It is not the most glamorous, comfortable or reliable mode of transport but the way to get around in Madagascar is by Taxi Brousse. There are typically two different models dominating the roads; the more spacious Mercedes Sprinter and the compact Mazda. They have always seen far better days but somehow get you from A to B even if it requires multiple push starts or the addition of more cable ties to keep the wheels in place. To travel you simply wait on the road for one heading in your desired direction and squeeze in.
Roads in Madagascar are long and winding. The general driving strategy is to sound the horn (usually some novelty tune) repeatedly round every corner to warn groups of people sitting in the road, herds of Zebu or oncoming traffic bigger than you. Every Brousse has a ‘door man’ whose job it is to get everyone in, their luggage secured to the roof and sort fares. They always have a handful of Ariary notes and are the first to hang off the side when space inside is at a premium. At crossroad towns people flock to the windows selling fruit and various plates of street food.
Journey times can vary by hours and you may never fully understand why sometimes your Taxi Brousse stops for an hour or does a couple of U-turns. There is no limit to how many people can be squeezed in or how much luggage, fruit, rice, charcoal or live animals can be tied down to the roof so long as the right Gendarmerie are bribed along the way. There is always someone with a chicken on their lap and someone singing along to every word to the loud Malagasy music playing.
I have fortunately not yet had to experience a journey accompanied by the horrifying screams of a pig tied to the roof, although on one occasion a smartly dressed man in a hat and waistcoat sat with a tiny piglet on a leash in his lap. Personal journey highlights have included one driver who while driving offered us back a Zaty fruit along with a 12 inch kitchen knife from the dashboard to help ourselves. Lows have included one journey that took three different Brousses and many more hours to complete, the first getting a flat tyre and the second failing to restart despite the majority of the passengers getting out to push.
The final message from each Taxi Brousse is written on the back windscreen, reassuringly one of the most popular being “Bonne Chance!”
We host planting events two or three times a week in the area surrounding Kianjavato with the aim of creating corridors between forest fragments. Everyday life for people in Madagascar depends upon the use of natural resources. To meet this increasing demand large areas of forest are cleared for farming, most often using slash and burn methods known locally as ‘Tavy’. The cleared land can only be cultivated for a limited time until the soil becomes exhausted and the land is left redundant. Re-establishing deforested areas will connect existing lemur populations, create wildlife habitats and help towards providing sustainable resources for local communities. So far this year (January – June 2015) the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership has planted 138,569 trees.
Each planting event requires a lot of planning and organisation. We collect and move seedlings from the nursery to the site the day before so that everything is ready for an early start. The trees are planted by a group of up to 30 women from the communities surrounding each site. The women receive a days wage and conservation credits that can be used to buy items including solar panels, sowing machines and stoves. They are always laughing and chatting and dressed in wide brimmed woven hats and brightly coloured lambas; the traditional sarong style garment. Kids are often brought along to play alongside and the smallest stay secured to their mums back with another multi-functional lamba.
We plant rain or shine and usually on steep sided hillsides where you find yourself slalom weaving between bamboo canes used to mark a hole and tree to be planted. Spirits were kept high on one recent very wet and slippy planting by a nearby village playing loud Malagasy music as everyone shouted out requests and sang along. Common to each planting site is always the amazing view over the landscape from the top.
Last Saturday we headed down to Ambalahosy, the nearest village to KAFS, to celebrate Environment Day. The local school hosted a dance competition and quiz and the whole village was out watching despite the rain. The message of the day was that the environment is part of our heritage and it is our responsibility to protect it.
On the Reforestation Team work starts in the nursery. There are currently 6 MBP nurseries around Kianjavato. One at KAFS and the others in nearby villages, some of which I’m still attempting to pronounce correctly; Ambolotara, Kianjavato, Antanabeloha, Vatovavy and Ambodifandramanana! Each nursery is run by its own team of people from the surrounding community and each has its own local ‘Single Mums Club’ helping out.
There is a large team of people working on reforestation full of local knowledge and enthusiasm. Many of the seeds we sow are collected from the forest and there is always something new brought in for everyone to debate over. I’ve really enjoyed learning about all the different species we grow, these are some of my favourites:
There is always a job to do around the nursery from sorting and sowing seeds, transplanting seedlings, sorting compost and weeding. This month we also found time to buy avocados from market, eat them for lunch and then plant the seeds in the afternoon!
We mainly help out at KAFS nursery but visit the others regularly to make sure everyone has what they need and collect seedlings that are ready for planting. Having the opportunity to meet and work with people across all the local communities. It is always exciting collecting seedlings for planting which usually involves Zézé driving around the team in the Big Truck. I can attempt to carry and load as many heavy baskets packed with seedlings into the back as I can while the Malagasy guys jog back and forth carrying two baskets at a time balanced over their shoulder on bamboo or simply and effortlessly on their head.
There is still wildlife to be found among all the plants:
A few pictures of some of the Prolemur simus males being re-collared at KAFS this week…
Also new to KAFS this week, 8 turkey chicks! Belonging to one of the two resident female turkeys. The second female is still on the nest and more chicks are expected soon. Father ‘Bob’ can still be found parading around the creche and confidently displaying at any opportunity.
Ranomafana National Park (meaning ‘hot water’ in Malagasy) is only a 2 hour taxi brousse ride from KAFS. Until recently we had only caught glimpses of its dense green hillsides and thick rising mist from the road. We arranged for a local guide to take us in to explore and camp for the night. Tent and sleeping bag packed first stop was the market to pick up food supplies including first of the season honey!
It started raining from the moment we entered the park. The campsite was a very wet and muddy 3 hour hike in but along the way we spotted different lemur species, a leaf-tailed gecko as well as a freshwater crab clinging to a mossy tree. Pit stops were needed along the way to seek shelter from the rain, eat honey filled baguettes and fend off the ever advancing leeches.
Arriving at camp we made some attempt to dry shoes and clothes by the fire and our guide made tea from different forest leaves. Everyone pitched in to prepare dinner including the important task of removing small rocks from the rice picked up from when the grains are spread out in the road to dry. By nightfall we didn’t have to walk far from camp to find colourful patterned frogs and snakes as well as slumbering chameleons clinging to the ends of branches.
We walked a different route out of the park that took us back into the centre of Ranomafana village. The rain finally stopped as we walked out of the forest and the sun came out. The immediate change from forest to farmland at the park boundary came as a shock after being submerged in cool dark rainforest for 24 hours. We made our way past fields of bananas, coffee, beans and rice before again reaching the hustle and bustle of the market.
A typical day with the Prolemur Simus team is spent in a forest fragment called SangaSanga. The lemurs can usually be found resting and eating bamboo but can surprise you with how quickly they can leap across the forest. Keeping up with them involves ducking and weaving through bamboo, battling with vines, shaking off a face full of spider webs, clambering up steep sided slopes and then crashing back down them. Although it doesn’t take long from trekking through dense forest to be met with an area cleared for farming or a labyrinth of rice paddies. It is best to quickly remember the guides advice including don’t grab ‘razor grass’ to catch your fall and don’t touch hairy caterpillars!
I’ve learned a lot from the guides about the forest plants, fruits and animals as well as swapping lessons in language and culture. When the guides tell me how each local village has its own elected King but no Queen they are shocked when I explain that in the UK there is only one Queen and an entire family of Royals in waiting. In a coffee growing country I also attempted to explain the phenomenon of Starbucks and the demand for an expensive cup of Madagascan coffee!
Other wildlife to be seen regularly in SangaSanga: