Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 63: Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, Batcave!

Having done a longer hike the day before we were excited that today's would be a short easy jaunt to a cave we knew nothing about besides that it was the 'Bat Cave'. Our expectations were quickly shattered when the 7 AM sun was proving to be far hotter than expected and a few more hills and valleys were encountered.

Crossing over a small patch of Tsingy we arrived at concrete steps, Seth told us three times (per language) that there were 163 of them. Seth informed us that we were to avoid doing anything taboo while in the caves, luckily there were only two things to avoid doing: wearing a hat, and menstruating.

After an awkward silence we continued down; the steps hugged the edge of the rock wall, as we descended we could see a huge cave entrance opening up before us. Once we reached the bottom, Craig removed his hat and we started up into the first chamber. Thankfully there were only a few points where the ceiling was low or the passage narrow. Inside swarms of bats flew around, whizzing past our faces, Erin spotted a rat and we were shown things that look like other things as is very common in Madagascar we have learned. On the way our we saw a the bones of a local grave as the people who live around the Tsingy used to (maybe still do?) bury their dead in the caves.

The second cave require much less work as it was a large slit in the rock face leading under the Tsingy. After the cave it was back to the bungalow to pack our bags and make our way to Diego, but not before stopping to admire another new lemur.
It didn't take long sitting out in the heat of the day to flag down a passing Taxi-Brousse (the later word is pronounce like Bruce, hence Craig calls them 'Bruces'), already packed with people, they were still able to find room for us of course though. In Canada the van that we were in would legally seat 12, however they had added a bench in the trunk, and a bench behind the driver, making 18 (very small) seats. With the addition of us there were 26 people, plus bags, needless to say that it was not the most comfortable journey.

 It was however a pretty decent road so we were able to do the 102 km to Diego Suarez in just under four hours. From there it was a 45 minute taxi ride to the sleepy fishing village of Ramena situated on the world's second largest bay (Rio is the biggest). Ending the day on a high note with sunset drinks on the beach.

Day 62: Getting to the 'Point'

 We'd left leeches behind us for a dry, dusty trail. Our guidebook said to be aware of scorpions, but we seemed to be the only ones worried of such things. Most others on the trail had shorts on, sometimes sandals, and one girl we passed was even wearing flip flops! It was only once our guide had difficulty finding one purposefully to show us (he never did) that Erin finally felt at ease (though she left her pants tucked into her socks for the whole hike just in case!).

L'Ankarana is famous for its rock forest, locally called Tsingy, pronounced like the rapper Chingy. They were formed by acid rain according to our guide, Seth.

Seth was friendly, though maybe too chatty for our taste, and often difficult to understand. He boasted about being able to speak English, but it was much better to rely on our somewhat limited French. He would give us 'exercises' where we had to find things that he spotted, which we liked. It's definitely part of the fun to discover a chameleon for yourself! We were less thrilled when he would stop and explain a parking lot to us, which happened.

We started strong and saw a nocturnal Eupilemur (?). It was rather cute as it lazily opened its huge eyes to see what all the noise was. We added to our list the ___ chameleon. We passed by 'The Lost River' where three rivers (they were dry, only rivers in rainy season) meet at a large hole in the ground, the cave empties out into the Mozambique Channel 70 km away.

The hike contiuned on, easier than Marjojey because of the dryness and relatively flat trail, but it grew increasingly difficult throughout the day due to the blazing desert heat. We continued on to see the vazaha tree. Its named after the Malagasy word for white people, vazahah. Can you guess why? Notice the bark peels just like the skin of white people when they get burnt in beautiful Madagascar. Charming.

At long last, we came to a viewpoint which looked out over the Tsingy. Tsingy meaning point, a well deserved name given the vast field of jagged rock peaks in front of us.
The next goal was to cross them. Thankfully there was a well-worn trail for most of it where you could see past footsteps had worn down their tops, but our guide still cautioned us, "To fall means to be injured." Not only that, but next to the trail grew scraggly shrubs with thorns and spikey green plants!

We crossed two suspension bridges (one at a time) and took in the vastness of this unusual land. Our photos just don't do justice to the true depth of the valleys between them, or the sharpeness of each point. Seth demonstrated the former by tossing a rock down a chasm. It clicked and clacked for what felt like minutes as it fell the full 70 meters to the hidden bottom of the Tsingy.

