Veloma Madagasikara!

Well, this is it, our last blog entry from our trip!

On the way back to Centre ValBio (CVB), we visited a silk shop in Ambalavao. Originally started by a woman in the U.S. Peace Corps, Soalanda is now a thriving business collective run entirely by local women. Our guide showed us the difference between silkworm cocoons collected in the wild and those that have been farmed. The worms are native to Madagascar’s open tapia forests, meaning the industry can be conducted in a highly sustainable manner.

Learning about silk weaving. | Photo by Brandon S.

Whiter, farmed silk (top) and less refined, wild silk (bottom). | Photo by Brandon S.

Once the cocoons are collected, they are left in hot water for three days before they can be dried and pulled into silk thread. The entire process is very labor intensive.

Silk has to be boiled for three days before being pulled into thread! | Photo by Brandon S.

Silk ready to be pulled into thread. | Photo by Brandon S.

Threads are then dyed using natural pigments from various plants and even soil. It takes two kilometers of thread to weave a small scarf, which is done on a large loom. The end products were beautiful.

Silks are died using a variety of natural products including bark, leaves, and stems of several plants. Even dirt is used! | Photo by Brandon S.

A silk weaver at work. | Photo by Brandon S.

A few hours on the bus later, we finally arrived at CVB, where none other than CVB’s founder greeted us, Dr. Patricia Wright! She was kind enough to talk to us about her latest research, though we were sworn to secrecy, as both projects are ongoing. In a nutshell, we still have a lot to learn about Madagascar’s first human arrivals and how they shaped the island’s current biodiversity. Despite current threats to the island, there’s still so much to discover and protect!

Dr. Patricia Wright teaching us about new species being discovered in Madagascar. | Photo by Brandon S.

Dr. Wright joined us for dinner, where she regaled us with stories of her work in Madagascar. She then welcomed us into one of the labs to help to lay out some of the sub-fossils for her ongoing work. Sorting through 10,000-year-old remains of extinct pygmy hippos, giant lemurs and tortoises, elephant birds, and crocodiles with Dr. Wright was definitely a highlight of the trip. What a great source of knowledge to be able to tap into!

Us laying out 10,000 year old bones for researchers! | Photo by Brandon S.

Dr. Wright teaches us about the many extinct hippos, lemurs, and crocodiles of Madagascar. | Photo by Brandon S.

With that last memorable experience behind us, we are currently on the last leg of our trip. The next few days we will be driving back to Tana, spend time shopping for a few last minute souvenirs, and saying goodbye to all of our new friends. It’s sad leaving behind all of the smiling faces of the children in the villages where we painted our world map murals; saying goodbye to all of the staff and researchers at CVB who helped us along the way and taught us new things about the Malagasy people, animals, and conservation efforts at the center; the tranquil streams and misty rainforest of Ranomafana; and the beautiful plains and rock formations of Isalo. But we’re all looking forward to being reunited with family and friends at home—and of course, a good home cooked meal! We’ve all had a great few weeks in Madagascar and cannot wait to share more stories and memories with you upon our return.

Misaotra betsaka namaky blog-izahay nareo! Veloma! Thanks so much for reading our blog! Bye for now!

– Brandon & Maya

The Kingdom of Julian

Another beautiful day in Isalo! This time we hiked up a canyon that was full of trees. Our guide stopped to tell us about a chameleon when a troop of ring-tailed lemurs appeared to start feeding on some fruits in the tree over us! They were so close that we had to back up at times to ensure a safe distance between ourselves and them!

Ring-tailed lemurs greet us at the park entrance. | Photo by Brandon S.

Continuing up the canyon, we saw some crazy-looking leaf bugs and lots of beautiful birds. The sides of the canyon started to close in, forcing us to meander back and forth across the crystal clear water of a stream.

Crazy-looking leaf bugs in the forest. | Photo by Brandon S.

Kieran P. walking through one of Isalo’s gorgeous canyons. | Photo by Brandon S.

Finally, we reached the source. Two waterfalls with beautiful swimming pools at the bottom. We spent about an hour relaxing in the pools before it was time to head back through the fern-laden canyon for lunch.

Cooling off in one of the natural pools. | Photo by Brandon S.

Lunch was delicious, but it was interrupted by a plethora of lemurs! The ring-tails were the most numerous, but there were also red-fronted brown lemurs and one Verreaux’s sifaka. Our guide explained to us that a fire set accidentally in 2010 had burned much of the forest, and no other sifakas had been seen since. A tough reminder of the threats facing lemurs, even in protected areas.

