Madagascar Notes 2014

2 April 2014

Today, we leave the grey skies of London for our honeymoon in Madagascar. What can I say, other than: “I like to to move it move it!”

3 April 2014

Nairobi, en route from London to Antananarivo. Now we are looking forward to a relaxing and adventurous two weeks in Madagascar.

4 April 2014

After watching swallows swooping and diving at Nairobi airport, we flew to Antananarivo, where we were met by our driver for the week, Harrison. The drive through Tana and on to Andasibe took 4-5 hours, with generally good roads and beautiful rural scenes of rice paddies, mud and stick houses and occasional granite outcrops. We were both exhausted and went to sleep early after a simple dinner of soup.

This morning we woke late (9 am) and went to meet our guide at the National Park. He took us to one of the smaller, community-run national forests, where we opted for a three hour walk. We were incredibly lucky to see first the largest species of chameleon (2 ft in length) and then a family of Indri lemurs, and later common brown lemurs. It is such a delight to see these exquisite creatures in their natural habitat, leaping from tree to tree, stretching between the branches to forage and sitting tree forks to rest. They are naturally curious and some were definitely checking us out. We also visited a sacred tree along the river, where local Malagasy and foreigners (mainly Chinese) come to pray, make small offerings (money and sweets) and light candles. Indira asked a Malagasy man, who had come to pray, to ask for a blessing on our marriage.

After the forest walk, we went to the local village and walked down the main street. The people are poor, living in simple wooden houses and shacks, most without electricity and sanitation. Nevertheless, the streets are vibrant with markets, traders, shops and children returning from school. Some of the Malagasy, especially the rural forest children, are still afraid of white people, as a result of stories told since colonial times of Europeans stealing their blood, heart and sex. Even so, most people have been friendly and not too averse to our photo taking. Now, as I sit in the restaurant, with music playing and cicadas chirruping, I am totally content. The forests are definitely my place of rejuvenation and relaxation.

5 April 2014

Today, we made a 7.30 am start at the Analamazoatra Nature Reserve. We were once again very fortunate. First, we found a family of Indri lemurs that were singing. This strange, plaintive sound is extremely loud, and echoed in reply by other families in the forest. Different family members do appear to harmonise, and though it is more of a howl than a melody, it is exquisitely beautiful and moving. Next, we spotted the small, brown and incredibly cute bamboo lemur, living up to its name by chewing on a stick of bamboo. Finally, we found a family of five sifakas lemurs with their radiant redish-brown fur and white, tufted faces, which literally appear to fly through the forest from tree to tree. Watching them move is one of the miraculous sights that I will treasure forever.

Other highlights of the day included finding two night jars at the base of a tree, completely camouflaged, two different species of chameleon, and the aptly named, bizarrely shaped giraffe beetle, with bright red torso and long black neck, as well as tiny frogs (thumb sized) and spiders the same size. Back at Vakona Lodge, we were lucky to have a front row seat (on the balcony overlooking the lake) of a Madagascar Kingfisher, with its striking orange and blue plumage, brilliant in the light as it dove for fish.

8 April 2014

On Sunday, we drove 6-7 hours from Andasibe to Antsirabe, through verdant landscapes of rice paddies. Along the way, we stopped at a market stall to buy bananas, and another later for corn and spiny (Chinese) cucumber. We also came across a festive gathering of families along the river, near some granite outcrops, where people congregate, perhaps once a month, to do laundry and have a picnic. The clothes spread out on the hillside rocks made a colourful mosaic.

Antsirabe is a fairly big city, the capital, bustling with trade, human chariots (pus-pus?) and bicycle carts (tuk-tuks). Our accommodation, the Couleur Café, was a lush green oasis, with manicured lawns and blossoming bushes, in total contrast with the dusty scenes beyond its walls. We slept, beneath a mosquito net as we have done every night, with the added benefit of a crackling fireplace.

On Monday, Indira woke feeling unwell – seemingly a stomach bug which left her weak and unable to eat the whole day. Consequently, she spent most of the 7-8 hour drive from Antsirabe to Morondava flat on her back on the back seat of the car. As we drove, the landscape became visibly drier, with rice paddies giving way to maize fields and mango trees. We passed huge eroded gashes of red earth, in stark contrast to the green hills and blue skies.

At one point, we stopped near a rural school along the roadside. Soon, an excited throng of children surrounded Indira. We went into the classroom – fairly well equipped with desks and blackboard – much to the delight of the chattering kids. Even the teachers seemed happy with the unexpected curiosity of our visit. As we approached Morondava, we got our first glimpses of the baobabs that characterise this region, before arriving at Chez Maggie, the beachside accommodation where we are staying two nights.

This morning, Indira had recovered some of her strength and appetite, so after breakfast we took a canoe ride across the lagoon and a short way up river, flanked by mangrove forests. Our local guides, two brothers from a nearby island, pointed out the kingfishers along the banks and gave us some idea of life here. We passed an abandoned hotel, which was wiped out by a cyclone in 2003, before visiting the little fishing village across the lagoon. The community seemed fairly self sufficient, but clearly poor, with simple wooden huts and no running water or sanitation. Apart from the poverty, the biggest eyesore is all the plastic litter (bottles and bags). It seems that the plastic ‘flowers’ of Western civilization bloom most prolifically in the poorest communities, a rather sad legacy of ‘progress’.

