<< markandrupa


october/november 2007

We chose to tour the world's fourth largest island with Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris - we had a fantastic time with them in Antarctica and were excited to join them on a three week tour of Madagascar's rainforests and deserts. Eighty percent of the island's flora and ninety percent of its fauna are endemic, independently evolving over the past seventy million years. With the help of our guides we searched out these unique species, including chameleons, couas, vangas, tenrecs, lemurs and other exciting creatures.


Enjoy a slideshow of our adventure (142 pics).

Trip log

  1. Antananarivo, Madagascar - october 17

    Our trip began in Johannesburg, South Africa, where we had just finished ten days of safari near Kruger and four days on a beach in Mozambique. At the airport we met our naturalist guide, Fraser, and two other guests, Dennis and Alice. Fraser was a tall, broad-shouldered South African in his mid thirties who had traveled extensively throughout Africa (and Madagascar) guiding trips and roughing it in remote destinations.

    Three hours later, as we coasted 30,000 over Madagascar, I was surprised to look down and see so much land covered in open savannah. I had expected to find the island covered in rainforest, but centuries of clear-cutting and unsustainable farming have left it largely barren. At the small Antananarivo airport we met our Malagasy guide, Guy (pronounced 'Gee'), who would handle logistics throughout our stay. He was quiet, thoughtful and confident - he'd organized this same trip dozens of times, but in a country as infrastructurally challenged as Madagascar there would still be plenty of surprises, and Guy would handle them all with poise.

    Our first stop was to exchange money, and for $200 we walked away with a sack full of bills, as the largest local note (10,000 Ariary) was worth only about $6. From the airport Guy shuttled us into town, which was a surprising blend of African, Asian and French influences. The fields at the edge of town were blanketed with bright green rice paddies. while an unending line of hastily-built shacks bordered the road. The construction quality improved as we approached town, and by the time we pulled up at our downtown hotel many of the larger buildings were well-worn French Colonial.

    We checked into the upscale Hotel Colbert, with its swank lobby and pampered, though dated, rooms, and immediately set out on a walk around town. Narrow, curving streets and nondescript two- and three-story buildings made navigation difficult, and we soon found ourselves a bit lost. We continued on though, and ended up at a bustling local market before eventually popping out on the broad Avenue de l'Independance, lined with a pair of shopping arcades dotted with patisseries, ice cream parlors, pizza joints and hotels. We worked our way up the avenue and back to our hotel, enjoying an ice cream along the way and stopping to pick up some chocolate bars and snacks at the supermarket. Later, we joined Fraser, Dennis and Alice for dinner at a local hole-in-the-wall Korean Restaurant.

    Hotel Colbert, Antananarivo

  2. Lac Alarobia & Tsimbazaza Zoo - october 18

    This morning we met the rest of our fifteen person tour group at breakfast and then drove over to Lac Alarobia, a private bird sanctuary on the outskirts of town. We spent a couple of hours walking around the small lake, enjoying and photographing the thousands of birds that take refuge there. Egrets, herons, ducks and grebes were camped out on an island in the middle of the lake, while golden orb-web spiders and dragonflies offered closer encounters.

    Lunch was back in town, after which we relaxed at the hotel before joining the group on a trip to the city zoo. While the zoo as a whole was a fairly disheartening place, with lemurs and birds in small cages along the paths, it offered our only opportunity to see the rare aye-aye lemur, albeit in a nocturnal chamber. Once inside, and with our eyes dilated, we were able to make out a pair of aye-ayes bounding around their glass cage. When they settled down in a bit of light we were even able to discern some of their strange features - large cupped ears, beady eyes, bushy tail, and a pencil-thin middle-finger that it uses to extract grubs from inside tree trunks.

    Dinner was back at the Hotel Colbert in the Le Taverne restaurant, but despite the fancy trappings most of us were disappointed with the food. I chose the zebu (local cattle) with olive sauce, which was wholly inedible and had me avoiding zebu for an entire week.

    Hotel Colbert, Antananarivo

  3. Betsiboka Delta & Ampijoroa Forest Reserve - october 19

    We checked out of the hotel at 4:30 this morning to catch an early flight to the west coast city of Mahajanga - a busling, sprawling city built of repurposed French colonial buildings and thousands of small tin-roofed shacks. We drove through town and made our way to the beachside Zaha Motel for breakfast, after which we boarded a small boat for a sightseeing ride out to the Betsiboka Delta. It was humid here on the coast, but sunny and pleasant, and the hour long ride over to the delta was quite enjoyable. Once there we spent an hour perusing the islets at low tide and managed to see a good variety of shore birds, including a half dozen of the extremely rare Bernier's Teal (perhaps only a few hundred remain), some Madagascar Sacred Ibis, a large Humblot's Heron, a few iridescent kingfishers and hundreds of Dimorphic Egrets.

    From Mahajanga we drove inland across desolate grassland for two hours to the Ampijoroa Forest Reserve. The park headquarters, campsite and cottages were all centrally located in a small clearing, and this is where we would be staying the next two nights. Each couple was assigned a spartan but comfortable private cottage with en-suite bathroom, mosquito net and electical outlets (which were available for a few hours each morning and evening). Our cottage even came with a small bonus - a pack of condoms left behind by the previous occupants.

    Shortly after arriving we set out on our first hike, but before we could get started a troop of Coquerel's sifakas (a species of lemur) moved through camp, swinging from the branches and hopping from tree-to-tree, so we cancelled the hike and stuck around to watch. As dusk settled in we began a short night walk, during which we spotted a pair of small mouse lemurs, a few woolly lemurs, a couple of sleeping chameleons and a fanciful pencil-sized twig-mimic snake (the first Fraser had ever seen).

