That’s right. For the first time in two years the Hartmans have embarked on a proper family holiday. This time we all flew out together and will all be flying home together, as well as spending the entire 25 days in each other’s company. So far there have only been a few minor tiffs and we are all still alive…just. I suppose it helps that it’s not really what you’d call a normal family holiday; we’ve not trooped down to Cornwall or hopped on a plane to Spain (although we do that a lot). We have headed to the more random location of Madagascar in search of unique wildlife and trekking challenges. So far we have been pretty successful on the wildlife front and I’m sure the more intense hiking is yet to come.
Flying is my least favourite part of travelling (as anyone who has read this before will know) but I was hoping flying with Mum and Dad would make it less stressful. No budget airline for the grumpy flyer, not this time. It was Air France all they way…and what a disappointment that was. No leg room, too hot and not a lot food or Staff around. Also on a flight to Madagascar which has old animation films on its entertainment system I would really have hoped to see the film Madagascar on there but no such luck; I had to settle for the Aristocats instead. Having been up since 2:45am we spent most of the flight asleep and were obviously the slowest as we were the second last off the plane. At immigration the man checking our passports offered to give us our visa quicker but we declined as it was extra money and also I’m not quite sure how legit he was. We finally made it through after an hour of queues, stamps and baggage collection where we met our driver Christian who took us through the dark and slightly terrifying streets of the capital to our hotel. By this time it was 11pm and we were exhausted. So was the poor porter who ran up and down the stairs with our bags several times before any of us worked out which floor our rooms were on. All I wanted to do at this point was sleep but unfortunately my bag had been dropped in a puddle and my clothes were soaked so I spent half an hour finding places to hang my soggy clothes. By the time I got into bed it was almost 2am. Needless to say I sleep like a baby that first night.
We’ve been in Madagascar for 11 days now and have just arrived in the North after spending the first week and a bit exploring the West. We spent our first day in Antananarivo on a city tour with Christian. Driving round town in a 4X4 seemed a little extreme and was fairly hair raising at times- all practice for what was to come. He took us out to the suburbs so we could see the women doing their washing, which is something Mum always enjoys and then he showed us the old train station which has now been converted into a shopping centre and restaurant where the toilets are in an old railway carriage. It’s a shame that the trains no longer run as there are so many lorries on the road it would make more sense to transport those goods via the railway but then I’m not a politician so I’m assuming they have their reasons…maybe. From the station we headed up the Queen’s Palace, most of which burnt down several years ago but the views of the city are awesome. We had a really good guide who told us lots of stories about the site. I would not want to be a Grandfather to a boy in Madagascar; apparently as a sign of acceptance they have to eat the foreskin of the new child after it is circumcised. Sorry for the graphic detail but we had just had lunch when we heard this story. We also visited the King’s House which you have to walk in right foot first as a sign of respect and leave backwards as you are not allowed to turn your back on the king- clumsy Hannah struggled with this but nothing broken or bruised so far so we’re all good. This King had 12 wives, 11 of which he housed on the 11 hills surrounding the city and kept his favourite with him at the palace. What a busy man he must have been!
The next day was when our trip really started and although it was a great week with Christian and we saw a lot I do feel like we spent an awful lot of time in the car. This is probably due to the fact Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world so the distances between places are pretty massive combined with the fact the roads aren’t great and there are lots of lorries. On the first day we broke up the journey to Andasibe with a visit to a reptile sanctuary where we saw loads of chameleons and I wore a centipede as a bracelet. It was great. That afternoon we arrived at the rainforests of Andasibe which was where our wildlife spotting started. On our night walk we were lucky enough to spot not only wild chameleons and tree frogs but also Pygmy Mouse Lemurs (Dad and I mistook their eyes for fire flies) and Wooly Lemurs swinging through the trees. We did have to leg it down the road to seem the Pygmy Mouse Lemur but it was worth it.
