By Dan & Mika
Preparing for the Trip
Three days prior to leaving for Madagascar we head to the Straub travel clinic for a consultation and routine vaccinations. The next day I have a violent reaction to one of the vaccinations. For two days I have an intense fever and shivers so severe they border on seizures. We almost cancel the trip, but on the third day all my symptoms suddenly disappear.
We arrive in Antananarivo, known as Tana by the locals. The flight from Bangkok takes 10.5 hours. Our total time in the air since leaving Honolulu is just over 24 hours.
A driver named Papula is waiting for us at the airport. He speaks nearly fluent English and offers to arrange tours for us. The drive to our hotel takes about 30 minutes. Along the way we observe many rice fields. Malagasy woman walk along the side of the road carrying large baskets on their heads. The Malagasy are very diverse. You can clearly see the mixture of African, Indonesian and French blood.
Our hotel, Saka Manga, is bursting with character. It is a labyrinth of twisting corridors and secret rooms decorated with beautiful local artwork. Our room is small but clean. We have a lanai looking out over the street. The hotel provides free WiFi internet access. It’s an amazing deal for $35 a night. I am very thankful Mika did such a good job researching hotels.
I wake up early and decide to read the new Murakami book Mika bought me. Sitting on the patio I see many families dressed nicely for church walk by. Everyone is smiling and chatting away. An old man in the building next to us comes out several times every hour to smoke. Mika notices he has a large pet Madagascar tortoise that hangs out on his porch. He feeds it mango.
We decide to go to the wildlife reserve in Périne. The drive takes about three hours. We are accompanied by a driver and an English speaking assistant who introduces himself as Eddie. Eddie appears to be in his young twenties. He is studying tourism, English and Italian. Eddie is a friendly and enthusiastic guide.
We arrive a bit after the optimal time to see Indri, but Richard, our park guide, is able to locate some for us anyway. We have a private hiking tour that lasts about three hours and costs 20,000 ariary (about $12.) We see brown lemurs, Indri, tree frogs, and a number of interesting insects. The lemurs didn’t seem to have any fear of humans. I observe the Indri from an arm’s length. They look at us casually, as if they are observing a group of strange hairless pink lemurs.
On the way home we are watching the scenery and people through the taxi window. We pass hundreds of rice fields. In the waterways between the fields men fish for tilapia. Blooming lotus dot the flooded fields and waterways. Zebu walk by on the road and wade in the water. I notice an attractive local girl walking by with a basket on her head and a little boy in tow. She suddenly looks up at me and playfully sticks out her tongue. Everyone in the taxi erupts in laughter.
We have dinner and drinks at the restaurant / bar in our hotel Saka Manga. The food is good, and the service is excellent. We have a nice conversation with Dorisoa (Do for short), the gentlemen serving food and drinks. I have a nice flaky chicken pastry in a crème sauce. Like all parts of the hotel, the restaurant is decorated with paintings and woodcarvings by local artists. We chat with the bar tender, Alex. She is the kind of person you like the second you meet her. Alex tells us about the local scene, suggests places to go, and introduces us to a local gingery rum drink that has us ready for bed in short order :-) While we are sitting at the bar a friend of hers named Armele stops by. He is the type of hip club-goer you would expect to meet in Tokyo or London. Like Alex he modestly claims he doesn't speak English well but is actually fluent. Armele is carrying a jail-broken iPhone bought in Thailand.
Today is a lazy day. We sleep in late and then walk around town. We look unsuccessfully for a water boiler for Mika. She doesn’t like to go without her tea.
We have lunch at the brick oven flat bread and pizza place next to (and owned by) Saka Manga. The food is great.
Today we head to the botanical and zoological park in Tana. The park features baobab trees, fan palms, elephant ear, several types of giant turtles and of course lemurs. The guide cost 20,000 ariary (about $12 US) and is very informative. He gives us food to feed the lemurs along the way, which is fun. They have a building with nocturnal lemurs including aye-aye and mouse lemurs.
