Helen Holdsworth's Diary


Monday, July 29, 2008 Sunday, August 10, 2008
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Thursday, August 21, 2008 Friday, August 22, 2008
Saturday, August 23, 2008 Sunday, August 24, 2008
Monday, August 25, 2008 Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Wednesday, August 27, 2008 Thursday, August 28, 2008
Friday, August 29, 2008 Saturday, August 30, 2008
Sunday, August 31, 2008  

Monday, July 29, 2008 Jambo, everyone. That’s Swahili for hello. My name is Helen, and I’m a mechanical engineer from Alcoa’s Kwinana Refinery in Australia.

Earlier this year, I received a letter from Earthwatch congratulating me on being chosen….as an alternate. So close yet so far. I was excited to be considered amongst the top candidates and was hopeful of being chosen in 2009. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait until next year. I was told two weeks ago that I was chosen for the Tidal Forests of Kenya expedition, which, at the time, began in just one month. I had to get started on organizing my trip!

So now here I am with two weeks to go before I set off to Africa. I’m so, so, so excited. I still can’t believe I was accepted for Earthwatch!

I’ve been reading the expedition notes and some extra studies on mangroves and can’t wait to help out. I also purchased a Lonely Planet guide, and I’m looking forward to spotting the “big five” (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros) on safari in Masai Mara National Park.

Sunday, August 10, 2008 I was all packed and sorted to go. I spent the day of my flight hunting down stationery and pens to give to the Gazi Bay children, before heading to the footy (Australian rules football game) to watch the Eagles beat Essenscum for what would be my last footy game of the season. The day was off to a great start.
 
From Perth, I traveled to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where I started the day in 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) heat at the beach and ended it in -5° Celsius (23° Fahrenheit) temperatures snowboarding at Ski Dubai. From Dubai, I traveled to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
 
Before I started my Earthwatch journey, I decided to take the opportunity to go on safari. I spent a week at the Maasia Mara, Lake Nakuru, and Amboseli. The highlights would have to be being woken by a hippo crunching grass outside my lodge at 4 a.m., seeing the big five (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros) and hot air ballooning over Amboseli. It was an absolutely awesome experience seeing all the animals up close and personal.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 Tomorrow my Earthwatch expedition begins in Mombasa, and I traveled via Kenya Airways from Nairobi to Mombasa.
 
After arriving in Mombasa and saying goodbye to my new friends from safari, I quickly spotted a Kenyataco Taxi (trusted taxi company) and headed out to my hotel for the night. I stayed in Nyali Beach, 25 minutes north of Mombasa.
 
With nothing to do, I headed to the bar, where I met a couple from the United Kingdom. We quickly became friends and shared a meal.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 This morning was day one of the expedition. The purpose of our work here is to examine the ecosystem dynamics of replanted mangrove forests. Mangrove forests are among the most productive wetland ecosystems on Earth, but also one of the most threatened habitats. They have one of the highest rates of degradation of any global habitat, thus it is important to understand their ecology and determine the best form of restoration. The aim of the expedition is to gather data about existing mangrove ecosystems and determine, through the success or failure of different re-plantation experiments, the best way to replant mangroves.
 
We were to meet at New Palm Tree Hotel in the afternoon. I took a taxi from Nyali to the hotel in the morning to store my luggage there before taking in the sights of Mombasa. However, they had no idea who or what Earthwatch was, but nonetheless they still allowed me to store my luggage behind the counter.
 
Next stop was Fort Jesus in the old town. Upon arrival, I was quickly pounced on by people offering tours of the area. I asked a tour operator how much he expected as payment, and he tried to convince me it was 1,000 Kenyan shillings (US$15). I bargained him down to 350 Kenyan shillings (US$5), which was still a very good “salary.”
 
He showed me around the old town, telling me the history behind the old buildings and leading me through some dodgy-looking alleyways. Having heard similar stories before of such “tours,” I was not too worried. The tour was quite interesting and a good way to spend my time before meeting the other Earthwatch fellows.
 
We were all very excited to be starting our Earthwatch expedition and were very animated, chatting about ourselves and our experiences so far in Kenya. Most had just arrived, with Rinske (from the Netherlands) and me being the only ones to have come earlier and gone on safari.
 
We then crammed into a matatu (mini-bus) and made the trek to Gazi Bay, a small village of approximately 2,000 people about a 1.5-hours drive south of Mombasa. After arriving, we settled in, formally introducing ourselves and having our first genuine Kenyan dinner.
 
With most of us having traveled a long way to get to Kenya and only arriving that day, an early night was called for.

