Exploring Mountains in North Wales

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Journey to North Wales

Upon moving back to Britain for several years, having previously worked and studied in some of the world’s most exotic locations, I have certainly been guilty of grumpily overlooking the breath-taking beauty that can be found right here in the UK. I am sure I’m not the only one to dream of the exotic beaches of the Caribbean, the mountainous Rainforests of Peru or the beautiful volcanic expanses of Iceland and wish that I could be anywhere other than dreary old Britain. With its rain, lack of volcanoes and tropical lifestyles it can often feel like a bit of a bore.

Sometimes we become so immune to how lucky we are that we stop seeing the beauty in our own lives. With that sentimental thought in mind, let me take you to my summer 2016, where my love and appreciation of British nature was reignited by a short trip to North Wales.

The Journey
The Journey

In June 2016 I signed up to take an ecology course in and around Cwm Idwal, a mountainous region in the North of Snowdonia. I had some reservations about going, partly because it was so close to the leaving date for my research in Madagascar, and partly because I was convinced that it would be pouring with rain the whole time. What if I missed the two weeks of sun that makes up the entirety of English summer? I would be devastated.

Much to my surprise and immense happiness, we arrived in Wales via a travel sickness-inducing minibus right at the beginning of a two week heatwave, one which would begin on our third day and end the day that we left. I would like to thank the God of weather for that, praise be to sunshine.

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Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve

Our first stop was Cwm Idwal itself, the hanging valley where Llyn Idwal can be found pooled in its centre. This particular day was intermittently torrential, the last hacking cough and sneeze from the clouds that would be wiped away by the next day. We trod through the valley, learning about its geological history and marvelling at the quartz that strikes its grooves into bare rock.

Despite wading through the rain, breathing in more water than air, I couldn’t help enjoying myself. The place is phenomenal. It’s strong and massive without being domineering, the grassy patches run up the sides of mountains making way for thin waterfalls. Scrambling along rocky river banks, my soggy sandwiches long-forgotten, I discovered worlds which could’ve been the setting of ancient Welsh folklore. Surrounded in mist, the river hurried along and I slid around the rocks, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like millions of years ago.

In the Ordovician period (485-443 million years ago) the region of Cwm Idwal was covered in a shallow ocean. Sedimentary rock formed through layers of compression on the ocean bed, along with igneous rock formed from the larva of volcanoes. Tectonic plate movement eventually caused these layers to fold together and rise up forming the Idwal Syncline. Glaciation during the ice age eroded and shaped the land to the landscape that can be seen today.

We sampled plenty of freshwater sites around Cwm Idwal, searching for invertebrates as indicators of the water quality in relation to its surroundings. I spent a lot of time in outrageously long wellies. Rivers and lakes are teaming with life far beyond just fish and ducks. Take a closer look next time you find yourself at a water body, really look, and you’ll see hundreds of tiny invertebrates whizzing around the water, skating over the surface or rummaging through the beds. These tiny organisms are vital indicators for pollution levels and are irreplaceable food sources for many other amphibians, fish and wildlife.

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Research in my Wellies.

Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve Tips

The tracks and paths are well-maintained and clear, though it is easy to wander off them and explore a little more. If you want to take things further, there are plenty of opportunities for rock climbing. Plenty of the climbs are easy but there are certainly more difficult ones to be found. So if you are a climber, Cwm Idwal is definitely somewhere you will want to check out in the North of Wales.

Parys Mountain

From the stunning natural landforms of Cwm Idwal to something completely different: The man-made lakes and hills of the deceptively named Parys Mountain. When I heard we would be hiking around Parys Mountain (in my head, Paris Mountain) surveying lakes in the boiling sun, I had beautiful visions of Mount Snowdon Mark 2. I expected a suave, mountainous area covered in flowers and all the natural beauty that Wales had to offer. This was not the case.

Parys Mountain is an abandoned copper mine. It’s not a mountain, it’s a pit. But a gorgeous one at least, located in north east Anglesey. You can imagine my surprise when we pulled up to completely flat land, and had it announced that this was Parys Mountain. Despite my disappointment I was quickly enthralled by this Mars-like dusty red area, full of warning signs and holes in the land just begging to be explored. 

