Sunday, 29 October 2017

Madagascar 4 - Anakao, Tsimanampetsotsa, whale-watching, Antananarivo, home.

Anakao is a popular beach area but there is no viable road to it.  The quickest way to get from Tulear to Anakao is by speedboat. After breakfast, we went to the speedboat terminal where the tide was out, revealing a large expanse of mud (and probably worse. Nevertheless, this was no problem, as we were taken to the speedboat by a, slow but secure, means of transport: zebu cart! Our cart had two zebu with minds of their own. The driver had constantly to encourage them with a stick or we would have been stuck in the mud!
In a zebu cart heading for the speedboat!
The speedboat was large, and capable of taking 25 passengers with all their luggage. We were soon skimming over the waves along the coast.

On arrival, we paddled ashore to the beachfront hotel with a ‘to-die-for’ view over the limpid sea.  It faced West, an ideal direction to enjoy perfect sunsets!  

My case coming ashore on paradise beach.

There were various chalets in the sand dunes scattered around the site. Fortunately, our chalet was the nearest to the dining room / bar.

After settling in, we spent the rest of the day relaxing, swimming and planning the next few days.  Tomorrow we were due to go to Tsimanampetsotsa National Park to the south.  I spent some of the afternoon looking for the local birds.  There were one or two new ones including Sakalava Weaver and Littoral rock thrush, a slightly different species from the Benson’s rock thrush we had seen at Isalo.

Littoral Rock-thrush  - Male

Littoral Rock-thrush  - Female
The following day we set off to Tsimanampetsotsa in three 4x4s.  We stopped part-way there in a flat clearing, where Rija explained about the unique plant ecosystem. Nic noticed nearby some plover species but we were too far away to have a proper look. We carried on towards the entrance to the park where we stopped for the guide to buy tickets.  It was already hot at about 9 a.m.

Our vehicle was the last one in the convoy and was driving quite slowly.  We quickly lost sight of the first two cars.  On speaking to Rija about it, she explained that the driver was trying to be extra careful because Norma (aged 89) was in our car and he thought she looked rather fragile! Norma said he needn’t worry about her.

At Tsimanampetsotsa our guides, Jacky and Julien took us first to a cave full of water containing fish with no eyes. The cave was completely dark so they had no need of eyes.  Here's one of them:

Blind fish in cave

The ground and vegetation in the park were unlike any other.  The ground was hard slabs, which the guide informed us was fossilised coral. Now, I'm sure all my readers know, therefore, that the ground we were standing on was once at the bottom of the sea.

This Park was also home to some impressive baobab trees here are a couple of them:

Lynne by huge baobab tree
Enormous parsnip? No. Baobab!

Not too far on was an extremely impressive Banyan Tree with roots going deep down into another cave which, apparently, linked up underground with the first cave we had been in. The caverns are very popular with cavers or, as the guide quaintly insisted on calling them, speleologists. The Banyan tree held a juvenile cuckoo-hawk.

Banyan tree
Cuckoo-hawk - juvenile
After the guided tour, we moved on to the lake, where we saw some distant flamingos but none close by. We also climbed the nearby hill.  Here is Lynne at the top with the lake behind.

Lynne by Tsimanampetsotsa Lake
The return trip was slow going on the soft, sandy tracks. I asked our driver if he would stop where we had stopped on the way down.  I recognised it when we got there, and fortunately the plovers were still there. I got out and took a few shots before they scuttled further away.

Madagascar plover (I think)

A little further ahead our track was barred by the most overladen and bogged down taxi bus I had yet seen in Madagascar. We stopped to take a picture of their miserable situation.  

Overladen taxi-bus stuck in the sand.
No idea how they got out.
It’s astonishing how many people are crammed into this bus.  In addition, you can see the enormous amount of luggage on the roof and the several people who were actually travelling on the top of that luggage.  I have no idea how they managed to get free as it had sunk quite a long way into the soft sand.  Rija informed us that this was a long-distance taxi bus that went to the north of the country about 1000 miles away and took several days to get there.

