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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The amenities were similar to those of base camp. There were bucket showers, long-drop toilets and an open common area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Learn more about the challenges and fun times that I encountered in Matsedroy next Tuesday at 6pm.
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 usstraight 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
There was no announcement, no introductions or explanations. People just started circling the field with their fists raised, literally looking for a fight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Madagascar is an island off the southeast coast of Africa, well-known for its spectacular biodiversity. Over half of all known chameleon species can be found here, as well as tenrecs, lemurs and baobabs.
Many of the species found in Madagascar are endemic, meaning that they are not found anywhere else in the world. This makes the region even more important, as medicines and other such uses may be sourced from plants here and nowhere else. The unique beauty of the area is important to conserve, as we will never have a replica.
Mahamavo is located in the Northwest of Madagascar, and consists of dry forests, wooded grassland-bush land mosaic and several large mangrove areas on the coast. It is located in the region of Mahajanga at an average elevation of 469 feet above sea level. Mahamavo is sparsely populated at 23 people per mile and the greatest natural threats to the area are droughts and cyclones. The warmest month is October, with an average temperature of 33.9˚C at midday and coolest is July with an average of 16.9˚C at night. The temperature is relatively constant all year round, though it does decrease significantly at night. August has on average the greatest amount of sunshine, peak rainfall occurs during the wet season in January and dry season occurs around June. The climate in Mahamavo is humid and classified as a tropical savanna with a tropical dry forest biozone.
These forests and wetlands hold incredible diversity, Diurnal lemurs such as Coquerel’s Sifaka and the Common Brown lemur are present in this area, as well as 5-6 nocturnal lemurs.
Two notable species found in the Mahamavo region are Oustalet’s and Angel’s chameleon.
The wetlands in the region are home to the critically endangered Madagascar fish eagle and the endangered Humbolt’s heron.
Fossa are carnivorous cat’s endemic to Madagascar, found in the Mahamavo region, as are Uroplatus geckos.
The Madagascar flying fox and the Nile crocodile are also found in the Mahamavo region.
Vegetation found in Mahamavo forests include Commiphora, Dalvergia, Hildegardia, Fernandoa madagascariensis, Croton elaeagni, Alchornea perrieri, Dalbergia spp., Euphorbia stenoclada and Delonix spp. Biogeographically the Mahamavo region is located between Northern and Western species pools, this results in a wealth of incredible species being present, but as always there is still so much more to be discovered.
Threats to Mahamavo
Threats to Mahamavo, including the Mariarano and Matsedroy forests, include fire, climate change, coal production and the expansion of agriculture.
Human activity is present in the Mahamavo region, particularly the Mariarano forest where communities rely on the forest for food, fuel, building materials and medicine. The wetlands are used for fishing, which is the main resource for the coastal communities present.
Human populations in the Mahamavo region are found in the Dry forests, such as Mariarano, where several thousand people reside. Subsistence farming is common here, where rice, maize and manioc is grown, and Zebu is kept. Sources of income include mat-weaving, raffia palm harvesting, charcoal production and forest resource extraction.
The most common fuel in Madagascar is wood and charcoal. This means that charcoal production is in high demand, which has caused large scale deforestation. Although forest fires are illegal, there is little official enforcement. Many local villagers may value the natural forest highly, but outsiders are known to come to the forests to produce charcoal. Local people have little power or incentive to prevent this, and a fear of conflict acts as a deterrent. In order to produce charcoal a license is required. However most people involved in charcoal production in these areas are unaware of the need for licensing, and as there is little official presence it is of no concern. There are no charcoal plantations in the Mahamavo region, meaning that it all comes from the burnt forest itself. The current production of charcoal is not sustainable in Mahamavo, particularly as dry forests regenerate very slowly.
Timber extraction also causes huge problems for the conservation of forests. The wood is sold as construction materials. Yam is often grown in burnt forest clearings, preventing forest regeneration. Slash-and-burn techniques are used to clear pastures for Zebu as well as crops. Agriculture and Livestock contribute 60-80% of the income for the local population.
