Madagascar Marvels Part V: Gecko love and a last blast on the mainland

One of the couples in the group on Sakatia had done this last part of my itinerary before getting to the island, so were keen on reporting how wonderful this leg of the trip would be. The woman was also very eager to remind me to check my shoes. While I didn’t know exactly how big the cockroaches were at that point, I’ve spent enough time in nature to cautiously ask why. She proceeded to tell me that she found a scorpion in one of her boots. One of the little white ones. Ew.

So as we drove the dirt road from the main road through dry, dusty, rustic little villages, I thought about scorpions. We were going to a Bush Camp, after all. The good news is that not one of the 52 (!!!) species of scorpions endemic to Madagascar is venomous. The little white ones, apparently, still pack quite a punch.

The 35kms took almost 2 hours (did I mention the state of the roads here?) and so almost felt like a commute back home, driving virtually the same distance from home to office in roughly the same amount of time. The difference of course being the crystal blue sky contrasting against the red-dusted, 38-degree air, the tsingy springing up out of nowhere and lining the last 5kms of the drive, the zebu-dodging we did along the way, the smiling and waving children singing “salut” at me as we drove down the road… so in reality exactly nothing like a commute, except possibly a better use of time.

The next couple of days were to be spent at the Iharana Bush Camp, situated on the edges of a Tsingy massif. I don’t think I was wholly prepared for the experience: in my head was a scorpion farm, or at least a rustic bush experience and all its accoutrements – rustic huts and scary toilets not least. In front of me as we drove up was an absolutely gorgeous natural wood and stone and thatch camp that seemed to bloom and wend in concert with its surroundings. There was only one place on the camp with electrical outlets. Internet only available in another area, and then for only a couple of hours a day. Shoes completely optional. A stiff breeze created its own air conditioning as the warm air wafted through the feuilles de satrana (the roofs were thatched with the leaves of the Bismarck palm, called satrana locally). My bungalow, crafted in the style of traditional Malagasy housing (per their website), overlooks the (at present very dry) lake and, beyond it, the Tsingy massif itself. I think the Tsingy creates its own magnetic field: it is so mesmerising that you simply can’t not look at it.

Because of the heat, we wouldn’t go out hiking until later in the day, so I arrived with enough time to settle in, greet my very sweet house gecko, and have lunch, at which they were serving the local poisson fumé, smoked fish. From day 1, if I could have eaten one Malagasy dish every single day, this would have been it!

After a siesta, the first hike was to the Mandresy Cave in Tsingy Mahaloka. Like the Red Tsingy, this cave seemed to have been dripped from a prehistoric giant’s sand bucket, the stalactites and stalagmites meeting in the middle to form artworks from the limestone. Bats, check. Precarious footing, check. If I’m honest, I’m lukewarm about caves in general; it’s not the enclosure, but more the lack of sunshine that makes me want to leave a cave about halfway through. Glad to have continued on this one though: the cavern, an impressive grotte des chauves-souris (squeaks audible well before we came upon them), was absolutely massive. This cave is locally known for its population of Rousettes – the Malagasy fruit bats (Rousettus madagascariensis), just one more endemic species of this wild place.

Look through these photos: there is a special one, where I turned around shortly after entering the cave and noticed that the entrance looks like Africa itself. My guides were equally moved by the sight!

I was waking up early every day; 4:30 or 5, listening to the sounds of the Crested Drongos, Malagasy sunbirds, and the different Couas…the dawn chorus played out in so many different keys. So by the time the carpet of stars rolled out, I was firmly planted in bed, cocooned by a mosquito net.

The next morning was an early start – we would be hiking to the roof of the Tsingy, on a private trail curated by one of the local naturalists. Same rules hold here: défense de tomber, as these Tsingys are no less sharp and unforgiving as the last. The views were nothing short of stunning! And no photos will do justice to the landscape that unfolded around each turn or over each viewpoint. I am a big fan of rocky, above tree level hikes, so this really ticked all my boxes as far as hiking goes. Note the birds (gray-headed lovebirds, a gorgeous red kite, crested drongos!!), as well as the carefully placed wood and wire footbridges and handrails.

A late-afternoon bike ride through the dry lakebed and into the local village was a treat. I can still hear the children’s calls of “salut, salut” as we rode past, the kids stopping to watch and wave. I smile to think of the man I saw so gently petting the head a zebu calf as he rested beneath a tree; his well-loved herd grazing nearby. He invited me over, “caresse, touche…” He wanted me to pet the calf as well. I did. Visitors, I think, are still something of a curiosity here, as tourism hasn’t really, fully taken hold. And so we rode through the village as life unfolded: tending chickens, weaving baskets, hand-hulling rice, playing football, chasing tires with sticks… “Don’t let the modern world steal this beautiful simplicity,” I want to shout; but the fact that many of these villages still don’t have clean water makes me hope for a happy medium once tourism comes via the new paved roads they’re building here.

