Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Kirindy Forest Reserve

August 28

We left early as we had to take two ferries and needed to get to Kirindy, our next stop, in time for a night walk. We were quickly over the first short ferry  and on our way back down the awful road. We got to Belo Tsiribihina at lunch time. I had mentioned to José that the food at the Olympe du Bemaraha was not as good as the food we had on the boat. He wanted me to give my opinion of the food for today’s lunch at The Mad Zebu in downtown Belo Tsiribihina.

Before we were seated we examined the sign board. It seems that outside of Antananarivo, menus are only done on sign boards. This one was quite complicated, a real French restaurant menu. I chose the duck. The menu had its complete menu with les entrees, les plats and les desserts. My duck was fantastic. Ultimately the bill for the complete meal with starters and dessert came to the outrageous price of 28,000 (less than $10 US).

We were seated next a large group of English speaking members of a tour group. I heard them say that the wifi was down, which was a disappointment since I wanted to update Facebook and the blog. During our meal José came by and dropped of the password for the wifi. I understood that perhaps this was not the regular patron wifi. In any case, we logged in and found a great internet connection. I quickly updated Facebook and my blog, but had to stop as we needed to hit the dusty trail.

We carried on to the Tsiribihina. There were several barges linked together. We drove onto the barges and were directed to one of the middle barges. Several 4 x 4’s pulled up. They were transporting the large tour group. They filled up one of the barges, and it took off. Shortly thereafter another couple of vehicles for the same group came up. They were loaded and off they went. They turned our barge around and one vehicle got on.

We had been told by Johnny that the different barges are owned by different independent businesses. We had to wait for ours to get filled and take off. José thought that we had to wait for another vehicle before they would cross, but finally we took off with just the two. I stayed outside the vehicle and enjoyed another brief ride on the Tsiribihina.

We reached the other shore and the second vehicle drove straight off. Remember that we had turned around on loading, so the vehicles were not facing the same direction. Rather than turning the barge around, José had to reverse and turn around on the little ferry. He managed this quite easily. However, while reversing we knew that something had happened by the look on the ferryman’s face and the sound of catching on something.

Later we found out what happened. We went a little ways down the road before José stopped. We had another flat tire. Apparently this is very common when vehicles have to reverse on the ferries. José started changing the tire. Just like the last time, the next vehicle to come along was another tourist vehicle. That driver jumped out and helped with the change.

We carried on down the narrow the narrow road with brush on both sides. Whenever vehicles came the other way, one had to pull over to let the other pass. We saw transport trucks, taxi brousse, 4 x 4’s, bicycles and zebu carts. It was quite busy.

We passed through a fire. We have seen this a lot. Fires are set to clear brush. Sometimes fires are set to clear trees as well. This practice has been on going in Madagascar for its history as the people need land to grow crops and get their zebu. It is understandable but a real environmental problem. It is especially devastating to the wildlife such as the lemurs as they lose their habitat.

We arrived at the Kirindy Forest Reserve which was formerly a Swiss forestry training centre and now is there to protect the forest and its natural inhabitants. It is home to many animals including eight species of lemurs, including six nocturnal and the only predator to the lemur, the fossa.

The Kirindy Forest Lodge is very basic. Guests are given their own little cabins. Ours had a toilet and shower, but no hot water. We were introduced to our guide and tracker and told we would do a night walk at six. But right after getting into our room we were called to see the resident fossa that hangs out around the lodge. It was kind of like seeing the bear at the garbage dump in Northern Canada.

José drove the four us down the road to get to the place of the night walks. We were surprised when we were asked to loan one of our head lamps to the tracker. We were walking slowly through the forest as the tracker and guide attempted to see small lemurs high in the trees. It took awhile for us to figure out that the two, still able to find the animals, had not brought the same type of high powered spotlights that the other two groups had. This made it harder for Po and I to see or for me to photograph. I was able to get a few good photographs when we were next to the other groups, but could not get them when on our own.

At this point I was really starting to feel the effects of a bout of tummy problems, the seemingly inevitable encounter for travellers in a new country. If I picked up something from food, it would not have been at the Mad Zebu since my system was not quite right from the start of the day. After we returned to the lodge I was unable to eat much of my supper. I was sad to pass on dessert since they were serving crepes.

After going to bed I got the chills and did several trips to the toilet. The evening had been oppressively hot when we did the walk, but the temperatures really dropped during the evening. It was not a good evening for me.

Grand Tsingy

August 27

Since we are going to bed so early, I am awake long before the alarm goes off each morning. We headed into breakfast. We saw that José was already waiting for us. There seems to be a pattern here. José is so reliable. He is an excellent driver, keeping the many bumps to a minimum bounce. He apologizes if he hits one too hard. We feel well cared for.

Our table was set up with our Continental breakfast. We got what is going to be the usual of some regular bread and a sweet bread that is like a cake.

As soon as we were finished José took us back down to the ferry area. There we met our guide for the day. He is to take us on a boat ride down the Manambolo River and then off to climb Tsingy. The Manambolo is much smaller than the Tsiribihina. We were poled down the river in two pirogues that are tied together to give greater stability. These are only used for tourists.  It was quite pretty. He showed us two different caves. I experienced the first injury of our adventure when I bumped my head in one of the caves. It was determined that I did not need medical attention.

The area is sacred to the local people and was used as burial grounds. We thought we were going to be shown some tombs, but they were never mentioned. Maybe we were confused and the caves were the tombs. It did not matter, the ride was quite enjoyable.

After about an hour and a half on the river we returned to the ferry area. It was time to head off to Tsingy. Po was asked if she needed to use the facilities. They sent her down the road. After looking for a building she was told that she needed to  find a convenient bush.