We’re trying so hard to make the cover of the Nat Geo Student Expeditions magazine! | Photo by Brandon S.

Kieran P. tries to get a picture of the lemurs that visited us during lunch. | Photo by Brandon S.

Once we arrived back at the hotel we spent the afternoon relaxing, riding horses, and exploring the area. We took a quick trip to the Fenêtre d’Isalo (Window of Isalo) where we watched a beautiful sunset before enjoying our last dinner in our magical stone hotel.

Sunset at La Fenêtre. | Photo by Brandon S.

Group photo at La Fenêtre d’Isalo. | Photo by Brandon S.

A Day in Isalo

Our resort is a castle—hot showers, a pool, delicious food, and luxurious stone cabins…It was hard to pull ourselves away from such a place, but the sandstone canyons of Isalo National Park were calling.

Our castle hotel: Jardin du Roy! | Photo by Brandon S.

As we drove up to the park, our guide explained to us the rich cultural and geological history of the area. Bara (one of Madagascar’s 18 cultural groups) tombs were tucked high in the canyons.

It is taboo to point, so our guide indicated the location of tombs with a bent finger. | Photo by Brandon S.

He then showed us a bush, and after some serious searching, we were shocked to see what it was hiding: a huge stick insect! Fire resistant tapia trees dotted the grassland, while multi-colored rocks dotted with elephant’s foot trees lit up under the blue sky.

What’s everyone looking at? | Photo by Brandon S.

The stick insect! | Photo by Brandon S.

We also learned the perils of our journey, as our guide showed us one poisonous plant after another before finally flipping a rock to reveal a small scorpion! Fortunately, no problems arose.

Scorpion hiding under a rock! | Photo by Brandon S.

Hiking along the crest of the canyonlands, we could see for miles across the dry, rolling plains to the south. Our days in the rainforest were long gone!

View from the crest trail. | Photo by Brandon S.

Sharon K. leads the hike through Isalo. | Photo by Brandon S.

Eventually we made our way into some flat lands, when out of nowhere the ground gave way to a beautiful natural swimming pool, complete with a waterfall! After a long morning of hiking, the cool water felt fantastic. After half an hour of soaking our sunburnt skin, we reluctantly dried off so we could go eat lunch.

Kieran P. gets a shot of the natural pool. | Photo by Brandon S.

Swimming in the natural pool. | Photo by Brandon S.

The food was delicious. While we were eating, a troop of ring-tailed lemurs came strolling by! We all agreed that they sounded and looked just like cats, a fitting tribute to their Latin name: Lemur catta. Further along, we spotted a beautiful rainbow locust. Who knew such color could be found in such a barren landscape?

A colorful rainbow locust. | Photo by Brandon S.

Our hike back was lengthened by multiple scenic overlooks, but each one of them was well worth it. Over another delicious dinner at our resort, we all agreed that Isalo was one of our favorite parts of Madagascar. We can’t wait to go back tomorrow to see what else the park has to offer!

Representing National Geographic! | Photo by Brandon S.

View of the canyon lands. | Photo by Brandon S.

Sunset view from the bus. | Photo by Maya H.

From Wet to Dry

Today we hit the road early for a long day of travel across Madagascar’s high plateau. The road wound up and down the rolling hills and mountains around the province of Fianarantsoa, where the Betsileo herdsmen graze their cattle. Amidst a sea of grass and granite massifs reminiscent of Yosemite National Park, we took a respite at the Anja Community Reserve.

The open plains of central Madagascar. | Photo by Brandon S.

The Yosemite-like rock formations along the road. | Photo by Brandon S.

Established in 2001 by the local community, Anja is a small forest reserve that provides the only suitable habitat for ring-tailed lemurs for miles around. And we didn’t have to wait long before we encountered Madagascar’s most iconic lemur species! Though groups can have up to 25 members, the animals we encountered were enjoying a bit more solitude as they rested alone or in small groups during the heat of the day.

Our first ring-tailed lemur!! | Photo by Brandon S.

Tegh R. gets a “boss pic” of a chameleon in Anja. | Photo by Brandon S.

On our brief hike, we enjoyed the stunning views of the area and got several pictures with the National Geographic flag!

Visiting the Anja Community Reserve. | Photo by Brandon S.

We then re-boarded the bus for an afternoon of karaoke, napping, and chatting as the sun began to set over the rocky outcrops. This dry region certainly is not what most of us expected to see in Madagascar, but it sure is beautiful!

