'The Madagascar trip (Daniel Austin's 2015 Wildlife Discovery Tour) was, in a word, AMAZING. What a fascinating country. Actually seeing the city of Antananarivo and the faded grandeur of the old homes, situated next to wooden shacks or brick "melt-downs" and all set among the rice paddies was astonishing. Those old buildings must have been very elegant in their day. What stories they could tell! I had never considered that Madagascar was a prosperous and populated country. We don't usually hear of such things, or appreciate the changes in fortune that cause civilizations or countries to rise and/or fail.
The wildlife walks with guides were amazingl. How the local guides were able to see so many insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and (of course) lemurs, was beyond my comprehension. And they were enthusiastic about showing us those treasures! Those people could see a stick insect on a branch 40 ft. away from a moving car! They're superhuman!
Daniel and Harry were exemplary. Pleasant travel companions, yet so much more! Harry is an extraordinary problem-solver / ramrod (that's the term for the "fix-it" guy on cattle drives.) Hang on to that man! He will get your clients through any eventuality! Daniel's thoughtfulness toward his flock and his generosity in sharing his wealth of knowledge was impressive and appreciated.
The itinerary was really ambitious. I didn't realize that... looking at it in print. The realities of moving around Madagascar present challenges that could never have crossed my mind. I know that NOW. The itinerary packed in a very nearly punishing schedule of getting from one far-flung location to another. The destinations were merely abstract points on a rudimentary map and the reality of getting from one point to another is lost in the black and white print on a page where we are warned that travel times may vary according to road conditions. I had to see it to believe it.
It was wonderful to watch how Daniel and Harry dealt with the momentary "glitch" with Air Madagascar. I know Daniel was on the phone to you, you were on the phone to Air Madagascar (so that's what you do with your days!) and Harry was on the phone to someone... maybe Za Tours... and there was quite a bit of uncertainty for a little while. It was interesting watching the mutiny going on, on board the aircraft as we watched our luggage being carted back into the terminal... local people shouting, people wondering what to do... and we were all looking at Daniel to find out how we were expected to react..... Talk about pressure... I'm sure Daniel could have used a Xanex at that point. It all worked out in the end, and the decision to get us to Sambava and worry about the luggage later was a stroke of genius. Za Tours (Harry and Mark) worked diligently to reunite us with our luggage I understand that in the rush to get Mark on the airplane with our luggage, his own luggage got left behind, with no chance of getting it back for five or more days. He was gracious about it... seeming to just be glad to have us comfortable. He needed a bigger tip!
Later, it was impressive to see the level of personal service we received from Air Madagascar in the airports after that little situation.
The way Orchidea Beach hotel managed to accommodate us at the last minute was impressive. Lovely property. Very comfortable and friendly. The food was excellent. Staff went out of their way to make us comfortable. I was assigned a very pleasant room at the back.. very private and comfortable.
Our driver to Daraina was skilled and professional. What a grueling stretch of road! And the drivers did it all without a wince! At one point, we were faced with a lorrie in one section of what amounted to a dry riverbed, and a zebu cart in another section, with a narrow swath down the middle, with a tangle of brush in the center of it. Our driver got out and went to the zebu cart, consulted with the driver, extracted machete from the cart, and he chopped out a section of brush to create a lane to drive through... problem solved.
Camp Tattersali must be a "work in progress" since their recent move. They may need a little guidance and help with their sanitation practices. A basic latrine would be an improvement. But I can't fault my tent (with the hole in the roof.) I slept with the rain fly open so I could open my eyes in the night to see the dazzling spectacle of stars. What a treat!
And I SWEAR I DID see an aye aye... on our night walk, in the dark, with nothing to prove it... Harry had us all turn off our infernal headlamps and torches and wait quietly near the aye aye nests and I'm quite sure I saw the silhouette of the creature as it leapt from one thicket to another, outlined against the night sky, before the sound of its passing prompted everyone to turn on torches and headlamps and frighten it back into the darkness.
Baie d'Iharana was a delight. Kind of a "period piece." And the food there was also exceptional. I don't think anyone expected that the water and electricity would be turned off at night and not back on until 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. Some folks had planned to shower in the morning and were surprised to discover that was not possible.
