Monday, January 9, 2017

Madagascar Part Three: Ankarana and Nosy Be

Nairobi Airport

I continue to make relatively rapid progress at capturing our Madagascar trip in print.  When I last left you, we had just tumbled, shell-shocked and covered in dust, off our 4x4 trip from the lower reaches of Hades into a hotel in Ambilobe where we did battle with the forces of evil embodied in our driver.
The razor-sharp limestone of the tsingy
Ambling around Ankarana

Perfect camouflage
We slept pretty well that night, although not nearly long enough, as we hadn’t gotten to sleep until well after midnight.  The next day, Wednesday November 23rd, dawned bright and sunny and cheerful, and when we cautiously put our heads outside our room, we found that our murderously angry driver of the night before had vanished along with his infernal vehicle.  We felt stiff, dry-throated and tired and decided to walk around to find water, food and more money from an ATM.  Ambilobe was a slight shock to the system after tiny Daraina, with actual pavement on its main road and several ATMs downtown.  We caught a local taxi into town, found an ATM, then found a small restaurant for breakfast.  By 10 am we were back at the hotel and had rented a small tuk tuk to take us 30 km north along the highway to Ankarana National Park.  At 50,000 MGA (about 15 euros), it was a bit extravagant, but after the previous day’s horrorshow, Terri was very reluctant to try to cram herself into another overcrowded taxi-brousse. 

Hook-billed vanga on his nest
It was an uneventful, mostly flat drive north along the highway, past dry, overgrazed wasteland.  This western side of northern Madagascar is even drier than Daraina, and the human population pressure has resulted in very little wilderness surviving.  The land looked tired and unprosperous, although I assume that when the rains come in December things perk up a bit.  We got to our destination, Chez Aurelian, a rambling cottage complex at the main eastern entrance to the park, checked in and then set about a fairly lazy afternoon.  I went for a long run across the empty fields across the highway; I didn’t see another human being once I left the main road.  Afterwards we lunched with Bruno, the 2CV driver we had met in Daraina; I was once again astonished that he could drive such an underpowered, lightweight, low-clearance car through such a challenging obstacle course of boulders, mud and vehicle-sized holes.  I spent the afternoon working on a blog post about Botswana, then went off with Terri, Bruno and Bruno’s sister and friend to go to the Ankarana Lodge, where the better-heeled tourists stay for 100 euros per person per night, full board.  We bought a round of caipirinhas and had a delightful swim in their swimming pool, chatting up a storm with our French hosts.  When it got dark we put-putted back to Chez Aurelian in the little yellow car-that-could and had dinner, a delicious mangrove crab feast that reminded us that we were not very far from the swampy west coast.
Terri on one of the bridges in Ankarana
Great camouflage!
The following morning we got up and had breakfast in a restaurant that had two speeds of service:  slow and slothful.  Terri was unimpressed with the staff’s very lackadaisical attitude, but it was a nice place to sit and watch birds in the garden.  By 8 am we were at the park entrance, paying the extravagant 65,000 MGA (about 19 euros) entrance fee per person, plus the 90,000 guide fee.  At 210,000 MGA (about 63 euros) for the two of us for a day’s outing, it was not a cheap day out.  It was, however, worth it.  Our guide, Laurier, was knowledgeable and keen (as was usually our experience with national park guides) and the forest and landscape are distinctive and wonderful. 

We started out trudging along a road that led eventually to the original entrance post to the park, now derelict, and a new entrance building that is under construction.  The forest was dry but pretty dense and full of birds.  It was a flat, easy walk, and along the way we spotted plenty of crested couas and paradise flycatchers.  We went first to the Perte des Rivieres, a sinkhole that in the rainy season swallows three separate rivers into the thirsty karst topography of the park.  In the dry season there is no water, and the sinkhole looks like a menacing portal into the underworld.  As we stood watching, we spotted a pair of hook-billed vangas taking turns to sit on a nest high in a tree while its mate went foraging for insects. 

Crested coua
We continued on our way into the park along the main trail, spotting a couple of sleeping Ankarana sportive lemurs (Lepilemur ankaranensis); these nocturnal lemurs spend the day sitting nestled in a crack in a tree trunk to protect themselves from predators, only their faces visible.  Laurier claimed that they are blind during the day, but that seems unlikely.  They rate highly on the cuteness scale, and we got a few good photos of them.
Bat in Ankarana
Eventually our path abandoned the cool shade of the forest and ventured out onto the bare rock of the tsingy.  This is a landscape typical of western Madagascar, consisting of bare limestone that has been eroded by rain into a series of sharp ridges that are almost impossible to walk across, shredding shoes and feet and bodies.  The Malagasy name comes from an expression meaning “to walk on tiptoes”, which pretty accurately describes how you would want to try to traverse them.  The heat up on top of the tsingy was tremendous, with the light grey of the limestone reflecting the fierce sunlight up into our faces.  There were a few hardy bushes which had pushed roots into the rock, some with violently red blossoms that contrasted sharply with the monochrome stone surroundings.  The tsingy were a strange and alien world that extended far away to the horizon.  Much of the national park consists of tsingy, and the park was established to preserve this distinctive environment, although there is a big area in the centre of the park that has been invaded by thousands of sapphire miners and is now off-limits to tourists for security reasons.  Madagascar’s national parks are under threat all over the country, but this seems as stark an example of this as you could ask for.

Male paradise-flycatcher
Our path picked its way a bit through the knife edges, down into small canyons, across small hanging bridges and eventually down through a dark cavern.  Inside the cave we came across a couple of bats hanging peacefully at the exit which made for good photographic subjects.  From here we turned back towards the forest and its shade, escaping the furnace-like conditions we had been in for the past hour and a half.  We wandered back through the woods, running into groups of a new species of lemur, Sanford’s brown lemur (Eulemur sanfordi), as well as some of the crowned lemurs we had seen a few days earlier in Daraina.  We wandered out of the park back to Chez Aurelian after five very enjoyable hours of walking and wildlife spotting.  We were a bit drained by the heat, and after lunch we napped before heading out in search of mangoes; the forests near Aurelian are full of mangoes which were in season, and we found a number of ripe ones to eat.  In the process we ran into another party of Sanford’s brown lemurs who were also in search of mangoes.  Another mangrove crab dinner and we were off to bed early.
Ankarana sportive lemur
Overall Ankarana was a very worthwhile (if overpriced) park, with a landscape that was completely new to us, along with new lemur species.  It’s an enjoyable place for walking, and the village is very quiet; we could have spent another day or two there quite easily.
A splash of colour in the limestone of the tsingy
A Tropical Idyll in Nosy Be

