Final thoughts & The Best of Beza

So we’ve reached the end of this blogging adventure, and I thought I’d end with a few final thoughts about my experience in Madagascar.  I hope I’ve given you a little taste of what Madagascar is like, although in truth there’s simply no way to describe it so that you really get the feeling of the place.  It’s one of a kind, and I would say move it to the top of your Travel list because it’s amazing.

The Best about Beza: The best thing about Beza is the regularity and the lack of distractions; admittedly, if you were there for more than a month, those things become the WORST things about Beza.  There is no internet, no phone, not enough electricity from the generators for computers to actually work on things like grants or papers, or watch tv, and only 3 lightbulbs in the entire camp.  The sun comes up at 5:30 am and goes down at 6 pm, at least in winter.

But the funny thing is, with all of the additional things I would make sure I brought if I were ever to go back (think chocolate), I don’t think I would change absolutely anything about Beza itself.  As annoying and gross as some of the things are (a long-drop porcelain toilet that hasn’t been cleaned in 5 days), I wouldn’t add running water or toilets or showers or houses or anything.  I really liked my little tent, it’s organization and it’s homeyness.  I wasn’t wild about my extra stuff sitting outside the tent admittedly to avoid the hell that is the rat-infested lab, but that’s mostly for security but also in case it rains?  I like squatting in the shower room to use the solar shower because water doesn’t actually come out unless the line is straight down and the bag hangs right at head height.  I sort of like walking to the bathroom at night and seeing geckos, checking for spiders, tapping your boots every day because they sit outside the tent (to keep the dirt out) and they might have scorpions in them.  The cockroaches aren’t even that bad (probably because you just don’t look for them here) or maybe they’re just overwhelmed by the rat problem.  I absolutely LOVE being able to see so many stars at night, and the Milky Way Galaxy.  I tried to take a couple minutes every night and look at it because it’s so cool.  Although I sort of miss the internet, I love that there are no distractions.  Like I honestly did not work on anything else while I was there, I was too busy soaking up the experience, because it truly was once in a lifetime.  I refused to try to work on grants or manuscripts or anything, because right then, I was in Madagascar, and I may never get the chance to go back, and I didn’t want to miss a single second.  It’s a totally new experience not to be distracted in the middle of everything by a new email or a new emergency or whatever.  All things at Beza have to do with your project.  There are no emergencies about genetics or TAing or family or anything.  It’s all about Beza.  It’s pretty amazing to be unburdened with all of those things (even though you sort of miss it).

Azafady (Thank you in Malagasy) to the National Science Foundation for funding this trip, my advisor for my project, Michelle and Frank for collaborating with me, our travel team for being amazing, and you guys, for reading!