Thursday, August 21, 2008 Today was our first physical introduction to the mangroves. We started with a short lecture by Kairo, a lively Kenyan from the Kenyan Marine and Fisheries Research Institute. From there, we started our trek through the mangroves, stopping often to learn about the animals and different species of mangroves.
 
There are nine species of mangroves found in the eastern hemisphere of the world (Africa, Asia, Australia), while only three species are in the western hemisphere. Our Earthwatch expedition will only be concerned with three species—Brugiera gymnorrhiza, Ceriops tagal, and Avicennia marina.
 
The “marathon” started off relatively easy. However, as we moved into denser mangroves, we found ourselves ducking, weaving, and climbing over the mangrove roots. If we thought that was fun, we were mistaken.
 
Next was the mud stretch along the river shores. We had to make our way through knee-deep mud, with lots of us getting stuck and needing rescued. A few of us even lost our shoes in the mud and had to go digging to retrieve them. The mud was quite hard to get through, with the record for the 100 meter “dash” well justified at over six minutes! I was quite grateful my sister had lent me her diving boots, as they were fantastic for trekking through the mud without falling off.
 
We stopped off at the Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk, a community conservation effort raising awareness of the importance of mangroves. Mangroves have significant economic, environmental, and ecological value. They are the villages’ main source of fuel wood and building materials. Environmentally, mangroves have many benefits, including carbon sequestration, an important research subject in these times of global warming. Mangroves also provide coastal protection. It was estimated that during the 2004 tsunami, those areas with mangroves were protected more than those without. Economically speaking, a one kilometer stretch of mangroves protected against US$1 million in destruction!
 
After the boardwalk, we searched for the Mangrove Shrine, a small hut in the middle of the mangroves used for asking Mr. Zidi (a spirit) for help in different areas of life (e.g., having trouble giving birth, not catching enough fish, etc.). Should your request be fulfilled, you must come back and sacrifice either a white goat or chicken to thank Mr. Zidi.
 
We ended our marathon on the beach close to one of our plantation sites, which is where several plots of mangroves have been planted for the study. Everyone was quite happy to wade in the water to clean off all the mud. The marathon took approximately five hours to complete.
 
Tonight we had two talks—one from Bernard, a student completing his Ph.D., and a very interesting talk from Hasini, a local fisherman. He talked about life in the village and the trials and tribulations of being a fisherman.
 
After a long day’s walk, we were all grateful to hit the sack (go to bed).

Friday, August 22, 2008 Today was our first fieldwork day. We jumped into a matatu and drove to our research plot, which was called Kinondo.
 
The group was divided up into teams to perform different tasks. My group was responsible for measuring sediment heights at each plot. Control poles had been erected at the beginning of the experiment in 2004, and the data were collected to compare the increase/decrease in sediment height over the years.
 
Sediment heights are taken because of their relevance to the mangroves’ adaptation to rising sea levels. Mangroves can raise the level of their sediments in response to rising sea levels, which might help them keep ahead of the rising water.
 
For morning tea, we rested under the coconut palms, drinking coconut milk from coconuts picked straight from the tree. Spoons carved out of the coconut skin were used to scoop out the soft coconut flesh. When we were finished, we used our coconut shells for the “coconut challenge”—throwing them at a tree to see if we could hit it. Being the only Aussie in the group, I was proud to uphold our sporting prowess stereotype by being one of the few people able to hit the tree. Next up was coconut cricket. This would become our daily routine.
 
After our break, we returned to the field to finish our work. Rinske and I must have been too efficient, as we had finished our work before the break. This is something we will be sure won’t happen again so as not to set the bar too high. This is a working holiday after all.
 
As punishment, we had to sift through sand samples and separate out all the roots. It was very tedious work but provided a good opportunity to chat with our fellow volunteers.
 
The purpose for picking out the roots is to measure below-ground biomass. The roots are weighed, dried out in the lab, and weighed again. The carbon content can then be determined and extrapolated for the whole plot. These data are used to measure the success (or non-success, in some cases) of different tree treatments and plot densities.
 
The roots and below-ground biomass form a key part of one of the expedition’s central aims, which is to measure total biomass (and therefore total carbon) developed in our plots. It is relatively easy to do that aboveground, but some mangroves have 50% or more of their total biomass as roots, so we needed to get an estimate of the amount of carbon below ground, too. In some ways, this carbon is more important to us, because it is likely to stay there for a long time and hence form a useful carbon sink (an absorption and storage area).
 
We returned home for lunch and spent the afternoon in the lab processing the data and samples we had collected that morning.
 
