Tuesday July 5, 2005
It was our last breakfast at camp, and there was no rice! Instead, it was slices of a rice pudding-type thing plus sweet potato fries.
The camp was all packed up, and we were on the road by , arriving in Majunga two hours later. Six of us were flying back to Tana tonight, with the remaining ones overnighting in Majunga.
We headed out for a walk around Majunga (back in civilization), visiting the craft market, t-shirt shops, bank, and internet café. We also had lunch at a café—burgers, fries, and cold soda. What is this stuff? After hot showers at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to Luke, Julie, Becky, and the participants staying in Majunga. It was a bit sad to be leaving. The two weeks were over so quickly, and we all got along so well.
With the Earthwatch expedition over, it is probably time for a summation and conclusion of sorts on the past two weeks.
The project: Carnivores of Madagascar was an extremely well-organized and well thought-out project from many years of “practice” under the researchers’ belts. In a country where everything runs on Malagasy time, it is monumental to have the women of the village organized into a formal cooperative to run the campsite and have everything delivered in a timely fashion. In addition, the fact that the women have saved the money made from the campground to reinvest and improve the campground and to save for a school for the village is unheard of in Madagascar and something to be commended.
The schedule for the first few days of this project was exhausting. However, as we became more efficient with and knowledgeable about the tasks, the grid checks got easier and quicker, giving us free time to recover for the next trek. It is one of the most physically demanding Earthwatch projects (as reported by eight-time Earthwatcher Andrew). The walking distance covered with the main tasks alone was more than 260 kilometers (162 miles). However, the introduction of the other tasks added variety to the project and gave you the ability to self-pace and match physically demanding tasks with your own capability.
Conditions were basic by our western standards, but we were living well above the local standard. We had two pit toilets, two showers with water hand-pulled from the well (the ability to have a lukewarm shower each day was enough to brighten anyone’s spirit), a warm sleeping bag protected from the weather by a tent, electricity for four hours a day, and three hearty meals a day.
The fossa: Living up to its elusive reputation, I felt privileged to see one. I think all of our “fossa expectations” were fulfilled by our one brief encounter. I’ll never forget the way he strolled down the trail after his capture without a care in the world (or maybe that was the anesthetic?). He was a gorgeous animal worthy of protection, and I hope Madagascar can protect enough forest and wildlife to sustain him.
The Malagasy and the environment: Julie probably described it best when she said “this group got it.” This project wasn’t just about the fossa. If our expectations had been constrained by research of the fossa, then we would’ve been disappointed. But with open minds to learn about the people of Madagascar, what they need, and how the environment and wildlife play a part, we were richly rewarded.
I did think we would be doing wildlife research in a national park in Madagascar for two weeks and learning about the forest ecosystem and the wildlife it contained. The cultural experience and the engagement of the local community was not something I anticipated. And yet, it provided some of the most rewarding experiences of the project.
It was the little things—market day, learning the national anthem for Independence Day celebrations, playing soccer with the kids in the streets, the folklore dance, and working everyday beside the Malagasy—that gave us an insight into the bigger picture. Without the education and engagement of the local people and without providing them with some means to create an income in order to feed their families, the iconic species of the forest will not survive. The optimism of the local villagers and the pride they have for being a part of the AnkarafantsikaNational Park and the wildlife it contains when they have nothing, absolutely nothing, by our material standards, give us hope that Madagascar does have a future.
To end, this Earthwatch expedition has been an incredible experience. Although it was only one small project—in the middle of the AnkarafantsikaNational Park, on the island of Madagascar, in the middle of the Indian Ocean—it does make a difference. I am so grateful to Alcoa for this opportunity and highly recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure and a small inkling to make a difference.
You can read exciting dispatches from other Carnivores of Madagascar expedition participants and learn more about the fossa at this website.
Monday July 4, 2005
We had wet rice, sweet potato fries, and fresh pineapple from town for breakfast this morning. This was the last day of fieldwork for the expedition. The final trap check of JBA in the morning included the retrieval of the chickens and closure of the traps to get ready for the next Earthwatch expedition on Thursday. We saw a great group of sifakas up close, which was a lovely Madagascan farewell to the forest.
In the afternoon, I assisted Luke and Julie with the domestics project. As a veterinarian, Julie offers her services to the local cat and dog population in town. Cats seem to be kept as pets. However, most dogs appear to be strays that get fed once in awhile, so they are definitely lacking in any sort of care.