We wound our way back via a different path and discovered further interesting landforms. We stopped to look at a new bird species, then laughed when we realized a few minutes later that there was a lemur right above it!

The sun blazed overhead, so we were thankful when we finally turned towards our bungalow. We didn't mind one bit that we didn't have hot water!

Day 59, 60, & 61: Calm Water and Rough Roads

  We successfully manoeuvred our second taxi-brousse ride the next day to take us from Sambava to Vohemar. We were fortunate enough to get the front seats again (a girl who had been sitting there got kicked out), and no one else was offered the straddle seat. Many, many people joined in the back and we felt badly for how squished they were, but we tried to 'look big' each time we stopped so that we wouldn't have a seatmate.

In Vohemar we found a lovely little hotel right on the beach. We were surprised and sceptical when they told us their hotel was full and all they had left was one room, the most expensive of the lot, without an ocean view. But we took it under the condition we could switch the next day.

We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon Skyping and adding blog posts overlooking the Indian Ocean. That night we were subjected to a party worthy of Uganda, with the noise only subsiding at 3 am. In the morning, we discovered we had a second set of shutters we could have put over the doors to help block out the noise, so we weren't affected by the all-night party that took place.

The day in between was like the afternoon before. Erin got a glimpse of one of Madagascar's exhumation ceremonies where a group of people paraded a coffin draped in a white gauze sheet up the beach in loud celebration. This is an important part of their religion and these ceremonies are common in the months of September to November as they honour their ancestors.

To reach our next destination, Ankarana National Park, (200 km away), we had two options: suffer through a taxi-brousse ride that could take between 7 and 17 HOURS or hire our own 4x4 to take us. We opted for Plan B! The road surpassed that of the Masai Mara for the size and number of bumps, holes, and nearly impassable sections. At least it was money well spent!

We left the beach behind and gradually the lushness disappeared. It seemed like we went over a hill and suddenly found ourselves in the desert. Red dust filled the car and our view was filled with cacti and weird rock formations. We passed only 46 vehicles, 7 of which were broken down and being repaired on (there were more that had been abandoned with missing axles along the side of the road).

Craig counted down the percentage of the road we had remaining as we held on for dear life, even with our seatbelts on! But every time we passed a Bruce going the other way, we felt relieved for the space we had and the speed at which we were going.

This shirt was sparklingly white before the drive.

For us, we were told it could take up to 11 hours if the road was bad, but we pulled into the nearby town just 6 hours after leaving. Our driver stopped for lunch (he asked us if we wanted to eat, we asked how much further it was to our destination, and he responded with 'I'm eating here then we go'). By 2 we had arrived at the park gates and our accomodation which were side-by-side. Over the next hour, we battled a debate over how much we were to pay (for some reason he wanted us to pay for four times the amount of fuel we used?) but with some mediation and many phone calls back to the office, our driver finally nodded, shook our hands and left. We're hoping we won't have trouble leaving the country with our 'unpaid debt.'

We splurged on a bungalow with a private bath ($16) and enjoyed another round of Zebu brochettes. The evening was only tainted by our first cockroach experience, but we realize that we're pretty lucky to have been travelling for two months without having had one yet!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Day 58: Back to Reality

The Marojejy Side-Striped Chameleon.
Although easier than the hike in the long hike out was still gruelling in the intensely slippery conditions following the previous day's rain. Everything was a hazard, from the rocks, mud, and roots, the previously quiet air now buzzed with mosquitoes that were not there the day before. Further adding to the exhaustion was the increased leech threat following rain, thus we normally chose to push on without breaks, unless wildlife viewing was involved. These amazing creatures keep our spirits up.

We waited patiently for a picture of this neon-green butterfly

We're excited for orchid season in the south!

Like, what the heck is this?

We thought our guide was calling this a blue quail...
turns out coua is not the French word for's a blue coua

Zebu, the cow relative

We were pleased with ourselves because we caught up with the French tourist who has left a bit before us. He is here biking around Madagascar. We were extra pleased when we convinced him to share a private taxi back to Sambava, so we didn't have to battle the Bruce again! We took a much needed shower (double-lathering to try to get the smell off!) and gladly went to bed early.