    At this point it's probably worth taking a minute to discuss lemurs. One reason they are so fascinating, other than that they are only found in Madagascar, is the great variety of shapes and sizes they come in. At night, small mouse lemurs and squirrel-sized dwarf lemurs actively hop about, while larger woolly lemurs prefer a more sedentary pace. When the sun is out, terrestrial ring-taileds adeptly walk around on all fours while sifakas can only manage a two-legged, sideways hop. There are also the cuddly bamboo lemurs that resemble small koala bears, as well as the fantastically strange aye-aye, which can only be described as a cross between a bat and a mongoose. Yet despite these differences all lemurs are descended from a very small stock of early primates - perhaps even a solitary pregnant female - that somehow managed to cross the Mozambique Channel some 70 million years ago and consequently evolved to fill many of the ecological niches left vacant by the absence of other species.

    Dinner was back at camp, outdoors under a thatched canopy. There was no real food service available, but Guy's office had hired cooks to provide onsite meals for its clients. The cooks worked out of a small ten-foot-square shelter house and provided three square meals a day for up to thirty guests. It was a nice perk, particularly when compared to the peanut butter and crackers that sustained those camping on their own.

    Ampijoroa Forest Station, Ampijoroa

  4. Ampijoroa Forest Reserve - october 20

    This morning we began with a two-hour pre-breakfast hike through the reserve, spotting a troop of sifakas, a variety of iguanids and geckos, a zonosaurus, a Rufous Vanga and a trail of flatid leaf bugs in their fluffy white nymph stage. After breakfast we spent two more hours in the forest and found more interesting birds such as bee-eaters, Broad-billed Rollers, a variety of vangas (Blue, Chabert's, Hook-billed and Van Dam's) and a Madagascar Hoopoe with its crest flared. Back at camp we also spotted a Sickle-billed Vanga, a flock of chatty Gray-headed Lovebirds, a cheeky Magpie-Robin, a hummingbird-like Souimanga Sunbird, a large Harrier-Hawk and plenty of Crested Drongos.

    We spent the early part of the afternoon relaxing, but around three o'clock one of our local guides came by the cottage to take us to see a family of very rare Mongoose Lemurs who were resting high in a tree, caring for a month-old baby nestled in the mother's fur. We spent fifteen minutes with them before they moved on, at which point Rupa and I walked back to camp, along the way stumbling upon a gorgeous male Paradise Flycatcher and a troop of Brown Lemurs feeding and grooming in a mango tree. A surprising number of them had babies, including one female that appeared to have twins. They were pretty accommodating and allowed us watch for a good thirty minutes before two of them dropped down to a lower branch and warned us away with a series of low grunts.

    Just before dusk we embarked on a short ride around the lake on a small, flat barge. We were searching for the rare Madagascar fish eagle (as few as sixty pair remain), and we spotted one gliding in circles before coming to rest in a far away tree. We also spotted an Openbill Stork (a migrant from the African mainland), a Mad(agascar) Jacana, a pair of White-throated Rails, a couple of Herons (Striated and Purple), an African Darter and a few large nile crocodiles basking on shore.

    Before dinner we took one final night hike, hoping to find the elusive cougar-like Fosa, Madagascar's largest predator (at only 30lbs, it's not actually that large). Sadly, we weren't able to find one, but we did manage a few lovely chameleons, a pair of snakes, a sportive lemur and a cooperative Torotoroka Scops-Owl who posed for ten minutes while our local guide mimicked its call.

    Ampijoroa Forest Station, Ampijoroa

  5. Ampijoroa Forest Reserve & Mahajunga- october 21

    We woke up a little after five this morning to catch an early breakfast before our final hike at the reserve. I was ready before Rupa and wanted a good breakfast, so I headed out without her. Twenty yards along the path I looked up and noticed what appeared to be a large cat trotting toward me on the path. Thinking it might be a Fosa, I switched my camera into servo mode and fired off a shot. The flash startled the animal and it ran off, but it returned a few seconds later - chased my direction by a small crowd from camp. I got off a couple more shots before it took off again, this time disappearing into the forest for good. Fraser confirmed that it was indeed a Fosa, and that it had run through camp moments before crossing my path.

    After the excitement wore off we began a three hour hike. The best sighting was a troop of sifakas crossing the path directly above us - one of them even leapt onto a fallen trunk just a few feet over my head. Other sightings included a sportive lemur, two different scops-owls roosting in hollowed out tree trunks, a pair of venting sunbirds (an act in which the male probes the female with his beak - essentially oral sex for birds), three beautiful couas (Coquerel's, Red-capped and Crested) and a trio of woolly lemurs nestled comfortably in a leafy tree.

    We had the rest of the morning off so Rupa and I checked out the tortoise breeding project next door and watched a tree full of sifakas lunch on mangos and lay around in the heat. After our own lunch we all filed onto the bus for the two hour drive back to Mahajanga.

    We returned to the Zaha Motel for the night, which this time was filled with European ex-pats enjoying the pool, beach and bar. We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner before retiring to our well-worn but comfortable cottage. Not everything was rosy though - the ice in the welcome drink must have been tainted, as a few of us went to bed with upset stomachs - mine wouldn't fully recover for a few days.

    Zaha Motel, Mahajunga

  6. Mahajunga to Antananarivo - october 22

    We flew back to Antananarivo this morning, leaving at the completely reasonable hour of 8:30am and arriving in time for a nice lunch at the lovely Relais de Plateaux hotel near the airport. After checking into the Hotel Colbert, David, Bob and I hunted down some AA batteries at a nearby camera store - flash photography in the forest was eating through our limited supply. Meanwhile, Rupa joined the others for a tour of the local museum.

    Hotel Colbert, Antananarivo

  7. Perinet National Park - october 23

    We had breakfast and were on the road by seven this morning, headed for Perinet National Park three hours away. The road was in good condition and wound its way through scenic mountain valleys. The land had been cleared for grazing and rice paddies and was far from desolate - we passed through dozens of small villages, many of them just a single row of ramshackle shops stretched out along the roadway.