In the evening, we had quite a lively debate about climate change and ways we can help combat it. On average, Westerners expel approximately 20 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person into the atmosphere every year, while Kenyans expel only 0.2 tons per year. Quality of life and consumerism were discussed, with the general consensus being that while life in the village may seem poor to us, the villagers were, in fact, very happy, and the sense of community was very strong.

Saturday, August 23, 2008 The day started off overcast and raining, and it looked like it would be a very messy day in the field. Luckily, by the time we got to site, the sun had come out.
 
Today, my job was to take redox measurements, which involved taking readings of oxygen levels in the sand at depths of 10 centimeters (four inches) and 40 centimeters (16 inches). The oxygen level recorded will give the scientists an indication of the success of the plantation through the amount of organic material found in the sediment. As the trees grow and deposit carbon through their roots underground, the redox potential of the soil is expected to go down. Overall, redox measurements act as a good way to determine how the soil is changing with tree growth.
 
In the afternoon, we had a talk from Mama Chow about Kenya’s education system and how it has evolved over the years. When the new government came into power in 2003, education became free for all Kenyans. Class sizes swelled from 30 to 100, with people of all ages wanting an education. At this time, Kenya modeled its class teaching techniques on the Australian system to help cope.
 
After dinner, we traveled to the local pub for Tuskers beer. While the selection of beer was very small, prices were very cheap, at roughly US$1.16 for a pint.

Sunday, August 24, 2008 We followed the usual routine this morning—breakfast followed by field work. Today, my job was to plant mangroves. We fetched them from the nursery and delivered them to the planting site.
 
The mangroves are grown in shallow trenches with a greenhouse built around them. They stay in the nursery until they are six months old, after which they are planted.
 
In the field, we had four plots with mangrove trees planted in varying densities. The first plot had 250 trees, the second 100, the third 36, and the fourth only 16. Each plot was the same size—six square meters (65 square feet).
 
The purpose of the experiment is to determine if tree density makes a difference to the tree survival rate. Are they more likely to survive with lots of trees surrounding them and providing protection, or are they more likely to survive with fewer trees surrounding them and thus less competition for nutrients?
 
In the afternoon, we had a village lunch. Women from the village prepared a meal for us, and we ate it in the traditional Swahili way—on a mat on the floor. The rest of the afternoon was free time, so Kim, Sonya, and I decided to take a walk around the village to take photos. Everyone in the village was very welcoming, with many happy shouts of jambo (hello in Swahili) from the children. They all wanted their photo taken so they could see themselves on the camera screen. We had a great time walking around the village and chatting with people.

Monday, August 25, 2008 This morning we ventured out to our usual plot—Kinondo. There were only three tasks to do today—root sorting, redox, and biomass—and I tried my hardest to avoid sorting through roots again. I was lucky to get picked for the biomass group.
 
The task involved randomly selecting 18 trees from certain plots and taking tree data, such as tree height, stem diameter, number of leaves, number of dead and damaged leaves, and leaf size.
 
These biomass data are used to determine the growth rate of the trees and compare the different treatments given to the mangroves in the nursery to see which is most effective. It is also used to plot biomass against the salinity of the soil to find a correlation between salinity and growth.
 
My group, which consisted of Evrit, Roobini, and Bernard, had much fun bantering over selecting dead trees or getting the huge trees.
 
Laktani’s coconut café served the usual coconuts for morning tea. I don’t think I could ever get tired of drinking/eating fresh coconuts.
 
Laktani owns the land where Kinondo is located. He has given Earthwatch permission to use the land for the experiments and has also volunteered his time to help out.
 
This afternoon, Alfred, a schoolboy from the village, gave us an interesting talk about the different tribes of Kenya. There are 42 tribes stemming from three main groups—Bantu (who migrated from western Africa), Nilotic (from Sudan), and Hamitic (from Ethiopia and Somalia).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 Today was our day off, and we woke up bright and early for the 6 a.m. matatu to Shimoni. Here we boarded a Swahili dow boat and sailed out to Kisite Maring Park for some snorkeling on the coral reef. We had a fantastic time swimming among the fish and were lucky enough to see a turtle and dolphins. On our return, we ventured into the “slave caves”. These small coral caves were used by the Arabs to keep slaves before shipping them off to Zanzibar.
 
We returned to Gazi early, as unfortunately one of our volunteers had to go home to attend to a sick relative. The afternoon was free to do as we pleased. After a long morning of snorkeling, I decided to stay in the village to chill (relax).
 
