Final Mad Dash

January 4, 2011

Even the longest trip must ultimately reduce to a few, often frantic, days.  And so begins the last chapter of Madagascar.

I rode into Joffreville, gateway village for Amber Mountain National Park, in a classic Renault taxi-brousse, the first I have encountered on this trip.  It also had an exhaust leak so I am glad I was in the front next to the window.  The time was 1:00pm, which meant two things: 1) The park office would be closed until at least 2:00pm and 2) I needed lunch.

I was directed to the Vaninna, a hotel/restaurant run by a French woman in what appears to be a large Victorian era house.  Near the end of the meal, the rain, which had dogged me since the morning in Diego, resumed in earnest.  The proprietor offered me a room for the night but I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in town or inside the park.  To determine that I needed to reach the park office.

I got my break around 3:00pm.  The rain let up and I started hiking up the hill.  I left my main pack behind at Vaninna.  When I reached the park office, here is what I found:

  1. Yes, there was no food at the lodge in the park.
  2. A guide was required, or least that's what the guide said.  The park official spoke no English.
  3. It's a long way up the hill.  Going back and forth from Joffreville would be annoying for day hikes and probably impractical for night walks.

I estimated that it was too late to gather remaining provisions in the village and hike back with my luggage so I opted to book two nights in the park starting the next day.  I would spend the first night at Vaninna.

Image of ring tailed mongoose

Next morning, I started up the hill at 4:35am for my 5:30am nature walk.  It was at least moderately successful.  Over the next five hours or so, we found Crowned Lemurs, quite a few birds, and several chameleons.  The guide even found a Ring Tail Mongoose.  I've been on the hunt for the mongoose every since I saw one's tail dart across the trail in Mosoala.

I could have hoped for a more natural setting though.  We found him on top of what appeared to be a septic tank.  The guide tried to direct the creature for better photos by tossing little scraps of food.  Clearly, this animal was used to being fed.  At one point, he walked straight up to me and tried to eat my shoe.

After the hike, I still need to move into the park lodge, some 3K further into the park than the office.  Just getting to the lodge, dropping off my camera bag and getting back to Joffrevile took too long.  I ended up eating lunch at Vaninna again.

I had asked about taxis and was told it was about $20.  My guide suggested porters for half that.  Both ideas had cost and scheduling issues that I didn't like very much.  In the end, I decided to pack everything up and hope that a passing vehicle would save me from having to hike the entire distance.

No such luck.  With the food, my luggage was even heavier than normal, despite being free of the camera gear.  It took two hours, including a 20 minute break at park HQ.  A local kept pace with me on the first leg and kept offering to carry the small bag for me.  I declined.  The day pack contained the netbook and this guy kept tripping over his flip flops.

It was a lot of work and more excursion that I had done since beginning the trip but I made it.  Despite the fatigue and a blister on one toe, it felt kind of good.  I get a bit lazy when I travel.   Every so often I need to do something that requires me to push hard and breath deeply.

I was tired but I wasn't worried about the night walk.  They had always been be brief and non-strenuous.  This one was the exceptionally long and rather unrewarding too.  We encountered the usual mouse lemur who wouldn't stay still long enough for photos.  We also saw Fork Marked Lemurs too far up in the canopy for my flash to reach.  Little else was accomplished except for making dinner late and the sleep time short.  My guide wasn't thrilled when I requested a 6:00am start for the next morning.

Image of Sanford Brown Lemur

We started a bit late for another very long hike.  Partly these were my issues, partly lack of water in the lodge.  We did see the Stanford Brown Lemurs twice in poor light.  Mostly though, this tour of the dry side of the mountain was a bit of a dud.  The guide really wanted to show me the Pita-like Ground Roller, which I can kind of understand.  He also was excited about the pygmy kingfisher which I don't get at all.

Image of Chamaleon

If the first night walk was a bit long, the second was absolutely insane.  For 4.5 hours my guide raced ahead of me over slippery terrain and through thick undergrowth infested with leaches.  Usually, I use my own headlamp to look for eye shine but, on this night, the best I could do was to keep my lamp pointed at the ground so I could stay vertical.  After I slid out and smacked my expensive lens against the ground, he slowed down a little.  But even after expressing some concern for my camera, he only slowed down a little.  I guessed that the bush waking phase was trying to find me a tenrec.  He certainly wasn't volunteering any planing information.  In the end, we saw quite a few good chameleons but no tenrec and no nocturnal lemurs except for a fork marked too far to even recognize, much less photograph.