Homeward Bound & Permit Drama

Evening driving out of Kruger is an adventure! While we were there, Northern South Africa was experiencing a pretty severe drought, so every watering hole or river we went to was pretty dry. We hadn’t seen hippos or crocodiles the whole time, but on the way out we saw tons! We saw two big groups of hippos lounging on the side of the river sunbathing, and a 6-8 ft crocodile and hippos at a watering hole. Leaving Kruger through the gate in the middle of the park, we got another nice surprise! We passed the Home of the Amarula, which is a South African alcohol, a lot like Baileys. Of course we stopped and they serve free Amarula, which was pretty amazing. We drove most of the day through terrifying mountains on a two lane road at 70 km an hour, only to stop for like almost an hour each time (there were 4 stops) for construction, where they shut down one lane of the road for like 10 km and alternate traffic through there. Thank goodness Frank was driving, because I would have had a heartattack. Once we reached the main highways, however, there were other obstacles! Turns out, no one fences their cattle in that part of South Africa or uses crosswalks, so the cattle AND pedestrians cross the expressway, where the speed limit is 100 kmp, willy nilly! I cannot tell you how many times someone would just mosey across the road, in the dark, across 6 lanes of speeding traffic. It was terrifying. Finally, we stopped in Polkwane that night, at a place called The Golden Pillow, which had tons of stuffed animal busts all along the walls of the restaurant. The steak was amazing, but all the dead animals were kind of creepy. The next morning was a little bittersweet, as it was our full day on this amazing trip. We packed up and headed to the airport to drop off the rental car and stay the night at the Airport Grand before catching our plane to Atlanta the next day. The end of the trip, however, was not without drama. When we got to Polkwane, I got an email from Duke’s Export/Import manager, reminding me of all the things that the US government has told him that I need to return to the States with my samples. I go through the list, and everything looks fine, except upon second perusal, I realize that the Export permit from Madagascar is listed as requiring a CITES Export Permit. For those of you not in the know, non-endangered animals simply require an Export Permit from the country of origin, but for products from ANY animals that have been classified as endangered by the IUCN, you need a CITES Export Permit, which is a lot harder to get. I check out my Malagasy export permit, and oohhh crapper, it’s a regular export permit, not a CITES export permit. I had emailed him, and my advisor, to advise them of the situation, and inform them that the professors I’m traveling with have assured me that I don’t need a CITES permit simply for fecal material, which is all I have. I went to bed a little worried, but not overly freaked out. Because of the time difference, when you send emails in South Africa or Madagascar to the USA, it’s usually a 12 hour delay between responses (you send the emails at 9 am just as everyone is leaving work in the USA and they don’t respond until 9 am the next morning, by which time, everything in SA and Madagascar is close for the evening). That morning, I get up and discover that I have a whole chain of frantic emails from my advisor and Duke’s Export/Import guy, explaining to me that they have called the US government, and that I will certainly not be allowed back into the USA with my samples without a CITES permit, and that I’m going to need to fly back to Madagascar to leave my samples there or get the right permit or else they will be confiscated. So I shoot of several frantic emails, to the permitting agency in Madagascar, to my advisor, to the Export/Import guy, to my parents, and then spend the carride from Polkwane to Joberg (5 hours), quietly freaking out and trying not to get sick. Did I mention that the Malagay yogart caught up with me at Kruger and I had spent the last two days throwing up everything I put in my stomach? When we get to the Airport Grand in Joberg, I’m on the computer immediately, and proceeded to spend several hours on the phone and on email doing the following: (1) checking flights to and from Madagascar the following day to see how much it would cost to fly to Tana in the morning, and fly back to Joberg in the afternoon in time to catch the Atlanta flight, (2) calling the USA trying to get ahold of USF&W, the Duke Import/Export office, anyone really, and (3) calling the Malagasy permit office asking them if they can issue me a CITES permit right now, even though usually it takes months, or if they could store my samples until someone from Duke comes back to Madagascar and can bring them out. The Malagasy permit office is all confused because they’re telling me that for fecal matter, I don’t NEED a CITES permit, so they can’t issue one. I tell this to Mark, and he says, too bad, US Fish and Wildlife says I do, regardless of the rules, and they know I’m coming so I can’t just sneak the samples in (plus it’s a huge felony). So then it’s back on the phone to Madagascar to ask them if they can issue one anyway. Finally, after several hours on the phone racking up international charges, the Malagasy permit office agrees to try to issue a CITES export permit, even though I don’t need one. So now the plan is to bring the samples to the US and then have them get confiscated and wait in the US F&W offices until the CITES export permit is ready, in several months, at which point they’ll probably have to be shipped back to Madagascar to get the permit and THEN be shipped back to the USA. So yeah. I’m in tears all afternoon and shock because holy crap, I’ve just spent 6 weeks here that’s going to be a total waste research-wise. I had horror stories I’ve heard from other people about their samples getting confiscated because the species names were all on the same line instead of on different lines of the permit and the samples sitting in customs for 6 months, and racking up thousands of dollars in fees, and not being able to get them out without calls to Congress! This seriously happened. So after 4 pm, the offices in Madagascar have closed and the offices in the USA are just opening, and I had done all I could do. Now for the waiting game…. After approximately 4 hours, at 8 pm, I finally get an email from Mark, the Duke Import/Export guy, simply saying that the Malagasy permit authorities were correct, I did not need a CITES Export permit, and that I was good to go! I just sat there staring at the email for like 5 minutes before the fact that I could process the fact that I was free and clear, did not have to rush back to Madagascar to pick up a permit, and did not have to leave my samples in US Customs in ATL. My news was greeted with cheers, and Michelle dancing around the room shaking her booty singing “I told you so! I told you so!” Thus began an night of noshing on all the food we had left for dinner (a really weird collection of cheese, olives, pickles, rolls, bread, fruit, etc), and drinking all the alcohol we had purchased and opened. The kicker of this story is that, after our 15 hour plane ride from Joberg to ATL, and I go sit in the special Customs line for people bringing in animal products, here is what happened: I wait in line for 20 minutes, finally get up to the front, with all my permits in hand, and this girl is clearly in SUCH a good mood. It’s 7 am, she’s been here since 4 am, she looks like she was out partying all night, and I’m thinking “oh man, this is not good.” So I tell her what I’ve got, from what country, and that the US F&W inspector is expecting me, and they just need to call him, he’ll come down, inspect my stuff and my permits, and we should be good. After staring at me for a minute, she looks around at the rest of the staff and asks, “Does anyone want to call F&W? No? Ok, you’re good to go”, hands me back my papers and waves me through. No one even looked at my permits or inside my bag. Most anticlimactic ending ever. And final note about a trip like this, a hint from Michelle and Frank: When traveling to the field, if you have room, pack a “Return” change of clothes, seal it in a plastic bag, and don’t touch it until you are leaving for the final plane ride. The clothes I wore on our 16 hour plane ride back from South Africa had served as pjs for a week, and washed in a sink. Getting in the car with my dad, I asked him if the dogs had been in the car, or if that smell was me. His response was most emphatic, “It is definitely you.” Sorry, that was long! Stay tuned for final thoughts on the trip, the last post :).

