Day 4 10/30 A day for Chameleons
The driver and guide came for us at 9 am. Our plan for the day was to go straight to the Vakona Lodge, near Andasibe National Park, where we were planning to stay 2 nights. That evening we planned to do a night walk. Night walks are not allowed in the national parks, but they were available at the Misinjo Reserve – literally across the road from the park. Originally we had planned to camp at Mitsinjo, but after the rainy and cool experience in Ambohitantely we told our guide that we wanted to skip the camping and instead we wanted two, instead of one night, at the Vakona Lodge. We were surprised how quickly they made this arrangement, since we had read the horror stories of tourists trying to get in touch with reception at Vakona Lodge.
We wound our way through the traffic and out of Tana and then headed for Andasibe. This was a busier route than the one to Ambohitantely, as the road eventually went to the largest port in Madagascar. Many large trucks shared the road with us and there were small towns with the, by now, familiar assortment of shops, butcher shops, people, rice paddies, charcoal for sale, heavily loaded “public transport”, swarms of moto or human-powered taxis, laundry being done next to the road, etc. A less familiar sight was that of our first Traveller’s Palm (Ravenala madagascariensis), which is not really a palm, in spite of the name. This iconic plant, found naturally only in Madagascar, is in the bird of paradise plant family, the Strelitziacea and it is pollinated by Ruffed Lemurs. This was the first one we had seen so far in Madagascar and it was next to the busy road.
After about an hour we saw a sign about an exotic animal park on our route. The name was Reserve Peyrieras Madagascar Exotic and I had read about it and I knew that they had reptiles, amphibians and some other animals on display. We asked our guide how was this place and he said it was fine and that many tourists taking this route stopped there. So at the last-minute we added that place as a stop. Normally we do not like visiting places where animals are in cages, but we realized that we would probably not otherwise see many of the chameleons and amphibians on display at this place. We had also read a few reviews saying that the photographic opportunities were good.
After paying a small fee, our guide took us to different enclosures and most were good-sized, much like walk-in bird aviaries. In the larger enclosures very colorful and impressive chameleons were to be found lounging on the branches of the trees growing in the exhibits. An effort had been made to make this look like a more natural area with plenty of vegetation for the chameleons to hide in. Other enclosures were small cages and these housed leaf-tailed geckos, the tomato frog, Malagasy boa and other lizards. The guide was relatively gentle with all the animals and he provided the names of all the animals we saw. He also fed crickets to the chameleons for us to see how their impressively long tongues work.
We spent about two hours at this location where we also ate our lunch we had brought with us. It was an interesting experience being able to see some of the animals that are only found in Madagascar. It was nice to be able to get close to the different beautiful chameleons. Mike’s photo comments: Despite our reluctance to visit “zoo-like” facilities, this was undoubtably an excellent place to see the gecko’s and chameleons that you won’t likely see in the wild, and to get close enough for reasonable photos. The “walk-in” style of some of the exhibits means there is nothing between your camera lens and the subjects, and that you can get close enough to many of the animals to “fill the field of view” with your subject. Also, by using shallow depth-of field you can almost eliminate the cage background so your photos look like they are in the wild. I probably would have spent even longer at this place – just for the photo opportunities. Fortunately we were the first tourists of the morning, and by the time we were finished other groups of tourists were arriving. Be there at opening time!
After leaving this park we drove to Andasibe, the town closest to the Andasibe/Mantadia National Park (Perinet reserve). Here we made a short stop to meet a local guide that was being recommended to us by Yvonne as a good birder. The idea was to hire him to visit the national park the next day and this would, in theory, ensure more flexibility on the trail and we would not be part of a larger group of tourists – who come to this national park primarily to see the Indri (a large and charismatic lemur that has been described as looking like a panda and singing like a whale). He gave us a relatively high price to hire him for the day, but not having much information about the park, type of trails, duration etc. we felt that given the rain, that by now was a bit heavier, we were not sure we wanted to hire this guide for the whole day. In the end we agreed to have him as our guide that evening at Mitsinjo and we said we would think about how long we needed him for the next day – depending on the weather. We then headed for the hotel and a couple of hours later, around sunset, our driver and guide came for us to take us to Mitsinjo. The drive from our hotel to the reserve was about 15 minutes on reasonable dirt road.
We had read all about Mitsinjo’s night walks and in spite of the persistent drizzling we were looking forward to this experience. We arrived at the reserve where we met with the local guide as arranged earlier. We paid the entrance fee and headed for the trail. It was at this point that I noticed other groups with different guides converging on the trailhead. It was dark now so we could only see flashlights and hear the people. In retrospect I suppose we should have expected this, but we did not. We were surprised by the crowds and unfortunately everyone took the same steep and slippery trail. So if we stopped to see anything the people behind us would rush to shine their lights and try to see it too. Some people were a bit rude and others wanted to go faster than we were going. The trail was narrow and steep in places as it went up and down and some of the steps carved on the trail appeared to be designed for giants (my opinion – being a short 5’3″ person). I could barely make some of the steps due to the large separation between them. So our night walk involved following a guide that went too fast, with people breathing down our necks, and with persistent drizzle. Half way through this “walk” I was ready for it to be over. This was not the type of walk I had in mind, but instead it was a race on a slippery trail. We spotted some frogs and geckos that the guide missed, but photography or even just looking at them more closely was a challenge and a race to do it before the group behind us came rushing through.
