Inside Madagascar: Part Three

Nature, Wildlife and Guides

When I finally sat down to write this piece, I got into a situation of a long blank staring process at my laptop screen. It was difficult trying to write about something so profound and so special to share with the readers. I struggled. Everytime I recalled my memories, my heart got overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. It is particularly bad at the moment due to my recent brush with Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Madagascar’ documentary, which was one of the top reasons that brought me to this amazing island.

Despite all my struggles and brain blocks, I somehow motivated myself to complete the final part to my Inside Madagascar series with the hope that someday it will inspire you to make your own memories in Madagascar.

Nature
While travelling around Madagascar, one quickly realises the truth behind the highly circulated fact, that only 10% of their rainforests still remain. The good news is; the locals have taken it upon themselves to ensure that this 10% remains for a long time to come.

The nature areas are a mixture of national parks, nature reserves and community-managed forests. Most of the rainforests I visited, comprised of both primary (mostly undisturbed) and secondary (disturbed in some way, e.g. human activities), although primary appeared to be limited. Others had a variety of terrains.

Difficulty of terrains or length of tracks for walking also varied widely between each place. My biggest frustration was, my inability to gain more information about the walks. For some reason, I was never successful in extracting this information from our guides. Everytime I asked this question, I either got a silent nod or perhaps an answer which was not completely true. In saying this, my body was not of an iron woman category either. I was still recovering from my work as an intern at Umphafa reserve in South Africa, dealing with side effects from malaria medication, and have severe height phobia. It was a lot to deal with. Despite these shortcomings, I still managed to cope with almost all walks. The longest walk was in Isalo National Park, a total of approximately 15 km. Parts of this walk involved narrow paths around steep cliffs, which required a lot of hand holding with my guide. Poor guy, I squeezed the life out of his hands. I would have held on to anything to survive this walk as it was incredibly worth it. Isalo National Park is breath taking and out of this world. It scores very high for its unique vegetation and landscape. During the walk, our guide pointed out a number of plants with highly valuable medicinal properties.

Isalo National Park

My other most favourite national park was, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. On the first day of our arrival, we did a night walk which left us with jaws hanging and hungry for more. The next day, we drove to Mantadia National Park (primary rainforest) for a day walk and saw our very first Indri, one of Madagascar’s largest lemur.

Indri

Many of the nature walks involved hours, so the guides diligently arranged for packed lunches and snacks for the trips. This did attract additional costs, but again, a worthy investment. After all the perspiration and fatigue from humid conditions, an egg sandwich and more water felt like a hot meal at a five-star restaurant.

As we visited during the rainy season, mosquitoes were rampant. As mentioned in part two, even ‘Bushman’, the repellent which previously melted my flip flops, was not enough to completely keep me from being foraged alive. Constant reapplication was key. In some places, leeches were galore too. Once, I had six or seven latched on around my waist. While trying to desperately to remove them, I accidentally dropped one into my pants (more like my undergarment) and never found it. One cannot imagine the stress which ensued for the rest of the day wondering where did the leech go. Ahh…the joys of being in nature 🙂

I particularly found the community managed forests very interesting. The locals care and maintain their patch of forests. Money obtained from local guiding and souvenir sales is then invested back into the village and the upkeep of the forests. A super win-win situation. When you talk to the locals, you can easily sense their pride and devotion to their forest to ensure that it remains intact. They do watch you like an eagle and don’t tolerate any insensitive behavior such as littering or man-handling their wildlife. To me, that was fantastic!

Anja Community Reserve

When I started my trip and before my body started reacting to the malaria medication, I kept detailed notes of the nature visits. Details such as name of the nature park, list of wildlife and names of guides. This slowly dwindled to a halt as the days passed and my tolerance to the meds became weaker. I will share what I have in the next section.

Wildlife
Witnessing Madagascar’s wildlife is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. The first time I heard the Indris calling from the canopy’s, it sent chills down my body and etched it solidly in my memories. It was haunting, mesmerizing and thrilling. Every place we visited, we were greeted with a myriad of species. To the point, the whole thing felt somehow staged. The species which was least spotted were the chameleons. We did see a number of them, but not as many species compared to the lemurs.

I don’t know how to describe this, but seeing a lemur in the wild, is insanely special. There is something about their gentle nature and face. It leaves you feeling very desperate and aware of just how important the remaining 10% of nature is in Madagascar. You know that when this disappears, it is not only sad, it is incredibly devastating. From my observations, tourism appears to be the current lifeline in securing what is left. Hence the unique system of guide hires, more details in the next section.

One of the most outstanding wildlife experience, was in ‘Reserve Experimentale De Vohimana’, in the Mantadia region. It was pouring cats and dogs as we drove to this small village to find the elusive endangered Calumma gallus chameleon. A density of only 13 individuals/ha was previously recorded in the Mantadia region (Brady and Griffiths 1999). This species has been severely impacted by habitat loss resulting from agriculture clearing, timber harvesting and cattle grazing.

