I visited Sainte Luce Reserve with a friend in March 2012, and would strongly recommend this experience to anyone looking for a new, different, challenging- but rewarding adventure.
As two 21 year old girls from Australia, many of our family and friends were a little concerned when we announced that we would be heading to a remote area in Madagascar to study lemurs. Although we were both Biology graduates, we had not done a whole lot of travel by ourselves, especially in remote locations, and I guess at the time we weren't even that sure ourselves what we were getting into it...
Luckily- we chose an incredible company who constantly provided us with support, information and comfort. The program was for 8 weeks, and we were to head to the Sainte Luce reserve in south eastern Madagascar, to collect information on the behavior of red collared lemurs within the reserve. From the minute we started enquiring and organising, Brett Massoud (the owner of the company) was extremely supportive, calling us to discuss countless things- from how to get cheap flights, to what kind of pants to bring... we really were stepped through each stage or planning, and by the time we packed, we were sure that we had everything we needed. For anyone planning on heading over there, my main recommendations are: get the absolute best head torch that you can afford, bring SO much insect repellant, try and pack light so you don't need to lug everything around, and maybe throw in a few things that you would be willing to donate to the staff when your time is up, such as clothes or batteries.
When arriving in Madagascar, it can be quite intimidating and a little scary to step off the plane into a crazy world of markets, people staring, and screams of 'Vaza!!' (visitor)- but Brett really supported us through all of this. On arrival at our hotel we immediately received a phone call from one of Brett's coworkers making sure that we had arrived safely. The next morning we were met by a researcher who spent a few days with us in the capital city of Madagascar (Tana), discussing our project with us, and taking us to various zoos and reserves so that we could get used to being around lemurs and learning their behaviours. This was so valuable when we eventually had to collect data and deal with the fact that lemurs sit really high up in trees and like to make it really difficult for us to follow them!
Eventually we were ready to fly down to Fort Dauphin to begin the program- and something happened that really demonstrated Brett's incredible leadership and guidance- we missed our flight. When my friend and I approached the desk at the airport with two bookings and receipts for our flight, we were told that our names were not in the system, and that we did not in fact have seats on the flight. In a long exchange of broken English, broken French and broken Malagasy, plus a dash of panic, and a whole lot of confusion, we then attempted to get all of our cash together and somehow pay for new tickets, but soon heard the flight taking off without us. This was the first time either of us had ever missed a flight, and as we stood in the airport in Tana surrounded by bags, we didn't really know what to do. But, after a few minutes of distress we managed to get a hold of Brett on the phone (despite a ridiculous time difference) and he really helped us out. He calmed us down, called a taxi driver he knew (he literally did this from Australia!?!?) and told us to go meet him outside and ask him to take us to 'Flots Bleu'- a nearby and safe hotel, where we could stay until we rebooked a flight down south. A situation which could have been quite scary for new travelers resolved smoothly, and we found a lot of comfort in the fact that Brett was genuinely making sure we were okay despite being so far away. The company also helped us out with organizing the appropriate documents so that we could claim back our air tickets that they (wrongfully) didn't accept.
Eventually we made it down to Fort Dauphin, and once again fell into capable hands, with a lovely lady 'Elise' taking charge of us and helping us settle in. She eventually escorted us on the (2 hour I think?) journey to Sainte Luce. There is probably information prospective travelers have already read about where the reserve is etc but I don't think you can really imagine it until you are being paddled across a lake from a tiny village, into the wilderness.
The reserve itself is absolutely beautiful. If you think about the Madagascar cartoon movie, and picture the beach that the animals wash up on where there is the ocean, white sand, and then a huge green forest directly next to it- that is genuinely what Sainte Luce looks like.
The 'security guards', guide and cook were incredible people, and throughout our stay at the reserve we picked up quite a bit of basic Malagasy, and learnt a lot about Malagasy culture and history. As far as lemur research, every day was an interesting, challenging and fun adventure where we wandered around in the forest learning and following the local lemurs, laughing (sometimes) when they pooped on us, yelling for our guide to help because we lost the particular lemur we were following, hiding in our raincoats while getting pelted with rain and mosquitoes, and generally having new and exciting experiences which seemed completely ridiculous at the time but are fun to recount now.
One main thing that stood out for me on this trip was just how different Malagasy culture is to Western culture, and how sometimes that can be really hard to handle. For example, the presence of witch doctors, the rejection of modern medicine, and attitudes towards pregnancy (eg. not being allowed to stand in a doorway while you are pregnant or the baby will get stuck when you give birth) were just a few themes that seemed to come up in discussions, as well as some smaller but common differences such as respectful ways to address a person. Learning about these differences, although sometimes challenging to think about, was something valuable that I took from my experience in Madagascar, and helped to slightly expand my understanding of our world.
I think the main thing I would have wanted to know before embarking on this journey is: it is okay if you find this really hard. You will be uncomfortable, you will get bitten by a billion mosquitos, you will deal with the frustration of walking through a forest for 4 hours and never actually finding any lemurs, you will get explosive diarrhea, and you might even want to go home at some point- and that is what makes this experience so ridiculously valuable. Because if you stay, and learn, and experience all of these new things- you will remember it for the rest of your life, and you will laugh about it, and be so glad that you did it.
I wholeheartedly recommend this experience to anyone out there who wants to see something new- to understand how other people live, and to challenge themselves. You won't regret it.