By 8 pm everyone was back to the main road, heading for the parking lot and the vehicles. My guess is that your ticket paid for a 2 hour night walk and the two hours were up and everybody was going home. We went back to the hotel and did not even go to the room (more steep steps to get to the rooms at the Vakona Lodge), but instead we headed for the restaurant to eat our dinner before 9 pm, the restaurant’s closing time. A positive aspect was that the food at the hotel was very good and, although we were cold inside the restaurant, we enjoyed our dinner. By now the drizzle was more like light rain and eventually during the night it became even heavier. Needless to say, we were very happy with the decision to not camp at the Mitsinjo Reserve. We went to bed hoping it would all be clear tomorrow so we could go hike in the park.
Day 5 10/31 A down day on Halloween!
It rained all night and by breakfast time, around 7 am, it was still raining. The rain and the fact that Mike was not feeling well were key elements in our decision to not go to the national park today. We were also aware of the crowds that would be at the park – we had seen a preview of this last night during our night walk. As much as we wanted to see the Indri, we were not inclined to face the lemur-chasing crowds. We would have loved a quiet, uncrowded walk to really see the forest, but it was not clear that we could actually do it that way. Perhaps we could have had that experience if we had hired the guide for the whole day. But given the rain and slippery trails I did not think I would have been mentally up to this kind of sightseeing and especially not for most of the day. Today we would stay at the hotel and if the rain were to stop we would go explore the Vakona Lodge’s trails.
The hotel was nice and so were the grounds, although the lodge was in a Eucalyptus plantation of sorts – hardly pristine rainforest. However, there was enough vegetation to find plenty of birds, insects and even chameleons in the hotel grounds. Birds were relatively active during the day as well. The rooms or cottages were all on a steep hillside thus many steps were needed to get from the cottages to the restaurant, reception or parking areas.
The rain finally stopped around 3:30 pm and we went out to check out the trails nearby. It was just the two of us and we walked from our room to the trailhead. This reserve is land that belongs to the hotel and there are a number of trails. The forest is secondary forest, but the fact that you can walk from your room to the trails and that we did not see another person for 2 hours, made a big difference. The trails were in reasonable shape although a bit slippery. We reached a part of the forest that was “nearly natural”, with plenty of mosses, tree ferns and other ferns, relatively tall trees, orchids and the giant Pandanus or Vakona as the natives call it. We were also able to see some new birds during this short walk. These were birds in the genus Vanga which is endemic to Madagascar. The lack of people and being able to explore at leisure without a guide was a real treat after having had guides everywhere during our travels in Madagascar.
Our hike was cut short by light rain that started to fall. Dinner was again at the hotel that night and like the previous night it was very good.
Day 6 11/01 Close encounters of the lemur kind
After an early breakfast we decided to walk to Lemur island, a sanctuary for rescued lemurs owned by the hotel. While we had our breakfast we were able to spot two new birds from the hotel restaurant, a Purple Heron and a Mascarene Martin. The large windows overlooking the artificial lake provided a good vantage point to spot some wildlife.
We bought our tickets at the reception and then walked down the road perhaps ten minutes to the sanctuary’s shoreline. Here a boatman took us in a canoe (about 25 feet) over to one of the five small islands of the Lemur preserve. The water apparently prevents the lemurs from leaving the island. We normally prefer seeing animals in their natural habitats rather than in less natural settings, but we were walking distance to this attraction and we knew this was our last chance to see some lemurs. The island is supposed to be stocked with rescued animals so it did not seem like we would be contributing to a shady business by visiting this place.
We spent about 45 minutes following a guide in the small area where the lemurs are. As we were the first visitors of the morning the lemurs were hungry and looking for food, and were eager to approach us and the guide. They were incredibly agile and fast and before we knew it they had jumped on us. Surprisingly, they were relatively gentle and they lacked sharp claws so it was not painful – just startling! We saw Bamboo Lemurs, Common Brown Lemurs, Black and White Ruffed Lemurs and in the distance some Diademe Sifakas. It was an interesting experience and we felt it had been worth the while. We certainly obtained here the best photos of lemurs anywhere during our stay in Madagascar. Then we returned to the hotel via a short trail through the forest that paralleled the road to the lodge, where we spotted some interesting insects and ferns.
By 10:45 am we were leaving Vakona Lodge and after a brief stop in town to check out some crafts we were on our way to Tana. The driver and guide had lunch at a restaurant near the road a couple of hours later. Then it was back to the road and more traffic as we got closer to Tana. Rice paddies were visible as we entered Tana.
By 2:30 pm we were back at the Ibis hotel in Tana. We said our goodbyes to our driver and guide and then it was time to pack everything and get ready for our morning flight next day to Johannesburg, South Africa. Our guide was interested in birds and he had an older version of my bird book. He had asked me about the book from me earlier during our trip. In the end I figured that he could make better use of the book than me so I gave it to him. He was very happy with this gift.
On November 2, our Air link plane took off from Madagascar around 2:30 pm. We were looking forward to arriving in South Africa and starting our last segment of our trip. In South Africa we drove northeast to visit Kruger National Park and other nearby areas for two weeks. On November 3 we rented our 4×4 in Johannesburg. Our trip to South Africa was rewarding as usual. It is hard to go anywhere in South Africa and not see succulents or other interesting plants and of course the variety of birds, mammals and other animals in the national parks.
We returned to the US from our 75-day trip on November 17th.
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