With Western team members listening on in admiration, their Malagasy
counterparts sing in the cook tent.
56k | ISDN
June 3, 2000
Camp Life Unveiled
Today is my fifth day stuck in camp with a foot infection. It's been galling
to have to remain in camp, in my tent even, while the rest of the team pays
visits to the silky sifaka and explores the wondrous forests of Marojejy
National Park. More than a few times this week I've found myself punching
the air in frustration. Yet sometime in the past day or two I've begun to
relax and enjoy the rhythms of life around the camp.
Porters Jean Yves Totohambana (without shirt) and Fidelis, who like many
Malagasy goes by only one name, await their dinner in the cook tent.
The day begins around 5:30, when the first fingers of light reach into the
forest canopy. Our two camp cooks, Nestor Randrianasy and Jean Zoky, already
have the campfire crackling and water on the boil for coffee and tea, and
soon team members begin stirring within the scatter of tents here at Camp
Two. There's the sound of unzipping, and people emerge, some with daypacks
already packed for the day's work, and make their way toward the beacon that
is the cook tent.
After that first cup, everyone nips into plastic bowls full of rice pudding
with raisins and sweetened condensed milk. It's the breakfast we have every
day without fail, but I don't seem to get sick of it. Rice is so important
to the people of Madagascar that they say "to eat rice" when they mean "to
eat a meal." Summing up his people's feeling about this staple, the great
Malagasy king Andrianampoinimerina, who reigned in the 18th century, once
said, "Rice and I are one."
By 6:30 a.m., when light has begun to penetrate into the deepest recesses of
the forest, the day's two sub-teams - one follows the silky sifaka, one
walks the transect line (see Three Hours with the Silkies) - leave for the
morning's work. Unable to join them, I head back to my tent and begin
thinking about the next dispatch, tending to my camera gear, or sending and
retrieving e-mails using my laptop computer and satellite phone. When it's
not raining, I can perch my computer on a crude table that Randrianasy and
Zoky crafted in about quarter of an hour out of strips of bamboo and stout
poles just outside my tent. When it is raining, I set up the equipment at
the tent entrance, where I can look out on the stone mountain rearing over
our camp while I work.
In the five days I've been confined to my tent, guide Desiré Rabary has never
tired of going out of his way to show me animals he's found along the trail,
such as this frog.
By late morning, smoke begins to rise again above the cook tent, and the
occasional smell of rice or onions cooking makes it up the hill to my tent.
An hour or two later Randrianasy and Zoky have a heaping bowl of rice and
beans ready for anybody who has returned from the forest (or never went
there in the first place). Those who stay in the forest get biscuits and
cheese and sausage and chocolate, but here it's rice and beans. You can
spice it up with hot sauce, which the Malagasy pour on, but that's all there
is. The only variety comes with dessert: a pair of small bananas, say, or a
slice of pineapple.
By mid-afternoon, the sun bears indomitably down on our camp, with little
intervening foliage. I situated my tent with a spectacular view, but between
about 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., the sun barges right in through the front
door, forcing me to back farther and farther in.
My laptop sits at the ready on the simple wooden table that our two camp
cooks fashioned out of forest materials in about 15 minutes.
Then something amazing happens. The sun dips behind the ridge at about 3:30
p.m., and the temperature plunges. Within minutes, I go from sweating in a
t-shirt to looking around for my sweatshirt. The rest of the afternoon is
pleasantly cool. This is the time to bathe or fill water bottles in the
stream, catch up on notes or e-mail, or enjoy a cup of tea sweetened with
locally raised vanilla, which Randrianasy and Zoky have at the ready for
Night falls quickly in the tropics, and by 6:00 p.m. it's all but dark.
Birdsong subsides, and night insects and frogs begin filling acoustic niches
all around us. The wind-like sound of the stream becomes more pronounced.
Your eye is drawn upwards to the sky, which, though darkening, remains
bright compared to the blackened forest.
Returning team members gather at the cook tent for a debriefing. If it's
raining, they squeeze in tight against one another under the overhanging
cloth ceiling, politely jostling for the best position away from drips or
direct rain. People sit on boxes, bamboo poles, hemp sacks - whatever is
handy. After the debriefing, they stare into the coals of the cooking fire
and wait for a dinner of rice and sardines, or rice and corned beef, or rice
and beans. (One night, to everyone's delight, we had pasta.) A few sip out
of plastic cups half-full of Three Horses, the national brew.
Bedtime depends on how rough a day you've had. Those who left to find the
sifaka at 6:30 a.m. and followed them through the tangled jungle for a good
part of the day might collapse right after dinner. Others might hang around
the cook tent for hours, as most did last night, when the eight or ten
Malagasy in camp took to singing Malagasy songs as the rain gushed down.
The forest around our camp is alive with sounds, especially at night.
In the middle of the night, you might be awakened by a suddenly intensifying
downpour. Or a great crash of unknown origin in the forest. Or a puddle that
has formed under your foam pad from rain that, despite your best efforts,
has somehow managed to penetrate your tent. But inevitably you drop off
again to the stream's soothing tones, and the next time you look out your
tent door, the bushes outside appear ever so slightly less dark than they
did when you last looked out: dawn is imminent. You can bet Randrianasy and
Zoky are in the cook tent, fanning the fire.
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
In the next day or two we hope to temporarily capture one or more silky
sifaka for study and then release them back into their home range. Watch
this space for news and photos of this exciting phase of the research.
Forest of Hope (June 7, 2000)
A Great Day for Silkies (June 4, 2000)
Camp Life Unveiled (June 3, 2000)
Three Hours with the Silkies (June 1, 2000)
Angels of Marojejy (May 31, 2000)
Wildlife (May 30, 2000)
Into the Marojejy Massif (May 28, 2000)
Croc Cave (May 26, 2000)
Fossa! (May 25, 2000)
Bat Cave (May 24, 2000)
Update: English Camp (May 23, 2000)
Update: Sunken Forest (May 21, 2000)
Update: Night Walk (May 20, 2000)
Update: 70 Feet Up (May 19, 2000)
Update: Tropical Downpour (May 18, 2000)
Photos: Peter Tyson.
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