The next morning, Friday November 25th, was a day of getting places.  We were keen to head south down the coast to the little island of Nosy Be, and we were keen to make it as painless as possible.  Our tuk tuk driver of two days previously came to pick us up for another 50,000 MGA and we asked how much it would cost to bring us past Ambilobe all the way to the ferry dock at Ankify.  Given that it was about 3 or 4 times as far as the run to Ambilobe, we thought he might offer to do it for 150,000 or 200,000 MGA, a price that Terri was willing to pay to avoid another taxi-brousse ride.  Instead, after prolonged consultation with the guys from Chez Aurelian, he asked for 1.5 million ariary, ten times what would have been reasonable.  We decided to take the lift to Ambilobe for 50,000 MGA and hop a taxi-brousse from there.  It wasn’t too painful, as we got the front seats to Ambanja and then seats in a car that wasn’t even full for the short hop from Ambanja to Ankify.  Once there we hopped onto a speedboat for a pricey 30,000 MGA per person and almost immediately regretted it, as we were near the bow and got absolutely hammered by the boat crashing from wave to wave in the afternoon chop.  Terri in particular suffered from getting her spine pummelled.  We hopped onto a tuk tuk in Hellville harbour and had him drive us to Madirokely Beach, about 8 km west of town, where we had the name of a good, cheap place to stay from Bruno, our 2CV friend.  His place, Chez Senga, was full, but they directed us next door to the Beluga Apartments where 87,000 MGA a night got us a big, bright, quiet apartment right on the beach.  We took it, not knowing how good a choice it would prove to be.

Late afternoon light over Madirokely Beach
Quite quickly our life on Nosy Be took on a pleasant, easy rhythm.  We bought baguettes, butter, honey and jam, along with lots of fresh fruit, and would start the day with a leisurely breakfast right on the beach in front of Beluga.  Some days we would go out and do touristy things, while other days revolved around mornings of running and swimming and doing yoga on the sand.  Whatever we got up to during the day, we tried to be in the water for a late-afternoon swim, and then to watch the sun set over the ocean in a riot of reds and oranges either with a cold beer or a homemade caipirinha.  Dinner was often fish kebabs ordered from a little restaurant just behind Senga and consumed with another beer and some cold gas water.  It was a pretty easy existence to get used to, and hard to tear ourselves away from.  After the grimness of Madagascar’s towns and cities, and the pain of getting to Nosy Be, it was hard to face leaving our little corner of paradise. 

After a couple of fairly lazy days at first, Monday November 28th found us undertaking one of the best things you can do on Nosy Be in November and December:  swimming with whale sharks.  There is one outfit, Rand’eau Baleine, based at Chez Senga, that runs trips every day to snorkel with these gentle and endangered giants of the ocean, the largest fish in the world.  A Belgian marine biologist, Stella, is combining studies of the whale shark population at Nosy Be with working as a tour guide, and she was our guide.  Between her and the keen eyes of our boat captain, Captain Black, we had constant encounters with the whale sharks.  We must have swum a dozen or maybe 15 times, and each time we went into the water it was an adrenaline-filled adventure.  I swam with whale sharks back in 2007 in Donsol, in the Philippines, and had enjoyed it, but this was better.  Donsol had very murky water and it was hard to see the whale sharks clearly enough to follow them.  Off Nosy Be the water was very clear and we could see every detail of the sharks’ markings, and we could follow them for minutes on end, finning furiously to keep up.  We had a few swims where we went in after one shark only to find a second one swimming past at a different angle.  A couple of times I had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid being run into as the big fish cruised past.  Terri and I got the hang of following the sharks, and often we were the last ones to give up the chase far from where the boat had dropped us.  Just before we gave up for the morning, Terri had one particularly memorable swim in which she got into the whale’s slipstream and was pulled along almost without effort on her part, while the whale shark turned its eye to look up at her.  She was absolutely elated when she climbed back into the boat. 

On our way to Lokobe
Stella would always jump in with her camera equipment, including a pair of laser pointers that showed up as two dots on the shark’s back to help give a scale.  The pattern of white and blue dots on a whale shark are enough to identify an individual unambiguously, and scientists maintain a worldwide database of such photos to try to keep tabs of whale sharks’ movements around the world.  She also from time to time went in alone with a biopsy probe to take a small sample of skin from the shark’s dorsal fin.  It was exciting to be part of ongoing research, and wonderful to see the rare whale sharks in such numbers.  We finally called it a morning around noon and bade goodbye to the gentle spotted giants to head to Nosy Sakatia, a nearby island, for a huge and delicious banquet lunch.  After lunch we changed our focus to reptiles as we went snorkelling with green turtles in encouragingly large numbers.  A few of them were really big, old turtles contentedly sitting on the bottom munching on seagrass, while there were a couple of really small youngsters swimming around much more actively.  We returned to shore in the afternoon absolutely elated; Stella told us that it had been easily the best day of the season so far.

Female black lemur
The next day found us renting a motor scooter and setting off to see another species of lemur, the black lemur (Eulemur macaco) in the Lokobe Nature Reserve on the southeast corner of the island.  We drove into town, past the inevitable traffic police bribe stations (we were only stopped twice, and showing my license and the scooter’s papers got us through for free), and then turned north from Hellville along a paved road.  After ten kilometres or so, we turned off onto a dirt track, pursued by three would-be guides on bicycles.  Since the track was in poor shape (surprise!), the trio had no difficulties in keeping pace with us.  We ended up hiring them once we got to the tiny village at the end of the track, where we parked the scooter.  The three guys loaded us into an outrigger pirogue and paddled and pushed us (it was extremely low tide) south along the coast for a few kilometres to the entrance to the reserve, a fairly sizeable village.  It was scorchingly hot, and even walking into the forest’s shade did little to cool us down.  The forest was all secondary growth, much of it overgrown fruit orchards from before the days of the nature reserve.  The fruit attracts lemurs in reasonable numbers, and we had little difficulty in spotting several troops of black lemurs.  Despite their name, the females are in fact brown and white and very striking in their appearance, and leap about the trees with their youngsters on their backs with typical agility.  We got some good photos of them along with a decent view of two grey-backed sportive lemurs (Lepilemur dorsalis), nocturnal species that sleep by day in the hollows of tree trunks.  The only problem with our excursion in the forest was that for the first time in Madagascar we were plagued by clouds of mosquitoes, a problem that resulted in us cutting short our walk and retreating to the sea breezes and lavish fish lunch awaiting us back in the village. 
Female black lemur at Lokobe
Sated to the point of exploding, we were paddled back to our scooter through much deeper water (the tide had come in), paid off our guides (it cost about 60,000 MGA, about US$ 18, for the two of us, including transport, guiding and entrance to the reserve, although I sincerely doubt that the reserve will ever receive a single ariary from our trio) and set off on our return scooter ride.  We rode home the long way, around the north of the island, a much less populated and less visited area than the south.  There were big plantations of ylang ylang, an essential oil, and tiny villages, along with a few nice views. 

