Robin Hoskyns Nature Photography – Blog

Images and stories of nature, science and conservation.


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Return to Anja

I recently returned from my second trip to Madagascar. It felt good to be back after spending six months there in 2015. Memories came flooding back and it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of Malagasy life.

Unfortunately this was a much shorter visit with the primary objective of shooting footage for my final film project as part of the MA in Wildlife Filmmaking at UWE.

I had planned the film based on the visit to Anja I wrote about in this blog post. Having got amazing images in just a couple of hours I knew that this would be an incredible location for a film, offering a relatively easy opportunity to get some great wildlife footage in a stunning location. Despite how cool the location and wildlife is the thing that convinced me that this was the place was the story of the reserve itself.

Even though it’s a great story, much of my planning before leaving was thinking about how to make the story into an interesting film. Conservation films are notoriously difficult to make as they can often leave the viewer feeling despondent or be too informational and not particularly interesting to watch for the average person.

The story of Anja is a positive one which means I have the chance to make an uplifting and inspiring film. The edit is still a work in progress so you will have to wait and see if I have achieved these high aims!

The shoot went well and it was amazing to be camping right on the edge of the forest, waking up to the sounds of the lemurs calling with the light starting to hit the cliffs that provide Anja’s epic backdrop.

Our guides were great and it was good to spend a good length of time in the location getting to know them and improving my Malagasy. Our cook kept us well fed with a selection of Malagasy dishes served with Malagasy sized portions of rice!

I didn’t have too much time for photos, it’s really difficult to manage shooting both stills and video simultaneously as it is a different mindset required for each, and for this trip filming was my priority! I did manage to get some images though and some were taken by my course mate, Ross who accompanied me on the shoot. Hopefully these give you a sense of what the shoot was like, enjoy!

And here’s a couple of quick clips:

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Fianarantsoa Cote Est – Fianarantsoa to Manakara in 18 hours

Fianarantsoa train station

Fianarantsoa station at 6:15am.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The queue for the “second class” carriage.

We had heard a lot of conflicting things about the Fianarantsoa Cote Est (FCE), the train that runs from Fianarantsoa in the central highlands down to the Indian ocean at Manakara. Reports of the journey time ranged from 8 to 35 hours with some people claiming that it was the best experience they had had travelling around Madagascar, some people telling us it would be a form of self inflicted torture.

One thing I have learned about Madagascar in the few months I have been here is that it has a habit of turning expectations on their head and this journey was no different.

Fianarantsoa Manakara train

Waiting to board the train.

Vazaha Tourists on the Fianarantsoa cote est

The other tourists looking out at the outskirts of Fianarantsoa.

Having decided to give it a go we booked the train by phone a few days before and reserved first class seats. We turned up at the train station at 6am, as advised, to a queue of Malagasy waiting for the ticket office to open. At 6:30am the reservation office opened and we got our tickets with no problems.

A little nervous about what we had let ourselves in for, we decided to go and check out the train and see our seats. The initial surprise was that one of the carriages seemed much more modern than the others. We checked our tickets and found out this was where we would be sitting.

Bricks seen from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Piles of bricks by the road.

Rice Paddies seen from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

A wide view of the rice paddies.

Zebu cattle  ploughing rice fields Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Zebu ploughing the rice fields.

At first I was a little disappointed as I kind of wanted to be in the carriages with a little bit more character but we sat down and waited for the train to leave. We had seen a couple of other “vazaha” tourists but most of the crowd still seemed to be mainly Malagasy. As we waited, our first class carriage slowly started filling up with mostly elderly or middle aged and almost exclusively French tourists.

Eventually the train left at 8pm, an hour late but not too bad by Malagasy standards. At frst we chugged along through the outskirts of Fianarantsoa along a familiar bit of road that we had seen many times through the window of a Taxi Brousse, with piles of smoking bricks and extensive views over rice paddies.

Rice paddies seen from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Freshly planted rice.

Rice paddies from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Digging the rice paddies by hand.

Several of the tour group cars kept pulling up alongside the train with the drivers and guides honking and waving at their respective groups on the train but soon we left the road and pulled up at the first village. As we were expecting ladies and lots of children selling street food flocked around the train. Unexpected however was that there were nearly as many “vazaha” tourists with cameras that also swarmed out of the train.

This continued with the next few villages, some with crumbling but large station buildings and others with more rural Malagasy buildings. We bought some of our favourite street foods: mainly deep fried goods such as Mofo Gasy (fried rice cakes), Mofo Akondro (battered, deep fried bananas) and Sambos (Malagasy samosas). We also tried Koba Akondro: a sweet cake of banana, rice flour and peanuts cooked in a banana leaf.

Street food seller from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

A seller with street food.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The second class carriages.

