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 II: Idyllic islands and land-based critters

As if spending a week spotting whale sharks wasn’t enough!

Another aspect of the first half of the itinerary was to experience some of the other flora and fauna in and around Nosy Be. So one morning we set off to see Nosy Tanikely, a marine reserve with a lovely, preserved reef. We snorkeled there for a bit before heading farther out to look for more whale sharks.

Back at Sakatia, afternoons were for napping or swimming with giant green sea turtles in the sea grasses by the lodge. Alternately, there was a lot of nothing to do if one was so inclined. In hindsight, I’m meshing together days here and calling out highlights because I stopped trying to keep track of sightings and particulars as the days melted into one under the hot sun. There was the afternoon I was sitting on the porch of my bungalow when two chickens very deliberately climbed the steps to have some water from my foot pail. There were brilliant sunsets overlooking the little sacred forest. There were early morning walks in the mangroves at low tide.

On another morning, we were up and out early to get to a remote island called Nosy Iranja, a 3-hour boat ride out into the waters of the Mozambique Channel. We spotted fewer whale sharks as we entered the deeper (and choppier) water, but as we travelled, a pod of spinner dolphins joined us to play in the boat’s wake. And as we approached Iranja, we watched as a humpback whale family (mom, brand new calf, and dad) slowly cruised through the water, making their way out to sea (and apparently towards Antarctica); the baby getting used to its giant fins, slapping and playing in the water as they swam.

As if the magic of the sea creatures wasn’t sublime enough, we approached the beach where we were to spend the night in beachside “tents”. Pictures cannot do the setting justice, but close your eyes and imagine the whitest sand beach you can conjure, the warm turquoise waters painted in a rainbow of blues. We walked through a small village, up to the phare (lighthouse) at the top of the island, then down the other side to watch the sunset by a spit where at low tide one could walk across to yet another teeny island to hide away from the world. The mojito on the beach felt like an indulgent cherry on top.

Our last day was spent on dry land, taking a walk through the paths in Parc National de Lokobe. Lokobe occupies most of the southern tip of Nosy Be and is home to 72 species of amphibians and reptiles, 48 species of birds, and even 2 species of lemurs that are considered microendemic to Nosy Be: the Nosy Be sportive lemur (you can see them in the photos below), and the Nosy Be mouse lemur.

After a (frankly, unexpectedly hard) paddle out to the entrance via local wooden canoe called a pirogue, we entered the park to find more flora and fauna. Here, we saw a tree boa and other snakes, a variety of chameleons, and lemurs – including the very little and very adorable mouse lemur, who we saw curled up and sleeping in some palm fronds. Plied with a local lunch and plenty of fresh, ripe, mangoes (and jackfruit!), the group unanimously determined the outing (as well as the sea tow back to where we started) a roaring success.

Did you miss Part I of this adventure? Click here. Next stop: the mainland!

Madagascar marvels Part I: Sharks and palms

About 6 years ago, before the world went sideways and back when I had a regular habit of diving in far-flung places, I stumbled upon a post by a marine biologist with the Marine Megafauna Foundation talking about research he was doing on whale sharks in general, and in Madagascar in particular. The Mozambique channel is a whale shark hotspot, and apparently it was discovered that a particular stretch of ocean around Nosy Be had similarly attracted a large and healthy population. With whale sharks, both fortunately and unfortunately, comes tourism. So I was happy to see that an environmentally-aware wildlife travel company called Aqua-Firma partnered with MMF scientists to mix research with eco-conscious travel and came up with a formula to respectfully send willing adventurers to watch (and play) while the scientists did some of their work. I wanted in! It took 6 years, 2-1/2 of which Madagascar was closed to foreigners due to Covid, but I made it happen (and then some…).

I was to learn that locally, the Madagascar Whale Shark Project was well under weigh. Founded by the amazing Stella Diamant, the Project is leading research, education, and conservation efforts on the ground (and in the water) to study and protect these amazing creatures in and around Nosy Be and other areas of Madagascar.

Overall, I was in Madagascar for about 3 weeks. Here’s my telling of the adventure in several parts.

Sharks and palms: A fine line between ecotourism and impact

It starts on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean called Nosy Sakatia. Sakatia is just off Nosy Be, which is off the north-westerly end of Madagascar (which is in the Indian Ocean, off East Africa). The northwest of the country is littered with these idyllic white-sand tropical islands. It’s on one of these that Part I of my adventure was to start: 10 days at a little oasis called Sakatia Lodge for the above-mentioned whale shark trip.