Travels in South Africa – Kruger continued

Kruger Day 2 was even MORE amazing than Day 1, if you can believe it.  In fact, you reach a point on earth-shattering and dreams-come-true trips like this, where amazing doesn’t even begin to cover it, and you’re so overloaded with awesome, that your brain shuts down a little and things just blur into one long reel of OMG.  That happened to me somewhere in the middle of Day 2.

Day 2 started bright and early, partially because we were sharing one room with a partial loft and one bathroom (with a sliding, hollow door that was open 2 inches at the bottom) between 5 people.  Yeah.  It was like college spring break (well a little less crowded), only with faculty members and fewere bikinis, thank god.  Literally you spend the whole morning all outside having breakfast so everyone can take a turn in the bathroom in peace without everyone hearing EVERYTHING that goes on.

That morning, we drove north to Parfuri, near the Zimbabwe/Mozambique borders.  We hadn’t been on the road 15 minutes when an honest to God Honeybadger ran across the road!  Michelle spotted it and it was one of the neatest things we had seen.  I mean, all the big animals were cool, but lots of people see those.  Who sees a wild Honeybadger??

30 minutes later, we came across a line of cars on the side of the road, and we’re all craning our necks to see what’s out there, when Michelle says, “Oh my god, it’s fucking lions!”  And it was.  And entire PRIDE of them, 2 big males, several older cubs, and like 4-5 females.  It was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.  Just indescribably amazing.  We must have watched them for 30 minutes, and you’re sitting there not even talking because the moment is so wonderful there aren’t words.


The rest of the day was pretty amazing, but paled a little against that.  We saw a huge herd of cape buffalo up by the border of Mozambique, which was terrifying, as they’re one of the most dangerous animals in the park and they were right on the road.  We also tried to cross into Mozambique for lunch, but alas, you have to have a letter from your car rental agency saying you’ve declared your travel plans, so they know you’re not going to rent the car, drive it across the border and sell it, and we didn’t have one.  So instead we had lunch at Crook’s Corner, a pretty cool place at the intersection of South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, where criminals used to escape law enforcement all the time because the police couldn’t pursue across the border.


Hey buddy!

That night, we sat outside the camp to watch the most amazing African sunset.  All the camps close the gate at sunset to prevent animals from getting in, and they all have electric fences around them, but we stayed out until right after the sun went down, and then hauled ass back.  It was gorgeous, a brilliant red, and we sat in the car, drinking beer and Amarula and watching the sunset.  Definitely a highlight of a lifetime.

We also went on a nightdrive that night, but alas, didn’t really see much else except some jackals and civits.

