June 2000 (Part III): Tourists and Casualties
Ruth Tingay— 1 June 2000 — in Madagascar Project Share
There was more evidence of heavy deforestation up the western side of the peninsula so it was no real surprise not to find any fish eagles there. We reached a mangrove-lined inlet halfway up the coast (called Ambariomena) and decided to investigate further. Sparkling waters lapped against tiny orange-coloured sand beaches, back dropped by the remnants of the forested hills above us. It looked like ideal fish eagle habitat but three hours of scrutinising later and we’d found nothing. A couple of local fishermen paddled by in their dugout canoes and told us they’d seen fish eagles here before but didn’t know where the nest was. They invited us to stay in their village overnight and we followed them back to shore. I was relieved to see their village consisted of only 11 huts, all built on stilts at the top of the beach. I was tired and still feeling unwell and wasn’t really in the mood for being swamped by hoards of curious villagers.
The rural Malagasy I had met were overwhelmingly hospitable and often went to extraordinary lengths to welcome visitors; they also had an entirely different outlook on what constitutes personal space and privacy! It can be quite unnerving to have a whole village-full of people watching your every move, every mouthful of food eaten, every facial expression pulled, every glance stolen. Sometimes I thought it was like a kind of Alzheimer’s disease: everybody knew who I was but I didn’t recognise any faces. It gave me a small taste of what it must be like for famous people back in the West, trying to get on with their everyday lives but having to cope with the general public’s fascination with fame.
We were treated like Lords and were ushered onto freshly swept raffia mats and offered fresh coconut milk and slithers of jellyfish. A little while later Lily and I set up the tents on the beach whilst Thierry killed a chicken for supper. Our contribution was a bag of rice and a few tins of corned beef, which seemed to impress our hosts enormously. Unfortunately they were also impressed with Rivo’s taste in music and insisted on replaying the Neil Diamond tape over and over again. I had hoped all the saltwater might have corroded it by now, but sadly not.
I must have smelt pretty badly as a couple of the women asked if I wanted to have a wash. I was gratefully led up the hill into the forest and shown a freshwater well with a bucket and half a scooped-out coconut shell impaled on a stick to use as a ladle. But just as I was about to walk away behind a tree with my bucket, I was pulled back and shown to a bare hill above the village. Apparently it was ‘fady’ (taboo) to wash in the forest as this was where the ancestors lay, so all washing had to be done on this open hill. I was as conspicuous as that statue standing on top of the mountain above Rio de Janeiro and there was no doubt in my mind what the topic of conversation would be down in the village below.
The following morning I was awakened by the unmistakable duet of a pair of fish eagles. I grabbed my binoculars and scrambled from the tent. Infuriatingly, the sun was rising above the mangroves exactly where I thought the calls were coming from and I was blinded by the glare as I scanned the trees looking for silhouettes. The others followed me onto the beach shortly afterwards and we leapt into the boat and headed over towards the sun. There was no sign of them amongst the mangroves so we killed the engines and listened intently. Nothing. Several fruitless hours later we reluctantly agreed these birds would have to go down as ‘a probable pair’ in our notebooks.
As we packed up our gear at mid-morning and bid farewells to the villagers, we saw a young Malagasy woman frantically paddling in a dugout across the lagoon towards us. She’d come from the other village where word had obviously got out that strangers were in town. She ran up the beach with a desperate look in her eyes and began talking earnestly with Rivo and Lily. She told them her five-year-old son was very sick and needed to get to the hospital on Nosy Be and was asking us for a ride in the boat. Rivo and Lily turned to me as though it was my decision. I shrugged my shoulders and said of course we should take them; her only alternative would be a four-day trek up the coast. She beamed and paddled back across to her village to collect her son.
A few minutes later as we pulled up on her beach, I knew we were the ones being taken for a ride. A very healthy looking child ran down to the shore and practically bounced himself into the boat whilst his mother stumbled from her hut with a giant-sized cardboard box crammed full of clothes and gifts, no doubt for relatives on Nosy Be. It was so big she must have packed it the night before whilst she planned her child-at-death’s-door story. Rivo and I exchanged smirks as we helped her on board. There was no harm in us helping her and it would stand The Peregrine Fund in good stead the next time we visited these parts.