    We arrived at Perinet and immediately set out on a walk. The rainforest here was more lush and dense than the deciduous forest at Ampijoroa, and the rolling hills made the hiking more strenuous, even along the defined paths. Not more than five minutes along we came across some adorable bamboo lemurs (Eastern Greys) scurrying about the dense clumps of bamboo, nearly hidden from view. With the help of local guides we continued into the forest and directly to a quartet of Indri, the largest of the lemurs and the park's main attraction. We had to scramble down a steep slope to get a good view, but while we were there they began a haunting whale-like territorial call () that was one of the highlights of the entire trip. On the way back to the bus we also spotted a few Brown Lemurs and a pair of large chameleons - one displaying bright colors and the other trying hard to blend into a thin branch.

    After the walk we bussed over to Vakona Forest Lodge to check in and grab lunch. The Swiss-owned lodge was just lovely, set amid lush gardens and pools with individual chalets for each couple. The chalets were large, with comfortable beds and well-appointed bathrooms. We had a fantastic lunch in the main lodge - the food here was the best of the entire trip - and then napped a bit before heading out for an evening walk.

    The walk was out along the road near Perinet, and the highlight was a pair of Collared Nightjars roosting together in the leaf litter. They were so well camouflaged that even when looking straight at them it took a minute to clearly make out their features. Apparently they roost around here quite frequently, but the forest guide who found them was reluctant to share their location and only showed them to us when the other guides were absent.

    While waiting for darkness we drove down the road to a hotel/bar that attracts otherwise elusive Furry-eared Dwarf Lemurs by putting out bananas each night. Sure enough, a pair of dwarf lemurs showed up on cue to sniff around for a treat. They were not afraid of the large crowd or the flurry of flashes, but it was a bit too dark for my camera's autofocus to work and I didn't manage any decent shots. With a second chance I would have switched to manual focus, but it was all over in less than minute.

    Once it got dark we again hiked along the road, scanning the forest for eye shine while watching the road for autos and bikes. We found a trio of chameleons - a tiny one just two inches long, a much larger one curled up on a branch and a pale white one (the color they get when relaxed) - as well as a pair of thumb-sized tree frogs. A light rain began to fall, and by the time we were having dinner back at the hotel a full fledged thunderstorm rolled through, cutting off power to the lodge. We finished dinner and showered by candlelight before falling asleep while listening to the rain and frogs.

    Vakona Forest Lodge, Perinet

  8. Mantadia National Park - october 24

    It was a cool, dry morning - perfect for a long hike in the woods. We had grand hopes of tracking down a couple of new lemur species in the Mantadia portion of the National Park, but instead we spent the morning tracking down the rare Short-legged Ground-roller. Most of our hunt took place in virgin, trail-less forest as we climbed up and over ridges while picking dozens of small leeches off our clothing. Impressively, Fraser hiked in shorts and bare feet, and even more impressively he climbed a bushy tree to pull down a lovely green and white Tree Boa. We did end up finding a pair of the targeted ground-rollers, though the dense foliage made it difficult to get decent photos. Along the way we happened across a large land snail, a small red frog and a woolly lemur mother and baby. We ended up getting ourselves a bit lost, so we all hung back while the guides spent thirty minutes whistling and whooping to each other across the forest until they found an exit.

    We had a lovely lunch back at the lodge (including some of the best profiteroles ever) and were entertained by some black-striped green geckos darting about our porch. We returned to Mantadia after lunch for another hike, and we had just started off when Fraser found a colorful little frog that was apparently poisonous to the touch (as is the case with most brightly colored frogs). Fraser scooped him into a plastic bag so we could see him up close before setting him loose. After a short period of inactivity our guides reported back that they had found some Diademed Sifakas not far away. To our dismay, the lemurs were on the move and we spent thirty minutes off the trail working our way across a stream and up a steep slope before we were able to catch up to them. The sifakas were quite striking with their white, black and chestnut colored fur, but they kept their distance and did their best to hide within the foliage. I managed to find a small window through which to photograph a mother and baby, but it was a challenging position as I balanced on the hill between three small trees (without touching them, as swaying treetops would startle the lemurs), pushed some leaves out of the way and waited for the wind to die off.

    We spent the rest of the evening back at the lodge recovering.

    Vakona Forest Lodge, Perinet

  9. Mantadia & Perinet National Parks - october 25

    We went back to Mantadia this morning in search of lemurs, and right away we came across an adorable bamboo lemur having breakfast and posing for photos. A little later we heard some indri calling and pushed through the forest and across a stream, but by the time we arrived they had moved out of reach. Otherwise, the sights this morning were mostly small, including a bright red millipede that crawled across our hands, a wandering land snail and a smaller yellow-shelled snail, a pretty yellow-and-black dragonfly, dozens of thumbnail-sized Giraffe-necked Weevils and a thin black-and-white striped snake that Fraser handled for us.

    We lunched back at the lodge, where I tried a traditional Malagasy chick-pea and pork dish which was a bit salty but otherwise quite tasty. We then spent a gorgeous afternoon at Perinet looking for lemurs, but other than a pair of brown lemurs we came up empty handed. Instead of hanging around we left early and drove over to the hotel/bar from the previous night, arriving in time to watch half a dozen brown lemurs snoop around in search of handouts. They crawled away via the power lines but weren't very coordinated and ended up swinging rather helplessly as the wire swayed under their combined weight. As expected, the dwarf lemurs also showed up and entertained us with their acrobatic agility as they scurried about in search of banana slices. This time I was ready for them with the camera set to manual focus and I was able to get some nice close-ups.

    We also did another night walk along the road where the highlights were a pair of frogs - a large red-eyed dude and a fantastic thumb-sized fellow with seemingly translucent skin - and a giant butterfly-like moth.

    Vakona Forest Lodge, Perinet

  10. Mantadia National Park & Fort Dauphin - october 26

    Our final walk before driving back to Tana was an early morning hike around Mantadia. It was a small group this morning, and while the others went off to do some birding David, Rupa and I joined Fraser for some lemuring. We heard more than we saw, with both the indri and black-and-white ruffed lemurs calling intermittently. Before leaving we took a short hike down the road and got a bit lucky, finding some diademed sifakas feeding in the tree tops and a pair of black and white ruffed lemurs slowly waking with the rising sun. They were quite far off and sitting high in the canopy, but with the spotting scope we were able to get a pretty decent view of these beautiful creatures.

