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ashbourne, United Kingdom
October 27, 2011
From journal Mad about Madagascar
St Kilda, Australia
May 20, 2005
An ill wind.Early in 2004, the elemental force of a powerful cyclone was unleashed upon Madagascar. When the fearsome roaring of the tropical storm finally subsided, people emerged from wherever they had found shelter to survey the trail of devastation left across their homeland.
Unlike the far greater death and destruction wrought by the infamous tsunami, but fairly typical of the less widespread havoc caused by scores of more commonplace natural disasters each year, it all received little international attention. Thus, the impoverished authorities embarked upon the rebuilding process in quiet anonymity, getting by with some help from aid agencies that so often find their resources very thinly spread.
Several months after the storm.Under the circumstances, it hardly came as a surprise during my visit to the country that summer to find a great many reminders of what had happened. Even as far inland as Ankarafantsika, patches of the forest that should have been home to endangered species were empty, save for the trunks of once mighty trees felled by the winds. But as sad as that may seem, there is at least a reasonable hope that the national park's protected status will allow the damaged ecosystem enough time and space to replenish itself without any need for any outside intervention.
Unfortunately, such an independent recovery was not possible for the nearby settlements, such as Andranofasika. For the want of what the more fortunate among us might consider a small sum of money, the town’s schoolhouse stood derelict, depriving the local children of even the most rudimentary education. It was a sorry sight indeed, with exposed rafters that reminded me of some long dead beast’s ribcage, whilst the light streaming through the gaps made the debris covering the classroom floor all too difficult to miss. With the exception of the sturdy concrete shell, the only thing left in one piece was a blackboard still baring the last neatly written lessons ever taught there before the tempest struck.
Getting our hands dirty.After hearing about the situation from one of the project’s old hands during a typically conversation filled evening at the campsite, every Earthwatch volunteer was moved to help, offering their labour and, where possible, financial backing, too. With sufficient funds pledged there and then and all necessary arrangements made with the mayor over the next couple of days, we were soon able to take advantage of a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime chance to involve ourselves so directly in making a difference.
Despite an early morning start, there was a sense of good-humoured camaraderie as we got stuck into the tasks at hand. One group took on the challenge of cleaning up the interior, whilst the rest of us hacked away at the peeling outside walls with rusty machetes in preparation for the psychological boost that is a fresh coat of paint.
At first, the scurrying of a few vibrantly green geckoes was the only other sign of life in a place that really should have been full of the sounds of learning and child’s play. But soon enough, a group of youngsters arrived, eager to check out what the odd assortment of pale-faced strangers was up to. Their wide-eyed presence was an inspiring reminder of what the job was all about and certainly provided me with plenty of extra motivation to throw my usually underused muscles into things even more determinedly than before. It is probably the first and only occasion that anyone has ever witnessed this particular far from model student toiling so hard within the precincts of an educational establishment!
Eventually, the arrival of the sweltering midday sun heralded that the moment had come to stand back and let others take over. Having actually achieved no more than a symbolic start, it was certainly frustrating to stop quite so soon. Nevertheless, there was still a part of me that felt as though I had probably never spent a few hours of my time or a day’s wages in a better way.
Glad tidings.Unsurprisingly, thoughts about our endeavours and what might have followed came to mind after my return home. However, those events sometimes seemed very distant, never more so than when London experienced a spell of unseasonably cold weather about six months later. But then, thanks to the marvels of modern communications, I received an emailed dispatch from the field that brought everything flooding back and warmed the heart, even as the snow fell outside.
The news really could not have been any better. In place of the dilapidated structure once known to me now stood a hardly recognisable building with pristine white walls and an intact roof. Meanwhile, extra funding received from the government had made it possible to undertake the similar restoration to full working order of four other schools in the region.
But most encouraging of all was word of how the townsfolk, having previously resigned themselves to a far from ideal state of affairs that they simply could not change, had enthusiastically tackled the problem as soon as the opportunity to do so came their way. After all, whilst external assistance is sometimes essential, such emotional investment from the communities involved is often the real key to long-term success, and in this case, it has already paid dividends. At the time of writing, I am proud to say, a record number of pupils are studying in the humble little place that will doubtless stay in my memory far more vividly than any renowned attraction.
