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Madagascar, December 2014

We've lived in South Africa for about two and a half years now. We've done a fair bit of exploring around, but there are still a lot that we haven't been to. Heidi suggested going to Madagascar. "There will be lemurs there!!! And they are really cute!!!" It's also relatively close to South Africa, and she found a boat -- a 36-foot catamaran -- that we could stay on for a week exploring one of the islands. After a week on the boat we spent a few days on the island itself, and then a few more days on the Madagascar `mainland' in Antananarivo.


Slideshow (big images)

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Overview and Getting There

It's about a 3-hour flight to Madagascar from Joburg.

Due to continental drift, in 100 million years, it will be a six-hour flight, so it's good we went now. Madagascar is the world's 4th largest island, after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo. Of course, the line between island and continent is a loose one.

The detour to Mauritius was unintentional; more on that later.

One flight down, we see that our 2-hour layover in Madagascar's capital city, Antananarivo, has turned into an 8-hour layover. We spent a few hours at the airport changing money and drawing pictures, until that wore thin. Then we found a couple of taxis to take us to a local destination, the Croc Farm. True to its name, they had some gigantic crocodiles there, kept behind a skimpy fence.

Eventually it was time to head on, and we got back on the plane to Nosy Be, a small island off the NW coast of Madagascar.

Catamaran for a Week!

After the second flight, a taxi ride, and a motorboat ride, we eventually got to our final destination, which was a 35-foot sailboat parked off an island off of Nosy Be (that is, an island off the island off the island). It was very James Bond: taking a speedboat from the beach to a waiting catamaran in the middle of the sea, under cover of darkness. It was 11 PM by that point, so we slept.

And in the morning... well, here we are!

We started off our first morning heading down the west side of Nosy Be to a small snorkeling island called Nosy Tanikely. Here's Maurice taking us to the island, with our boat in the background.
Heidi and Astro go for a swim.
We walked around Tanikely -- indeed, sea turtles in the water, and lemurs in the trees. My favorite sign in Madagascar!
And a walk (though she's a bit tired now after walking up the steps to the Tanikely lighthouse).
And we head back to our boat.
After a bit more snorkeling, we headed off to Nosy Komba, a large nearby island where a lot of vanilla is grown. Then we tooled over to a camping spot and set up shop here for the night.

No photos of Nosy Komba, since my big SLR died on the island and I couldn't get it working the whole trip -- all of the photos were taken with my older backup camera, which doubled as my underwater cam.

In the morning, more beaches...
more swimming...
more faces...
more sailing...
more sunsets....

[I don't use my 24mm/1.4 lens too much, but when I do, I love it. It's also the only lens that will fit in my waterproof case, so I used it for all of the underwater shots, stopped to f/8.]

This is 2/3 of our crew. The boat (made by a British company named Jaguar) is a 36-foot catamaran run by someone in Cape Town. Our captain is Albert, at left. On the right is Alex, who cooked. The deckhand Maurice is down below.

Albert lives in Hell-Ville (the biggest city on Nosy Be) and has been driving this boat for about 10 years..

"25 years ago, I was delivering a boat to a client in Malaysia (?). He promised me he would meet me in Singapore and pay me for the trip. But I get to Singapore and where is he? He's not there to pay me. I have no papers, no passport. So they put me in jail. Eventually they let me out, but then I have no money, and I can't leave. So I stayed there. For five years. Best thing that ever happened to me... I learned to fix engines, and I learned English."

Finn's job during the trip: anchor boy. He was extremely responsible and putting the anchor up and down exactly when it needed it.
A bit of off-the-boat swimming action, courtesy of Piper.
... and Heidi.
Madagascar is a lot closer to the equator that Pretoria -- 13 deg vs. 23 deg -- so it's that much warmer. We had warm tropical weather during the day. (Though the nights were warm and tropical as well...)
Astro strikes her bathing beauty pose. Look at that giraffe!
Astro insists on taking photos of me too!
There are a lot of small rocky islands sticking out of the sea. Here's one, which shows some amazing columnar basalt coming right out of the ocean. The whole cliff is packed hexagons of basalt columns. I don't know the whole geological story here but usually these are formed in very slow-cooling, static lava reservoirs -- e.g., Devil's Tower, at the core of a volcano.
So nice! These are quite a bit smaller diameter than those of Devli's Tower (Wyoming; featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the Giant's Causeway (N. Ireland, featured on the cover of Led Zepplin's Houses of the Holy and also the site of a recent stromatolite discovery).
Astro, Piper, and Finn on the trampoline. Those rocks on the right are the 'Four Horsemen', though I'm sure the native Malagasy called them something different. The basalt columns are from the island on the center-left.
Astro wakes Piper up.
Finn in our room. Note that ceratops!

