"Some day when I am old and worn and there is nothing new to see, I shall go back to the palm-fringed lagoons
, the sun-drenched, rolling moors, the pink villages, and the purple peaks of Madagascar."
E A Powell, Beyone the Utmost Purple Rim, 1925
Wow! Madagascar was magnificent. It may be the most wonderful country we've ever been to. The Malagasy
people are warm and friendly, with brilliant smiles and great senses of humor. The land, from the rainforest to
the spiny desert to the beaches, is breathtaking. And the lemurs are incredible to watch - so adorable you want
to defy all rules of conservation and take one home in your backpack.
We started our journey in the capital, Antananarivo (Tana for short), spending one evening in the Hotel Isoraka. Had our
first taste of Malagasy nightlife at the Hotel Glacier where we saw what was called a "cabaret", live Malagasy music with
a variety of performers, musicians, dancers, taking their turn on stage. The bar was complete with a large number
of "vazaha" (foreigners), in this case mainly middle-aged white french men surrounded by beautiful teenage Malagasy women.
Went the next morning by plane to a small village in the northeast, Maroantsetra. Were met at the airport by Rakoto
(pronounced "Rakoot"), from Hotel Coco Beach, and along with 2 British travelers and a Malagasy driver, piled into a car not much larger than a toy.
Maroantsetra is a seaside village that sees little tourism so the sight of a white person is still surprising to the locals,
particularly the children. Teaching ourselves some of the Malagasy language was a wonderful way to connect
with the Malagasy. (Most are bilingual in Malagasy and French, and are accustomed to hearing the white tourists
speaking only French). As we often found ourselves the objects of curious stares, we used our Malagasy greetings
and the serious stares became smiles and laughter.
There was a bridge in Maroantsetra that was lined on both sides with
the local people, who watched the water and road for happenings in town. Each time we crossed the bridge, we were watched
closely by all the Malagasy and children giggled each time they saw us.
From there we decided to head out by boat to the rainforest on the
Masaola Peninsula for a few nights of camping followed by a few nights on the uninhabited island of Nosy Mangabe. We were in
search of lemurs and other wildlife. Along with the 2 British travelers, we arranged the trip with a
guide from ANGAP (the official park and reserve management agency). They were to provide food, a cook, tents, and a boat.
The menu was to mainly be rice and beans (with the occaisonal orange or banana), but Dale was able to get his protein
fix from the two live chickens that were brought along on the boat (fortunately preparing the chicken for dinner
was the responsibility of the Malagasy cook!).
The four of us arrived at the
dock at the agreed upon time of 8 am on our date of departure. As is typical in the rainforest areas, it was raining
- actually downpouring. At 9:00 the guide, Jean, arrived to advise that there was no gas available in the village, and
he would ride his bicycle to a village 2 hours away to try to secure gas and hitch a ride back. At 12:00, (4 hours after
our scheduled departure time), Jean returned with all necessary supplies, including the several live chickens in a tote bag. Our
boat captain, Ramil, arrived in what appeared to be a large rowboat with a couple makeshift engines attached precariously with what
looked like shoelaces. The rain had subsided somewhat and we all piled in the boat and set off in the
direction of Masaola. It was smooth boating at first, but after an hour the seas became rough and all
the Malagasy aboard stopped smiling (highly unusual for the Malagasy). Our boat was being tossed about, and
we began thinking about Gilligan's Island. We were in the sea, between the mainland and Nosy Mangabe, and we
kept our eyes fixed on tbe closest shore, prepared to swim to it in case of capsizing. Ramil determined our
lives were at risk, and decided we would not continue to the far off Masaola, but rather head directly to the
closer Nosy Mangabe. (As an aside, all Malagasy are terrified of the water due to 2 huge boat accidents
that occured over the last month, resulting in something like 150 deaths. In fact, the town of Maronsetra
was in mourning over the accidents for a week, during which, according to Rakoto, "there were no parties."
We had originally planned on taking one of those boat trips, but now it is illegal to take passangers until
the winter is over, even though they actually still run. We opted for the death-defying 7 seater Air Madagascar
Nosy Mangabe is a national reserve and a lush island of rainforest -- and one of the only habitats of the elusive aye-aye
lemur, and home to a variety of other lemurs and wildlife. After we arrived on the island, unpacked our gear and tents,
and the boat left, we realized there were no other boats there. There was also no phone, no electricity -- basically
no way of communicating to the mainland in the event of catastrophe. However, we became glad for the
isolation after waking in our tent (pitched under a thatched roof laden with holes) hearing only the sounds of various
birds, frogs, and lemurs, and the crashing waves against the beach 10 feet from our tent.
We spent 3 days on Nosy Mangabe (pronounced "Noose Mahngahbey") hiking both day and night, spotting brown ruffed lemurs,
black & white ruffed lemurs, mouse lemurs (Dana's favorite) and dwarf lemurs. Also we saw a wide variety of chameleons (including the tiny
Brookesia and the great leaf-tailed gekko), black widow spiders, a boa constrictor, frogs, and other reptiles. However,
despite the valiant efforts of our guide Jean, we could not spot an Aye-Aye. We did, however, see the nest, feeding grounds,
droppings and every other sign of the 100 or so of them. By the way, not being able to spot things is a theme of our trip, more on
At night we would sit around a candle (campfires are illegal, all food was cooked on the locally produced charcoal),
and try to extract Malagasy legends and tales from our soft-spoken guide. The tales explained why certain things were
"fady" (taboo) in Madascar, why there are certain expressions like "You are as ugly as a Senegal" and so on. An interesting
example of fady is having twins, which is a terrible catastrophe for Malagasy. In the old days, both twins would be taken
into the forest and left there. Still now, in the more rural parts of the country, the parents must decide which twin
to keep and one will be killed or sent to an orphanage. The more enlightened Malagas, however, only have to sacrifice a
few zebu (the local cattle, which by the way is delicious grilled).
