The story begins in 2002, with my spotting an advert in the Big Issue magazine:
Volunteers sought to spend three months supporting a small organisation working in Madagascar.
Well, it’s been a while since my last adventure…
The advert in the Big Issue pictured a lemur and invited the reader to Madagascar; a magical Lost World, where plants and animals abound that nowhere else on Earth are found.
Who wouldn’t want an adventure in such a place?
Besides which, it was five years since my last (and first) African adventure: building schools and teachers’ houses in Tanzania. There, I learned how to build an oven in the ground, how to make bricks from scratch, how to Millbank water (collected from the grey pond a couple of miles away), how to start a fire and all manner of other real-life skills. As water was a valuable resource, I forewent shaving and hair-washing for most of my three-month stint. It felt good to embrace the Wild Woman Within.
During my stay, to entertain myself, I regaled volunteers and small children alike with stories about the Subterranean Pygmy Elephants that lived in holes in the ground around our camp site. And I explained that the crickets – so ugly when still – transformed into colourful fairies when they took flight; see their diaphanous wings and trailing legs! I also introduced a resettlement scheme. Many small creatures inhabited the sand we shovelled for brick-making. Protected by work gloves, I carefully relocated anyone rendered homeless by our encroachment – be they spider, frog, lizard or snake – to a safer locale. In other animal-related stories; volunteers subsisted on a vegetarian diet, so the villagers thought they’d thank us for our support by donating a cockerel – ostensibly for the pot. He was a generous gift indeed; resplendent feathers that shifted from green to blue to purple as he moved. He cooed pleasingly when held. We named him Belinda and built him a house.
Once our volunteering time was up, we were at leisure to explore. My adventures took me through the Serengeti by local bus and, whilst sensible volunteers ventured to Zanzibar for cocktails and beach lounging, I went on to join around 200 people, 100 chickens and 20 goats on a 50 seater coach on a 24 hour drive south to Kilwa Masoko. Because it was difficult to get to and no one went there. At the nearest coach stop to the town, I spent a night bedded down with a couple of lady street vendors (not a euphemism; they sold patties to weary travellers). My Swahili was passable by this point, so they were happy to keep me company. The next morning, a pick-up truck ferried us to Kilwa. And idyllic it proved to be. White, endless, beaches; where one could recline beneath the palms, taking in the vista of the bright blue sea – a dhow on the horizon and, closer to shore, a woman beating an unfortunate octopus to death.
I enjoyed many an adventure in Tanzania, but we’re currently concerned with a tale of Madagascar – five years away from the Kilwa palms. Suffice to say; Tanzania treated me well. I returned tranquil, tanned and rippling with muscle. Nary a parasite in sight.
Back to 2002/3…
The organisation I would be working for in Madagascar was Azafady; a non-governmental organisation established by a man with a passion for the island nation. Employing Malagasy staff and overseas volunteers for much of the work, the charity supports programmes to improve the lot of Madagascar; it’s plants, animals, habitats and human communities. When I signed up, Azafady was still in its infancy. I’m pleased to see how it’s flourished.
Becoming a volunteer involved raising £3000, a visit to a small, musty, flat in a terraced house (the Madagascan embassy) to obtain a visa, a plethora of inoculations and arranging the time off work; which proved problematic. As I worked for a bureaucratic institution (the local council) there was Paperwork. In this case, a proposal to explain why I wanted the three months’ unpaid leave and what I would bring to the council on my return. I jumped through the hoops and my leave was approved. Hurrah. I continued my fundraising, booked my flights, had all my jabs, acquired a tent. (And not just any tent, mark you. A gift from boyfriend-of-the-time, this was a super-duper-ride-out-the-apocalypse tent. It cost a small fortune. To its credit, it rode out cyclones rather well. However, what I discovered about ridiculously expensive bomb-proof tents is that the poles will tend to break when sat upon. bomb-proof yes, bum-proof – not so much.)
And then, two months before lift-off, the leave was unapproved. A particular Councillor had heard about my plans to swan off to an exotic country to inhabit a tent for three months, with a hole in the ground for a loo, no running water, no electricity, rationed food, exposure to a wondrous array of tropical illnesses and several hours hard graft each day in blistering heat, and she figured that if I was permitted to do such a thing, then everyone at the council would want to do the same. She, and therefore the council’s Chief Executive (of the time) demanded my resignation. And so I resigned. However, more sensible people than the Councillor arranged for me to be interviewed for my job before I left. Happily, I turned out to be the best candidate for my job, and so I was offered a start date that coincided with my return. Everyone was happy. I still had a job, but my break in service ensured I lost all employee benefits (including sick leave entitlement – which would later become an issue) so the Chief Exec could rest assured that no one else was likely to think it was fine and dandy to jet off for a bit of a jolly. Having settled that, he jetted off to Las Vegas to look around casinos. But that was strictly work-related and so no-one minded.
Now all that remained was to cobble together the rest of the essentials. Being a pauper, my kit has ever been of a donated and thrown together nature. For Tanzania, much of my equipment was ex-army; courtesy of a fencing buddy. Another fencing pal (Joel Kirk, also an acclaimed wildlife artist, who’d been remarkably generous in supporting my fundraising) sorted out my waterproofs – bright yellow oilskins. And oh, how I was glad of those! I had similar donations for Madagascar, which I topped up with bits and bobs from the local Army & Navy store. My lovely work colleagues bought me a fabulous Swiss Army knife, which I was later to drop down a latrine. I still recall watching it tumble – as if in slow motion – down down down into the noisome pit, to land softly, beyond all hope of rescue. Perhaps it’ll one day be excavated by a palaeontologist of the far future.
And so the day came for my long flight to the dark isle of mystery. My family and boyfriend-of-the-time waved me off at the airport – not emotionally; we didn’t suffer any of that nonsense – and I headed to Charles de Gaulle (an airport larger than some countries) for my connecting flight. It’s a long flight. I remember flying over the Sahara, through which the Nile wends its way as a meandering line of greenery; a miraculous haven in the arid waste.
And I remember my first sight of Madagascar.
I’ve heard that an astronaut – on observing the island from space – said it appeared that Madagascar was bleeding to death. It was heartbreakingly apparent that this was so. Extensive deforestation has led to soil erosion on an epic scale. The iron-rich soil bleeds into the rivers – which run red with the death of the land. When we were to canoe along those rivers it was like paddling along a vein. We all felt the sense of tragedy…
It’s too late!
Too late for the dying ecosystems.
Too late for the handful of Gentle Lemurs clinging to life in the reeds around lake Alaotra.
Too late for the majestic Indri that call plaintively to one another from the treetops of but one reserve.
Too late for the aye-aye – skeletal-fingered goblin of the dark.
Too late as the gold miners bribe villagers in order to earn rights to scour the last of the wilderness.
Too late as the sisal plantations take away homes of Ring-tails and people alike.
But it can’t ever be too late. And it can’t ever be too soon. One must do what one can. And do it with utter conviction and utter commitment. This is our world, our home, our only home, and every piece of its magic – including the fairies of Tanzania and the goblins of Madagascar – is worth fighting for.
Connecting flights took us to the tiny airport of Fort Dauphin. Little did I know what awaited me…