Do you remember that I asked you just how rugged the "walk" up to Mantella and Marojejy might be? I'll answer that myself now... It was pretty darned rugged. Perhaps I had an over-inflated sense of my own fitness level, since I can usually run circles around many of my acquaintances who are half my age.... But that was a serious hike. I would not have made it without the help of the porters and guides who were ever ready with an outstretched hand. They were a tremendous help! Even with their help, I was occasionally reduced to crab crawling on my bottom over some of the rough spots.
We were fortunate that the rain didn't start until we were actually down off the mountain. I shudder to think what it might have been like with the trail slippery and muddy with rain.
That said, Marojejy was an extraordinary experience. The park is a treasure and worth every bump and scrape and twisted ankle it took to get up to the camps (and back down.) And all gratitude to Moses and Jean-Louis, the guide/porters, who hauled my sorry behind over the rough spots.
Did I mention that the food up in the camps was exceptional? Who can manage to cook such delicious, intricate meals in a camp setting?? That was startlingly wonderful.
Flavien's Farm was a welcome respite after the 10+ km hike down the mountain. My knees and ankles were absolutely spent and to be treated to refreshment and rest at that lovely little outpost was delightful.
Then again a very happy return to Orchidea in Sambava... Again, the staff made every effort to make us comfortable and welcome. On this second visit, I was assigned to one of the beach bungalows with the surf pounding. That's a lullaby for me. It was wonderful. Later, I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof. It was delicious! I might have sat up all night to listen to it had I not been so tired from the Marojejy adventure. That is such a very nice property and the staff and management were extraordinarily kind and responsive.
Too soon, we were back on the move and off to Tana and Le Colbert. The drive through Tana to reach the hotel was fascinating. We might have been better situated at Relais de Plateaux for the drive to the airport the next morning, but I have to admit that Le Colbert was a very pleasing and comfortable place to stay.
Off again the next morning to get to the airport and the flight to Tulear. WE thought our VIP status had the flight on time and moving efficiently, especially with our dedicated escort of Air Madagascar representatives moving us through the airport. Little did we know that there was a REAL VIP on board the flight. Certainly the crowds of celebratory locals at Tulear airport, with their bands and banners, were not for us. Quite a treat to see how the locals welcome their dignitaries!
The arboretum for lunch was lovely, and then there was the dash to get to Zombitse in time for some wildlife spotting before it got dark. Again, those abstract points on the map aren't a match for the reality of the distances involved... But we DID get to see some outstanding birds and lemurs at Zombitse before the big flies chased us out of the forest.
Relais de la Reine is the type of place that I, for one, might have benefitted from a half-day of "down time" to enjoy their lovely views, well-kept grounds, and reportedly extensive facilities. There is more to that property than we had time to explore. I don't know for sure, since we got in late, got up early and out for wildlife viewing elsewhere, and back in time for dinner and repack to get on the road early the next morning. Their laundry service was outstanding.
Since I am an early riser, the late evenings were a bit challenging for me, but I did get some respectable hoopoe photos from the patio outside my room early in the morning before our outing for more adventures. And that was a prolific day of wildlife! The stick insects, ring-tailed lemurs, paradise flycatchers, white-throated rail, snakes, and the "camp robbers" (red front lemurs?) with their silly little piggy grunts and greedy, gregarious behavior. I skipped the second climb up to the pools in order to relax and regroup at the picnic area, so I missed the long-eared owl and probably any number of other wonders... but I just can't do everything all the time and the time to relax at the picnic area and watch the ring-tailed lemurs and the red front lemurs was pleasant.
OK... so you didn't really expect an essay, did you? But it was really an exceptional experience! How can I distill it down into Yes/No answers??
Back to the last day at Relais de la Reine... I forgot to mention that we stopped at a school on our way out to the hike and Kate organized us into a performing group to sing "The Wheels on the Bus" to and with the children. What a large classroom full of little people! The teacher(s) must have their hands full working with so many little ones. There were a few of the children who were bright-eyed and eager to welcome us, and assertive enough to stand up and speak to us. Others were quite shy. And most of them seemed to enjoy joining in for the singing.