Crayfish street food Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Buying ecrevisse, crayfish caught locally.

At several of the stops some of the other tourists would throw out t-shirts, pens and sweets to the children and at a couple of villages the children were holding woven baskets in anticipation, ready to catch the gifts. There was some squabbling between them but also sharing. In one instance we saw several children passing round a single sweet, having one lick each. This gift throwing provoked mixed feelings in me. At first it felt a little obnoxious, like watching keepers at a zoo throwing food to make the animals move for the spectators with cameras. The stark segregation of Vazaha and Malagasy passengers also went some way to increase this uncomfortable feeling. On the other hand this train line provides an important source of income for these otherwise remote villages as the primary trade link for rice and bananas and the sellers certainly make more from the tourists than they would otherwise.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The “vazaha” carriage in between the older train carriages.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Children with baskets to catch sweets and pens.

As the train continued, we left the central plateau with the wide expanses of rice paddies and started to descend towards the coast. The track here got much worse with the train grinding slowly along whenever there was a corner. We passed through some small fragments of forest but the true scale of deforestation in Madagascar was fully evident.

One of the villages we stopped at for a while had a lot of children who seemed keen to chat although they mainly kept asking for money and pens. At this village there was a woman selling vanilla that was so potent you could smell it inside the carriages as she walked past!

Rainforest from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Passing through a small fragment of forest.

Deforestation from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

The slightly more typical view of deforested areas.

After about 8 hours on the train we thought we might be nearly there. We were wrong! We stopped at several more villages along the way, with increasingly longer stops as it got dark. The closer we got to Manakara the longer the train stopped at each station to the point where we stopped for about an hour every couple of kilometres.

The last 10 hours of traveling in the dark turned out to be a bit of an endurance test with the carriage getting hot and sweaty and filling with mosquitoes at each stop. The only highlight of this second part of the journey was one village where women selling pepper came up to the windows with their trays lit with candles and we ate a couple more mofo akondro.

Children from the Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Malagasy children waving at the train.

Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

A child selling some bead necklaces

Finally at 2am we crawled into Manakara, a full 18 hours after setting off. We fought our way through the crowd of other tourists and got a pousse-pousse to the only hotel we thought might actually be open.

The next couple of days staying in Manakara were a nice relaxing reward and we treated ourselves to beers, seafood and sugary, deep fried coconut on the beach!

Ladies selling pepper by candlelight Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Ladies selling pepper by candlelight.

Peeper sellers by candlelight Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Reflections of the pepper sellers.

Pousse-pousse in Manakara Fianarantsoa to Manakara Train

Morning in Manakara!


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Ambodivoangy village: People and Conservation

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Our porters carrying bags of food on the 3 hour hike.

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View across rice paddies to a village en route.

A week ago I tagged along on an expedition with the health team and two medical students from stony brook medical school to see the other side of the work done at Centre Valbio. We visited a small remote village about three hours walk from the road, situated right on the edge of the national park itself.

Ranomafana National Park has more than 100 villages in its peripheral zone with over 25,000 residents in total. Most of these are subsistence farmers, mainly growing rice, cassava, coffee and sugarcane. The health team visit many of the villages and hold regular clinics where they diagnose and give basic treatment where possible.

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The view from the school when we first arrived with the park boundary in the distance.

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The closest of the 3 mini-villages to the school with rainforest behind.

As well as a health team Centre Valbio also has an education team which visit schools in these villages to explain about the importance of biodiversity and conservation and a team of dental students runs a yearly clinic in Ranomafana Village. Centre Valbio also works closely with Pivot, a healh NGO based in Ranomafana.

The purpose of this particular expedition was to collect information about a relatively unknown disease called Mycetoma. This disease manifests itself in a similar way to elephantiasis with excessive swelling of the limbs however it generally only occurs in the feet and usually only one. The village we visited, Ambodivoangy, apparently had three cases of this disease.

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The school building we set up camp in.

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Our food and camping gear.

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View from inside the school looking towards the village.

After the three hour hike across rice paddies and through a couple of other villages we arrived at Ambodivoangy which turned out to be a group of three smaller villages with a school in the middle. We set up camp at the school and went for a visit to the president of the village. There was barely enough room in this house for all of us but with the help of the Malagasy health team the purpose of the visit was explained.

The next morning four people with apparent Mycetoma turned up along with the rest of the village and lots of children. One of the cases was almost certainly elephantiasis as the patient also had massively swollen testicles but all four were given a questionnaire and samples were taken.

Mycetoma can be caused either by fungal or bacterial infection and is treatable if caught early however the swelling cannot be reversed and surgery or amputation to remove the infection may be the only option in the worst cases. Mycetoma is found throughout the tropics and is normally associated with communities who walk around barefoot, particularly agricultural workers. For this reason the majority people at risk are extremely poor hence why this disease has been so little studied.

