Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Madagascar: Ankarafantsika

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Our ferry trip back to the mainland from Nosy Be was pleasantly un-chaotic, by comparison to the other direction.  As we approached the port (ok, the shoreline) at Ankify, we spotted two men wearing green Cactus Tours shirts, and they definitely spotted us.  It was the two men who had sold us our original ferry tickets, and later carried us bodily onto the boat.  We had second thoughts about having given them the shirts—we hope they wouldn’t abuse the logos to pose as Cactus Tour representatives.  They pulled our luggage off the boat for us, and we met our new guide, Ndemy—pronounced Dem-bee—and our driver (we didn’t catch his name, and it became awkward to ask again later).  We got into a minivan, and settled back for a day of driving south.
The short video clip shows a typical view out the car window.  The smoothed rock-like surface you see in the road cuts is laterite.  It’s a soft soil that is rich in iron, and though it can be cut and dug through easily when it is first exposed, it will harden into a reasonably durable rock after being exposed to air and sunlight.  Some of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia had been built from laterite.  It did not seem to be a common building material here, though.  Most of the buildings in this region were wood—you can see a few at the beginning of the video clip.  As we drove further south, the forests gave way to savannah, and the buildings changed to mud daub.  We arrived in Antsohihy around 3 in the afternoon, and had the afternoon to relax in our hotel, reviewing pictures, reading, and journaling.
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We hit the road early the next morning, and drove four hours.  This is one of the better stretches of road—there had been no road maintenance outside ‘Tana since the coup in 2009, and some sections of highway were closer to four-wheel drive trails, due to deep, frequent potholes.  Our driver stopped here for a rest break, prompted by the sight of this chameleon crossing the road.  All of our drivers were cautious of hitting reptiles on the road.  They’d occasionaly stop and shoe something across the road to make sure it was safe before any other vehicles passed.  This chameleon had an odd, stuttering walk; it would rock back and forth on two feet before moving forward to the alternate pair of legs, and repeating the rocking.
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The savannah turned into a river valley, and we saw lots of women and children washing their clothes and bathing.  Many of the women sensibly washed all of their clothes at once, which meant they were not wearing any, and did not seem particularly concerned about it.  We refrained from any National Geographic photography. 
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We reached Ambondromamy at noon; the highway terminates there, and we at lunch at the nice restaurant in town, in the Hotel Diamante.  It was one of the few times we had the option for a more typical Malagasy meal.  The main portion was 2-3 cup mound of rice, with a side dish of zebu and bean stew.  It was also served with leaf soup (which tasted a bit like green tea), and a pitcher of rice tea.  Rice tea is made by boiling water in a large pot that has previously been used to cook a batch of rice.  This sterilizes the water, and steeps it in the crust of browned rice that is stuck to the pot.  Not the most attractive looking meal, but it was extremely tasty, and also very filling.  There was one other table of customers eating, but the rest of the restaurant was empty.
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We drove for another hour and a half to reach Ankarafantsika, where we were staying two nights in a pleasant hut at Blue Vanga Lodge.  We spent the afternoon in our hut, reading.  Either because it was Sunday, or just because we were the only guests, the lodge ran its generator in the middle of the day, until 2:30, which allowed us to charge some batteries, and run the ceiling fan.  Afterwards, we had to rely on our hand fans—it was quite hot, though mercifully dry.  At 5, we headed into the park, placed our dinner orders with the restaurant there, and then met Rap, who will be our guide in the national park.
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Rap took us on our first night walk.  It was still a little light out, so we waited, and watched the sky darken. When it was dark enough, we turned on our headlamps, and followed Rap who had an incredibly powerful flashlight.  He also had a sharp eye—spotting at night is a very different skill.
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Chameleons and geckos tend to come down to lower hanging branches, which are warmer, closer to the earth.  This was definitely a case where the bulky DSLR paid off; David was a little surprised by how well it performed.  Focusing in low light is often challenging, but he ended up with a higher ratio of post-worthy pictures than normal—25% instead of the 10% average.  Certainly part of that was more selective shooting.  All of these images are at f/2.8 and ISO 1600; the shutter speeds range between 1/50 and 1/100.  We did not use flash, just our lamps.
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We also spotted mongoose lemurs and mouse lemurs, finding them by their eye shine in our lights (lemurs are rare among primates to have eye shine).  We didn’t think pictures of glowing eyes were that fascinating, so we didn’t even bother taking any.  But it was fun to watch how quickly the mouse lemurs jumped from branch to branch in the darkness.  We spent a little over an hour on the night walk, and then returned to the park restaurant for dinner, and finally back to the lodge for the night.
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These are the huts (or bungalows, as the lodge calls them) at Blue Vanga, at sunrise the next morning.  Simple, but adequate.  A comfortable bed with mosquito netting, shuttered windows on both sides for good cross-breeze, and a shower, toilet and sink on one side (Lana wasn’t thrilled by the curtain acting as a door, but by this point in the trip, the honeymoon is definitely over). 