11 April 2014

On Tuesday afternoon, we drove to the avenue of baobabs, about 30 minutes outside of Morondava. It was such a privilege to be among dozens of these mighty giants, which I believe are around 300 years old. As is to be expected, there were local villagers selling crafts – we bought some wood carvings – and little children pestering to have their photos taken. Indira became quite the favourite among the kids and added to their wonder when she played the Indri singing she had recorded on her iphone. The group ‘selfie’ was also a delight to behold. I put my sun glasses on one little girl, and then a cheeky little boy, to everyone’s general amusement. We stayed until sunset and were able to soak up some of the magic of the place, as birds swirled above and finally settled in the trees.

On Wednesday, we flew to Tana, where we were put up in a hotel (Les Flots Blue) by Air Madagascar due to them rescheduling our connecting flight. We went into town for dinner with Tim and Hery (co-authors for the Madagascar chapter of the World Guide to Sustainable Enterprise) and Tim’s wife.

Yesterday, we flew on to Nosy Be and arrived at our little slice of paradise, L’heuer Bleu, where we will stay for our last five nights. Our wooden bungalow look throw coconut trees to the ocean and small bay, and we have a salt water spill pool and a fresh water swimming pool, plus bar and restaurant deck, all a few metres from us. Last night we went for a stroll along the beach, past two football games, one Malagasy boy practicing break dancing, one descaling a fish, two cutting up a small shark, and lots of little kids diving from a boat and swimming in the sea. These are the places for which the word ‘idyllic’ was invented.

This morning, we woke to watch the sunrise, then went back to bed for a few more hours of sleep, before taking a dip in the pool (me) and having a delicious breakfast – with fresh fruit and juice – on the deck. Now we are back at the pool – Indira sun tanning and me writing; both as happy as pigs in mud.

Wrote Roots in the Skies (poem)

15 April 2014

Our stay at Nosy Be has been extremely relaxing, with many hours spent by the poolside after a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and juice, pancakes (or scrambled eggs) and tea (or coffee). Lunch has typically been salad rolls and dinner, when we have felt hungry enough, has been a mix-and-match with salads, chips, spaghetti, breaded Camembert, and a variety of desserts, such as coconut or banana tart and Caribbean banana. Most afternoons we walked the 2 km stretch of beach to the other side of the bay and several times took a stroll through the adjacent village. We got the impression that many local Malagasy are still poor, but not as destitute as some in the rural areas of the mainland.

One disappointing discovery was that the sex tourism trade flourishes here – typically old, white men from France and Italy with young Malagasy women, some quite possibly underage. We even had the embarrassment of two men in the bungalow next to ours carrying on indecently with young girls on the balcony at 2 am one morning. We found out that two French men and a Malagasy were murdered on the very beach that our bungalow overlooks. In October last year, they were caught and burned to death by an angry mob who claimed they had a history of paedophilia or capturing young children all over Madagascar. No wonder the FCO and other government offices issued (albeit misleading) warnings about travel to the country.

Yesterday, we went on an excursion to the nearby mini island of Tanikely, 20 minutes by speed boar. Our intention was to snorkel among the coral reefs, but the water was full of stinging jellyfish. I still went ahead and saw some beautiful, colourful fish, but suffered stings on my face, arms and legs as a consequence. Fortunately, the discomfort was temporary and the rashes disappeared quickly. The coral itself was disappointing, 99% bleached and much of it broken, leaving the seabed looking like a cemetery of bones. The guide said this was due to the damaging effects of storm activity and tourism, but I suspect the acidification of the oceans due to climate change is playing its part as well.

After relaxing under the shady trees on the beach – and spotting a curious macaco lemur overhead – we had a picnic lunch (mostly seafood – crab, shrimps and barracuda, but also potato salad and coconut rice). Beneath a nearby tree, we watched hundreds of hermit crabs scurrying to and fro, before walking up a path through the forest to a lighthouse on top of the hill with panoramic views of the surrounding ocean, with Nosy Be, Nosy Komba and the Madagascar mainland on the horizon.

On the way there, we stopped to watch some grey lemurs in the trees and were attacked by a swarm of mosquitos. By the time we realised, our legs were already full of welts. From the lighthouse, our guide spotted a beautiful chameleon with a green body with dark blue stripes and an orange head. Our guide told us that local people often kill this particular species, because it has suicidal tendencies which bring bad luck. Apparently, if the chameleon cannot find enough food, it deliberately eats poisonous leaves (such as cassava), then hangs itself from a branch by its tail and dies. Sad but true.

Our final night was spent watching the third in the Madagascar animated movie trilogy, having watched the first two on previous nights. The tide in the bay was very high, washing right up against the beach houses. We suspect the full moon or lunar eclipse which are due around this time must be the cause. We will take away many wonderful memories from Madagascar – of the lemurs and chameleons, the excited school children and the curious villagers we met, the incredible baobabs and tropical beaches, and our friendly guides. We return with a few gifts – sculptures of baobabs, a canoe and a woman and bright kaftans with ethnic designs.

Now on our way home, just a hop (Antananarivo), skip (Paris) and jump (Amsterdam) – and 24 hours of flying.



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