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.’
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.
The speciesCercopithecus 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.