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  • Abi Starr

Madagascar Diaries (before edit)

Here's a piece I've recently submitted, an embellished form of the diary I wrote whilst in Madagascar in 2018.


The word count for this assignment was between 2000-3000 words. This version is around 3600. At a later point I may post the edited version, after I had cut it down.


Madagascar Diaries


Four weeks. I was there for four weeks. How did that happen?


Madagascar is a mecca for wildlife enthusiasts the world over. With so many endemic species, it’s at the top of many a naturalists ‘must visit’ list. In order to preserve as many of these species as possible, charity Operation Wallacea studies extensively here. To do all this research, they need help; and that’s where I came in. I’d bagged a sought after place as a research assistant, set to spend three weeks on the mainland in the dry forest and one week on Nosy Be, snorkeling on the reef.


The journey was filled with so many emotions, I couldn’t keep up. It had been around ten years since I’d last been on a plane, and I’d certainly never flown eleven hours before! Excitement grew with every hour closer to that magical land. The butterflies in my stomach were also there for another reason. Would my body cope? Have I spent all this money and come all this way for nothing?


We arrived into Antananarivo (or ‘Tana’) and spent three hours in the airport, waiting for luggage, sorting visas and exchanging currency. I think we got to the hotel around two or three AM, but at this point I was so tired it was all a blur.


The next day arrived in a flash. Luckily the schedule was bare, so could spend the day as we pleased. A group of us jumped in a taxi and visited the misnamed ‘Crocodile farm.’ It wasn’t a farm at all, more like a zoo. We walked through a gorgeous reptile house to begin with. The exhibits were amazing.


Outside was a little less impressive. The first enclosure housed a pair of fossa (who were a lot smaller than I’d imagined). They weren’t in great shape, had cuts and scrapes all over them and stunk, but as I didn’t know their stories, I tried hard not to judge.


Wending and winding our way down to the crocodiles we saw hognose snakes and tortoises in outside pens as well as wild chameleons. Most exciting though, was our first glimpse of the main Malagasy attraction. A lemur! A Coquerel’s sifaka to be precise. He was wild, but had been living in the trees within the farm for a while, he was safe and often got fed, so he’d made a good choice.

The next day involved 14 hours on the road, in a cramped minibus with no air conditioning. Tough going, but pitstops, such as the one taken at a beautiful lagoon, made it bearable. We called it a day and stopped at the pre-booked hotel on the beach. My first experience of sleeping under a mosquito net. I found it quite claustrophobic at first, but exhaustion soon took over and I fell asleep.


Yet more travel the following morning. At lunchtime we finally pulled into the camp and stretched our legs in relief. After lunch, it was time for a tour of the (very basic) facilities. No running water, no flushing loos. But lemurs! A group of sifakas joined in and welcomed us to the camp with noisy chanting. The rest of the day was filled with lectures and getting to know the camp. We then flopped down in tents to get some well needed sleep before our first survey the following morning.

Forest plots. Trust them to put me on damn trees first. Not a great start. I find trees rather boring and it was hard to stay enthusiastic as we took their measurements and plotted their positions. Back to camp and the sifakas showed up again – we could look forward to this being a daily occurrence. The afternoon brought a butterfly survey. I was useless. Did not catch a single specimen. I wasn’t much better in the evening, when we were supposed to be catching spiders. But I did make a friend – a moth, with a wingspan of at least ten centimetres took a rest on my shirt. I had a living brooch for all of fifteen minutes as I crashed through the undergrowth looking for arachnids.


The next day filled me with excitement. My first lemur survey. At this point, I still couldn’t quite believe I was actually in Madagascar, so it felt like a dream. The four hour session was chock full of delight; not only of the primate kind, but also of the reptilian. We saw multiple snakes, including an amazing ground boa who we picked up and handled for around quarter of an hour before sending him on his way. We were being briefed for a lemur watch in camp when my heavy eyelids began to close. I was disappointed, I’d not expected to be struggling this early in the trip.