The road took us through the village of Bekopaka. I wanted to buy another bottle of water and some bananas. The guide helped me with the purchase at one of the little stores (they are all little kiosks). There were two types of bananas. One is a small one that we have been eating on our trip so far. The other was a really fat one. Neither are the kind we are used to buying in our local supermarkets which have been transported from thousands of miles away. I encountered the big problem with Malagasy currency. You can not get small change. We are running around with 5,000 and up bills, mostly 10,000 Ariary. To get smaller would mean a ridiculous pile of money when you exchange your money, like we did to start with 150 Euros. Remember that the exchange is about 3,000 Ariary to one US dollar. The local people deal with smaller bills of 200, 500 and 1,000. So to give them a 5 or 10 thousand Ariary causes great consternation. I ended getting a loan from José to get the bananas.

We headed down the road. It was bad, really bad. Part of it was over rocks. I thought Newfoundland had rocks, but there is no comparison. We pulled into the parking lot. It was packed.

The first thing was for our guide to strap us into our harnesses. As we started our hike we found out that most of the other hikers for the day were finishing their hikes. They had started a few hours earlier. We would be starting in the heat of the day since we did the pirogue trip first.

Other than the intense heat the first part of the hike was quite easy. But then the hard part started. We squeezed into a small crevasse that required us to hold our pack in one hand and slide along a slippery sandy path. I could barely fit. We crawled under other places. And we started our climb. The path was well marked and the guide would point out where to place your hands and feet. We clipped ourselves onto a line in the very tricky areas. But the rocks at the Tsingy are sharp. You could almost cut your hands on them. And the path went straight up. For a relatively fit 60 something I found the climb both physically and mentally challenging.

I put my regular camera in my pack. I just could not carry the camera and climb the trail. Luckily I had my small camera in my pack. I could put that one in my pocket, occasionally pulling it out to photograph Po climbing in front of me.

We reached the top and the first viewing platform. It was an amazing view. But I had to catch my breath and overcome my fear of heights to enjoy it. Then too soon we started the walk to the other side of the path. Part way we came to the suspension bridge. I had read about this hike for months. And I had worried about the suspension bridge. I quickly made my way half way across, stopped and pointed my camera to one side then the other and took quick snaps without looking through the viewfinder.  I then scurried across.

Although I had made it up Tsingy and across the bridge, we still needed to finish the walk across the top and then do the descent. Every time we seemed to be finished with the hard part, we were clipping ourselves in once again or squeezing under rocks. But we made it.

We were tired campers by the time we bounced back down the road to the hotel. We were given our choice of shrimp or nothing for supper and chose shrimp. We fought with the Internet again. I managed to post one of my older blogs and some photographs to Facebook.

As each day leaves us exhausted, we did our usual early to bed. We were pleasantly surprised to notice a small fan that we had missed the night before. Even with the generator off and the system running on solar it kept going long into the night.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Last Day on the Boat

August 26

Last evening was quiet so we had as good a sleep as one can get in a little tent. Once again the morning was foggy. I took a couple of photographs and headed for the boat. I found the crew busy cleaning everything.

Our plans were to go straight to Belo sur Tsiribihina. It was an absolute gorgeous morning. We sat on top in a very cool breeze chatting with Johnny. Po was in the chair at the front. I was sitting with my feet on the top step of the ladder. We were not bothering with shoes, just like the crew.  I made some notes for my speech.

We spotted another crocodile. The high banks were gone, so the river was quite wide. We passed the south terminal for the ferry. We will be there in a couple of days. We headed for the terminal on the north side. I am using terminal as I do not know what exactly to call them. They consist of some small huts used by the local vendors. There are floating docks for the ferries. Johnny said they were generally private operators, several different businesses.

We pulled into the north bank. For lunch we ate a chicken that had brought on board our first day. It had lived for a couple of last days before meeting its demise on the boat. We know it was fresh.

After lunch it was time to make my speech. The crew sat across from me. As I gave the speech, each point had to be translated by Johnny. Each sentence was met with a round of applause. I guess they liked my speech. I was quite sincere in everything that I said. They were a fantastic crew. I cannot say enough about the quality of the service on the boat. We felt so safe with them. They looked after all our needs, fed us wonderfully, found birds and crocodiles and lemurs for us and then set up a very comfortable camp.

I highly recommend Espace Mada, especially this crew of Johnny Archy as the guide and a crew of pilot Dary, cook Charle, and the two helpers, David and Ruphim.

Johnny gave me some numbers for the trip. Our first day we covered 63 km, the second 56 km and finally 29 km on this last day.

But the time had come to say goodbye and carry on with our next adventure. José was waiting for us. We jumped into the 4 x 4 and headed for Bekopaka. Shortly after we started we passed a field full of zebu and people. It was market day for trading zebu. The road from there was rough. I had been told that the road was bad. It was no exaggeration. We finally pulled up to the Manambolo River. There is a very short ferry to get us across which only took a few minutes and then a few more minutes to reach our hotel for the next two nights, the Orchidees du Bemaraha. It is quite similar to our hotel from the other night with blocks of rooms and a separate dining room.

We jumped into the shower. I had warned Po that not all hotels had hot water, but this one does. I had also read that it had wifi with Internet, which it does between 5 and 10 pm when the generator is on. It is not surprising though that it is really slow. I managed to post a few photographs to Facebook, but the blog update failed. It just gave an error. So I will keep typing these as a journal and upload later.

We moved into the dining room. Our waitress came to take our order. She spoke to us in French. I could understand her, but did not know the word for octopus. Finally she came up with the English word. It was a fixed three course meal, take it or leave it. It was lamb which we love, so Po took that. I had everything including the octopus salad and creme caramel for dessert. The food was okay, but not to the standard we had had on the boat.

My French was being put to the test as the waitress was asking us about breakfast, the time and whether we wanted the continental or American breakfast. I asked the difference and when eggs were mentioned we said we wanted omelettes. A few minutes later she came back and explained (which I suspected) that since we are on the half board basis that we only get the cheap breakfast. I felt bad about not getting an omelette, but good that I could get understand all this in French. I can see where our interaction would have been a bit frustrating for someone with no French.

We fought with the Internet for awhile and then gave up and went back to our rooms. At first things were really noisy, coming from the bar and another of the famadihana celebrations. But the bar noise ended and the celebration was far enough away that it was an interesting sound to go to sleep to.