After an hour of searching, the local wildlife guide came running back to the car motioning us to get out and run forth. We knew he found it. With no time to think, we sprang out of the car and ran towards him while splashing puddle water everywhere. But who cares right? I was about to see an endangered chameleon species! And there it was, sitting comfortably on the guide’s finger and eyeballing us from the corner. I stood there with awe and excitement. You know that this moment is precious. After a couple of minutes, this endangered individual was placed back to its original spot. Of course, it would have been even better if it hadn’t been removed from it’s original spot in the first place.
I know I sound like a broken record, but everything about the wildlife in Madagascar is special. I hope you enjoy some selected images from my trip below and a partial list of my wildlife sightings. As the bird list is extensive, I have only included the lemurs and chameleons and anything that was pointed out to be a rare sighting.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park

  • Lowland streaked tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus)
  • Goodman’s mouse lemur (Microcebus lehilahytsara)
  • Eastern woolly lemur (Avahi lanige)
  • Nose-horned chameleon (Calumma nasutum)
  • Stump-tailed chameleon

    Stump tailed chameleon

Mantadia National Park

  • Indri (Indri indri)
  • Eastern gray bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus)
  • Madagascan pygmy kingfisher (Corythornis madagascariensis)
  • Painted mantella frog

V.O.I, M.M.A (Andasibe) – Community managed secondary forest

  • France’s sparrowhawk (Accipiter francesiae)
  • Indri (Indri indri)
  • Common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus)
  • Short-horned chameleon (Calumma brevicorne)
  • We also saw the “unknown” tree. To date, it is yet to be classified and the only one that exists in this place. The tree is considered to be sacred by the locals and is protected. Due to these reasons, I did not take a picture of it. There was also an altar in front of it with offerings and animal sacrifices.

Analamazaotra Special Reserve (part of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park)

  • Pill millipede
  • Common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus)
  • Indri (Indri indri)
  • High number of bird species

Reserve Experimentale De Vohimana

  • Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsonii)
  • Short-horned chameleon (Calumma brevicorne)
  • Calumma gallus

Ranomafana National Park

  • Golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus)
  • Greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus)
  • Red-fronted lemur (Eulemur rufifrons)
On the way into Ranomafana National Park

Anja Community Reserve

  • Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta)

Isalo National Park

  • Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi)

Guides
Travel guide
When you go to Madagascar, it is crucial to have a travel guide to bring you around. We did encounter a few individuals who had arrived in Madagascar seeking a backpacking experience and ended up hiring a guide. From the brief research that was done to plan my trip, the importance of hiring a guide was quickly apparent from the overwhelming number of feedback shared on travel websites. Despite this, I was still a bit disgruntled and skeptical about hiring a guide. Luckily I listened to my head (and my husband) and not my heart. Having a guide there took a lot of stress away. I felt safe as the guide was a wealth of information and knowledge who made sure we returned home in one piece. There was no way I could have driven under the road conditions, or knew where to eat and which local wildlife guide to hire. So, it was both an excellent decision and investment. We were extremely fortunate to have a star guide and driver who made our travel experience so much richer. They shared insights into the political environment, their culture, food, and even introduced us to local folk songs.

Wildlife guide
Each time you visit a nature reserve or national park, an additional local wildlife guide need to be hired. We were told by our guide that one cannot enter the natural areas unless accompanied by the local wildlife guides. These guides were mostly from nearby villages. The fees we paid varied widely and depended largely on their skill sets and experience.

The depth and wealth of your wildlife experience appears to be dependent on the skill set of your wildlife guide and their trackers. You don’t always have a tracker on the trip, but these guys can fish out any lemurs in a patch of rainforest. It was incredible to see them in action.

We also learnt that guidebooks are a rare commodity to the wildlife guides due to the cost and lack of access to bookshops. So, what they had were mostly donated by tourists. Honestly, with their skills, I am not even sure they need one.

This concludes my three part Inside Madagascar series. There is still so much information not covered in my pieces. I tried my best to pick the essentials which may aid your travel plan or hopefully inspire you to visit this island someday. Till my next piece, I shall leave you with this video which inspired my trip to this amazing part of this world.

All image credits: Deniz Ortac
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Inside Madagascar: Part Two

In my last post, I shared the part one of ‘Inside Madagascar’ about my mistaken identity as a Malagasy woman. Now, a few insights into my experience with accommodation and food in Madagascar.

I cannot believe how much time had passed since I last published the part one of this series. It is important to me that when I write, I put my heart into it and not rush for the sake of getting my pieces published. The last weeks have thrown all sorts of work and life challenges, and at the same time opened up new and very exciting journeys. This took a lot of time away from me causing this long delay. My sincere apologies and thank you so much for your continued support. It really means a lot to me.

Stalls you see along the streets when passing small towns
Stalls you see along the streets when passing small towns

If you had visited my blog’s main page, my love for good food is no mystery. Trying different cuisines during my travels is very important to me, more than securing adequate accommodation (something which I came to regret later). As I knew nothing about Madagascan cuisine, I was excited about what I will discover on this island. Everything I knew of Madagascar was from wildlife documentaries, that rarely covered any details about food or accommodation. I had no idea what fruits or vegetables grew there, what were their local delicacies, or style of dishes. This was a dream for any food lover (like me) with a sense of adventure! I did not travel to Madagascar for food, but for anyone curious about going there one day, I was hoping this piece can give you a sneak peek.

Accommodation

Given my love for food, everyone expected interesting and long stories about my unforgettable foodie adventures in Madagascar…on the contrary. Instead, it was my experience with accommodation that resulted in a colourful story of ‘almost’ madness, flood and a relentless three-day blood donation to mosquitoes.

Before I reveal my colourful story, I would like to discuss a few basic details about my experience with accommodation in Madagascar.

When I was doing an internet search for a tour guide, I came across a few comments from past travellers who strongly advised not to go too cheap with accommodation bookings.  To keep it simple, I settled on two criterions for my travel: mid-range (2 to 3 stars) when travelling and something better (4 to 5 stars) during rest stops in Tana.

All the mid-range accommodation had one thing in common, mattresses which broke my back. After a day of hiking through some difficult paths and travelling long hours in the car, all I wanted was a halfway decent bed to sleep in. So many of the beds in the mid-range accommodation were sponge beds, at least I think they were based on the extreme softness. Sleep became a scarce commodity during my travels.