From journal Swapping suits and commutes for conservation work in the Ankarafantsika National Park.
September 21, 2004
Setting the wheels in motion.The process started on a typically cold and wet January evening in London when it dawned on me that a spot of eco-tourism was exactly what would satisfy my yearning for a new kind of travel experience that would prove to be refreshing contrast to my daily working life. Six months later and many thousands of miles away in Ankarafantsika, I found myself sleeping in a tent, rising with the sun and trekking through the forest, all in the name of conservation.
My choice of a protected area in Madagascar as the destination was really not too difficult. Much like Australia, the country provides a textbook example of the excitingly different direction that evolution can and will take if given enough time and isolation to work with. Once described as "Noah's Ark adrift in the Indian Ocean," it is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, but sadly much of the unique fauna that lives there is in very real danger of going the way of the dodo.
The mission, should you choose to accept it.One of the least known but most striking of the endangered species is the fossa, which is the focal point of the project that brought me to the park. In charge of the operation is Luke Dollar, a leading scientist from Duke University in North Carolina, who has been researching the island's largest carnivore for several years, ever since it first came to his attention by eating some of the lemurs that he had originally set out to study.
The goal of the investigations is to prevent yet another extinction by gaining an understanding of a creature that until recently modern science was extremely poorly acquainted with. In order to get a worthwhile amount of data, a lot of traps need to be set and then regularly checked on a regular basis, and that is where Earthwatch come into the equation. Without the manpower provided by the organisation, the labour intensive part of the fieldwork would not be possible.
Work, rest and play.Each day sees volunteers, such as myself, heading out into the park in small groups to check whether anything has taken the bait. This happens during both the early morning and the late afternoon, and the hours in between allowed for enjoying lunch and some relaxation. Of course, returning from a walk empty handed was not uncommon. But even those less successful outings were still highly satisfying. Just spending time hiking along the clear trails of rich, red soil or fine sand in the peaceful setting of the forest was a thoroughly healthy and immensely pleasant change to time spent in the concrete jungle back home.
Meanwhile, the secondary duty of taking a census of the resident wildlife encountered rarely failed to be pleasurable. There were always birds-a-plenty to spot in the dappled light under the dense canopy, ranging from impressive hawks to smaller tropical varieties, such as the evocatively named paradise flycatcher and the rather mad-looking hoopoe. Occasionally, we would also be treated to a view of a troop of sifakas passing overhead, but a much more frequent sighting was of an incredibly cute sportive lemur that would always peer sleepily out of the same hollow with ever large, orange eyes as we passed by, obviously wondering what on earth had disturbed a good day's sleep.
However, for me it was the chameleons, with their amazing swivelling eyes and slow swaying gait, that proved most interesting. In fact, my fascination with them remained undiminished throughout the trip, even surviving a somewhat painful meeting when an especially large and plucky one bite me and determinedly hung on for dear life after I had gotten too close.
There were also moments of unreserved fun too. A particularly popular place on one of the tracks was the spot where a sturdy vine hung along at the top of a small hill. For those of us who avidly watched Tarzan films as youngsters, it was an invitation to get in touch with the inner-child that proved irresistible, and grown adults noisily swinging through the forest became a common event. Who said that saving the world couldn't involve some wonderful silliness from time to time?
We've got a live one.Needless to say, the daily routine was great, but what people really wanted was to catch a fossa. On most occasions that something was tempted by the idea of a free lunch, it turned out to be part of the increasing population of invasive wild cats. However, just once the level of excitement reached fever pitch when a team returned with a beautiful female specimen of the until then elusive native predator. There was a palpable buzz in the air of the refectory as people worked quickly but efficiently to take samples and measurements before the tranquilliser wore off, whilst anyone not directly involved in the process busied themselves with their cameras.
The captured creature measured around 6 feet in length, half of which was tail, and covered in a superbly dense, grey-brown fur coat. In the sedated state, she resembled an elongated and oversized pet cat that might be comfortable curled up in front of a roaring log fire. However, the array of wickedly sharp teeth and muscular body left absolutely no room for doubt that, when awake, it is a lean, mean, killing machine. Although perhaps not rivalling the rare experience of observing one in the wild, being able to see the attractive animal at such close quarters left me feeling enormously privileged.
