Kai Westwell

Educational Expedition to Madagascar

(Report with photos Kai Westwell)

Arriving at midnight in an airport not much bigger than a barn, yet overflowing with people demanding money from confused looking tourists, I didn’t really know what to expect from Madagascar. Fortunately, the capital, Antananarivo, didn’t reflect what the rest of the country had to offer. After a short 15-hour bus journey followed by 4 hours in a 4×4, our group arrived in Mariarano Base Camp, the base for the ecological and zoological research we would be doing. Days in Mariarano consisted of 3 surveys lasting an average of 4 hours each, often waking up at 4am to catch and tag birds to measure their growth over time. On the afternoon surveys, we could be walking through the forest catching hog nosed snakes and tree boas to map out their territories, or sprinting through the desert chasing after a bird-winged moth. Evenings often involved long walks measuring the abundance of mouse lemurs, chameleons, or one of the many other endemic species Madagascar has on offer.

One of the highlights of the time I spent in Mariarano was the 1 day we got off for Independence Day. The 4-hour roundtrip walk to the village over mountains and through rivers was made worth it, with the dancing and bare-knuckle boxing we were greeted with at the makeshift arena. Each village had their own performance, and in the middle of the celebration we were even invited to dance in the arena as the only tourists who ever visit the village. We also got a chance to watch the world cup on the mayor’s TV, and despite it looking like it came out of the 1980’s, and the 50 other people in front of us, we were grateful for the chance to relax for an evening. After 2 weeks eating rice and beans every day and being watched by lemurs while using the bucket showers, we were glad to move on to the island of Nosy Be. Here we would spend a further 2 weeks training for our diving licence and conducting research on the coral reefs surrounding the island, but not until we travelled to the island by foot, 4×4, bus and boat. Our time here was a lot more relaxed, beginning with a lecture on the area that we would be focusing on that day, from corals, to mangroves, to fish identification. We would then set up our equipment for the first of the twice daily dives, as the speed boat took us to the dive site for that day. Under the water, we would spend our time checking on the health of coral, assessing the reef topography and (unsuccessfully) tracking tiger sharks.

During our free time, we could get a tuk-tuk to the small nearby village of Ambataloka (where strangely, the only restaurant that wasn’t shut down was a pizzeria called Loch Ness), explore the beach populated by stoic-looking men carrying machetes or take a boat to the only island I’ve seen with its own security guard (to protect the turtles). After too short a time, we made the return journey to the capital, over bridges that looked like they were ready to collapse at any moment into the rapids below, and through small villages where the air was thick with the illegally burnt charcoal smoke. Once we finally arrived back in the city, the rest of the group left to catch their flight back home, while I stayed on for an extra few days to explore the capital. As one of the poorest cities in the world, the economy of Antananarivo dropped further after the recent coup and terrorist attacks, and the poverty was evident throughout the city. Despite this, I still enjoyed seeing the history and culture on display in the city, as well as meeting some of the many friendly people who live there, including a Mormon priest and a taxi driver who lives in his taxi with his family. The expedition was an amazing opportunity, and one that I am very grateful to have had a chance to experience, thanks to the funding from the Neil Mackenzie Trust. It will definitely help me in my future university work, through the experience of putting into practice the different ecological fieldwork techniques, as well as the theoretical knowledge I gained about the ecology and environmental concerns in Madagascar.