    After a quick breakfast at the hotel we drove four hours back to Tana to catch our flight to Fort Dauphin on the Southeast coast. The landing was a bit tight - we came in low and fast over the water, barely making the end of the runway. We hit hard and the pilot braked even harder, and by the time we came to a stop we'd used up every inch of tarmac. Out hotel was a short ride away, and though nice looking at first glance the rooms were rather stark and barren. The worst part was the bathroom with its bower (a curtain-less bath tub with handheld shower head, a French favorite) and sandpaper-rough towels. Dinner at the hotel was nice though, and included the accompaniment of an ethnic musical group.

    Le Dauphin, Fort Dauphin

  11. Berenty Lemur Reserve - october 27

    An easy 8am departure today allowed us a pleasant breakfast in the hotel courtyard before boarding a bus for the four hour drive to the Berenty Lemur Reserve. The drive was a slog - four hours to cover sixty miles - due to the horrid condition of the road, a crumbling asphalt strip so distraught in areas that our driver opted to off-road the bus. Taking such a rugged route did have an advantage, though - all along the route we watched as smiling villagers dressed in colorful clothing attended to daily chores such as collecting water, chopping wood, making charcoal, harvesting grain and selling fruits and vegetables.

    We finally arrived at Berenty around one o'clock and checked into our comfortable bamboo cottages, which were far nicer than the cabins at Ampijoroa. We promptly sat down for a tasty lunch, and immediately after found both brown lemurs and Verreaux's sifakas feeding and resting in a couple of short trees just off the path.

    Our guided afternoon walk began when a troop of ring-tailed lemurs traipsed through camp on all fours with their distinctive tails held high. They behaved not unlike a friendly pack of racoons, keeping their distance but otherwise unconcerned by our presence. A few little ones were tagging along and looked surprisingly Gremlin-like. From there we hiked into the gallery forest where broad trails and widely spaced trees made viewing easy and enjoyable even in a large group. Lemurs were everywhere - a refreshing change of pace after all the hunting and treking we endured in Ampijoroa and Mantadia - sitting on the ground and hanging from the trees, and just like the ones at camp they paid us no mind. The birds here were also quite visible, and we spotted Giant Coua, Crested Coua, Mad Cuckoo-Hawk and White-browed Owl all on the first hike.

    Before dinner we also participated in a short evening hike where we spotted a couple of nocturnal lemurs and had a brief look at Jupiter and its moons through the scope. After a late but delicious dinner we quickly showered before power-off at ten and fell asleep to the loud crow-like squawk of a sportive lemur as he moved through camp and marked his territory.

    Berenty Lodge, Berenty Lemur Reserve

  12. Berenty Lemur Reserve - october 28

    Our 5am dawn walk took us out to the lake in search of sandgrouse. Along the way we passed dozens of sifakas, brown lemurs and ring-taileds munching on mangos or warming up in the morning sun, as well as a sportive lemur settling in for a day's rest and a Crested Coua. The birds were late so a few of us took off with the local guide for a forest walk while the others, including Rupa, stayed behind. We didn't see much on the hike, which was really just a slow walk back to camp, but the other group did score the sandgrouse as well as a cooperative Giant Coua (photo courtesy of Rupa). Fortunately, we all managed to catch the sifakas perform their comical morning "dance" as they moved from tree to tree, crossing the open ground by leaping sideways on their hind legs.

    It was an absolutely gorgeous morning, and after breakfast we hiked up into the spiny forest, a unique habitat featuring a wonderful variety of sharp cactus-like plants and shrubs, some of which towered over 25 feet. Our guide pointed out the daytime roosts of a mouse lemer, barely visible among a tangle of twigs, and a Scops Owl, camouflaged in the nook of a tree. We also spotted a number of "three-eyed" lizards and a large tree-hugging Warty Chameleon. We had an hour before lunch so Rupa took a nap while I headed back into the forest where I met up with Mike and Lee who'd found a pair of Paradise Flycatchers working on a nest.

    After a short afternoon nap to beat the heat we set off once again. We began with a distant viewing of hundreds of roosting, squabbling Madagascar Flying Foxes - large endemic fruit bats with a four foot wingspan. From there we worked our way up into the spiny forest again, this time hunting for the elusive Olive-capped Coua. We hiked for thirty minutes or so while Fraser played the mating call on his iPod (speaker attached), but all we came up with were a pair of six-inch Spider Tortoises. Rupa and I were lagging behind on the return trek when I heard some rustling in the underbrush. I stepped off the path a few feet for a look around when a large round bird popped out and flitted across the trail. In plain view this was surely the Olive-capped Coua we'd been searching for, so Rupa ran ahead to get the group and bring them back for a look.

    Our night walk was also up in the spiny forest, where we spent five minutes watching a mouse lemer frantically bound from tree-to-tree as Fraser followed it with a light. It was a fast, bouncy little fellow - much as you might expect from something called a mouse lemer. Near the end of the walk I was again at the back of the pack when I heard some movement twenty feet off the path. Shining my light, I got a short three-second glimpse of a cat-like mammal slinking into the dark. Sadly, no one else was able to confirm the sighting, but after describing the banded tail, small head and pointy ears to Fraser we agreed that it must have been an Indian Civit - an incredibly lucky sighting for sure.

    Returning from dinner Rupa and I made a few more finds, including a troop of barking ring-taileds and a white-footed sportive lemur foraging in a coral-like bush.

    Berenty Lodge, Berenty Lemur Reserve

  13. Berenty Lemur Reserve to Ifaty - october 29

    Today was primarily a travel day. We left the lodge at 6am for the three hour drive back to the tiny airport in Fort Dauphin. Despite the road conditions Rupa and I spent much of the drive catching up on sleep. Our flight was on time - a rarity in Fort Dauphin - and we arrived in Tulear in time for a fantastic, relaxing lunch at a colorful seaside motel.