Parys Mountain
Parys Mountain

The history of Parys Mountain makes it particularly special. The mine dates back to thousands of years ago during the Bronze Age, where the mining of the copper ore first began. This was discovered when mining resumed here in the 18th century, and it was quickly realised that they were following in the footsteps of others.

Various castoffs of the mining process still remain in Parys mountain, polluting the water causing various surreal colouration’s of reservoirs. Once again, we were surveying invertebrates to determine the impact of these different contaminations on local wildlife. Not much other wildlife survives here due to the high levels of pollution and soil contamination. 

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Reservoirs at Parys Mountain

Parys Mountain Tip

I didn’t realise this at the time, but there are actually some sections of the mine you are allowed to enter with the correct guidance and equipment. For more information and to arrange a tour, contact the Parys Underground Group. Definitely my plan for next time!

Mount Snowdon

Of course our trip would never be complete without an arduous climb up Mount Snowdon. Dogs and children bounded ahead of us as we struggled our way up an increasingly cold mountainside. I developed a fear of heights four to five years ago after falling off a cliff in Australia, and had only recently recovered in part due to working at a theatre with a very, very high Upper Circle level. I was concerned that I would panic the whole way up the mountain, but I think that when you are somewhere inspiring, things like fears begin to matter less and ebb away. I walked close to the edge to challenge myself not to feel scared, and by the time I got to the top of the mountain I was happily dangling my feet over the edge, thrilled that Wales had thrown my fear of heights out of my brain and off the mountaintop. I got the most pleasant feeling being up high and seeing birds flying lower than me. I spend so much time feeling jealous of birds, that it feels pretty good to be higher up than them for once.

I'm on the edge.
On the edge.

Mount Snowdon Tip

I was looking forward to getting the old train back down the mountain, but when I got to the top we discovered that the train is about four times more expensive to get back down than it is to go up. Presumably this is to take advantage of exhausted climbers. I wasn’t exhausted I just really like trains, and was pretty sad to have to use my boring feet again. If you want to get the train I’d strongly recommend getting the train up and walking back down, you’ll be able to enjoy the scenery just as much.

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My Impressions of North Wales

After leaving Wales I swore I would be back, and soon. I’d spent a large portion of my trip imagining how I would go about moving to Wales (as I do with everywhere I go), and what kind of house I would live in (A teeny cottage in a valley by a tree, FYI). I felt I’d connected more with the nature on my (almost) home-turf, and couldn’t wait to get back home and start exploring my beautiful forests and hills again.

General Advice for Visiting North Wales

Despite our luck with fairly consistent hot and clear weather, it can change in a matter of minutes. Bring waterproofs, sunscreen and plenty of layers. Make sure that you visit the towns and villages nearby as they themselves provide a quirky insight into how life has flourished in the beautiful North. Go places and do things you’d normally shy away from, there are plenty of incredible places to go and things to see, all you need is time. 

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Madagascar Adventure Part 6: Students and Scenery in Matsedroy

Be-a-utiful sunrise at Matsedroy.

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

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

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

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

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

Matsedroy - By Lewis Kramer
Matsedroy – By Lewis Kramer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moving to Matsedroy

Wading through rivers to Matsedroy - photo by Jenni Lucy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Jenni Lucy.
photo by Jenni Lucy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Day for Madagascar and Britain

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

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

BREXIT

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

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

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

“Have you heard the news?” asked one.

“What news?” I said.

“About the referendum.”

“Oh yeah! Are we in?”

“No, we’re leaving the EU.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

A winning combination
A winning combination

Going Down the Pub

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

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

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

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

Madagascar’s Independence Day Celebrations

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

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

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

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I’m rocking the flowery dungarees.

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

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

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Boxing in Madagascar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Stephanie xxx

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Base Camp Life in Madagascar

Mouse lemur - Taken by Lewis Kramer

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

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Tree in Mahamavo forest – Taken by Hannah Williams.

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

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

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

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

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

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Staff members Ali, Michael and Jenni demonstrating beautifully.

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

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

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

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Grazella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is why I now have French and Spanish duolingo.

More next week on botany research and camp life!

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

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