The room has shutters on the windows. If they are closed there are screens and air can come through the louvres only, but to really get circulation you have to open the windows. But there would be no screens. Po agreed to have the windows open, but it turned out that it was quite okay without. Again, there are no signs of mosquitos.

José was to pick us up at 7 am, so the alarm was set for 5:45.

Second Day of the Cruise

August 25

I woke up early after the fitful night of listening to the music. There was a fog off the river, just like home!

The people were up in the village. Women and children were collecting water from the river. I took a few photographs of the village and our campsite. Breakfast was served on the boat. We had the standard breakfast of stale bread and a sweet bread. I prefer the sweet one.

After breakfast we visited the village. We first entered the market place. Again we are so amazed at the business of Madagascar. There is so little formal sector activities (especially government) in Madagascar that people have to support themselves in anyway possible.

From spending our many years in Botswana, we are always comparing the two countries. Botswana back in our days had formal stores, general dealers, run often by white settlers or East Indians. Batswana were starting to enter businesses such as dry cleaners and bottle (liquor and beer) stores. There was limited informal market activity, ladies selling fat cakes and mopane worms (that is for another blog). When I returned to Botswana I found that the formal businesses had been replaced by South African chain stores, including the bottle stores.

The market in Sahambano was busy. I saw a butcher, a liquor store, vegetable dealers, and lots of clothing stores. I noted that Michael Jordan still leads in NBA jersey sales. There was a small booth where locals could pay to have their music downloaded.

We were a magnet for the children, especially me. I ended up with a little girl on both sides. Photography was a bit difficult as I had to extract myself each time I wanted to take a photograph. Then as soon as I raised my camera I had other children yelling, “Wazza, photo. Wazza, photo”.  (Wazza are foreigners. It sounds a lot like “Wassup”, so the temptation is to yell it back to them, but that makes no sense.) They wanted their photos taken. Often they wanted to see themselves on the camera afterwards. But other times they were content to just get it taken. I asked a few others for permission to take their photos, a man in a Jordan jersey and some women with their faces caked in mud. They do this for both sun protection and for beauty.

We passed the mayor’s office. Po said I had to meet him. Unfortunately the mayor was out of town. I did get my photograph taken with his assistant.

We saw both primary schools. By far the nicer one was the private Catholic school. Apparently the public schools are underfunded, so the best education is always in the private schools.

We left the village and went on our way down the river. There was virtually constant activity, canoes, goods and people barges, etc. We stopped at a little village for lunch (again served on the boat). We had the crayfish that was purchased from the village woman last evening as a starter. The main course was pork sausages with beans. Both were cooked in a spicy sauce. We are eating quite well, way beyond expectations.

After lunch Johnny took us on a tour of the village. He had been explaining about the size of the river during rainy (cyclone) season. All of the little settlements we have been seeing along the river bank are seasonal only. When the rains come the river will cover them up. All we saw of this little village is seasonal as well. We were high up the bank, but Johnny said the boats would actually go past were we were standing. He pointed out a school in the distance next to a Catholic Church. That is where the year round town is. Once again, there are little stalls selling various goods and several bars and restaurants.

Shortly after taking to river again we saw our first baobab trees. From here on we saw hillsides that were totally covered.

Our pilot spotted another crocodile and turned the boat into the shore for a better look. The river was quite shallow at that point, and the wind was blowing quite hard against us. So, in spite of the furious effort of the crew with their poles, we ran aground. So the two helpers had to jump into the water, near where the crocodile went under, to push the boat off the bottom. Johnny said there was no danger, that the crocodile is afraid of the sound of the boat,  but it seemed that the guy who had to go looking for deeper waters was a bit nervous.

We stopped at another little village to see some baobab trees. There are several within the village. This was a much poorer village which did not have much of the businesses we had seen in the others.

We pulled into the shore shortly thereafter. The guys started setting up our accommodations, but we saw them adding a new little structure. That was our washroom. They put a large bucket of water (not heated) in there for us. It was a total surprise, just like the toilet tent we were given each night.

Before supper I downloaded my photographs. I ended up showing the crew all my photos. Many were of them, but others were not. I was not sure what they thought of my subject matter. Then everyone sat down across from us. The crew started singing some traditional songs for us. I was not prepared to video this, just started taking it with my iPad. Po used my head lamp to try and highlight the singers. After that Johnny explained that the next day we would go straight to our drop off point. We would have lunch before disembarking.

He also explained that it was traditional for the guests to make a speech before leaving the boat. I decided that since I was expected to do that, and since we were very happy with the way we had been treated, that I would make some notes for the speech. I thought the effort of having written things down would be appreciated.

We had our supper. It was zebu again, this time a stew. As all our meals, it was delicious. A little later we were called up to the shore to a camp fire. Our crew, along with a couple of guys from the village, were to do some traditional song and dance. Of everything on the boat, this was the one thing that did not impress us. Johnny had his music machine, but lots of the music was not traditional. The guys ran around the camp fire several times. We decided to go off to bed.

When we got back on the boat to get our things for the tent, I decided to bring my sweatshirt and sweatpants in case it got too cool during the night. As I was shuffling things around next to my suitcase something went over the side. I realized that it was my pair of sweatpants. I looked down and realized they were long gone. The river was flowing far too fast to chase after them. So much for my new sweatpants that I bought for the trip. Luckily they were the cheapest that Walmart had. I was not so much worried about the pants, but I had a cold feeling thinking about the many things that might have snuck over the side. Certainly the sweatpants were about the best thing that could have gone overboard.

First Day on the Tsiribihina

The blog seems a bit more problematic than Facebook with updates on slow Internet. I will try put dates on these since the postings will come a few days late:

August 24

We were up early for breakfast as José and Johnny picked us up at 8. They were right on time (a recurring theme so far). We headed into town to the police station. That took only a couple of minutes, seems that the exercise is more to gather information on tourism rather than security.

We headed for the embarkation point, which took about an hour. The first part was on the main road, so not so bad, the next was very rough. We reached a point with several transport trucks and zebu carts. We had arrived. We were lucky in that it was a market day, so the launch point was full of transport boats. The main goods being off loaded were beans. There were piles of bags which were weighed and then put into zebu carts or trucks. There was a little market with food and drink. It was a great experience to see all the activity.