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The first Mycetoma patient to the clinic.

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The second patient starting to draw a crowd.

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The result of having Mycetoma for years.

After the morning clinic we went for a short walk around two of the three villages. I really wanted to get some more images of people and village life but I found it very difficult to get natural images as the appearance of a group of “vazaha” was obviously a huge spectacle and people would just stare. I would have liked to stay longer a let people to relax and get used to having a camera waved around but it was not to be. The skills needed to photograph wildlife do not so easily transfer to photographing people and it certainly puts me out of my photographic comfort zone!

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Children playing outside the school, the game was to throw elastic bands onto a small stick.

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Another game, this one involved hopping and kicking a stone around a grid.

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The Malagasy way to carry a child.

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Pounding rice to remove the chaff

After visiting the villages we were lead off the path, through a patch of sugarcane until we stumbled upon people in the process of distilling “toaka gasy”, the traditional Malagasy moonshine.  A barrel of fermented sugarcane was set on a smoky fire attached to a condenser made from a hollowed out log and fed with cold water from a stream via a bamboo chute. Of course we sampled some toaka gasy which was still warm from the distillation process!

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Toaka gasy production!

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The barrel of fermented sugarcane and the carved condenser.

For me this trip really opened my eyes to how conservation projects need to include people to be successful. Most of the time conservation appears to be focused on a particular threatened species or area of habitat however real conservation in a developing country such as Madagascar is as much about people as it is about rainforest and lemurs.

Without people there obviously wouldn’t be any need to conserve nature however simply setting aside reserves and not allowing people in rarely works. This is especially the case in developing countries, such as Madagascar, where there are little or no resources to enforce such rules and a rapidly growing population hugely dependent on wood for fuel and building materials and requiring more and more land for slash and burn agriculture.

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My parting view of Ambodivoangy just after sunrise.


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Morocco – Coast and Street

This isn’t my usual type of post considering the title of this blog however keeping in with my resolution to write more and show more images I thought I’d share some. I really enjoyed having a go at a different style of photography which took me a little out of my comfort zone and I’m quite pleased with the results. More images than I’d usually post but hopefully they’re varied enough to keep you all entertained.

Morocco is a fun place and we had a great holiday. Rachael and I spent a few days at the coast so I could get some surfing in and then a couple of days in Marrakech exploring the souks and visiting some of the landmarks of the city.

The coast

We stayed in a small village called Taghazout which was really relaxed and had a very surfy vibe with lots of European surfers all wanting some of the long waves on offer at the rocky pointbreaks that Morocco is famous for. I was pretty rusty and unfit considering I hadn’t surfed for several months however I got a few nice waves and by the end of the time I was a bit more confident in the water again. It was nice to relax on the balcony and watch the sunsets or wander the streets taking pictures and have coffee or mint tea at our favorite cafes.

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Balcony with a sea view!

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Fishing boats at sunset.

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Incoming swell lines.

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The dog that followed us all day playing on the beach.

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Taghazout Fish Market!

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Watching the tide roll in.

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Fishermen having a natter.

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Surfer at sunset with Anchor point in the distance.

Marrakech

Marrakech was almost the complete opposite to Taghazout, we left the relative tranquility of a beach town for the most hectic, smelly but exciting city I think I’ve ever been to. In the Medina (the old city) the motorbikes are constantly weaving in and out of people and cars down the narrowest of streets.

Trying to capture exactly how busy it is was a real challenge as there is absolutely no time to stop and properly frame a shot. The action is frantic and either you’ve missed the “decisive moment” by raising the camera to your eye or the person has spotted you and turned away and you have caused a minor traffic jam in the process! As a result I was mostly “shooting from the hip” i.e. holding the camera low and randomly firing off shots. Obviously this reduces the hit rate of keeper images but with some practice it doesn’t take long to improve.

I managed to get a copy of canon’s ancient (by modern lens standards) 35mm f/2 for ridiculously cheap on a certain well known auction site and this wide angle when combined with the 5d mkIII proved to be an awesome street photography combo. I love the quality of the images it produces and the wider angle aided me in shooting from the hip. Although a wider angle means that you have to get close, in Marrakech getting close isn’t really an issue!

Another great challenge of photography in the souks is the huge contrast in light levels between sunlight and the shadows. I was constantly having to change between ISO 1600 and 100 and back again withing several seconds. Glad I was shooting digital!

Thanks for looking. To see a few extra images check out my Morocco Gallery on my website.

www.robinhoskyns.co.uk

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Girl Bag

A crop of the previous image. Interesting backpack!

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Jemaa el Fna night market from above.

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