Each evening when we didn’t have someone to present to us, like tonight, the volunteers gave presentations about their home country and way of life. I found these talks very interesting and a great way to learn about different countries and their cultures.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 I woke up this morning with a sense of dread in the bottom of my stomach. I knew I could not avoid my fate any longer. Today my job would be strictly roots. However, my strategy of avoiding roots until the last day paid off, as we only had to sort through five plots as opposed to previous days when they sorted through eight to nine plots.
 
This evening was the last of our volunteer talks. Neil from the United Kingdom taught us all about scuba diving, and Sonya from the U.S. discussed her upbringing as a Hispanic in Texas with Jehovah’s Witnesses as parents. Again the talks were quite fascinating.

Thursday, August 28, 2008 Today was our last day working at Kinondo, and the whole team was on above-ground biomass duty. We separated into groups and picked plots to count and measure. Our timing was fantastic. Just as we finished, it started raining. While waiting for everyone to finish, Mark kept us entertained by showing us the Scottish fling, which is a traditional dance.
 
With our fieldwork completed, we visited Laktani’s mother’s house. The house was located outside of Gazi village next to Kinondo, so there was lots of open space. As such, the home was larger than a typical village home. It was very simple, with some bedrooms and a kitchen. There was no ceiling, just crisscrossed sticks under a thatched roof. The walls were made of mud compressed into square structures made of mangrove wood poles.
 
As afternoon arrived, the village was abuzz with excitement. It was time for the Earthwatch versus Gazi soccer match. The previous two Earthwatch teams had been defeated in close games, so the honor of Earthwatch was on our shoulders.
 
We rallied together and decided our best chance of victory would be to recruit some skillful locals. Langatt (Earthwatch helping hand) and Alfred (Earthwatch houseboy) joined our team. We were playing against the village children under 12 years of age, and although they were young, they were very talented and could more than hold their own on the field.
 
After a tight first half, neither team had scored. Things became livelier in the second half, with Earthwatch prevailing three to two. After the game, we presented the Gazi team with a soccer ball, and I also gave them an Aussie rules footy with the hope they would take up Australia’s great game. My hopes fell flat pretty fast when they started playing rugby with the ball. I had to show them the way and taught them how to handball and kick. Their sporting talent showed, as it didn’t take them long to learn.
 
After dinner, we went out to Ukunda, a town 30 minutes north of Gazi. There we enjoyed some quiet beers at the African Pot before moving on to Maasia, the local nightclub.
 
We danced the night away and eventually crawled into bed at 3 a.m.

Friday, August 29, 2008 Today, we were all very slow to get started. It must have been the soccer game yesterday catching up with us.
 
We eventually rolled onto the site at 10 a.m. This time, we were planting mangroves at the Goat Plot, which is located along the beach that always gets savaged by goats.
 
We trekked along the beach for approximately one kilometer before arriving at our site. Once there, we had to work fast to beat the tides since we got a late start.
 
The first truckload of mangroves was planted at a sedate pace. We then broke for our last lot of coconuts. After a lengthy break waiting for the next load of mangroves, we really had to knuckle down to plant the trees before the tide came in. Many hands make light work, as they say, and Earthwatch 3 became a great team.
 
The tide rolled in fast, and our site work was done. All that was left to do was finish the lab work. We had been pretty good at completing the lab work throughout the week, so not much needed to be done. I teamed up with Rinske to enter the biomass data left over from the previous day into the Excel spreadsheet.
 
With all the work completed, Hassim and Salim, two teenage villagers, invited Sonya and me to see their home. The “tour” consisted of being let inside the front door and being told to take a seat. Some other family members joined us, and we sat and chatted for around an hour about life in the village and education.
 
Hassim’s younger sister went to school in the next district, and the family struggles to get enough money to pay for transportation and school books. They all pitch in together, aunts and uncles included, to help each other.
 
The rest of the afternoon was spent exchanging photos—a seemingly easy exercise that turned out to take the rest of the night before we eventually made some DVDs for everyone.

Saturday, August 30, 2008 Our last day of the Earthwatch expedition had arrived. We packed up and said our goodbyes to Gazi. All 11 of us crammed into a matatu with luggage piled on top. I was relieved to score the front seat, that’s for sure.
 
Overall, the expedition was considered a success. My team was the last Earthwatch team to volunteer on this particular expedition. Valuable data collected over the last five years have given our project leaders a greater understanding of how mangroves adapt and grow and what changes occur in the ecosystem as they grow. Given the success of the expedition, it has been established that mangroves can be transplanted and restored with relative success. Dr. Mark Huxham and his scientists now hope to continue their work in Gazi with a new project based on the carbon sequestration potential of mangroves.
 