The main aim of the domestics project is to gather information on disease and parasites that cats and dogs may introduce to wildlife in the forest and to also gather domestic cat blood work for DNA comparison with ‘wildcats’ caught in the forest to determine if they are the same species. The cats and dogs then get a vet examination, parasite check, and rabies vaccination. The males are also neutered. It’s a different veterinary setup, with it all conducted on a tarp on the back of the ute.
In our expedition briefing, days are simply described as “see daily schedule and tasks.” If my diary hasn’t been clear enough on the formality of our days, here is the daily breakdown: : Breakfast—wet rice plus side dish : Morning trap check (JBA, JBB, or savannah) with up to 17 kilometers ((10.6 miles) of walking : Lunch—rice, beans, and meat dish : Siesta : Afternoon trap check (another 17 kilometers of walking) : Shower (clean again!) and generator on (helps to see what you’re doing in the shower) : Dinner—as per lunch! : After-dinner activity, presentation, movie, or guest speaker (chocolate if we’ve been on our best behavior) : Bedtime : Generator off and lights out *Alternatives to trap checks included GIS, road kill, domestics, website dispatches, and scat collection.
This evening, we visited the local village for a folklore dance. This is the village that runs our campsite. By the light of small fires, the women of the village danced and sang in the Malagasy language, with Perot translating the meaning of the songs. It was an awesome experience.
Their pride and joy of living in the national park was clearly expressed through one song, as they recognized that the productive yields of their rice fields (second most productive area in Madagascar) was because of the clean, plentiful water that originates in the forest of Ankarafantsika. Without the forest, the water would be polluted, their fields would be less productive, and their families would starve. So, they must protect their forest.
It was reassuring that they recognized their long-term survival depended on the preservation of the forest.
Sunday July 3, 2005
The rice wasn’t any good this morning. After 10 days of the same rice every day, it was weird for it to be different. And it wasn’t a good different. Beef jerky was the side dish, and this isn’t something I can stomach easily at , I must say. I made an attempt to shovel some rice in, as I knew there wouldn’t be anything until lunch.
We did the savannah grid check this morning and saw lots of birds on the grid census. It was a cool evening and a lovely crisp morning, so maybe they were still out and about rather than hiding from the heat.
We spent 20 minutes at one of the savannah traps trying to recapture one of the chickens. It escaped from the trap yesterday afternoon, and it couldn’t be recaptured. I can’t blame it really, seeing the opportunity for freedom and making a dash for the forest. The only problem in the chicken’s plan was that because the rice at the trap was so appealing (because we all love rice!), the chicken ended up making its way back to the trap in the evening and was still there when we arrived. To cut a long story short, it was 20 minutes of maneuvering by Perot to gently encourage the chicken toward the cage. The rest of us guarded the escape routes to funnel it in, and then there was jubilation as Perot triggered the cage door to shut behind the chicken as it followed the irresistible rice trail into the back of the cage.
We did a JBA grid check in the afternoon, but there was nothing of note.
After dinner, we had another roundtable discussion on our thoughts about the Earthwatch expedition. We all agreed that it was a very well-organized expedition with a good variety of tasks mixed with the grid trap checks. The level of organization for this project in a country of relative chaos is the product of years of work and dedication by Luke and Julie. Most of us then had socioeconomic/environmental comments to make. It was then cards and bed by
Saturday July 2, 2005
We did a JBB grid check this morning, with the return trip via the lake trail rather than the road. I probably spent 40% of it being paranoid about a crocodile leaping out of the water’s edge and taking me out, particularly when the trail just went that little bit too close to the lake’s edge. But it was a nice walk, and we saw the only stand of baobabs in the area.
Julia, Isabelle, and I hired a guide from the ANGAP office for an afternoon walk through the national park. It was a nice change of pace, with a relaxing walk allowing us to see a lot of birds (although probably not any additional species to what we have seen already). Our guide, Olga (a name more appropriate for a woman from eastern Europe rather than a Malagasy woman), was able to tell us about some of the plants of the forest. The key tree species include mahogany, teak, and ebony. The next time we persecute a poor country such as Madagascar for clearing their forests, we should have a look through our furniture catalogs! The highlight of the tour was group of eight common brown lemurs. They were very close to the trail, and we were able to stand and watch them for 10 minutes being moving on.
