identify as part of their projects, as well as for several Malagasy scientists. Frog hunting is pretty fun. We waded around the banks gathering frogs, I wasn’t very good at spotting so I teamed up with a girl who had much sharper eyes than me. She’d shout when she found one and I’d pounce, usually coming up with a handful of mud, maybe with a frog wriggling around too.

Frog Hunting
Frog Hunting and Analysis

Someone even found a massive Indian Bullfrog! We named him Glen and we loved him. He was so strong he broke the bag we tried to weigh him in. He was so heavy we couldn’t weigh him because he went past the scales. 

Georgie + Glen = <3
Georgie + Glen = <3
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Glen and the size of all the other frogs.

By the time we finished it was 9:30. I was already incredibly sleepy from doing three surveys and a lot of hiking and was looking forward to heading back. But surprise! We were now going to do a second survey for 3 Km along a river bank. This was a herpetology survey, which involves walking really, really slowly, trying to spot any herps (frogs, snakes, chameleons etc…) on the way. The photos below were all taken by Lewis Kramer.

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Going in for the grab!
Going in for the grab!

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Even better though were the trees. Forests at night are completely enchanting, you feel like magic could exist and all sorts of hidden secrets could be out hiding from you. It was no different tonight, and I stopped to take a photo of almost every banana tree I saw.

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Another highlight was when a squawking gaggle of geese turned up and were aggressively trying to spook us. It had been a running joke on camp that all the stupid stuff happens to Lewis, a dissertation student studying spatial ecology. The moment I decided I loved this human was when he broke a table. We were playing Bananagrams by candlelight and Lewis got up to get a drink or something. We heard this almighty crash and all turned our head-torches to see what had happened. Lewis was lying on the ground after walking into one of the less-than-sturdy tables which had promptly collapsed flat on the floor. What was great though was that he was in a sort of twisted superman position lying on the table with this super awkward smile on his face and had made no attempt whatsoever to get up. I am laughing while I type this. I can’t take it its still too funny.

Anyway, when I saw two people behind me being chased by said gaggle of geese I remember thinking that I would put real money on one of those people being Lewis. It was. The other was Katy, who generally doesn’t have such derpy things happen to her, but there are always exceptions.

Fight me.
Fight me.

So the first 20 minutes of walking along the river was quite fun. We saw some cool stuff, we had a laugh and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings. The next 3 hours I did not enjoy quite so much. I had felt ill for about 4 days at this point, and despite my usual ‘rest + recover’ stance towards illness, I had done my best to stubbornly deny my sickness. As we continued to walk, I felt progressively ill until I couldn’t even lift my head up without feeling like I was going to vomit. I spent the last hour of the walk staring at my feet, wading through the river, and pleading with my innards to chill.

There was a particularly pretty part of the river towards the end that wound thinly through the forest. We saw kingfishers roosting on overhanging trees and the canopy branched over us, the tips from either bank almost touched one another. The magic quickly wore off as I felt a second wave of nausea hit. 

Taken by Lewis Kramer.
Taken by Lewis Kramer.

At midnight Ryan, a herpetologist, asked “How is everyone’s enthusiasm levels?”

Thankfully Lewis answered for everyone when he said “Rock bottom”.

Nearly all of us then left, going back home along the adventurous path. We were shattered and got the giggles badly. I can’t remember what over exactly though I have a distinct memory of everyone trying to do a Liverpool accent. Crazy people like Georgie and Claudia stayed up until 4am completing the survey, because they have an energy which I can only dream of one day possessing. 

I finally went to bed at 1am, woken only briefly by someone vomiting outside their tent. Little did I know the stomach bug apocalypse was about to take hold of camp hard, strangling the intestines of every victim it touched. 

I was so tired the next day that my alarm didn’t wake me, and I was instead woken by the delicate tones of one of my supervisors, Pete, screeching my name on behalf of Rindra to get up. I got ready in about 2.5 seconds but by the time we got to the botany plot I felt so sick I could barely stand up and Rindra had to escort me back to camp. 

I miss Rindra.

