Words and photos courtesy of Monika Goralczyk
Writing this blog post reminds me of the time when I stood at the airport in Antananarivo ready to be amazed by the island I had always dreamt to visit. In my head, I built a picture of Madagascar around the articles I’d read and the photos I’d seen. I could only imagine the adventures which an extensive kit list was supposed to prepare me for. I had no idea of the ways in which this place was going to take my breath away. Now, as I am remembering the expedition, it seems almost impossible to find words to describe how great it really was. I can surely say that the one month I spent on Madagascar has given me all that great adventures can give you – friends, memories, a mind-opening perspective and so much yet left to discover.
I recall sitting on a bus on our way to the campsite, closely watching changing landscape, feeling more and more thrilled with every village we drove through as we were getting closer to the expedition site. I will never forget when, as we were driving through the night, I saw the sky like I’ve never seen before. A “star-speckled sky” would be an understatement.
The infinite beauty of the stars was accompanied by a heart-breaking image of human-driven habitat degradation which took a form of a line of flames cutting through the mountain landscape. Anybody would be moved by that view which undoubtedly upsets many ecologists. The emotions, however, are temporary and conservation efforts are what last. Hopefully, a collaboration between scientists, policy-makers and the local community can give rise to a long-term ecosystem stability. In Madagascar you come to learn very early on how crucial it is for the local people to take part in the management and conservation of the ecosystem which their livelihoods depend on. During the four weeks I spent living among the scientists and the locals I learnt the importance of education and equity in protecting vulnerable biodiversity hotspots.
When I think about Madagascar I see lemurs staring at me curiously from a mango tree next to my tent. Every day you will get to see animals in the dry forest habitat, against the red sand and an oversaturated blue sky. My favourite part of the day, however, is the night. Nights in Madagascar are full of surprises. Not a horror-movie-scary surprises more like an adventure-movie-meets-a-fairy-tale surprises. Imagine you’re walking in a river bed which has dried out during the past weeks without any rain. As you follow your guide along the river, in search for reptiles and amphibians, a group of Malagasy children surrounds you and points at a tree you had previously scanned quickly with your eyes. This time you investigate it closer shining a torch and astounded you spot a large group of chameleons, thin branches barely can support their weight.
Making your way through the forest at night is no less incredible. It is rare not to stumble upon kingfishers and paradise birds resting on the branches hanging just above your head. If you take a closer look at the trees you also see the nocturnal lemurs sitting in the branches, watching you with their eyes wide-open. You will get used to seeing the lemurs’ shining eyes – a feature absent from most primates.
As a biologist, I’ve always wanted to see a nightjar in the wild. Even though these birds can be found in Europe seeing a Madagascan nightjar made this experience even more unique. I spotted red eyeshine in the grass and the bird flying close to the ground when we were walking to a boat to go on a night crocodile survey. On the same night, at the boat during a high tide, I saw trees almost fully submerged in the water, flickering with blueish lights of fluorescent larvae.
Ultimately, in the most biodiverse place on Earth, a child-like excitement of night exploration combined with an element of surprise is the recipe for an unforgettable experience.