It was a free evening, with most of us in bed by The early starts and long days start to take their toll by this stage of the trip, so sleep becomes paramount.
Friday July 1, 2005
It is hard to believe that I’ve only been in Madagascar for 10 days. It seems a lifetime ago that I left the busy world of work, computers, and emails behind. I wonder how that inbox is looking.
We had an omelet (from duck eggs) and wet rice today—bit different, eh?
I did the road kill project—a hike along the main road from Tana to Majunga that runs through the park for 17 kilometers (10.6 miles). With the amount of traffic on this road, including large transports between these two major cities, the amount of wildlife being killed is significant. In order to make a recommendation to the park management for a speed limit and speed humps for the portion through the park, the researchers need more accurate information on the number of deaths. From the 25 fossa that have been caught here, two have been killed by vehicles. For a small population, losing 10% through road kill is a significant threat.
It was a morning of contrasts—five freshly killed field mice and one crusty snake embedded in the pavement. Other than that, it was hours of pounding the pavement. It was a long, hot morning, but it was finished by lunch, meaning we had the afternoon free.
We had an excursion in the afternoon to the tortoise breeding facility located in AnkarafantsikaNational Park. It is a community-run facility that breeds tortoises and turtles as part of a recovery program for wild populations.
Our guest speaker this evening was Mary from the U.S. Peace Corps. Based at a village two kilometers (1.2 miles) out of Androfatsika, Mary will help build a school, improve health conditions with the installation of a pit toilet, improve agricultural practices to increase rice yield rather than expand fields into areas of forest, and teach children sanitation and environmental awareness. It’s quite a list of tasks to complete in a two-year stint. It’s also a personal challenge to be the only non-Malagasy person in the village.
Thursday, June 30, 2005
After the exciting breakfast meal of rice and sweet potato fries, we headed out for a savannah grid check with some GPS site work along the way. It was quiet in the forest today, with only a few birds, two snakes, no lemurs, and no fossa.
In the afternoon, I volunteered for the JBB grid check. I have only been to this grid on one occasion before today. It is slightly different than the deciduous forest of JBA. Running alongside LakeRavelobe, the forest is wetter, thicker, and greener (all very scientific terms for forest description). It was a nice change to the dry grassland of the savannah.
Andy, Jack, and Kirk went on a tour of the area surrounding JBA grid with a guide from the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas (ANGAP). They saw sifakas, lepilemurs, a woolly lemur, and a group of brown lemurs at a very close distance. Hopefully Julia, Isabelle, and I will have the chance to take a tour later in the week. It sounds like a nice opportunity to have a relaxed walk through the forest without hoofing it between traps and feeding the chickens.
Dinner was followed by a treat of white, milk, and dark Madagascan chocolate. I hope there isn’t an export limit for the amount of chocolate you can take out of the country. It’s so good.
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
After completing our morning trap checks, we headed into town for market day. This is the only market for the region, so it is a flurry of activity. The one item we all required (boys included) was a lamba—a Madagascan wraparound skirt/sarong—to wear on the folklore dance night held by the women of the village on our final evening. Other than that, this was a chance to stock up on any goodies that we hadn’t seen in a while (sweets and cookies), fresh baguettes, and fresh fruit (bananas, pineapple, oranges, and mandarins). Unlike Australia, where we have the ability to import and transport all kinds of fruits at most times of the year, fruit availability here is strictly seasonal.
Upon the recommendation of Julie (expedition vet), we sampled some chilled homemade yogurt from one of the local cafés. Once seeing it, it’s probably not something you would eat without a recommendation, as it comes served in an old jam jar with a spoon stuck in it. It was tasty, though.
I’m pleasantly surprised at how safe I feel walking through the villages and market here. Last night, Andy and I walked the three kilometers (1.9 miles) home from town at dusk and felt no threat to our safety. The people are inquisitive, and if you give the children the opportunity, they will approach you (in fact, they don’t quite recognize personal space). But, they are innocent and simply intrigued by your presence. We have not encountered any begging of any kind from the children here. On a previous trip to Kenya and Tanzania, the children would ask for money or pens and try to sell you their wares through bus windows! Here, they appear happy with a salama (hello) and a smile.
