Madagascar Trip Summer 2017

On the 5th of July 30 students and 4 teachers departed from Merchant Taylors’ Boys’ School for their expedition to Madagascar. The group consisted of 22 students from year 11 and 8 students from year 12. This was a new experience for all of the students and all set off with high expectations and excitement for a trip that was bound to be an unforgettable and enjoyable experience.

For full video footage of the trip please click here.

Below is an account of the trip, written by the students:

Our Group Leader Mr Bonfante introduced us to Operation Wallacea in 2015. Mr Bonfante is
a true veteran of OpWall as it is organised as a bi-yearly trip that our school offers to our A-level
students. It has proved to be an ever popular event amongst our budding biologists despite the
intimidating challenge of fundraising, not to mention the physical endurance needed for the treks
and foreign climate.
In order to prepare for the expedition we had multiple group assemblies where we were
given information about Madagascar as well as an extensive kit list and and itinerary that gave us a
brief rundown of what we were doing, when we were doing it and where. Some members of the
group carried out their PADI Scuba Diving qualification in order to be able to spend more time in the
water during the aquatic conservation week. We also had a speaker from OpWall who came in and
told us all about the trip and how it could help us in the future. He advised us on the best way to get
our fundraising started and gave us some ideas for what we could do. Our fundraising as a group
included the three peaks challenge and a lower school disco. For the Disco we sold tickets for £5
each and raised £550 in total from ticket and food sales. For the Three Peaks Challenge we raised
£2,100 in total after giving £50 to the mountain range team and National Trust. This money was
raised from roughly 20 students after climbing to the top of the three highest mountains in Scotland,
England and Wales, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon respectively. Some of the members of the
group raised £100 from busking in Liverpool ONE for the trip and equipment. Formby parish church
also donated £500 trip in return for a small report along with some pictures or there magazine.
As a boost to our fundraising efforts, we were made aware of the Murray Foundation and the
prize of £1000. Our teachers thought it would be a good idea to enter as it would allow us to buy
expedition shirts and pay for a large part of the transportation. Although we also spent the money on
extending our trip in order to spend a day on the aptly named ‘Turtle Island’ or Tanakily to the locals.
On which we were able to snorkel and see the sea turtles that we wouldn’t have been able to see
without the Murray Foundation’s generous prize of £1000.
We landed in Madagascar on the 7th of July after a rather arduous journey from Heathrow.
The first night we stayed in an unexpectedly nice hotel in the ‘slums’ of Antananarivo, all of us glad to
have reached safe harbour after the trouble of getting 30 non native speaking people through
Madagascan customs. It wasn’t until the following morning that the group were really able to really
appreciate just how far away we were from home, already we saw signs of a vastly different culture
to our own. On the third day we travelled to the forest camp consisting of a 10 hour journey to
Mahajanga where we stayed overnight before making the hot and incredibly bumpy two hour ride in
4x4s to the forest camp where we were to carry out our expeditions with the scientific teams based
out there.
We arrived at lunch time where we were greeted with rice and beans. In the evening we
were treated to pasta, steak and chips after which we went out on our first survey, Herps. This
involved looking for lizards and other reptiles on and around the trees in the dark with only our head
torches to see. We were then allocated tents which would be our sleeping quarters for the duration
of our time at camp. Upon waking the next morning we headed to breakfast where we had the first
taste of our breakfast for the week, doughnuts. They were unusual relative to the doughnuts we’d
been used to back home but they tasted surprisingly nice and kept us going till lunch. On the second
day we had 3 surveys, mist netting in morning, forest plotting in the afternoon, followed by a lecture,
and the lemur survey after dinner. This was to be the standard schedule for each day at the camp.
The Tuesday started out similarly we had breakfast and then headed out to the fields to do some
sweep netting. This lasted for about 2 hours and was one of the more engaging activities as we were
actively searching for insects 26 of which were found to be entirely new species! We then headed
back to the camp for lunch before we went on an afternoon trip to the local school. Once we arrived
at the school the children performed a song for us and then we reciprocated with a rendition of our
school song, as some members of our group did not know the words to Bohemian Rhapsody. Once
we got back from the school we had our dinner and then had a general knowledge quiz before
heading back to our tents.
We woke up on the Wednesday knowing that it was our last day on the base camp before
moving over to the satellite camp. We spent the morning on the butterfly survey, chasing around
butterflies for an hour in the hot sun was a tiring way to start the day but rewarding as it would help
the team with their future monitoring. We came back to the camp to eat lunch and get our
equipment ready for the 2 hour trek to the satellite camp. We had our lunch of rice and beans again,
loaded our bigger bags onto the zebu carts and set off. The walk was long and tiring and was only
made worse by the midday sun bearing down on our backs. After walking for about an hour we
reached the small river that we would have to pass through. We removed our socks, rolled up our
trousers and set off through the river, making sure not to fall over. Once we made it through the river
it was an uphill climb for about 30 minutes before we finally reached the top and could see the lake
and the satellite camp. We headed down the hill as fast as we could being filled with energy at the
sight of our goal. Upon arriving at the satellite camp we were warned that scorpions are much more
common here, as the terrain was much more sandy and open, and that we would need to be wearing
closed toed shoes at all times. We were also told that water was much more limited here as there
had been much less rain than usual and the lake was close to drying out, so our water usage was
extremely limited. Extremely unusual for the camp, it was clear to see just how much of an impact
global warming was gradually having on these forest habitats. We had dinner and those of us who
still had enough energy to move, or the determination to not miss a single survey, headed out once
more on what was promised to be a short survey. This survey was another herps survey but as we
were at a different site we saw lots of different lizards and a lot more than we saw on our first reptile
survey. An example of how a small difference of terrain and location could change the biodiversity of