At times, I remembered crying myself to sleep mostly due to unbearable fatigue. The next day when I stepped out for my daily wildlife sighting trip, my tears evaporated and excitement returned (most times anyway).  This cycle continued for days. Then this experience turned to extreme contrast when we stopped for rest in high-end accommodations. It felt so strange and wrong to experience so much luxury after days of witnessing the everyday difficulties and poverty faced by the locals. In the end, only my sore back thanked me for this experience as the rest of me was too guilty to be in the moment to fully enjoy some of the ridiculously comfortable accommodation.

Despite everything, I managed to keep my travel curiosity alive and well. However, I experienced a near breaking point in Morondava where the famous ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’ is located (yes…this is my colourful story). Our guide had booked us into a beachside resort-styled accommodation for a one night stay before we traveled further on to Isalo National Park. As it was the peak of the cyclone season, we arrived at the destination in heavy downpour and strong winds. After dropping us off (my husband and me), our guide left in a hurry. Before he left, we were informed of an early morning pick-up (the next day) to visit the Baobabs.

Still reeling from the tour guide’s express exit, I quickly realised that we were the only guests at this resort. In a few seconds, the reasons became apparent. Due to the heavy rains, the resort had lost its power. The main reception was powered by a generator which lulled me into a false sense of security that everything was OK. Apart from the reception area, there was no electricity in the accommodation. This meant, no fan to keep the mosquitoes away, no light and no hot water. We were given a small torch as our beacon of light. The knowledge of staying in a place with no electricity did not bother me very much as the stay was only for one night and it was quite late. I thought to myself, “How bad could it be! It is only for a night”.

After placing our dinner orders, we retreated to the room. The room was extremely dark with a very hungry mosquito population. My Australian ‘bushman’ insect repellent, which had previously melted my flip flops, was no match for the hungry mosquito mob. We unfolded the mosquito net as quickly as possible and scrambled in for security, only to realise that it had a number of holes. I felt as though we were starring in our own horror movie titled ‘Revenge of the mosquitoes’. Needless to say, we were foraged on mercilessly for the rest of the night.

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The next morning greeted us with more rain and a knee-high flood outside our resort hut. As we tread in water to make it to the reception area for breakfast, the receptionist informed us that our guide will not be coming today and that we had to stay for one more night. I felt as if a large lightning bolt hit my head. Another eventful night with a blood drive ensued. Two nights became three nights. This affected me emotionally and mentally. At this point, I was too exhausted to even talk. Despite everything, I was trying desperately to find the upside to this situation. The resort staff tried their ultimate best to make sure we had some decent food on our plates and resorted to cooking on a makeshift BBQ to provide the meals. Even my coffee was boiled over the BBQ.

On the third day, out of nowhere, our guide turned up. We packed and ran out of the accommodation so fast. I had no idea that I could move so fast. The dark cloud was finally lifted when we arrived at the famous ‘Avenue of Baobabs’. It was absolutely stunning! The heavy rains had left a special atmosphere; which we were told that very few people have experienced. Flood water was running everywhere. The grass was wet and smelled green and everywhere you looked…you could see the perfect reflection of the baobabs on the water.

The day after the big rains - 'Avenue of the Baobabs'
The day after the big rains – ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’
Electric atmosphere
Electric atmosphere

As we left this special place, news came through in the car that the cyclone had just arrived in Morondava. It was one long silent and sad car ride to our next destination.

Food

My staple dish throughout this trip was a bowl of chicken soup served with some rice and the spicy sakay (i.e. a chilli condiment) from local eateries known as ‘Hoteley’. I absolutely loved sakay! The condiment is made from a special chilli, which I cannot remember the name. The locals had an awesome description for it, a chilli which can kill four (or may be three?) men. I hope this gives you an idea of how spicy it was. At times, it was so spicy to the point I could not feel my mouth, but I still could not do without it when I ate.

Well, if you are thinking why only chicken soup? Our guide was very choosy about what we could eat and where we could eat. His number one priority was to make sure that we did not get entangled in a food poisoning episode. The chicken soup was boiled for a long time and always served piping hot, which made it safer to enjoy. We were only allowed to eat the chicken soup at ‘Hoteleys’ selected by our guide…naturally.

The best way I can describe a hoteley is a local eating joint located in each small town along the roadsides. This is frequented mostly by the locals and the occasional tourist. The menu choices are limited but really affordable. The chicken soup was simple but satisfying, cooked with lots of crushed ginger. You only get about one or two pieces of chicken in the soup accompanied by a mountain pile of rice. To keep myself full, I stuffed in all the rice I could. Honestly, I was grateful to have any food when I was travelling in Madagascar. When you see so much poverty around, it reminds you to be grateful for what you have.

What was left of my lunch :)
What was left of my lunch 🙂

Vegetables are very expensive in Madagascar. Hence, it was often not on the menu in many hoteleys and access to fruits varied from place to place too. However, I always had pineapple no matter where I went. Pineapples were more readily available as it was locally grown whereas most of the vegetables had to be imported or grown in small quantities making it very cost ineffective. Another item which was widely available was cassava. It was a long root vegetable, like your sweet potato or yam. I grew up eating a lot of cassava in Singapore. My mum used to marinate it with turmeric, deep fry and serve it with a nice cup of piping black coffee. My best (and only) experience eating cassava in Madagascar was in a local wildlife guide’s home in Ranomafana National Park. I felt so special to be invited to his house for an afternoon snack of boiled cassava with local honey. It was delicious! The simple pleasures of life 🙂

Of course, I wanted to try the street side stalls and sample a number of Madagascar’s traditional goodies. Our guide will have none of it! Thinking back, it was a good move. The malaria medication I was taking gave my stomach a good beating. I don’t think I would have survived any food poisoning episodes.