Interlude: Underwater Photos

We spent a lot of time in the water -- very warm and beautlful. All these are taken with my Nikon D700 in an Ikelite case. I had a flash that I brought along as well... it usually made the photos better but also made the camera rig that much heavier, so I didn't always take it.

Most of the good photos here are taken by Heidi. She's a much better swimmer than I, and it turns out that a lot of the skill in taking good underwater photos has to do with swimming to the right place, which is something she's very good at. I mostly just flail, despite efforts of my 4th-grade swim teachers at the Osborne Aquatic Center in Corvallis.

No scuba here -- this is all just snorkeling.

Spotted ray!
There were SO MANY JELLYFISH! That was the defining fish of this trip, really. We saw many many of these. These were maybe 8"-12" in diameter. So beautiful too. We all got stung, although mostly by smaller ones than these.
I followed a couple of these around. On the lower left, you can see a small fish, about an inch long, who is hiding inside the tentacles.
Same fish again! I just had my wide-angle lens, so I was about 3" from this jelly, trying not to swim into it.
Swimming with a lot of these!
We ran into a lot of jellyfish like these. This is a group of 20 young jellyfish polyps, I believe -- each one an inch or two across. They'll separate up and float across the ocean individually. Many of the sites we visited were really overrun with the jellies. They give a small sting... Heidi endured hundreds but Finn was out of the water for much of the trip. (More reason for him to take the Zodiac, so he still had quite a bit of fun.)
Jellyfish polyps! My guess is that these are the same as the previous photo, just a few days younger.
Piper diving! Note the GoPro in her hand. Though it has a tiny sensor, the image processing on it is fantastic and she got some great photos and movies.

She'd gotten a bit of sunburn earlier in the week so was getting fully covered up as a preventative measure.

The snorkeling here was overall really great... clear water, lots of coral, a lot of fish, and so forth. There was some dead coral (see here, in front of Piper) -- I don't know whether that is recent or historic.

More pictures by Heidi!
Jellies blocking the path back to the boat!
Our anchor chain on the sea floor...
A fish pot laid down by local fishermen! The fish can swim in but not out.
Nudibranch! Piper found this one and Heidi photod it.
Find the jellyfish!

Back on the Boat

On the boat, there was a lot of fishing, both as we were sailing and while at anchor.
Piper fights a fish!
This one was caught from a trailing lure.
And she lands it! That's a kingfish, I think.
And another! This one is a spanish mackerel.
Heidi caught a fish too! They were smaller because she was just fishing off the side of the boat while anchored -- not dragging a high-speed lure behind us.
Albert, of course, is the real fishing expert.
Alex relaxes before cooking some more fish.
Stars at night! This is a 5-minute exposure as our boat rocked in the waves at night... the brightest lights are from two nearby boats. (The one on the right is a 40-foot catamaran that was our skipper's first boat. He put a big crack in its side as he crashed into a right whale while crossing from Madagascar to South Africa some time ago.).

We're camped here for the night in a sheltered bay on Nosy Mitsio, a U-shaped island a few km across. There are not too many safe places to anchor, so we spent three nights here, and took day trips to other nearby islands and snorkel spots from here.

I'm sure that much could be derived from the patterns that the light traces... certainly the length / mass of the boat, and something about the winds and ocean currents too.

Heidi and Piper snorkeling.
One beach, two oceans! That's our boat on the right (zodiac also visible). Google Maps doesn't appear to name this island but it's NE of Nosy Mitsio. There is a small fishing camp at the center of the picture (not really visible)... there were maybe a dozen fishermen who came here for the week, catch what they can, dry them, and paddle their canoes back home. We spent an hour or so wandering the island.
Astro finds some rocks!
Whoa! I took a very short hike into the forest which was heavily populated with bugs, birds, rats, and so many different plants. There was a bit of a stench over here which I thought was just the smell of an active jungle, until I traced it back to this sea turtle.

It looked a bit burnt and I thought that perhaps it was cooked by locals. (Sea turtles are endangered and in particular the eggs are eaten.) But Albert said it was probably on a nest and just died there.

Whoa! Storm coming in! There were a handful of funnel clouds visible, with one touching the water.
Albert came to pick us up. But when Heidi pointed out the low funnel clouds to him, he sped back to the boat without us... first priority was starting up the engine and being on board should he have to dodge a twister. Then the rain hit us...
Racing back to the boat...
It's really raining hard! This is the first time we've gotten in a nice tropical storm!
The crew worked so hard on board... the three of them had worked together for many years. They never stopped.
Later on, a bit of hot chocolate.