Day 57: Deeper Into the Jungle

There's nothing quite like waking up to the sounds of nature. It re-energized us and helped us get back on our feet. We had planned on surviving on a banana each and some nuts to start, but knowing what we'd been through the day before, we thought it wiser to have something slightly more nourishing for breakfast. We shared a cup of powdered tomato soup, compliments of the ex-pat grocery store we'd found in Dar, and a cup of rice. After packing up our stuff, we were ready to go! Before exiting the camp, Erin caught a glimpse of a ring-tailed mongoose, likely ready to scavenge for leftovers from our meals.

Northern Ring-Tailed Mongoose

Boa Above!
The hike to the next camp was only 2 km, but the incline and humidity soon set in. We got a nice surprise half-way through when Craig stopped after being hit from above. He searched the trees and soon spotted a white-fronted brown lemur. Our talented guide, Jean-Louis, made some noises and encouraged them to come closer. We were happy with our great view of the male's snowy mane. Watching them leap from tree to tree is exciting, and quite different from a monkey. They seem to spring off their long hind-legs and their tail is left to flap behind.

White-Fronted Brown Lemur (male)

Other sights of the day included a brookesia (above), also called a stump-tailed chameleon, and more bamboo lemurs. We loved hiking through the bamboo forests with their regal roots surfacing like a whale from the soil and the smooth shafts acting as great hand-holds.

The second camp was perched on rocks overlooking the esteemed summit. We were at the top (or what felt like the top) of a cascade. This time we had a dining hall with a stunning view. Erin felt pleased with the hike, and conscious of the big blisters on her heels (and the stormy clouds above), opted to stay behind and take in the views. Meanwhile, Craig accompanied Jean-Louis and headed out to meet up with the special guide we'd hired to help us find the elusive Silky Sifaka.

The hike up the mountain to find the tracker and thus the rare Silky Sifaka was a steep one, roots climbed out of the mud to form stairs, each step above the knee. The guide would howl into forest; a few seconds later we would receive the tracker's reply. Near the top of the first plateau the tracker sounded very near, and much like gorillas and chimpanzees it was time to go off-trail. This experience proved the most difficult as the valley was steep, the ground an undulating mass of life, past and present, and the lemurs moved with great speed. Desperately holding onto saplings and becoming ensnared in the roots time and time again, Craig was finally rewarded. The lemurs were close much of the time, joyfully jumping through the trees.

For the rest of the afternoon, we lazed around in the dining area admiring the view and hiding from the rain. We leisurely prepared lunch/dinner: a dish that must have been the envy of the three guides and one other tourist we saw (although they ate 1.5 hours before us). We cooked dry beans, added rice, and sautéed chives, carrots, ginger and lemon in with them. Then as a topping we made our mango salsa with garlic, and shallots in lemon juice. To top it off, Craig found some curry in the supply cupboard - a delicious creation! It was so much fun to cook together again.

The rest of the small crew at Camp Two disappeared into their bungalows for the afternoon while we played cards, got caught up on our blog, and read. (Side note: our year-long cribbage tournament is now at 6-3 for Erin!)

We watched our mongoose friends rummage around the site for scraps, identified some new bird species, and settled in for another great sleep.

Day 56: Alone in the Wild

We'd been advised to get to the park around 7am since we hadn't booked ahead. The best we could do was wake up at 5:30 am, which got us to town by 6. As like most East African countries (and many places in the world), buses don't leave at a certain time; they leave once they're full. In Madagascar, their form of public transit is called a taxi-brousse (a bush taxi). Craig likes to write them as taxi-Bruces so you might see that in some of our upcoming entries. These vary in terms of the type of vehicle. For us in Sambava, they were elongated mini-vans.

It's a tough choice - do you get in one that's empty so you can sit at the front with the driver and have more space, or do you get in one that's squished-full knowing that it will leave sooner? We were dropped off by one that was near-empty so we got the good seats up front, but spent the next hour driving up and down the same stretch of road with people getting on, sometimes getting off to hop on another that was fuller, etc. We stopped to put bags on and boxes to transport. The van seemed to be full of seat-fillers to help encourage others to get in. Our driver changed three get the picture. Just after 7 am, we were finally on our way.

The ride was pretty smooth, well-marked, and roomy until a fourth person was added to the front bench seat. We were happy at that point to see we were only 17 km away from our destination (which turned out to be only 7 km because our Lonely Planet was wrong again!). Thankfully our driver knew where we were going, so he stopped and let us off at the park office.