As there are no land rights in Madagascar, if a farmer’s land becomes drained of nutrients and is therefore no longer fertile, then the farmer has permission to clear an adjacent piece of land, usually done through the slash and burn technique, wherein vegetation is first cut and then burned before planting begins. The same applies for zebu grazing.
As well as the obvious habitat loss caused by the slash and burn technique, it can also result in the death of animals which are unable to outrun the fires. The knock on effects of slash and burn include soil erosion and decreased land fertility.
Lemur hunting occurs in the forests, with the most common target being the common brown lemur. Coquerel’s sifakas are not hunted as local populations believe it to be fady (taboo) to do so as they have some very human-like features. However immigrants to the area rarely follow this rule and hunting still occurs. Lemur traps are used for hunting, and are indiscriminate as to which species they capture.
Darts and blowpipes are used to hunt birds such as Helmeted Guinea fowl. Madagascar fish eagles are hunted by stealing the young and using them as bait to lure the adult into a trap. The African Darter and Nile crocodile are also hunted in the wetlands around Mariarano. Feral cats and dogs may be involved in competition with endemic species, resulting in the over-predation of smaller mammal species found in the forests.
Any species that causes damage to a farmer’s crops is seen as a pest, this includes lemurs which eat from fruit trees. This can result in traps being set out, as most farming in the Mahamavo region is subsistence farming, therefore there is a thin line between having enough food for the whole family and having to go without.
How do we Protect an Area such as the Forests of Mahamavo?
Provide educational facilities focusing on sustainable agriculture and use of forest resources.
Develop alternative livelihoods, for example sustainable charcoal production which would protect the forest, improve soil in degraded areas and provide a stable income for locals.
Reduce the consumption of charcoal through the introduction of cleaner and fuel-efficient cooking stoves. This would also reduce the incidence of disease arisen from fuel, reduce the destruction of forests and decrease the cost of living.
Introduce alternative energy sources such as solar power.
Establish research stations to implement and maintain management efforts.
Develop small-scale ecotourism to provide constant employment in the area, as well as increase the incentive for locals to protect the forests.
Utilise local culture to benefit conservation. Fady (taboo) differs between villages; in some areas, when the head of the village dies they are buried in the village grounds, then the entire community ups sticks and settles in a new area. The area where the former monarch is buried then becomes sacred, and no one may enter it. In this way, various regions on Mahamavo are protected through Fady.
Barriers to Implementing a Conservation Plan
Many locals simply are not aware of the international value of many of their native species. Over 70% of Madagascar’s population reside in rural areas, and only 3% have access to electricity, thus resulting in biomass being their main source of fuel.
Education on the importance of species found in the region is very much needed, because if the global significance of Madagascar’s ecosystems and their inhabitants are unknown to the locals, it is difficult for them to take pride in protecting their native regions, or to feel the urgent need of this protection to happen. Many locals, being unaware of the protected status of certain species, do not know that they are committing a crime when certain animals are hunted. It is important for the region to have educated citizens on the status of their immediate environment, protecting the area.
I will be travelling to the Mahamavo region in June 2016 in order to aid with this important research. I will be investigating the abundance of important endemic plant species in the area, and how their proximity to local populations, soil pH and climate impacts their growth. In this way my research will help to advise which areas are of most value to conserve in the region. I will also be using this research for my third year Bioscience undergraduate dissertation, as I hope to go into a tropical forest ecology research career in the future, with a key focus on botany.
If you would like to read more about what I will be doing, or are interested in supporting my project, then please visit one of the link below.
Now that I have a fairly large readership, I have decided to write a series of blog posts focusing on the more personal aspects of my writing. This post is introducing the story of how my blog came about, and what writing means to me. it will probably be very long, because I love writing and tonight is a beautiful night for it.
TL;DR: I wrote lots, I got depression, I stopped writing, I started getting better, I started writing again, I started this blog, Voila!