NB: Can you see the differences between Finn and Astro here? This is how our life is... they are very different individuals!

Alex cooked a lot..
  • Breakfast: a ton of fruit (mango, litchi, papaya, pineapple), plus toast and eggs..
  • Lunch: Curry, fried cheese, pasta, eggs, etc..
  • Afternoon tea and cookies..
  • Dinner: Fish, beans, rice, salad, etc..
.He also did a really good job of adapting to cooking veggie... Heidi and Piper ate as well as the rest of us.
That's some rice and fried fish that Alex is prepping.
Another photo by Astro.
Last image Astrid with her pengun pacifier. Later that day:

Astro: I want my dummy!

Heidi: You have it, Astro. There it is!

Astro: No, want other one dummy! Want my 'guino! [pinguino].

Heidi: Well, I'm not sure where that one is right now.


Heidi: Astro, let's look for another one since that one got lost I think.


Finn: No, I want to play iPad!

Astro: No, I want to play iPad!

Finn: Oh Astro [rolling his eyes]. Why do you want to play that game?


Finn: Oh Astro...

After five nights out, we turned around to head back to our 'port' (an anchor site off of Nosy Sakatia). It was probably 12 hours of cruising from our furthest destination back home... most of the time we had the motor on because the winds were just not strong enough for sailing when close to the islands.

We stopped here at a nice quiet beach on the far NE corner of Nosy Be for a few hours. Not too many jellyfish, especially close to the land.

Piper has been recording the whole week on her GoPro (in my hand here). I look forward to the video!
Finn is a super swimmer.
On the zodiac heading back to the boat...
Finn napping with his 'ceratops.

This boat had four bedrooms. Albert took one of them, and we had the remaining three. Alex slept on the dining room benches, and Maurice on the roof. Maurice probably had the best set up: it was hot in those rooms! Perhaps it got down to the 70's at night, but it was humid and the air was still. It was much easier to sleep during the day (with a breeze from driving at 6 knots) than during the night.

Surprisingly, Albert said this was his least-favorite time of year, just because of the heat... I figured that any Malagasy would get used to it, but maybe not!

The boat charter is run for about months of the year... we were the last people of the season this year, because the rains & storms start in January. During that time, Albert drives the boat into a mangrove area and stay with it... the owners don't dry-dock it like a lot of boats.

Astro spies on Finn...
We all spent quite a bit of time on the trampoline out front catching waves. And here you can see the sail up, too.
Weather-wise we had the one storm (on the island), and otherwise it was clear the whole week. The only time we had 'big' waves were these, heading back through the channel between Mitsio at left, and Nosy Be at right, on our penultimate day.

The sail is rolled up here, as we were headed straight into the wind.

Finn looks for something...

Rescue at Sea!

Whoa! OK, we were about an hour from the end of our week on the boat, and Piper look out and saw two fisherman on a sinking boat. We pulled closer, and sure enough, their canoe was underwater.
He's climbing the mast, to get to the only bag of posessions they've been able to save and keep dry.
We get the story from them (through Albert): They are fishermen, and had spent about a week on a remote island fishing. Their goal was to catch what they could, dry it, and bring it back to Nosy Be to sell it at the market. The going rate for fish is about 1 euro / kg for fresh fish, or more for dried. In a week, they could fill a large cooler, about 100 kg.
Four days ago, they left from the fishing camp to head home, full of fish to sell. The island was about 40 km from the Madagascar mainland. Some time later, they got hit by a storm -- the same one that Albert was worried about hitting our boat.
The storm capsized their canoe, filling it with water and throwing everything overboard. They lost their fish, food, water, and nearly everything they came with. Their wooden canoe won't technically sink... but without pulling it out of the water, it's impossible to drain it. The rudder was also damaged in the storm.

So, they've been drifting at sea for the last three days. The water isn't cold, but their boat was useless except as flotation. All they could do was sit and wait for someone to rescue them. When we came upon them, they were probably within a mile of the shore. But that was more than they could swim, after being without food and water for 72 hours.

Apparently Madagascar loses dozens fishermen a year in storms like this.

The crew pulled them aboard and towed their canoe. The first thing he wanted a phone.

Those hands, after 72 hours in the water...

We took them to Nosy Sakatia. They're wearing my shirts (not sure that helped much). The crew also gave them bread and hot, sweet tea.
Seeing the boat being pulled in, people from the local village send out their own canoe.
The boat can't be pulled to shore just yet, so it needs to be anchored in the bay. But their anchor was lost at sea. So he walks to the shore, and comes back carrying the heaviest boulder he could find... probably 100 pounds on his shoulder.
The man in blue (back turned, holding green bucket) is described as the village chief. He talks with the fishermen and makes arrangements to get them and their boat back home.
A few hours later, we are headed back too... off of our boat and back to Nosy Be for a few more nights.