We spent Wednesday, November 30th in complete sloth, punctuated by some running and swimming along the beach, a long siesta and some reading.  Madirokely Beach was an easy place to while away a hot tropical day, with caipirinhas and fish kebabs at the end of the day.

Thursday, December 1st we went out scuba diving for the morning with Silvia, the irrepressible Swiss woman who runs Forever Dive.  We were joined by three French divers, one of them an accountant living on Reunion, the other two dive instructors from France.  We went out to Nosy Tanikely, a marine reserve island about 30 minutes off our beach.  On the way across we again spotted Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins frolicking in the waves.  We did two very relaxed 1-hour dives that were pretty and pleasant without being spectacular.  We had quite a few hawksbill turtles (always a good sign of the health of the marine environment), healthy coral, lots of blue-spotted rays, a large lobster, a pipefish and several decent-sized tuna.  It was good to visit the underwater world again after a few months away.  We returned to a lazy afternoon of reading and strolling along the beach.

Shadows of lacework, a Nosy Be specialty
Friday was a frustrating day of logistics.  Travel in Madagascar is made more complicated than it should be by a lack of information.  We wanted to get back to Antananarivo while spending less money than a flight (200 euros) and having greater comfort than in a standard taxi-brousse (Terri was still experiencing PTSD after the ride to Ambilobe).  We had asked about arranging a car and driver to take us to Tana, and after much time-wasting, we were quoted a price of 1.4 million MGA, or about 400 euros, which was so ridiculous that we had little choice but to laugh.  We had heard that there were “premier classe” minibuses to Tana, but nobody seemed to know where they left from, what their schedule was or how to contact their offices.  We rented a scooter and headed into Hellville through a cloudburst that flooded lowlying section of road.  We got to the offices of Evasion Sans Frontieres, a travel agency, and found the same lack of basic knowledge that we had encountered elsewhere.  The clerk with whom we talked promised to phone around and find out if there were any departures for Tana in the next few days.  We had an excellent lunch in a downtown restaurant and returned, hopeful that we could escape Nosy Be cheaply and painlessly.  A phone call from our helpful clerk, however, shattered our hopes by saying that the company she had contacted didn’t have any departures for the next week.  Finally, however, another company which we had contacted a couple of days previously got back to us to point us towards an outfit that ran daily minibuses.  I tried to talk to them on the phone, but it was impossible to make out what was being said as Telma’s mobile phone network makes it sound as though you’re talking to someone at the bottom of a deep well, possibly underneath the water surface.  I drove back into town and managed, at last, to book seats for Sunday to Tana.  It cost 80,000 MGA per seat, and we splurged and bought 3 seats for the two of us to give us extra room, so it cost us 120,000 MGA, about US$ 35, per person.  Cheaper than flying, but not particularly cheap given the price of everything else in the country.

One very sizeable spider!
At any rate we now had only one day left on Nosy Be, so we booked a snorkelling trip out to Nosy Iranja for the next morning.  We set out late on a boat full of Italian package tourists (Italians seem to have a real love affair with Madagascar in general, and Nosy Be in particular) and our 90-minute speedboat ride was punctuated by a series of encounters with big marine creatures.  We stopped to look at a pair of whale sharks that were circling lazily near the surface; one of them did two complete leisurely laps of our boat, close enough to see all its markings, with one eye turned upwards to watch us.  While we were stopped, a pair of Omura’s whales, a species only recognized and described a decade ago, breached near the boat, while a pod of spinner dolphins erupted from the water in displays of amazing aerial acrobatics.  We were buzzing with adrenaline from seeing three species of aquatic megafauna in one place when we finally set off again.

Nosy Iranja is a picture-perfect tropical island, or rather two islands connected by a very long sand spit that is submerged at high tide.  The blinding white of the sand and the aquamarine water of its shallow are very pretty indeed.  Terri and I spent a couple of happy hours snorkelling in the shallows; it was such a low tide that we were reduced to pulling ourselves along on our fingertips rather than kicking our feet.  There were lots of small fish, including shrimp gobies guarding their shrimp’s burrows in the sand.  At one point I heard a panicked shout from Terri and raced over to see what was wrong.  A big animal had surfaced near her and then gone down again and Terri thought it was a shark.  We could see it nearby in the shallow water and it did look big and menacing, but eventually we realized it was a big turtle who had surfaced for air.  Panic over, we slowly drifted back towards the beach and then headed over to the immense lunch that was included in our 90,000 (US$ 29) MGA price per person.  It was a feast of ridiculous proportions, with shrimp, mangrove crab and two entire huge fish to go with rice, vegetables and pineapple.  We could once again hardly walk away from the lunch table, and after a short second spell of swimming, we climbed reluctantly onto the speedboat to head back to Madirokely.  It was a great way to end our eight days on Nosy Be, and well worth the price of the day trip.  We had a final sunset on the beach, a final feed of fish kebabs and then packed our bags, ready for an early departure.

