Madagascar – the Mora Mora days

Mad again – a quicky expedition into the north

1 August 2008

A narrow cobbled road, somewhere in the pre-dawn darkness enveloping Antananarivo. As we judder around a hairpin bend we nearly collide with the only other vehicle navigating our particular shortcut to Tana Airport. It is an ox-cart heavily laden with bundles and burlap bags with two candle lanterns strapped to the cart and two big-horned beasts of burden straining against the yoke.

It is clear that not much has changed in Madagascar since my previous visit in 2001. The inherent character of this friendly island still seems intact even though this would be difficult to judge after only 12 hours. I flew in late last night with Cherelle, the owner of Firecloud Adventures. The mission is to do a shoot for her company and because the time is so limited, we will focus on a small area in the north of this massive island.

So far, it has not really hit me that I’m back in Madagascar, as we arrived in the dark before trundling off to the airport Guest House. And to catch our next flight to Diego Suarez, it is up again before dawn to trawl the dark-zone streets. So it’s the ox-cart that really ignites the fact that I’m back in Mad, and it feels good. Tana is slowly waking up as we approach the airport, with dawn colouring the east as lone figures scurry down side streets. Here and there candles light tiny shops, their counters warmly aglow despite the meager wares on display.

There is the usual argy-bargy at the airport, with porters not taking no for an answer, slow-moving queues and announcements echoing about in Malagasy and French. But it is friendly and non-threatening, and this is why this Indian Ocean island will remain one of my favourite destinations in Africa.

Our flight to Diego Suarez, or Antsiranana in local parlay, is via Nosy Be and en route to Reunion. The north of Mad is gorgeous from the air; all aquamarine bays and arid peninsulas jutting into the Indian Ocean’s embrace. The higher ranges are blanketed in thick montane forest, while palm trees sway along tropical beaches.

There’s a bit of a glitch at Diego as our transfer has not arrived, but this is soon sorted and we make our way into town to stock up on supplies. Ankarana is way off the beaten track and we need stove fuel, fresh food and water. Or this is our plan, which in Africa counts for very little. We soon find out that, to get to Encampement des Anglais may prove a bit of a long shot. Time is an issue, and the ground handler has cocked up communications somewhere along the line. So be it. After an hour or so of negotiating various options, we decide to head south to Mahamasina, a village on the edge of the Ankarana Reserve, and then plan our strategy from there.

The road is way dodgy and we duck and dive a constant obstacle course of potholes, dead dogs, death-wish goats and errant ox-carts. But the people are colourful and incredibly friendly, smiling and waving as we meander through small villages. We stop at a small sapphire mining village near Anivorano where I am besieged by a gaggle of miners desperate to offload their semi-precious stones. It seems unreasonably cheap, around €8 for a small pile of uncut gems, and if I could actually think of some reason to buy the sapphires, I probably would.

We reach Mahamasina at around 3 pm and it’s not too shabby. A small shop-cum-restaurant-cum-hotel nestles alongside the ANGAP National Park office, with a dozen or so palm-leaf thatched chalets clustered about. Bit too close to the road, but it does mean we can dump our bags and immediately set off on our exploration of the area, which is exactly what we do.

Our guide is a very pleasant young guy by the name of Joachim and he suggests the Petit Tsingy and the Bat Cave. The former feature is a relatively recent phenomena, formed over the past decades by erosion of the calciferous rock strata due to a chemical reaction with alkaline components in the rain. The result is a plateau of razor-sharp rock blades thrusting upwards from underfoot, slicing vicariously, vociferously even, at anyone foolhardy enough to cross this rocky obstacle course without due attention.

The terrain spouts plant species seemingly competing in the weirdness stakes, with spiky euphorbias and fat-bellied pachy-podiums contorting themselves within serrated crevasses, echoing the Tim Burton scenery created by the tsingy. (The word ‘tsingy’ by the way means ‘tip-toe’ which is how the barefoot Malagasy originally crossed the sharp rocks, according to legend.)

From the Petit Tsingy plateau, we descend into the realm of the original Dark Knight. Batman would feel utterly and completely at home within the ammonia bat-piss reek permeating the massive cavern constituting the Bat Cave. Or maybe he wouldn’t. I mean, millions of bats (at least 13 species inhabit the cave) wheel and twitter and ping right on the edge of your surreality, while a jumble of stalagmites and stalactites loom up within the beam of your torch light.

We stay until nightfall, watching the big, furry fruit-bat fuckers swarm around like dog-faced owls before traipsing back to camp in the dark moon night. In the light of my halogen head-torch the eyes of tunnel spiders glitter like flint-edged diamonds from the leaf-litter. Watching me, watching you, they seem to be saying, scuttling indignantly away as your shadow falls over them. Two White Horse quarts and a pot of Malagasy chicken sees us off to bed – early start at 6 am for a 9 hour hike to Lac Vert awaits.