Agricultural products such as the beans, tobacco and corn are grown in villages along the river and then transported to Tsiribihina for transport to Antananarivo.

Our boat was moved to enable us to embark. We met our crew of four, the pilot, two helpers and the cook. Later when we went aground we found out why there needed to be so many. So with Johnny we had five people looking after the two of us.

We headed down the river. There were transport boats and pirogues everywhere. On the riverbank we saw the plots of rice, people catching crayfish, panning for gold, bathing and washing clothes. We started on the smaller river, Mahahilo, a tributary of the Tsiribihina. Not long after we met up with the Tsiribihina. At first the the landscape was flat, but we could see the mountains in the distance. Johnny told us that we would stop a waterfall in the mountains and have a chance for a swim.

The experience was totally overwhelming. The trip has been everything I had expected/hoped for and more. There is something about putting yourself into an environment where everything is different that is so intense, so rewarding.  Po and I had both experienced this in our younger days, especially when we first went Botswana as volunteers.

Although the river is quite wide, we spent much of the time going back and forth across it, looking for the channel. A few times we ran aground and everyone but the pilot and the cook (and us) had to jump in the river to push. This is the dry season and the river will be getting lower for several weeks to come.

There were fields of rice and corn along the river banks, anyplace that is a bit flat. Johnny said that tobacco is grown in some areas.

We were given lunch on the boat. It was tilapia. So I had to try my hand at the little fish with many bones. It was quite tasty, but I do not think I will learn to get all the meat, as I am too nervous to eat the fish with the bones and then spit them out.

The crew spotted our first crocodile. It was a small, but later we saw a very large one.

We came to the waterfall (Johnny wanted to to give the name – Anosiampela, which means-highland  of girl) in the afternoon. As we left the boat there was a group of what seems to be resident lemurs which Johnny identified as red fronted brown lemurs. The children were feeding them so it was easy to get some photographs. It was not quite the wild shot that I desired, but it was our first lemurs. Shortly after we saw our first chameleon.

The waterfall was a short, rocky walk from the boat. The bottom was quite slippery. Johnny sent us along the edge. We could reach the falls and get wet, but it was a bit frightening to get fully under the main part. There are some concessions to be made to age, and a fall is not a good idea. I actually took a second shot at getting back in, but decided to play it safe.

We went back down the trail to a lower pool. Johnny knew I wanted to swim, so he took my hand and led me into the pool. It was very slippery, so I decided to forget my pride and let him do that. I had a nice swim with Johnny and a couple of local boys.

On our way back to the boat Johnny spotted a sifaka high in a tree. We then had another visit with the resident lemurs (Johnny also wanted me to give the scientific name of fulvus rufus).

Shortly thereafter we passed the village of Sahambano on the left bank. We are to visit this village tomorrow morning. We pulled into the opposite bank. The staff quickly set up our sleeping quarters, a tent and a toilet tent. We did not expect that. It consists of a small tent with a box inside. The box has a toilet seat on top. We do our business and then cover everything with sand. If we had paid attention we would have suspected something since the toilet was riding on top of the pilot’s room the whole time.

We had seen people catching crayfish along the shore. A lady offered some for sale, so we will have them for lunch tomorrow.

We had our supper on the boat. Just like lunch, it was very good. Tonight we had zebu, great big steaks, cooked in a sauce.

While we were eating our supper a couple of local guys turned up. They were hoping we would hire them to perform some traditional music. Unfortunately there was  also a few young guys who had been hanging around since we were setting up camp. The entire time we were eating they were acting a bid rowdy. We were both tired, and when asked, we declined the traditional music, especially since traditional song and dance is already scheduled for the second night. One man sounded quite unhappy when told he would not perform. Johnny said he could not understand his dialect, so would not translate. It was easiest to just leave it at that.

As we headed to our tent on the beach we were dazzled by the night sky. The sky is so amazing when you can see the Milky Way.

We settled into our tent quite early, around 9. However, sleep was difficult as we were lucky enough that a re-burying of the bones ceremony was taking place. It is called Famadihana. The bones of the family member are exhumed and reburied. This is a very common tradition in Madagascar and usually happens during the dry season. According the Johnny, as part of the ceremony, which lasts about three days, there is one night where everyone stays up and makes music. So our luck was to listen to that music all night long. We could also hear the river boats chugging by. It seems that the boats go all night long, even on a moonless night.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Antananarivo to Miandrivazo

We are in Belo sur Tsiribihina, just having finished a gourmet (no kidding) meal at the Mad Zebu. I had the duck. I have lots of my journal to post so will put one up. Posting was very difficult at our hotel the last couple of nights. So here are my notes for drive from Antananarivo:

August 23

We woke early to get breakfast and pack our things for the drive, as José had said that he would pick us up at 8. When we got down for breakfast at 7:15 he was already waiting, a very good sign.

We headed out of town in the busy traffic. For the first several hours of the trip the roads were busy, busy, busy. There were people walking, on bicycles, motorbikes, in taxi brouses (mini buses), cars and trucks. There were also zebu carts, zebus and chickens, and pousse pousse (bicycle and human pulled rickshaws).

The landscape changed constantly during our eight hour journey as we left the Central Highlands. What was constant were the rice fields, some recently planted, others being planted as we passed. I was pleasantly surprised that many rice fields were green since we are travelling in the winter, leaving most things quite brown.

I am not used to being the passenger when travelling.  When Po and I travel I am usually the driver and choose to stop the car to take photographs. Today I took many photographs on the fly, just point and snap. I then developed a routine with Jose, asking him to stop. He realized that I wanted to get our of the car, which was certainly best, but I am pleased with some shots I took from the car as we were moving.

Madagascar is one big market. We had visited a few of the various markets in Tana. It was the same in the smaller towns where little stalls line both sides of the road. People are selling all sorts of goods. There is little sign of regular shops.