The otherworld landscapes along the road. | Photo by Brandon S.

Fire resistant palm trees near Isalo National Park. | Photo by Brandon S.

A Night in the Jungle

July 25

Crossing the river into Ranomafana National Park is nothing short of magical. The swarming crowds at the park’s entrance and the buzz of cars speeding down the main road are quickly replaced by a serene wall of green and the roaring rapids of the Namorona River. Our guide was one of the first “Lemur Spotters” to work at the park, and he certainly lived up to his title.

Our guide, Theo, explains the history of the park to us. | Photo by Brandon S.

Crossing the Namorana River to enter Ranomafana National Park. | Photo by Brandon S.

In no time we were off the main trail in search of the golden bamboo lemur, the species for which the park was first created. Soon we were off again, only this time to see the Critically Endangered greater bamboo lemur. Fewer than 300 individuals are thought to remain!

Critically endangered greater bamboo lemurs came down to the forest floor to feed right in front of us! | Photo by Brandon S.

Our species count for the morning continued to grow, as we saw two satanic leaf-tailed geckos, some chameleons, stick insects, nocturnal wooly lemurs, red-fronted brown lemurs, and even Milne-Edward’s sifakas (see the CVB logo from blog, “Centre Val Bio!”). The sifakas have been studied for over 20 years at the park, with the oldest known individual estimated to be 35 years old!

Dreux goes in to get a photo of a satanic leaf-tailed gecko. | Photo by Brandon S.

Can you find the gecko?? | Photo by Brandon S.

Milne-Edwards’ sifaka was one of the six diurnal lemur species we saw in the park. | Photo by Brandon S.

After taking a short break at the Belle Vue overlook, we began our long trek to our campsite, deep in primary rainforest. Our guides explained that primary forest was the most untouched forest with large trees and a dense canopy that shaded out the undergrowth. This was in contrast to the dense undergrowth, open canopy, and smaller trees of the secondary forest.

The group takes a picture at the Belle Vu overlook in Ranomafana. | Photo by Brandon S.

The hike was long, mountainous, and difficult, but we eventually made our way to camp where a traditional Malagasy meal of rice, zebu (beef), and veggies was waiting for us.

A traditional rice-filled dinner in the rainforest. | Photo by Brandon S.

We took the afternoon to rest and enjoy our rainforest surroundings before setting out on a night walk along the pristine mountain stream. We saw several different chameleon species (side-striped, O’Shaugnessy’s, and blue-legged), giant millipedes, and lots of crazy looking insects. A Malagasy civet even came past our camp!

Views of the rainforest. | Photo by Brandon S.

One of the many side-striped chameleons found on our night walk. | Photo by Brandon S.


July 26

An extra few hours of sleep were much needed after the previous day’s journey. We bid our camp farewell and began the long trek back to CVB. On the way back, we finally saw a troop of black and white ruffed lemurs. We heard them frequently yesterday, but with calls that travel several kilometers across the forest, it’s no surprise that spotting them high in the canopy was so difficult. Soon after, we encountered some red-bellied lemurs that appeared to be two groups in a territorial dispute. Amidst the chaos, Sharon got pooped on!

We heard black and white ruffed lemurs often, and we were even lucky enough to see some! | Photo by Brandon S.

Two troops of red-bellied lemurs duked it out in the treetops right over us! | Photo by Brandon S.

Sitting down on the bus was a welcome relief as we ventured off to see some giant Parson’s chameleons known to frequent a nearby village. They were enormous! We then left for Vohipararo to try to find giraffe-necked weevils amidst high altitude marshland and forest. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the weevils, but the open quiet of the flat, forest marshlands was incredibly peaceful.

Everyone was super excited to see the giant Parson’s chameleon. | Photo by Brandon S.

When we finished our hike, we quickly showered and got dressed up for a nice dinner at the Hotel Thermal. Even our Malagasy guides were put to the test with the French culinary menu descriptions, but it was impossible to go wrong with such delicious food options. It felt good to be back in civilization again!

We enjoyed a nice dinner in town after two days in the park. | Photo by Brandon S.

Painting Project Completed!

July 23

Day two of painting: who knew there were so many countries!? It took us all day, but we went from blue walls to actual maps! Students at both schools were eager to learn where we were from, and thanks to our new maps, we could finally show them!

Our world map slowly begins to emerge at Ambodiaviavy. | Photo by Maya H.