2 August 2008

The Great White lemur Hunter set forth in good spirits from Mahamasina this morning at dawn. Ten hours of hiking awaited him, with many kms of trails traversing everything from verdant montane forest and dry deciduous woodlands to get-your-motherfucking-biker-boots-on tsingy. The GWLH eventually returned in the late afternoon, having survived a fondling attack by a pack or troop or whatever a gang of crowned lemurs loitering with intent are called. The only thing that kept the GWLH going while the midday sun scorched down and the tsingy knifed up, was the fact that back in camp there was a fridge full of ice-cold Three Horses Pilsner waiting.

First oh-my-F! sight of the day is a sinkhole the size of a house (perte de riviere) approximately an hour’s hike fro the camp. Apparently you can climb down into the 20 metre deep cavity and follow the river course as it wends its way within the bowels of the earth. The GWLH declines as there might be crocs down there, but it cannot be confirmed either way.

Our first lemur contact is with crowned dudes sunning themselves in the upper canopy, but they’re a bit wild and scamper off in a huff. The birds are more co-operative and I get great shots of white-formed Malagasy fly-catchers, magpie robins, crested ibis and even an owl that I still need to identify. But the furry monkey-cats do eventually kick in, shy Sandford lemurs their white ruffs distinguishing them, up in the treetops, peer down disdainfully at our sweaty visages, and lepilemurs, supposedly nocturnal, ogle the human goings-on with a certain sense of big-eyed innocence.

There is also a spectacular green gecko, a small slithering slip of a snake and a ring-tailed mongoose, but for jaw-dropping impact, nothing can beat the Mordor-like menace of the tsingy. Lac Vert (or Green Lake) is the most distant point of our day hike (make that 13 km or so from camp). Sheer serrated walls plummet 80 metres onto milky green water, while tsingy fields go ballistic in all directions.

Crossing the stones are tantamount to walking upon the unsheathed claws of ten thousand upside-down saber toothed tigers, with their sharp ends razoring with vicious intent at the soles of your boots. ‘Cat-foot’ is the name of the game, and a fall here will surely see more than the ritual spilling of blood.

Even better (or should that be more intimidating?) tsingy greets you at the Hanging Bridge, part of a new circuit halfway back to camp. Fang-like, the landscape rears up at you, Pleistocene shark jaws frozen in time, chomping, ripping, slashing. And yet, within the onslaught of this lacerating landscape, a tiny pacypodium blooms, its ephemeral lily blossoms juxtaposed against the stone age violence. Go figure – the message is, for once, obvious enough. And it is late and THB is kicking in.

3 August 2008

Leisurely wake-up before transferring to nature Lodge in Joffreville, a nondescript little town on the edge of the decidedly non nondescript Mt Ambre National Park. But before we go, the ever vigilant Joachim calls me to come and take pictures of a Eustalid chameleon, the biggest of the many species found on the island. After snapping away at his shifty-eyed visage for a while, I let him climb onto my hand to take him back to the grass where he’d be safe. He robot-steps up towards my shoulder, easily as long as my forearm, and flicks a baleful one-eyed look at me before mechanically making his escape.

En route to Mt Ambre, the driver spots a massive snake and stops to allow me to get some pix. It looks like a Malagasy hognose snake but I’m not sure. It slithers towards me as I lie flat on my belly, flickering its tongue at the camera before coiling itself up in a hollow at the base of a tree. That’s the only excitement along the 3 hour drive to the exquisite Nature’s Lodge, which roves a big step up from our banana leaf hut last night. The reception area is open and airy with lovely touches of local décor blending with French attention to detail. The accommodation is in stilted cabins, privately set upon the edge of a grassland canyon and overlooking the montane forested slopes of Montaigne d’Ambre National Park.

The 18,000 ha-plus Mt Ambre rates as one of Madagascar’s prime hiking destinations, with well-marked trails traversing the slopes of the 1744 metre peak. It is possible to ascend to the summit but as we only have a single night here arrangements have only been made for a transfer to the park early tomorrow morning. This is cool, as it leaves enough time to do a circuit including both Le Petit Cascade and Cascade Grand, the two prime points of interest, in the morning.

4 August 2008

Easy start this morning, with our pick-up for Mt Ambre arriving just as we finish our breakfast at 7 am. The transfer to the gate at park headquarters is a mere 7 km, but the road via Joffreville sets new standards, even for Madagascar. We catch the park staff on the back foot and there is much scurrying and gesticulating as they unlock the offices, phone for guides and faff about in that typically self-conscious Malagasy way.

