A Madagascan Adventure: Part 2

Part 2: Life as a volunteer

Picking up from where I left off in the last post, after our sojourn through the Madagascan countryside, our initial culture shock somewhat subsided; my fellow volunteers and I were finally in Andavadoake – our home for the next 6 weeks (for some of us, the next 12 weeks). Following that first hypnotic sunset, it was time to get stuck into life on site. Our living conditions were basic but comfortable, with huts situated right above a small cove called half moon beach. We’d wake to the sound of the waves and passing pirogues (wooden sail boats) heading out for the day’s fishing.

Beach Huts

Home in Andava

Our diet consisted of mainly fish, beans and rice, with a few variations on the theme from time to time, including the delicious Malagasy beef equivalent – zebu; The mighty zebu is also used to draw carts, plough fields and buy wives and is a precious commodity for many tribes in Madagascar. I couldn’t get enough of the fresh seafood, though we did miss the abundance of fresh fruit and veg we’re used to back home.

But basically, we were living in paradise!


The mighty zebu


Freshly caught lunch

A typical day consisted of 2 dives in the morning, many with whale sightings on our ride out to site, a stroll to the village for a cup (or five!) of peanuts, study/hammock time followed by duties, lectures, presentations or language lessons then dinner and ‘tantara’. Tantara roughly translates to ‘story’ in English, and we all took turns to tell a story, run an activity or game, show some pictures etc. for our evening entertainments

A typical week was diving Monday-Friday, Saturday land based activities like visiting mangroves or learning to cook samosas and boko boko (deepfried dough filled with chocolate – yum!), followed by a night of shaking our butts Vezo style in the local bar, Dada’s… the Malagasy’s put us Westerners to shame! Those guys can seriously move. Sunday was our day off where we got to go exploring! We embarked on baobab walks, whale watching, spear and lobster fishing, island picnics, snorkeling trips and even an overnight camping trip on a nearby island. One of the highlights of the trip!

making samosas

Making Samosas. Photo by JD Toppin

(for more adventures, check out JD’s travel blog here)


Camping at Nosy Ve

We were assigned English partners and spent three sessions a week imparting our knowledge of the English language onto them with varying degrees of success. During the expedition my English lessons consisted of the pleasure and delight of trying to decipher then reinterpret the PADI divemaster manual for one of our boat drivers and dive master in training, Patty. Challenging? Yes. Poor Patty. I think I successfully confused him rather than enlightening him! If you’ve ever read a PADI manual, you may understand my struggle.

But back to my reason for travelling to Madagascar – the marine environment. I was here to count fish! As a volunteer, I had to learn 150 fish species along with 36 benthic and invertebrate species. Thank goodness our coral ID was limited to 11 hard coral formations and simply, soft coral. We didn’t have to be species specific. Those scientific names may have killed me! As it was, when I closed my eyes at night, I would see fish and corals flying at me and I’d be chanting names over and over in my head!

Luckily for me, I’ve been plaguing my brother with fish questions over the years of diving together, so I had a basic knowledge of some fish families before we even started, which was an advantage. But when it came down to species level, I still needed work, especially as not all the names were the same – moon wrasse became crescent wrasse, leather jackets became filefish, bullseyes – sweepers, flutemouth – trumpetfish…

Benthic on the other hand, was a bit of a struggle. I’ve never been overly enamored with benthic life, accepting kelp and sea grass, sponges, and corals as an important part of the ecosystem, but indifferent to their actual role and avoiding invertebrates such as sea cucumbers like the plague (ick!). However, our passionate field scientists were somehow able to convince me that benthic was cool and I subsequently looked forward to a bit of benthic surveying.


My fav coral species, Goniopora; despite it’s appearance, this is a hard coral! Image from Wikimedia Commons

I even overcame my fear of sea cucumbers one spring tide, when we helped the aquaculture farmers with their data collection. I opted to be the weigh-er, thinking it would be the best job to avoid handling any squishy, slimy, boneless creatures. Turned out, I had to pick up every. Single. One. Not once, but twice! After a few girly squeals, I managed to get into the swing of things. I can’t say I love them as a result, but I don’t have that fleeting moment of panic when I see them now.


