There were twenty-something of us on the island. We lived in wooden, thatched-roofed huts built on stilts right by the beach. During the high tide, the waves would sometimes fight and force their way into the camp, flooding everything in their path.
The camp kitchen was a wooden platform, topped with a thick layer of sand, in the middle of which sat the two stone fire pits we used to cook our meals.
There was a drop-toilet dug a few hundred meters from the camp, and a single open air shower with walls made of tarpaulin. Every now and then, we found frogs and chameleons, the very animals we spent our days looking for, in the shower walls, watching us take a shower.
Roughly the size of France or Texas, Madagascar lies 400 kilometres from the nearest landmass. This isolation, over millions of years, has led to the evolution of a dazzling variety of endemic species which fill every habitat on the island. That very remoteness, however, is their Achilles’ heel; highly specialised and found nowhere else on the planet, many of them face grave danger as their natural habitats are fragmented and modified by the ever growing human population. Lakobe Special Nature Reserve (LSNR) located on Nosy-be is home to a number of those species – the endangered black lemurs, panther chameleons and the elusive Langaha tree snake-, and we were there to study and monitor them.
On the island, we woke up early, beating the sun to the dawn. Not that we had any other choice; if you ever slept in, you would have to fight the camp’s vicious and under-fed roosters over whatever was left of the breakfast. After the meal, we headed off into the forest or the surrounding coral reefs, where we watched life play out before our eyes, and attempted to summarise it all in numbers and figures.
We had Friday afternoons and Saturdays off. There was a small village of two dozen people or so near our camp, and every Friday night, we bought beers and home-brewed banana whisky from the villagers, put on our party pants and drank and danced in the dark until the sound of the waves and night creatures carried us off to our sleeping bags.
In the absence of internet and other distractions, a sense of community grew on the island like wildflowers. We filled our free time reading books, playing board games and taking walks.
One night, Matt, Flavia -two of my best mates on the island- and I were walking back to the camp along the beach. The tide was out; unveiling a wide, smooth, gleaming expanse of sand. The night was unusually muted, the moon curiously enormous; a celestial stranger looking in through the dark window of the sky. We must have been only a couple of kilometres from the camp, but for those few moments, we might as well have been on Mars. Suddenly, as if hypnotised by the sea and the moon, we held hands and began to skip along the beach. Laughing at the absurdity of what we were doing, we slipped, got up and fell again. And that image; of a deserted, silvery beach with only our footprints reminding us where we had come from, is what I remember best of my time in Madagascar.
What I didn’t know, at the time, was that the island, despite all its beauty, was taking its toll on me…
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