We got back to the hotel late in the afternoon.  It was still light.  I wandered around the compound looking for a few birds before relaxing with a beer and waiting for the sunset.

Sunset at Anakao
The following day we were due to visit one of the offshore islands, but most people wanted to go whale watching. Rija arranged it, and a stop at the island was part of the whale watching trip anyway, so everyone was happy

Our hotel was in quite an isolated position with no proper road communication with the rest of the island. As a consequence, there was no shower and the toilet had to be flushed using a bucket of sea water which was replenished periodically by the staff.

Hot water was brought twice a day. We used this to wash standing up in front of the wash basin, which had no waste pipe. The water just ran out of the bottom onto the floor and then into a drain.  These were small inconveniences compared with our beautiful situation by the sea.

Next day (our final full day here) our boat arrived to take us whale watching. It was actually a large balsa canoe, complete with outrigger and outboard motor.  

In the balsa wood canoe, looking for whales.

We all fitted in easily and motored away passing the island where we would later stop for lunch.  There were several other whale boats in the area and it wasn't long before we caught sight of our first humpback whale. In the next few hours we saw several humpbacks on the surface and diving showing their flukes (the lobes of their tails) as they did so
Apparently individual whales can be recognised by the shape and pattern on their tail fins.  I had thought that the tail fin of a whale was quite smooth and featureless but this close-up of the fluke of a humpback whale clearly shows the incredible patterning and the ragged edge of it.  It also appears to have a large crab clinging onto the end!

Flukes of a humpback whale showing the
distinctive patterning by which they can be recognised.

After the whale watching we headed for the island. We pulled the boat up on the beach and waded ashore. Our guides made a tarpaulin shelter for us while they cooked the fish they had caught for our lunch.  Nic, Sian and I wandered off in search of wildlife and birds.  There were a few small birds that proved extremely elusive, but we also saw a grey plover another plover species and a whole series of red-tailed tropicbirds which soared overhead as we approach the far end of the island.  We wandered into their nesting area.  Some of the tropicbirds were sitting on eggs underneath bushes for protection.

Red-tailed tropicbird
Those of my readers in Europe are probably familiar with the little egret, a small white bird of the heron family. It was once quite rare in England, but they now breed here in large numbers and inhabit most shallow stretches of water. Anyway, here is a little egret.

Little egret - dark morph

Oh, yes, it is. This dark morph is unknown in England but is quite common in Madagascar. Both varieties were nesting in the same tree. Here is the little egret most of you know.  It was just next to the dark morph above.

Little egret

I also spotted a whimbrel on the shore.

We got back to camp in time for lunch, after which it was back to our hotel.

After dinner, we all sat looking out to sea, enjoying a final drink. Nic had noticed a nightjar which periodically swooped down into the lights to catch a moth or some other insect and then disappeared again.  I decided to investigate. I got my camera and my head-torch and quickly located not one, but two, nightjars in a tree, literally just outside the hotel and around the corner. I tried to take a picture by shining my head-torch at the tree but, as soon as I did that, they flew away. I therefore took a picture using the ambient light to focus manually. This was quite tricky as it was almost pitch dark. I focussed the camera looking at the top of the tree. I waited until I knew the nightjars were there I then took a photo using the built-in flash on my Canon 7D2. The flash wasn't strong enough even at maximum ISO, but when I got home I was able to make adjustments in Photoshop. This is the resulting photograph of the Madagascar nightjar. The flash is, of course, reflected from the eye.

Madagascar nightjar

The following day we boarded the speedboat again and set off towards Tulear. Very quickly it became clear that there was something wrong with the boat, as it was going very slowly. The driver looked worried and Rija was also looking concerned. I'm not sure why they didn't tell us immediately, but it was over an hour before they confirmed that there was something wrong with the engines. They called another boat, which eventually came to meet us.  This was fortunate as we had a plane to catch. The replacement boat was the shuttle boat of one of the other hotels, which very kindly took on board everyone and sped off towards Tulear.