The name ‘Life for a Forest’ actually came about meaning something very different to how it most likely comes across.
I have felt throughout my whole life thus far through one manifestation or another, that my main purpose on Planet Earth involves two things: Forests and writing. I can’t tell you why, it just always seemed as obvious and as logical as any other fact of life. All I can say is that writing gives me a happiness and a peace that I generally struggle to find. And when I am standing in a forest, I have a feeling of completion and wholeness that no other situation has ever given me and I doubt ever will.
So when I chose the name ‘Life for a Forest’ what I meant was ‘I am dedicating my life to forests’ in other words ‘MY life for a forests’. I want my life to be all about forests, forever, I’d risk my life to live in and protect any forest, and that’s how the title came about.
It occurred to me days later that ‘Life For a Forest’ actually sounds a lot more like ‘This is what life is like in forests’ and I was relieved, as it made me sound a lot more sane, and a lot less obsessive about plants than I really am.
I started this blog at a bit of a strange crossroads in my life. I had just dropped out of an Ecology and Conservation degree at James Cook University in Australia (I will come to this later) and had moved back home to my parents in Hertfordshire, England. I had no idea what to do, I still had an unceasingly strong passion for nature that had done nothing but flourish amongst the beautiful and wild environment of Queensland, and I was scared, terrified even, but I wasn’t sure what of. I was in the midst of a very intense battle against depression, and it was a battle I very much felt I was losing.
I had been suffering from depression since I was 11, caused when one of the key rules a lot of lucky children, including myself, learn early on: ‘adults can be trusted’, was completely broken. I was embroiled in a court case as a witness. I wrote a lot at this time, and everything I had written I handed over to the police in complete faith, including the event I had documented first hand, being assured it would help the victim and I truly believed it would. In court, my writing was unceremoniously manipulated and deliberately misinterpreted, I was questioned with an unrelenting nastiness. I can still picture the defence lawyer’s face sneering at me. My writing was completely used against me, and managed to successfully convince a jury that I was lying; I was not. The consequences of this situation were absolutely devastating, and as an eleven year old I shouldered the blame and subsequent guilt completely, and silently. I stopped writing for myself at that point, no more stories no more diaries, nothing. Just school work, and barely that to be honest.
Because depression seeps into every aspect of your life, and into everything that you are as a person. My depression only worsened over the next year, as I moved schools after the event, from a mixed state school to an all-girls private school where I absolutely did not fit in. Making friends in my emotional state was pretty impossible and I barely uttered a word to anyone for 6 months. My very best friend in the world had gone and gotten a brain tumour, and I really thought that she might die (she didn’t, she’s alive and wonderful). I needed a friend more than anything at this time, but instead I was an alien in a new school, and my best friend was in no fit state to comprehend my situation, plus she needed me more.
I went from being a loud, friendly, talkative, hardworking and intelligent child to a super withdrawn, angry and rebellious person. I didn’t trust or respect adults one bit, barring my family (thank God for that), so as far as I was concerned teachers could go do one if they thought I was going to do any stupid work for THEM. I think this kind of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot rebellion is quite common in kids, the consequences for me of that decision have been pretty dire. I sailed through GCSE’s with excellent grades by cramming the night before and getting by on intelligence alone; A-levels and my first attempt at a degree did not fare so well at all. It is only now, in the last three years, that I have been able to actually work.
So I was miserable, I was resentful, I wasn’t writing. In order to prevent you from having to read about my entire life story (though it’s getting close), let’s skip ahead to 6th form. I moved from the private school to an excellent mixed state school 6th form and I loved it. It was totally different. I had loads of friends, I went to parties every weekend, and adventures were rife… Did I work? Nope. And not because I didn’t want to, but because I’d spent so many years deliberately not doing so that I simply didn’t know how to. I don’t think anyone could’ve shown me how either, my brain needed a complete overhaul and I was too busy experiencing this new form of happiness to figure that out.