Male black lemur, Lokobe
Sunday, December 4th saw us breakfast on the beach one last time, pay our room bill and then climb into a taxi to take us to Hellville.  We dropped our luggage at the minibus office and walked to the pier to wait for our taxi, only to have a big argument with the porters who carried our bags and who wanted 10,000 MGA a bag; if we had known it would be a problem, we would have carried our own bags.  A much longer, more heated and even more pointless argument between the boat captain and the minibus company man delayed our departure by almost 45 minutes before we finally set off.  The morning sea was much calmer than on our outward journey, and soon enough we were at the pier in Ankify and transferring into a Mercedes Sprinter minibus for the short hop to Ambanja.  We had a couple of hours to wait there; we were two of the few passengers coming from Nosy Be; the rest of the passengers were joining us at 1 pm in Ambanja.  We passed the time eating lunch and wandering the dusty streets of the town before finally getting underway.  It was a pretty comfortable ride, much better than any taxi-brousse we had taken so far, and having the extra seat made a huge difference in terms of leg and shoulder room.  I put on my iPod and listened to podcasts most of the way.  It was an overnight bus, and after a stop for supper at 8:30 pm we drove through the night.  I slept reasonably well, but I was glad to make it into town at 7:30 am.  We booked seats on another “premiere classe” line for the next day to take us south, then caught a clapped-out Renault taxi through the teeming, unlovely streets of Tana to our usual base at the Hotel Sole for a day of catching up on sleep.
The tsingy landscape of Ankarana
Overall we both enjoyed Ankarana and Nosy Be, although the cost of visiting Ankarana seemed a bit excessive.  The one big downer to Nosy Be is that, like Thailand, the Philippines and parts of Cambodia, it is a major sex tourism destination for French and Italian middle-aged (and elderly) men.  The other end of Madirokely Beach from where we stayed has a series of bars and nightclubs that run on this trade, and the late-afternoon passegiata on the beach features dozens of sixty-something European men holding hands with eighteen-year-old Malagasy girls.  That said, it’s certainly on a much smaller scale than in places like Pattaya and Angeles City, and our end of the beach was much less sleazier in this respect. 
Yet another wonderful chameleon species in Ankarana
Nosy Be was a welcome vacation-within-a-vacation, a place to unwind from the rigours and annoyances of life on the Malagasy road.  It was nice to be able to drive ourselves around on a scooter (at 25,000 MGA, or about US$ 8, per day, it’s a relative bargain) and staying right on the beach was good for our soul.  Swimming and running along the beach were good ways to get a bit of exercise, and having breakfast and sundowners on the sand made great bookends to our days.  The excursions available were all worthwhile, and the whale-shark watching is absolutely world-class and worth a special trip to Nosy Be.  I’m not sure I would live full-time on Nosy Be, or for a few months every year, as quite a few French expats do (there are certainly much more appealing tropical islands to choose from), but if you’re on Madagascar, Nosy Be is certainly a great place to spend a week or so.

Practical Information: 

Madirokely is a good place to base yourself on the island, and both Chez Senga (if you can get in) and Beluga are good bargain choices; you can get slightly cheaper rooms inland from the beach or in the sex-tourist village at the other end of the beach, but I think location and pleasantness are worth paying a bit extra for.  Rand’Eau Baleine is a very professional outfit for seeing whale sharks, while Forever Dive is a very well-run dive shop with good equipment and a very knowledgeable and professional owner, Silvia.  There are a dozen or more boats offering snorkelling trips to various islands; Nosy Tanikely has great coral, while Nosy Iranja doesn’t have as good marine life but is incredibly pretty.  Hiring your own scooter to go to Lokobe is the way to go, rather than paying for a tour, as it’s a lot cheaper and gives you a lot more control over the situation.  The way to eat on Madirokely is not in the more expensive beachfront restaurants but rather in the little locally-run gargottes.  We had one good meal down the beach at a nameless beachfront gargotte, but mostly we bought take-out from the gargotte right behind Chez Senga; we would have the food delivered to Senga, which doesn’t have a restaurant, and we would eat our food washed down with a cold beer from Senga’s bar.  Senga is a gathering spot for long-term French expats, and they mostly do exactly the same thing.  When in Rome…..

Crested coua
Getting to Nosy Be, either fly if money is no object (or if Nosy Be is your port of entry to the country, as is the case for Air Austral, the airline of Reunion), or else take a premiere classe minibus.  Taking a regular taxi-brousse overnight to save 10,000 MGA is an act of desperation.  I cannot for the life of me recall the company name of our premiere classe minibus, but its office is in an Orange Money wire transfer office at the extreme far end of the main street of Hellville, next to the hospital and just before the road turns downhill to the ferry pier.  There are probably others, but good luck finding them!

Another beautiful sunset over Madirokely beach

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Northern Highlights and Lowlights in Madagascar

Hlane National Park, Swaziland

Marvellous Marojejy

Madagascar from 33,000 feet; not much forest cover!
We were a bleary-eyed couple of backpackers on the morning of Wednesday, November 16th.  Alarms hauled us from our beds cruelly at 4:30 am and 5 am found us in another decrepit taxi rattling through the surprisingly thronged streets towards the airport.  We checked in by 5:40 and sat down to await our 8:00 am flight.  We were two of the four white faces on the flight, along with a British couple (Nic and Mandy) who were also headed to Marojejy National Park.  The flight was quick and calm, with good views out through the dappled clouds to the denuded hills below.  As we got closer to Sambava the cloud cover solidified and we landed in persistent drizzle.  We caught an overpriced taxi to the Orchidea Hotel, checked in, then walked out along the surprisingly busy and unpleasant main road to the Chez Mimi hotel in search of a man, Bruno, who allegedly had good information on visiting Marojejy.  We hadn’t been able to contact the Malagasy National Parks to arrange a guide or porter, and Terri was concerned.  We had a nice Chinese lunch at Mimi, but Bruno was taking a siesta and his young assistant didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.  We caught a local minitaxi back to the supermarket, bought some food for our upcoming hike in the national park, and then went out for a run along the beach.  It was a rough sea on a dissipative beach, so swimming wasn’t too appealing, although I did throw myself in briefly to cool off after running.  Sambava is supposedly one of the most prosperous towns in the country, growing rich on the vanilla trade, but it wears its alleged wealth very discreetly.  It’s full of retired Frenchmen, living with their younger Malagasy girlfriends/wives; it looks like a pretty dull town to retire in, but to each his own.  I sat in the bar of the Orchidea sorting photos and writing up my diary over steak frites before we retired early to a rainy night.

First view of Marojejy from the trail
Beautiful lizard
We slept well, lulled by the roar of the surf, and by 6:40 the next morning we were in a local taxi to the taxi-brousse stand.  It was an uncommonly uncomfortable ride to the park, crammed into the back row of seats which had barely enough legroom for a double amputee; my legs stuck sideways out into the aisle, which was fine at first but then as more and more passengers were picked up it became a game of Twister to weave my legs around those of the extra passengers.  Luckily it was a fast ride on good pavement, and within two hours we were tumbling out of the taxi-brousse at the Marojejy National Park office with our luggage and our food, ready to start hiking.  First, though, we had to fork out big wads of ariary for national park entrance fees (45,000 MGA per person each for 3 days), a guide, a porter for Terri, camping fees and cooking fees.  It all added up to 484,000 MGA (about 140 euros) for both of us for 3 days, so not cheap but not outrageously expensive.  We had a moment of comedy when the guide first selected for us, an English-speaker, told us that we had to hire a cook, as cooking for himself was beneath his dignity, and that we had to buy him food since his food allowance was insufficient.  We quickly canned him and hired another less stuck-up Francophone-only guide, Patrick, along with a young and enthusiastic porter (and wannabe-guide) named Dany.  We stored excess baggage such as our tent and cooking stove in the storage room at the park office and set off by 11, keen to get up the mountain.
Beautiful day gecko