Day 2 New Animal List: Honeybadger, Giant Eland, Helmeted guineafowl, crocodiles, waterbuck, goliath heron, Egyptian goose, saddle-billed stork, grey heron, Ground hornbill, Marabou stork, grysbok, scrub hare, lesser galago, side-striped jackal, black-backed jackal, civet, African wildcat, and large-spotted genet.

Cape buffalo!

Mozambique border

African Sunset 🙂

Travels in South Africa – Part II – Kruger

Entering Kruger!

Several days after leaving Madagascar for South Africa, we reached Kruger National Park and OH MY GOD.  It’s like mecca for animal lovers!  We were in Kruger exactly 2 minutes before our first ungulate sighting.  We saw Thompson’s gazelles, a water buffalo, and a herd of impalas.  After entering through the Punda Maria gate, we went to the Punda Maria camp to pick up an identification book so we could ID all the ungulates that live in the park.  One of the neatest things about the camps in Kruger is the map in the visitors center where tourists and park employees can put colored dots on the map of the roads for the big animal sightings.

While at Punda Maria, we checked the map and saw that someone had sighted a lion on the circuit around Punda Maria.  Amazingly, we actually debated dropping our stuff off at our camp so that the groceries didn’t sit in the car all day (our camp was 2 hours away), but ultimately, we decided to see if we could find the lion, since clearly he had been sighted in the last two hours.  We drove up the Punda Maria loop, which is only 25 km long.  We were on it for over 3 hours!  We saw kudus, nyalas, a monitor lizard, baboons, zebras, elephants, and two lions!  We came upon a stopped car, and sure enough, about 100 m away there were 2 lions, a male and a female.  I can’t even describe how big lions are in real life, out in the wild.  He looked like his head was the size of our car door.  It was simply incredible to sit and watch him.  And farther down, we found a whole herd of elephants, including several babies!

F***ing lions!

Leaving the loop we saw giraffes, more elephants, zebras, and ostriches!  We entered Kruger at 9:30 am, and didn’t make it to our camp, Shingwedzi, until 4 pm, that’s how many times we stopped to look at animals.
Here is the official list of animals we saw on Day 1 in Kruger:
Hardebeest, wildebeest, cape buffalo, African elephants, Burchell’s zebra, ostriches, lions, steenboks, impala, Thompson’s gazelles, warthogs, giraffes, roans, tree squirrels, kudu, nyala, duiker, monitor lizard, chacma baboons, slender mongoose, vervet monkeys, a martial eagle, and yellow-billed hornbills.

Travels in South Africa – Part I

Our first several days in South Africa were mainly spent traveling around, killing time until our stay in Kruger and our visit to the LaJuma Research Station.  The change from Madagascar to South Africa was sort of crazy, although not as crazy as Madagascar to USA.  For one, you go from 1 white person in every 100 on the street, to more of a 3 white people in 10, or more in the O.R. Tambo airport.  We were mostly up in the northern province of South Africa, Limpopo, which is not touristy at all and has very few white people.  And there’s like cement and pavement everywhere!  And very little sheet metal in the cities!  And actual stores instead of stands on the side of the street.  Granted, once we got out into Limpopo proper, and away from Joberg and Pretoria, it was only a few steps up from the better areas of Madagascar.  Cement buildings instead of wooden, but still thatched roofs, roadside stands, and goats and cows allllll over the place and in the road.  But there were real roads in South Africa, and streetlights, and stores, in comparison with Toliara.

A South African village in Limpopo

Limpopo highways are sort of interesting in that they don’t have many exits.  The major highways are virtually all toll roads, and they’ll have an exit every 10 miles or so, where you can stop, get gas and food from a gas station/fast food place, and that’s it with one exception.  They also have “picnic areas”, which is the best I can describe them, which are literally a pull off, 10 feet from the road, under a HUGE tree, with cement picnic tables and a trash can.  You can apparently pull off here to eat or rest.