We stop by a great little restaurant for dinner called Café des Roses. We are the only ones in the place, probably because it was a little early for dinner. The decor, service and food are excellent. The menu was mostly pizzas including Napolitano, Mediterranean, and several local variations.
The café is located in an area containing the US embassy and several Madagascar government buildings. Heavily armed military guards roam the block and we are told we cannot take pictures anywhere in the area. I want to ask why, but the soldier’s large rifle makes me decide it isn’t important.
We arrive in Fort Dauphin. The flight has quite a few French tourists. The people here are different from their countrymen in Tana both in demeanor and appearance. There is obviously less Asian blood. People also seem more relaxed. Vendors are generally less aggressive, although we are heckled by some women trying to sell us silver jewelry and foot massages. For some reason they go straight for Mika and ignore me. I am carrying several large water bottles. Perhaps they assume I am her water bottle carrying boy, and therefore of limited means.
We check in at the Hotel Dauphin. The rooms are large and reasonably clean. The grounds are nicely manicured, but there are a number of issues with the room. The door lock is broken and the toilet doesn’t flush. They send someone to fix the toilet while we eat dinner.
We eat at the hotel restaurant, which is good. Mika’s lobster dish is generous and fresh. Her seafood gratin is a little salty. I have a pizza topped with ground zebu, mushrooms and veggies. It is excellent. Pizza, often with a local twist, seems to be very popular in Madagascar.
Before going to bed we notice the night sky is strikingly clear. It is like standing in a planetarium. The view is even better than the best spot on Mauna Kea back home.
We wake up early because of the heat. The power was out most of the night so the fans weren’t working. Even though its further from the equator, Fort Dauphin is much hotter than Tana because of the difference in altitude.
We discover two geckos in our room. One is pale white with black eyes. He looks like the nocturnal geckos in Hawaii. The other is bright green with red spots. There are a lot of bugs here so we really don’t mind a few bug eating roommates.
We walk up and down the beach. Children want to exchange bead necklaces for our t-shirts. We eventually give in. There is a nice little restaurant on the beach. A pet eagle is perched on a wooden stake nearby. We stop for a drink. Mika likes the tablecloth, which is covered with small pictures of daily life in Fort Dauphin. I manage to muster enough French to ask the proprietor where he bought the tablecloth. He says we can buy it at the town market.
We eat in the hotel restaurant again. Both of us order fish. Mine is in a coconut crème sauce and Mika’s is in a tomato sauce. They make for a simple tasty meal.
Again we notice the amazing clarity of the night sky. We stand outside our room just staring at the sky for some time. We head inside and read ourselves to sleep.
Today we are heading to the Berenty Reserve. We wake up at 6:00 to pack. Its another beautiful day, which is lucky because this is monsoon season. The ride to Berenty is three hours. The road was built during colonial times and has fallen into severe disrepair. Along the road we see transitional forest and spiny desert. We stop several times for photos of zebu, chameleon, and tribal villages.
Berenty is surreal. We arrive just in time for lunch. The restaurant serves us a casserole, a lean zebu fillet, sausage in ginger sauce and a crepe for dessert. All are delicious. While we are eating a group of about 20 ringtail lemurs runs right in front of us, not five feet from the door. I am so shocked I run to the door to catch a glimpse of the back of the troupe to confirm they aren’t an illusion. The group includes several youngsters less than a year old. Amazing.
After lunch our guide takes us for a walk in the forest. In addition to hundreds of ringtail and brown lemurs we see our first sifaka lemurs. The sifaka come right up to us and closely study our faces. They seem to model for the camera. I could swear they are hamming it up, striking one funny pose after another.
We return to our bungalow at 5:30, tired and smelling of sun block mixed with insect repellant. In a few hours we leave for an evening hike to see nocturnal lemurs.
The night tour takes about an hour. We see sportive (sp?) and mouse lemurs. There is no manly way to say this – mouse lemurs are really, really cute.