Several hours later, the by then very unwilling centre of everyone's attention was fully awake and undoubtedly very ready and willing to be released. The event was over in seconds, but was still a tremendous spectacle. Sensing freedom, she was gone like a shot, leaving behind no more than a blurred image on many photographs taken and yet more fantastic memories.
On reflection.That travel broadens the mind is a well-worn cliché, but for me it has often proved to be true. However, few if any past journeys have been nearly as insightful, or as gratifying, on so many levels. I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience to anyone, and would definitely consider doing something along similar lines again. The only problem is deciding which one to participate in next. At the time of writing, there are well over 100 different projects listed on Earthwatch's website, ranging from working on a black rhino sanctuary in Kenya to surveying ancient Mayan ruins, and that particular institution is merely the trailblazing, elder statesman in what is a rapidly growing marketplace.
The lemurs of Ankarafantsika.Undoubtedly, every visitor to Madagascar goes there with the intention of seeing at least a few lemurs, and I was no exception. These creatures are not only some of the most beguiling in the world, but are pretty much found nowhere else, having developed in a unique direction to occupy the niche taken by more evolutionary-advanced monkeys elsewhere. Ankarafantsika is home to seven different members of the adorable family of primates, ranging from tiny nocturnal varieties to larger species that are active during the day.
Seeing most of them in various parts of the park is entirely possible, and in some cases, really quite easy. In fact, during my stay in the area, there were very few days that I did not enjoy at least one sighting somewhere. However, there was a general consensus that the best place to go for a real top-quality encounter is the small wooded area that separates the Ampijoroa Forestry Station and the village of the same name. So, during a quiet afternoon, choosing to check out this hotspot of activity was an easy decision to make.
Why did the sifaka cross the road?I did not even have to leave the road before the excitement began, as several Coquerel's sifakas were busy crossing the highway, not in front of me but high overhead, jumping effortlessly from the treetops on one side to those on the other. Taking such a route is definitely a sensible option, not only due to the hair-raising speeds that the Malagasy tend to drive at, but also because the incredibly agile, arboreal animals have a strangely clumsy motion when travelling on "terra firma". As the first across waited for the stragglers to catch up, the rare bout of idleness gave me the perfect opportunity to admire their relatively large size, almost human proportions, and wonderfully soft-looking cream coat adorned with patches of chestnut, which all together make them particularly attractive. The moment of calm observation did not last long, and having regrouped, they immediately started careering through the canopy with wide-eyed abandon. It is utterly breathtaking to see how they accurately leap great distances; often up to 30 feet in one go, without even seeming to pause for niceties such as taking aim.
Unfortunately, my attempts to follow on the ground were by necessity much slower because of the numerous so-called crocodile trees and their rows of vicious thorns, which could inflict an injury upon anyone who might stumble into them whilst distracted by such aerial diversions. So, although the acrobatic display that would shame any human gymnast was certainly impressive, I eventually had to give up and went in search for the locale's other residents.
Lemur see, lemur do.Happily, it was also not difficult to find the group of common brown lemurs that share the undersized stretch of habitat. The name is somewhat deceptive, because whilst they are predominantly brown, with the exception of an intelligent looking black face, they are actually far from common. With great excitement, I immediately went in for a close look, but obviously got too near, and the troop huddled together above me making nervous noises. That is with the exception of one member that slowly edged down the tree nearest to me until its amber eyes were dead level with mine. The inquisitive creature was perhaps only a couple of feet away, in theory close enough to touch, although attempting to do so would have clearly been futile. Instead, we both merely studied one another with a seemingly equal level of interest. Meanwhile, clearly reassured by the fact that their comrade had not met a nasty fate, the others resumed having a good time, vivaciously chasing each other around the branches. It is precisely such a mixture of curiosity and playfulness that makes that particular species in my opinion even more lovable than their better-looking and more athletic neighbours that had enchanted me earlier.
Homeward bound.The whole experience was so amazing that staying put for many more hours would have been a very tempting option had both nightfall and dinnertime not been rapidly approaching. So with great reluctance, but also with some good memories and photographs, I made my way back through the thorny assault course before darkness set in for the evening.
Ankarafantsika's single most striking natural feature is Lac Ravelobe, a shimmering expanse of water in the midst of the forest. It is also a key part of the local ecosystem, providing both habitat for many different species and irrigating the numerous rice paddies that feed communities for miles around.