But luck is on our side. I’ve read about the twin brothers, Angelique and Angeline, who guide at Mt Ambre in various publications, and the two of them are quite famous, having worked with the BBC, CNN, Canalt and any number of television and research crews. We’ve got Angelique for the day and it is very obvious from the word go that he knows his businesss.

He sets a cracking pace, trailing me and Cherelle in his wake as he tramps along a muddy dirt road into the montane rainforest, but within less than 500 metres he just about hits the deck. With expansive hand signals he indicates that we should wait, before creeping into the dense undergrowth. I’m expecting fossas mating, or at least an aye-aye, but non m’sieur! – it is a pygmy kingfisher. OK, so I’m not a twitcher, but even I know this is a very rare sighting.

Angelique repeats his command performance with the rare and endemic Mt Ambre rock thrush and a number of other birds and then moves onto the chameleons in due course. The giant Mt Ambre and tiny blue-nosed chameleons are ticked off, but the pygmy takes a bit more time. The man is undeterred, ferreting around in the damp pine needles at the bases of trees near the camp site until, c’est bien!, he triumphantly returns with not one, but three pygmy chameleons. They’re about 20 mm long and look a bit like really badly formed plasticine models, but they’re the real deal, and I’m impressed.

We also see troops of both Sanford’s and crowned lemurs, as well as three of the exquisite waterfalls gracing the park; the impressive Grand Cascade tumbles 80 metres from a forest-ringed pool, the Petite Cascade may not compete in size, but makes up for it in fairytale beauty; and finally, the Cascade Sacre, less than half a km from the campsite. The latter, as its name indicates, is a sacred waterfall, mostly visited by Malagasy people keen to make an offering to their gods.

I don’t feel the need to commune with mankind’s gods while I watch a Madagascar kingfisher flit like an airborne gem along the fern-fronded plunge pool, but I do feel an incredible connectedness with this place, and all of Madagascar, in fact.

But if this is so close to heaven, then why is the capital of Nosy Be called Hell-ville? Human folly, I tell you. Some French captain came here, and like all of us puny homo sapiens specimens, wanted to immortalize his name. So now we have this seedily pretty little slip of a village, set amidst rolling green hills, glistening crater lakes and curvaceous beaches, and I bet everyone who comes here shakes their head and mutters “If this is Hell, the devil can take my soul right now!”

But even though this brightly coloured and deliciously breezy village is the epitome of a tropical island escape, the devil is alive and well in the streets of Hell-ville. Sexual tourism is apparently rife, with overweight and cynical European men coming here to prey on long-limbed island beauties. For the girls, it must be incredibly difficult not to give in to the temptation of earning a month’s salary in one night and there are dozens of them strutting their stuff, opting for the short term financial rewards and not contemplating the very real risk of AIDS and STDs.

Our hotel is a delightful little place by the name of Le Boucaineers, with natural wood, stone and palm-frond architecture creating a small enclave of tranquility and aesthetics in Ambatoloako, one of the smaller villages on Nosy Be. We wander along the beach at sunset, watching fishermen bringing in their catch and clearing their pirogues while smooth-skinned island children frolic in the water. If I did not have children or responsibilities right now, I would have opted for a Hell-ville address, the devil be damned.

5 August 2008

A quick early morning dip clears some of my fever (I seem to have become very good at picking up foreign infections these days) but a nagging and knifelike pain in my lower back reminds me insistently that something is way out of balance with my body. There isn’t much I can do, as the Indian dude at the local ‘Espace Medical’ is not yet open and the yacht is waiting for us at the Port de Cratere (Crater Harbour).

The catamaran belongs to an absolute character – Freddy is a German who spent 20 years in South Africa before deciding to opt for the island life. He came to Madagascar 11 years ago and runs his charger yacht from Nosy Be. “I did what every man should do,” he says. “I asked myself what I want from life and the best scenario was not to work, while watching beautiful girls in bikinis and drink some beer, of course.” He laughs uproariously but softens like a lukewarm pork schnitzel every time his 3 year old daughter comes on deck to pike him in the ribs.

The plan is to sail from nosy Be to Tanikely where there is an opportunity to do a quick scuba dive within the scenic little marine reserve. It is about a 2 hour sail to get there and we cruise along in gorgeous light, with outrigger canoes and jaunty-sailed pirogues dotting the channel around us. Tanikely island itself is striking – an ancient lighthouse dominates the densely forested central ridge, a beachy spit, lined with palm trees stretches towards the east, and the south is made up of a semi-circular coral reef.

I don my mask and put my camera into its underwater housing, then slip into the tropical water. All around, clown-, parrot and any number of other colourful fish swirl and dart upon the current, sometimes solitary, sometimes in schools finning past like flocks of birds.

