The memories of my time in a Madagascar are as wonderfully diverse as the country itself. I can highly recommend spending as much time there as is possible! Whether you travel independently or work with an organisation, you cannot fail to be impressed by the country.
I decided to join a research expedition for numerous reasons, although I suppose the main factor was a desire to broaden my field research experience. I was keen to take part in a project that I felt was more than just a holiday. However, as an experienced independent traveller I didn’t want to feel I was being ‘restricted and controlled’ 24-7. Therefore, following lengthy investigations, joining a Blue Ventures research expedition seemed perfect – and it was.
The immersion into Malagasy culture starts right from the word go. The journey from the capital, Antananarivo, to the pre-arranged meeting point on the South West coast in Tulear, is a good introduction to everyday life in Madagascar. That is, assuming you travel on the taxi brousse as opposed to flying! It is fair to say that amongst volunteers, the taxi brousse journey becomes notorious. There is no escaping the fact that it is a long and uncomfortable journey, but it is an unbeatable way to see the country and meet some of its people. No two taxi brousse rides are ever quite the same, so you’ll be sure to finish the journey with some interesting stories to tell.
As soon as you arrive on site all hardships of the long journey will soon be forgotten. The Andavadoaka area is one of the most breathtaking I have ever seen. Perfect sandy beaches, stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by small isolated coves. A short walk to the north or south will find you discovering dramatic rock cliffs plunging into the warm waters of the Mozambique Channel. Looking out to sea, the stunning azure blue is only punctuated by offshore rocks and islands.
The landscape is not the only thing this location has going for it. The field site is very comfortable despite the isolated location. It has got everything from a well stocked bar to a flushing toilet! The camp is situated just on the edge of the village, which makes for frequent interaction with local villagers in both work and social capacities.
The expedition starts with an intense training course. Dive training runs simultaneously to the marine ecology and species identification programmes. There is a lot to learn, both above and below the water and the standards are high. But that is why people are there, to take part and contribute to the research. So, yes it isn’t easy, but I found that reassuring, as it was good to see the research we would be undertaking was of a sufficiently universal high standard. It is also worth noting, that you are not alone when trying to take in all this information, there are plenty of other volunteers in the same boat and all the staff are there to help. The research staff were all very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and created a great learning environment.
Following the initial training the full research programme starts. Underwater surveying begins and you get to put all you have learnt into practice under the guidance of a member of staff. I had never dived before joining the expedition and was completely amazed by the underwater world. I have since dived elsewhere and can honestly say that the diving in Andavadoaka compares very favourably. The diversity on the reefs is mind blowing. It was an amazing way to spend six weeks.
When you’re not in the water there is still plenty to do. Whether it is helping with general camp maintenance, teaching local school children English or entering data into the computer, the variety of tasks is diverse. Whilst you are encouraged to work hard, using you own initiative is key.
When the evening comes, enjoying a cold beer and watching the sunset is a great way to unwind. Considering the remote location of the site I was really pleased with the standard of the food. During the five-day working week, evenings are fairly relaxed as early starts and plenty of dives tires some people out. However, the end of week party certainly is something to look forward to.
Trying to summarise my time as a research volunteer for Blue Ventures in Madagascar is a near impossible task. There were so many unique experiences that it would be impossible to write about them all. Basically I had a fantastic time, learned loads and would thoroughly recommend it.