We were in high spirits as we rounded the tip of the peninsula, heading over towards Nosy Be (Nosy = Island, Be = Big). We were planning to stay for a couple of days to survey the surrounding islets and also to take advantage of the tourist amenities, i.e. hot showers, proper beds, and decent food. We were even happier when we found two pairs of fish eagles, one on the northern-most tip of the coast and another on a tiny rocky islet just a mile or so further on. The second pair had an enormous stick nest stuffed into the crown of a tree; Rivo told me this was a historical site and had been in use since at least 1994. We switched off the engines to reduce any possible disturbance and drifted around the islet trying to see into the nest for signs of young. Our passengers looked on in bemusement as we deduced that one of the pair was incubating eggs (estimated by the position of the bird on the nest) whilst the other one ignored us and continued to preen.
Notebooks filled and GPS positions taken, we strapped down the child and opened up the throttle as we sped off over open sea towards Nosy Be. It was relatively calm water but the swell made the boat ride feel like a roller coaster, with bone-crunching slams as we peaked each wave. We saw huge Frigate birds that looked like Pterodactyls as they swooped in and out of the waves in pursuit of jumping fish. We soon saw the cause of the fish-jumping: a massive Swordfish was doing a good impersonation of Jaws as its dorsal fin cut through the surface, with shoals of tiny fish leaping for their lives in its wake. A few landed inside our boat and were hastily collected by our passengers who stuffed the wriggling silver bounty through the lid of their cardboard box for safekeeping.
An hour later we’d reached the southwest shores of Nosy Be and were greeted by a flotilla of gleaming yachts and expensive speedboats all moored in front of a hotel-lined beach. This was home for the next few days. We moored outside the cheapest hotel on the strip (although it was still five-star in our eyes!) and transferred our gear from the boat to hotel rooms. After hot showers and an attempt at cleaning up our appearance (not very successfully) we walked down the beach in search of a cheap restaurant.
This was a different side of Madagascar for me. It was heaving with tourists, which I was both glad but saddened about. Glad because it meant I could blend into the background and not be the centre of attention but sad because with tourists comes tourist trappings. Hotels were springing up everywhere, food shacks lined the roads, as did litter, and what was once pristine littoral forest and mangrove was now little more than a wasteland of tree stumps, all cut to provide timber to support the burgeoning tourism trade. If this part of the island was representative of the rest, I didn’t rate our chances of finding many fish eagles, even though this place was once considered the stronghold of the Madagascar Fish Eagle population.
On Monday morning Rivo announced that we would leave Nosy Be early on Tuesday morning to continue our journey northwards. There was one problem with this plan. We were waiting for the spare steering wheel part to arrive at the post office and had been told we could collect it first thing on Tuesday morning. I reminded Rivo about this but he brushed it aside and said we could pick it up on the way back down the coast in a couple of weeks time! Malagasy logic strikes again. The whole point of collecting the spare part at Nosy Be was because the sea would become rougher and the trade winds more unpredictable (and hence more dangerous) the further north we went. We might as well have changed the name of the boat to Le Mission de Suicide if we left being so ill prepared for the conditions ahead. I tried to persuade him that a couple of hours delay in leaving Nosy Be (i.e. enough time to collect the spare part) wouldn’t make any difference to our itinerary, but his mind was made up. I couldn’t decide if the sinking feeling in my stomach was the remainder of the food poisoning or a premonition of things to come.
Tuesday morning arrived and we assembled on the beach in front of the hotel at 6 a.m. Unfortunately we’d forgotten to move the boat further out from shore the previous night and now we were faced with the exposed hull stuck in the sand and the tide a good 30 feet out! We hauled all our equipment back up to the hotel and decided to have breakfast whilst waiting for the tide to come back in. I said I would take a taxi back over to Hell-Ville to be there when the post office opened at 9 a.m. This idea was ‘very bad’ apparently as we would be leaving at 8:30 prompt! No amount of reasoning, cajoling, or ego-stroking would change Rivo’s mind so by the time 8:30 arrived we had a team of helpers surrounding the still-beached boat and with sheer brute force we were finally floated back onto the ocean.
It transpired that he was a South African who had bought the island several years ago and had since built a small and exclusive hotel in the centre, hidden away from view by the forest. He told us we couldn’t stay as it was private property and we would upset his guests, who had paid thousands of pounds to escape to their own private paradise. We apologised, explained what we were doing, and asked if he could recommend another island for us to camp on that evening where we wouldn’t interfere with local enterprise. His demeanour changed at once and he said he wouldn’t hear of us camping out alone and instead offered us free rooms and meals, as his guests, if we wanted it! We were given our own private chalets on the other side of the beach, complete with elaborately decorated rooms and en-suite bathrooms, and were told that if we wanted to join in with a volleyball game we were to report to the court in an hour!!