We stopped in the town of Ambatolampy which is known for its aluminum recycling industry. They take a variety of objects that contain aluminum, melt them down and turn them into pots and other objects which are then sold throughout Madagascar. The lack of safety procedures is mind boggling. Men in bare feet stand next to where molten aluminium is being poured.

We learned that towns have their own special industries.  In addition to Ambatolampy with its aluminium, we passed through towns known for stones, miniature vehicles, statues of the Virgin Mary, vegetables, and musical instruments.

In one small town José  pulled to the side. We had a flat tire, which a group of men by the roadside quickly confirmed. José  went to work with lots of supervision. Shortly thereafter another 4 by 4 stopped. He was José’s friend. He jumped out and helped with the change. He had one tourist with him, a Dutch guy, travelling by himself. The tourist had just flown into Madagascar and on the spot arranged a four week tour with a guide. Meanwhile I had everything arranged for months. Although his itinerary sounded like ours, he decided not to do the cruise. He had read someone’s review that said it was boring. We shall see. I am looking forward to it.

A little later we found his vehicle stopped beside the road. The Dutch guy was out of the car with his camera. José pulled his car over, and I ran out with my camera. There were people panning for gold in a stream. I took some photographs. It turned out that the other driver was concerned about his own vehicle. We waited for his quick repairs and followed them into our destination.

We checked into our hotel,the Princesse Tsirbihina.  It is a nice lodge with separate bedroom units on a hill above the dining room. It was a very lovely spot overlooking the river..

All of our hotels outside of Antananarivo are on a half board basis, breakfast and supper.  We were okay with that since many of the hotels are in remote areas and are the only place to eat anyway. It seems that many of the these hotels will give us a choice of only one to two dishes. Since Po and I eat almost anything, we should be fine.

At check in we were asked to choose our supper choice for that evening of zebu or tilapia. I chose the zebu for the second night in a row. Po asked for the tilapia.  We took our much needed showers. Reviews were mixed on hot water. But we hot plenty of solar heated water.

We went back to the dining room to meet up with José and be introduced to our guide for the next three days, Johnny Archy. Johnny explained the plan for the cruise and that we had to start the next day by checking in with the local police.

We had dinner. I really enjoyed mine, but Po’s tilapia was a small fish cooked whole that has lots of bones. Tasty, but hard to eat.

The room was a bit warm. There are screens on the windows but not on the sliding door. You can open the door and take your chances on bugs, of which there were not many and use the mosquito net or live with it being a bit warm. Po would not consider the door being open. Luckily it was not too warm.

There were no mosquitos to be seen, which makes me wonder about all our precautions. I will be happy to have messed with the malaria pills for no reason.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Brief Update After Finishing the Boat Trip

We have arrived at our hotel in Bekopaka, near Tsingy. We have very slow internet. I managed to get a few things posted to Facebook, but will leave my big updates on this until later. The boat trip was fantastic, more than I had expected or hoped for. We had five staff looking after the two of us. The food was great, the scenery fantastic and seeing the life on the river was the best part. I am working on my journals so will post them as soon I get to someplace with a bit faster internet. I will try again tomorrow night. The Internet works when the generator is running, between 5 and 10 pm.

I have taken hundreds of photographs, so have lots of work to do on those.

Monday, 22 August 2016

A Long Time Before Another Post

We are heading out early tomorrow morning. Jose (pronounced Jozy) is picking us up at 8. It looks like our accommodations over the next week will be in pretty remote places, including tents, so it is not likely that I will be able to post to the blog for several days.


The restaurant at Chalet des Roses is quite nice and seems quite popular with local folks not staying in the hotel.

I guess I will do the photograph of my meal thing a few times on the trip. This is our first zebu. The meal cost about $13 US. 

Photos from our Tana Tour

We Meet Irina

Irina doing the math on the exchange

Our Day in Antananarivo

After a good night’s sleep we tried our first breakfast in Madagascar. The hotel serves breakfast in the lobby. Most guests went for the standard breakfast of white bread and jam. I have read that we should expect this everywhere. The bread today looked fresh, but that will often not be the case. We decided to go for yoghurt and bananas (separate choices but we put them together.)

We then waited for Irina from our travel agency to come. I have been exchanging emails with her for months. It was fun to actually meet her. We reviewed the itinerary (with which I am totally familiar but Po is not). At the end of the meeting we paid her the rest of the money that we owed on the trip. Since we were using a credit card, she had to calculate the Euro bill into Ariary. It came to over 9,000,000. This is an expensive trip!

I have to say that I am quite pleased so far with Espace Mada. I was a little nervous about trusting a small agency here with our money and trip. But Irina seems to have everything under control. I mentioned that my birthday is the day we spend in Salary Bay on the coast. She said she will let them  know. I guess I might get a special treat.

After our meeting she walked us up the hill to a small tourist building where we booked a walking tour for the afternoon. (Our Espace Mada tour does not start until Tuesday.)

Since the walking tour did not start until 2:00, we headed back down to our hotel where we shared a pizza for lunch. It was quite good. Since we live in Pouch Cove, we cannot just pop in for a good pizza anytime we want, so whether it is in Madagascar or some other place, it was a nice treat. It was also a warm up for the great meal we ended up having there in the evening

In the afternoon we met up with our guide Max. We then proceeded on a three hour walk up and down the hills of Tana. It was quite a work out. We were happy that we had not tried to do this on our own. Max did a great job explaining the history of our various stops. We also learned things such as the fact that most Malagasy names start with Ra. And we might have gotten lost once or twice.

It was a bit warm but generally quite comfortable weather for a walk. The high was in the mid-20’s. Unfortunately there was a haze which I had to battle for my photographs. Generally we expect to have nice weather with highs in the 20’s and lows around 12 or higher. (For my American readers that means a high in the 70’s).

