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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Iraika, roa, telo, aleha!

It's been rather quiet here for the past few months, for which there's a pretty good reason. In November the organisation I worked for and I parted company, by mutual agreement, and with a redundancy package.

Being so close to Christmas and with the certainty of wanting to take some time off (I'd given myself until Feb/March '16 before starting a job hunt) the decision of what to do loomed, there was no way I'd be able, or be allowed to sit and vegetate for that long. I toyed with a couple of London options, charity work, or perhaps give my Sports Therapy alter ego some space. Or Madagascar!

A few years ago I saw a wildlife program which had a 2-3 min piece on a marine conservation charity called Blue Ventures (BV) who were operating in a remote Southwest corner of Madagascar. I'd filed it under 'things to do but will probably never get the opportunity'. This was the opportunity. Sun, sea, diving, community work. Light bulb moment! 7.5 weeks away from home, light bulb went off. We talked it through and the next day I'm sending deposits, booking flights & making lists, big lists.

I already had my PADI Advanced diving, which is the minimum requirement for being part of the science program, and a ton of dive equipment, but the BV list was huge, and as I found out later very much about diver safety. The inventory also included a seriously scary first aid kit, malaria prevention, nets, drugs and advice that we would be isolated for 6 weeks and need to arrive with 'everything' we could possibly want/need while onsite. I was going to need bigger bags!


In Tana I'd meet the other volunteers and begin the 4 day drive to Toliara.

Simon & Liwia - Bravely quit their jobs in July '15 and have been working their way through African wildlife projects ever since.

Lucy - A wee bonnie lass taking a gap year from studies who arrived with more medical supplies and sun cream than the rest of us together. Which was actually very useful.

Anninja - Student from Switzerland who could only stay for the first 3 weeks before staring her medical studies.

We'd later meet Pierre, starting his 3rd expedition and Adam, who was travelling from Zimbabwe and would join us on week 3.

The road from Tana took us over some of (what I thought were) the worst roads I'd ever travelled on, little did I know! On the first day we spent 9 hours at the side of the road waiting for a bridge to be re-built. Which they did manage, but it was a stark reminder that this is Africa, shit happens.

On the way we celebrated New Year, hiked in Ranomafana National Park, saw our first Lema (which neither sang nor danced, I think the film may have been factually incorrect) and hiked
Isalo National Park where we swam in the natural pools.


Our last stop and last chance to buy anything we'd forgotten or anything we might want onsite, jams, sauces, snacks etc

After a few days of R&R we began the last leg of the journey to the village of Andavadoaka(Andava) and the BV site.

Google suggests this is a 3 hour journey. I strongly suggest Google send one of their mapping cars on that journey, with 4x4 rescue vehicles. Its a 9-10 hour off road track that follows the coast, rocky roads, sand dunes and a stomach that would have much rather stayed in the hotel made for a lively journey! It made the Tana/Toliara journey seem like a breeze and I was beginning to have reservations about what I'd got myself into.


First day onsite and the remoteness hits. Andava is the largest village in the Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) with a population of ~1700 people known as Vezo.

Velondriake - "To live with the sea"

The homes are built with wood and there is no running water. Wells provide semi clean water but the Vezo also use the boiled water from cooking rice as a clean source of drinking water. Slightly nutty/popcorn flavour which I developed a taste for, whilst others in the group shunned me. A power line has recently been run through the village, so if you can afford it there is limited electricity. But it's expensive and not the norm. Charcoal stoves and fires are the main method of cooking and the sea the main source of food.

Credit Simon Webber

In comparison our accommodation was palatial! Aligned to the Coco Beach 'hotel', we stayed in 5 huts which can sleep 4 in each, a bathroom, flushing toilets and most of the time salt water running water.

Credit Simon Webber

This was to be home for the next 6 weeks.


The first couple of weeks were very much a settling in period. Getting used to a slower pace of life, 30-35 degrees heat, adapting to a very simple diet of rice, beans and fish; and fighting the inevitable illnesses volunteers tend to get.

We were also assigned duties on a weekly rotation. Handling the water filtration, cleaning up the Bat Cave/Dive hut and weather recording. Water and weather were little and often all day but cleaning tasks were 30 mins in the afternoon and then time to chill.

