Country number: 126
Territory number: 146
When? July 2015. Coming from Rwanda. Next stop Malawi.
How? Local planes, private cars and drivers
‘Cross in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.’
Travelling to Madagascar involves travelling back through Nairobi and an afternoon stop in a hotel. The queue for check in at Kigali goes on forever. The guy at the desk is taking ten minutes for each passenger. ‘This picture isn’t you is it?’ Chortle, chortle. I amuse myself by imagining all the different ways in which I could torture him. It doesn’t help that the baggage conveyor keeps breaking down and they have to wait for it to start up again. Imagine my delight when I finally get to the front of the line to be told that I am in the wrong place. This is the line for Entebbe. They haven’t switched off the Kenya Airline sign and I should be in the adjacent queue, where the sign is also wrong. Once in the skies, a one hour on paper flight takes four hours, as we have to go via Burundi, which is in the other direction.
When I finally arrive in Kenya everyone is totally obsessed with Obama, who has landed in Air Force One not long before me. There is nothing on TV except his meetings and speeches and no-one is allowed to use the roads unless they are a tourist or have urgent business. The airport road has been specially re-tarmacked and decorated with little bushes; I get frisked on every corner and there are helicopters clattering overhead the whole time. The travel agents are nervous about delays so I have to leave ridiculously early for my return to the airport to find the roads empty, as no-one else is allowed to use them.
Madagascar is 2000 km long and the fourth largest island in the world. It split off from mainland Africa and then India (in that order surprisingly) in the era of tectonic plate division and so has (I’m told) heaps of endemic wildlife, like the lemurs. It has more endangered species than anywhere else in the world. It has already obliterated a huge number of species. Once (I kid you not) there were birds big enough to pick up elephants) It also has a very poor and wild, western side populated by African immigrants in the main and a slightly more affluent east, populated in the main by earlier immigrants travelling long distances oversea from Indonesia and even Polynesia.
This part of the world is, the antithesis of Rwanda, and unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Mozambique. It is very flat, the villages are incredibly poor, (with open sided palm thatched bamboo huts) and the roads are extremely bumpy, very slow going, heavily rutted sand (the Chinese have quite a lot still to do). Where there is forest it is very low as it is cut back for agriculture. Not surprisingly there isn’t much traffic. Bush taxis (taxi-brousses) crammed to the gunwales occasionally veer past, as does the odd cart drawn by the hump backed Zebu cattle. (Dinner’s Zebu steaks are very tasty). The soil is red, the sky picture perfect blue and the upside down baobab giants soar 30 metres into the air above the neat emerald paddy fields. Many of the trees are over five hundred years old. The locals never fell them as the trunk is not terribly robust – it’s very fibrous. They sacrifice to them though and my guide tells me that the granddaddy is 5,900 years old. Surely not?
The most celebrated trees are grouped together along the road in an achingly picturesque stretch known as The Avenue of the Baobabs. It’s a tourist mecca at sunset to watch the sunset.
It’s hard to find something positive to say about the fossas. They prey on the lemurs, are only found here and look something like an ugly grey cross between a dog and a cat. They are actually part of the mongoose family. I am supposed to go night trekking to look for them, but like the colobus they have come to find me instead. One sneaks into the open air dining room and eats my lunch. They are hungry because it’s the dry season and there isn’t much food around. I was told they can get very aggressive, so I don’t argue with it and no-one offers me any replacement food. (To the right is the fossa looking content after he, at least, has feasted.)
Tonight’s accommodation is pretty basic – a wood and thatch camp in a forest clearing. Not a peep of a mobile signal and hot water in buckets. My chalet is right on the edge of the camp. I hope the fossa stays well away.
The road gets even more bouncy and even rosier as we travel north into bush country proper. The surface has been almost totally destroyed by recent rainy season floods and it is possibly the worst road I have ever travelled on (but I have a feeling that I’ve said that before). We stop in Belo for a drink at a bar owned by the local royal family. Everyone runs out to wave and I’m still perfecting my ergonomic royal wrist waggle. Here of course, the accompanying greeting is ‘bon-bon’ and ‘stylo’ rather than ‘sweet’ or ‘pen. The women carry their babies on their backs in lamda (sarong) slings and the little girls copy them, but with roughly fashioned stone dolls. The journey involves several fords and two river crossings. The ferries consist of wooden rafts lashed onto two boats with the oldest fan belt driven motors you can possibly imagine, belching out thick black smoke. We lurch on across two steep bendy metal strips (ramps would be an overstatement) and the car is restrained with wooden blocks (chocks would also be an overstatement). Then the skipper steers the metal rudder with his foot. The first crossing goes three miles down stream, zig- zagging from bank to bank with the currents. Why the road doesn’t continue straight on I don’t know. I console myself that the water looks fairly shallow and I can swim. But oh no, apparently there are crocodiles lurking unseen on the banks. There are modern government built ferries moored by the bank with proper ramps. They are never operated. Needless to say absolutely everything is covered in a film of red dust by the end of each journey. My hair is as stiff as a yard brush. I had assumed that the air conditioning doesn’t work, as it’s never on, only to discover, when we reach our destination, that it’s actually fine.