Zanga! (Seacucumbers)

The sites we dived ranged from healthy to pretty destroyed. The ones that didn’t look so great were affected by a combination of cyclone and storm damage plus destructive fishing practices and overfishing. Education and subsequent dinas (local laws) are in place, to outlaw destructive fishing methods such as poison fishing and beach seining. This has improved the health of the reefs in many areas, which is encouraging to see. Most sites were populated with small to medium reef fishes such as schools of snapper, fusilier, parrotfish and many species of wrasse. But the best part was diving in the protected areas and seeing HUGE fish, such as blue spined unicorns, often in schools, which seemed to be a sign that the protection zones were working! Win!


School of snapper. Photo by Niki Boyer

Diving with species knowledge really made it such a rewarding experience. It was always exciting identifying something you hadn’t seen in the water before, or something you struggled with! And I had some really special encounters including seeing a turtle – turtles are rare as they’re hunted as a coming of age ritual – hearing humpback whales sing quite regularly, a myriad of new nudis (colourful seaslugs), schooling, yes schooling Moorish idols, and even a sailfish!!


Some kind of Halgerda Nudibranch. Photo by Niki Boyer

Expedition life was an incredible existence for me. So far removed from my everyday reality in Australia. It was refreshing to be learning again and to be immersed in a culture and way of life I never knew existed. I will talk more about the people of Andava in my next post…


Being in or on the water every single day!

The infinite stars at night

Watching pirogues sail by

Constant sound of the ocean

The pace of life

The vazah and vezo friends I made

My hammock

Kids yelling ‘Salama’ everywhere you go

The dancing!



Sand in my bed


hammock day

View from my hammock

hammock sunset

Sunset from my hammock


Stars! Photo by Ben Large


Part 1: Discovering Madagascar

When my older brother, asked me to write a guest blog I was at first excited and then terribly daunted. I should preface this post with the fact that I am not a scientist, so the following is purely based on the observations of an amateur!

I have been diving since 2005 and have a passion for all things ocean. I also love to travel. After spending the past 6 years behind a desk, I decided to temporarily abandon my Sydney life to spend some time indulging in some underwater delights and a slower pace of life.

So, I’ve recently returned to Australia after months of diving and travelling, including three months living in a remote fishing village, Andavadoake, on the south west coast of Madagascar. I was volunteering with a UK based marine conservation organization, Blue Ventures, who have been working in the area for over 10 years.

01 Madagascar-map-02

I have wanted to visit Madagascar for many years after seeing an image of the Allée des Baobab in a travel magazine as a teenager. And who doesn’t want to see lemurs in the wild?! However, it was with naivety that I embarked upon this adventure knowing very little about the country and its people, not to mention the extensive reef system – one of the largest in the world! All I knew was that I would be diving everyday (win), and would learn some science to help monitor the local reefs (win)… AND I would be there during whale season (WIN).

Humpbacks passing by. Photo by Sam Blyth

Humpbacks passing by. Photo by Sam Blyth

What I quickly learned was that Madagascar is not a country filled with primordial rainforest and troops of lemur bouncing around, but a country of varying climate and terrains. I drove through endless rice paddies and farmland reminiscent of my travels in South East Asia; vast rocky scapes that hold minerals and precious gems; the desert spiny forests full of the famous octopus tree; and finally, the turquoise, sparkling ocean. It was surprising and sad at times, knowing that much of this land, in fact, used to be primordial rainforest, but that’s perhaps, a discussion for another time.

Farmland in central Madagascar

Farmland in central Madagascar

Rocky scapes

Rocky scapes

Turquoise waters of Salary

Turquoise waters of Salary

I arrived in Andava with my fellow volunteers right on sunset, having travelled four days overland. We were a little disheveled yet full of excitement from our first experiences in Madagascar, which involved descending from the central plateau by hazard lights as our headlights didn’t work; a crazy Chinese hotel where we struggled to find our rooms in the labyrinth of corridors; lemur, chameleon and scorpion sightings; a flat tyre; hiking desert canyons; swimming in freezing pools in small oasis’; our first taste of Malagasy rum and dancing; incredibly rough ‘paved’ and unpaved roads; and more lemurs!

Hiking the canyons of Isalo

Hiking the desert canyons of Isalo

But finally, we were standing on the beach and gazing at the sun as it dipped into the ocean for our first (of many) Andava sunset. I rarely missed a sunset after that, as my thousands of photos suggest. This would become one of my favourite parts of the day.