The next few days were crammed with surveys, lemurs and rice and beans. Lots of rice and beans. I’d had to sit out a few surveys at this point as I just didn’t have the strength, I’d been told the terrain was flat, which was far from the truth. But being left behind in camp wasn’t always a bad thing.


In the morning I’d sat in on mouse lemur data collection and even got a chance to name one. I went with Ian, for Grandad on his 80th birthday. Can’t buy that gift in a store!


After lunch I was sat reading on a bench outside, waiting for the others to return when I suddenly realised I had company. A sifaka from the group feeding in the canopy had noticed some food closer to the ground and inched down the tree trunk. There he was, around head height, less than two metres away. Close enough to touch. I was mesmerised. Even the primatologists in camp couldn’t believe how near he had come. After a while he left to re-join his friends, leaving me with one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

The most unusual creature we encountered in the forest has to be the leaf nosed snake. With scales rough like bark and the namesake appendage on her nose, she was bewitching. Again, so friendly, she had no issues with her measurements being taken and people passing her around. Once she’d become part of the dataset, she was released back in the same spot they’d found her the previous evening.

Day eight was tough. Really tough. We surveyed in the morning (rather unsuccessfully) and then took the three hour trek to our next camp. Nearly all of it was up a steep hill. My heart was not happy. Frequent stops, holding the others up, only made my mood worse. At this point I was ready to tap out and fly home, feeling I’d made the worst decision of my life.


Eventually, my legs screaming, Matsedroy camp came into view. From the top of this hill, it looked lovely. Smaller than base camp, but a lot more open, this was our home for the next few days. Dinner was rice. Again. Alongside a vegetable stew. I wolfed it down and was disappointed there wasn’t enough for seconds.

I took my torch and set off to the notice board to have a look at what was in store over the coming days. My heart sank. All of the routes were at least 4 miles long and uphill. How was I supposed to go on surveys here? Deep breath. I found the camp manager and explained my concerns. She couldn’t have been more lovely. She said I could do as I pleased while in this camp and go out on any survey I wanted to. She also said that a lot would be happening in camp, so I could also stay put and still get a lot out of my time.

The next day, my mood was a little brighter, helped by a reading session and nap in one of the hammocks. I’ve never used a hammock before and found it surprisingly comfy. In camp activities included the processing of spiders and leaf tailed geckos. A challenging survey in the evening brought the number of lemur species I’d seen up to six, I still couldn’t believe how relaxed they were around humans.


My penultimate day at Matsedroy saw me spend most of my time in camp playing games with the team, but, once the sun had set, I took part in a frog survey. Walking around the lake we saw scorpions, crocodiles and lots of snakes. But the frogs were the main focus of this survey and they didn’t disappoint, they were everywhere. I didn’t catch a single one, reflexes too slow. Other members of the group were much more successful and even caught one that was probably a new species! Back in my tent I wrapped up warm in my sleeping bag and was out for the count almost immediately.

Day twelve saw a lot of walking. From Matsedroy back to base camp in the morning and then another two hours on to Antafiameva after lunch. Before arrival, I knew Antaf was the smallest of the camps, but it still surprised me just how tiny it truly was. Bagged my own tent here as there were so few of us, I finally had some space to myself and it was great.


What I really loved about Antaf was that a lot of the surveys were done on a boat, not too much walking! We surveyed for crocodiles and wetland birds, chugging up and down on the river in a boat that felt it could capsize and with a captain who was almost blind.


One of the most exciting sightings of the whole trip came during my time in Antaf, we were out on the river and a bird of prey flew over, but it wasn’t just any bird of prey. A Madagascar fish eagle. There were fewer than 100 of these majestic hunters in the wild at this point, so I felt truly privileged to see it.