Tsingy means tiptoe and so this is the local name given to the limestone forest; you have to go carefully across the pointy ridges and acid rain eroded crags. I’m told the amazing karst scenery here is best admired by climbing the fifty metre pinnacles in Grand Tsingy. Harnesses are provided. I opt for cowardice and a more sedate, though still challenging, scramble to a view of aforesaid Grand Tsingy. Then a mini, but yes, still challenging, assault course of ladders, tunnels and walkways through Petit Tsingy. A pirogue (wooden dug out canoe) trip up river provides a welcome, if still not entirely safety conscious interlude.
I eat dinner one night with three Frenchmen from Reunion and sample their (very hot) curry and rice. My French is horribly rusty and their English isn’t very good so they ply me with champagne till none of us can stop giggling. Most of Madagascar doesn’t have electricity so the hotels have their own generators, with power usually only available in the evening. The rooms have very small windows. Heaven would be a place where I can actually see where my things are. Hot water is even less abundant. Dinner has to be ordered an hour ahead of eating, but the cooks don’t actually start on the reparation till you arrive at the agreed consumption time. (Though you can’t quibble at four grilled jumbo prawns for three pounds). And a mouse lemur spends most of the night bouncing on my bungalow roof.
Back in Morondava I’m on the beach (I’ve reached the west coast) at my hotel in anticipation of a transfer to get the plane back to the capital usually known as Tana, (no-one can pronounce its proper name Antananarivo). The flight time has been changed three times so far, so I keep my bags packed and at the ready. The airport is the exact opposite of Tana. There is no-one there at all except the check in man. No queues, no x-ray machines. Everywhere else the bags have to be scanned on entry to the airport and again at the gate. They still take my water from me. I should have hidden it in my bag. The bad news this time is that there is now a stop en route, to (you’ve guessed it) a place down the coast, which is in the other direction. So I shall have a very late drive to Andasibe in the west when I do arrive. That’s why there’s’no-one here. They’re not stupid enough to take this routing.
Lemurs are synonymous with Madagascar and there are plenty of them, over a hundred species and sub species, of varying sizes, some nocturnal, some diurnal. Night walks are arranged, so I can see both. The ancestors of the mainland monkeys they leap from trunk to trunk at staggering speed, gripping with their claws instead of using the branches as catapults. There are red fronted brown lemurs (gidros) at Kirindy Camp, tempted in to have a welcome drink from a plastic beaker. That must be why I don’t see them on my forest walk.
However, I do spot woolly white sifakas, who bounce around using their back legs only, two feet together along branches, and chubby red tailed sportive lemurs (boengas), sleepy and blinking during the day (I’m told) because they are nocturnal. The night walk involves much stumbling over branches and falling into holes. The sportive lemurs aren’t any more sportive than they are in the day time. I decide they must be conserving their energy for their giant leaps. The tiny grey mouse lemurs, however, scuttle away very fast.
Andasibe, however, is the lemur destination. There are two parks here, which I finally reach after a clutch the edge of your seat rally drive through the dark. My guide book helpfully advises that one should not drive at night as there are bandits. Fortunately none materialise. Though the Friday rush hour traffic through the narrow windy streets of Tana adds to the delay. Tana is fascinating. It is built on seven hills but each of the valleys is filled with lakes and paddy fields. The three million inhabitants are crushed into jettied and balconied Asian style houses and shops. It is certainly more affluent this side of the island and the streets are thronging with people buying from the colourful stalls lining the road.
Next day’s forest visits involve rather too much more slithering around and the loss of my sunglasses. Conversation with most of the guides and drivers is short as their English is limited. So is their knowledge at times. My guide here is astonished to learn that England is on an island. However, the parks yields up still more lemurs and my species count has risen to eleven. The prettiest are the ring tailed lemurs, though they have tiny heads and dance around looking very feather brained. The panda like indris have a wailing call that would put the Sirens to shame. And the tiny bamboo lemurs are shy and cute.