Around midday, after a lunch of crevettes and salad, we set sail for Kombo Island. I lie under the shade-net on the upper deck watching as the topography of mainland Madagascar shape-shifts on the horizon. It is a truly beautiful view, with land, sea and sky constantly changing in relation to each other.

We anchor off a tiny village on the northern tip of Kombo Island, its beaches billowing with hundreds of patterned tablecloths strung up between palm trees and the leaf-thatched chalets. It is as if the whole island has been rigged to the wind by some fanciful sailor and might at any moment shrug off its terra firma anchor to drift away on the breeze. It does not, of course, and we instead negotiate the tepid waters in our tiny tender boat to make landfall at Bar de la Plage.

Owned by a Swiss-French guy of immaculately laid-back attitude, this tiny establishment is apparently famous for its caipirhinas. I first wander around the island to grab some shots of kids playing on the beach and pirogues drifting on the tides, but soon get sucked in by the siren song of the cocktails too. It is late and spirits are running high by the time we eventually putter home to the yacht, and I drift off to dreamland while the sensual island sounds play out on the night-time breezes.

6 August 2008

So once on any holiday, especially one in as exotic a place as Madagascar, you’re allowed to wake up with a hangover. Today is that day. Laurent, our Gallic host at Bar de la Plage, continued the caipirhina supply line well past the generally acceptable cocktail hour, and if we did not have an insistent boatman waiting, chances are I would have still been somewhere on Nosy Komba. At some stage a very beautiful but extremely drunk woman suggested something rather inappropriate that sounded totally appropriate at the time, but my hearing was a bit slurred by now. C’est la vie – I missed out on doing the maki-maki on Komba, and my guardian angels are probably exchanging high fives all round.

The morning is as any morning should be when you’re adrift on a yacht moored off a tropical island. Slow. Languorous. Mora-mora. Laid-back. Like thick honey oozing into your brain. Even a strong mug of Malagasy coffee fails to rev my biorhythms into green zone, and it is only after I struck out against the current on a long swim that the morning finally snaps into focus. Just as I suspected – it is another beautiful day here on the edge of Africa.

“What does this greeting ‘Ha Valy!’ mean?” I ask a severely hung-over Freddy. “Hello, Brother-in-law” he laughs. “It is a bit of a double-edged sword that it intimates on the one hand that you’re close family, but on the other that you are fucking his sister.” I clamber onto the deck to find my little spot in the shade of the spinnaker again, dozing off in between imagining fanciful shapes in the clouds.

We reach the Port du Cratere at around midday and feast on coconut chicken and rice before heading into Hell-ville. After 2 days of tranquil sailing, even this laid-back village seems a bit hectic, but I brave the streets nonetheless. I need to get some petit cadeaux for my lovely Beth and Robert, both of whom I have missing ridiculously. Unexpectedly, most of Madagascar has cellphone signal, so at least I got to speak to them often, and keep in touch via SMS as well. Beth is a lot like me – she misses people in her life with undistilled emotion, and I can hear in her little voice how her heart breaks when I have to go away. It becomes easier as you get older – I can attest to that at least – but it never goes away. But this is how I prefer it now – when you miss someone, the reunion is always that much sweeter.

Things to buy in Madagascar (see, I am moving on before becoming too much of a sentimental old fart) include a whole bunch of things from vanilla, spices, ylang-ylang essence and island rum to wooden carvings, woven crafts, cattlehorn cutlery, baskets and semi-precious gemstones. The tee-shirts are great too and it seems as if I’m the target of every tout here in Hell-ville today. I’m generally good with the bargaining thing, striving for that precarious balancing act in between exploiting people on a very real breadline and being one stupid motherfucker of a vazaha (foreigner). But today I’m nowhere and the deals I close probably have them gleefully scuttling to the bank. It’s not important though, and I wander back to meet Freddy with a goodly supply of trinkets.

Our rendezvous is at Nandipo, the coolest bar in Hell-ville by far. The Spanish owner is a disciple of Robert Capa, the great AP war photographer and black and white images spanning his illustrious career occupy just about every inch of wall space. Outside in the street a Black Maria with white-wall tyres lurches against the curbs and the waitresses are undoubtedly selected on their looks and their ability to fill out a tee-shirt to maximum effect. Freddy is holding forth at a table with a selection of seadogs, sapphire miners and users of recreational substances, not surprising clutching a THB in one hand. This can get ugly, but this is Madagascar, and even the ugly here comes at you with an apologetic smile.

Mora-Mora is the localized version of mañana, and people here tend to live their lives with a smile on their face. It is also a largely non-violent society, maybe because of the Polynesian blend to the culture, and if I have to hang here at Nancipo with these good-hearted scoundrels for the rest of the night, then so be it.