After performing, hiking, playing with the wildlife, we dropped off a sub-group who wanted to scale yet another massif to a scenic overview and the rest of us toodled on back to Relais de la Reine. That was such a lovely property! Eileen, Maureen and I had scheduled massage sessions at the spa for 6:00 p.m. and the sunset cocktails and entertainment were scheduled to begin at 5:00 or 5:30. The secondary hiking troupe was a smidge late returning... that seemed to be a theme of the trip... just expect to be a bit behind schedule.
Some of the staff arrived in costume and performed traditional dances for us. They hadn't finished by 6:00 and I went scurrying out to my massage appointment. Daniel advised that I could stay longer, the massage therapist would wait for me... I just can't get my head around that concept. In any event, the massage was just what I needed and I stumbled out of the spa an hour later, feeling like a noodle.
At dinner, Harry announced our itinerary for the next day... Must be on the road by 5:30 a.m. to catch the boat to Anakao. Since the hotel's kitchen didn't open that early, the hotel sent breakfasts to our rooms that night for the following morning. The hot water for my tea didn't fare too well overnight, but tepid tea beats no tea, and the hotel staff were doing an admirable job of taking care of us. Some of us had sent in laundry, which showed up in our rooms by 6:00 p.m., clean, and so neatly pressed and folded that when I popped mine in my duffle, there was all kinds of room left that I hadn't had before!
So, a bunch of sleepy-headed travelers met at the bus by 5:30 a.m. (and I didn't hear the drivers/guides complaining.) Off to Tulear, with a couple of brief "pull-overs" on the way to allow us to photograph some magnificent trees. The guides wouldn't let us out of the bus because the children along that stretch tended to be rather aggressive in their quest for treats.
The rest of the way to the boat is a bit of a blur, but the boat ride across the bay was glorious. The weather was perfect, the fishing folk out in their boats made for a scenic crossing. We stopped at Nosy Ve to get a look at the red tailed tropic birds and to allow those who wanted to swim a chance to do so. Some of us just napped in the shade, because we were sleepy and it was really hot! Harry and Daniel were everywhere at once, checking on everyone's welfare and comfort, leading bird-seekers in the thickets, watching out for the snorklers and nappers and traipsers.
Eventually, we waded out to the boat again and arrived at Anakao to be assigned rooms and served lunch. Daniel and Harry had the duty of explaining to the waiter about the vegetarians among us. Not the easiest task.
The next day, Daniel and Harry had organized a lorrie (The Beast) to take most of us to Lake Tsimanampetsotsa. The serious birders of the bunch were birding up a storm on the way and at the park the weather was perfect and the iguanas were making a spectacle of themselves. The Vasa parrots at the banyan grove were also making a spectacle of themselves, noisily mating in the tree above us, while a pair of harrier hawks rode the air currents. I got a few shots of the parrots in action, but they are partially obscured by a branch that was between me and the amorous pair. One of the harriers graciously posed on a treetop (just for us, no doubt.)
The baobobs were impressive, a radiated tortoise made an appearance, and the spiny trees and plants provided a completely different side of Madagascar's character.
My personal big score on that excursion came when I decided not to hike up to the lookout point, but rather to stay with the lorrie. Joshua, the guide from the Anakao Lodge, pointed out a magpie robin on guard near a tree with a knot-hole. We watched for a bit and then saw the female magpie robin come streaking out of the knot hole, off on an errand. Joshua and the lorrie driver tried to pile up enough junk for me to climb up high enough to look into the knot hole, but I'm just too short, and they were too short on junk... so Joshua took my camera up and got several photographs of the four perfect little blue eggs with dark speckles.
We retreated back to the lorrie and the female came back to the nest, while the male remained on guard, looking just a bit indignant.
That excursion also provided shore-birds, flamingos, lots of bee-eaters, the blind fish in the cave (I assume that cave is connected to the ones around the Lake where they have recently discovered the fossils of many of Madagascar's extinct species of large lemurs, pygmy hippos and other animals.) Inchworms, praying mantis.... what else? Daniel was naming and cataloging species of bugs, bushes, birds and trees as we went along. The man is an encyclopedia!
On the drive back to the lodge, Mark finally got to see the lovebirds he had requested, and Dave spotted a little tortoise on the side of the road and we halted for more photographs.
Maureen and Martin, Maxine and Eileen had chosen to stay at the lodge and relax for the day and they all looked more rested and refreshed when we returned.