One thing I will say about South Africa – the animals and food are AMAZING.  I have never had so many amazing meals, and especially the meat, which is literally the best you’ve ever eaten.  And all for like $10 US at the most expensive.  You could spend $20 on dinner, dessert, and drinks, at one of the best restaurants in Makhado, and in the US, that meal would cost you $70-90 bucks.  I cannot even describe how good the food/meat is.  Free-range, grass fed, cooked to perfection, Oh my god.  Needless to say, I ate soo much, especially coming off of Beza food, and because it’s so cheap, you’re like why not??  I almost made myself ill several times from overeating.  And as a result gained like 10 lbs in South Africa alone.  But it was so worth it  :).

We ended up driving all the way to Louis Trichard/Makhado (South Africa cannot decide if it likes colonial or African names for all the cities, so every couple of years they all switch back and forth), and staying there for a few days to visit LaJuma Research Station.  Frank and Michelle are interested in starting a project there, so our whole purpose in South Africa was to check out the site.  And wow, talk about a difference between research sites.  They had buildings, like dorms, enough to accommodate almost 50 researchers!  And internet, and electricity, and a town trip once a week that everyone got to go on, and a fridge for every 3 people.  It was insanely luxurious!  The best part was hearing the manager tell us how sorry he was that the accomodations were so poor, the road so rocky (45 minute drive in an high clearance vehicle), and the price so high.  And the students were complaining about how far away from town they are at 1.5 hours.  We just laughed.  Let’s see, Beza = 8 hours from the nearest actual town, tents, no refridgeration (and screw food, I would have wanted it for research samples!), 1 hr of electricity a day, and no internet/phone.  It was like going from a shack to Holiday Inn and hearing the people at the hotel complain that it’s not Windsor Palace.  Don’t mistake me, I LOVED Beza, but the difference in amenities was just laughable.

The view from one of the LaJuma Research Station camps.

LaJuma itself is gorgeous.  It’s located in the middle of it’s own small reserve, surrounded by 5 other properties that are ranches or private reserves, all of whom have given permission to the researchers to work on their land.  Up in the mountains of northern South Africa at 1300 m, the view is incredible.  There are leopards, vervet monkeys, tons of wild ungulates like bushbucks, warthogs, a baboon, you name it.  The guy who runs it allows you to do everything under his researcher permit, so you don’t have to worry about all of the red tape, and its about $400 a month to work there per person.  He also teaches for free at the local black university, and it was amazing to see an Afrikaans guy trying to give so much back to his students.  The primary function of LaJuma is for other researchers to come and work there, and Ian, the manager, is the most helpful guy I’ve ever met.  I’ve never been to a research station where the people there were so honestly interested in helping you succeed.  Most places you succeed without them, rather than with enormous amounts of their help.  Research is clearly their number one priority.

And finally, a word of caution.  Be aware that in Limpopo, toilets flush for only as long as you hold the handle.  Cora, Anthony, and I were all rooming together for most of our travels in South Africa, which led to it’s own hilarious moments, but my favorites definitely revolved around the toilet.  ‘We’ (hrm, someone who shall remain nameless, not me) did not hold the toilet down long enough and definitely clogged it one morning.  Obviously we ran a little late that morning.

Me in the mountains around LaJuma

Travels to South Africa

So this blog is going to skip over a few days, since most of what I did during the travel from Beza to Toliara to Tana to Joberg was work on a grant application and deal with a family tragedy.  Here are some highlights/thoughts:

Packing for returning from the field, when you’re sleeping in tents, is a HUGE pain.  Because guess what, the biggest thing, the tent, cannot be packed up until last as it’s holding all of your stuff!  And it should go in first so you can pack all the little things around it right??  Yeah well, when we left Beza, I had 4 big bags, and two small bags of stuff that ‘didn’t fit’.  When we left Toliara, after repacking, I had 3.5 bags.

The lemurs thought about coming to Toliara but decided Beza was more their style

Arriving back in the land of the internet, I discovered I had over 300 emails in 3 weeks.  It was terrifying.

Somehow, in Toliara, both Anthony and I ended up with human feces on our pants.  We’re still not sure how this happened, but it was on there a full 20 hours before anyone discovered what the smell in the car was.

Homemade yogart is a dish in a lot of the local Malagasy restaurants.  It’s completely amazing, but as eating anything that’s not cooked is always like taking your life into your hands, prepare yourself to spend the next 5 days in the bathroom, shunned by normal people, if you try it.  Luckily, Cora and I had some, and it was both amazing and not deadly, but Frank and Michelle pretty much kept waiting for us to suddenly stampede to the bathroom.