A Few Nights on Firm Ground

Our lodge on the island...
From our base on the island, we took several day trips. First is an excursion to the nearby village of Ampasipohy and then walking from there to Lokobe, a large nature reserve. Our guide speaks a bit of English -- or at least enough to point out a whole lot of animals to us.

French is spoken widely in Madagascar, although Malagasy is most common. Most people might have a few words of English, but a conversational level is pretty rare.

Heidi enjoyed the beautiful scenery.
Vanilla beans! We passed dozens of plans like this... orchids draped through the forest. They're not exactly wild... they're actually planted by the villagers.
And lemurs! Holy cow -- there are a ton of them, and they just wander through the trees like monkeys.
Many of Madagascar's islands have their own lemur species.
And wow -- that's a real boa constrictor! It was just sitting on a tree branch here sunning itself. Very surreal to see it.
It was maybe 2 meters long. Could it eat Astro? Apparently not -- chickens and rats in the village are better targets.
We saw a lot of larger chameleons -- probably up to 1 kg. This one was I think the smallest variety on the island.
Find that chameleon! One thing they do really well is hide.

It's in the middle of the picture, a bit to the right...

Heidi photographs lemurs!
Smallest lemur variety on the island... this is a pygmy one. They sleep during the day.
I don't know what kind of lemur this was...
but it first licked Piper's hat...
And then stole it!

We got it back. Lemurs are not as michievous as monkeys. This one was pretty small too. And they're sweet.

How do you find a lemur? If you are a guide, they all went into the woods, and then sang out "Maki, Maki, Maki, Maki..." The lemurs here were curious and came down to visit us -- it's against protocol to feed them bananas, as much as they'd like it.

That's a baby lemur on the right.

The forest is full of jackfruit. Now it has one fewer. I used to get jackfruit smoothies at the vietnamese shopping mall where Heidi was in training in Falls Church.

Huge mango trees are also all over the place.

After going on our jungle walk, we had lunch (I am always the goat), and had a bit of time on the beach.
Astro does not know where all that sand came from!
The canoes start heading back...
As do we (although on a motorboat -- our lodge was about 20 minutes away).
What is it??

I stated with certainty that these trees were grafted, and probably fruit trees. All of them are twisty like this, and none go higher than about 7' from the ground.

As it turns out they're natural... these are ylang-ylang, which get harvested for their flowers and distilled into perfume.

And how do you distill ylang-ylang? Find a ylang-ylang distillery! Which is exactly where this is... this facility was built by the French somewhat over 100 years ago. Ylang-ylang usually gets processed three times a week; today they were doing basil instead. And yes, that's someone's leg inside that stainless steel tank.
Just as hot as it looks...
On the grounds of the distillery is a lemur park. (Yes, this was tourist-central, at least as much as is possible. We didn't see anyone else there at all.)
There were lemurs wandering through the trees.
The guy taking us around found some bananas, which apparently lemurs just can't get enough of.
The word 'Lemur' was actually coined by Carl Linnaeus, after ghosts in a Roman festival called Lemuria. They're primates, and split off evolutionarily from monkeys some 60 million years ago... right around the time of the KT extinction -- which they seemed to have survived just fine. One might think that Madagascar's drifting away from Africa & India was what separated them from the other primates, but it turns out the island started drifting some 100 Mya... meaning that the lemurs actually floated to Madagascar on rafts, well after Madagascar was already an island.
And more chameleons! They're a lot bigger than I expected... this one must have been 18" or so.
And this one even longer.
The biggest city on Nosy Be? Hell-ville! It is not a descriptive adjective but instead refers to a French admiral, Anne Chretien Louis de Hell. It's not big, but there's a lot of action here, including the great market behind me.
Just around the corner, this guy is a rubber stamp maker. You give him a design, and for approximately 1 USD, he takes an Exacto knife and carves your design in hard rubber. Most of the ones he did were for notary publics and official-looking things like that... but Heidi was more creative.

In blue is our taxi driver, Maxwell. He managed to get bicycles for his kids for Christmas this year, which he was super excited about (at 70 USD each, they're expensive presents). What does he wants his kids to be when they grow up? Education and going to college was not on his radar... he thinks they should be fishermen and work for the local fishing society. Albert had similar plans for his children as well.