However, its importance and beauty was not always the first thing on my mind. Instead, I frequently pondered the tempting prospect of a cooling dip to escape the heat of the Malagasy sun. But discouraging any such thoughts were signs that bluntly stated in several different languages, "Crocodiles Bite"! Pertinent warnings indeed, as the large resident population of crocs have done just that several times in recent years, killing a few unfortunate people in the process.
Despite the dangers that obviously lurked beneath the surface, the lake looked as benign as an English country millpond, and much more attractive. Thus, taking advantage of the boat tours run by the local park authorities for a small fee seemed almost too good an alternative to be true, and so it inevitably proved to be. Nevertheless, things started in relaxing form, as myself and several other Earthwatch volunteers sat back on the simple plastic seats with the breeze on our faces, listening to the low hum of the outboard motor whilst we cruised around on what was effectively a metal raft with a tarpaulin covering.
The excursion was a visual feast, as the surrounding landscape formed a verdant backdrop to the calm waters, in which it often formed beautiful reflections. Meanwhile, egrets and herons lurked among the reeds, and brightly coloured kingfishers and bee-eaters darted past frequently. However, the single most thrilling sight was a Madagascar fish eagle, a critically endangered bird of prey with rich brown plumage, a white head and a wingspan of about 6 feet.
Perhaps no stay in an African national park would be truly complete without at least a little adventure. However, I had absolutely no idea that it would come at the end of what had hitherto been an idyllic afternoon, when the boat suddenly started to take on a lot of water. Almost simultaneously there was a loud crack as a chair snapped, sending one of our group members sprawling onto the floor. The prow dipped sharply, leaving him immersed right up to his chest. Things had started to look decidedly bad, but fortunately everyone kept calm. With the fallen comrade rescued and an even keel regained, we limped back to shore, soggy and no longer relaxed, but with all hands still on deck.
Unsurprisingly, there was an even greater camaraderie among us back at camp that evening. By the end of the night many empty beer bottles sat on the table, and our near encounter with the man-eating crocodiles had already began the evolution from hair-raising event to travellers' tale.
Sleeping beneath canvas is hardly a regular activity for me. In fact, prior to the trip to Madagascar, my last experience of doing so was as a child, two decades before. However, by committing to the expedition to Ankarafantsika, I additionally signed up for a couple of weeks at the Ambodimanga campsite, which is located just within the boundaries of the national park, close to the town of Andranofasika.
The name means "under the mango trees", and is also that of the nearest village, which is home to the women's group that is in charge of the operation. Although not as obvious a part of looking after protected areas as the more glamorous wildlife-based activities, such projects nevertheless play a crucial role. In this case, the income received by the local community not only funds improvements to their standard of living, but also provides an alternative to exploiting nearby natural resources. Given my main reason for being there, staying in such a place felt very appropriate. It also seemed fitting to spend downtime in relatively natural surroundings, whether I was relaxing in a shaded hammock or drifting into a slumber whilst listening to the sounds of nearby nocturnal creatures.
The site occupies a pleasant forest clearing, which is home to about 20 covered tent berths with sandy bases. In addition, at the time of my visit, the construction of some fully-equipped bungalows was underway. The development should attract not-so-happy campers who will no doubt appreciate not only having a bed to sleep in and a roof overhead, but also the opportunity to avoid using the shared-bathroom facilities, which are hardly up to tourist standard. The toilets are actually little more than a hole in the ground, and not surprisingly have a frankly obnoxious fragrance. The neighbouring showers are admittedly better, but the water is painfully cold first thing in the mornings.
At the heart of camp is the refectory, a simple, wooden structure with a thatched roof and mesh windows, which is where the guests eat and socialise. Aside from the very plain breakfast, the meals offered consist of fresh meat or fish along with generous helpings of beans and rice, followed by whatever fruit is available, often tasty, thumb-sized bananas. As a vegetarian, my diet may have lacked variety, but nevertheless proved to be very flavoursome, primarily thanks to sakai, the supremely potent Malagasy spice of life. Meanwhile, during the evenings the building acts as a common room where it is possible to socialise and unwind with a refreshing Three Horses Beer prior to the switching off of the generator at lights out.