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
After breakfast (wet rice and fries), it was off for another savannah grid check. We visited the Lavaka again today and went to the top of the radio telemetry tower previously used for tracking fossae tagged with radio collars. Now it is the only location in the district with mobile phone service. It was quite a surreal experience to have Andy call his family in the United Kingdom from a wooden radio tower in the middle of Madagascar!
Between the savannah and JBA grids, we saw a group of four Verreaux’s sifakas. Their fur was a gorgeous chestnut and cream coloring. They were calling and leaping between the branches in the canopy—it was spectacular to watch.
Day-by-day we are seeing more wildlife. They were probably there the whole time, but it just took us a while to learn what to look and listen for.
A leisurely lunch (rice, beans, and meatballs—we can only assume they were zebu) was followed by a restful siesta. We are now getting more efficient with our trap checks, giving us some more free time during the day. It is a more relaxed, self-regulated pace than at the beginning, where it was trap checks from to with a lunch break in between. That’s not enough time to do the important things, like shower, do laundry, and keep the diaries up to date!
In the afternoon, Andy and I went to do GIS work. This project involves picking out areas of vegetation (forest and fields) that can be detected by satellite images in order to locate additional areas of forest that can be added to the Madagascar national park reserve system.
There wasn’t much variety in the vegetation. It was largely agricultural, such as plantations, grazing land, or rice fields. The GIS work itself wasn’t overly exciting, but the scenery was something different to what we have seen near the forest.
On the walk, we passed through several small villages, and all the children would run out to the road to say hello. We saw a group of children playing soccer with a ball of yarn or something. Andy (being a true English football fan) joined in for a kick, and I took a picture of them with the digital camera. Andy then showed the image to the kids and was swamped. Children came running from everywhere—out of the houses, from across the street, etc.—to see the image on the camera.
I didn’t anticipate the engagement and contact with the local community that we have had on this expedition. It would have been so easy to be isolated in the forest studying the fossa for two weeks and not experience the local culture of Madagascar. It has been a real opportunity to see the people of Madagascar in order to gain a better understanding of their interaction with the environment and the challenge it will be to preserve natural areas in the future when they are surrounded by such poverty.
After dinner, Perot gave us another Malagasy lesson in preparation for market day tomorrow. There should be interesting negotiations and bartering going on. We’ll see who gets the better deal!
Monday, June 27, 2005
It is , and Jack and I are waiting at camp for the arrival of our first captured fossa. I am beside myself with excitement. It is difficult to describe the anticipation. Even though this is only day four of our expedition fieldwork, I was already wondering if we would capture a fossa here. We haven’t been seeing as much wildlife (lemurs and birds) as teams have in past years. To walk all of the grid checks twice a day for 10 days without a result would’ve been disappointing. Although we may have been partly expecting it, in the bottom of our hearts we all expected to see a fossa.
It is , and the fossa has been given the reversal for the anesthetic and placed in the holding cage for return to the capture site. It is an absolutely beautiful animal—so sleek and smooth with a gorgeous long tail (not unlike a kangaroo tail). The pads on its feet are just superb and as smooth as the softest leather. It is a healthy male, approximately 2.5 years old, which is encouraging for the status of the population and for the health of AnkarafantsikaNational Park.
The highlight of the afternoon was the release of the fossa back at the capture site. We all had our cameras poised and focused at the cage entrance for the millisecond when the fossa sprints from the trap once it’s opened. He did zip out but then proceeded to meander down the trail, marking his territory as he went in a very relaxed, casual manner. It was reassuring that the trapping and processing didn’t bother him in the slightest.
Sunday, June 26, 2005
Breakfast was wet rice and...can you guess?…an omelet. Fun, isn’t it?
We were out and about early again this morning with the savannah grid check. We needed to finish earlier this morning so we could join in the Independence Day festivities in town.
We saw quite a few birds today, possibly because we were out nice and early while it was still cool. Birding hasn’t really been “my thing,” despite being a zoologist. But Ankarafantsika is renowned for its birdlife, and already I know a dozen or so species, which is something different for me.
We went into the town of Andranafastika for Independence Day. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best (expect those dirty wildlife researchers!), and it was a kaleidoscope of color. It amazed me that among so much dirt and dust how impeccably clean and vibrant their clothing was (does this sound like a washing detergent advertisement?). We obviously lacked the hand-washing ability and were definitely the dirtiest among the crowd.