After sorting ourselves out with a guide, a special guide, and two porters, we were off on our way. (It turned out we were the ONLY people in the park that day). The first hour or more of the hike took us along a thin dirt road through the communities that our park fees helped support with schools, etc. It was apparent that in the rainy season it must rain a lot since all the homes were built up on short stilts, many homes had walls made out of woven bamboo like we'd seen in Sambava. The people were friendly and the children happily and shyly would come up to us with a "Bonjour Monsieur! Bonjour Madame!" We were rewarded with views across rice paddies to the mountainous jungle ahead of us.

We were very excited to see our first chameleon (famous for inspiring the name of Chamillionaire) as well as other large colourful reptiles. As we approached the forest we passed many local people working the surrounding areas, many were cutting down small trees (and then carrying back the rather large logs to make charcoal), others fished with small nets in the shallow streams. With each step the forest grew around us and we could feel that we were very near the park boundary.

As the forest grew in around us, so too did the sounds of the jungle take us in, birds sounded from every direction, along the path there'd be a rustle of leaves from a retreating lizard, or the surprising loud chorus of marching feet as a foot-long millipede crawled along next to us. At the park entrance we found a pleasant gazeboo to rest and have our first meal of the day (a few handfuls of nuts), before continuing on in the heat. The jungle was thick now and each curvy, spiralling vine tendril acted as a hook that caught our gaze, pulling it up into the never-ending labyrinth of branches and leaves in search of our first lemur.

Strange white fluffy insects, plants found nowhere else on earth, orchids, and giant pill bugs (larger than a golf ball when rolled up) were all found along the path. It was amazing to hike
FINALLY we made it to the ENTRANCE!
in a place where 70% of the things we saw we'd never seen before. Cries of, "What the heck do you think that is?" and "That MUST be the cure for cancer!" could be heard. Unused to the heat and humidity, we tended to lag behind our guide a little bit, so it was normal for us to round a bend to see him waiting for us looking off into the forest. Each time we hoped he had found something amazing. For the first hour each time he turned, saw us and continued on his way. Then he said the word we had been waiting for, lemur. He could only see the branches moving some 30m away but he knew from the call that it was a Bamboo Lemur. "Do you want to try to see?" he asked. A moment later we were trudging through dense underbrush in the general direct of the branches that had been moving. We reached a precipous and from here we would have to scan the trees. Craig spotted one not too far away looking at us, but shortly after everyone had seen it, the lemur had vanished into a bamboo thicket.

Bamboo Lemur

Our elation upon having seen a lemur for the first time soon vanished when Erin made another discovery. A leech had attached itself to her stomach while we had been going through the bush. She was able to quickly remove it, however another travel badge was added to her shirt in the form of blood stains. Now slightly less relaxed and in the moment, and more often checking our pants and shoes (Erin found another on her pant leg) we continued on. We had been expecting a slightly easy hike solely based on the low elevation at which we were to be staying on the first night, but the rolling hills, heat, humidity, and shear length of the hike (almost 15km at this point) was enough to have us ready to curl up in bed for the night at 2:30pm when we finally arrived at Camp 1.

For lunch/dinner we made rice with garlic, shallots, carrots, tomato paste, fresh tomato, and corn. Considering it was the first cooking either of us had done in 2 months it turned out pretty well. Our meal was interrupted, though, when Erin spotted a Bamboo Lemur (and then another, and another) in the forest next to us. Over the next hour they slowly came closer and closer to us and allowed us to get many good looks as they ate bamboo leaves.

The lemurs still only 10 metres away our exhaustion had us wishing the sun would go down so it would be okay to hit the hay. At this point our guide told us it was time to go to the nearby waterfall, another 2km return.  Craig was ready to decline when Erin jumped in with "Okay!" (she debates now that it was said with any kind of exclamation point, but regardless, agreement had been made). A bit surprised by the new-found energy we strapped our shoes back on and headed down the slippery slope as the rains moved in.



Larger than a golf  ball
The skies opened up shortly after, hitting us hard if we were exposed but we were relatively dry if in a thicker part of the forest. On the way we got a view and the waterfall was far more impressive than we had thought it would be, however we were only halfway so we marched on. We arrived at the base of the waterfall but it was another few minutes before anyone enjoyed the view. Our pantlegs and shoes were all covered in leeches. The falls and views over the forest below were breath-taking but we were quite distracted by the thought that we didn't get them all. We were glad to turn back, return to camp and have our well-deserved sleep. Before drifting off, Craig selflessly strung up our mosquito net for Erin on her bunk so she'd be protected.