The last entry in my journal pretty much sums up how I felt when I got back:

‘I am taking the rest of the day off to feel sick. I haven’t showered in a couple of days so I’m definitely considering that. But as it stands I’m only like 30% certain that I will shower today.’

Stephanie xxx

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Independence Day for Madagascar and Britain

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Hello and welcome back to my blog! I had a three week break to overhaul the hosting and design of my site and posting will now return to once a week, every Monday at 6pm.

This is Part 3 of my Madagascar series, to start from the beginning, click here.

BREXIT

I will keep this brief because it still hurts, but I have to admit that I am one of the thousands of people who did not vote in the referendum. NOT, I might add, because I assumed we would stay, or because I couldn’t be bothered or am not politically engaged. Getting everything organised for my Madagascar expedition was so hectic and rushed that I  forgot to send in one of the postal vote forms and therefore forfeited my vote, as it occurred whilst I was away.

Photo credit - http://nwhomebuyers.co.uk/

I had been out in the forest since 5am with the botany team doing plots and generally having such a great time that I’d completely forgotten about the vote. I arrived back at camp all cheerful and ready for lunch, only to be confronted by a large group of very morose looking scientists.

“Have you heard the news?” asked one.

“What news?” I said.

“About the referendum.”

“Oh yeah! Are we in?”

“No, we’re leaving the EU.”

“Haha yeah… but seriously are we still in?”

“No.”

I was pretty shocked, we all were. Nearly everyone had been hoping to remain, and many of the scientists I was working with had projects at least in part funded by grants that they were only able to get through the EU. There were a couple of people who were pleased with the result, and subsequently very unhappy at the intensely angry and upset atmosphere on camp.

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So that was frustrating. What was equally annoying was not being able to take part in the inevitable internet outrage, something that I am a huge fan of. The country had been thrown into disarray we heard, Labour was falling apart, David Cameron was resigning, no one knew who was going to be Prime Minister or what was going to happen. The trouble was we got all this news in dribs and drabs, often weeks apart. Either in a brief email over a satellite phone from a friend of family member, or from sixth form students and teachers passing through. It was immensely frustrating to be so far away from home when something so important was happening. Like the time I was in Australia during the 2012 Olympics, maybe not quite as important though…

So I felt quite down on the 24th of June. However, this was also the day that I discovered Dhazma vanilla rum, the tastiest rum in all the universe. You can only buy it in Madagascar (I’ve checked) and it is sooo tasty. It reminds me of that short spell where Coca Cola brought out Vanilla coke, except without the weird aftertaste. So there was still a pretty big positive to my day.

A winning combination
A winning combination

Going Down the Pub

The following evening we all had a party. It was the night before the Malagasy Independence day and we dressed up in lamba’s and did the conga through the camp. We danced around to Malagasy music before moving the party to Mariarano village.

L-R: Ali, Vicky and Tina rocking the lamba's.
L-R: Ali, Vicky and Tina rocking the lamba’s.

We piled into the local pub, It was basically someones back garden with one long table, two long benches, chickens behind a fence and sometimes a turtle or parrot in a cage behind the table. We brought music and small speakers with us, and proceeded to drink all the rum and all the THB, which I am told is one of the best beers in the world but as I find all beer disgusting I can’t really comment.

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It was a great night, I got a little tipsy off the rum and spent the evening dancing around with friends, insisted to Harison the botanist that he was now my best friend, and tried to convince every staff member to hire me. I was one of the positive stories from that night, some people were a glorious shit show that only the British can bring to foreign countries. Still, nothing bad happened; a couple of people had to be carried home along the dusty path between the village and our camp, my friend lost her flip flop, someone threw up in their tent, that kind of thing.

Madagascar’s Independence Day Celebrations

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The Americans joked that it was sweet how Madagascar’s Independence Day was the day after Britain’s, so we will never forget it. It was too soon for these jokes.

As a result of yesterdays drinking everyone felt too rough to go out to Mariarano village the following night, on actual independence day. Despite being cursed with disproportionately awful hangovers, I managed to drag myself to the village in the morning to watch the Independence day celebrations. There were school kids and women’s groups singing and dancing, and there seemed to be some very important people around.