This was week two and I still sucked at catching butterflies. I began to think I’d never catch one. But it was still fun to try and also watch the others bounding around, nets in hand. On our fourth or fifth crocodile survey, we finally saw what we were after. The herpetologist told us that numbers were drastically down on previous years due to the Malagasy people being desperate for food and hunting them for meat. It was sad to think that these people had no other option than to hunt endangered species. Another new food was presented at dinner. Bush pig. It was very tasty but also rather tough. It was fun to try all these new foods, but also annoying to know that if we liked them, we wouldn’t be able to get them back home.

Friday 20th July was the night I had my breakdown. I really wasn’t sure how much more I could push my body and again I had the thought that I’d made a mistake by coming. What really set me off was the evening meal. Whole crabs and cold, plain pasta. I really dislike pasta and I absolutely hate seafood. I was so so hungry, but there was nothing I could eat. I forced a few slimy, bland noodles down my gullet and then stepped outside to escape the smell of the crab. I looked up at the stars and really lost the plot. I’m in the southern hemisphere, these aren’t the stars I’m used to; nothing is right here, I’m too far out of my comfort zone, I want to go home.


I spent the rest of the evening crying in a hammock.

The next morning brought a great sense of anticipation. It would soon be the end of the terrestrial survey season and there was to be a party. I wasn’t planning to go as not only do I not ‘do’ parties, but it would also mean walking from Antaf back to base camp and then to Matsedroy in one foul swoop. But I had my arm twisted when the camp staff said the medical emergency car would be going and that there was a seat spare. I decided it would probably be daft not to go in the end.


The evening began with zebu stew and chips. Great combination. Then the music began. First, a traditional Malagasy dance that is always the opener to any party. It was so nice to see everyone smiling, despite how tired we may have felt. Throughout the evening the music went back and forth between Malagasy and Western, it felt bizarre but I went along with it. Dancing around a blaring campfire worked up such a sweat, at least we burned off those chips and some of the donuts we’ve had for breakfast every day since we arrived!


My energy waned after the costume contest and I flopped down in my tent at around 11:30, although the party went on until much later, I didn’t notice and slept like a baby.


The next day there were a few sore heads around the camp as we prepared to leave Matsedroy for the final time. I had a seat in the car again and we arrived back in base camp at around 9am. I was planning to head back to Antaf for my last few days in the forest, but I didn’t have enough left in the tank to walk there and back. Luckily some of the other research assistants were kind enough to pack up my belongings and send them back to me. I paid them in biscuits from one of the makeshift shops in camp. We’d planned to watch a film in camp that night, but we were all too tired and hit the hay early.

Day 18, the 23rd July was a busy and varied day. We started with bird mist netting, leaving camp before dawn. We only caught one bird, shame. The afternoon brought more mouse lemur processing, the data sheets showing that Ian had been caught again while I was at Antaf. We then had a CV workshop, my diary says I found it useful, but I don’t recall why. Out on a route, setting the mouse lemur traps, I hit a target of mine. We saw the critically endangered mongoose lemurs, bringing my lemur count up to seven species, the maximum number active in that region at that time of year. I was chuffed.


I couldn’t face yet more rice for lunch, but luckily one of the women at the shop had made samosas, they were delicious, and only around 25p a time. I wolfed them down, grateful for something with more flavour than boiled beans and plain rice.


I wasn’t up for leaving camp at 5am the next morning, but I was fine with that. Yet more mouse lemur work, we caught Ian! He could have even chosen one of the traps I had set. It was so nice to see him again before I left, and his weight was increasing too.


That afternoon the sifakas graced us with their presence yet again, and one female even had a baby with her. The primatologists had seen her a few times and estimated the baby to be around between six weeks and two months old.


The last activity of the day saw me helping with snake processing with the school students. One poor lad got bitten, but it was the only bite I’d heard of during my time in the forest. There were three snakes of all sizes, the smallest being just 16cm long.


As the evening drew in, we finally got around to watching a film; and what should we choose? Why Madagascar of course! It was so surreal watching the cartoon lemurs bouncing around now we had got to know their real life cousins.