A typical street side stall
A typical street side stall selling some local delicacies and dried produce

Occasionally, the guide brought us to restaurants designed for tourists. The menu varied between Chinese, Indonesian and French influenced cuisines. You get an amazing amount of variety but these places also cost about 10 to 20 times more than the hoteleys. I will not lie, when we did get to these places, it was a welcomed change. The food was amazing.

Overall, no matter where I went and what I ate, I found the food to be decent and at times, absolutely delectable. Today when I think about all the food I had in Madagascar, it is the chicken soup and sakay that I miss the most.

If you are worried about food when travelling to Madagascar, my best advice for you is, don’t. There seems to be a little something for everyone unless you decide to be incredibly fussy. There are well-stocked supermarkets in Tana, where you can find a number of food items for the long road trips.

The next and final part will explore my experience with the nature, wildlife and guides in Madagascar. Till then, keep safe and enjoy!

In case you missed this, Part One – Mistaken Identity

 

Inside Madagascar: Part One

Inside Madagascar: Part One

From the get go, the whole trip was one big roller coaster ride. It was exhilarating, hard, humbling and definitely an eye opener. Apart from booking a local guide and educating myself about obvious health and safety precautions, not once did I look into a travel guide book or researched websites for more detailed information. I wanted to surprise myself and let the place speak to me.

My trip to Madagascar was mainly for the wildlife, but I left with a number of unexpected moments that made my trip so much more interesting and memorable. These are the stories that I would like to share with you. Since I cannot cover everything in this one piece, I will be publishing them in three parts: (1) Are you Malagasy? (2) Food and Accommodation, and (3) Charcoal, Nature, and Guides.

Children of Morondava
Never shy away from a camera moment

Are you Malagasy?

The locals in Madagascar are addressed as ‘Malagasy’ people and are further divided into 18 separate ethnic groups such as the ‘Merina’ and ‘Sakalava’, the only names I can remember right now. Each group is spread across different parts of Madagascar with each observing variations in their way of living, culture and even the way they built their houses. I was amazed to learn that many of the early settlers had arrived from Indonesia which explained their familiar appearance to me as I grew up with many Malaysian and Indonesian neighbours.

As I was waiting in the queue to get clearance to enter Antananarivo (commonly referred to as Tana which is also the capital), I noticed the immigration officers curiously peeking over in my direction. I was so nervous. I had nothing on me which could get me in trouble, but given our world today, the sight of immigration officers just glancing at me made my knees shiver.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I reached the counter. Then the mystery unfolded. After glancing back and forth between me and my Australian passport about five times, the puzzled officers asked me if I was ‘Malagasy’? With a silly smirk on my face (and still scared), I calmly said no. Then they wanted to know if I was born in Madagascar, moved overseas and decided to return home…again my reply was no. Finally, they asked me if I would like a Madagascar passport. I said, “Ok, why not?”. My unexpected agreement triggered a few minutes of silence from both ends. After a few more attempts of trying to make me confess if I was indeed a Malagasy woman, they finally gave up and let me through.

This did not end here. As it turned out, I was greeted with this question almost everywhere I went in Madagascar. The question was frequently addressed either in French or Malagasy language to my tour guide or the driver. The fact that I was conversing in English further confused many of the locals. They could not fathom why on earth I didn’t seem to understand their language. At times, some of the locals got very annoyed thinking I was deliberately hiding my identity which was clearly demonstrated by their animated conversation with the guide.

As the trip progressed, this cultural identity confusion got even worst. During this time, I was travelling with my husband who is German. Whenever we were seen together (which was almost always), I remembered getting some strange looks and the occasional stare while passing through villages or small towns. I always attributed this to the ongoing confusion of my origin. As it turned out, I later learnt that some Malagasy women worked as social escorts to visiting tourists (mostly from westernised countries). This practice was apparently often approved and supported by their boyfriends or husbands but generally frowned upon by society. As I was happily going around with my German husband, in addition to my new identity as a Malagasy woman, I soon realised that I now had a new occupation too.

From left: The German, Supposed Malagasy (ME) and a genuine Malagasy local.
From left: The German (not my customer), Supposed Malagasy (ME) and a genuine Malagasy local (one of our many guides).

Sights Around Madagascar

Still to come…PART TWO 🙂

Please Note: The opinions and thoughts expressed here represent my own. I visited Madagascar in January 2015.

Jungle Book Made Me Cry :(

A note to readers: There are a few spoiler alerts for the movie 'The Jungle Book'. Please read it at your own discretion. This is not a movie review, just me sharing my experience watching the movie. Thank you everyone. 

I had Friday off from work and decided to go watch the newly released movie, ‘The Jungle Book’. I had seen the trailer before and it blew my mind! I love movies featuring animals, especially talking ones. Since I was a young girl, I always thought how great it would be if animals could talk to us. I used to dedicate hours imagining how it would feel to have a talking dog. My thoughts were if animals can talk then they can tell us how they feel. This way, we can better understand their needs and simply care for them better or just leave them alone. I still don’t remember why I had these thoughts at such a young age to begin with.

Jungle Book Cover

Anyway, I found myself in the cinema at 10.30am on a ‘Bring Your Baby’ day. Naturally I was surrounded by many cute babies and their mums who looked like they needed this break.

The animation of the movie was great. So great that it seemed natural that the animals were engaged in perfect conversations. There were some scary moments for the little ones and me. I jumped out of my seat a number of times while trying my best to keep my screams dignified and under my breath. The scary moments were not gory or horrifying, more like moments when something unexpected or bad happened to your favourite character. Since the lights were on throughout the movie, I could see a couple of babies turning around to look at the screen (attracted by the loud growls of the big cats) and wailing their eyes out. Poor fellas! This started worrying me. I hope this does not impact how they feel about animals when growing up. We need all the friends we can get to help support our wildlife. I can only hope they are way too young to remember these scary moments which made them cry.