A few of the Malagasy OpWall staff invited us students to join them in performing a dance. A few of us agreed despite my fear that I would throw up or pass out or both. We performed the only Malagasy dance we semi-knew; the conga. We danced – badly – in front of the entire village and dignitaries. Even from the photos you can tell we were out of time.

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I’m rocking the flowery dungarees.

Suddenly the conga line would reverse with no warning and we’d all knock back into each other like dominoes.

Then we stood in a circle and one by one went into the middle and did a little solo dance. Lara started us off, and as she can actually dance she was setting an unrealistic precedence for what to expect from the rest of the Westerners. I finished up with a little shuffle and swinging my arms around, just to really drive it home that honestly, we have no rhythm. As my Scottish friend Jen said afterwards, ‘I think you did a good job of introducing them to our native culture.” Sadly I have no video footage of this finale, but here is Lewis and Jeneen giving it their all.

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Boxing in Madagascar

There was a boxing match later on in the day. A bunch of us decided to go, so we wandered down to where we had danced earlier on to find a length of tarpaulin around the perimeter. Getting into the arena itself was the most intense part of the day. Apparently there was a side way in that a lot of people managed to get into, I was not one of these people, and found myself in a scrum for the entrance with the locals all smiling, shouting, screaming and treading on each other. I got elbowed in the face accidentally a few times. I think everyone did. The scariest bit was the tiny children trying to sneak in, I had no control whatsoever over which way I was pushed and crushed and was so concerned that these children would be squished. I was dragged to the front by the guy collecting tickets eventually, having been pushed back a thousand times. Why does nowhere except Britain enjoy queuing? I love a good queue.

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When I finally burst into the surprisingly empty stadium (there really was no need for that lack of queue), I spotted my friends on the other side and hurried across. We settled ourselves on a grassy slope and waited for the match to begin.

The Stadium - photo by Matt Granger
The Stadium – photo by Matt Granger

There was no announcement, no introductions or explanations. People just started circling the field with their fists raised, literally looking for a fight.

Looking for a fight - photo by Matt Granger.
Looking for a fight – photo by Matt Granger.

Two people would start fighting while everyone else carried on circling. A referee would watch over the fight with some dried palm leaves to aid him in breaking up the pair. It was bare-knuckle boxing, and by the second match someone had already been knocked out and had to be dragged off. I was concerned this was setting the precedent for the rest of the evening, but luckily that was the only knock out, and we are pretty sure we saw him walking around again later.

The winner of each match would be lifted up by the referee, and if it was a draw the two fighters took turns lifting each other up. There were often multiple matches occurring at the same time, it was brilliantly chaotic. Sometimes really young kids would fight, some of them looked about 8 years old. Those fights were incredibly brief and would always be declared a draw. In fact all of the fights only lasted for seconds. No women or girls ever took part in the fights.

Fighting - Photo by Matt Granger
Fighting – Photo by Matt Granger

What I liked was the cheerful live Malagasy music in the background. It was impossible for the boxing to have a menacing atmosphere, because everything about the day was just so cheerful.

The band - Photo by Matt Granger
The band – Photo by Matt Granger

Everyone was happy and smiling, the sun was getting lower in the sky and from our vantage point on the slope, we watched the glorious sunset over the hills behind the forest below.

Sunset over boxing match - photo by Matt Granger.
Sunset over boxing match – photo by Matt Granger.

Plot twist: It turns out it wasn’t a hangover making me feel like I wanted to rip out my insides, a load of us had actually caught a really aggressive stomach bug! Which made me feel a lot better about my post-drinking state.

Until next time!

Stephanie xxx

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Arriving in Madagascar

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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.

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My smile says ‘yay’ but my eyes say ‘help’.

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.

Off to Mada

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.

Mine and Laras room
Our room at the Manoir Rouge – taken by Lara

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.

http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/crocodile-caught-in-cairns-drain/story-e6freoof-1225888663517

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.

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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.

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The painting I bought from RHF.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Dawn at Mahajanga

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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.

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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.

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The river where we stopped – taken by Hannah Williams

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.

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Taken by Hannah Williams

 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.

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Camp – taken by Hannah Williams

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.