Nosy Sakatia has its own sacred forest in which black lemurs, fruit bats, chameleons and other critters live. There are no cars…and an unwritten no shoes policy. In other words, my kind of place. So I arrived there a couple days before the itinerary was to begin in earnest to shut the rest of the world out, get some dives in, and take much-needed naps in the tropical air. Sakatia lies roughly 13° below the equator, so it’s late spring here, the opposite of the impending dreariness of autumn back home. The lodge resides in a small bay that opens to the waters between Nosy Be and the Mozambique channel proper.

A portent to the days to follow came in the form of a sighting of a small humpback whale greeting us in that little bay to say good morning before our first dive. Getting back in the water after not diving for nearly 4 years was like coming home.

It’s hard to explain diving to a non-diver, but it was like reinflating something within myself that had dried out. Just making bubbles underwater again felt like a gift. I’m happy to report that the corals are in remarkable shape, and although warming, the waters and its denizens seem to have withstood many of the fates of much of the (over-) developing world. So I spent 2 days diving: small reefs and sandy plateaus and even a small wreck that gave way to one of the most gorgeous coral gardens I’ve ever seen. I clocked my 200th dive on this trip, so it felt significant to dive with a team that appreciated the sheer joy of diving and natural wonder more than just delivering a guest experience. During the week, I’d do a couple more: a night dive and a final early morning dive on an exquisite reef that could double as a work of art. Back on the boat, I remarked to another diver that it looked like someone painted what a reef should look like.

On the evening of my 3rd day there, the rest of the group arrived: our fearful trip leader, an assortment of Brits, Scots, and Americans, and Stella, our whale shark researcher for the week. A genial group, some divers, some not, and even a couple on their honeymoon! Fingers crossed that the shark gods would deliver.

Lights out came early for me and I slept like a log, the dreamless sleep of recovery from 6 months of going non-stop. I woke most mornings with the sun. I was beginning to feel more human.

That’s me. Photo courtesy of Stephen Burgess @UW_Burgess

How to hunt for sharks

The daily plan was to head out into the sea after breakfast, in search of circling seabirds and tuna leaping on the surface, a froth that indicates bait balls of sardines and other tiny fish schooling in the waters below. In this part of the world, whale sharks feed on these tiny fish, so where there’s a bait ball there’s usually a whale shark.

ID: Each shark has a unique pattern, like a fingerprint. So for research, they are looking to identify resident and new sharks against the sharks in the Sharkbook international database. This is done by observing an area just over the left fin. Part of the process is easing into the water near the shark in order to get close enough to get an ID photo (the experts freedive), and when possible, the researchers attach tags: flagging and tagging, as it were. The wonder of it all is the work between the boat driver, the guide and the scientist to spot the bait balls and spot the shark and position the boat (quickly and safely) so we have the best chance to get in the water and see the animal. It’s all done quite orderly and safely, but seems a tad chaotic with the excitement never seeming to wane as we find shark after shark each day. We’d locate a shark, enter the water gently, and swim to (and with) the animal, in awe of each giant mouthful of teeny fish, of every elegant swim-by. It is breathtaking to watch the grace of these massive fish – and the ones here by Nosy Be are small in comparison (5-10 metres vs. more mature whale sharks that can be up to 15-20+ metres long).

Over the 5 days we were at sea, we spotted a total of 15 unique whale sharks (all male, as they trend in these waters) and a whopping 7 that the Project hadn’t previously identified. Fun fact: 9 of our sighted sharks were the first sighted this year (yay, us!). One shark, Ernest, has been a regular here for years…he was first identified in 2015.

To throw in bonus critters, we also saw mobula rays, two mantas, turtles, and schools and schools of the tiny baitfish that are so critical to the food chain for these marine giants. To date, and through the Project, there have been over 500 individual whale sharks identified in the waters off Nosy Be. When tags are deployed, they can be tracked and monitored for feeding and migration activity. It feels like they are doing important work to protect these gentle giants. I’m glad to have contributed minorly to the efforts.

I am so grateful to have spent this time here, but I’ll be honest, I’m worried about the sharks. Because if we were 10 people on a boat doing things the right and responsible way, there are or will be 10 boats that don’t. Research is important. So is education and conscious action and leaving soft footprints in the sand rather than the harsher kind. People like Stella and the Madagascar Whale Shark Project and the caring folks at Les Baleines Rand’eau are leading efforts to ensure this goes the right way. Read more about what they’re doing here.

I’ll be back there, of that I’m sure. It’s one of these places that works its way into your heart, delivering turquoise-infused dreams. Or maybe it was just the rhum arrangé.

Shameless plug for conservation sake: via the Madagascar Whale Shark Project’s website you can make a donation, adopt a whale shark, or even name a whale shark!

I’ll close Part I here for now. Stay tuned for the rest of the aquatic (and land) adventures!