Hello one and all!
Once again, this year was different from a "normal" year for me. Two non-normal years in a row means that I can't really say what a normal year is anymore! Next year will be even less normal, but more about that later. Here's how 2001 (and the first three months of 2002) went.
Marine Research Expedition. Mtwara & Pemba
I started off the year in Tanzania, continuing my recently found passion for underwater conservation by joining a 10 week Frontier Marine Research Expedition. The expedition started in the capital, Dar es Salaam, and it took us a full 24 hours on a ferry to get to the base camp at Mtwara in the south of Tanzania.
We were supposed to stay in Mtwara for only the first few weeks during the training period and then move to Pemba, however due to political unrest and riots in the Zanzibar islands the move was delayed and we ended up staying in Mtwara for six weeks.
After finishing the scientific training we surveyed an area of the bay that is slated for an extension of the port. Fortunately we found that this area doesn't have much in the way of corals or wildlife.
Then we moved to Pemba which is the second largest of the Zanzibar islands. Our first task upon arrival was to finish the building of the camp, including putting the walls on the bandas, installing the (solar) electric system and many other jobs.
The purpose of the expedition being in Pemba is to survey the marine areas around Mesali Island, which is a protected site and the island itself is considered a sacred site by the Islamic religion. It is also rumoured to be the place where the infamous pirate Captain Kidd hide his treasure!
As ours was the first phase of the project to survey the area (it is expected to take three years) our job was to start the mapping of the reefs around the island. The reefs themselves were very badly hit by El Nińo a few years ago and were obviously in much better state before than they are now, although they are regenerating.
I did however see some impressive fish, including one school of five Humphead wrasse and several schools of barracuda. Also, snorkeling off of Mesali Island I was, for the first time ever, attacked by a fish. The Moustache triggerfish, normally quite timid, becomes aggressive when guarding its nest and, swimming along, I suddenly found myself being rammed in the head by one, maybe 30-40cms in length. It kept going after me until I swam out of the area, but I was lucky coming off unscathed as the triggerfish drew blood from some other snorkellers with bites to their legs.
Well, I couldn't go to Tanzania and not go to some of the world's most famous wildlife reserves. So, in between projects I went On Safari for three days in Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro and later took a day trip into the Serengeti.
Lake Manyara is one of Tanzania's smallest national parks and is really quite nice. It is mostly forested and the animals are fairly tame, coming quite close.
The Ngorongoro crater is absolutely spectacular. At about 20km across it's a huge enclosed plain, in places offering wall-to-wall wildlife. However, while it's great for seeing the animals, at times it feels like a big open air zoo. The wildlife is very tame -- the lions even come and sit in the shade of the vehicles -- and after about 11am herds of white safari trucks are a common sighting.
I visited Serengeti from the western end which is rarely reached by most tourists. This showed in the nervousness of the animals as we approached, which made the whole trip seem a bit more of an adventure.
Between the three parks I saw just about everything there was to see, except for cheetahs. Elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos and leopards make up "the big five", although I only saw the latter two at a distance. I also saw hippos, wildebeest (gnu), zebra, giraffe, crocodiles, various types of antelopes, baboons, blue monkeys, vervet monkeys, hyenas, jackals, dwarf mongooses, warthogs, and lots of different types of birds.
After a few days on safari I visited Bunda for a week for assessing a reforestation project of a local organisation involved in reforestation activities, The Environmental Conservation and Development Project, on behalf of the UK charity Plant A Tree In Africa.
Traditional vs brick house
Bunda, situated about 15km from Lake Victoria, is a town of about 30,000 people just a few kilometres from the western entrance to the Serengeti National Park. The district is primarily an agricultural and fishing area. The chief cash crop is cotton, mostly grown by small holders.
Bunda has grown considerably in the last 30 years, from a small village to a sprawling town, and at its current growth rate the district will double in population in 25 years. The growth of the town itself is due to Bunda’s importance as a local “junction” town, being between Musoma, the Mara region capital, Mwanza, one of Tanzania’s largest towns and the foremost port and economic centre of the lake region, and the fishing villages to the west and agricultural areas all around.
The area was largely forested up until the 1950s however, due to the large population increase since then and in particular since the 1970s, the area can now best be described as a lake coastal plain with only a few trees and small copses. The land has been deforested for agricultural use, fuel wood and charcoal production, and timber for home and furniture construction
The fuel wood and charcoal use is two fold, first they continue to be the only fuel sources for home cooking. Secondly, wood and charcoal are used for brick production for local home construction; this appears to be a major wood consumer in the area.