I was all geared up for a survey the following morning, but on crawling out of my tent I found the group had left without me. Hmmm. Ah well, rest time in camp. Unusually, that day brought a lot of rain, which shouldn’t have happened at that time of year. Everyone was thrown off-kilter, human and animal alike. I had a wander around the camp this evening and found two Madagascarophis snakes and a fish scaled gecko. This species is amazing – most geckos can drop their tails when threatened to allow an escape, but the fish scaled gecko sheds its scales instead, leaving it looking like a slimy, naked, uncooked sausage. Very interesting.

Day 21 – yet another unsuccessful herpetofauna survey in the morning. I swear we only saw reptiles when not looking for them! This afternoon we walked into the nearby village and visited the school. I’m not great with kids, but it was a lot of fun. Singing, dancing and games (their favourite is ‘duck, duck, goose!) made the time pass quickly. I couldn’t help but feel a little odd when I realised just how poor these people are. Two sisters only had one pair of shoes between them, one was wearing the right, the other the left and they swapped occasionally. Back in camp, after dinner the Malagasy scientists sang traditional songs for us, it was so nice to experience another culture.

As the sun rose on our final day in the forest, emotional goodbyes were said. I had been so nervous about my health ruining everything, but the people made it a lot easier for me to enjoy my time here. We clambered into the 4x4s and headed across the dust tracks and out of the forest for good. We switched back to the busses when we were out of the forest and travelled to Ankarafantsika national park for the night. Fresh fruit. Wow. We spent the night in the biggest tents yet, 6 of us all in together made certain we wouldn’t get cold.


The earliest start of the trip began the day at 3:30am, we were ready to leave the national park at 5am. The whole day was spent on the road, with just a quick lunch break and a few comfort stops. We reached Ambanja and it was like paradise. Three course meal. Running shower. Proper bed! We were so content we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

The island of Nosy Be was another experience altogether. Think tropical paradise and multiply it by ten. After a lecture we all went for a swim in the sea and watched the sunset on the beach. I was the most relaxed I’d been since I got here. After dinner we went to a nearby bar. Where of all things, they had wi-fi! It wasn’t the greatest but it meant I could contact mum for the first time since we left Tana. I cried, I missed her so much and couldn’t wait to see her again. We headed back to where we were staying and we were so grateful for flushing loos, proper showers and beds again.


I woke with excitement the next morning, for today was our first day of marine activities. I’d never even donned a wetsuit before, let alone snorkelled on a coral reef.


That excitement was short lived. I got into the water for my first session and something happened, was it my tachycardia? Was it a panic attack? I wasn’t sure, but I hauled myself back onto the boat and threw up. I slept through the second snorkel of the day, but was just about able to sit through the lectures and learned a lot. Back in the bar in the evening, I needed to get something to eat as it was pasta for dinner again, chips for the second night running, this would never happen back home!


I felt brave enough to tackle the snorkel again the following morning and was so glad I did. My body still protested, but I ignored it. On the reef were several green turtles, I knew they were big, but I didn’t expect them to be that big. Again, as long as we kept reasonable distance, they were happy to have us in their world, albeit temporarily. I was really looking forward to that afternoon’s lecture: how to identify corals and other invertebrates, but I was so sleepy I barely took any of it in, let alone made detailed notes.


Despite my fatigue, I barely slept that night and woke with a fever. No snorkelling for me today. Quick breakfast and back to bed for a nap. I apparently went to both lectures that day, but I have no recollection. Couldn’t tell you what we were taught. A bit of light hearted fun came in the form of quiz night, just what I needed to take my mind off how awful I felt. My team and I managed joint third, which I was pleased with. I then took an early night in preparation for the next morning and a long snorkel session.

Here, the diary ends and my memory gets foggy. I think I made it out on the reef the next day. As far as I know we travelled to two separate areas to see two species of turtle, but my brain could be making that up. We then had to endure the journey from Nosy Be all the way back to Tana, 623km, no short hop. One final night in a hotel as we waited for our varying flights the next day. I seem to remember it being very cold on the flight to Paris, but nevertheless, I was pleased to be heading home after this trip of a lifetime.

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