When we finally reached the lodge, it was almost 10:00pm and I hadn't eaten anything since lunch.   And then he wanted to be paid.  What was wrong with paying in the morning at the park office?  He made it out as a big sob story but his excuses lacked substance.  His main point seemed to be that he was leaving town early in the morning.  I wasn't convinced but he didn't seem to want leave so I gave him what he claimed I owed for the heroic service he had provided.  All in all, it was an expensive couple of days for having been given so little control.

I hiked down to the village in the morning with my luggage.  My hip was still sore and stiff from the night's fall when I passed by my guide who had told me he was leaving town at 5:30am.

The plan had been been to reach Nosy Komba and spend the night there.  But when I reached Diego, the taxi-brousse station was quieter than I had ever seen any taxi-brousse stand in operating hours.  No vehicles were getting ready to move.  I could not reach Nosy Komba on that day.  The best plan available was to spend the “night” in Diego and leave at 3:00am, arriving at the ferry to Nosy Comba at 8:30am.  The plan had been to spend the night in Nosy Komba and see the lemurs  next morning before the day trippers from Nose Be arrived.  Neither seemed possible anymore.  I begrudgingly bought my ticket and moved into my hotel.

Image of black lemur

The taxi-brousse made good time.  Although I felt overcharged, I ponied up the 25,000 Ariary to divert a speed boat to Nosy Komba.  It wasn't anywhere near early morning when I arrived but I did seem to beat the hoards by 10-15 minutes.  The entry fee included three bananas that the guide would use to entice the black lemurs to come down and play.  I told my guide that he was not to call or feed the lemurs.  I had a small but useful window of time to photograph the lemurs doing what lemurs do when left to their own devices.

And then the hoards of stupid tourists arrived.  Guides coaxed the lemurs to hop onto the tourists shoulders and pose for photos.  This twisted side show worked for the first three groups.  Later groups ran into a problem: the lemurs weren't hungry for bananas anymore.  Guides resorted to poking lemurs with a stick to get them to come out from the sleeping places and perform.  That was my queue to leave.

But leaving the island was trickier than I expected.  It seems that the 9:30am-10:30am  “rush hour” is created by the once per day ferry service between Nosy Be and Nosy Komba.  The guide book neglected to mention that detail.  I managed to avoid the cost of a “special” boat to Nosy Be by hoping into a “Special” that had just arrived with a load of tourists from Nosy Be.  Except for the captain demanding double the agreed fair when I arrived (I refused to give it to him), it worked out perfectly.

Nosy Be the day after New Years isn't much different that Diego on New Years.  Almost all business were shut including most restaurants.  On the up side, a few moderately priced restaurants were open.  In Diego, only the more expensive had been serving.

In theory, I could have stayed another day at Nosy Be.  However, I didn't trust taxi-brousses to run anywhere near their official schedules.  On the third, I headed to the peer to book the ferry to get me to the short range taxi-brousse to get me to the long haul taxi-brousse to Antananarivo.  I booked a package at the peer, figuring it would save me time and trouble on the connections.

I think that was a mistake.  I'm pretty sure there were other, quicker options for getting from the waterfront at Ankify to Ambanja.  The taxi-brousse I was given to took more than two hours to fill up before starting on the under one hour journey Ambanja.  I was told that “buses”, which I interpreted to mean real buses left at 11am, 12pm, and 1pm.  What I actually got was a taxi-brousse minibus which didn't bother leaving until 4:00pm.  Twenty-one hours later, my last taxi-brousse ride was over.  It was too late to do laundry but at least I was in no danger of missing my flight.

My last full day in Madagascar hasn't been exciting but, then, it wasn't intended to be.

In a few hours, I will board an airliner, engines will come to life, and I will leave this island behind.  But this is not the end.  As a tarot card reader would say: “One door closes.  Another door opens”.  That door leads back to Africa.