Gecko and millipede meet each other 
It was a pretty walk right from the beginning.  We hiked through a landscape of lush green ricefields lined with hilly plots of vanilla and lychees.  It was lychee season and we were already indulging in them as we marched along through the village and its seemingly infinite supply of small children.  Eventually, an hour down the track, we started to leave behind the dense settlement of the village and headed into a bit more forest.  We entered the national park and proceeded uphill through dense rainforest.  Madagascar has two rainfall gradients, one decreasing from north to south, and the other from east to west.  Up in the northeast corner, where we were, is the wettest bit of the island, and it rains pretty much year-round.  This shows in the dense vegetation, flowers and orchids.  Dany was a star, finding much of the wildlife that we saw:  numerous chameleons, a big boa constrictor of some sort, plenty of lizards and lots of birds, including the brilliantly coloured Madagascar kingfisher and several of the bright, long-tailed Madagascar paradise-flycatchers that we had seen in Andasibe.  We also saw a couple of species of frog, including one small and beautiful black and green frog of the Mantella genus for which Marojejy is renowned.

Eastern lesser bamboo lemur
The path was fairly gentle and led through dense jungle that eventually gave way to bamboo thickets.  We saw a number of Eastern lesser bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur griseus griseus), most of whom fled fairly quickly.  They are interesting animals who are somehow able to stomach the high levels of cyanide found in the local bamboo shoots.  We also caught a glimpse of the white-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus albifrons).  After a short snack stop at Camp One the path got a bit steeper.  We had started the walk at less than 100 metres above sea level, and most of the climb to 800 metres (the altitude of Camp Two) happened in the path between Camps One and Two.  It was sweaty work in the steamy humidity, but it was pretty, and just as we approached Camp Two, we ran into the tracker who showed us (at a distance) our first examples of the very rare silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus).  The silky sifaka is very rare (somewhere between 100 and 1000 individuals exist in the entire world, confined to Marojejy National Park and its immediate surroundings), quite large (second only to the indri among living lemur species) and very beautiful, with long white fur and very long tails.  We admired the sifakas from afar for a bit, and then continued on to Camp Two.

Mantella frog
Most hikers at Marojejy choose a four-day itinerary, with a first night at Camp Two, a second night at Camp Three, the summit on the third night followed by a retreat to Camp Two, and then a walk out on the fourth day.  With Terri’s leg still bothering her and the climb to the summit steep, we had opted out of the summit in favour of two nights at Camp Two in order to have time to see the sifakas.  We settled into our cabin (a strange mixture of wood and waterproof canvas tent material) and wandered over to the cooking area to start working on supper.
The view from Camp Two

Ring-tailed mongoose, mischievous camp visitor
It had been a glorious day of hiking, past waterfalls and streams, with beetles and butterflies and orchids to please the senses, through a rainforest absolutely pulsing with life.  It reminded us of what we hadn’t been doing enough of recently in Africa, constrained as we often were by national park regulations from wandering around freely.  We cooked up rice and lentils over the camp’s charcoal cookers beside the cooks from another hiking group.  The setting was perfect, overlooking a stream that pooled into a perfect little bathing hole, and both Terri and I slipped away from cooking duties to immerse ourselves in the cool water, surrounded by more Mantella frogs.  It was very idyllic, and the final piece of perfection was a playful, curious and mischievous ring-tailed mongoose who patrolled around the cooking area, looking for any unguarded food or empty tin to nip in and steal.  The only blemish on our happiness was finding a couple of leeches when we peeled off our hiking socks.

Our silky sifaika crew:  Patrick, Dany, Janvier and me
After dinner we went for a brief spot-lighting walk around camp with Patrick.  We were hoping for leaf-tailed geckos and tiny Brookesia chameleons, but neither were to be seen.  Instead we consoled ourselves with a couple of nocturnal frogs with huge eyes, a big toad and a brief glimpse of a fat-tailed mouse lemur’s eyes glinting in the spotlight before he moved into the shelter of the vegetation.  We returned to our hut for an early night.

Silky sifakas
We slept well that night in our little cabin, glad for the waterproof tent roof when the heavens opened for a torrential downpour sometime after midnight.  We awoke at 6, breakfasted on baguettes, jam and fried eggs, then set off with Patrick and Davy in search of the silky sifakas.  The camp’s resident tracker, Janvier, had already been up and found the nearest group not far from camp, and we followed the sound of his voice to where a group of 3 sifakas was sitting high in a tree eating and grooming.  We spent nearly two hours watching them, with a number of close encounters when they dropped down close to the ground.  They are truly beautiful animals, their white fur contrasting with their black faces, their gentle nature obvious from their grooming interactions.  They are, like all sifakas, prodigious leapers and we watched them hurl themselves across many metres of open space to get from one tree to another.  They also performed impossible gymnastics as they hung in all possible orientations to get at leaves to eat, or to groom each other in interlocking balls of silky fur.  It was frustrating trying to photograph them in the low light of the forest, with big contrasts in light from sunny patches to shade, but I got a few decent shots in the end.  Eventually I ended up putting my camera away and just watching them with my naked eye or through binoculars, feeling privileged to be so close to such a rare and beautiful animal.  It felt, Terri agreed, a bit like watching mountain gorillas, as though we were intruders in the tiny patch of wilderness that we humans have left to these precious animals.
Silky sifakas are high on the cuteness scale

Brookesia minima chameleon:  check out the fingernail for scale!
On the way back we saw a greater vasa parrot flying through the trees, and then Davy spotted a Brookesia minima chameleon, the tiniest species in Madagascar, barely the length of Terri’s thumbnail.  We watched in fascination as he crawled determinedly among the leaf litter in search of insects to eat.  We had a snack in camp, then set off uphill in search of the red lemur.  We had no luck, despite hearing them in the distance a couple of times, and eventually we admitted defeat and trudged back downhill.  Success was had on the chameleon front, though, with a couple more tiny species of Brookesia, as well as several more frogs.  We ran into a researcher carrying several more species of frog and chameleon; apparently Camp Three is a big research base for herpetologists who are particularly keen on Marojejy’s endemic frog species.