Each evening before dinner we'd find out what the following day's activities were going to be but generally :

Breakfast 08:00
Dive 09:00 / 11:00 (luxury of a small group meant no 06:00 scheduled dives)
Lunch 13:00
Duties 14:00
Lectures 15:00 - 17:00
Vao Vao & Dinner 19:30. The call to dinner was a chant of Iraika, Roa, Telo, Aleha! 1, 2, 3 Go! ..

Saturday was an enforced no dive day and Sunday was a day to do what we wanted. Which mostly meant nursing hangovers from the previous nights exploits with the local rum.


The diving was my main reason for choosing this adventure, the lure of the sea and the weightlessness underwater is just such a cool experience.

After a pretty comprehensive safety lecture, and after some early bacterial infections had been doused in antibiotics we had our refresher dives. Went through every single PADI skill, not something I've done since training, so a pain, but also a nice refresher.

Once cleared to dive we started benthic or fish id tests. Diving as a small group with one of the field scientists who would point and you take a crack at identifying what they were pointing at. Which needless to say started badly for most of us.

We were split into two groups, fish and benthic. Benthic for the less experienced divers as by the nature of the animal they don't tend to bugger off, but you do need decent buoyancy and Bic the BV instructor taught that exceedingly well. I've seen seasoned 100+ divers with less skills that Lucy and Anninja demonstrated. I and the other already qualified divers got fish. 150 of them to learn for a 50 question computer test and a 30 consecutive correct answers under water test. Until this expedition the first time pass rate was 2.  Unfortunately for me I was teamed with Simon and Liwia, AKA the dream team, who doubled the first time pass rate, no pressure on me then.

Over the next few weeks we dived 1 - 2 times a day, some doing science & others training.  I eventually passed the tests so joined the science team carrying out fish belts on reefs, a small audit counting fish, identifying species and collecting data which is collated and over time gives an impression of reef health.


Part of the BV ethos is that for conservation to succeed it must involve the community. During my stay we spent time on a number of community projects and also spent time with two local families as homestays. We visited the village of Vatoavo, which put Andava to shame with it's remoteness, and poverty, where I got to teach an English class while the other volunteers had arranged an English language treasure hunt for the kids. The village later put on a talent show during which we discovered twerking is apparently a BIG part of Malagasy dance culture, it's all about the arse.

Credit Simon Webber

The homestays were something I wasn't looking forward to, but part of this trip for me was doing things outside my comfort zone. That and dealing with wet sand on feet and fish bones, but they would be handled over time, and under my control.

Lucy and I had dinner with a family in Andava and the following day we would spend 'A day in the life' with the same family. We spent the following day helping them, or in my case hindering them with whatever they would normally be doing. A few of the volunteers wanted to fish, so they did but Lucy and I opted to stay on land which meant I spent the morning playing cards with the children and Lucy got to help with the chores. Although I did attempt to crush some corn, which didn't go down well.


BV run a number of other projects in Madagascar, three of which we had an opportunity to get involved with. 


In an effort to provide communities with an alternative income to fishing there are two farming projects, Sea cucumbers and Seaweed. Both of which are backed by companies who provide seed services and a route to market. They provide juvenile sea cucumbers and seaweed plants, the Vezo then nurture them until such time they can harvest and the product sold back to the companies, who then distribute. Cucumbers are used as a filler/bulking agent in Asian markets and seaweed in pretty much anything thats viscous, beauty products, apparently even some ice cream.

We got to take part in one of the periodic sea cucumber harvests. During low tide we helped the farmers collect and weigh cucumbers, anything >300g was catalogued and stored ready for the next morning. Their fate was sealed, evisceration. Cutting a hole in the anus and squeezing the guts out!

I think Lucy might be enjoying that, just a little too much! My single attempt resulted in the poor lady next to me getting covered in, well, sea cucumber bits.


Endemic to Madagascar the Spider Tortoise is critically endangered and in serious decline due to smuggling in the pet and food trade. We spent a day helping the rangers to monitor the population and catalogue the size, weight and age.

Credit Simon Webber

My time in Madagascar has come to an end and I've begun to try and reflect on the experience. It might be too early to really come to any conclusions, but it wasn't a total breeze, and there were times I'd gladly have taken a teleporter out. But I did some very cool things, met some great new friends and have new life experiences which I don't think many people get the opportunity to do.

Now I guess I need to find a job .. or maybe I'll find somewhere for my hammock.

2016 Expedition #1

Credit Simon Webber

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