As I started getting into the movie, I could feel deep emotions taking over. The scenes of animals banded together, looking incredibly beautiful, each with a purpose in this world, each special in its own way and roaming in great numbers really stirred some very sad feelings. All of a sudden, I started panicking. A hundred questions ran a race in my mind. What happens if all this is gone, wiped out, what if our efforts don’t work and we have to live in a world with no animals? I could see scenes from ‘Racing Extinction‘ flashing in my mind. This overwhelmed me so much that I started crying. I am not sure if anyone saw me crying during the movie, if they did, it must have left them very confused. The best part was…I had no tissues on me and I was wiping my tears all over my t-shirt. Yes, it got really yucky. Then it got worse. The two villains in the movie were the Orangutan and the Tiger. This made my head spin. The two species (along with many others) which are in peril portrayed as baddies. GREAT! At this point, I was compelled to walk up to each baby and somehow tell them how beautiful and amazing both these creatures were and this was just a movie.

Perhaps, I should have told this to myself too. I know it is just a movie but one may never know the impression it leaves on these young minds…let alone this grown up animal lover who cried like a baby during the movie! I didn’t mean to take it so seriously. Honestly, I could not believe how it managed to creep into my heart and overwhelm me with such emotions as it did.

On the whole, I loved most part of this movie and it looks like I may be watching it again.

Photo Credit:
(1) Image of book cover -  Vernon Barford School Library viaFoter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
(2) Header - mripp via Foter.com / CC BY
(3) Tiger - pattoise via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
(4) Orangutan - pattoise via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

To Sir David Attenborough With Love

sir-david-attenboroughI have not met many people who don’t know about this great man. Many of us affectionately love Sir David Attenborough and shared numerous on-screen magic moments as he opened our hearts and mind to all the wild wonders of this world.

My first encounter with that familiar voice came from ‘Echo of the Elephants’, one of my all time favourite documentaries about elephants. At that stage, I too had no clue who he was except for the fact that he had a very nice voice. Since then, I have never escaped his grip as I encountered each different documentary teaching me things I never knew, making me care about things which I would have never thought about and taught me that this world is so much more than what we allow ourselves to see every day.

When I first decided to embark on a crazy journey to throw everything away and dedicate my life to wildlife conservation, naturally, Sir Attenborough was a big influence. Somehow I wanted him to know that he has been an integral part of my decision and I wanted him to be proud of me. This man had no clue who I was, where I came from or how on earth did I look like. Why would he care? Did that stop me? No way.

I started searching high and low for a way to write to him. I finally found an address to post fan mails and decided to take the risk to pour out my heart on paper. I sat down and wrote this 5 page letter (front to back) and excitedly sent it on its way.

To be honest, after posting the letter I was not expecting anything in return. I guess all I wanted was to write to him and tell him how important he was to me. Two weeks later, the big moment arrived.

Three days prior to this big moment, I had just received my confirmation to start my Masters course in Wildlife Management and Population Management accompanied with very strict conditions. With no prior science degree, I was nervous and started doubting my decision. I was to study in a class full of younger and highly talented Biology and Veterinary students. All I had was my love and determination to play a part in saving our wildlife in any small way I could. With a heavy heart and three weeks to go before I started my class, I found this airmail envelope with three UK marked stamps waiting in my mailbox. Although I had no idea what it could be, instinctively something told me that I needed to sit down to open this. So, I ran home and locked myself in my room.

When I finally opened the envelope, I found a beautiful piece of heavy set paper. I unfolded this slowly only to see Sir David Attenborough’s address on the header accompanied with four sentences written in black ink with a signature which temporarily stopped my heartbeat. I did not scream, I did not feel excited but I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling of love and quiet happiness. This moment will stay with me forever. Words cannot describe how special it was. This letter traveled everywhere with me for two years. In my hardest moments, I held it and reminded myself that I was going to be OK and it helped me pull through my two years of studies.

I have written a few more letters to him since then, but with no further replies until this crazy moment. I had just started my career and started feeling so lost in the conservation world experiencing the brunt of not finding paid employment and constantly exposed to competition. It was hard. I felt I needed to talk to somebody and get some guidance, like a mentor. So I came up with a brilliant idea to write to my favourite man to ask if he would be my mentor. I know, what was I thinking right?

The moment I posted the letter, the impossibility of my actions daunted on me. I remember standing in front of the red post box and laughing to myself thinking…I cannot believe I just did that! I was even embarrassed. Did I just write to one of the most famous man in the world and asked him if he would be my mentor?

Lo and behold, three weeks later I got a reply from Sir David Attenborough politely declining my request. In that letter, he humbly stated that he was primarily a filmmaker and believes he would not have made a suitable mentor for me. At this point, my love for him doubled. He could have simply ignored my request as I am sure he receives so many similar requests. But he did not, he wrote back.

There are so many reasons why I love this man so much and I always will have a very special place for him in my life and my heart. My deepest regret is that I have never seen him in person. Every time he came to Australia for an event, I was too broke to afford the ticket. To this day, this is something which makes me very sad. But I will always have these two letters to keep close to my heart as my journey continues to make this world a better place for wildlife. Now, all I need is a khaki coloured pants and a light blue shirt.

Photo Credit:
Main Page - JrScientist via Foter.com / CC BY
Header - diana_robinson via Foter.com /CC BY-ND

My Visual Classroom – Wildlife Docos

There are so many good documentaries out there. Some so good, it captures our heart and remains in our memory for a very long time. Things I see and remember from these documentaries often come up during discussions with family and friends, or when I need a particular fact about a particular animal to share my enthusiasm for wildlife.