Every night from 10:00pm to 5:00am the electricity is cut on the reserve to conserve energy. There is no way to adequately describe the view of the night sky from this place. An adjective escapes me. Suffice to say you have never really seen the night sky until you have gazed up at it from a pitch-black forest in Madagascar.
Lying in absolute darkness in our bungalow we fall asleep to an alien symphony of fruit bats, lemurs and insects.
Here is a sentence you don’t hear often: We wake up to the sound of lemurs jumping on our roof. I wander outside and am treated to a ballet of sifaka dancing around our bungalow. They always move laterally jumping side to side like pogo sticks. Their motivations are not clear, but it is an impressive display. They have a peculiar grace.
Our morning tour includes fruit bats and more dancing sifaka. Our guide informs me that the spectacle I observed this morning was two troupes of sifaka in a territorial dispute. Apparently our bungalow area is popular.
In the evening we go out to the spiny forest in search of mouse lemurs. Our guide enlists the help of some locals. After about 15 minutes one of the locals says something in Malagasy and pokes his walking stick in a tree. A tiny lemur jumps right in front of us. I feel bad that they disturbed the little guy, but he is an amazing sight. The lemur is so small he could easily fit in the palm of my hand. He looks at me with large round eyes. I stare back in awe of this tiny bizarre primate. Its easy to look at a mouse lemur and think of them as mouse-like, but this is an illusion. They are primates, like us, with complex brains. Does this tiny lemur dream at night? Does he have nightmares about fosa and hawks? Probably.
Again we are woken by lemurs jumping around like madmen on our roof. Today is a lazy day. I sit out on the porch and watch the sifaka and ringtail lemurs chase each other around the grounds. We have breakfast and head back to Fort Dauphin.
We have dinner at the hotel restaurant and retire to the TV room for drinks and a dose of the BBC. I meet an electrician from Zimbabwe here on business. He has been sent to repair a large crane purchased by a local mining company.
Later, one of the English speaking waiters named Victor joins us. He is a very likable guy. We find out he studied at the university in Tana and his girfriend, the comely woman at the front desk, studied law. Later the bar tender joins us and we all chat until late into the night.
We have a traditional French breakfast and pack. Today we fly to Morondava see the famous baobab trees. The driver from Chez Maggie meets us at the airport and takes us to the hotel. Chez Maggie has a great bohemian Malagasy / Mediterranean vibe. The owner is an American veteran river guide named Gary. After 20 years of exploring rivers all over the world he bought the place from Maggie, a Scottish woman who built the place about 15 years ago. Gary is an easy going guy with a lot of great stories. I considered writing about them here, but decided they are Gary’s stories, and should really only be told by Gary. After chatting with Gary we enjoy our first night with air conditioning since arriving in Madagascar. We sleep like babies.
Today we are taking a three hour ride down the Avenue of Baobab to the Kirindy forest reserve. Kirindy has the largest number of lemur species anywhere on the island. The baobab are amazing.
During our three tours in Kirindy we see mouse lemurs, sifaka, fat tailed dwarf lemurs, fork marked lemurs and sportive lemurs. We also see a wide variety of interesting birds and insects. One of the insects, which is unfortunately dead, is the most interesting species I’ve ever seen. It is shaped like a praying mantis, but has beautiful blue wings like a butterfly and orange spikes over its entire body. Our guide wasn’t able to identify it, and we can’t find it in any book.
Our guide, Jean Baptist, is very good. He has excellent knowledge of the local fauna, and speaks English well. He tells me he learned English by watching the BBC.
We meet two women from a conservation organization called Blue Coast Ventures. Danielle is from London and Elli is from New York. We end up chatting quite a bit and doing the tours together. We invite them to share the car we hired for the ride back to Morondava.
Unfortunately the bungalows in Kirindy are rather unpleasant. They have no bathrooms, smell bad, and have extremely uncomfortable beds. The heat is intense, so we barely get any sleep.
The four of us are happy to return to Chez Maggie this morning. We are all looking forward to a proper shower. Today is another lazy day. Mika and I read and wander around the grounds. We enjoy a nice dinner and stay up late drinking with Danielle, Elli, Oriol and Gary. The bar at Chez Maggie looks like an exotic club house. The evening was a blast.