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Canteen – taken by Hannah Williams

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!

 

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Lesula Monkey – Most Recent Mammal Discovery

The species Cercopithecus Lomamiensis, more commonly known as the Lesula, was discovered by a team of scientists from America lead by John Hart, deep in the Lomami Forest Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The initial discovery was made in 2007 but was only publicly confirmed, after extensive research, as an entirely new species in September of 2012.

The Lesula Monkey - By Emmanuelbd (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Lesula Monkey

Although the Lesula have been well known to local hunters for a long time, this is the first instance in which they have been documented scientifically.  In a world where it seems as though technology is discovering the truth of our planet very quickly, it was phenomenal for the world outside of the Congo to hear of this previously unknown primate, as the discovery of a new species of mammal in science is now very rare.

Juvenile Lesula - By Christina Bergey (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Juvenile Lesula
 A Lesula can weigh up to 5.4kg and measure up to 53cm, with the males weighing and measuring approximately twice that of the females.  They live in small groups of 1-5 and their diet consists of fruits, flower buds and vegetation.  They have giant blue backsides and, unusually for monkeys, spend a lot of their time in the forest under-story   The male Lesula have a low frequency, booming call, which can be heard in the clip below.  Although the lesula look similar to owl-faced monkeys which reside further to the east of the Congo, three years of genetic and morphological analyses have proven that they are an entirely separate species.  The results of these studies suggest that the two separate species split from a common ancestor around 2 million years ago.

The Booming call of a Male Lesula

The Lesula monkey’s territory covers around 6500 square miles of lowland forest between the Lomani and Tshuapa Rivers across the eastern central basin of the Congo. The area has previously been known to be one of the least biologically explored blocks of forest in the Congo.

Map showing the Distribution of the Lesula and the Owl-faced monkey. By John A. Hart, Kate M. Detwiler, Christopher C. Gilbert, Andrew S. Burrell, James L. Fuller, Maurice Emetshu, Terese B. Hart, Ashley Vosper, Eric J. Sargis, Anthony J. Tosi [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Map showing the Distribution of the Lesula and the Owl-faced monkey

Professor Hart and his colleagues stated that they hoped this new discovery would bring renewed efforts to save central Africa’s pristine forests.  Threats to the ecology and survival of the forest include; loggers, bush meat hunters and weak national governments not viewing conservation as a priority for their country.  However the Lesula’s habitat is not quite so threatened by logging and mining projects due to its remote location, though this could always change in any forest ecosystem that is not internationally recognised as protected.  This new discovery proves how little we know about the biological diversity of the Congo, and the species withheld inside.  It is so important for these areas to be preserved in order for us to keep making new scientific discoveries, so we can protect them and work with the environment in order for our mutual benefit.

Lesula - By John A. Hart, Kate M. Detwiler, Christopher C. Gilbert, Andrew S. Burrell, James L. Fuller, Maurice Emetshu, Terese B. Hart, Ashley Vosper, Eric J. Sargis, Anthony J. Tosi [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lesula

In order to protect this large area of ecological significance, Teresa and John Hart from Yale University work with and for the Lukuru Foundation (http://www.lukuru.org) who are working with authorities in the Congo to establish a national park in the Lomani basin.

“The challenge for conservation now in Congo is to intervene before losses become definitive… Species with small ranges like the lesula can move from vulnerable to seriously endangered over the course of just a few years… We are asking people not only to stop hunting in the area that will become a national park, but also to change their hunting behavior and to not hunt the Lesula and other endangered species in the adjoining buffer zones as well.” – John and Terese Hart.

Lesula - By John A. Hart, Kate M. Detwiler, Christopher C. Gilbert, Andrew S. Burrell, James L. Fuller, Maurice Emetshu, Terese B. Hart, Ashley Vosper, Eric J. Sargis, Anthony J. Tosi [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lesula

There is a strong possibility that there are many, many more species and subspecies currently undiscovered in Africa’s jungles which are teeming with life, it is paramount that we work to preserve them.

To view the formal research paper submitted by the Harts and their team to peer reviewed scientific journal Plos One, follow the link below.

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0044271

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