We felt like down-and-out tramps as we were led into the dining hall that evening, surrounded by English and American couples, mostly honeymooners, who were dressed to the nines in black ties and dresses. Nobody seemed to mind our filthy field clothes though and we were overwhelmed with the generosity and hospitality that was shown to us. The hotelier was fascinated with our work and told us there was a pair of fish eagles that regularly visited the island, but he had no idea how threatened these birds were in the rest of their range and had just assumed them to be common. He also told us he thought we were bonkers to try and travel further north in our tiny boat. They had previously used boats to ferry guests from Nosy Be to the island but had found the waters too rough so had invested in the seaplane instead.
The following morning we rose early and did a quick bird survey in the forest as our generous host wanted a bird list for his guests. We were more than happy to oblige before setting out once again towards Nosy Mitsio. Just as we were leaving, a pair of fish eagles flew directly overhead towards the northern tip of the island, followed in hot pursuit by a juvenile, presumably the same one Rivo and I had seen yesterday.
An hour into the journey, I began to wish we had heeded all the advice not to travel further north. The winds had picked up creating enormous black waves that threatened to devour our vessel in one easy swallow. As we reached Nosy Mitsio, we tried to stay close into the shoreline to avoid the wind but then we ran the risk of being smashed up onto the rocks that spilled out from the shore into the sea. The rock formations were incredible, tiny hexagonal shapes all slotted together climbing up the cliff walls. We landed on the sheltered western beach and took stock of our position. We knew that once we left the relative safety of Nosy Mitsio we would be faced with wide-open heavy seas, which we would have to cross to reach the next mainland peninsula, some 80 km further north. We also knew that we had a dodgy steering unit, no radio contact, a damaged inflatable banana as a lifeboat and a captain with a death wish. We agreed to stay put for the rest of the day and see how the weather looked tomorrow. We set up camp on the beach and sat and waited.
The following day the sea looked rougher and the wind stronger. We took the boat out on a small trip to circumnavigate a small islet (Nosy Ankarea) a few hundred yards offshore, to test out how it would cope in these conditions. The answer was ‘not very well’ although we did find a fish eagle perching on the rocks above the spray, presumably hunting for breakfast. We headed back to our beach camp for our own breakfast and to discuss our next move. Rivo and Thierry were both fired up for pushing on. Lily and I had a more cautious approach, but decided that we needed to try at least, if only for the sake of team morale. We collapsed the camp, stored everything in its place on board, put on the lifejackets and headed towards the northern tip of Nosy Mitsio.
All went well until we left the shelter of the island and found ourselves completely out of our depths, struggling to stay upright in a mountainous sea. We were soaked within seconds and couldn’t even see the coastline in the distance, the waves were so high. Fortunately Rivo needed little persuasion to turn around this time and an hour after we’d left, we found ourselves back on the beach unpacking our now soaked equipment. Another discussion ensued with Rivo and Thierry still keen to reach our final destination of Nosy Hara close to the northern-most point of Madagascar. Lily and I were in agreement that for the sake of seeing only three more fish eagle sites (these were known sites from previous surveys) it simply wasn’t worth risking our lives for. We had already counted 44 fish eagles since the beginning of the trip and so we’d achieved our main aim, which was to document any differences between this and earlier surveys. It was then suggested that we should wait on the beach for another seven days to see how the weather changed. This was pointless in my view; we already knew the weather was due to deteriorate with the onset of July and we’d simply be wasting time and money by delaying the inevitable return. By darkness we still couldn’t agree so decided to sleep on it and take another look at the sea in the morning.
There was no improvement by dawn but once again we decided to give it a shot. It was difficult to judge the open sea condition from our position on the beach so we packed up again and headed out. We ran into difficulties once north of Nosy Mitsio and this time enough was enough. Rivo wanted to continue, as did Thierry. Lily and I did not. I thought we’d been lucky with our trip and had managed to get away with things that perhaps we really shouldn’t and now was not the time to tempt fate any further. With huge sighs of relief from Lily and me, and with the crestfallen faces of Rivo and Thierry, our boat was finally turned to head for southern waters. It was still only the end of June and I had another three months of fieldwork ahead of me this season. I was anxious to get back to Camp Handkerchief and catch up with those eagles I’d got to know so well last year. I was also anxious to get to the Peace Corps doctor in Tana. I suspected my ‘food poisoning’ wasn’t food poisoning at all; I was still nauseous several days after leaving Nosy Be and had also developed a sore throat and swollen glands. Malaria was on my mind.
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