I had an amazing group of friends at the time, they encouraged me a lot, even if they didn’t know it. They noticed my creativity and enjoyed it. A pivotal moment for me was when a few of us went on a camping trip to Wales when I was 17. Someone had brought along a notebook and we were writing about everything that was going on together. I basically commandeered said notebook and scribbled away the whole time, and my friends read it, they laughed at it, they loved it. So I started keeping a journal again, because this was a very different reaction to the last time my writing was shared.
A very proud moment for me was when my friends and I went on holiday to a villa in Spain a year or so later. I was up to my 4th journal. I still hadn’t been able to write just for myself though, I had a niggling fear, almost fully subconscious, that something awful would happen if I did. So everything I wrote, I wrote as a watered down ‘safe’ version of myself, assuming it would be read. Whilst on this holiday, we would all be sitting around the pool, and my friends would be passing around my journal like it was a novel, they’d be fully engrossed one after the other. That was a wonderful moment for me.
In reality it was a load of crappy writing, and they were almost certainly only reading it to see what I’d written about them, but they’d laugh and they’d say unprompted that they enjoyed it, and that meant a lot more than they could’ve known.
Despite having this new found happiness in 6th form, I was still totally and utterly depressed. Contradictory right? Actually no, there is this complete misconception with depression that all it is, is feeling sad. Having a bad day, crying a bit and the like.
No. No no no no no. I cannot emphasise enough the amount of no that kind of thinking requires. The most literal and apt description for it, the way I experienced it, is that I had this thick, black, dark river flowing nonstop inside of me, and all this happiness, this was just surface debris getting mixed up in it. It may sound a bit dramatic, but I’ve never thought of a simpler way to explain my depression to anyone.
After school I worked full time in Boots for a year. It was the single most boring decision I have ever made, but it was to save money to go to university in Australia.
Saving money didn’t work out. As my dad likes to point out, he can tell if I’m feeling down because suddenly a mountain of ASOS parcels will appear at the door. However, due to savings, and a recent inheritance (all now gone of course, thanks in part to depression) I was able to afford to go to university in Australia.
Why Australia? Actually the real question is why university, because I was in no position at all to be trying to study. I was still crippled by a depression that I just refused to acknowledge. One of the things that, upon hearing, I am almost guaranteed to lose my temper over these days, is somebody trying to dismiss depression as anything less than the serious and potentially fatal illness that it is. One of the reasons it took me 8 years to seek help was due to all the nonsense I heard from various people putting forward totally dangerous, let alone wrong, ideas about people with depression being weak, attention-seeking, pathetic. I was NOT going to be a pathetic attention seeker, I, Stephanie Martin, was tough.
I have since learnt that asking for help when you need it is not weak. Seeking treatment for an illness is not pathetic. Opening up to someone about a mental illness is one of the bravest and most difficult things a person can do, because I would say 30-40% of people will respond with scorn, and still do.
One of the reasons I am happy to write this blog post is because I spent so long ashamed, hiding what I was going through, or underplaying the effects it had on me. But over the last two years I decided that you know what? I am so proud of me. I am so incredibly proud of myself for getting through such a horrible and degrading illness, and I honestly couldn’t care less if anyone gave me crap about my openness. If by being open, just one person reads or hears me talking openly and candidly about depression, and decides they can seek help or chooses to stop feeling guilty for being sick, then I will gladly take any level of nastiness or inconvenience that could ever come my way.
Despite all the talk though, the honest truth is that even as I write this I am feeling anxious about posting it, to the point where I am not even sure that I will. What will my new friends think? Will it embarrass or upset anyone? What if current or future employers see this? But then I picture me, age 11, 12 , 13 and so on for years, crying my eyes out in a variety of toilet cubicles, scared to death and not understanding these horrible feelings and frightening thoughts, and suddenly I don’t give a damn how this comes across. I want everyone out there to know that it’s not shameful to be depressed, the same way it’s not shameful to have cancer, diabetes or any other illness, it just is what it is, and you can survive it.