White-faced brown lemur (Eulemur albifrons), Marojejy
We spent the afternoon pleasantly in camp cooking, sorting photos and watching the mongoose and a truly beautiful green day gecko.  The diversity and beauty of the wildlife in the jungle was absolutely outstanding, and we were very happy to have the privilege of being part of it for a few days.  That evening in camp we ran into Nic and Mandy who had summited that morning, as well as a pair of French hikers who had just arrived from below.  We had a pleasant evening around the cookhouse cooking, eating and swapping stories. 

Helmeted vanga sitting on his nest in Marojejy
Our walk out the next morning began with a leisurely breakfast, and didn’t really get going downhill until about 8:30.  It was much quicker going downhill than up, and by 12:40 we were back at our starting point at the park office.  Along the way we had quite a close encounter with the white-faced brown lemur (Eulemur albifrons), finally giving us some decent photos.  We also, after much searching, spotted one of Madagascar’s iconic birds, the helmet vanga.  With its outsized blue beak, it is unmistakeable, and since it nests at the top of the trunk of one particular species of palm tree, Dany and Patrick kept peering hopefully up at every one of these trees until we were finally rewarded with a view of a huge blue bill.  We then saw another pair flying through the trees, too quickly to photograph, but the vanga on the nest stayed helpfully still for the camera.  We also saw a tenrec, the small hedgehog-like animal that bumbles around amiably through the undergrowth.  He was too fast to get a photo, but we got pretty good views.  In the BBC TV series Madagascar they get great footage of a pair of adults leading a party of 15 or so babies around; litter sizes of up to 30 have been recorded, very unusual for a mammal.

Marojejy is famous for its frogs
I was sad when we left the park behind and rejoined the busy, noisy world of the village.  Marojejy had been everything I was looking for when I came to Madagascar:  hiking, wilderness, rainforest, lemurs and a plethora of other animals.  Terri was sad when we got to the park entrance and her backpack, which had been carried by a new porter instead of Dany (there is a strict rotation system among the porters, and it was the other guy’s turn) wasn’t there.  The porter had apparently stopped off in the village for food and to see his family, and Terri was not at all impressed with his work ethic.  Eventually Dany walked back and repossessed the backpack, to Terri’s delight.

We had anticipated catching a crowded taxi-brousse back to town, but since Nic and Mandy had arrived at the same time as us and had arranged a lift back to Sambava in a comfortable Toyota Land Cruiser, we were glad to accept their offer to ride along with them.  It was a much quicker, more comfortable trip back to Sambava.  We both checked into Chez Mimi, visions of a delicious Chinese lunch dancing in our heads, only to find that the restaurant was closed until 6.  We found a few pastries to eat in the bakery next door, then had a nap until supper.  Once the restaurant had opened, they served up a delicious repast.  Nic and Mandy were at the table, and we were entertained by some of Nic’s more outrageous travel stories.  He’s a judge in real life, but certainly lets his hair down on holiday.

More lemuring in Daraina

Sunday, November 20th found us a bit groggy after a night of poor sleep on a really lame excuse for a mattress.  We breakfasted, then caught a local taxi to the chaos of the taxi-brousse stand.  We were headed north along the coast to Vohemar, and it didn’t take long to get a full taxi and set off with us in the prime front seats.  It’s only 90 km or so from Sambava to Vohemar, but it took almost 5 hours of leisurely travel with an endless series of stops.  I was watching our driver fiddle with the money he had collected from passengers, and realized that every time there was a police roadblock (which was very frequently), he slipped 2000 MGA (about 50 euro cents) into the pages of his car registration.  When he got it back again, the money would be gone.  Multiplying by the number of cars that the cops stop every day, the obvious conclusion to draw is that being a traffic policeman is a job of great monetary potential in Madagascar, while imposing a significant cost on road traffic.

Vohemar is where the pavement ends if you’re headed west towards Ambilobe.  At the junction, a number of 4x4s tout for business.  This dirt track is renowned as one of the worst “roads” in all of Madagascar, and the 4x4s charge accordingly.  While the taxi-brousse from Sambava to Vohemar had cost us about 7000 MGA, a seat from Vohemar to Ambilobe was going for 60,000 MGA for a distance that was only 50 percent further.  What made it worse was that we wanted to hop out in the village of Daraina, about one-third of the way along the track, and the 4x4 operators insisted that we had to pay for the full distance since they wouldn’t be able to pick up any passengers in Daraina.  Then, when we had finished in Daraina, we would have to phone back to Vohemar, make a reservation and pay another 60,000 ariary.  It was a pretty expensive trip for something that looked as though it was going to be excruciatingly uncomfortable.

We sat around for a couple of hours waiting for our vehicle to fill up, and finally drove off around 5:00.  Terri and I were wedged onto the single front passenger seat of a Ford Ranger, but it looked a lot more comfortable than our fellow passengers wedged in the back.  The first 30 km of the road were actually quite decent, but then the real horror began.  It took three hours to cover the next 25 km, with the driver carefully negotiating huge holes, metres deep, that had appeared in the track over the previous rainy season.  At one point most of the passengers leapt out and started hiking through the bush by the light of their mobile phones, leaving Terri and myself and two other passengers to continue with the driver over particularly steep and difficult terrain.  We followed a convoluted squiggle of a track downhill and eventually stopped, waiting for the pedestrians to appear out of the night.  Finally, after 9 pm, we stopped outside a small hotel, Le Lemurien Blanc, and Terri and I got out into the dark.  The night watchman let us in, and the manager appeared, showed us to a room and conjured up some food from the kitchen.  We ate and then crashed, worn out by the energy-sapping process of moving from place to place by public transport.

We slept well that night and awoke to a sunny, warm day.  The whole reason we had chosen to stop in this small village was that we had been told about a lemur reserve just outside town by Nic and Mandy’s guide in Marojejy.  As we breakfasted, a local guide, Amidou, appeared and we sat down to discuss logistics.  The lemur forest is 12 km from town, so walking there and back seemed out of the question, especially as we wanted to do a night walk to spot the fabled and elusive aye aye, the strangest of the lemurs.  We eventually decided that we would rent one scooter for Terri, while I would ride as a passenger on Amidou’s slightly larger motorcycle.  We had a reasonable spaghetti lunch, then set off at 1:30 for the park. 