As noted, we went back to the hotel restaurant for supper. Since we have been advised to avoid walking after dark and the restaurant is probably as good as any in the area, we were content to dine both nights at the hotel. We both tried our first zebu. As I mentioned in last night’s blog, I guessed that the quality of the traditional Malagasy food was not up to the standard of the rest of the menu. I was right. The meal was very, very good. Oh, and it cost 40,000 Ariary, all of about $13 for the two of us.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Photos From the Plane and the Road From the Airport

Arrival in Madagascar

We arrived right on time in Madagascar. Based on the stories I  had read about long delays and a bit of corruption, I was expecting a difficult experience getting through the airport. It probably helped that we were towards the front of the plane. We quickly went through passport control and were sent to the visa counter. We had to pay a bit over 50 Euros for the two of us for our 30 day visas.

We were then sent to another counter where two other people looked over our passports and the forms that we filled out on the plane. So that meant that four different people looked over our documents in a few minutes. I can see that those people at the back of the plane might have been delayed, but it did not take all that long for us. We picked  up our bags (yahoo!) which had been tagged from London. Everyone gets their bags searched at customs, but again, we had little delay there.

Outside the door we found a man holding up a sign with my name on it. That was our guide. (We had a hard time understanding his name, so will confirm tomorrow with Irina, the lady from the agency.) We left our bags with him and went back to exchange some Euros for Ariary. With the exchange rate we ended up with over 500,000. We ended up with a big wad of bills, and that is with getting big denominations.

The driver dropped us at our hotel. He warned us about pickpockets in the neighbourhood. Since it was almost dark anyway (gets dark early this time of year in Madagascar) we did not go out.

Irina is coming to the hotel tomorrow morning to meet with us and review the final details of the trip. I have been exchanging emails with her for months. Other than meeting Irina, we have no scheduled activities tomorrow. We will probably do a bit of exploring on our own. Our actual tour starts on Tuesday when we will be picked up early and taken to the town closest to the river cruise.

Our hotel is quite okay.  We ate in the restaurant downstairs. It was quite busy. It is Italian but also offers some local dishes. I tried the Malagasy Coconut chicken. Although it was okay, I do not think it is of the standard of the Italian and European fare. Tomorrow night I am going to try the Zebu pepper steak.

So far everything has worked out. The flights were all okay (they got us where we needed to go),  the London train and hotel were fine and we arrived in Madagascar (along with our bags) and were met at the airport and taken to a good hotel. Now I think I can start to relax and enjoy the country.

Our Hotel in Antananarivo

We have arrived in Madagascar. This is our hotel, which is fine, but wifi is a bit weak so might have to go downstairs to update the blog with a few more photos and story of our arrival.

En Route

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport

We have arrived in Mauritius, only a few minutes late, so connecting to Madagascar has worked out fine. There is a website called FlightAware where you can check the history of flights over a couple of months. I had seen that the London flight had been close to on time 9 times out 10. A recurring theme, we are enjoying lattes. These turned out to be free. We are in transit so have no Mauritian Rupees. We asked if they took Visa. When they said yes we ordered. But our cards (their new matchine we assume, it is a new store apparently) were rejected. They would take Euros but only give back Rupees. We had only bigger bills. Our coffees were already made, so the manager gave them to us. But he did not give Po her almond croissant.

On the plane early this morning

It is 4:20 London time, so we have been in the air for about 7 hours. I gave up on sleep when I could not stay in my seat any longer. And my nephew’s voice was in my head, “Get up Uncle Bob, get some water, walk around.” In 2011 I took a trip to Botswana with Mike. He is a regular international traveller with his job. He kept bringing back bottles of water. “Drink this. You have to stay hydrated.” That flight was about 15 hours so I think I will survive this one. I did break my hydration  rules and had some wine with my dinner. They never feed you on domestic flights, but you get dinner at 11 pm on international ones.

I guess it is okay that I did not get a backlit keyboard. I can type this from the light of the screen in a darkened aircraft. Before we left I was using both my computer and my new iPad to update this blog. I think it takes about 3 times longer on the iPad. It is not just the small keyboard and screen. works differently as well. When I get a few paragraphs with photographs and then do some editing of a saved post, I find the curser jumping up and down. I type one letter, up goes the curser. It comes back down with each keystroke. I have lost some brilliant thoughts a couple of times  when everything froze. The retyped text is shorter.

We had a nice chat with a Mauritian lady in the departure lounge. I felt guilty that we are only spending a couple of hours there, just there to connect to get to our Madagascar flight. Here we were, going all that way and not stopping for a few nights in her country. She knew someone who had moved to Newfoundland, but she thought they had moved on to someplace else in Canada, someplace warmer. (Imagine that!)  I might have done the trip differently, booking a couple of days at the beach in Mauritius before heading into Tana. But, it is too late now.

There was actually a bride, still wearing her gown, waiting for the plane. The guy with her (assume her new husband, or maybe she was running off with an old boyfriend?) was not wearing his tux. That would have to be so uncomfortable to wear that for 12 hours. I don’t know if she is still wearing it as this is a big plane, with few empty seats.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Photos from our Saturday in London

I had to say hello to the Newfoundland guy.

We are at Heathrow again. We took a long walk today, doing a bit of the London tourist thing. We went past Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, etc. I took a few photos when the mobs allowed. When we were almost back to the hotel we passed through a Lebanese neighbourhood. Just as I was thinking that this was more interesting than all the touristy spots like the palace, Po said, "I like this better than all those touristy spots." London was fine, but my heart was not really into experiencing the place as it was only included to give a margin of error on the connection (not needed) and to get a good night's sleep before a long 12 hour, overnight flight (got that).

We did have a couple of good meals. I was two for two on restaurants. I chose a little French bistro this afternoon. I had the best French toast of my life. I was silly enough to ask for some syrup. The waiter suggested it was not necessary. He was right. He said, "Oh, you mean like with bacon and all that. This is real French toast."

We zipped into Heathrow on the return ticket of the Heathrow Express. It dropped us at Terminal 3; there is a free train to Terminal 4. We had to walk past some crazy lines for other airlines such as China Air. At the very end we found Air Mauritius with a short line up. We survived security although Po set off the alarm and was scanned. Now we have a long wait for the plane.

But tomorrow we will be in Madagascar. After all these months it is happening.

I have had problems posting from my iPad, so will post this and then add the photos from today.