Day 55: It's Business Time!

After a delicious breakfast at our hotel, we met up with our previous day's driver at reception. He urged us to leave quickly because our flight time had changed - it was now leaving 45  minutes earlier (this is supposedly common in Madagascar). Thankfully we had no trouble making it through the one-gate airport in enough time, and it was a blessing because it meant we got to Sambava that much earlier.

When we had bought our tickets the day before, the cashier had urged us to buy business class tickets because they were cheaper than economy tickets. How, we're not quite sure, but the price was below what we were expecting, so we agreed. Her logic was that there are different tiers to ticket prices - Malagasy citizens in economy get the cheapest price, then it increases as such. At any rate, we were the only people in business class. We giggled as they pulled the curtain across and brought us food that no one else got. Craig relished being able to sit with his knees together and not have them touch the seat in front. We enjoyed the hour-long plane ride and were afforded views of the countryside. Approaching Sambava, we could see lush hills, mountains, and water. Close to the town was the ocean, turquoise waves crashing up on shore where on the other side of the bank a red-brown river flowed.

We made our way to Hotel Orcheada and were pleased to find they had a room free, though not the cheap bungalow on the ocean. The staff was friendly and the food delicious (we enjoyed our second taste of Zebu, the local cow relative, as much as our first). We were told that we couldn't just show up the next day at the National Park, and when calling the number in our Lonely Planet, we discovered the number was wrong. So it was recommended that we visit a cafe with a tourist office. We're not sure we learned anything new, but the operator was friendly and helpful and confirmed a lot of what we already thought.

We enjoyed our walk back through town, seeing the bank we'd seen in the air, us on the river side, waves crashing on the other. Local stalls lined the street and we laughed along with the girls and women as we bought groceries for the next three days. We were both excited about the idea of cooking again. The houses here are made primarily of woven strands of dried bamboo. Most that we've seen are all on stilt platforms likely due to the heavy rains.

In the end, we decided to leave some things behind at the hotel so that our bags wouldn't exceed the 15 kg maximum for porters. We were anxious when we realized the power was out and it seemed we wouldn't have a working camera or video camera for the trek, but it came on right before bed so we could sleep soundly!

Day 54: Bienvenue au Madagascar

 Leg Two begins with the extraordinary: Madagascar! It's been hard to contain our excitement about visiting this amazing country and we hope it will not disappoint!

Looking out the window we could see our first glimpse of Madagascar. The horizon changed from water to a sprawling arid landscape pock-marked with teal lakes, from which rusty veins flowed before merging into a large red river. At the transition between earth and sea, in a vast inlet where the turquoise ocean battled the murky river amongst tear drop islands, it appeared as if the two waters refused to yield to or blend with the other. We knew we would see some amazing things over the next 37 days.

We've been here a mere few hours and we already love it. Landing at the airport was relatively easy. We accomplished our six point To-Do list: 1) Buy a visa 2) Get our bags 3) Buy a SIM card and minutes (we have a phone number now!) 4) Change money 5) Buy airline tickets for the next day and 6) Find our driver (yes, we had someone waiting for us with our names on it). Slightly out of order, we got our visa and found our bags, then we met our amazing driver who directed us around the small airport to accomplish the rest of our tasks. Madagascar's main languages are Malagasy and French, thus Erin will be in charge of the next 37 days. Erin had been nervous that the dialect or accent would be difficult to understand, but it was beautiful European French. She was so pleased at the great start!

Driving into Tana (short for Antananarivo) we couldn't get over what we were seeing. Multi-story  houses cascaded down lush hills, which fed into plains of rice paddies. In between rice fields tiny mud-caked islands supported a cluster of houses, while children played soccer on dry desert squares with flimsy posts (no nets but they wore beautiful uniforms).

We'd be warned about the dangers of Tana, and only planned to spend the one night before taking off to Sambava. So we expected to arrive, lock ourselves up in our hotel and leave the next day without a second glance. Instead, we pulled up to our cosy townhouse hotel to the lively sounds of a rock concert on the other side of the street. Once we were reassured that it would not go on into the evening, we enjoyed the diverse set from our balcony. We tried to eat out for lunch, but with it being between lunch and dinner on a Sunday, nowhere was open.

We watched the red glow on Tana's Haute-Ville (very reminiscent of Quebec City) and managed to stay up to see the clock turn to 8:00. Then a great night's sleep awaited us.