Fired bricks have largely replaced the traditional sun-dried mud bricks used previously for building houses due to their much improved durability. Some houses are being built with cement blocks however as this is about 50% more expensive than using fired bricks it isn’t a very popular option.
However, the outlook is not totally bleak. While I was in Bunda the district council declared the hills behind Bunda a reserve and has stated its intention to reforest them. Also, there are a considerable number of trees in and immediately around the town itself.
One thing that struck me about the town is that, despite the obvious “third worldness” a lot of the houses have small but pretty gardens. These are planted with trees to provide shade and wind protection as well as fruit bearing trees such as papaya and both edible and ornamental plants.
The Environmental Conservation and Development Project aims to create a tree nursery that will give away or sell saplings at low cost in order to promote the reforestation of the area. It is also planned to sell ornamental plants for people’s gardens. The venture is intended to be financially self-sufficient once running and be income generating for its members.
In addition the project members are starting a fuel saving cooking methods project, showing awareness that reducing demands on forests is also an important part of the equation. They were prototyping, and were about to test as I left, two products: a solar cooker and a version of the traditional hay box. The plan for both products is to start a small scale manufacturing business and sell them in the local market as alternatives/supplements to fuel wood and charcoal. It is hoped and intended that this will become an income generating activity for the participants.
The hay box is based on a wicker basket, is insulated with paper lined with plastic and, of course, comes with a thick cushion as a cover. Unlike the hay box variants I demonstrated in Ghana and India which were designed to be home made using the cheapest locally available materials, this version looks rather stylish, as it should for a marketable product.
Lake Victoria Situation
A few years ago the South American water hyacinth was accidentally introduced into Lake Victoria. It had a drastic affect, spreading quickly and clogging up local ports affecting fishing activities and local livelihoods.
However, the news for Lake Victoria seems to be good. The battle against the water hyacinth seems to be being won since the introduction of biological control in the form of a South American weevil that feeds on the plant. While it is not yet completely eradicated, large tracts of water that were totally covered are now clear again.
After Tanzania I returned to England, where I stayed for six months, the longest period I've been in the country since 1981, and the longest period I've been in one place since I started doing voluntary work in 1996.
During this period I put together a report, both written and video, for Plant a Tree in Africa on my trip to Bunda; caught up on making some other videos; totally revamped this website; and put together a report and a training CD for Greenforce in preparation for the first phase of their Bahamas expedition.
In addition I laid the groundwork for an endeavour that I'll mention later.
Red hind and Common octopus
Andros is the largest, although least densely populated island, of the Bahamas. The Bahamian National Trust is planning of turning parts of the marine area on the east coast of Andros into a reserve, and the purpose of the project is to perform baseline surveys of the biodiversity of the area.
I decided to join the first two phases of this expedition as it was a new project and I wanted to participate in the setup phase, as well as a normally running phase.
The first phase proved to be quite exciting as I experienced my first hurricane!
After spending a few weeks setting up the research centre, we had to quickly dismantle it all and go into shelter when hurricane Michelle came heading for Andros.
Just as well, for as it turned out Michelle came right through the site. The wind, gusting 130mph (210km/h), toppled all but a couple of trees and left us with a mess that took a lot of effort to tidy up.
The second phase went more normally, although there was still quite a bit of camp building -- I mostly involved myself with constructing seating -- and also a lot of preliminary science work, the project as a whole having been put back a bit by the events of the first phase.
The team surveyed a considerable area in order to help the scientists decide where permanent monitoring sites should be. We did three different types of surveys in accordance with Caribbean wide protocols.
One type of survey noted specific species of fish spotted along a set of 30metre transects, while another examined the habitat, corals being recorded down to species. A third survey involved recording all fish species observed in a given area.
Personally I logged 110 species of fish and also saw some of the other reef inhabitants such as spiny lobster and octopus. I saw a couple of Nurse sharks, both of them lying on the bottom under ledges and, on my final dive, a Green turtle, which must have been quite old as it had encrustations on its shell.
Well, I am now undergoing another change of pace as I am starting my own international volunteer projects organisation called AidCamps International, to offer volunteers the opportunity to participate in short term development aid projects in the third world. This will mean the end of non-stop volunteering for me as it is going to involve my staying in England for considerably more of the year than I have been used to, but will still give me the opportunity to be involved in, indeed to organise and run, voluntary projects that I believe to be worthwhile.
As always, I hope I'll meet some of you, somewhere, sometime.