Throughout the day we took short breaks to teach kids how to braid bracelets, play soccer, look for bugs and frogs, practice our French and Malagasy, and get to know the kids at our schools. We took SOOOO many pictures of the adorable Malagasy children!

The view from Ambodiaviavy village. | Photo by Maya H.


July 24

Day three of painting: we are finally finished! Malagasy schools are mostly taught in French and Malagasy, so we wrote all of the country names in French. It was great seeing the finished maps, and the kids and teachers were clearly excited by the new artwork.

Ana O. labelling her home country of Colombia on one of the school maps. | Photo by Brandon S.

One of our completed maps! | Photo by Brandon S.

Completed map at Ambodipaiso. | Photo by Maya H.

A “Dreux”-ngle gym loaded with laughing Malagasy children. | Photo by Brandon S.

Goodbyes at Ambodipaiso. | Photo by Maya H.

Following Malagasy tradition, we went to the village king (mpanzaka) to receive a blessing from the ancestors for our work. The village then gathered to put on a music and dance ceremony to thank us for our work. People crowded the narrow streets to participate, with most of the audience consisting of small children eager to get a glimpse of the tall vazaha (foreigners) making fools of themselves in the dance circle.

Jessi M. learning some Malagasy dance moves at the village ceremony. | Photo by Brandon S.

After the ceremony we sampled some hot sugarcane coffee and cassava. Everyone in the village was so friendly and welcoming that it was hard to say goodbye, but the sun was setting and we had to get back to prepare for a night spent camping in the forest! Don’t worry if you don’t hear from us July 25–26, as we likely will be out of service as we get to experience life in the forest from one of the research camps!

The village prepared some local Malagasy cuisine for us to try! | Photo by Brandon S.

Kieran P. takes a parting shot of the village. | Photo by Brandon S.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Nothing beats a day of hard work planting trees! We split into two groups again to give students the opportunity to have more intimate and meaningful interactions with one another and the local people.

One group spent the morning reforesting a steep mountainside. Saplings were grown at CVB’s native tree nursery (no exotic species here!) that are known to be of local economic value, fast growing, and lemur favorites. We planted the trees on a plot of land near Ranomafana National Park, where a local farmer was interested in converting his monoculture cassava field into a more sustainable multi-species agricultural plot shaded by native plants. We planted over 130 trees!

Sophie D. plants a tree! | Photo by Brandon S.

Grace R. and Drew D. plant a tree! | Photo byBrandon S.

Later that day we got to visit CVB’s tree nursery where we prepared new plugs to replace the saplings that we planted in the morning. Ana O. was definitely the MVP, who led us to a strong finish: over 300 new ramy (a favorite of the elusive aye-aye) trees planted!

Ranomafana’s tree nursery. Over 20,000 trees planted this year! | Photo by Brandon S.

The students planted 300 new seeds!

Meanwhile, the other group got a solid start at the medicinal plant garden, Mahatsarabe, where we planted a living fence to mark the main trail. We then were shown around the site, where we learned about local remedies to common maladies (e.g., fever, malaria, jaundice). We finished off the afternoon planting various medicinal and herbal plants, including the wonderful smelling lemon grass!

Getting dirty at the medicinal plant garden! | Photo by Maya H.

Molly M. watches Tegh R. dig holes at the medicinal plant garden. | Photo by Maya H.

Both groups even got to enjoy a quick trip to a local market, where we visited a local woodworker with some amazing skills! The crowds of people were a little overwhelming at first, but it was great to experience the buzz and excitement generated by so many people.

Market day in Kelilalina. | Photo by Brandon S.

Of course, we can’t forget that today was Jessi’s birthday! The ValBio staff made it extra special with an epic sparkler on top of a delicious chocolate cake. Maitsiro be!

Jessi M. had quite the birthday cake surprise! | Photo by Brandon S.

We topped off the celebration with our first nocturnal walk! After several minutes of patient waiting, we finally got to see our first lemur—a mouse lemur! Several chameleons soon followed, along with a few frogs, but everyone agreed that the satanic leaf-tailed gecko took the cake! Well, we actually ate the cake for dinner, but you get the idea!

The satanic leaf-tailed gecko was a highlight of the night walk. | Photo by Brandon S.

Kieran P. and other students try to get the best angle on a chameleon during our night walk. | Photo by Brandon S.

Chameleons are easiest to find at night when they’re asleep! | Photo by Brandon S.