First sunset in Andavadoake

First sunset in Andavadoake

In my next post, I will delve into my time as a volunteer diver in the village of Andavadoake…

I won a competition!

Woohoo! Just thought I’d share this great news. I don’t win things very often, usually because I don’t enter, but this time I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and now I’m the proud owner of a copy of Aaron Wong’s new photobook, “The Blue Within”. I din’t win the big prize of a free trip on board one of the Siren fleet boats, but my photo took out the month of May competition. I’m pretty chuffed 🙂


Back in May this year, my partner and I went on a live-aboard dive trip in Indonesia on board the SY Indo Siren. On board I saw that they were accepting photographs for a competition. I only have a GoPro, which I’ll admit doesn’t generally take award winning photographs. I’ll also admit that I am a complete hack when it comes to any sort of photography. I know the photos I like and dislike, but otherwise words like “composition”, “F-stop”, “aperture” and “focal length” are pretty lost on me.

But, I liked this photo. So I submitted it and apparently the lovely folks at Worldwide Dive and Sail also liked it. Thanks guys!

I’m Indo It!

The SY Indo Siren

I’ve just returned from an excellent diving holiday around Raja Ampat in Indonesia on board the SY Indo Siren. The Indo Siren is a beautiful wooden boat. Her creaking timbers and gentle rolling were pretty effective as a sedative after three or four dives and a Bintang or two.

The holiday actually began in Perth, meeting up with my partner who was staying with her friends there. We had a lovely time coffee tasting (the wine tasting had been taken care of by my partner and friends the previous day), dining and learning to play 500. We also met up with one of my friends who took us to Freemantle for lunch.

From Perth we flew to Denpasar. We spent the morning doing the obligatory bargaining and shopping in Kuta. The highlight for me, was finding a lady with a tiny store down one of the many back streets selling fresh fruit. We were introduced to Salac or snake skin fruit. The skin is very much like snake skin, but once peeled away, the fruit resembles garlic. The taste is hard to describe, but dry and sweet. not like garlic at all.

I must admit, Kuta was not my cup of tea, and I don’t think that it’s a good representation of Bali. But more about Bali later.

Indonesia Map

Click to zoom

In the evening we met up with the rest of the dive group, including my sister, who we were to spend the next 14 days. The following morning we all departed Denpasar and flew to Makassar, the main city on Sulawesi where we spent the night. Unfortunately, we didn’t get much of a chance to look around Makassar or Sulawesi, and again, I don’t think that our hotel was much of an indication of the rest of the city.

From Makassar we flew to Sorong, on Western Papua, where we finally met our tour director, Jan (that’s the Dutch name, pronounced Yaan).

We boarded the SY  Indo Siren at the harbour and set sail (or motored, if you want the boring true story) that evening for Waigeo where we started our diving.

Click to zoom

Click to zoom

We spent the next ten days cruising around the islands of Raja Ampat, diving three or four times each day. From Waigeo we sailed (motored) south to Misool, then rounded the cape at Koon, down to Banda and then north west to Ambon. The water was a balmy 28 degrees and that spectacular clear blue colour. We did a lot of wall diving and current diving and even a couple of exploratory dives. The diving stand outs for me were seeing the pygmy seahorses and the ghost pipefish, an animal that I’ve been trying to find for over a decade! We also did one dive at Batu Kapal, or Ship Rock, where the visability must have been approaching 50 m!

Most of the reefs were carpeted in very healthy coral and sponge communities, and there were massive schools of red-tooth trigger fish fluttering above the many of the dive sites. We often caught sight of schools of jacks and trevally harassing schools of baitfish and the odd dog-tooth tuna or rainbow runner or barracuda coming in for a look. It is too difficult to describe all of the diving we did here and photos never do it justice, but I’ve tried to give a glimpse in the photos at the end.

Kayak race

Kayak race

Above the water, we made landfall in Arborek village, in Waigeo, where we went for a walk through the village and along the shoreline. In Misool, we went for a ride in the dinghy through the spectacular islands of Farondi and swam in a beautiful lagoon surrounded by steep jungled peaks. We did a historic tour in Banda where we saw the old Dutch forts and a nutmeg farm where we were treated to breakfast made from the fresh farm produce. In Nusa Laut, we delayed the diving program for a canoe race with the local children from Akoon village. Rich (one of characters in our dive group) and I managed to almost capsize our kayak, which happened to belong to the village chief and had his keys and cigarettes in it! but we bailed out just in time to stop the kayak from overturning. Phew!