Our journey to Mombasa would take just under 1.5 hours, with a good proportion of that taken to line up for the ferry to ride across to Mombasa (an island connected by bridges to the north and west and the ferry on the south—east was the ocean).
 
In Mombasa, we stopped at a Nakumat—a large supermarket chain that sells everything from food to clothes and electrical equipment. I was determined to find a Tusker beer T-shirt for a mate back home. Unfortunately, there were no Tusker T-shirts, so my search would have to continue elsewhere.
 
On our way to the airport, we stopped at a government emporium full of handicrafts set at fixed prices. There was no need to haggle and bargain here. Most of us stocked up on gifts except for me. I enjoyed the game of bargaining with the locals—that and the fact that 99% of the goods on offer were made out of wood. That was not so good for getting back through Aussie customs.
 
At Moi airport, we said our goodbyes. Most members of the group were staying on for safaris in Mombasa, while Mark, Evert, Ron, and I were leaving. Mark’s flight left at 5 p.m., and mine and Ron’s was leaving four hours later. Evert’s left an hour before ours. I had the opportunity to get on the 5 p.m. flight, but it would have meant downgrading to economy. I knew I probably wouldn’t get the chance to fly business class again, so I decided to wait for my flight. I am a nervous flyer and don’t feel comfortable switching around my flights.
 
While sitting on the tarmac waiting for takeoff, I severely regretted my decision. The plane lost power, and everything shut down. After waiting one-half hour in the dark, the plane eventually powered up, and we were off and flying. I was off to Nairobi to spend the night at the Hilton, as my next flight to Dubai did not leave until later the next day.
 
When the taxi pulled up at the hotel, we were stopped by security personnel, who scanned the car, searched the boot (trunk), and even had mirrors to check under the car. I asked if there was some important dignitary staying at the hotel, but apparently it was standard procedure. I was even scanned before I could enter the hotel. I don’t know if the whole procedure made me feel safer or more in danger!

Sunday, August 31, 2008 With only half a day left in Kenya, I started bright and early. The concierge found me a driver/bodyguard and directed me toward the Maasai markets. These markets are only open Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, and the location is always changing. Here, I could practice my hard bargaining skills and pick up some gifts. I knew if I could bargain down below the government emporium prices in Mombasa, I would be doing okay.
 
By far, the most enjoyable bargaining was when I was buying a leather photo album. With the starting price at 4,000 Kenyan shillings (US$54), I emptied my pockets. I had 1,200 shillings (US$16), and we bantered back and forth. I tossed my sunglasses into the deal—a cheap pair I had picked up for the trip that had broken on safari and were headed for the bin anyway. That didn’t stop me from claiming they were worth 2,000 shillings (US$27), but the deal was still not enough.
 
Arthur, the seller, called himself King Arthur, and he was determined to get as much out of me as possible. So I searched my bag and pulled out a pen and notepad and threw them into the “ring.” I had no more to give, I claimed, and made another show of searching my bag for more goods. I produced another pen and pad to add and said “that was it, you bled me dry.” But King Arthur was a hard bargainer and wanted 200 shillings (US$2.70) more. I searched my pockets again and found 85 shillings (US$1.15) in coin. That was it, my final offer, but still he wanted more. “No deal,” I called, gathered my things, and started to walk away. “Sister, sister,” he called after me. “Okay, we have a deal.” Brilliant. It was great fun, and I’d like to think I got a good bargain.
 
My driver took me back to the hotel, where I decided to brave the Nairobi streets by myself. I was on a mission to find a Tucker T-shirt. I had 1.5 hours before I had to leave for the airport, and I searched far and wide but no T-shirt in sight. Eventually, time ran out, and I had to power walk back to the hotel, fending off safari salespeople as I went. The salespeople here are nothing like those in New Delhi, India and are just as happy to make friends with you as sell their safaris. There were no hard feelings when I explained I was going home, and they would smile, shake my hand, and wish me a safe journey home. I think one of the fondest memories of Kenya will be the people. The majority of people are happy, friendly, and fun to talk to. 
 
I dashed back to my hotel, checked out, and headed for the airport. My time in Kenya had come to an end. While I couldn’t wait to get home, I was sad to leave such a fascinating country. I feel so lucky and honored to be given this opportunity. The Earthwatch and safari experiences have greatly enriched my life and certainly rekindled my interest in travel and education.
 
Oh, by the way, I found a Tusker t-shirt at the airport.

Photo Gallery


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Earthwatch Institute


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Tidal Forests of Kenya


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