As the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is a big island to conquer. With poor roads riddled with enormous potholes and some roads completely inaccessible except by four-wheel drive, my journey around this island nation took many hours to traverse.
Madagascar is home to some of the most unusual animal and plant life on earth. As its isolated, over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on the planet.
My trip began with my arrival into the capital Antananarivo. Conveniently, locals have shortened this rather hard-to-pronounce name to "Tana". I found my way from the airport to the city and found a local hotel to stay. A barred gate was in place in front of the main door to the hotel and I had to push a button to summon a doorman to open the gate for me. Apparently, since a coup in 2009, it is unsafe to walk around "Tana" at night. As such, most establishments in the capital have bars protecting their front doors and concertina, razor wire wrapped around their decks. I did a quick walk around part of the capital and slept early as I had an early rise the following day. The next morning I went to the local transport stand and in spite of my miserable trip into Somalia on my last adventure, I begrudgingly boarded a local taxi-brousse (minibus) to Andasibe National Park approximately four hours to the East of the capital. I was happy to get a seat in the front row, middle until part way through the journey I noticed my seat seemed to be getting hotter and hotter. We stopped about two hours into the journey to stretch and while we were out, I noticed the driver flipped up the front row of seats to check on the engine which was directly under my seat. No wonder it was heating up exponentially! I finally arrived in Andasibe National park and upon finding an adorable bungalow to stay, I immediately headed to the park to check out Madagascar's famous mascot; the lemur! I walked around the park and spotted several lemurs high in the trees jumping, swinging and some just hanging out, looking like they were taking a laid back snooze. The following day I went to a private reserve and since it was very early in the morning when lemurs are most active, there were several lemurs playing, jumping and performing all around lemur antics. All of a sudden from behind I was hit with something with great force and after being completely startled by the surprise thump, I turned to see a lemur on my shoulder. He sat perched on my shoulder sitting close to my head and started playing with my hair. A second one jumped on the other shoulder and started to gnaw on my hair clip. The man who watched over the reserve gave me some cut up bananas and the lemurs gently took them from my hand and started eating. He took some pictures and I didn't realize until seeing them, the funny expression on the lemurs face as they downed the much-loved fruit. When they were bored they would jump off and more would jump on. At one point I had three on me and was running out of room, so I lifted my arms so they would have more area to stand. Some were the Common Brown Lemur and some the larger Black and White Ruffed Lemur, all were adorable. When I asked if I could pet them I was told they didn't really like it as they weren't used to it so I simply rubbed my face against them as they sat on my shoulders. They were soft and fuzzy and the bottoms of their feet were warm to the touch. With long, skinny, dexterous fingers, they were able to hang on to pretty much anything. More jumped on me with one promptly peeing on my arm and the other licking my hand like a cat as he finished off the banana I gave him. They were adorable to watch but rather hard to photograph as they were continuously moving. It was like trying to photograph a child who had had way too much sugar. I eventually left but loved them so much I decided to come back a second day to play with them once more.
I eventually headed back to the capital and then Miandrivazo to set off on a three-day float down the Tsiribihina River in a pirogue (dugout canoe) to Belo-sur-Tsiribihina. I arrived via local transport at 02:00 AM and slept fast. Before going to sleep, I asked the hotel if they knew someone who could guide me down the river. I awoke only a few hours later to find a heard of guides outside my room all wanting to guide me. I always find instead of booking expensive tours in advance, you can always just show up at a place and find whatever it is you want. I selected a guide and after agreeing on a price and acquiring supplies we were off to the river. I approached the very reddish-brown river and was told it was this color due to the color of the soil in the area. I saw my to-be ride and it was a rather elegant (in a rustic kind of way) long, slender dugout canoe. We boarded the supplies and I met the lean, sinewy young man who would be doing the paddling. My guide sat in front, I was behind him, a chicken (future dinner who I named Henry) was behind me, with the paddling boy in the back. I was the last to board and as I climbed aboard the top of the pirogue was only inches above the water line. The pirogue held, however, and we stayed upright and dry the entire journey. It wasn't until the last day that my guide casually mentioned there were crocodiles in the river. I said what! He said, don't worry, they are "smaller" crocodiles and are afraid of the pirogues because crocodile hunters use them to hunt them.