It was great to visit the local town and get a sense of the local community of Madagascar. The people appear to have so little but always appear content and happy. The younger children were fascinated and loved to have their pictures taken—so cute. We have another opportunity to return to town on Wednesday for market day—it should be good.
Afternoon was a grid check of JBB. The lepilemur from day one was still in the same tree hollow. It was a nice, short afternoon—29 kilometers (18 miles) for the day—and we got the opportunity to have a shower in daylight before the water got too cold with the onset of darkness. What a novelty!
Dinner was a treat, with rice, beans, zebu, and fresh salad. Carrot, tomato, and cucumber never tasted so good. The after-dinner activity was a video made by an Earthwatch participant from last year. We also had our first taste of Madagascar chocolate—very yummy.
Saturday, June 25, 2005
I was awake at anticipating the wake-up call.
Breakfast was…wet rice and fries. By day three, you’ll be able to anticipate the breakfast description. The only trick will be identifying its accompaniment. It’s become the game at breakfast time—“I feel like…” and see what comes with the rice. I don’t mind the rice, actually. If nothing else, it is a great tummy filler until lunch.
This morning, we did our first check of the JBA grid that was set up last night and then we set up the savannah traps. While walking through the grid, we also conducted a census of potential prey items for the fossa. It’s anything with a heartbeat, apparently—birds, lemurs, chameleons, geckos, etc. It was a moderately paced walk through the forest, which was nice. We also had to feed and water the bait, as the cage is the chicken’s new home for the next two weeks…unless they are the unlucky ones that are taken by a hungry fossa!
The other task on the grid check is scat collection for carnivores (fossa, wildcat, and wild dog). The invasion of the wild cats and dogs into the national park is quite recent. The extent to which their diet overlaps with the fossa or what endemic fauna they prey upon is not accurately known.
The savannah grid setup is right along the border with the dry forest and the savannah grasslands. The savannah is quite distinct from the dry forest—open grasslands with only a few tall shrubs, but no trees. The grassland is not very diverse and supports little wildlife.
By the time we had checked the JBA grid and walked through the forest to the savannah, it was the middle of the day and very hot. Carrying a large cage trap over the shoulder with chickens in tow, I think the minimum three-liter (3.2-quart) water consumption requirement was lost quite quickly.
At the end of the savannah is the Lavarka—an enormous erosion gully comparable to a mini Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, it is eroding at such a rate that the forest is being consumed as the gully expands. Even the forest cannot hold the earth together against the erosion.
On the savannah today, I tried a native fruit called moukuthra. With a hard shell that needs to be cracked open, this fruit tastes like a combination of banana and passion fruit. Encased by the shell, the fruit is a slimy ball that floats independently inside the shell—like a brain within the skull (not something to think about while you’re eating!). But it was delicious and lovely to have some fresh fruit.
After a huge morning, we arrived home for lunch at , leaving little time for siesta. I decided to try and hand wash yesterday’s socks. Madagascar red dirt + water = red mud + zero chance of these socks getting back to their original color.
We returned to the savannah for the afternoon grid check. With a roundtrip of more than 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) over 3.5 hours, it is quite a hike to have once a day, but twice was definitely a challenge. The physical demands of the project haven’t exhausted me yet, which is lucky since we’re only up to day two!
We saw a brown lemur on the way home from the savannah. We talked about the expectations we had when we started the project, and I didn’t have too many expectations set. However, once you are immersed in the project, you realize you did have other expectations. The wildlife diversity and endemic lemurs are what Madagascar is renowned for. From touristy brochures that I have seen, you naively kind of expect to see all these lovely lemurs skipping across the trails and leaping between trees before your eyes. It isn’t like that. It’s just like kangaroos don’t hop down the main streets in Australia, I guess.
After dinner, Fred and Perot led us through a Malagasy language lesson, including the national anthem. Tomorrow is Madagascar’s Independence Day, and we are going into town to view the festivities. I hope they aren’t relying on us for a tune! We sounded terrible but had lots of fun trying.
We covered 46 kilometers (28.6 miles) today. Bed time couldn’t arrive fast enough.
Friday, June 24, 2005
Breakfast at consisted of wet rice (rice soaked in hot water as opposed to cooked dry rice) and an egg omelet. Rice is the staple for all of our meals, with wet rice at breakfast and dry rice for lunch and dinner. The television show Survivor has nothing on this! We quickly found that the wet rice is more palatable with the addition of sweetened condensed milk, sugar, and/or cinnamon—just like a rice pudding.