Friday, 19 August 2016

The Paddington Station Sprint

While waiting for Clara at Paddington Station, we were wondering why everyone seemed to be watching the information board so closely. It was not like they were just checking for information. It was almost like they were lining up for something. Clara explained that they are waiting to know the track number of their train. Then everyone runs to get to the their train.

Arrived in London

We have arrived in London. The flight was about as good as can be expected in modern travel. It was on time and not totally full. It is really great that we have the direct flights out of St. John's to London.

Heathrow is a bit overwhelming. It seems to be about the size of St. John's. We walked for over ten or fifteen minutes to get to immigration, then another walk of the same length to get to the Express Train. Then we were at Paddington Station in about fifteen minutes.

The Express Train is really nice. There is a place to put luggage, comfy seats and wifi. It is way more expensive than the Tube, but not so bad if you buy your tickets in advance. I bought ours on a 30 day advance ticket basis.

We are at the Mitre House Hotel. It was a five minute walk from the station. I expected that we would just leave our bags and come back later to get our room, but they gave us a room right away. We crashed for a couple of hours and then met Po's friend Clara for lunch.

She and Po are grieving their mutual friend who passed away suddenly a couple of weeks ago after she and Clara visited Newfoundland.  After lunch we walked around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens and then ended the visit with a delicious Indian supper.

Sent from Bob Brink's iPad

Thursday, 18 August 2016

At the Airport, On our Way

We are through check in and security, really early, although I prefer it that way. It is really nice using our little airport. Tomorrow morning we will arrive at a bit bigger place, Heathrow. Thanks to our friends Mary Pat and Dennis for giving us supper and a ride to the airport.

Before we left Pouch Cove, we stopped to see our good friend, Shirley. She is not sure we are coming back. We are instructing all our friends to keep Shirley informed as to our status.

This is a relatively short flight tonight. I am so happy to have a direct flight from St. John's rather than having to back track to Toronto. We arrive at 6:30. I have booked tickets on the train into London. It goes to Paddington Station, so I booked a hotel nearby.

Bags are Packed

Our bags are packed as we are waiting for the 10 pm flight to London. The adventure begins!

I signed up for a Bell plan so that we can communicate by phone when we do not have internet for using email. What a difference from the "olden days" of travel when I was out of touch with my family for weeks at a time, with only the occasional postcard to let everyone know I was okay. And those postcards would take weeks to arrive.

Once I start making a bit more interesting posts with some photographs, please leave comments.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Being Prepared

Back in May Po and I dutifully went off to Jema Travel Clinic in St. John's to discuss what we needed for Madagascar. We found that I was still okay with the Twinrix (hepatitis A & B) injections I had received in 2011 for my trip to Botswana, but Po had to get hers. In addition we have received injections for typhoid, polio, and tetanus. This last week we drank our Dukoral which is supposed to protect us against travellers' diarrhea caused by E. coli. We were also prescribed an antibiotic to take just in case of bloody diarrhea. We hope not to be in the position of deciding if it is time to take them. I am also hoping that all mentions of diarrhea in this blog will end with this post, not later when one of us is suffering from it!

Those things were all kind of standard. But the clinic did suggest a couple of others which we declined. One was rabies. I thought about that one for several days and spent a long time on the Internet, but finally concluded that the odds were really against us getting exposed to it. Apparently there have been no known cases of lemurs giving anyone rabies. The other was the measles/mumps/rubella for which, based on our ages, we have natural immunity. Our family doctor had us get blood tests to confirm.

So we handled all the easy stuff, get the needles, deal with short term side effects and be done with it things. We now had to decide about malarial pills. All of Madagascar is considered malaria endemic, all year round. However, we are going to be travelling in the winter and 90% will be in the dryer part of the island. Still, the on line forums seemed to conclude that it was a good idea to take them.

I am thinking about how the above two paragraphs sound. I am taking my medical advice from on line forums! Well, of course I am, this is how things work now. But I did read the government sites and listened to medical professionals as well.

We had two kinds of malarial pills to choose from, doxycycline or Malarone. The former, as the name suggests, is actually an antibiotic. Doxycycline is cheaper but has more known side effects. So we have gone with Malarone. Thanks to Po's university health plan (she is in the doctoral program at Memorial) the costs were covered. Otherwise we would have been out several hundred dollars.

Monday, 15 August 2016


Once I had decided on the Madagascar land tour, I had to figure how to get there. I tried the various on line flight searches, and they kept coming up with Air France, Toronto or Montreal to Paris and then direct flight to Tana (I will use the common short name for Antananarivo from now on). I did not want that for three reasons. I did not like the idea of heading west from St. John's in order to go east. Also, in reading on line reviews the seating configuration of the Air France planes was mentioned in many posts. The standard seating in the cheap seats is 2-4-2. Air France manages to squeeze 3-4-3 into their rear cabin. And, the final reason was that the Air France flight arrives in Tana at 11 pm,  meaning arrival at hotel at about 1:30 or 2 am once all the arrival formalities and drive to town are completed. Then, at the end of the trip the departing flight leaves at 1:30 am. 

I wanted to take the South African Air flight from London to Johannesburg, but that kept coming up as hundreds dollars more. The flights via Nairobi were not working, either, as nothing affordable came up on the searches. I was really surprised at how hard it was to find the right flights.

I finally came up with Air Mauritius flights from London to Mauritius to Tana. The connection in London is over 12 hours. I decided to book a night in London to do a bit of sight seeing and get a good night's sleep before heading out on the long flight to Mauritius.  It also gives a lot more margin for error. Living in Newfoundland, there is always the worry about planes not taking off. Even though August is normally a time without fog, there are always tropical storms to think about. Not to mention the possibility of Air Canada simply cancelling their once a day flight. Our Air Canada flights are on a separate ticket from the Air Mauritius flights, so if for some reason Air Canada does not get us to London to catch our Air Mauritius flight, we are out of luck.  

The Air Mauritius flights are 12 hours overnight from London to Mauritius with a fairly short 2 hour connection before the 2 hour flight into Tana, arriving at the respectable time of 3 pm.