For as long as I can remember I felt trapped in England. I’d look out the front window of my parents’ house and see road, and houses and pavement and know that it stretched unrelenting all over England except for little pockets of preserved, yet constantly threatened nature. I’d look out the back window at our lovely garden, and see the fences surrounding it, and the fences surrounding all the other lovely little gardens, and I hated it. I hated how nature was stomped all over, then tiny patches protected and manicured, when in my opinion nothing could be more beautiful than total unmanaged wilderness. I wanted to be running wild in nature, risking my life around snakes and scorpions, climbing trees, scratching up my legs and getting lost, like Gerald Durrell in ‘My Family and Other Animals’. So I spent years trying to think of ways in which I could go to one of these incredible things I’d seen on the TV called rainforests. I used to watch a TV show where a bunch of kids went to the Amazon and got to do survival skills there, and I’d feel so jealous I’d just cry (I did a lot of crying when I was younger), I was desperate to go.
So I decided that the only logical route would be education, but not something sensible like get a degree in England with the help of student loans, build a career, study abroad etc etc as my dad suggested. No, I decided there was no time at all for that, I might die tomorrow, I must go now! Screw the system! So I packed off by myself, having just turned 19, and turned up in Australia with a suitcase, not knowing anyone in the country… with the hefty baggage of depression.
I could write essay after essay on my time in Australia (and I’m sure you believe me if you’ve read this far!) But I will try to keep it to the basics. It was amazing. I hate the word amazing because it’s so underwhelming, so undescriptive, but unless you can spare several hours of your life reading detailed prose it will have to do.
No longer was I a person trapped in an outskirts-of-London county, I was free, FREE! And boy did I make the most of it. Forget about uni, I certainly did, I was far too busy hiking in rainforests, reading about the tropical plants, swimming in waterfalls, exploring mangroves and a million other things. I had no time to be sitting in a dark windowless lecture hall, listening to a person tell me things that I was supposed to memorise, however interesting I most likely would’ve found them if only I had listened.
Two things happened in Australia: 1) I accepted I had depression and started getting treatment, 2) I started keeping journals for myself.
I went to counselling sessions, they taught me extremely basic things through CBT. I would recommend Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to anyone as a starting point. I also went on medication, the pills enabled me, for the first time since I was a young child, to think clearly. To understand which of my thoughts were real and my own, and which were fake. To calm my emotions and feelings of fear and guilt enough to think straight and begin to sort myself out.
I also found that writing helped me in a way I could never have imagined. When I wrote I could think clearly. When I wrote in my journal, it was a huge brain dump that enabled me to sort the important thoughts from the pointless muddle, it was incredibly therapeutic.
Obviously, my non-attendance, non-working state at university would have consequences. Despite treatment, and despite my magical Australian best friend and her equally magical mother giving me oodles of totally undeserved support, I fell deeper in depression than I ever had been. I was homesick, Australian culture was a lot more different to English culture than I had expected. I had some very negative experiences and I missed my family like nothing else. I spent a pretty solid month lying on a mattress of my friend’s mother’s dining room floor, which must’ve been super annoying but they were so amazingly supportive, then I got on a plane and came back home to England.
I worked odd jobs, I don’t recall most of them, I do remember deciding at one point that acting was easy money and I should just be an actress then buy a rainforest and protect it. Unsurprisingly that didn’t work out for me. So instead, I decided to start this blog, not for money but because I needed a way to discover and express all the things that I am passionate about, now that I couldn’t go frolicking around rainforests anymore.
I continued to receive treatment, a key turning point was seeing a psychiatrist called Stuart at the Mind network. I have to name him because he was absolutely incredible, and I owe him so much. For the first time, age 21, 10 years after the fact, I sat down and talked about what had happened to me all those years ago, and how I truly felt now. He spent weeks helping me piece together how my experiences as a child affected my behaviour, and consequential mental state. He completely validated the way I’d felt for 10 years, he apologised on behalf of all the adults who had wronged me, and he was the perfect amount of sympathetic and pragmatic, he really cared, and didn’t make me feel daft at all.