We went through our introductions (again) at breakfast with new arrivals Isabelle and Andy, who arrived late last night.
Our first activity was to set up the JBA grid for trapping fossa (pronounced foo-sa). Cage traps in hand, we headed up the road toward the forest. After the what-I-now-know-to-be-flat-and-easy kilometers up the road, we headed up the not-so-flat-and-easy trail to JBA. It was a tiring trek uphill with cage traps, and I think we all suddenly realized how physically demanding our work was going to be.
This was our first walk through dry forest, and it wasn’t quite what I expected. Funnily enough, it was drier and with deciduous vegetation—not the rainforest image that is portrayed for Madagascar.
After leaving our traps at JBA, we headed for JBB, passing through the Village de Citron—a collection of thatched huts with endless bottles of citrus fruits (hence the name, I guess). We passed the local lake—no swimming, as the sign says the crocodiles bite (don’t have to tell me twice). We saw our first lemur on JBB—a cute sportive lemur trying to get some sleep in a tree hollow while we all snapped away with our cameras. The loop of JBB appeared mostly uphill, including a staircase along five switchbacks. By the time we reached the road again, I was very tired. Not exhausted, but close. And it’s only
After a lunch of rice, beans, and fish, it was afternoon siesta in the heat of the day. It was also the recommended time for a shower, as the temperature of the shower water is dependent upon how warm the drum gets. The morning sun is enough to get the water beyond freezing. However, the refreshing feeling of clean was short-lived with the shower, as the hiking began again in the afternoon.
Afternoon was setting up the remainder of JBA, complete with bait (live chicken). They are kept in the cage by a line of sticks threaded through the cage mesh, keeping them at the back of the cage behind the trip plate. No barrier for a fossa, though!
We walk back to camp in the dark. We covered more than 36 kilometers (22 miles) on day one.
After a dinner of rice and beans with zebu, Luke gave us a presentation on the history of the project in Madagascar and the activities we will be involved with over the next two weeks.
In spite of the exhausting walk today, it was an exceptional day. The Earthwatch participants are all getting along well and looking forward to the experience that lies ahead.
Thursday, June 23, 2005
I had a better night’s sleep last night. Julia and I met Nikki at the restaurant terrace for breakfast while overlooking the Mozambique Channel that lies between Madagascar and mainland Africa. What a location!
I can see why Madagascar is known as the RedIsland. When the rains come, they wash the red topsoil from Madagascar’s deforested areas into the rivers and the ocean. It is described like the land is bleeding into the ocean. Today, the channel is pinky-red. I’m sure the camera won’t capture its color.
After breakfast, we met further additions to our team—Kirk, Andrew, Jack, and Deanna. We spent the morning introducing ourselves and learning our backgrounds and expectations. We had a brief walk through Majunga, searching for an internet place and a bank automated teller machine (closed for temporary maintenance—I wonder how long that is here?) before heading off for AnkarafantsikaNational Park.
We drove through open country that was once dry forest, similar to that remaining at our research station. The Malagasy repeatedly burned the forest, which depleted the seed bank and left nothing to hold the ground together. When the rains come, the soil is washed away, like we saw this morning. The result is an unproductive grassland that supports nothing and only provides some fodder for the zebu (Madagascar cow equivalent) when it is burned to produce green pick. And so the cycle continues….
We arrived at camp at and sat down to our first traditional Malagasy meal—rice, beans, and pork chops. It was all very tasty. After choosing our homes (individual tents under a thatched-roof frame), we had a brief tour of the site, including the long-drop toilets and basic showers. The water for the showers is hand-pulled from a nearby well. Thankfully, the local villagers that maintain the campsite hand-pull the water required for our showers. After pulling up several buckets ourselves for drinking water, it certainly gave us a greater appreciation for the water you do use. Lights were out at for our first night in the tents.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Today I will arrive in Madagascar.
I had another restless night’s sleep. This time, I think it was a disrupted body clock and jet lag in addition to the excitement.
My dedicated taxi driver turned up on time as promised, so it’s another flight to look forward to.