A rare storm rolled in that night, with thunder and lightning. My FAVORITE!! There's nothing quite like the sound of rain on the roof to put me into a happy slumber... until the sound of rain coming in THROUGH the roof woke me up. Nothing serious. Just one little leak producing a steady drip onto the table and chair by the front window. It wasn't dripping on the bed, so I just enjoyed it and went back to sleep.
The next morning, we had to take our leave of Anakao. It was still just misting a bit of rain on and off, so the fact that Daniel and Harry had arranged for the covered boat was some pretty fine footwork on their part! The Italian group leaving at the same time had to take the open boat. I'm sure they didn't get very wet. It wasn't raining much.
Back in Tulear, Harry parked us at the Victory Hotel while he took our luggage on to the airport and arranged for our boarding passes. We didn't have to lift a finger. Daniel ran through the list of species we had encountered to date while we waited, and we all relaxed with tea, beers, soda... whatever. Victory Hotel is a very pretty oasis.
Presently, Harry phoned Daniel to say the bus was on the way to pick us up and Air Madagascar wanted to take off early. We were shuttled off to the airport and Harry handed out our passports, boarding passes and some boxed lunches the Victory Hotel had prepared. The plane was boarding almost immediately. At that point Security personnel didn't want to let us through with the lunches. Harry wasn't having any of that. A few pointed sentences in Malagasy and the two Security Officers stepped aside and motioned us through, lunch boxes and all.
So, here we come to the part where I "eat some crow." THAT was the flight that I had complained to you was a "bad seat."
I couldn't imagine that Business Class was any part of the tour, or that Business Class could be in the rear of the plane. Those of us in Business Class (Maureen and Martin, Gillian and Hugh, and I think David and Maxine) were treated by a most solicitous flight attendant with lunch, snacks and chocolates. And the views out the window were stunning.
That's it for me for tonight. Tomorrow, I'll try to wrap up (yeah... you've heard that "I'll wrap up..." statement before, haven't you?) with Le Colbert (OMIGOSH, you should have seen my face when I stepped into Room 801 and realized it was a suite! Just how many bathrooms does one traveler need?) and the exquisite dinner at La Varangue (did I spell that right?) at which Serge and Patricia came to speak to us... and then the visit to the Rova at Ambohimanga and the drive to Andasibe and the adventures there.
I'm afraid there's no way to be brief after such an extraordinary experience that the tour turned out to be!
Let's see... Return from Tulear to Antananarivo... Let me see if I can wrap this up in a few thousand words or less... NOT!!
Our last arrival into Antananarivo was seamless. Off the plane, into the baggage area, grab baggage... Harry marshalled a team of porters to cart our luggage... Some of us scurried over to the main terminal area to the post office and the shops and rejoined the parade carrying our luggage as it made its way to the bus.
Once again, the traffic in Tana was surprising... The crawl from the airport to Le Colbert gave an opportunity to gawk at the different styles and eras of buildings, and the crumbling infrastructure of the drainage system. And stare at all the different types of "traffic" -- cars, busses, lorries, zebu carts, man-pulled carts, pedestrians crossing streets willy-nilly. When we were approximately 2-3 blocks from Le Colbert, Harry or Daniel, I forget who, said we would get to the hotel more quickly if we walked, so we all climbed out of the bus and walked to the hotel. I'm guessing it took the driver another half hour or more to get to the parking area with our luggage.
Efficient check in, an admonition to meet for dinner later... and here is where I open the door to my room to find a suite! I didn't know what to do first... bathe, shower, have a cup of tea.... so I picked two of the above and had a bath and a cup of tea. There was no bottled water in the room, so I treated some tap water with my Steri-Pen and brewed a cup of tea, then called Reception, which sent up a large bottle of water and some extra tea bags with a very nice bellman who stopped to explain that there was some Malagasy tea in the mix. The Malagasy tea was already on my list as a favorite.
An hour or so to relax, check out BBC on the television in the sitting room, sip some tea, photograph the sunset from the 8th floor, and then it was time to meet the group to walk around the corner to La Varangue.
What an absolute treat! I could spend hours in there looking at all the antiquities, artifacts, brass lamps, sextants, telephones, cameras, musical instruments.... and we didn't even see half of the décor that was packed into that wonderful place!