And he encouraged me to keep writing. My family encouraged me to keep writing. My friends encouraged me to keep writing. The endorphins that get released every time I put pen to paper or finger to keyboard encouraged me to keep writing. So I keep writing and I will never stop again.
I’d like to leave my post there, but take this as an epilogue. Once I’d found my feet mentally, I went back to a new college and I retook my A levels.
I applied to study Natural Sciences at University (I even got an offer at Cambridge! I will never not be proud of that) and I ended up at the perfect university for me, Canterbury Christ Church in Kent. I am in my second year now, I got a First at the end of my first year and am working hard to make sure this trend continues. I have two jobs, one as an usher at a theatre and one as a snail care assistant. I love them both. I spent last summer doing a molecular biology internship with tarantulas, and this summer will hopefully be going to Madagascar to do a tropical botany dissertation (find out more here: http://lifeforaforest.com/2015/11/15/tropical-botany-and-ecology-dissertation/ ). I have fallen in love with the person of my dreams (I had literal lists of criteria a future partner must have and I was set that I would not date unless somebody met them, they were extensive, he surpassed them, I’m impressed), and we live together in the perfect little house. I write my blog, I’m writing a fiction novel, I’m setting up the new science magazine for my university and writing a thousand other things, which I will soon be collating onto a separate blog page.
I am aiming to go into tropical botany as a researcher, to one day live abroad in a rainforest permanently, to champion the conservation of forest environments and to work as a science journalist and fiction writer. Watch this space 😉
I have signed up for an expedition with Operation Wallacea, to spend 6 weeks this summer in Madagascar collecting data for my third-year dissertation.
I will be studying how the distribution of particular species of plants differs, based on certain environmental factors such as elevation, climate and human disturbance. This type of research is vital for conservation efforts, it allows us to determine how common a species is, which areas are of primary importance to conserve, and how human activities may be harming the distribution of particular plants. As Madagascar has a high percentage of endemic species, this is of particular importance to investigate.
I am working hard to build a career based around tropical botany and ecology, as well as science communications. This would be such an incredible opportunity to learn the skills I will need to pursue this dream.
The drawback is, of course, money. I have calculated that I need to raise £4832 in total to cover the cost of the expedition, transport, equipment etc. This means that I will be doing a lot of begging, borrowing and stea…. wait no just the first two. I will also be doing lots of fundraising. I don’t have long to raise the money, so I have set up a couple of things already.
Firstly there is something that ANYONE can help me with for FREE, it literally won’t cost you a penny, seriously! You simply click on this link http://www.easyfundraising.org.uk/causes/stephaniemartin (click on picture below if the link isn’t working) and it takes you to my ‘easy fundraising’ page. From here, you follow the instructions to sign up. Once you’ve done that, every time you go to shop online at one of THOUSANDS of online retailers, That company will donate a % of the money to me! It costs you nothing, but would help me so much, so if you are able to then please do take the time to do this, you can even download a toolbar widget, which pops up when you go to checkout and allows you to activate easyfundraising with just a click!
I have also set up my gofundme page: https://www.gofundme.com/pkaasedw (click on the picture below if the link isn’t working) it has a lot more details on it, and if anyone wants to they can make a direct donation, even just £1 makes all the difference.
The next step will be to write to institutions, companies and organisations requesting grants and sponsorships. I’m sure this will be very time-consuming but luckily I love writing! So hopefully I will be able to obtain some support. I am also increasing my hours at my excellent part-time job and am planning on saving as much of my income as possible each month to go towards the cost of this expedition.
I’m sure there will be lots more activities and plans that will be developed before the summer, and I will write up any interesting ones on here.
I will also definitely be writing up my experiences in Madagascar as part of this blog, so stay tuned for that!
Thanks very much for taking the time to read this.