Lemurs are the main reason I came on this trip: I love watching them when we got to the zoo and they are even more hilarious in their natural habitat. The biggest species of lemur in Madagascar is called the Indri Indri which actually translates from Malagasy as “over there”. Apparently the French scientist which discovered it misunderstood his local guide and thought he was being told he scientific name when actually he was just pointing out where the animal was. This species of lemur is endemic to Madagascar and can only be seen by visiting the island as they aren’t able to live anywhere else. We were lucky to be in the company of another great guide called Everest who had been working the forests for 15 years so knew their habitat and routes well. They are so loud when they shout to each other I now understand why in the film they are constantly shown to be having a party- that’s what it sounds like. We had a really good morning walking through the forest, sometimes at breakneck speed when Everest was onto something. Not only did we see the Indri Indri but also the Common Brown and the Golden Sifaka. They are such funny animals and watching them jump is amazing! Watching the other tourists try to get photos is also hilarious and I was glad we had Everest as he often took us away from the crowds.
The afternoons was also lemur orientated although we had a visit to another reptile sanctuary first where we saw a large number of chubby crocodiles, some more geckos and a fossa. I was also made to go in a cage with some birds which was not an enjoyable experience at all. I HATE birds. Thankfully the visit to lemur island drove the birds clear out of my mind, although my parents and I did have a slight moral dilemma before we visited. We are not really into the whole getting up close and personal with wildlife; I flipped when it was suggested we go and visit the Tiger Temple when I was out in Chang Mai, however these Lemurs aren’t naturally aggressive animals. From the looks of them they have just got used to the presence of people and like the extra bananas but when they’ve had enough they head off to the forest for a nap. Pretty nice set up really. They are so light when they jump on you but they do take you rather by surprise. They also seemed to take a liking to Mum although one got a bit over excited and pooped on her which Dad and I found hilarious but she wasn’t as impressed.
The 2 days that followed our exciting adventures in the forest were a lot less eventful. We spent 2 days driving from Andasibe to Antsirabe and then on to Morondava. The scenery varies a lot as you drive through and the red soil does make it look like you are on another planet. The noise and the smells as you drive through the villages also keeps things interesting but being in a car for so many hours does take its toll. Luckily in Andiraisbe there was shopping to distract and in Morondava there was a beach to stroll along. Still it was a nice break the morning we left Morondava early and visited the Avenue of the Boababs. These are very odd trees which I think are also endemic to here and once covered most of the country but the forests have largely been destroyed due to deforestation for farming. They’re pretty impressive to see and at that time of day there weren’t a lot of people around.
Our next stop was Kirindy Forest on the hunt for more lemurs and the elusive fossa, although he turned out to be not so elusive. We’d been there less than 10 minutes when I turned round in the middle of where we were saying and said “oh look there’s a fossa’. He later reappeared looking for scraps from the kitchen and showed rather a lot of interest in the chicken coop. As it was around 10 when we went for our first walk the lemurs weren’t very active as they are sensible animals and don’t wast their energy running around in the heat. Despite the fact they were sleeping we still saw several species including a different brown to the one we’d seen in Andasibe and a White Sifaka. That evening we went out for another night walk and saw several more lemurs including the Grey Mouse lemur and the Red Tailed Sportive. We seem to have shaken our bad luck we had wildlife searching in Canada (fingers crossed and so may it continue).
Kirindy Forest was a great respite from the long drive but we only had one night there before we moved on again. This time our journey was made slightly more interesting by the presence of two ferry crossings we had to make as well as the fact I had a rather dodgy stomach which always makes long drives with no toilet stops that little bit more interesting. But lets focus on the ferries for now. I call them ferries because that is what they refer to them as but they are nothing like the ferries we have at home (of course). They consist of two long boats, each equipped with a tractor engine and covered in planks of wood which can carry up to 5 4x4s at one time. Unfortunately for those of us who arrived early they like to fill up the ferries before they leave so we had to hang around for a while to wait for a few more cars to show up. On both occasions when we were waiting for the ferries I made some new friends- being blonde, tall and female in most countries draws attention to you and here the kids seem to like me. At the first ferry it was a group of the most adorable boys we have met so far; they each kissed my had to say hello and asked for my water bottle which they shared out between them. There was a tiny one who was being looked after by his brother and it was so sweet it made my heart melt. The kids at the second ferry were slightly more daring in what they asked for; pretty much everything from our plastic water bottle to Dad’s watch. In the end they settled for play time where I spun them round in the air by their wrists. They seemed to enjoy it but I was knackered and rather dizzy by the time it came for us to get on the ferry. I often marvel at how much heavier kids are than they look!