    After lunch we continued on to Ifaty, a further one and half hour drive. The "road" was nearly as bad as the one to Berenty, though instead of crumbling pavement the soft sand made for a tenuous drive. We passed through a number of small villages, yet despite the sometimes appalling conditions the people seemed genuinely happy, and a couple of boys even ran alongside the bus with their "soccer ball" for a hundred yards or so just to have their photos taken.

    The drive turned into a small adventure when the bus sank into a sandpit just outside one of the villages. We all hopped off and gave the bus a push while dozens of villagers crowded around offering advice and selling trinkets. They helped us clear some sand out from under the wheels, and with a second push we were able to free the bus. Back on the bus we concluded that the sand pit was likely "maintained" by the villagers to provide a little income in an otherwise desolate region.

    Not long after we arrived at our lovely seaside motel and settled into a spacious, comfortable bungalow. We had some free time before dinner so I wandered outside to do some birding and met up with Dennis and Alice. They pointed out a Madagascar Nightjar nestled in the sand and a beautiful Souimanga Sunbird that darted about in a garden of pink flowers. On the way to dinner a faint rustling in a nearby tree revealed a mouse lemer not ten feet away and quite stationary - as if posing for us. Minutes later a second one arrived, and by standing on the nearby balcony I was able to get an eye-level view of these usually skittish primates.

    Dinner was a delicious plate of shrimp and calamari preceded by a shot (or two or three) of vanilla-infused rum. After dinner we went straight to bed, accompanied by the distant music of a village festival.

    Lakana Veso, Ifaty

  14. Ifaty - october 30

    By 5am we were on the bus and headed to a nearby spiny forest for sunrise. Though similar to the one at Berenty, the forest here was more densely packed and featured some massive Baobab trees up to thirty feet around - a few even had footholds cut into the side for easier access to the lofty fruit. Sadly, this unique forest is being compromised as poor villagers hack out homesteads and clear cut trees to create planks, charcoal and even dugout canoes.

    Fraser hired three local guides with expert knowledge of the forest and an unmatched ability to track down unique birds. Two of them immediately disappeared into the brush while we began a leisurely walk just as the sun appeared over the horizon. Within the first hour we'd already made three good sightings: A Banded Kestrel, a Subdesert Mesite and a Madagascar Coucal pecking away at a blindingly white chameleon. A little later we paused to admire the work of a Sakalava Weaver as he put together a new hanging nest.

    As we'd hoped our local guides were able to track down two prized species - the Running Coua and the Long-tailed Ground-roller, the later of which is endemic to this small strip of spiny forest. Both birds darted about under the scrub as we scrambled for better views: I was fortunate to find a couple of open windows to fire off some nice photos. The Ground-roller was one of my favorite all-time birds, with skinny legs, a long, bushy tail and a speedy movement that reminded me of the Road Runner cartoon character.

    On the walk out we paused for a big-head photo under a Baobab tree and ran into a group of kids posing for photographs. They thought Rupa's binoculars were a camera, so she had to show them that they were just for looking through.

    After breakfast I did some birding around camp and found a female sunbird building a nest. A nearby male occasionally harassed her, but she still managed to improve her nest with a few expertly placed twigs. After lunch Rupa and I napped outside while a cool sea breeze took the edge off the stifling afternoon heat.

    Before dinner we returned to the Spiny Forest, but the hot afternoon kept most of the wildlife at bay: We only managed a couple of small lizards and a large locust-like insect. Rupa was feeling pretty poor this afternoon - perhaps food poisoning from lunch - so back at the hotel she skipped dinner. Meanwhile, Mike, David and I found the mouse lemer up in the tree again and I held a light on it while Mike and David lined up their cameras.

    Lakana Veso, Ifaty

  15. Ifaty - october 31

    Rupa was feeling better this morning and joined us on one final walk in the forest. We hunted down two small endemic birds that fluttered through the brush too quickly for a photo and we found another Long-tailed Ground-roller that posed nicely for us. The rest of the day was at our leisure, so Rupa spent it recovering (napping) in the room.

    After breakfast Larry, David, Fraser and I went snorkeling out in the channel. We rode out in a motorized wooden canoe with plastic outriggers to a point where the channel was twenty feet deep. The water was cool but pleasant in the hot sun, and we snorkeled for about an hour before tiring out. There was a nice variety of reef fish swimming about, including Moorish Idols, parrotfish, trumpetfish and a solitary lizardfish, as well as a lovely soft coral shaped like a pot of pink crenellated tulips.

    After a nap, lunch, and another nap a few of us took a walk through the nearby fishing village with Guy as our translator. We walked down the main drag toting our large cameras and attracting a lot of attention. We spent about an hour in town interacting with the villagers and taking photos of kids and women in brightly colored sarongs. The kids were particularly entertaining, striking poses for the lens and then crowding around to see the result (and leaving boogers on my camera!).

    I spent the balance of the evening photographing sunbirds in the hotel garden and hanging out in the bar.

    Lakana Veso, Ifaty

  16. Tulear & La Tabla - november 1

    We had a bit of a lie-in this morning before leaving for Tulear. We made one stop en-route at a marshy lake to check out the water birds including stilts, plovers, egrets and a solitary Greater Flamingo, as well as bee-eaters and a pair of eggs on a vacant nightjar nest.

    Our Tulear hotel featured a lovely courtyard garden and large, well-furnished rooms - much closer to Western standards than those at the Zaha Motel or Le Dolphin. We returned to Hotel Sud Plazza for another fabulous lunch and then walked out to the jetty to see what we could find. A blustery breeze forced us to cut the walk short having spied only a few of the more typical shorebirds and some small crabs digging holes in the tidal plain (while local crabbers went around digging them back out).