Personally, I love watching documentaries; they act as my visual classroom. My mind gets the chance to travel to amazing destinations to see even more amazing creatures and places. I watched my first documentary when I was about 14 years old. I can never forget it. It was the ‘Echo of the Elephants’ narrated by Sir David Attenborough. This is also the documentary which started my obsession for watching anything and everything which has been done by this incredible man.

Over the years, I have most likely watched hundreds and hundreds of documentaries apart from avidly reading up on animals which has been instrumental in planting that seed of wonder and love for the natural world. I wanted to share a small part of my learning journey with you by putting together this list of a few documentaries which had made a deep impression on me in one way or the other. Please share in the comments if you have a favourite documentary which is not on this list.

(1) ECHO OF THE ELEPHANTS (1992 – 1993)

This BBC documentary follows the life of a gentle matriarch, Echo, and her family in Amboseli National Park in Kenya watched over by research zoologist Cynthia Moss (founder of Amboseli Elephant Research Project). The four segments follow the triumphs and tribulations of Echo and her herd’s life over 18 intense months. Lots of tissues were sacrificed when Ely (Echo’s baby) was born with both his front legs bent. He could not stand up or walk. Yet, he fought on while his mum kept a close watch, even withholding her visit to the water hole for a much needed drink under the brutal heat. When Ely could finally straighten his legs and walk, it felt like I just won this battle.

(2) IN THE WILD (1976 – 1981)

When you think about Australian wildlife, very few people will fail to mention the words “dangerous” or “Steve Irwin”. One fine day a few years ago, I chanced upon this documentary by Harry Butler (Australian naturalist and environmental consultant). I love the ominous starting music and the casual delivery style of Harry Butler while he introduces us to the fascinating Australian wildlife. It always felt like he was leading me on this mega easy going wildlife tour. This documentary became so special to me that I even have a tattoo stating a quote from one of the episodes. It took me 4 years to get permission from my mum to get this tattoo!

(3) LAST CHANCE TO SEE (2009)

This BBC Two wildlife documentary features the journey of Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry revisiting the animals on the edge of extinction from an earlier radio series (also called Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine) twenty years on. Please look out for the scene when a male Kakapo (large flightless parrot from New Zealand) attempts to mate on Mark Carwardine’s head with Stephen Fry laughing his head off in the background. Priceless! This series has six episodes.

(4) WILD ARABIA (2013)

If you are after a visual treat, this is it. I was watching it with my eyes wide open and jaws hanging with lots of ‘WOW’ thrown about. It was also the fascination of learning about the wildlife in Arabia which never crossed my path before. When I think about wildlife, my mind may think Africa, Australia, South America and so on, but Arabia? Another great thing about this documentary was that it also gave a great insight into the people and landscapes of Arabia. It recently aired in Australia on Nat Geo Wild. It is a three part series.

(5) LIFE IN THE UNDERGROWTH (2005)

I am scared of spiders and a lot of other insects. When I encountered one, I behaved like my life was coming to an end. All I can say is close encounters often involved some screaming. This documentary changed that tremendously for me. It beautifully narrates the importance and role of invertebrates in our world. I could never look at an ant or a spider the same way after I watched this documentary. Invertebrates are so misunderstood and overlooked. I love how the five episodes in this series work to bring us into their world and perhaps understand them a little better.

I do have many more on my list which I hope to share with you in the near future. Until then, I hope you will explore some of these documentaries on my list.

Photo/Video Credits:
Header - Mara 1 / Foter.com / CC BY
Echo of the Elephants - Animal Battles Channel
In the Wild - UbeefHooked Channel
Last Chance to See - BBC Channel
Wild Arabia - BBC Earth 
Life in the Undergrowth - BBC Earth

Early Morning Royal Walk

This morning when I woke up, I decided to do something which I had not done in years…to go on a solo weekday nature walk! So I headed off to the Royal National Park (aka my second home), which is about a 15 minute drive from where I live. Today I wanted a complete nature immersion, so no cameras, no mobile devices and no pictures (of my own anyway).

First stop, Audley for breakfast. Audley is located within the Royal National Park and houses a nice cafe facing the Hacking River, the visitor centre and numerous picnic spots attracting high numbers of visitors all year round. It was a lovely feeling to enter the Audley car park today and see only two other cars. This meant peace and quiet and fewer attempts from people trying to feed the wildlife in the park. A great start indeed!

I quickly placed my order and sat down to enjoy the amazing morning light and watch the Australian Wood Ducks and the Dusky Moorhens peacefully grazing away on the grass…UNTIL my toasts arrived. As I was busy looking down and buttering the toasts, I must have missed Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ movie being remade around me. I had a shock when I looked up to see 8 Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, 3 Noisy Miners and 1 Australian Magpie surrounding my table. Some were sitting on the wire running above me, some on the ground, and a few perched on the chairs around my table. It was a stressful moment trying to decide whether to eat or not to eat my toast. Every time I brought the toast closer to my mouth, the birds on the ground inched closer towards me. It was unreal and funny at the same time. I had to chuckle as I remembered scenes from the ‘Birds’ movie. Ten minutes later, they finally realised that they were not getting anything from me and dispersed quietly as they came leaving me to enjoy my toasts.

After breakfast, I proceeded to walk the Wattle Forest path just around the corner from the cafe. This is a fairly short and simple walk along a narrow road but very beautiful. The Hacking River snakes along the path on the left while native vegetation and huge rock formations skirts the right. It is such a paradise for birds and lizards. I truly had a wildlife field day with sightings in such a short time. I saw Crimson Rosellas, Bowerbirds, Superb Fairy-wrens, Great Cormorants, Eastern Whipbird, Rainbow Lorikeets, Noisy Miners, Garden Skinks and a beautiful large male Eastern Water Dragon. There were also numerous dragonflies flying around me and kept me company while I enjoyed my walk.