And finally, our best moment in Tana – For our last nights in Madagascar, we were in Tana.  We met up with Jackie and went for celebratory drinks and dinner at the place where Frank and Michelle first realized they were interested in each other.  It was their 10 years anniversaire of going to Madagascar together, and they had realized over eating at this restaurant, that their attraction was mutual.  Since that night, they had never been able to find the place, but this year, Michelle found it during her wanderings around Tana.  So we went to dinner there, which was completely amazing, and not just because it wasn’t rice/beans/pasta, and we had kily flavored rum.  The Malagasy make Rhum Orange, which is a really really really horrible, cheap rum, that could peel all the skin off your mouth if you drank it straight, but every bar has bottles of it with chocolate beans, or coffee beans, or vanilla, or peppers, or any other kind of ‘flavoring’ you can think of, steeping in it.  The chocolate Rhum Orange is pretty amazing, and so was the kily Rhum Orange.  After dinner, we went back to the Colbert, getting stopped by police checkpoint along the way to check our passports and papers, and then, if you can believe it, we went to a karaoke bar!  Some Malagasy students had taken Frank there a couple years ago, and apparently, we were a fun enough group that he wanted to go back.  So we spent 3-4 hours singing really horrible karaoke, headbanging, and drinking with the 4 other people in the bar on a Tuesday night, including the bartender and waitress.  It was awesome, and I would love to give you directions, but they would be something like, “go two blocks down from Hotel Colbert, and enter a nondescript doorway into a white hallway with no markings, go up two flights of stairs and enter the middle door”.  A true hole in the wall and soo much fun!  Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to try new places even at midnight in a 3rd world country.

The next day, we were on a plane to South Africa, and Kruger here we come!

Tropic of Capricorn!

Stories of Week Three – Part II

The second part of Week Three just about poleaxed me with the unexpected.  I came back to camp after the mouse lemur discovery, to have Frank and Michelle ask me if I could have a meeting with them behind their tent.  I walked back there freaking out that I had done something wrong, screwed up their project, broken the rules, etc.  Instead of yelling at me, however, they wanted to know when I would be finished with my project because they wanted to pack up and go to South Africa!  I was totally dumbfounded.  I probably had the blankest look on my face because I had no idea how to respond to the idea of finishing a week early, and leaving in 3 days.  Turns out, they had almost captured all the animals they wanted, and I had almost all of my fecal samples, Anthony was done with his project.  In fact, I had been wondering what I was going to do with my last week, since we were almost done with fecal collections, and it’s not like there’s much to do at Beza.  I mean, you can…..sleep?  Or walk the woods?  for the 100th time?

Mouse Lemur at night

It took us a day to work out the kinks, but ultimately we decided to go for it!  So two days later, Frank, Jim, Vehlu, Jim’s student Percy, and I went to Betoiky to try to change our flights and plans around in order to leave Beza early.  We drove the 2 hours to Betoiky, and then sat at  ‘cafe’, which was really the porch of a street vendor with cell phone service, using a dongle to connect to the internet, for 3 hours… to send THREE emails.  Yes, 3 hours to send THREE emails – one to Jackie about the car to come get us in three days, one to the travel agent about changing the flights, and one about my permits.  Mind you, all of these emails had been written beforehand, so all we had to do was copy, paste, and send.  Internet in the Malagasy boonies just takes that long to load!

We returned from Betoiky in time for dinner, and then a night hike!  Cora, Anthony, Jim, and I set out, headlamps in place, to look for mouse and sportif lemurs.  And we saw them!  Five mouse lemurs, and five sportif lemurs.  Madagascar is the only place to see sportif lemurs, since they can’t survive in captivity.  Thus, it was a new lemur genera for me, which was amazing.

Sportif Lemur!!

We finished our fecal collections and captures the next day, and our final day at Beza, we ‘newbies’ went on a hike with Vehlu to Ihazoara Canyon, which was completely amazing.  Then we returned, packed up, and left the next morning for Tana and South Africa!

The Canyon