Heading off to see lemurs in Daraina; I rode on the back of Amidou's bike
It was a fun ride, first towards Ambilobe on the main road, then on a smaller track off to the right.  The “road” part was in awful condition, but Amidou was a careful driver, and Terri was a picture of concentration, picking the best line through craters that gave the scene the look of Passchendaele, 1916.  It was a relief to turn onto the less destroyed tertiary track.  At the end of the road, we parked the bikes beside some abandoned huts once inhabited by gold miners.  This area, despite being officially a nature reserve, was invaded by many hundreds of gold panners some years ago.  Most of them have now moved on to the next gold strike closer to Ambilobe, but a handful of miners still remain, and the ground of the reserve is a treacherous labyrinth of two-metre-deep pits.  The riverbed, dry in this season, is honeycombed with such holes, but the higher ground beside it is more selectively excavated.  It’s sad to see, once again, mining trump nature, but at least the miners don’t seem to be hunting and eating the lemurs as has happened in other parts of the country.

Golden-crowned sifaka in Daraina
The forest here is much, much drier than in Marojejy, but it’s full of lemurs.  The main species here is the golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli), and they are not difficult to see.  It took less than ten minutes of walking to spot our first group, high up in the branches of a tall tree.  They are big sifakas, not quite as large as the silkies, but close.  They are also white of fur, but with a crown of golden brown fur atop their heads.  They are quite curious, numerous and apparently doing well on the breeding front, as every one of the four groups we encountered had at least one baby riding on its mother’s back.  They are ridiculously agile, leaping big gaps between adjacent trees without any apparent effort, and quite curious and unafraid of people.  They are apparently protected by a strong local fady (taboo) about hunting and eating them.  We spent a lot of time watching them feed on leaves and fruits, climb around the trees and bound acrobatically across gaps, getting some good photos in the strong light. 

As the time wound on towards sundown, we eventually said goodbye to our last group of sifakas and set off in search of an aye aye tracker.  Some of the local miners supplement their incomes by watching for signs of aye ayes nesting in the treetops and then reporting this to guides and tourists for tips.  We passed a couple of teenagers with headlamps setting off hopefully in search of aye ayes, but Amidou figured that one of the older trackers would be a surer bet.  Eventually we found our man, a middle-aged man with a bright headlamp, and the four of us set off through the bush peering upwards into the canopy in search of a fresh aye aye nest.  Twenty minutes of tramping brought us to a point in the riverbed where both Amidou and our aye aye man pointed up into the trees.  “Fresh nest.  You can see the new leaves.” 

Waiting for the aye aye to emerge
I wasn’t convinced, but they were certain that there was an aye aye slumbering inside, so there was nothing to do but lie down and wait, staring up at the untidy jumble of vegetation.  As we waited the daylight began to fade, but not before another lemur species made an appearance.  A hyperactive feeding party of crowned lemurs (Eulemur coronatus) came crashing down through the trees, and we got quite close views of their faces and their red-brown crowns.  Amidou told us that they were one of few lemur species that was active both by day and by night.

We were lying on our backs, staring up into the canopy, when suddenly our aye aye man got excited, as did Amidou.  “Get your lights ready!  He’s moving!”  And then, quite suddenly, the aye aye was out of the nest and moving rapidly through the trees in search of tasty insects to eat.  With our spotlight, the aye aye spotter’s, and two very bright lights in Amidou’s possession, we had enough lumens to light up the animal quite well, even if it was too far to get a decent photo.  We scrambled around through the undergrowth, following our moving target and trying not to break a leg in one of the many gold-mining pits. 

The aye aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a lemur, but a very unusual-looking one.  There are five families of lemur (Daubentonidae, Indriidae, Lepilemuridae, Lemuridae and Cheirogaleidae) with a total of 98 species.  One family, the Daubentonidae, contains only 1 species, the aye aye.  It is considered to be the most ancient lineage of the lemurs, having split off from all other lemurs a long time ago.  It is nocturnal and insectivorous, with long, slender fingers for digging insects out of fruits and wood and leaves, and huge leathery ears a bit like a bat for hearing the faint sounds of bugs.  We got an excellent view of his sharp-featured face and his big ears, his dark grey body fur and his lighter face, as well as the glint of his eyes in our lights.  We followed him for a good 15 minutes before we finally lost him; he was quick and very agile, leaping from tree to tree, and eventually we couldn’t keep up anymore.  An aye aye may cover 30 kilometres or more in a night’s foraging before he constructs a fresh nest at dawn to protect him during his daytime snooze.  We were lucky to see one; they’re notoriously hard to find, and Daraina is one of the few places where, thanks to the spotters, you have a better than even chance of seeing one on a given evening.

Can't get enough pictures of day geckos!
We were elated as we started walking back to the motorcycles in the dark.  The show wasn’t over yet, though, as our spotlights picked out a lot of different eyes shining back at us.  There was a rufous mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus), a small Daraina sportive lemur (Lepilemur milanoi), another fat-tailed dwarf lemur, an Amber Mountain fork-marked lemur (Phaner electromontis) and then, right at the end, the eyes of a Malagasy civet (Fossa fossana), the smaller of the two main carnivorous predators of Madagascar (the larger is the fossa, Cryptoprocta ferox, which we sadly never caught a glimpse of).  We got back to the motorbikes absolutely ecstatic at the number of species we had seen.  The ride back was challenging in the dark, but the stars were glittering in a moonless sky with Venus shining very bright in the western sky so at least we were surrounded by beauty.  We made it back unscathed to Le Lemurien Blanc by 8:30 and tucked into a big meal that the manager had waiting for us.  It had been a red-letter day for scenery, for wildlife and for fun.  We chatted at dinner with three French tourists who, incredibly, had just driven the miserable track in a two-wheel drive Citroen 2CV, a car that barely looks capable of climbing a moderate incline on a paved road.  The driver, Bruno, was a real character and we had a great time chatting with him, his sister and his friend.

This Ain’t No Technological Breakdown…..