There was a small army of serving staff looking after us. Very attentive... and then Serge and Patricia arrived to talk with us. Serge brought us the gift of the lemur identification pamphlets. The one I brought home is my most treasured souvenir from Madagascar! What a special surprise!
It was interesting hearing from them about some of the challenges they are facing in the country, and their optimism for positive changes. Patricia had another obligation and had to leave, but Serge graciously stayed for a good while, talking to us, answering our questions, and providing an overview of what their NGO is working with.
And then the "starters" began to appear in front of us! I don't even remember what all those little tasties were, but they were delicious, and I ate everything they put in front of me! Some kind of fruit salad "tartare", some fois gras on toast, scewers of zebu steak... other lovely stuff that I didn't write down and can't remember. I really didn't save sufficient room for the main or dessert, but I showed my gluttony and ate that, too... it was all so delicious and beautifully presented.
What a very exceptional evening! And Harry's nightly announcement of the next day's itinerary left us not needing to be at breakfast until the obscenely late hour of 7:45 a.m.!
Slept in until 5:00 a.m., then a leisurely repacking, with lots of Malagasy tea to fuel me along, and down to breakfast early. Le Colbert provides a very nice breakfast selection. Lots of delicious little pastries, fruit, cereals, broiled tomatoes (LOVE those broiled tomatoes)... cheese and ham and sausages... and an omelet bar. I didn't sample everything, but it all looked good.
As we were leaving the hotel, a street vendor who had sold me a map of Madagascar on our previous visit was hawking a copy of The Bradt Guide to Madagascar! I didn't have the presence of mind to ask him how much he was asking for it, but he was apparently quite proud to have it on offer!
Off to Ambohimanga and our tour of the Royal Quarters. I'm so very pleased that Ambohimanga was added to the itinerary. I love to see historic places and get a sense of how people occupied their space in a time gone by. Especially interesting were the separate pools outside for the king's and queen's "annual bath." The "sun room/conference room" in the queen's quarters must have seen some high intrigue in its day! Our guide for the tour of the grounds gave a very interesting account of what life was like for the King and Queen in their time. I'm so pleased to have had the opportunity to see that landmark.
And then it was off again, on the way to Banana Rova for lunch at the arboretum, while enjoying the garden and grounds and the music and dance.
And then it was off for the drive to Andasibe. It really doesn't look so far on the map, does it? The countryside was continuously surprising, with cities and towns, rice paddies, churches (I noted Latter Day Saints, 7th Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, an odd Lutheran, and lots of Catholic churches), and then I started seeing actual dairy cattle... a Holstein here and there, a Guernsey or Jersey tucked into a quiet meadow... more Holsteins... less and less Zebu... more and more European dairy types. I couldn't help but think that was a good sign for those of our party who preferred milk for their tea and coffee!
Andasibe! FINALLY Andasibe! We drove in as dusk was upon us and there were parties of "night walkers" out with their headlamps and torches. We knew we were getting close!
The room I was assigned was at the very end of the complex. Room 21. I could not have had a more perfectly situated room! With a view out the front to the water, a view out the side to a pleasant little meadow. The room was beautiful, with lots of wood, lots of space, airy, clean and very comfortable. Step up to a vanity room, toilet closet and a huge shower room, where the hot water could get absolutely volcanic! I could have roller skated in the bedroom, it was so spacious!
Up early the next morning and the hot pot in my room didn't work. I took it to Reception and traded it for one that allegedly would work. After all this time in Madagascar, how is it possible that it never crossed my mind that electricity might be the issue? If there is a pill to cure "stupid" maybe I can get Eileen to write a prescription for me...
So, the "new" hot pot didn't work and I went about getting ready for the day... when the hot pot suddenly started hissing and within minutes I had tea.
We were off to the forest by 8:00 a.m., with our local guides, Patrice and Mari. You must have spared no expense to obtain the most effective guides available. Spot a flea on the rump of a beetle under a leaf on the opposite side of the road? No Problem... Patrice and Mari have telescopic vision! They must have lasers for eyes!
And even when they had found a treasure for us, I often found myself looking beyond it, or around it, or just not seeing it. Mari was formidable. She's the Mother who will absolutely make sure her children see and understand... and we were her children. "Madame! Come HERE... Stand HERE!" and in some cases, taking my shoulders to position me properly to see what was there... OH!! THERE it is!!! I can see it NOW! She was amazing and absolutely committed to helping her clients see what we were there to see.... even if some of us (OK, that would be me) didn't have the eyes to see the wonders hiding in plain sight in the forest!