At this point, had I known what the following days would entail, I would have extended my stay here. But since my future sight was wonky in the heat, I got up that next day, pulled my things together, and said au revoir to this lovely oasis by the Tsingy. Not captured on film: just before I left, I went back to my bungalow and said veloma, goodbye, to the very sweet day gecko who lived in the bathroom. More than once I found him drinking from the water left in the shower, so I made it a point to leave some water for him throughout my stay. It’s like he came down to say goodbye to me. So as I slowly reached a finger towards his little nose (thinking “boop” in my head), he looked directly at me and then bravely and tentatively took the drops of water I offered before retreating up into the satrana. It’s dry season here and every drop matters.

I walked away thinking about that tiny encounter, thinking that small gestures matter, that each critter has its place. Even the horrible hissing cockroach serves some reasonable purpose (even if they make one shudder to think about them).

When I go back to Madagascar, one of the reasons will be to return to the Iharana Bush Camp.

Madagascar marvels part III: What’s this tsingy?

After 10 days of sun and salt and sharks and palms, I did the Malagasy version of planes, trains and automobiles (pirogue and taxi and speedboat and 4×4), meeting up with a local guide and driver to see the national parks in the north of the country. On that first day, I had a bit of shell-shock with a 10 hour drive on terrible, not-quite-paved roads, from the port of Ankify to area near Joffreville. En route, I am sure I inhaled half a kilo of red clay dust, had a pit stop in one of the most unusual outdoor toilets I’ve ever experienced, and fully realised the value of a sea breeze as we drove towards dry season in the interior (hint: 39C feels quite different inland v the coast!).

I spent the hours in the car with a traveller’s guilt: the conflicting feelings of being privileged in affording this kind of trip while simultaneously observing straggly stick homes with no running water, outhouses, skinny zebu, over-farmed land; but also thriving local markets, self-sufficient small villages, and wide beaming smiles on everyone I encountered. I consider how complicated life back home is in comparison.

On this first day, a “travel day”, the saving grace was a quick stop for a nature thingy, a tsingy called Tsingy Rouge. You leave the main highway and wend through a maze of sand and clay-dirt roads to reach it, diggers and roadwork vehicles everywhere. They’re digging and paving in the name of modern infrastructure. As I watched the small rustic villages go by through my window, I considered whether modernization is really worth it. Water, yes. Sanitation facilities, of course. But the chaos these new roads will bring, and the tourism… can the ecosystems sustain the influx?

Tsingy was a new term for me. In Malagasy, it means “the place where one cannot walk barefoot.” As I was to learn, so named for good reason.

Tsingy Rouge is Madagascar’s miniature Grand Canyon. It’s a red (rouge) geologic marvel, formed of eroded laterite and looks like some prehistoric giant played sand castles and then got bored half-way through. It reminded me of a cross between a model of Bryce Canyon and a salt mine, out in the open even though it looks like the bottom of a cave. This place looks like it should be underwater – and it probably was, a million or so years ago – the formations were carved by the rivière Irodo.

At the time, I was road weary and dusty from the drive, but the short walk down into the tsingy and then the sight of some gray-headed lovebirds nesting in the red clay helped me reset. At the lodge that night, I chalked (clayed?) the day off to what it was, and delighted in the thought that tomorrow we’d be hiking through Parc National Montagne D’Ambre, Amber Mountain, and the hunt for chameleons would begin in earnest.

Zoom in on this map to see the different places I visited during the trip.

A slight detour about the climate of Madagascar. As the 4th largest island on this planet, Madagascar is simply enormous. So the country encompasses rainforest through savannah, with a dry season (of which we were at the end) and a rainy season. From zebu to man-on-the-street, it seemed like everyone was looking forward to the rains! In a recent article, The Guardian highlights that these inconceivable temperatures are a clear result of climate change. Entering Amber Mountain was like travelling through different worlds. On the one hand, it was hot and humid, and as we got into the forest the air turned almost sweet. On the other hand, it was so dry that the riverbeds were completely dried up and one of the waterfalls we were to see, there was not enough water for it to actually fall. I was thankful for the lush forest canopy to provide shade.

We hiked to the Cascade Sacrée (Sacred Waterfall) and the Mille Arbres (Path of a Thousand Trees) trail, all the while feeling ensconced in a terrarium separate from the hot and humid outside world.

Montagne D’Ambre feels like its own bioverse, with endemic birds, lemurs and chameleons found specifically in this reserve. It was very cool to actually find some of these critters, including the Amber Mountain rock thrush, the Amber Mountain chameleon, and the very adorable and teeny Mount D’Ambre leaf chameleon (note how small he is on my hand!). While not exclusive to Amber Mountain, the endangered Sandford’s brown lemurs were an amazing find, as was the very weird and master of camouflage leaf-tailed gecko (can you spot it in the last photo in this slideshow?).

Possibly the highlight of the day came as we were exiting the park and really more focused on lunch than seeing any more critters, since the day was already full of such wonderful sightings. As we were driving down the main reserve road, we spotted a beautiful little pygmy kingfisher perched on a branch where he gave us a fantastic view of his bright plumage.

Of all the wildlife experiences on this trip, I think this one wins for the most unexpected sighting. The grin and sheer joy on my guide’s face at the sighting was absolutely priceless.

And, no, I didn’t get a photo of that.

This concludes our tour of Parc National de la Montagne D’Ambre. Stay tuned for Part IV including the most horrible thing in Madagascar and why you need shoes. In other words, next up is hiking in the tsingys of Ankarana.