an area.
On the Thursday we left for a bird watching survey early in the morning. This survey involved
us walking through the forest stopping at predetermined spots for 5 minutes and listening to and
trying to identify all of the birds we could hear. It took a while to learn to recognise specific bird calls
even with the help of our guides but it was a very enjoyable experience regardless. In the afternoon
we were out with birds again except this time we were watching them as opposed to listening out for
them. Each of us were given a specific bird species to identify and keep count of but this proved to be
harder than first thought especially when there were so many different birds so close together. Once
we got back to the tent we had a lecture and dinner before we then headed out on our final night
survey, arachnids. This survey involved using your head torch to spot the spiders’ eyes hidden
underneath the leaves on the floor and catch them by placing a specimen tube over the top of them
and closing it when they climbed up. This was another enjoyable survey but was an optional
nightmare for the students who didn’t like spiders. We then headed back to our tents for our final
night before we left the first camp. It was on our way back to our tents however that we spotted how
clear the night sky was and, for the first time in many of our lives, we were able to gaze upon the
milky way in its entirety, leaving many of us speechless at just how beautiful it was. As we woke up
on the Friday morning we were informed that there would be no surveys that morning and we could
spend the time relaxing before we set of on our 2 hour trek again. We made it back to the base camp
with little difficulty where we had a short lunch before we filled out a survey about what we thought
of the week and then we piled back into the 4×4 we arrived in to once again set off down the bumpy,
sandy road.
As we entered the second week of our expedition our itinerary demanded that we travel for
Nosy Be, the location at which we would carry out our reef conservation and diving. We reached the
port of Ambanja on Sunday the 16th and were immediately herded onto a boat to make our journey
to the stunningly beautiful island of Nosy Be. We were dropped off in the shallow water next to the
beach front camp and joking told to swim by our guides. Unbeknownst to us the ground underwater
was a lot more mud than sand, which made for an eventful entrance to the camp and a few boys
arriving in a wetter state than expected. We were introduced to the site members and the itinerary
we would be following throughout the week, being told of the 5am starts was met with a groan from
all. This week we would be mixed with another group of students from a boarding school called
Uppingham for our dives. After some quick introductions we rapidly grew to enjoy the exchange and
some members of our group still keep in touch with those from Uppingham even after the trip! After
having a tour of the facilities and the ever intricate tent allocation process we settled down for the
night listening to the waves hitting the shore metres away from our heads.
The next morning at the crack of dawn we were taken out on our very first dive of the week,
gathered at the shore in full wetsuit gear we waded out to deeper water so that the RIBs hired by the
staff team could collect us. We would be carrying out our dive briefing aboard the well-named ‘pirate
ship’ in the centre of the bay. On which we were told the objectives of our dive, the obligatory safety
talk on the local rules and what we could and couldn’t touch whilst exploring the reef. Complete with
tank, snorkels and masks we jumped into the surprisingly warm water and began our descent as a
group of 8. For many it was the first time they had ever seen a coral reef in their lives so
understandably the first impression was one of absolute awe. Our dives followed a similar format for
the rest of the week, each studying a different effect on the reef such as fish identification and the
effects of coral bleaching using a coloured chart and noting down the appropriate colour. Much like
the forest week we were given lectures twice a day each focusing on a different topic for example the
effect of mangrove trees and sea grass on the reef and how the levels of such organisms
corresponded to the overall health of the reef.
The final day of the week we were rewarded with a trip to the island Tankily or ‘Turtle Island’
as previously mentioned. Everyone was to travel on the pirate ship together which lent a very Pirates
of the Caribbean-esc feeling to each and every one of us. This was essentially as close as any of the
group had been to a tropical island paradise that are so often advertised in holiday brochures. It was
truly mesmerizing to feel the white sand beneath our feet and swim in crystal blue waters, a certain
highlight of the day was the opportunity to see the local sea turtles which we had been told we not
native to the reef we had been given access to near Nosy Be. The island itself had a lighthouse on the
centre of the island which could be accessed via a hike through the forest on a lizard littered path.
The view from the lighthouse was spectacular and gave an excellent panorama of the surrounding
beaches. Nevertheless we had to leave eventually and although we were exhausted and perhaps
ready for a relatively early night it was tough to see the island go from reality to memory.
The last two days of the trip were emotional ones with 40 hours of travelling to get back to
the airport in Antananarivo and the realisation that we would have to leave this all behind. Not to
mention the newfound friendships that had been built between ourselves and the other school
group. The 10 hour flight back to heathrow and the goodbyes at the airport made for a rather solemn
ending to the expedition but the general consensus was that we were all glad to be home with
families, showers, toilets and proper beds.
Our time in Madagascar left all of us much the wiser regarding the true nature of
conservation at a place where it was imperative to the survival of an extraordinary amount of flora
and fauna (made even more important with 90% of species being endemic to the island). The daily
lectures really opened our eyes to the true reasons for conservation and the documentation of
animals both terrestrial and aquatic. Not to mention the impact global warming, deforestation and
farming are having on the habitats for these truly awe inspiring creatures. The effect on coral reefs
were truly shocking as we learnt about bleaching – the loss of zooxanthellae from coral in high water
temperature causing the coral to turn white in colour as well as stopping photosynthesis. Overall the
trip gave us an enormous appreciation for the efforts made by today’s scientists working in the field
and a greater awareness for global warming that is having an increasingly adverse effect on our
We would like to send an enormous thank you to the Murray Foundation from all of us here at
Merchant Taylors for this extremely generous donation and a truly once in a lifetime experience,
without which we wouldn’t have been able to take part in what many of us recall as the best thing
we’ve ever done!