Today Mika confesses that she has a fish bone stuck deep in her throat that she didn’t mention before because she assumed it would simply work its way down. Unfortunately, it didn’t. She has quite a bit of pain, especially when she eats or drinks. We attempt to find help with the generous assistance of Gary and Baholy, the hotel manager. They make several calls on our behalf, but unfortunately no one is home.
We are unable to find a local doctor that can help us this evening, but we hear that a local man has a way of dealing with this problem so we decide to see if he has any suggestions. He lives near the hotel on a dark narrow street. When we enter his living area he has a large collection of wood pieces and bones arranged on the floor. We are concerned, but we decide it’s too late to back out without offending him. The city has lost power, so the only illumination is the fierce lightening in the distant sky and a candle on the floor. The medicine man references a paper with scribbled instructions. He finishes reading it and burns it using the candle. The man proceeds to pray and pound a bright yellow powder mixed with a liquid on a small stone. He asks Mika to lick the stone. She says thank you but politely declines. He decides to apply the powder directly to her chest and back and begins gently pushing on her chest in an attempt to loosen the bone. I am much happier with this approach. Mika says she thinks the bone may have moved, but its still in her throat. We thank the man and pay him. His tactic was certainly not what we expected, but we could tell he was genuinely trying to help.
Returning to the hotel we are greeted by more misfortune. The lights are still out and our flashlight runs out of batteries. Mika's chest is really hurting, and all we can do is sit in the hot, dark room and watch the approaching storm clouds.
Luckily, Gary again comes to the rescue. He lends us a light, replaces our batteries and offers to assist with painkillers. Danielle offers ibuprofen to help with the swelling and soreness. We are grateful to our new friends for all their help. The lights come back on, and we decide to make it an early night so we can sort things out in the morning.
This morning Mika feels worse so we decide to fly back to Antananarivo to find a private clinic. Mika and I are both bummed we can’t spend more time at Chez Maggie. We will miss the people, the bungalows and the great food.
After an hour long flight we arrive in Antananarivo and take a taxi to Saka Manga. The gentlemen at the desk suggests we have a doctor visit us in our room. He makes the arrangements. A few hours later a doctor and nurse are at our door. After a short examination the doctor suggests we go to the clinic to get an x-ray of Mika’s chest. We ride in an ambulance to the Espace Medical Clinic. The clinic is clean, and appears to have modern equipment. The staff is polite and professional. The x-ray reveals nothing so they decide to run a camera down Mika’s throat. This is obviously a very uncomfortable procedure but it reveals the fact that the fish bone is gone, having left two infected sores in her throat. The doctor prescribes medicines for the infection, pain and swelling. After the procedure an ambulance takes us back to the hotel.
We are shocked to find out the private room consultation, two ambulance rides, an x-ray, and the camera procedure costs around $200.
Mika starts to feel better almost immediately. Overall, we were very impressed with the medical care Mika received.
For lunch we go to an outstanding French restaurant called Le Rossini. I have merou in a vanilla sauce. It is exquisite. Unfortunately Mika can only manage a salad.
Back at Saka Manga we check our email. Mika has an email from Gary. He asks if everything turned out OK.
Today we are heading to Lemur Park. The park is privately owned by a French gentlemen and his Japanese wife. The ride takes about 45 minutes. Along the way are some beautiful villages and rural scenery. Zebu wonder in the rice fields between rustic French farm houses. We arrive at the park and are greeted by the pleasant and enthusiastic staff. Our guide takes us along a path featuring sifaka, ring tail, brown, ruffed, bamboo and mongoose lemurs. We also see six beautiful species of chameleon.
Most of the lemurs in the park roam freely as apposed to the government run park in Tana where unfortunately all the animals are in cages.
Today we leave for Mauritius. For our last lunch in Madagascar we return to the fantastic Le Rossini. I can’t say enough good things about this place. The service is superb and the vanilla mérou (white fish) is exquisite.