We floated down the river for a few hours each morning stopping periodically to see wildlife including birds and chameleons. About thirty minutes before stopping for lunch my guide would start peeling the vegetables to be cooked. We eventually pulled over and he would start a camping style cooker and I was free to wander around until lunch was served. We usually stopped at a settlement where a group of remote locals lived. Since their food intake is narrowed to only what they could grow themselves or find in the area, we would share our food with them. When finished, we would say our goodbyes and would then head off for the afternoon floating for several more hours before stopping at an appropriate place for the night, usually on a sandbar. Once we had selected a location we would unpack the pirogue, set up the tents and my guide would start cooking again. His meals at night seemed to take forever to cook but once complete was absolutely delicious. One meal which included Zebu, a local ox type animal, I thought should be served at a 5-star restaurant in New York. As I waited for dinner every night I would lay back and in the absence of light, as we were in the middle of nowhere, I marveled at the most beautiful night sky. It included the Milky Way. Although the air was cool at night the tent was not! It was a sweltering hot box inside and I would have preferred to be out in the fresh air but with a swarm of mosquitoes every night, I had to stay in the tent (oven). We would rise early in the morning and after breakfast would be off again.
The second day, in the searing heat of midday, I looked back to see poor "Henry", the chicken, panting like a hot dog locked in a car with its windows up. I poured some water by him so he could drink, but he didn't seem to like it. A little later I heard a bunch of clucking and laughed as I turned to see the paddling boy had dunked the bottom of "Henry" in the river to try to cool him down. Why he made the chicken endure the sweltering heat for three days before eating him, I do not know!
Once we arrived in Belo I checked into a hotel for a much-needed shower. I was off again early the next morning for the next part of my trip. I hired a four-wheel drive vehicle which was the only vehicle capable of getting to the Grand Tsingy which is a nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's the world's largest stone forest where jagged, razor-sharp pinnacles of limestone seem to sprout from the Earth. It was formed over centuries by the movement of wind and water. The rocks themselves are very sharp and stick up like giant steak knives. I've never seen anyplace quite like it. I got into a harness, hiked through a forest area and through some caves before reaching the Tsingy. I then started the climb, clipping myself onto the fixed cables as I went. I made it to the lookout point at the top of the huge pinnacles and the view was fantastic. The Tsingy is a 257 square mile limestone landscape. As there was no one else around, we had the whole place to ourselves! I then went across a suspension bridge and onto another lookout point. While on the second lookout point, the guide and I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. We quickly retreated the Tsingy the way we came as it would not be a good thing to be on the slippery, razor-sharp rocks in the rain. We got back to the vehicle and I was once again no the road. We then drove several hours, due to the poor condition of the roads, to Morondava along the Western coast of Madagascar.
On our way, the vehicle came to a sputtering stop and could not be restarted. Upon closer inspection, the very red-faced driver realized we were out of fuel. He hadn't bothered to bring extra. And so, we waited on a desolate, middle of nowhere road for help to come. Since we were so remote, no ones cell phone worked. We waited for two hours before another vehicle came along and the driver bought five liters of petrol from the man. They siphoned it out of his vehicle and into a water bottle. We were once again off, bouncing along and on our way, came across a taxi which had broken down leaving stranded its passenger; a young Japanese man. The driver asked if we would mind taking him with us as he was going the same direction. We gladly helped as the kind man who sold us petrol had helped us and continued on our way. Shortly before arriving in Morondava, we reached the Avenue of the Baobabs. Baobabs are Madagascar's famous trees. These magnificent and ginormous trees can reach 80-100 feet in height and can be up to 800 years old! We reached the area right before dusk and watched as the sun went down over them. They are called roots of the sky and during the part of the year when they have no leaves, you can see why. After taking a ton of photos we all hopped back in the four-wheel drive and proceeded to Morondava witnessing a stunning pink and purple sunset along the way. We dropped the Japanese guy off and I found a hotel for the night. After checking out what Morondava had to offer I was once again in a taxi-brousse for the very long ride back to the capital "Tana".
Once back in Tana I spent another night in the capital and then departed for home. I flew back to Frankfurt via Nairobi, Kenya and had a fantastic view of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Madagascar was a great destination. My favorite was definitely the highly amusing, ever-entertaining lemurs. It gets my vote for favorite island so far!