    Our afternoon adventure was a birding hike just outside town at La Tabla, a unique landscape of coral rag scrub that hides a recently discovered and highly localized species - the Red-shouldered Vanga. The scrub was eight feet tall at times, very dense and painfully thorny. We stuck mostly to worn ox-cart trails, but to find the birds we occasionally trekked through the scrub. We all came away a bit tore up - scratches mostly - though Larry endured a couple of nice gashes, and at one point Rupa managed to get fully entangled. It took two minutes of delicate work to extract her.

    Fraser brought along two local guides to help us find the birds, and sure enough they delivered. The vangas were quite small and flitted about in the brush so our views were less than ideal, but the birds were clearly identifiable. We also got a brief glimpse of a Verreaux's Coua through the binos as it dropped out of a tree a hundred yards away. Fraser gave us the option to return in the morning but we all declined, deciding that a better look at the coua wasn't worth it, particularly given how much it resembled the Crested Coua, of which we'd seen plenty.

    Motel Capricorn, Tulear

  17. Tulear & Nosy Ve - november 2

    I woke up with Mike, Lee and Fraser at 4:30 this morning for a one hour hike in some nearby wetlands, but it was very quiet and we didn't find anything new.

    After breakfast we all drove down to the shoreline to catch a boat for a day of sightseeing in the bay. It was a nice change of pace to be out of the bus, but with our boat anchored some fifty yards from shore we weren't quite sure how we'd board it. Fraser and Guy had a plan though, and moments later a caravan of small ox-carts pulled up and we clamored aboard (the carts were actually drawn by Zebu, the island's humped-shouldered cattle). The Zebu made straight for the water and pulled us all the way out to the boat, even with three-foot deep water swirling around their necks. The carts stayed dry, though, and we were able to hop straight off the cart and into the boat.

    Our first stop was a beachside bar in the small fishing village of Anakao, just across the bay from Tulear. The bar had a large garden out back and we came in search of the Littoral Rock-thrush, a localized species that is often seen here this time of year. We weren't disappointed and got good looks at both the male and the female before hopping back on our boat for the short ride over to Nosy Ve, a small sandy island just off shore.

    Nosy Ve is famous for its nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds, and we spent over an hour there enjoying the gorgeous white birds as they soared overhead. They nest under the scrubby bushes, and with a keen eye we even managed to find a mother and her young chick. After that we spent an hour snorkeling near the island, and though there wasn't a great variety of fish or coral around it was fun just to take a swim.

    We were back in Anakao for lunch at a lovely beachside resort, and from there we sailed back to Tulear. There was a mad scramble of ox-carts when we arrived, all vying for an opportunity to take us ashore. Guy worked out an arrangement and before long we were back at our hotel. A few of us immediately set off on a walk around town, where we spent most of our time wandering the local market before finishing off at a touristy handicraft market where a few folks picked up souvenirs.

    At dinner this evening we learned that Alice had come down with Malaria - almost instantly it seemed and despite her anti-malarial pills. Fraser and Guy spent the evening on the phone with her travel insurance company working out how to proceed.

    Motel Capricorn, Tulear

  18. Zombitse Forest & Isalo National Park - november 3

    Sadly, we said goodbye to Dennis and Alice this morning, as they were cutting their trip short so Alice could start the recovery process. They had arranged a flight to Tana later this afternoon and would continue on from there as soon as possible.

    The rest of us spent the morning heading east on a surprisingly smooth strip of asphalt. The desolate savannah wasn't much to look at, though, so most of us spent the drive napping. After two and a half hours on the road we arrived at Zombitse National Park, an isolated stretch of now-protected forest. We embarked on a one hour hike along well-marked trails and managed to glimpse the highly localized Appert's Greenbul darting among the trees. We also picked out some other interesting creatures, including a Long-billed Greenbul, a white male Paradise Flycatcher, a tree full of black Lesser Vasa Parrots, a couple of sportive lemers high in their tree roosts and a well-camouflaged caterpillar. We also enjoyed a picnic lunch at the ranger station, where we were joined by a young ring-tailed lemur looking for a treat.

    It was another hour's drive to Isalo National Park, where we would be spending the night. Along the way we passed through the rowdy boomtown of Ilakaka, a ten-year old mining town of 60,000 that appeared almost overnight when large sapphire deposits were discovered nearby. Sadly, the gem stone trade is largely unregulated, and most of the product is smuggled abroad before taxes can be collected - taxes that could help reduce poverty and protect the island's unique flora and fauna.

    Isalo was just a waypoint on our drive to Ranomafana National Park, but a nice one at that. An arid landscape of jagged sandstone cliffs marked the boundary of the park, and in the late afternoon light they appeared to glow from within. We stopped at the information center for an introduction to the park's geography and unique flora before continuing on to our hotel, a luxurious five-star family-run resort. The lodge and cottages were beautifully integrated into the rocky landscape and built of stone and hardwood - this was by far the nicest place we'd stayed all trip. We had a fantastic group dinner at the restaurant and browsed their souvenir shop before settling into our room for the night.

    Relais de la Reine, Isalo

  19. Isalo National Park to Ranomafana National Park - november 4

    We started our morning walk on the hotel grounds where we found a Benson's Rock-thrush and some snacking bee-eaters before moving up into the rocky crags for some stunning views. After breakfast we loaded up for a long day on the road. The scenery was lovely as we drove alongside the park, but before long the barren savannah returned and stayed with us till lunch, three long hours later.

    We stopped for lunch at a run-down but tasty restaurant just off the highway in Fianarantsoa, squeezing in a short tour of a hand-made paper operation next door. We drove on for another three hours as the dry savannah slowly gave way to corn fields and rice paddies, and by the time we reached Ranomafana National Park we were winding through steep, densely forested mountain valleys. We stopped once to made friends with some local children, but otherwise continued straight through the park to our hotel, which was nestled cozily alongside the road. Our bungalows were basic but comfortable, and offered fantastic views of the lush valley below from their perch fifty feet up the hillside (not a pleasant climb after a long day spent hiking, as we would soon discover). It was too late for a walk tonight, so instead we settled into a relaxing dinner at the lodge and enjoyed their potent vanilla-flavored rum.