The flight back to Antananarivo was uneventful, and quick at just about an hour. We went back to the same Belvedere Hotel that we had stayed at on the first night.

Our flight home wasn't until the late evening of the following day (actually the very early morning of the day after that) so we spent the next day on a tour of Antananarivo. This included the king's palace on one of the highest hills in the area.  The outside was fairly run down to be honest, although the history was interesting, and there was some very interesting furniture, photographs and other artefacts on the inside.

Grounds of the King's palace

We also visited a balcony overlooking the capital from quite near the Queens Palace which had been burnt out several years ago and never restored.

Near the Queen's palace overlooking Antananarivo.

There followed lunch in a very nice restaurant, and then a short shopping trip for souvenirs before we went back to the hotel to pack for the last time. We had our final dinner before leaving for the airport at about 23:00.  Our flight was at 01:30 back to Nairobi, where we arrived at about a 05:00. The stop-over this time was only about three and a half hours before our flight back to London.

We really enjoyed our visit to Madagascar. The country is poor, and desperately in need of some infrastructure. We were impressed at the resilience and inventiveness of the people, who wasted nothing and lived with the barest minimum. We were acutely aware of how privileged we were to be able to visit this amazing country with its unique wildlife, beautiful countryside and national parks. The lemurs and birds were enchanting, and the scenery was breath-taking. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Madagascar 3 - Anja National Park – Isalo National Park – Zombitze National Park

After breakfast, we left for 4 - Ranohira.  Rija, our guide, again entertained us with more interesting facts, this time about the tribes. There are 18 different tribes in Madagascar.  The Merina tribe is centred on the capital, Antananarivo.  To the south, we had been in the territory of the Betsileo tribe.  By now, we had left behind the Betsileo and we were firmly in the territory of the Bara tribe.  Here, the family tombs were different, the villages had smaller houses and the people looked different.  Customs are different in each tribe. It must be a nightmare learning about all the differences. Here is a map of the tribal areas and the map of our travels to remind you of where we went.

The areas of the 18 tribes of Madagascar

Map of our travels. Part 3 covers from 3 to 4 and what we did at 4-Ranohira (Isalo NP)

With 18 different tribes there are also 18 different languages in Madagascar!  The language of the Merina tribe has been adopted as the national language of “Malagasy” but not everyone speaks it.  Rija occasionally had difficulties understanding completely some of the people in different tribal areas.

The long journey to Ranohira was broken by a visit to the Anja reserve, a small park where several families of ring-tailed lemurs could be seen in the wild. We stopped en route to buy a packed lunch, which we enjoyed in the picnic area, before entering the park itself with the local guide, Daniel.

As we finished our lunch a pair of yellow-billed kites flew over, very low. Here is one of them.

Yellow-billed kite

We then made our way into the park and eventually arrived in the territory of one of the families of ring-tailed lemurs.  These are the classic lemurs that everybody knows about, because of their distinctive tail. They were very obliging, allowing us close views, but always keeping just at arm’s length.  We spent some time enjoying these photogenic animals and taking lots of photographs.

Ring-tailed lemur. This is the one most people know.

Ring-tailed lemur with suckling baby - Aah!  So cute!
Whilst there, I heard the sound of some birds in the distance. One of the assistant guides came with me and we discovered a group of Madagascar bee-eaters, also known as olive bee-eaters.  After taking a few quick shots, I ran back to tell Nic about them.

Olive Bee-eaters (aka Madagascar Bee-eaters).

We also found some grey-headed lovebirds nearby.

Grey-headed Lovebird

We continued to our journey. At one point, we arrived at the approach to Ambalavao, which looked something like the Great Rift Valley of Africa.