I arrived in Antananarivo (easier to spell than pronounce, believe me!), Madagascar. Although we had anticipated the bombardment of offers from guides and taxi drivers, nothing prepares you for the personal level of insecurity you feel as you walk out the door in the foreign airport. After converting euros to ariarys (the revived currency for Madagascar), we managed to shake one very interested fellow by a side exit. Although once into our negotiation with another taxi driver, we started to wonder whether we had made the correct choice in ditching our polite English-speaking “friend.”
We spent the day at the local crocodile farm close to the airport waiting for our connection to Majunga, the rendezvous point for the Earthwatch expedition.
At our arrival in Majunga, we were wiser and more confident this second time around, successfully negotiating our way to the hotel in a taxi for our price. We met up with Luke Dollar, the expedition’s principal investigator, and Nikki, a fellow Alcoa Earthwatch participant, for dinner. It was reassuring to finally be settled in Madagascar among friends.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
I hardly slept at all last night—too much nervous excitement.
I packed my bag, and it is pretty full. My travel after Earthwatch to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco requires a different dress code than the remote field work in Madagascar, so I have more clothes than I would like. Together with the field requirements for a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, binoculars, toilet paper for two weeks, etc., it means the rucksack is at full capacity.
At the departure gate, I met Julia, another Australian on the Carnivores of Madagascar expedition. We have a bit in common, with Julia working in the environment field in South Australia. It will be good to have her company on the flights and on arrival at our destination. Never sure what the reception will be like at an unfamiliar airport—safety in numbers is more reassuring.
The flight to Mauritius was more than 11 hours and uneventful (probably preferable). We arrived in Mauritius at It was already getting dark, so unfortunately I didn’t see the white sandy beaches and perfect turquoise water that is always depicted in brochures. We had a brief haggle for the taxi fare (no meters) and an interesting drive to the hotel—there’s a distinct driving style of flat out or flat stop, overtake anytime and any place. The driver was very friendly and assured me he would be back at the hotel at for the return trip to the airport. He even gave me his business card for any future taxi requirements!
I was too exhausted to contemplate a buffet dinner at the hotel. I had been up for 21 hours already with more flying tomorrow (as the old joke goes, my arms are tired!). A shower and an early night was the chosen course of action.
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Months have turned into weeks and weeks into days, and now I depart for Madagascar in only seven days!
So much has happened since I received the email on February 8 telling me I had been successful with my Earthwatch application. It started off as any other day. While at home getting ready for work, I received a text message on my mobile phone from a colleague at work saying “Congratulations.” I couldn’t work out why I was being congratulated—the Earthwatch application didn't occur to me as the original acknowledgement for my application said that we would be notified by the end of January if we were successful, and this date had come and gone with no news.
I rang Barry to ask about his text message, and he confirmed I had been awarded an Alcoa Earthwatch fellowship. It was a nervous half hour drive to work. Upon arrival, I opened my email, and there amongst the emails was one from Earthwatch. Even though I knew I had been successful, I didn't know which expedition I had been chosen for. I was too excited to open the email, so I skirted around it and read all the others until it was the only one left. I finally opened it and was so thrilled with Madagascar as my Earthwatch destination.
My office colleagues will no doubt confirm my reaction—“I'm going to Madagascar!”, I repeatedly exclaimed. It was a dream come true. I couldn't possibly contain my excitement, so I proceeded to share my good news with family and friends. The reaction—“That's fantastic...where's Madagascar?"—was common. I think the smile on my face lasted for days...actually, it’s still there.
I am the environmental project officer at Alcoa’s Anglesea location in Australia. I manage our 7221 lease area with Parks Victoria, coordinate the rehabilitation of the open cut mine, and work to minimize the impact of our mine and power station facility upon the land. I have been working in the field of environmental management for eight years since completing my university studies. Officially a zoologist, I can't think of a more spectacular location for an Earthwatch expedition than Madagascar.
In addition to planning this trip of a lifetime to Madagascar and working full time, I have been completing my master’s thesis part time. With a due date of June 3, 2005, the thesis was the culmination of 12 months of field work and writing and is one reason why my overseas departure date has crept up on me. There is quite a list of things to do this week. However, the majority of the big ticket items have been organized over the last few months: renewal of passport, application for a Madagascar visa, rabies shots (luckily I had the many other required vaccinations for a trip to Africa in 1998), flight and accommodation details, travel insurance, etc. Now, it’s just a matter of refining the “what to take list” and making sure it fits into the pack (with some spare room to bring home some goodies).