Overall, Ambodimanga probably does compare slightly unfavourably with other campsites in more developed places, and the inexperience of the ladies running it sometimes shows. However, they are learning all of the time and working hard to make improvements, and I wish them very good luck with their endeavours.
Ankarafantsika In A Nutshell: The park's highlights in brief.Madagascar's protected areas are as varied as the Great Red Island itself, but each shares the promise of great wildlife spotting opportunities, so deciding which to spend time in can be difficult. As a dry deciduous forest with little tourist infrastructure, Ankarafantsika may not be as immediately alluring as the jungle-based parks or the relatively luxurious private reserves, but still has much to offer. Its tracts of pristine woodland are home to some fabulous biodiversity, with an abundance of nocturnal animals that make night walks satisfying. In addition, the place is a superb spot for ornithologists, with over 100 bird species in attendance, including the incredibly rare Madagascar fish eagle.
Pick Of The Bunch: Giving as good as you get.There are lots of reasons to visit somewhere as lovely and rich in fauna as Ankarafantsika, but few can possibly match working there on a project run by an environmental organisation such as Earthwatch. In addition to providing an excellent opportunity to get real pleasure from spending a fortnight with the many resident birds and beasts, it also presents a unique chance to help towards ensure their continued survival, which for me proved to be extremely rewarding.
Best Of The Rest: Spending quality time with the local lemurs.For many people, including me, few of Madagascar's attractions can match the thrill of seeing lemurs in the wild. Ankarafantsika is home to several varieties of the adorable endemic primates, most of which are easy to track down. In fact, venturing deep into the forest for high-quality sightings is not even necessary, because the woods adjacent to Ampijoroa is prime territory to see both Coquerel's sifakas and common brown lemurs at close quarters, which should be a highlight of any stay in the country.
Thanks For The Memories: An unforgettable way to start a day.I have been fortunate enough to witness some spectacular sunrises around the world, but none have been quite as magical as watching dawn break over Ankarafantsika's Lac Ravelobe. A wonderfully soft, warm light bathed the placid waters, from which mists sleepily rose, whilst much of the area's birdlife nosily welcomed the advent of a new morning. It was a scene that made dragging myself out of the tent at such an uncivilised hour truly worthwhile.
Get Your Papers In Order: Purchase a park permit.If travelling independently to Ankarafantsika, it is necessary to buy the relevant documents from ANGAP, the group in charge of the protected area. Doing so simply involves visiting the Ampijoroa Forestry Station and paying a small fee, which is a source of vital income for the national park itself and also the local communities.
Speak The Lingo: Make use of Malagasy.Whilst most people in Madagascar speak at least some French, learning some of the native tongue can still be worthwhile. Although it not easy to pick up, even using just a couple of words, such as salama and misaotra, which mean hello and thank you respectively, will often bring a smiles to faces and can also be a fantastic icebreaker.
Recommended Reading: A naturalist's tale.The brilliantly written and frequently entertaining The Aye-Aye and I by Gerald Durrell is perhaps the very best of the many natural history books that cover Madagascar. Despite not dealing specifically with Ankarafantsika, it provides a vivid portrayal of the country's wildlife and much insight about conservation issues, and is therefore ideal material for anyone who is planning a trip to the park.
Getting There: Arriving in Ankarafantsika.Bush taxis regularly pass through the park on the highway from Antananarivo, which is 300 miles away. However, it is worth bearing in mind that such vehicles only depart when crammed full of passengers, their luggage, and occasionally even livestock, which means that timings are difficult to gauge and long journeys are colourful but highly uncomfortable. A less demanding, but much more expensive, way to reach Ankarafantsika is to first take a domestic flight to Mahajanga, the nearest city, thereby limiting time on the road to little over a couple of hours.
Going Walkabout: Exploring the park on foot.Ankarafantsika's forest trails are generally broad, clear and level, which makes hiking there quite easy. However, hiring a guide is still a very good idea, as is seeking advice about crocodile activity before attempting to walk along the lakeside paths.
Catching A Ride: Using public transport in Ankarafantsika.Choices are limited when it comes to finding ways to travel around the park by public transport, but admittedly, there should also be little need to do so. The best potential option is to try making any necessary arrangements in Andranofasika, the local small town.