I decided to let a travel agent, Al Been of Nexion Canada, do the actual bookings. The tickets were booked and paid for back in April, months before we had to put anything down on the Madagascar car and hotels.

Oh, there actually was another important decision made at that time. Po decided that she was going. Until that point it looked like it might be just me going on the trip. But when it came down actually buying the plane tickets, Po decided to come on board, in spite of the bad roads and creepy, crawly things that she is bound to encounter.

Espace Mada

Here is the website of the agency I am working with in Madagascar:

About Doing a Blog

I have done my first two posts. I will be updating the blog from my new Ipad with a keyboard cover that I bought for the trip. I made the first post from the Ipad to see how that was going to work. So far, so good. It is much easier to work with the IPad than I expected, but certainly not the same as from a computer.

Internet will be a hit or miss thing in Madagascar. We will have evenings in national parks, two nights on the river, several nights on the coast. We might be able to check email in places, but uploading to the blog, especially adding photographs could be a bit problematic. So bear with me!

By the way, as I type this I am watching breaching whales on the other side of the cove. How many people can see that from their office?

Organizing the Land Portion of the Madagascar Trip

It really was a pop up that got me started on Madagascar.
I had decided that it was time to do a big trip. I really love Pouch Cove and have happily stayed home when friends went off to Cuba, Florida, Europe and other places. Back in my younger days I had travelled widely. I went off to live in Botswana when I was 22. I made two long trips back to the US by heading east with stops in places like Kenya, the Seychelles, Nepal, India, China and Australia. Then Po and I settled in Canada and trips have been confined to North America.  
That changed in 2011 when I finally went back to Botswana. After breaking out of my travelling rut I thought I would be making another big trip within a year or two. But those years stretched into five. So one day I decided it was time to find a trip. I was actually looking at trips to Mongolia and Bhutan when a pop up ad for Madagascar appeared. I immediately said, “That’s it!” and clicked on the ad.
At first I looked at group tours. There were a couple that sounded quite interesting. But I had two issues with the group tours. One was the number of people that I might be travelling with. I would have been okay with a group of six or eight, but all the tours had a maximum number of sixteen. A bigger problem was that none of the tours went to everyplace I wanted to visit in Madagascar. 

After reading many blogs, watching more than a few You Tube videos and reading many web sites of the local travel agents, I came to understand that the best way to travel in Madagascar is with your own vehicle and driver. The agencies have suggested itineraries which can be changed according to your personal preferences. I read about Espace Mada, the agency that runs the very popular boat trips down the Tsiribihina (or as it always referred to-“Descente de la Tsiribihina”). Their website mentioned a 20 day tour called the “la Grand Boucle” or the Big Loop in English. I now had my route!

We will go counter clockwise.

The trip really starts with the Descente de la Tsiribihina. From there it includes Tsingy, Avenue of the Baobabs, and Morandava, before heading into a key part of this trip, travelling down the coast of Madagascar between Morondava and Toliara. Due to the poor roads most tours have their travellers fly between the towns. But, a big reason for this trip is to photograph baobabs,and flying would miss some of the best places to see baobabs. We will also have a couple of two night stops at fabulous beach hotels.
After the coastal stops the trip heads back towards the east with stops at Isalo, Andringtira, Fianarantsoa, Antoetra and Antsirabe.
I made a few changes to the suggested Grand Boucle trip. I added a one night stop in Kirindy Forest Reserve, two nights in Andasibe - Mantadia National Park, an extra night at the start in Antananarivo and a stop in Manja.
Manja was an interesting decision. At times they advertise the trip with a stop there. Other times it is with a very long 12 hour drive that goes right on past. Manja has one hotel. Reviews vary from “Well, it is the only place to stay” to “Do not stay here”. I went with the stop.
I attempted to contact other agencies. Some never replied. A few, such GMT+3 and Cactus Tours were quite prompt with their replies but I had already gotten far enough along with Espace Mada that I decided to stay with them. I have Googled them several times. All that come up are positive references. We have now paid a deposit, so we are in their hands.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Why Madagascar?

We are off in four days on our great adventure to Madagascar.

Why Madagascar? It seems everyone asks that question. That might be part of the attraction. It is a different place. It has its own plants and animals, its own people. It is just different. It is definitely a photographer’s paradise with lemurs, baobab trees, a beautiful coast (it is an island after all) with fishing villages and white sandy beaches, a limestone forest, a national park that reminds everyone of the US southwest, and the eastern rain forest.

Have I been thinking about a trip to Madagascar for a long time? Not really. But it was always kind of there in the back of my mind. My wife and I lived in Botswana for about ten years back in the 70’s and 80’s. We had a good friend at that time, Ellen Drake, who  lived in Botswana for about 30 years. Ellen was a writer. She was fascinated with baobab trees.

The second question I get is, "What is a baobab tree?"  If you do not remember the Little Prince and his tree, here are a couple photographs of the baobabs of Madagascar:

Ellen always wanted to do a coffee table book on baobabs. She did get a small book published, but not a coffee table book. She even made a trip to Madagascar in the 90’s to view and photograph several species.

Here is a short excerpt from her book, “A book of Baobabs”:

“There are eight species of baobabs in the world today. Seven of these occur in Madagascar, and six of those seven are endemic – i.e. they do not occur naturally anywhere else.

Madagascar is exceptional, not just for its baobabs, but for nearly everything else as well. One travel writer said she liked the place because of its 'otherness'. Madagascar doesn't live by the rules that govern the rest of the world.

Madagascar is the fourth largest island on earth. It was separated from the gigantic land mass known as Gondwanaland when the latter began to break apart some 165 million years ago. From the time of its separation from the continents, Madagascar's fauna and flora evolved in isolation.

All of the island's indigenous mammals are endemic, as are over 90% of its reptiles and 80% of all native plants. Of the world's 400 odd families of flowering plants, 200 grow only in Madagascar.”

In addition to a book on our whole  trip to Madagascar, I am going to make a book on baobabs, or I should say “Ellen’s Big Book of Baobabs”. I will combine her text with my photographs I take on this trip with ones I took on my trip to Botswana in 2011.  (such as the one below from Kubu Island)