The drier countryside around Daraina
The next day, Tuesday November 22nd, was not a red-letter day for anything.  It was, instead, one of those awful days that try the souls of travellers and make you wonder if all the lemur species in the world are worth a miserable 4x4 ride.  We had sent Amidou off the previous morning with the mission of booking us seats on a 4x4 coming through, and he had done so.  We had two front seats in a 4x4, and we had slept on this assurance.  In the morning, though, Amidou was back with bad news.  The 4x4 we had reserved had just called him to say they had broken down and wouldn’t be driving that day.  We had him call another outfit in Vohemar, and he was able to pin down another vehicle that was about to leave.  We asked to buy an extra seat to give ourselves some extra space and a modicum of comfort.  We had to pay for one seat up front by a telephonic money transfer which Amidou handled.  Then we sat and waited.  We had hoped to leave in the morning so that we could do most of the trip in daylight.  Instead, it was almost 2:30 in the afternoon when a tiny short-wheel-base Land Cruiser drove up with an impossibly low-ceilinged enclosure around the back.  There was no sign of the extra seat we had been promised, and in fact I could not sit in the back at all, as the ceiling was far too low.  We started off with a flaming row with the driver, who was about to return us our deposit money and leave without us.  We weren’t having any of it, and insisted that he honour his commitment.  After much shouting and grumbling and translation (he spoke not a word of French), he relented.  I ended up sitting on the floor of the back, between the two rows of passengers, with nothing to hold onto.  Terri was crammed onto the end of one of the two benches running the (very short) length of the back, with nothing to hold onto and barely any space to perch.  There were three other people on her side, and three very chubby ladies on the other side.  It seemed impossible that there were any spaces at all for us, let alone the three we had been promised.

It was excruciatingly uncomfortable for Terri, whose leg was being mercilessly tenderized by a metal pipe behind her, and who clocked her head a few times when we hit particularly big bumps.  We were bounced all over by the huge chasms in the roadbed, and after an hour I couldn’t take it anymore.  When the jeep stopped to wait for another vehicle to cross a narrow bridge, I hopped out and perched myself outside the back of the vehicle, with one foot on the back bumper and one butt cheek perched on the spare tire, my hands gripping the metal of the roof rack.  It was a bit precarious, but at least my legs were comfortable and there was space for my head.  I spent the rest of the trip, all eight hours, hanging off the back and it was infinitely superior to being inside.  I put on my iPod and worked my way methodically through hours of content to try to escape from the never-ending horror of the road.  It got dark by 6, and for five and a half long hours we continued through the dark, bouncing like demented pinballs across a surface that (allegedly) had been smooth asphalt back in the days of Francois Mitterand, but which was now more or less undriveable.

Loading up in Daraina:  7 people sat in the back!
I was a complete zombie, coated with dust and diesel exhaust, my hands blistered from gripping the roof rack, but Terri was much worse, unable to sit upright, bruised and battered and constantly fighting her seatmates for sufficient space to sit.  We stopped once for a quick dinner stop at a filthy roadside diner, and that was about it, other than one bathroom break.  It all blurred into a hallucinatory nightmare until finally, well after 11:30 at night, we arrived at the far end of the track in the unlovely junction town of Ambilobe.  We pulled into a tiny roadstop hotel and booked a room, only to have a much bigger fight with our driver.  We paid him for the second place we had occupied, but he demanded payment for the third space.  Since we had really only had one space, not two, and there was absolutely no way that we had had access to three seats, we refused and he went absolutely mental, screaming and thumping his chest and barging into me.  I have limited tolerance for bullying, and I was much bigger than him, so I pushed him back and began screaming myself.  Neither of us understood a word of what the other was shouting, but it didn’t matter:  the meaning was clear enough.  Then the driver grabbed Terri roughly by the arm and then she was shouting at him and I had had enough and ran him across the courtyard and up against a wall with my forearm across his neck.  The hotel staff and fellow passengers were watching this all agog.  We stormed off to our room, only to find the driver hammering and howling at the door.  We opened the door to find him drawing a forefinger menacingly across his throat in an unmistakeable gesture of threat.  Terri was outraged, and I again manhandled him away, half-convinced that it was about to come to fisticuffs.  Eventually the driver was dragged away, but not before both of us had threatened to bring the police into the story.  We bathed and went to bed still dirty, bone-tired, stiff and sore and wired with fight-or-flight adrenaline.  It had been a truly horrible day, and the only thing to do was to fall asleep and hope the driver didn’t return to batter in our door.  I remembered how much I had hated this sort of travel in Indonesia back in 1996 (fights with drivers and dishonest touts included); I had hated it so much that I had taken up bicycle touring instead.

Practical Information

A cluster of silky sifakas
Marojejy is a must-see, one of the great wildlife parks of Madagascar.  It makes sense to fly to it, despite the exorbitant cost, at least one way, as there is no short way to drive to it.  For trekking, the only obligatory hire is a guide (30,000 MGA a day if he’s going to feed himself); porters are optional.  The park isn’t cheap, but it’s not crazy expensive either; we spent 484,000 MGA (about 160 EUR) between us for 3 days.  I think that taking 4 days and climbing the peak is a good idea (which we would have done except for Terri’s sore leg).  The sifakas are amazing and worth spending another 30,000 MGA on a specialized tracker.  The park entrance is easily accessible from Sambava by taxi-brousse.  There’s one tiny supermarket in Sambava, so camping supplies are a bit limited.  You don’t need to carry a tent or stove as they’re supplied.  This is one of the best places on the island to see a helmet vanga, so try to see one on the way up the mountain!

In Sambava we found the Orchidea Beach Hotel to be a much better place to sleep (better beds, quieter) than Chez Mimi, as well as having a much nicer location on the beach.  Chez Mimi does have great food, though. 

Day geckos have amazing colours!
In Daraina you have little choice in where to stay; all tourists basically stay at Le Lemurien Blanc which is clean and reasonably priced, and guides can find you there; we found Amidou to be an excellent, knowledgeable guide.  If you have your own transport, you can stay out near the lemurs at Camp Tattersalli (as Bruno and his 2CV crew did), but we didn’t have that option.  Getting out to the lemurs we thought that renting a scooter was the cheapest, most comfortable and most fun option, although there are 4x4s available too at a steeper price.  The night walk in search of aye ayes is a must; we saw a ridiculous number of species as well as the amazing aye aye. 

Fleeting view of a snake in Marojejy
Getting to and from Daraina was where we adopted a sub-optimal method.  In hindsight, the way to go is to ride on the back of a dirt bike.  It’s more expensive (200,000 MGA from Vohemar to Ambilobe, instead of 60,000 MGA), but much faster, more comfortable and you see more, plus you are less likely to come to blows with your driver.  If you have a heavy backpack, it might be worth sending it ahead on the roof of a 4x4 for a small fee.  The other nice thing about the motorcycle option is that you won’t be asked to pay the full fare twice (once Vohemar-Daraina, and again Daraina-Ambilobe).  It’s hard to describe how awful, uncomfortable and deeply unpleasant 9 hours of bouncing around the back of a 4x4 can be, but believe us:  you don’t want to do it.  Just say “moto, please!” and save yourself a stay in the Eighth Circle of Dante’s Hell.  It is worth seeing the lemurs in Daraina; just keep reminding yourself of this.