    Hotel Domaine Nature, Ranomafana

  20. Ranomafana National Park - november 5

    We were out for over six hours this morning, hiking up and down small ridges and stone-stepping shallow streams. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and it was quite pleasant under the shade of the forest canopy. The trails here were well-kept and even sported bamboo steps on the steeper climbs, though we did venture off the trail a few times to find specific birds, including a trio of jittery Brown Mesites that were difficult to pick out amid the dense undergrowth.

    The highlight this morning was three cuddly-looking Golden Bamboo Lemurs, a critically endangered species that prompted the founding of the park in 1986. We had to dart along some smaller trails and through the forest a bit, but we got a good look at them when they settled down for a few minutes. Other good spots included a pair of sleeping Collared Nightjars, a skinny, well-camouflaged leaf frog and a couple of Streaked Tenrecs (small porcupine-like mammals) that scurried about in the leaf litter. A gorgeous yellow-and-black Schlegel's Asity also made a brief appearance, collecting nectar from a flowering tree, but didn't sit still long enough for a photo.

    We did manage a couple other lemur species as well, including a family of Red-fronted Brown Lemurs huddled together high in the canopy and both male and female Red-bellied Lemurs huddled together on a tree limb just off the path. We also heard some Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs calling in the distance like a pack of dogs, but they were too far away to go after.

    We also passed an old ancestral monument abandoned and overgrown deep within the forest. Rectangular stones measuring from one to six feet tall sat atop a short stone platform, each one representing a specific individual. It was unexpected and a bit eerie, and looked like something Indian Jones might stumble across during one of his adventures.

    We drove back to the lodge for lunch and a short afternoon break before heading out for an evening walk. There were only six of us on the walk tonight - the others were either tired from the long morning walk, not feeling well, or discouraged by the light rain and high humidity. We started out in full rain gear, including lightweight dry bags for the cameras, but we were soon overheating and shed our jackets. David had the worst of it though - he was baking inside his poncho and rain pants and by the time he stripped down he emerged from a cloud of steam.

    The only sighting of the first hour was a fabulous one - a colorful Pita-like Ground-roller hopping along the path ten yards ahead of us. We followed it for a good five minutes before it disappeared into the forest. We spent the rest of the evening up at a small picnic area where a not-so-shy Malagasy Civit was known to make an evening appearance ("encouraged" by ranger-provided snacks). The civit wasn't around when we arrived, but a (beat-up-looking) Greater Dwarf Lemur and a trio of Brown Mouse Lemurs were darting through the trees and kept us entertained while we waited.

    We didn't have to wait too long though before the civit appeared, foraging in the grass at the edge of the path. It was more fox-like than cat-like, both in looks and movement, with black stripes on an otherwise grayish-beige coat. Normally a very shy creature, this particular civit was somewhat habituated to humans, with as many sixty visitors a night hoping to get a glimpse of him (there were only about fifteen of us out in the rain tonight). It was a special treat and one of the highlights of the entire trip.

    Photographically, the lemurs and civit were quite a challenge as we were not permitted to use a flash, it was getting dark and a light rain was falling. While my first instinct was to use aperture priority wide open, the shutter speed was way too slow to stop the civit's movement. Instead, I fixed the shutter speed at 1/40s (F2.8, ISO 3200) and let the camera underexpose as necessary. 1/40s was still too slow to stop motion, but by taking lots of shots I was hoping that both I and the animal would simultaneously pause long enough to produce a decently sharp photo or two.

    It was a thirty minute downhill hike back to the bus and we scanned for nocturnal wildlife along the way. We found a chameleon, a large land snail, a small lime-green colored snake and a tiny little frog. What we were really interested in, though, were Leaf-tailed Geckos, which are small geckos (2-4in long) that camouflage themselves as - you guessed it - leaves. Combined with the fact that they are nocturnal this makes them very difficult to spot. Amazingly, Fraser managed to pick one out - it had a slender body with a leaf-like tip at the end of its tail and the most amazing red eyes.

    It'd been a long, tiring day but well worth the effort, and a hearty dinner provided the perfect ending. As a bonus a sextet of local musicians (one was the head chef, another worked reception) provided some entertainment with their guitars, maracas, drums and a local lap-guitar-like string instrument. They played a variety of western favorites including The Eagles and Simon and Garfunkel, in a unique style that at various times seemed Mexican or Hawaiian in influence.

    Hotel Domaine Nature, Ranomafana

  21. Ranomafana National Park - november 6

    Our aim this morning was to visit a Greater Bamboo Lemur study site before the researchers arrived and ran us off. Luckily, we found a group of five lemurs at the site (all with collars), including one with a small baby peaking out from its fur. Although the forest was relatively sparse here, the terrain was quite difficult as we had to climb up and balance on a steep, slippery slope to get a good look at them. We cleared out by 7:30, just before the researchers were due to arrive.

    We then spent over four hours trekking through the primary forest looking for another type of lemur - the Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur. They are known to inhabit the higher elevations so we did a good deal of vertical hiking as we crossed a number of stream valleys in our search. Much of the hiking took place along little-used, barely visible trails and cross-country through virgin forest, where we pushed back lianas, dodged thorny vines, scrambled over fallen trees, tip-toed across shallow streams and balanced on tree-roots while peering over the cusp of a steep hillside. Meanwhile, we defended ourselves against the onslaught of leeches that inched their way up our socks and pants, looking for any bit of flesh to latch onto. They had a painless bite and were about a half inch long, making them impossible to feel and difficult to spot. We each flicked off about fifty of them during the hike, and while a few people came away with bloody reminders Rupa and I managed to keep them at bay.

    Sadly, we never found our Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs, though we did run across a band of Red-fronted Lemurs, including a comfortable looking little one. They were busy goofing off and attracting attention near the parking lot in anticipation of scoring a lunchtime handout. We had our lunch back at the lodge, which I supplemented with a large, cold beer.