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The entire lodge is surrounded by a tall fence, and the gate is closed at night.  We weren’t exactly sure what the threat was, but the lodge’s web page of detailed info has four sections; the rooms, the restaurant, electricity (the hours the generator runs), and safety.  Under safety, they wrote, “The Lodge has a security team and collaborates with local security authorities.”  That made our eyebrows go up, when we read it.  Then,  when David opened the shutters before going to bed, he noticed that one of the security guards had stationed himself near the corner of our hut, with a clear view of both the front gate, and the space between the back of our hut and the perimeter fence.  He decided to keep that observation to himself for the moment, and didn’t get to sleep nearly as quickly as Lana did.  Keeping in mind Shielo’s warnings about how dangerous the south was, we later asked Ndemy; he said the southerners were very friendly, but you had to watch out in the north.  We were back to trusting our instincts, and in general, we felt extremely comfortable here, security team or no.
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After breakfast on the patio in front of our hut, we drove a short distance to the park entrance, and right at the main trailhead, we spotted a Coquerel’s sifaka.  Sifakas are a specific genus of lemur, which vary in size, but all have hairless, black faces, and tails as long as their body.  We thought these sifakas were some of the most elegant looking lemurs; not cute, but beautiful.
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The common brown lemurs we spotted not long after looked like average Joes, compared to the movie star sifakas.  They also make a very inelegant, pig-like snorting sound, which we quickly learned to listen for, to find them by.  You can make a similar noise yourself fairly easily, and if there are any common browns nearby, they will echo it back to you.  Sort of plain, but still very fun to watch. We saw the common brown lemurs in several different areas, and despite their unexceptional form, they became some of Lana’s favorites. They were generally curious about us (much like the crown lemurs). Their expressions were comical and they tended to cuddle up together in groups (as you see below), which certainly amped their cuteness factor.
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All of our guides were very knowledgeable; here Rap is showing us an iguana skull from a local snake’s den.  The snakes find an ant colony, and dig their den there, in coexistence with the ants.  When the snake molts, the ants clean up the molt by eating it.  The snakes will bring prey back to the den to eat it, and the ants will have a share as well.
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The Coquerel’s skua is about the size of a large duck.  While it walks on both legs, it always runs by hopping on just one.
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We hiked out of the forest into dry savannah, and after a long walk in the hot, windy grass, we finally reached another tsingy.  We could see the erosion line on the far side of the canyon, where the forest resumed.
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The photo below gives you a good idea of the Indiana Jones look David was once again sporting since his razor had been lost in transit. It was a long walk under clear skies and hot sun, but the landscape was so different we enjoyed the hike, which was around 4 km one way.
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On our way back through the forest, we saw the spiny tailed iguana, above, and a few types of gecko, below.
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Rap spotted this nocturnal golden brown mouse lemur—one of they kind we’d likely seen on our night walk as a pair of glowing orbs—tucked inside a hollowed out tree.
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We returned to the park restaurant for lunch, and got to watch a trio of sifakas from our table on the balcony.  Lana’s video shows how fast and far they can leap:
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The park’s restaurant made very good food, but nearly American sized portions, which we are definitely not used to at this point in the trip.  We ate way too much, and since our next destination was nearby, we asked Ndemy if we could walk rather than drive.  We walked to Lake Ravelobe, where we boarded a covered pontoon boat, and puttered along the shoreline, watching for birds.
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This is our driver on the left, Ndemy in the center, and Rap on the right. Although it’s harder to tell in this photo, Ndemy was a bit unusual for a Malagasy man, in that he was quite tall,around 6’4” or 6’5”. He had some experience playing basketball after university and favored jerseys from American basketball teams. Rap was quite small and slight with one long rat-tail dreadlock. He knew his stuff, and his English was excellent; we enjoyed his tour very much. Here you can see that Ndemy is asking him questions about the birds we saw, pointing them out in Ndemy’s book. We had the privilege of all our “staff” on this boat trip, as we were going to see something everyone was eager to get a look at.
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Kingfisher, above; African darter cormorant below, and great heron following. Although these were pretty, they were not the main attraction.
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This guy (gal? We didn’t check.) was.  We happened upon it in a sort of cove, just hanging out with its mouth open.
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Based on population surveys, Rap said over 100 crocodiles live in the lake.  This one was over 6 feet long, and our flat bottomed boat suddenly seemed very close to the water. After seeing one so close up, and knowing there were at least 99 more around that we couldn’t see, we were more likely to stay in the center of the boat on our way back to shore.
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We followed alongside it for a while, and finally, it just sank out of sight, with the tip of its nose disappearing last.  This was the creepiest bit of all, it descending down in the depths. It reminded us again of all those 99 crocs we couldn’t see.
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About half of the way around the lake shore, we saw a large colony of egrets, and we landed nearby to hike the rest of the way back.
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A cable bridge crossed the river, and led into a marshy area of rice fields.  Ndemy said it was good practice for when we went to the Grand Tsingy in the south, the next leg of our trip. He said getting there was a long journey, but that you forgot all about it when you saw the majesty of it.
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We threaded our way back to the park through rice fields spying this interesting guy along the way, the same type of chameleon that we saw a couple of days before on the road. After a while we left the rice fields and walked back for some distance along the road. It was no surprise to us that everyone uses the road for transport, even walkers, as there is nowhere else to walk. This mirrored our experience almost everywhere in Southeast Asia, as well as most of South America. While so many of the places we went were remarkable in their differences, both from our lives in America as well as each other, as we got farther along in our year-long journey, we marveled at the ways in which different countries and cultures are the same.   Even here, amid the lemurs and chameleons, we could see the road home.