They showed us the brown lemurs, black and white ruffed lemurs, short legged roller, the nesting Paradise flycatcher... countless birds and beetles and tumblebugs... and then... Diadem lemurs! Diadem lemurs all over the place! At first, I couldn't see them. Mari got me pointed in the right direction... Once my eyes were primed, the creatures were visible ALL OVER THE PLACE! And Mari was calling, "Madame! Come here!!" and I found myself crashing through the underbrush with seeds in my teeth and twigs in my hair.... "No Madame! HERE!! COME HERE!!!" and I'm crashing through the forest undergrowth with not a trail in sight, and more twigs in my teeth and seeds in my hair....
It was hilarious.... it was exhilarating... it was marvelous.
And then, crashing through the forest after yet another cry of "MADAME! (or was that "Madman?") COME HERE!!" I put my foot on a slippery rock hopping across a steam and would have landed on my butt in the water, but Daniel was right behind me and grabbed my arm in time to tilt me up onto the opposite shore and save me from a drenching and a sore tailbone. (I haven't mentioned lately that Daniel and Harry were just everywhere at once. I don't know how they had the stamina!)
So, after we had been out there for hours, Patrice and Mari decided to wait until morning to go after the Indri Indri. We were all pretty much exhausted and it was getting late. Patrice said there would be a better chance to find the Indri in the morning.
Late lunch in the forest, and then we were taken to Lemur Island.
As much as most of us hate to see animals in captivity... these little creatures had The Life! I understand that circumstances have rendered them unable to fend for themselves in the wild, and they are still in a natural habitat, but protected... and to have these beautiful little animals hopping on our shoulders, heads, backs... I'm sure you've seen photos of all the sappy grins while we got to touch them and see them so close and unafraid.
Now I forget the sequence of events... was it the night walk first and then dinner? or was it dinner and then the night walk? They divided us into two groups. The more athletic went with Patrice. We "lighter" hikers followed Mari. HAH! Mari after dark is no less focused than Mari in the daytime! More twigs in my hair and seeds in my ears... Mouse lemurs under every leaf! Chameleons on every twig! After awhile, part of our group followed Mari into the thicket and were rewarded with a dwarf lemur.
By the time we got back to the hotel, I had decided that I was finished. I knew that there as an excellent chance of seeing the Indri the next morning, and it didn't matter. I had seen so much already. And we did glimpse a couple of Indri, high up in the tree tops after seeing the Diadem lemurs. I wanted to spend a leisurely morning repacking and taking a long deep breath. I told Daniel and Harry not to expect me for breakfast and slept in until 7:00 a.m.
Hot pot didn't work again, so I wandered down to Reception and asked for some tea and a croissant. Harry must have given them their marching orders ahead of me... Staff showed up with a fruit cup, bread, tea, juice, an offer of eggs (no... no eggs this morning) and I sat on the deck and relaxed. Later, I wandered the hotel grounds and watched staff repairing, maintaining, clearing paths, tidying up.
Repacked and relaxed, I asked for my luggage to be transferred to Reception and presently the group returned with wonderful photos and tales of the very special Indri encounter. Everyone was so enchanted by that experience! That must have been absolutely incredible! One little voice in my head says I was a dunce for skipping that forest walk. Another voice tells me I had gone as far as I needed to go and the time for solitude and reflection at the Andasibe Hotel was right for me.
Off again for the long drive back to Tana. It REALLY doesn't look that far on the map!! But it is.
Again, watching the landscape going past, the towns, the traffic... the really big lorrie loaded with bananas was a spectacle... as was the fellow on the bicycle hitching a tow from a lorrie going up the hills... it was all very special and beautiful! It is the stuff that will visit my very best dreams.
Back to Tana and again at the very welcoming Relais de Plateaux, we had a couple of hours to relax and reflect before we were off to a nice dinner and farewell speeches, and then off to the airport.
Derek... an adventure in a new and different country never turns out to be exactly what we expect it to be. Invariably, it is always far more special than we could ever have imagined. Thank you so much for helping to steer me toward this tour. It was amazing.
I'm done. (Maybe... until I remember something else..)