At the Hell-ville main market.
And at the 'sacred tree', outside of Hell-ville. It's a 200-year-old banyan tree.
Santa has just visited...
Christmas morning!
New train!
Check out that rubber stamp... really amazing work, and all freehand, even the letters.
Three stamps... Astro's lemur, Finn's train, and my T-Rex.
Piper reads that note from Santa...
And breaks open her geodes.
Finn digs for dinos!
I watch bees pollinating outside of our bungalo.
Lenses were a bit fogged up in the morning, giving a nice effect!
And we sit through another storm inside our thatched cottage. This was just our second storm -- the first being on the water. It's solidly the rainy season in Madagascar, so we didn't fare too poorly.
Ants feasting on a banana. The lodge actually grows all of their fruit in their garden.
More ants.

Back to Tana

An hour or two late, but our plane shows up to take us from Nosy Be back to Antananarivo ('Tana'), the capital city, for a few days.
Madagascar is not a rich country. Average GDP is around $450/person/year, making South Africa look incomparably well-off ($6300). The government is corrupt and the country lacks a lot of basic infrastructure.

In Tana, local transport is dominated by 40-year-old taxis... this Renault (a convertible, as you can see!) has somehow managed to navigate the cobblestones for decades.

Bad news: we are headed back to the hotel after Piper got thrown to the ground and her necklace violently ripped from around her neck. Despite managing to avoid almost any street crime in five years of Mexico City and South Africa, we must've been just a bit too obvious as lost tourists who can't speak the language here. That put a bit of a damper on Tana (and my photos).

The downtown has that French Colonial feel.. lots of beautiful old brick buildings, and many pastries and tea houses.

Getting out near our hotel...
Looking down on Tana from the Queen's castle ('Rova')... at in the valley there are fields for not rice, but watercress.
No pigs!

It's not totally clear, but apparently what this means is Don't eat pork while visiting the castle.

In downtown Tana, the main street (Ave de l'Independence) is filled with photo booths. Almost all feature a plastic Santa, stuffed animals, a 4x4 / ATV. Some have a large horse or cow as well. How could we resist?
Value of each crisp unused bill dispensed by the ATM: about 4 USD.
Very nice to see dump trucks getting their due credit on a national currency.
The old city (where our hotel was) is very hilly and mostly cobblestones. There is a ton of great old architecture -- French brick buildings from the 1900s, and so forth. Economically the country has fallen into a bit of a disaster since then. Perhaps it will recover, but I understand that the current government is not doing much to encourage investment and free enterprise, which it could use.

That's the queen's palace up on the hill. The queen was pushed out by the French in 1897, when they took over the country and carried her to Algeria. Madagascar was a French colony for some time, until local uprisings in the 1940's and 1950's finally led to its independence in 1960.

The palace itself burned down in the 1990's, but the exterior skeleton has been rebuilt and is in good shape now.

I don't usually get too excited about sunset shots, but this one was pretty dramatic.


Heidi, Piper, Finn, and Astro are camped out at the hotel. I'm at the airport waiting for my flight back, which was supposed to leave a few hours before theirs. My flight is supposed to leave at 1:30 AM... but here it's pushing 4 AM and we're all still watiing. A few minutes later, we're told that the plane sitting on the tarmac (you can see it there) can't be fixed, so the flight is cancelled. We're bussed to a nearby hotel and told to check back at noon.

For what it's worth, when I looked over the historical record this should not have been a great surprise. Air Madagascar has a fleet of 11 planes, mostly from the 1980s. They were banned from operating in Europe several years ago because their planes were too old and unmaintained, and now they fly to France only because they lease a plane and crew from Air France. This particular flight to Joburg is cancelled about 20% of the time. It's not clear how much of this is mismanagement and how much is just due to running a low-budget carrier on a small African island nation.

Noon comes and the update is that we're going to fly to Mauritius, and from there back to Johannesburg. A new country for my passport!

And for what it's worth, Madagascar and Mauritius are both small African island nations not far from each other in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius has good schools and a lot of great students (they are partners with the SKA = Square Kilometer Array). Their brand-new airport had an A380 parked out front, and the economy is apparently doing well (GNP $7500/person/year), despite being quite a bit smaller than Madagascar. I don't know the individual history of each country well enough to know how they diverged so much, but the difference is dramatic. However, Mauritius is also pretty heavily touristed (> 1000 visitors/km2/year -- Madagascar is around 1 visitor/km2/year), and certainly one of the good things about Madagascar is that it's not over-developed.

[NB: Venice itself only gets 10,000 visitors/km2/yr, so Mauritius is pretty close!]

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Henry Throop

Last modified Thu Feb 12 23:37:16 2015