I always wake up early in Madagascar. Sometimes this is because the ducks are clamoring to be let out of their duck house, which is right next to the volunteer house. This time it was because I really needed the toilet. After a quick walk up to the toilets in the dark I got back into the bottom bunk, wrapped myself up in my blanket against the early morning chill and continued to read about the slow depletion of the world’s seas in ‘The Unnatural History of the Ocean’. At around 8:15am I got dressed and went into the centre with Jes, the other mangrove volunteer, to see if breakfast had arrived. This morning it was buk buk – small, doughnut-like balls of fried dough brought from the village. I filled the kettle with water and waited for it to boil on the gas hob before making 2 cups of black vanilla tea for Jes and I – Nina and Tess, the project manager and project coordinator respectively, prefer the bitter coffee made in the village. There was a lot of hustle and bustle around camp because we were expecting two tourists for kayaking at around 8:30am, so Philemon, one of our guides and the head of the VOI, was busy cleaning out the kayaks.
After breakfast we got ready to go into the mangroves, applying copious amounts of insect repellent and sun cream and putting on our mangrove clothes and wetsuit shoes. We helped Lalas, the volunteer coordinator, to prepare the equipment we would need. This included cutting nets to the correct size, ripping off strips of red cloth from a large sheet, and making sure that the camera, GPS, notebook, ropes, compasses, measuring tape and knife were all in the rucksack. I carried the rucksack; Jes, six bamboo sticks that we need for taking measurements; and Lalas, the stakes that we use to mark out the plot and set up the net. Sometimes we must walk for a few kilometres to reach the site that has been determined as the next plot, and often through shoulder deep water and/or knee deep mud. On this day, we left camp via the salt pans, and walked alongside the mangroves in the direction of the next village, Ambotsibotsike. We then followed the GPS, off the path and into the mangroves, wading through gradually deepening water toward the main channel. By the time we reached the centre of the channel, the water was shoulder height, so I had to carry the rucksack over my head. After hoisting ourselves out of the channel using some nearby tree trunks for support, we had a further walk through the trees, ducking to avoid low hanging branches and watching our step to avoid large pneumatophores and hidden patches of soft mud which threaten to swallow up half of your leg if you take a wrong step.
On arriving at the designated area, we started by marking out the 10m x 10m plot with five wooden stakes – one at each of the four corners and one in the middle. They are each 1m in height, and must be placed so that 70cm remains above the mud. A knife is used to make a cut 30cm above the surface of the mud so that when we return in the future, we can monitor the way the sediment level is changing. The stakes are marked with a piece of red cloth wrapped around the top so they can be easily found when we return. We also used four larger stakes to suspend a 1m square piece of mosquito net in the north-west corner of the plot, which will collect leaf litter. Lalas went around the plot taking the GPS points of each stake and a photo of the canopy above it, while Jess took the pH at two opposite corners of the plot and I created two small 1m² plots at opposing corners of the plot, using four 1m lengths of bamboo. Within these plots I noted down the proportion of the ground which was covered by leaves and the number of large woody debris, and took a photo. Jes then ran two pieces of rope diagonally across the plot, to divide it into 4 triangles. Along these ropes, we measured the diameter and length of any large woody debris that crossed it and had a diameter greater than 5cm. Lalas then walked through the plot systematically, calling out the species, height and diameter at breast height of all trees with a diameter greater than five, which Jes and I recorded. He also called out the number and species of seedlings within a 1m radius of the centre stake. We usually do two plots per outing to the mangrove but we couldn’t do that on this particular day as Jeannot, who guards the camp and usually comes with us to the mangrove to carry wood, was not working, so we could only carry enough wood for one plot. So we gathered up our equipment and headed back to camp.
Following a typical lunch of rice and beans at our outdoor dining area, Jes and I filled our solar showers, left them out in the sun to heat up and then spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing on Tess’ balcony. She lives in a wooden house next to ours which is raised on stilts and has a balcony which looks out over the vondro reeds at the edge of the mangroves, and the mangrove forest beyond that. On other days, instead of sunbathing, we go kayaking in the mangrove channels or walk to Ambotsibotsike where you can buy rum, coke and bananas wrapped in dough and deep fried! Once the sun began to go down we took turns to shower in the lean to ‘bathroom’ next to the centre. The water can get really hot if you have a sunny day! Dinner is usually around 6 or 6:30pm, and on this day it was chicken with rice. We eat outdoors, so must wear trousers and long sleeves, and make sure we apply insect repellent before dinner, as the mosquito’s can be really bad, especially if there is little wind.
In the evening, Jes and I caught up on data entry from the past few days’ outings to the mangroves. We have a number of spreadsheets on the volunteer laptop where we enter the data, and we also have to upload the canopy and small plot photos and label them. Tess had baked banana bread in the solar oven – a wooden box with a reflective lid that can bake a cake using only the heat from the sun in a couple of hours – so we ate chunks of bread and drank black vanilla tea while we worked by candlelight. At around 8pm, Jes and I left the centre for the comfort of our beds in the volunteer house. We curled up on one of the bottom bunks and watched a few episodes of Friends before brushing our teeth outside the house and barring the door – as much to prevent it rattling in the wind as for security. It was only 9pm and I was already tucking my mosquito net under the mattress and wrapping my blanket tightly around me as it was another cold night. Lying in bed I wondered what tomorrow would bring – no two days are the same when you live and work in Madagascar.