Speeding up the travelogue, after Nosy Mangabe we spent a day in the very appealing town of Tamatave, and then
flew to a beautiful island called Saint Marie, where the question, "Who would get sick first?" was answered.
It was Dale, for a change, who one night slept in all his clothes, long underwear, etc., and in his sleeping bag,
covered with blankets (in 70 degree weather) was still shivering. We don't know what it was, as it was unlikely
food poisoning, but there are enough 4-inch cockroaches and other insects and bugs that it could have been
just about anything.
Regarless, Isle Ste. Marie was an unbeliveably tranquil and attractive place, and we had a bungalow in a place called
Betty Plage all to ourselves for a few days (at a cost of roughly $13 per night). They waited on us hand and foot, though
we had most of our meals at the friendly and delicious Le Flamboyant Chez Esthers, where a dinner of Three Horses Beer
and Crevettes (prawns) creole may run you $3. The humpback whales were also in town (as well as plenty of sharks), but
as usual we were the only ones on the island who didn't spot any.
After 5 days on Ste. Marie, Dale fully recovered and we flew on the non-FAA approved Air Mad plane back to Tamatave, complete with absolutely
no airport security, no flight safety instructions, flickering lights, and few seat belts. Dale, being about a foot taller
than most Malagasy, couldn't fit in the seat and had to squeeze into an interesting sideways position. Also, the man
in front of us had sneaked on a live chicken in his carry-on. Fortunately there was a hard candy served.
Tamatave had some great restaurants, including a highly anticpated but not-too-satisfying pizza, and a 25 cent pousse-pousse
(rickshaw) ride back to the hotel. You do feel a bit lazy when some tiny, barefoot Malagas hightails it down the street
schleping your big white american ass, but it is their job and they do want to make some money. It was a fun and harrowing
We took the local taxi-brousse (public minivan) back to Tana, complete with elderly carsick nun who was booting
into plastic bags the entire way (and I unfortunately witnessed relieving herself at the side-of-the-road rest stop --
I am going straight to hell), and on the way stopped off at the Andasibe (Perinet) reserve
to see the largest Indiri lemurs.
A few days later we were off from Tana to Fort Dauphin/Taolagnaro port town in the south, to go into the spiny forest.
We arranged a camping trip in the newish and award-winning Parc National Andohahela, which contains three sub-sections of
spiny forest (and sifaka lemurs), transitional forest (with ring-tailed lemurs), and rain forest. The only way to get to
the spiny section was via horizontal 4WD, which took about 3 hours to go 5 km. Along the way our driver and guide happily
blasted Malagasy tunes (the same tape, repeated hundreds of times), while Dana and I hung onto the sides of the car for dear life.
Along the way, when we passed Malagasy children, they generally had two reactions: one was to wave hello, and the other was to drop
what they were doing (in one case abandoning a zebu cart), and run off, terrified, into the forest. The reason for this being
they are told that the white man ("vazah") like to either take the hearts of small children and feed it to a monster, or
actually eat the hearts themselves, depending on which version you believe (Dale had to restrain the urge to growl and
run after the children -- after all, man can only live off so much rice and beans.)
The other major event in the Spiny Forest is when our so-called guide "Christoff," managed to have our packs
dropped off a few kilometers from camp just before sunset, so while Dana sat in the dark waiting, Dale and he were utterly
lost for a few hourse, blindly pushing their way back and forth through spiny cactus and other painful flora (why was
Dale wearing shorts?). Dale had visions of
the Blair Witch Project, because they were lost and kept winding up in the same place. Fortunately, the guide's flashlight
did not work and ultimately, Dale and he had to walk a few miles out of the way (following the car that had just dropped
off their packs), and arrived a few hours later to find Dana in the pitch black, in one piece but not particularly good spirits.
On July 21, we were back in Tana and off at 3:45am to Windhoek, Namibia, which is where we are writing this update from.
We are thrilled to be in a town with Diet Coke and an endless supply of toilet paper, in addition to a great supermarket
with food and everything! Stay tuned for more to come...
Madagascar Pics! (click picture for full-sized version)
Nosy Mangabe: common brown lemur / leaf-tail gekko
Nosy Mangabe: mouse lemur / boa constrictor
Nosy Mangabe: Brookesia Chameleon / lone pirogue
Ramil the happy boat captain / Ile Ste. Marie
Andasibe: Indiri lemur / close-up on a chameleon
Dana with a chameleon at Andasibe / a baobob tree at Andohahela
Spiny Forest: our guide Christoff with the local
tribal chief / tomb of the chief's father and one of his wives
Spiny Forest: Sifaka lemur / Malagasy children
with zebu cart
women carrying sugar cane at Lac Anony / Fort Dauphin landscape