The End of My Travels – For Now!

It’s been a year since I started this around the world adventure! What an amazing experience – I saw and did so much more than I’d hoped to do and am still in love with exploring our amazing world.

I’ll be headed home tomorrow and after recovering from jet lag (after 40 hours of flights and layovers!), I’ll get used to staying in one place. But I know, after the countries I’ve visited and people I’ve met, that I’ll see my daily world through a new lens.

In the U.S. we have so many advantages that we consider normal and take for granted. But that’s not the case for many of the countries I’ve visited. Drinking water from the tap, having reliable electricity 24/7, being able to own a car or take a vacation, voting without fear, not needing to bribe government officials and police, and being able to speak our opinions are just a few of the things that aren’t the norm everywhere. So I’ll appreciate all we have as Americans and do my part to make it even better. Because I’ve also seen a lot that we could learn from and emulate. This year has been everything I hoped for and far, far more.

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Avenue of the Baobabs, Morondava, Madagascar

Pictures I saw long ago of the Avenue of the Baobabs inspired my love of travel and I finally got to see them! Morondava is a small seaside town on the remote western coast; it’s a challenge just to get there and then it’s an hour drive to the baobabs. Madagascar is the only place these giant baobabs grow and several of them happen to line a road connecting villages so that section has become famous. And here are some of my many pictures of them – because they are awesome!

At sunset, the most popular time when all the tourists in 4x4s and cars come to get “the photo.” I was one of them and here it is! This is low season so I didn’t have to fight for space, but in the high season the guides said it gets quite competitive.

And then a second visit at sunrise. Here a local woman carries vegetables to another village. I was the only tourist and it was a completely different experience. Silent until people began to wake up and then the smell of fires starting as they prepared breakfast. Roosters crowing and dogs barking, but otherwise quiet.

Rush hour with trucks and tourists and villagers selling baobab souvenirs.

And at 5:30 in the morning the moon still out but no one else around.

Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar

Ranomafana Park was established in 1991 and is one of the only primary forests left in the area. Madagascar has lost 80% of its forests as the population increases and forests are cut down for farming and for fuel. This is a critical problem because there are many species only found on this island and as their habitat disappears, so do they. So the park is important for conserving biodiversity of animals, birds, insects, and reptiles.

I went on two guided hikes, one in the morning and one at night. The guides expert eyes found lemurs, chameleons, and many other animals I would never have seen! Sorry if some of the photos are blurry, they move fast!!

Golden bamboo lemur family with an 8 month old – eating bamboo loudly

Critically endangered greater bamboo lemur

Black and white ruffed lemurs that led us on a chase through the forest!

Mouse lemur at night

Chameleons at night

Frog at night

Isalo National Park, Madagascar

I’ve finished my month of volunteering with Reef Doctor and it was a great experience! Now I am exploring more of Madagascar and headed north. To get to Isalo, I traveled via a taxi brousse, the mini vans that serve as public transportation here. It’s a bit of an adventure but we made it after waiting two hours for the van to fill up and another hour to fix engine problems. The National Route 7 is one of the few paved highways in Madagascar.

Isalo is still in the arid southern part of the country so there are no forests but it is filled with beautiful rock formations.

Saw some mini baobab trees –

And at a campsite by a river where we had lunch, the ring tailed lemurs came to check out the food options!

Coral Reef Monitoring, Reef Doctor, Madagascar

The coral reef system off southwest Madagascar is the third largest in the world. It is high in biodiversity with over 300 fish and 400 coral species. But it’s under threat from coral bleaching from climate change warming the ocean, overfishing that removes fish that keep the coral healthy, and pollution from land that suffocates the coral. There are several non-profit organizations working here to protect the reef and Reef Doctor is one of them. (All photos below are from Reef Doctor or the divemaster cameras).

We dive and perform underwater surveys of the coral, fish, and invertebrates at several sites to determine how healthy each one is.

Unsurprisingly, the small areas that are protected from overfishing are healthier with more species and less bleaching. These two marine protected areas are quite small but are guarded and supported by the local fishing cooperative so they show what the reef could look like. We also survey sites that are not protected to observe the difference. Some pics of me here, the dive slate makes me look all official, right!?

Two artificial reefs have been started, one in 2007 and one in 2010. Both use transplanted coral attached to concrete rubble or metal frames to start new reefs. They are growing, but very slowly.

Here are some more cool reef photos of coral, a hermit crab, Moorish idol, pufferfish, and lionfish from one of the night dives.

The Spiny Forest, Madagascar

The southwest coast of Madagascar is very different from the rest of the island. It’s an arid landscape most of the year with temperatures reaching into the 100s. The Spiny Forest here is full of endemic species of plants, animals, and reptiles. This baobab is over 1,400 years old! It’s so wide that 12 people holding hands are needed to circle it.

I visited two nature preserves, one is helping protect the unique ecosystem and also rehabilitate lemurs and one is rehabilitating tortoises. Lemurs and tortoises are endangered because they are captured for the pet trade and for food. The one above is a golden lemur.

These ringtail lemurs were rescued from the black market and will be kept for a while to recover and then released in a big national park a few hours away. But some have been injured so they’ll remain here.

Another baobob and plants showing why it’s named the Spiny Forest!

The radiated and spider tortoises are very popular in the pet trade so the black market for them is big. Last month 11,000 tortoises were rescued from one illegal operator and they are being cared for at the sanctuary. Several US veterinarians are volunteering here to help rehabilitate them. 2,000 were just released in an area two days away where the local villagers have a taboo against eating tortoises so they should be safer. (Just seeing them brought back memories of the tortoises at La Senda Verde!)

Reef Doctor, Ifaty, Madagascar

Two weeks into my volunteer time with Reef Doctor and I’m settling into the routine. The site is next to a village of 2,000 people who live at a subsistence level and almost all by fishing. There are 12 other villages along the Bay of Ranobe and many people from the interior are moving here to fish. This has caused serious overfishing and damage to the reef system.

Reef Doctor works with the villages to understand the importance of the reefs to fishing and why they should be protected. Two small marine protected areas have been established and show the difference between an damaged reef and one that is allowed to recover. They are also creating artificial reefs in the bay to help start new reefs. In 2016 the water was so warm a lot of the coral bleached and died, last year wasn’t as bad but it’s still a struggle for coral to recover. The diving we do is to monitor the health of the various sites, degraded or protected. I’ll post underwater photos later. This is our dive boat, we go out once at least once a day, weather permitting.

The organization also supports aquaculture and is helping villages start seaweed and sea cucumber farms to provide money for the families. It also works with other agencies to monitor fishing. When fishermen return in their pirogues (boats carved from endangered balsa wood – that’s another set of problems) teams identify the fish, size, and weight. Often mosquito nets are used to fish so even very small fish are caught and killed. That’s a problem too. But people here do it because it might be all they catch to feed their family.

Part of the catch, an octopus and crocodile fish.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world and there are many difficulties from corruption, environmental degradation, and increasing population.

The Malagasy people are very friendly and welcoming. This lady helps us with the fish counts and the team manages all the weighing and counting. We spent a day in a village learning from them. The kids love to pose for photos so they can see pictures of themselves!

As for the site, we get our water for showers and toilets from a well so I’m getting expertise in hauling buckets! Drinking water is brought in because the well water is too salty to drink. Power is limited to three hours a day and only in the main office. That said, it’s a nice site, right on the water so we just walk down to our dive boat. Food is basic but filling; they buy food from the village to help support the local economy.