    After lunch our walk back to the room was interrupted when we noticed a small gathering of people atop a stone revetment. Upon closer inspection we realized that they were watching five or six large boas sunbathe. Fraser loves snakes and found a beautiful green and white one to pull out so we could have a better look. The snakes were generally quite mellow, but weren't happy with all the commotion and eventually slithered into the rocks and out of sight.

    Our afternoon walk was short and direct, as we made straight for the civit viewing area. The mouse lemurs were out again and this time in better light - the weather was dry and we'd arrived earlier. The civit too made an earlier appearance and was a bit more adventurous, foraging further out and for longer periods of time. On the walk back down Fraser once again found us a couple of Leaf-tailed Geckos and an amazingly-bizarre stick bug.

    Back at the lodge the band once again provided the dinner entertainment, and continued even through a short power outage by switching to a cappella. We then packed up and showed in the room, where I noticed that I'd actually fed a few leeches today - two on my ankle and three on my waistline. The leeches were long gone, having apparently had their fill of me, and had left behind small circles of blood-soaked skin. Given the minor damage done I felt a bit silly having been so paranoid of the leeches in the first place.

    Hotel Domaine Nature, Ranomafana

  22. Ranomafana to Antananarivo - november 7

    We woke up to an odd sight this morning as a small flatbed cart with tiny wooden wheels came gliding down the hill, empty but for a pair of men who were busy steering and braking the contraption. The only sound was the clacking of wheels on pavement, and within seconds the cart was gone, disappearing around the next bend in the road. Later we would learn that the carts were used to ferry supplies to and from the lodges and camps in the park.

    We spent all day driving back to Tana, a nearly ten-hour grind broken only by lunch at a run-down turn-of-the-century French hotel in the city of Antisirabe. The morning scenery was quite lovely as we wound through the mountains - boulders lay strewn about gentle slopes that rose to jagged peaks, terraced rice paddies filled the valleys and small villages and homesteads dotted the hillsides. The rest of the drive was less interesting, so Rupa and I spent much of the afternoon napping.

    We had our final group dinner at a lovely hotel near the airport - Releaux du Palais - before parting ways. Most of the group was on a one am flight to Paris and had to be at the airport four hours early to secure a seat - Air France had been on strike the previous week and all the flights were overbooked. The rest of us continued into town to the Hotel Colbert for the night.

    Hotel Colbert, Antananarivo

  23. Antananarivo - november 8

    Our Cheeseman's tour had come to an end, but our flight out wasn't until tomorrow so we had the day to ourselves, though we did share a late breakfast with Irene and Fraser, who were also staying a couple of extra days. After breakfast we switched rooms, as we didn't really need an expensive suite (the previous night was included in the tour package). The new room was near the back of the hotel and was a bit dated and rough around the edges, but spacious and clean with a comfortable bed and well worth the savings.

    We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon walking around town, shopping for vanilla beans and checking out the local handicraft shops. We picked up a few small souvenirs, including a magnet, and stopped by the ShopRite grocery for a few extra chocolate bars and some spicy chili salsa - the same stuff that Guy had brought along on tour to add "kick" to some otherwise bland meals.

    For dinner we found a hip restaurant in the boutique Sakamanga Hotel. Hardwood floors, peach colored walls and local artwork were complimented by a lovely menu featuring local specialties, including a tasty Foie Gras appetizer and a nice Ramavova beef stew. We didn't stay long though - early mornings and long hikes had taken its toll - and we wandered back to the hotel for an early sleep.

    Hotel Colbert, Antananarivo

  24. Antananarivo to New York - november 9

    We spent the morning shopping for vanilla beans and ended up with two bags from a spice shop at $0.60/bean and two more from a street vendor at $0.50/bean. Further down the street a young female vendor with an adorable little boy draped over her back offered us an even better deal - $.25/bean. I wanted to help her out but we didn't need any more beans - we had nearly thirty - so I turned her down and instead we went back to the hotel to check out. Thirty minutes later we decided that we could use a few more beans to share with friends so I returned to the street to try and find her. I was about to give up when I turned around and there she was, walking toward me beans in hand: I ended up buying another dozen beans.

    Fraser stopped by the hotel to wish us bon voyage and to make sure we caught our ride to the airport. An hour later we were checking in for the long ride home - Antananarivo to Johanesburg to Dakar to New York to DC to Seattle. Oddly enough, the agent could only check our bags for three stops so we would have to claim them in New York and re-check them (fortunately, we had a three hour layover). She also couldn't print more than one boarding pass, so we'd have to get the rest in JoBurg.

    Our flight to JoBurg turned into a nap, and we arrived for the fourth time this trip in southern Africa's gateway airport. We only had time for a pit stop before boarding the 18.5 hour flight to New York, via Dakar. We got off the ground a bit late due to a "hot brake" that needed time to cool, but otherwise the flight was smooth. We watched a couple of movies and slept all the way to New York.

    South African Airways flight #8253

  25. New York to Seattle - november 10

    We landed at JFK on time and in good spirits, with our three hour layover intact - enough time to clear customs and re-check our bags through to Seattle. Sadly, our day was about to get longer. At baggage claim we waited two hours for our bags to come out - apparently the ground crew had trouble unloading the containers from the plane. Rupa's was the last bag to trickle out, and we collected it only to find the lock broken and her $200 rain jacket missing. My bag never showed.

    After filing lost and damaged bag reports we cleared customs and hopped the train to the United Airlines terminal, but by the time we arrived our three hour layover was gone and we ended up waitlisted on a flight through San Francisco. We made the flight though, and even though it left an hour late we also made our waitlisted flight to Seattle, arriving only a few hours later than our original plans.

    As promised, my bag arrived three days later via FedEx from New York. My lock was also missing and everything inside was shuffled about, but it didn't appear that anything was missing.

    Back home in Seattle

Souvenir List

  1. Small wooden lemer shelf-sitter
  2. Lemer pocket guide
  3. Ten cloth bangles
  4. TShirt for Mark
  5. Wicker Baobab tree
  6. Chameleon magnet
  7. 45 vanilla beans
  8. Robert brand chocolate bars
  9. Chili chutney