Centre Val Bio!

It’s been an eventful day! Sunrise gave us our first look from Centre Val Bio into the surrounding rainforest, and it was amazing!

Entryway to CVB. | Photo by Brandon S.

Students enjoying fantastic views of the rainforest from CVB. | Photo by Brandon S.

Endemic birds perched in the treetops, the tropical sun warming our skin after a cold night, and the sound of the river raging below us all experienced from the comfort of a couch is unbelievable. We were shown around the facility in the morning, which was more mind-blowing still, with lab space, a sound studio, conference rooms, a cafeteria, library, dozens of rooms for researchers, solar heating system, rooftop garden, and so much more!

Maia D. excited to learn about Madagascar’s insects! | Photo by Brandon S.

Caroline teaches us about CVB’s solar heating and rooftop garden. | Photo by Brandon S.

Jean-Claude Razafimahaimodison (say that five times fast!) provided us with an in-depth intro into the dozens of ongoing programs and partnerships that have come as a result of this world-class research station alongside Ranomafana National Park.

In the afternoon, we finally got to visit the two schools that we will be painting as part of our community service projects. Thousands of people from all over the world visit this part of Madagascar each year, and the world maps that we will be painting will finally give Malagasy students the chance to see from just how far away people are willing to travel to see all of the amazing people and wildlife that call this part of Madagascar home.

A short walk from the road through some beautiful mountain rice paddies and we were ready to start painting! | Photo by Maya H.

Students painting a world map on the school at Ambodiaviavy. | Photo by Brandon S.

While we waited for the paint to dry (literally), we took advantage of our closeness to the local villages to connect better with the curious Malagasy children peaking in from every window. Pickup games of soccer, dance and origami lessons, and asking about daily life through some wonderful translators made the afternoon fly by.

Sophie C. teaches Malagasy students how to fold origami cranes. | Photo by Maya H.

We passed the time waiting for paint layers to dry with some soccer! | Photo by Brandon S.

We had a blast learning dances from Malagasy children at the schools we were painting. | Photo by Maya H.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Centre Val Bio, where some of us got a brief lesson in Malagasy moths before calling it a night!

– Brandon & Maya

Seb D. and Maia D. learn about Madagascar’s moths from resident CVB researchers. | Photo by Brandon S.

On the Road Again!

After a brief rest in the capital, Tana, from all of our international travels, today was spent driving to the world-renowned Centre Val Bio in Ranomafana National Park where we will be based for the next week of service activities!

After another wonderful meal at Maison du Pyla, we piled our bags high onto the minibus and hit the road at 6:30 a.m. Our driver was sure to cover our rooftop cargo with a heavy duty tarp to protect our bags from the rainforest elements, but the weather couldn’t have been better!

As we wound our way along the two lane national road, we were met by flanks of meat being brought to market, zebu (local cows) pulled carts, and taxi-brousses literally overflowing with Malagasy people and their luggage. The scenery was spectacular, with mile after mile of rice paddies and grass-covered mountains.

By 1 p.m., we finally reached our lunch stop, where everyone was more than happy to stretch their legs and fill up on food. Spirits remained high with our “yart” as we rolled along well into the afternoon. Sing alongs, riddles, and other games were aplenty! Of course, there was much to celebrate, as one of our number turned 17 today! Tratry ny tsingerintaona nahaterahana izy!

Eventually, the miles of grassland became shrouded in darkness and shadows of trees soon lined the roads. Twelve hours after our journey began, we had finally arrived at CVB! After a delicious dinner complete with a multi-layered crepe birthday cake covered in chocolate sauce and an epic birthday rap to boot, everyone was off to bed, eager for rest and for the sunlit reveal of our new jungle abode!

– Maya & Brandon

Exploring Antananarivo

After several long plane rides, today was a great day for us to relax, get to know each other with a group orientation, and stretch our legs while we walked around Tana.

Our highlights were:

Visiting Robert’s Chocolate shop where we bought endless amounts of Malagasy chocolate.

Watching the sunset from our guesthouse terrace.

And welcoming the final member of our group who arrived today!

Tomorrow we hop on a bus to the Centre ValBio and Ranomafana. It will be a long ride but we are looking forward to leaving Tana, experiencing the Malagasy countryside, and finally arriving at the research station. Our spirits are high and our bellies are full of delicious food prepared by our host, Madame Fanja. We look forward to touching base again once we are settled at Centre ValBio, so stay tuned!

– Brandon & Maya