Today began quite early with a rushed cab ride out to the MICET offices in order to complete the packing of our Malagasy student's gear (Clara and Raina) followed by a harrowing high speed conveyance to the airport. Harrowing and high speed more because this is the standard style of driving than it having anything to with our being late. Our luck seemed to be changing too. There were no surprises, the flight got off the ground on time and we made it to the South Coast of Madagascar without any difficulties at all. Airport etiquette varies considerably here. There is no assigned seating so it's basically a rush to the plane to get the seat you want. Moreover, baggage security consist of merely pointing to your luggage lying on the tarmac as a way of identifying it, just before you board. Tolagnaro airport is about as sophisticated. Everyone simply crushes behind a barricade as checked luggage tag numbers are called. Each positively identified piece is then passed overhead mosh-pit style to the appropriate owner.
Tonight we are staying at the Dauphin owned by M. de Haumme, proprietor of the Reserve Privee Berenty were we will base ourselves for the next 3 days. Check in was followed by our quickly donning our field clothes for the first time on this expedition, eating a quick lunch and running out to the street to two waiting drivers who would take us to the Domaine de la Cascade, a recently established private reserve composed of virgin coastal rainforest. People here seem to always be smiling. Of course it's impossible to tell if it's because they are genuinely happy to be part of our trek or because they can't believe their luck at finding 6 Vaza unskilled at haggling over the price of a 10 km transfer. Probably both. Accompanying us is a physician we met on the plane, John, on leave from his stint with an NGO in Congo where he has been monitoring disease outbreaks following the decimation of 20% of the city of Goma in the wake of the volcanic eruption there about 3 weeks ago.
There is a profound and obvious contrast between protect and unprotected land in this country. Most hillsides are denuded of any vegetation, even in this area of relatively low population density. Poverty and environmental degradation have always gone hand in hand. When the price of fuels is out of reach of the majority of the population the only choice they have for heating, cooking and building materials is massive extraction of available wood from the surrounding countryside. The result is a stark landscape prone to erosion. At Domaine de la Cascade on the other hand, the forests are dense with endemic flora and fauna. Within minutes of walking up towards the thickly forested slopes flanking a series of falls and rapids we nearly tripped over our first chameleon. Still, there are signs that all is not well even in a protected area. Rich oily fruits of a plant normally relished by lemurs and 'parakeets' lie uneaten on the ground open to attack by weevils. This is possible sign that population levels of those animals required by the trees to disperse their progeny are insufficient to sustain the forest. Hopefully, long term management of this place as an untouched reserve of biodiversity can alter that pattern.
Mafana be! Was it ever hot and sticky!
The trail we followed quickly penetrated the rainforest and drew us ever upwards high above the cataracts. Too low in the forest and the leeches will be inactive for lack of sufficient moisture. Thankfully, the higher we hiked, the wetter the vegetation around us became. Eventually we found ourselves deep enough that our surroundings truly were rainforest. The air is sufficiently thick with moisture that it simply condenses on any solid object.. leaves, stems, rocks… heads, arms, and glasses. And when we were not being soaked through from the vegetation overgrowing the path we were negotiating, we were by the more direct source; rains from the clouds above and around us. Miserable if you are out for a leisurely stroll, but perfect and brimming with anticipation if your objective is a voracious terrestrial leech in a tropical jungle!
After about a half an hour Mark was becoming a little discouraged. Surely there should be hoards of them! The pristine nature of the reserve, the incessant rain, a team of 6 brushing up against and through the understory. What more could a self-respecting land leech want? Nothing crossing the trail, nothing hanging from branches… please not another day without leeches… not after all we had been through!
Then, from up ahead came the call… "Linta! Linta!" The local Malagasy word for what we'd come all this way for.
We had found our first leech!
Small, maybe a centimetre long.
A dusky brown color but with exquisite patterns on its back resembling two dark chains with the spaces of the links filled with yellow.
We passed it around, or rather it was fairly capable of getting around itself. This small hungry worm extended its head out and waved around looking for a likely victim and energetically stretched out and frantically searched for a soft sensible place to feed from. Getting it into a collection bag was quite a trick! No sooner was it made to let go with one end, than it was reattached by the other. Not unlike trying to flick a wad of chewing gum off your shoe on a hot humid day on Coney Island.
Emboldened we pressed on, each member of the team keeping an eye out for more on the backs, shoulders, arms and legs of the one in front of them. Within minutes Clara had found one on her, then John, then Raina, when suddenly Liz was fishing around in her shirt for whatever was tickling her skin. Clearly these guys were questing for whatever might be on the path as neither Evon nor Mark who were bringing up the rear were fortunate enough to receive the affection of these insistent annelids.
Having expended about half of our allotted time we opted to head back down the mountain side towards the cataracts in the hopes of cooling off a bit by finding a breeze. Knowing that haemadipsid leeches are usually painless and stealthy, Mark reminded himself to roll up his pant legs and check for interlopers. Sure enough he found an already well-filled leech happily lunching away on his left leg which, once removed, had left enough anticoagulant to cause the wound to bleed all down Mark's pant leg and into his sock.
What a day!
By the end of the hike we had collected 11 leeches in all ranging from a 4 mm unfed juvenile to the large grape removed from Mark's shin.
The rains are falling intermittently through the night as we write of this first successful day.
But there is dire news too.
Evon has taken ill with a fever and severe cramping. Soon after returning to the Dauphin she was shaking uncontrollably and complaining of horrible chills (in the 90 C heat and humidity). After getting her tucked into bed and doing what we could to replenish lost fluids we decided that it may have been the chicken salad she ate last night and thus hopefully a brief bout with salmonella that could be knocked out by a regimen of the Cipro we have on hand for just such an encounter. If so Evon should feel more herself tomorrow. If not, we'll have to time her fevers in order to be aware of malaria. The latter is unlikely given that we've all been very careful about our daily does of Malarone.
Still, it's a setback that has us all concerned and doing what we can to make her more comfortable.