On my way back to the car park, I had another ‘encounter’ with birds. At the half-way mark along the path, I started hearing loud shrieks from our white feathered birds and saw at least 12 to 15 Cockatoos abruptly landing on a small tree in front of me.  A few of them flew so close, it almost felt like they were about to land on my head! The poor tree was almost bent from the weight of so many Cockatoos. They sat there with their wings stretched, crests raised and shrieking louder than ever completely drowning the atmosphere. You could see they meant business.  But what business? Then I saw the individual causing all this drama in the midst of the overly worked up Cockatoos, an Australian Raven! I am really not sure what the drama was about, but everything calmed down as soon as the Raven left the scene.

After this exciting moment, I continued my walk while absorbing the beauty and sounds of birds singing around me. As I looked up around me, rays of sunshine broke through the canopy gaps giving the atmosphere an amazing feel as warmth washed all over me. I was a little sad to leave this place but what a brilliant end to my early morning nature walk!

Since I did not take any photographs, I found pictures of some birds I saw today so I could share this with you.

Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans)
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) – Due to feeding by residents around my neighbourhood, these guys have taken an affinity to dumpster diving.
Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus)
Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) – I saw two males and one female hanging out together today.
Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus)
Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) – I often see them around my neighbourhood too.
Eastern Whipbird (Psophodes olicaceus)
Eastern Whipbird (Psophodes olicaceus)
Photo Credits
Crimson Rosella: David Cook Wildlife Photography /Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo: David Cook Wildlife Photography /Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Superb Fairy-wren: Merrillie / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Rainbow Lorikeet: birdsaspoetry / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Eastern Whipbird: David Cook Wildlife Photography /Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Endangered Birds: The Final Day of the Oystercatcher Diary.

Last Saturday, I volunteered to guard a pair of endangered Pied Oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris) nesting on a beach in the Royal National Park, New South Wales (Australia). Before this, I had never heard of this species or neither did I know how they looked like. But that does not matter, does it? Google solved this problem fairly quickly for me. Ultimately, it was about giving this pair a chance to make it as this season’s new parents.

Please Note: The Pied Oystercatcher has been listed as 'endangered' under Schedule 1 of the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 in New South Wales, Australia.
Pied oystercatcher
Pied Oystercatcher

My shift was for two hours over a long weekend in Sydney with soaring temperatures welcoming the arrival of summer. Apart from a few blood boiling incidents, everything went pretty smoothly. I loved being there and contributing in this tiny way in the hope that 125 might become 127 at the end of this nesting season. So I put my hand up for another shift in the coming week Saturday. Before I go any further, here’s some background information.

While out on a walk, this endangered pair of Pied Oystercatchers were spotted by a local resident nesting in the middle of the beach. This was a defining moment as Pied Oystercatchers have not nested in this area in the last 20 years! Unfortunately, the location of their choice had some challenges. There are a handful of residential houses, a kayak hire outlet and a camping ground around the corner. Warmer temperatures over a long weekend meant a high influx of people from all over to frolic on the beach. Then, there was the problem with dogs. Dogs are not allowed in National Parks in Australia. So, what on earth were they doing here? Worst still, many were not even on leads. If you asked the owners, simple answer was, “Oh, I didn’t know!”. Most of them reacted well and took responsibility for their slight overlook, but not all of them did.

With help from the local council, a fence using metal stakes and strings had been erected around the oystercatchers’ nesting area. In addition, big sign boards and an interpretive signage were placed along the shoreline parallel to the fence line which politely asked for everyone’s cooperation to kindly refrain from standing and staring or getting too close. Well, this was not sufficient to keep away the over enthusiastic lingering photographers, curious dogs, or beach-goers stopping to take a closer look at the father oystercatcher braving temperatures as high as 35°C to protect his two precious eggs. This species are shy and avoid close contact with other species leading them to often leave their nest exposing the eggs to all sorts of elements.

Ever since my time at the beach last Saturday, all I could think about was the eggs. I often wondered what must be going through the pair’s mind. Do they know how important it is to make it, to have that fighting chance to remain just that much longer on this planet. I simply don’t know. I monitored their progress daily through the diary updates diligently provided by a dedicated local who single-handedly coordinated this whole show (including the volunteer rosters) watching the nesting pair from dawn to dusk. Each uneventful day met with the loudest sigh of relief from me, until three days ago.

I was at work when an email arrived in my inbox with the subject ‘Oystercatcher Diary – Final Day’. This confused me. Wait a minute! Final day? How could that be? I thought there were a couple more weeks to go. As I started reading the content, I could feel my heart breaking. Feral foxes got the last word. The diary update described how the oystercatchers called all morning, and then with one final call flew off into the horizon. Inconsiderate people, dogs running loose, high temperatures, bad location… but alas, it was a feral species that ended this watch.

Due to my previous work and studies, I am well aware of the problems feral foxes pose in Australia. It is not an easy problem to solve, neither is it cheap. Incidents like this only drives home the point of the absolute urgency of getting this problem under control before we lose any more precious wildlife. Because in my world, the word I hate most is ‘EXTINCTION’. Don’t you think it’s about time we make this word extinct?

Photo credit (Header): BotheredByBees / Foter / CC BY
Photo credit (Pied Oystercatcher): Foter / GNU Free Documentation License

The night the possum chased us up the road

This week, I would like to tell you a personal story about an unlikely encounter with local wildlife. I was reminded of this incident last week when I was clearing out all the bits and pieces I have been hoarding over the years. It was then that I found this large tube containing some old wildlife posters. I had completely forgotten about them, so stumbling upon them was a rather pleasant surprise.

The first poster I unfurled was a full scale image of a Brush-tailed possum. It immediately brought up the hilarious memories of a night I will never forget – the night my friend and I got chased up the road by … who wants to guess … RIGHT, A POSSUM!