The Crew

We finished up our diving trip in Ambon, where we said our farewells to the crew, who had shown us an excellent time.

A special thanks to our dinghy driver, Fendi and our chef, Ishmael, who put in the extra effort to get to know us a bit more. You guys made our trip that much more memorable. A big thanks to all of the crew for keeping the boat running, the dive deck functioning and the beautiful warm towels and refreshing drinks after the dives! I’d also like to thank Bill and Julia of Dive Jervis Bay for keeping the trip running smoothly and getting the whole group through the many airport transfers. You guys made it look easy!

At the conclusion of our diving trip, my partner and I decided to spend a couple of days on the north coast of Bali in a beautiful little fishing village called Tejukula. The three hour drive to the north took us through Ubud. The stone carvings and wood works of Ubud soon gave way to rice padis and thick groves of tropical jungle as the road began to wind up into the mountains. At the top of the range, we took a break to admire Bali’s highest peak, Kintamani. Then it was all down hill (literally speaking, not figuratively) to the black sand coast line of Bali’s north shore.

We stayed at Cili Emas, a nice secluded retreat right on the beach. Cili Emas was a beautiful relaxed resort, with only six villas. The German owners, Nicole and Yohan, made us feel very welcome and the staff were lovely. We especially enjoyed having a chat with Komung who made us feel right at home.

Local market

Kuday showing us how to prepare banana flower at the Singaraja markets

We took a day tour around the local area with our driver, Kuday, who gave us a much better insight into Balinese culture, than what Kuta gave us. We visited several temples and drove up into the mountains to Gitgit waterfall. We explored the local market in Singaraja and the botanic gardens in Bedugul. We visited the Banjar hot springs and the twin lakes. My favourite parts of the tour were the local markets and also stopping for coffee at Kubu Kopi plantation on the narrow mountain road where we tried some spiced coffee and cacao coffee with local treats.

On our last day in Bali we had planned to hire scooters and explore the local area.  But unfortunately, my partner succumbed to a bout of Bali belly. Not wanting to slow the team down though, my partner instructed me to get out and about and report back on what the area had to offer. So off I went on my scooter.

I decided to head up to a nearby waterfall. I rode my scooter as far up the path to the fall as I dared and then walked the last couple of kilometres up the narrow windy dirt track. Several times I had to jump into the bush to let the local kids past on their scooters! The walk up to the waterfall was beautiful, but I was a little saddened to be walking along a path with a flowing aqueduct on my left and a bone dry creek bed to my right. At the fall, the natural flow of water had been completely diverted into the aqueduct. Despite this the waterfall was beautiful and the water was very refreshing after walking through the 30 degree heat.


Pande and friends

After checking in on my partner I decided to head in the opposite direction. I took a small road leading up into the mountains. By this stage my faithful steed was in need of a drink, so I pulled into a local store selling petrol in vodka bottles. The store owner’s son, Pande, was sitting outside with some friends playing a guitar. I pointed to the guitar and asked what they were playing. In response I was given a big smile and asked “you play”? I ended up sitting and playing a few songs with them. Though our spoken conversation wasn’t very successful (despite their decent English speaking ability and my terrible Indonesian) it was one of the most memorable events of the trip. The international language of music and a good laugh is just as good as any spoken communication in my book.

After leaving Pande and his friends to their guitaring I continued along the mountain road. It was a very scenic drive, winding along the narrow road surrounded by lush jungle and steep terrain. Riding through several small villages was fun, smiling and waving at the kids, dodging chickens and trucks and being chased by dogs. After climbing the mountain for about half an hour, I still wasn’t even close to the top, so I decided to head back down.

That afternoon, it was time for us to leave Cili Emas. We wound our way back up the mountain pass and down through Ubud and back into the hustle and bustle of Denpasar.

We had a fantastic few weeks in Indonesia. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of this little corner of the world. I can’t wait to head back to see what else there is to discover.

Diving Photos

Batu Kapal

50 m Viz!

Morey eel


Huge seawhips


Lots of fish


Under Arborek Jetty


Exploratory dive at Madorang