An added bonus are the chameleons and brightly hued frogs hiding, almost successfully, on leaves and branches and mostly encountered on the night walks. The guides are excellent at spotting these and at using their torches to pick out pairs of glowing eyes high above, as the nocturnal lemurs watch us pass from a safe distance.
I pick up an extra passenger on the journey back to Tana from Andasibe. Adrian, an Austrian who works here, is marooned; the trains aren’t running. And at least he can speak English and I can have a conversation. Then it’s ‘I don’t like Mondays in Madagascar. I am supposed to fly to Nosy Be (Big Island) at lunchtime the, but Air Mad have already rescheduled twice and I’m now not leaving until seven in the evening. It’s cold and raining in Tana and there’s no heating. I have a thumping headache. I commission a massage and afterwards fashion a hot water bottle out of a mineral water container and a towel and sleep. I am still deposited at the airport three hours ahead of departure time and this time the power that be won’t allow me to check in for another two hours. It’s scant recompense that I’m head of the queue again. They only let one person go through security and the x-ray machine at a time, and then spend another two hours checking the cabin before we can board, so the whole process takes forever. I really don’t know if it’s gross inefficiency or calculated working to rule. Madagascar can be trying at times.
Nosy Be is known as The Fragrant Isle as it is covered in ylang ylang and vanilla plantations. There are small rickety essential oil distilleries dotted around the villages. My bungalow is a welcome haven with its own small patch of beach views across the reef and amazing sunsets. But there is no such thing as paradise. The staff here are exceptionally friendly and accommodating. They come to my bungalow to get the order for each meal. They still wait till I get there before they start to cook it though. There’s no netting on the bungalow so the mosquitoes can sneak in easily. And they do. I sleep under a net, but that still leaves a perilous unprotected run to the bathroom. I already have lines of itchy bumps all over me. The generator is only on in the evening and there’s no hot water at all. This was at first blamed on the lack of sun for an unseasonable couple of days, but the rain was last week, before I even arrived. Meanwhile, I’m facing the ice bucket challenge to wash my hair, with not even a sponsor to make it worthwhile. The laundry has had my washing since I arrived. This delay is also accounted for by the ‘recent’ rain.
I take a boat trip out to little coral islands and snorkel (keeping a wary eye on the harpoon) whilst the boatman catches my parrotfish lunch. Then he grills it on the beach. That evening the barbecue dinner on offer is even more exotic (or bizarre) – frog kebabs.
The next hurdle is the flight back to Tana. I have a connection to Nairobi tomorrow. Amazingly, the time, 18.55 hasn’t changed, yet, but planes have been cancelled altogether this week and I’m told there is a back log of passengers. Phillippe, the hotel owner, says that my chances of flying are non existent and that I should go back by taxi. It’s at least 700 kilometres. So a ferry ride and then a minimum of 20 hours in one or more taxis partly or wholly overnight on Madagascan roads. Not the most enticing prospect for a girl on her own, especially when her grasp of the local language isn’t very strong. My face crumples. After prolonged telephone consultations with the tour operator, both of them trying to avoid taking any responsibility for doing anything Phillippe announces that their plan now is that I should go down to the airport and spend the whole day there pleading with the manager to let me on the flight. I can’t see this working for a host of reasons. My lack of French is one. Another is the fact that the airport is small, the doors are usually guarded (when it’s open) and I doubt I will even get in. I am suspicious that I have been fobbed off, but I am told to go pack and so I do. Half an hour late Phillippe appears at my door to tell me that all is well. He has phoned Air Mad and been assured that my seat is confirmed. I can leave for the airport at four in the afternoon. I am not entirely sure it is safe to be relieved – I am not at all confident I have not been fobbed off again. When I arrive at the airport there is a long queue outside a guarded door, as usual. And we wait, as usual. And then, amidst much cheering (there are riot police deployed), the manager comes out and reads the list of those who are allowed to travel – agonisingly slowly. My name is not on it. To cut a long and very stressful story short I edge my way to the door in the wake of the lucky few and deploy my best blonde damsel in distress routine on the manager, who is tall and French. I am the last passenger checked in on the plane. Naturally, the plane is two hours late. But who cares? I learn that an international Air Mad flight also had to be cancelled this week. The pilot turned up drunk.
The last hurdle on this leg, the following afternoon, is the Kenyan Airways flight to Nairobi. So far they have been reasonably reliable. But guess what? Last night’s flight was cancelled and everyone scheduled to fly on it is now trying to get on my plane. The scrimmage this time is the worst so far. None of the airport screens are working and I have no clue even which direction to push in. Desperate, but with much shame, I consent to bribing a porter who carves me a path round the edge of the melee.