Approaching Ambalavao. Has something of the Great Rift Valley about it, no?

Lynne and me near Ambalavao.

Ambalavao is host to the largest zebu market in the country. Zebu is the cattle they have there. They are recognisable by the camel-like hump on their shoulders. All beef, milk, etc is from zebu, which are more numerous than people. The population of Madagascar is about 25 million. We passed Ambalavao on market day. Herders from miles around were taking their purchases back along the road to their villages.

Herders driving their zebu purchases back home. Near Ambalavao.

The terrain changed as we crossed a vast plateau. The land was flatter and composed of rather sparse grassland.  We stopped at a Bara village to have a look around. 

In a Bara village. Novel cactus fencing!

Bara village. Houses are small,
but most will have a solar charger for mobiles!

This cinder iron was actually in use as we visited!
Further on the way, we stopped at a petrol station. A circumcision parade passed us. 

Circumcision parade. They dance as they march (see next video).

The idea is to tire out the boy, about 5-6 years old, until late into the night so that he is exhausted the following morning when they take him to the doctor. Rija says "it's very quick". The poor lad here does not realise what is about to happen! If you think that’s strange, the grandfather then eats the foreskin that has been snipped!  Here's the video,  (No. Of the parade, silly!):

As dusk approached, we stopped to take some photos of the sunset. 

A photo of the sunset. L to R - Steph, Mike, Chris, Sian, Al, Lynne (foreground) and Nic.
Meanwhile, I found a new bird nearby, a Madagascar Lark:

Madagascar Lark

After another half hour or so we finally arrived in Ranohira, at the Orchidee Hotel. Ranohira is very close to the entrance to the Isalo National Park. We enjoyed dinner before retiring to our relatively luxurious room. There was even a swimming pool, but we did not use it.

The following morning, as we went to breakfast, I heard some birds of prey calling nearby. I found a pair of kestrels in a tree just outside the hotel. The young kestrel was begging to be fed and the adult obliged.

Feed me, Mummy!  Yes, that mouse will do nicely!
Kestrels outside our hotel in Ranohira

After breakfast, we were off to the park. Right at the entrance I heard the call of an unknown bird and the guide took me to see it; a Madagascar Hoopoe. Our guides were Naina and Andry.

Isalo National Park was dramatic.  The approach was through some steep cliffs where Kestrels lived. The whole terrain is predominantly dry and hot, even in the rainy season.

Approach to Isalo National Park

We climbed steeply onto the internal plateau. Here's what it looks like:

The guide pointed out some wildlife to us, including some weird creatures that look like white fluff. Look carefully or you'll miss them.

. . .then, some stick insects . . .  

Find the stick insect

. . . a scorpion . . . 

Scorpion. Our guide turned over stones until this little creature came with the stone!
. . . .and some birds.  

Common Newtonia
Namaqua Dove - a nice male

Isalo is regarded as sacred by the local tribe, the Bara, who like to be buried there. We came across some permanent tombs and also some abandoned temporary coffins with nobody in - at least we hope none. 

This colourful metal coffin is empty. It originally contained the body of a small person. The bones have been re-buried permanently. The coffin is about 90cm long.

This is a permanent burial place.

We crossed the plateau to a high point above the canyon. While not as impressive as a certain canyon in America, the view was certainly dramatic. We took photographs on the highest point.  This video of the main canyon is from my phone:

All of us above the main canyon. L to R - Mike, Sian, Lynne, Al, Steph, Norma, Chris, me, Nic (behind) and Rija, our guide
We descended into the canyon and crossed over to a water-hole. This was an oasis, allowing us to cool off, paddle in the water and recover our energy ready for the next stage, which was quite a trek up the length of the canyon itself.  A couple of our party even stripped off and swam in the cooling water!

The oasis in Isalo - a place to cool off.

In the waterhole, we found the locally endemic Benson's Rock Thrush. They were very confiding and came very close.