Common brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)
Common brushtailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

This was during the first year of my Master course. I studied, and later became good friends, with these two brilliant ladies from Europe. One was an aspiring wildlife vet, and the other had (and still has) a passion for research in evolutionary biology and genetics.

Being good friends, we shared our love for wildlife and conservation in the good company of food and wine. Sometimes the girls would stay over and we would share some seriously scrumptious goodies and talk until late night. On this fateful night, only one of them had stayed over. After dinner, when it was already dark, we decided to go for a walk around the block hoping to be able to undo some of the damage caused by all the eating we had done.

On the way back, as we approached the entrance to my unit building, my friend spotted the shadow of this rather large mammal darting across the pavement and making its way up the tree stopping still just across the letter boxes, probably at a height of about a metre above the ground. I proudly informed my friend that it might be a Common brushtailed possum (also affectionately known as a ‘brushie’) as I had seen a few around this area. She got ecstatic. Having come all the way from Sweden, I am sure it must have been exciting to encounter a native mammal in a suburban environment, right outside my doorstep. She insisted to take a closer look. Slowly and quietly we approached this mysterious figure, which indeed turned out to be a brushie!

The place where it all started
The place where it all started (the tree on the left)

Standing about a metre away from our furry friend, my not-so-furry human friend was basking in the incidence of this possum encounter saying how cute it was and how she could not believe that we were looking at it from such a close distance. In respectful awe, we stood there looking at the possum, while the possum was looking back at us. But something didn’t quite feel right. Not only was it looking at us, it was looking with a certain intent. We couldn’t help but feel that it was calculating something, as if swiftly weighing up the risks of fight or flight. At some point, the animal almost looked like it was going to pounce on us from the tree. The body was stiff, head transfixed on us, eyes wide-open and not moving, with all four legs extended in a push-up position. I slowly started nudging my friend trying to indicate that we should probably leave now.

Even before I could finish my sentence, brushie decided to jump off the tree branch like James Bond and started running in our direction. It was as if our slight backwards motion had given away a sign of weakness and surrender, in turn encouraging the brushie’s display of strength and right of territory. This happened so fast. It felt like I blinked and suddenly found ourselves running up the road without fully fathoming the reality of this whole situation. To add some special effects to this dramatic event, we were also screaming in terror. I bet if someone from the neighbourhood had looked out of their window seeing us screaming and running up the road, their first instinct would have been to look for a man with a big knife chasing after us. While running, I managed to quickly look over my shoulder a couple of times, and to my utter horror saw that the possum was still in hot pursuit after us. Not only that, it seemed to be catching up!!

Fortunately for us, the whole scene ended as abruptly as it had started. On what felt like my third glance, I could no longer see the brushie. But boy, the fella had definitely showed us who was boss! We stood there for a good minute or so trying to catch our breath, before suddenly bursting out in laughter. The comedy of this incident was just too much. Two aspiring wildlife conservationists chased up the road in the dark, screaming, by a Brush-tailed possum. I suspect, us standing there and staring at it back there could have felt threatening to the poor brushie. This sure taught us a lesson not to get too close to an animal for unnecessary reasons. Who knows? The brushie might have been protecting its nest, the territory or simply telling us to bugger off and leave it alone. After a moment of calm, we immediately made a pact that under no circumstances are we to reveal this to any of our fellow classmates. Yeeeah…about that…gosh, I hope she is not going to read this.

Photo Credit (Possum): Foter / CC BY-NC
Photo Credit (Header): David Cook Wildlife Photography / FoterCC BY-NC

My Top 5 Favourite Animals

Truth is, I have so many more on my favourite list and it was so hard to pick the best out them to feature it here. So I decided in a true adult fashion, write them all down on pieces of paper and pick them at random! Please be aware that the top five here in no way reflects the order of my preferences. Bottom line, I love them all.

Here it goes with a quick history on why I fell in love with each of them. I have also included some links to some websites which provide more details about each animal if you get thirsty for more information.

(1) Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

How can you not love this face? Seriously! The first time I met an Echidna was in Tasmania Australia. Tasmania has to be one of the most beautiful places I have been to. I was driving along the highway when I saw this slow moving brown spikey animal crossing the road about 20 metres ahead. I quickly pulled the car over, jumped out and ran towards this animal to check it out. At this point, I had only ever heard of them from nature magazines and some environmental posters. It was pure delight seeing it in flesh. I cannot describe the intense love at first sight feeling when I saw it. Being a highway, cars were tearing down the road and the last thing I wanted was a roadkill situation. Instinctively, I took my scarf off and placed it gently over its spikey body…tucked my hands under the belly and swiftly picked it up and got it across the road safely. I then spent a further five minutes just watching it go about its business as it briefly looked up at me and went on its way! Those beady eyes melted my heart.

Later I found out that Echidnas are one of the two only mammals which lay eggs! The other is a Platypus, two Aussie natives 🙂 If you are keen to find out more about these fascinating creature, click here.

Young Echidna
Short-beaked Echidna

(2) Manatee (Trichechus)

This gentle sweet aquatic animal is an absolute pleasure to sit and observe. When I first saw a Manatee, my first thoughts were…oh my…how majestic and calm. There was this sense of overwhelming innocence projected through their eyes, I cannot quite explain it. Some years ago, I was visiting Singapore Zoo as I always do when I go back to visit my family. As I was walking around with my family, I noticed a queue ahead of me. Curiosity got the better of me and for no reason, decided to run forward and see what the fuss was about. To my glee, I found out that it was a ‘meet and feed’ the Manatees session for a small fee. I was lucky that I saw this on time as the feeding session times are extremely limited and so it should be! I handed the money and in turn was handed a small basket full of boiled carrots and potatoes to feed the Manatees.

Continue reading “My Top 5 Favourite Animals”