This long drive from Kirindy had been for the sole purpose of visiting Bemaraha Nataional Park and the Tsingy which is a very odd but cool rock formation. There are two circuits which you can do to visit the Tsingy: the Grande or the Petit. As I was with Mum, who suffers from vertigo and the Grande Tsingy involves lots of sheer drops we opted for the Petit. At first I was a bit put out because I wanted to satisfy my inner adrenaline junkie which has been in hibernation for a while but it was actually a really good day. We started off on a canoe trip down the river to visit some caves. We had a local guide with us for this called Gilbert who was genuinely amazing! He hadn’t gone to school until he was 11 because he was looking after his Dad’s zebu (cattle) but one day he drank the fermented juice of a palm tree and got drunk so his parents sent him to school. He is now a guide for the National Park, a keen bird watcher, speaks 5 languages with the goal of speaking 10 by the time he dies and is obviously very politically active within his local community. He’s 25. Man did I feel like an under achiever. Gilbert was also a great story teller and told us all about how his ancestors used to use the caves.
From the canoe we headed into the Petit Tsingy where Gilbert had more stories about how he used to play in the rocks when he was a kid so knows them like the back of his hand. It came as no surprise when he told us he was the leader in all the games. There we several tight squeezes to get through the rocks and a fair few ladders to navigate but the view points overlooking this weird natural phenomena were worth it. Although I was sad we didn’t get to do the Grande I was happy we’d had Gilbert as our guide, especially after the stories he told us about marriage and death when we had our water break. Marriage seems to involve a lot of talking, money and the exchange of cows and by Malagasy standards I should be married now but only just.
Thankfully we’d had a day of walking and the hotel we were staying in did massages so by the time we got back in the car the next day I was less stiff than I had been. Christian told us we weren’t really in a rush as we had plenty of time to get back to the boabab trees before sunset. All seemed normal but then it was as though someone had taken over Christian’s mind and replace him with Lewis Hamilton. I know we were in a 4×4 but the speed he was going along some of the roads, which are more aptly described as dirt tracks, was completely ridiculous. He was the same driving through one of the small towns and I was so sure we were going to kill a dog and mildly concerned he might actually hit a person. It wasn’t until the evening he explained there is competition between the local drivers and drivers like him who come from the capital because the local drivers feel as though they are stealing their business. So basically we nearly killed a poor old man over petty rivalry and dust. Men.
We did arrive safely at the Avenue of Boababs which was a lot busier this time as everyone was arriving for sunset. The highlight of the evening was watching an intense football game between some of boys which was rudely interrupted by a bunch of tourists waking straight through the middle- grand prize to anyone who can guess their nationality. We were rooting for one of the kids to kick a ball in their direction but luckily for the clueless tourists these kids were a lot better at football than most of the England team. The sunset itself was pretty special, although nothing like a Namibian sunset. Still it was a beautiful setting and a great chance to see such an iconic snapshot of the island. Plus it meant we got to be out of the car which was always a bonus.
That night was our last night with Christian and so he finally had dinner with us. The conversation didn’t exactly flow because we don’t speak Malagasy or French which are his main languages but it was nice to have a chat to him and spend a bit of time with him before he left. He left at 6am because he had a long drive back to Tana which was going to take him 2 days. We had a later start and a suspiciously relaxing morning for a transfer day. It wasn’t until we were sat at reception waiting for our transfer that we realised something was a little wrong. One by one the other couples and their guides were disappearing off to their airport transfers but when we asked where ours was as it was 1pm we were told we hadn’t got one booked. Panic did start to set in slightly as we’d been told a few horror stories about internal flights in Madagascar and as we didn’t have a guide we were relying on our EXTREMELY limited knowledge of French to get us through any issues that might arise at the airport. Of course Dad started to kick off and even Mum got a bit stroppy as the time was ticking by and still nothing seemed to be happening. After what felt like and hour but was actually only about 15 minutes a ‘taxi’ pulled up and we arrived at the airport with plenty of time- we weren’t even the last people to check in. Our ‘taxi driver’ then walked through the airport pulling on a high via vest and proceeded to help load luggage onto the plane. This is Africa.
Our travels in the West have been fun but now we are in the North, a little more off the beaten track and ready to see what other wildlife and adventures await.
TOP TIP FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF MADAGASCAR: Take Imodium. Take control. (Other brands are of course available)