Benson's Rock Thrush - male, looks friendly

Benson's Rock Thrush - female, looks rather severe.

After a rest, we started our trek along the length of the canyon.  The guide soon led us to a nearby bush, which held a rainbow locust. This large insect was impressive enough while it was perched in the bush.  When he made it fly, it revealed a bright crimson wing case, which amazed us all.

Rainbow Locust

OK, OK! I know you want to see another hand, so here is one!

Rainbow locust with hand.

By this time, it was approaching mid-day and the sun was very hot.  Well, we thought it was hot, although the guide observed drily that it was “only about 32-33°C"! In this hot dry place, special plants grew, such as Elephant's foot and an Aloe something. Sorry, I'm not too good on plants! 

Elephant's foot, or false baobab.

Aloe species - not Aloe Vera

It was a relief to reach the end of the canyon and go down into the valley again to a campsite in a shady stand of trees where we were to have lunch. This area was home to a number of birds, including Madagascar turtle dove, Madagascar buttonquail, Fody, Madagascar Hoopoe and Benson's Rock Thrush.

Madagascar Turtle Dove

Madagascar Buttonquail

Madagascar Hoopoe

Some of the others went on a further walk after lunch to some other pools. Lynne and I decided to relax in camp while they did it!  On their return, we walked the final 1.5Km to the car park where our bus was waiting for us. We had certainly earned our dinner that evening.

The following morning, we left Ranohira and the Bara tribe on the last leg of our journey southwest to 5 -Tulear. Tulear is spelt "Toliara" on the map above. Rija explained that the road we were now travelling on was built a few years ago by the Chinese for reasons which remain obscure.

The journey was full of interest and activity.  Firstly, we passed through Ilakaka, a sapphire town, which had grown up in the last 15 or 20 years after the discovery of sapphires in the area.  What had been a small village has now become a medium sized town, with people from all over the country, who come to mine sapphires.  The mining conditions are, apparently, far from safe. Some workers die when the shafts they are working in collapse, through lack of support. We did not stop at Ilakaka, but drove on, through some fairly bleak terrain of termite hills and desert. We did notice a very impressive family tomb in this area though.

Not a country villa, but a large family tomb.

Later, we reached the National Park of Zombitse. Our guides were Tiavo, Gold and Feline.

This Park was home to a couple of species of lemur, a very rare endemic bird, as well as some impressive baobab trees. 

Appert's Tetraka - a rare bird endemic to the Zombitse region
A Long-billed Tetraka in Zombitse
A large Baobab tree - Zombitse

A large double Baobab tree - Zombitse
 I've kept the cuddly lemurs till last!

Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux's Sifaka

Hubbard's sportive lemur, aka Zombitse sportive lemur. This is actually a nocturnal species.

This was quite a short visit, and we then pressed on towards Tulear.  We were running low on cash at this point. Credit and debit cards are useless in most of Madagascar, so we needed to go to the bank. The first bank we went to looked at my £20 notes and declared that they were not new enough, so they wouldn't change them!   We went to a different bank, where they did agree to change them. The clerk told us to wait. We waited about 15 minutes before we were called to the counter, and then, perhaps, another 10 - 15 minutes while they dealt with the formalities of changing the money.  I have a sneaking suspicion that, even then, we had somehow jumped the queue of local people, which seemed to remain the same all the while we were there.

While I was in the bank, Lynne had gone to the local supermarket with Steph. They had bought a bottle of local gin and some tonic for us to drink during our stay at the beach.

Back at our hotel, the Victory, we decided to have a swim before dinner. This was quite refreshing. In fact, the water was quite cool, but it was the first swim that we had had. Our stay in Tulear was brief.  The next day we were going to Anakao, for a beach holiday.  Now, Anakao is quite a short distance along the coast as the crow flies, but almost impossible to reach by road. 

How would we get there?  Don't miss the final thrilling instalment!

Other parts: