Sunday, December 5, 2010

Backcountry skiing in the Commonwealth Basin

I am pleased to say that on Saturday I had my first backcountry ski outing of the year. On the plane back from Africa last weekend I was feeling nervous that snow had been falling in the Cascades without me and I was missing out on skiing, but I now feel all caught up. Two of my coworkers, Ryan and Redwood, were equally keen to get out into the mountains and sample the fresh snow so on Friday we laid plans to meet at 7:30am the next morning and head out to Snoqualmie Pass. The chosen meeting point was downtown at our office, and since Ryan had volunteered to drive my initial plan was to load my ski gear onto my bike and ride there. I have used bike transportation many times in the past for myself and my nordic ski equipment, but it turns out that alpine touring gear is a little more substantial and harder to fit on a bike than skate skis. So, after several failed attempts at mounting the ski gear on my bike (while still having the bike rideable), I capitulated and headed back inside to ask Roanne to drop me off at the office in the car, which she kindly did.

Ryan and Redwood were already there when I arrived, so we loaded up our gear and headed east. We arrived at Snoqualmie Pass without incident, and parked in the Summit West parking lot. We then suited up and headed back under I-90, and clipped in and headed up into the woods on an established track soon thereafter. We were heading for Commonwealth Basin which was exciting since I had never been here, and I always like to expand my repertoire of backcountry ski options. Redwood had skied there 8 years ago so we had some idea of where to go, but other than that it was a bit of an exploration mission. The terrain started out with some gentle climbing on a track that had been packed in pretty well by snowshoers and other skiers, here is Redwood approaching a log crossing over Commonwealth Creek:

Eventually the set track went off in a different direction than we wanted to head, and we set about breaking trail up the west side of the west fork of Commonwealth Creek. We were skirting just under the cliffs of Guye Peak, and in a few spots we ran into some steep little sections where we had to remove our skis and fight our way up. Here is a shot of Redwood and Ryan with skis off and battling their way up the deep snow:

After some more climbing we popped out onto the saddle just north of Guye Peak, where it was nice and sunny and we had a good view across towards Alpental. We then continued north to Cave Ridge, here are Redwood and Ryan taking in the view on Cave Ridge:

From this point we had a great view of Red Mountain which has a nice West face that looks like it would be super fun to ski (there were a few people we saw making a ski descent) in the right conditions, and there was also a really cool looking peak (not to ski, but maybe to climb) that we later learned was Thompson Peak. It resembles the Matterhorn from this aspect, and it is definitely on my list of things to climb next summer. Here is a shot of that one:

From there we continued along the ridge towards Snoqualmie Mountain. At around 5600 feet we hit our designated turnaround time of 2:30pm, and skied off the ridge back down into Commonwealth Basin. We had decided to head down a different way than we came up, and were crossing our fingers that we wouldn't run into any cliffs that would bar our passage. The slope we skied down was north facing with pretty sparse tree coverage, so there wasn't much of the crust that was present on the other aspects and the skiing was pretty fun. Here are Ryan and Redwood enjoying the powder:

Eventually the trees thickened and we ran into some pretty steep sections where we had to deploy our combat skiing skills as we continued to fight our way down the hill in tree to tree combat. We finally emerged onto a boulder field at the bottom that made for some easier progress until we were forced into a creek drainage that made for some more "interesting" skiing. By this time it was also starting to get dark which added to the challenge, but eventually we found our way back onto an established track and were able to follow that back out to the road, getting back to the car just before 6pm in complete darkness.

Here is the GPS track from our outing, it ended up being about 13km long with just under 3000 feet of cumulative elevation gain:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Johannesburg, South Africa

Our flights back to Seattle had us traveling back to Johannesburg with Air Madagascar where we had a layover of 7 hours before continuing on to Seattle via Paris with Air France. While waiting in line at the Tana airport we had been chatting with some South Africans who had been in Madagascar on their honeymoon, and their recommendation was to take the new high speed train into the city and enjoy a delicious steak at Nelson Mandela Square during our brief stay in Jo'burg.

This seemed like a reasonable thing to do, so upon arriving at the Jo'burg airport and retrieving our luggage we dropped it off in storage (it was too early to check into our next flight) and went to check out the train which had been built in advance of the World Cup. The train cost $30 per person for a round trip and and out of the city, which seemed a bit steep for a 15 minute train ride. We went back and inquired at the information desk as to what a taxi would cost, but this was even more so we inquired as to what we would be seeing by taking the train. The young girl at the desk informed us that the train would take us to a mall, and that in her view this was a reasonable way to "kill time". Killing time wasn't the best descriptor for how we had hoped to spend our (however brief) time in Jo'burg, so we inquired further as to whether there might be other, more engaging options other than shopping malls. To this line of inquiry, the girl curtly replied "Tours.". Upon further prodding it became clear that she was referring to organized tours of museums, and she was under the impression that it was not possible to visit these instituations independently, it could only be done as a member of an organized tour.

At this point we decided to cut our losses by aborting our converstation with this shining young example of South Africa's future, and headed to the train station having decided that even if Nelson Mandela Square was a mall, at least it was named after a notable figure and it sounded like it had a sculpture in it so it wouldn't be a total write-off from a cultural perspective. After paying the exorbitant fee for the train we boarded and 15 minutes later we were at our destination. However overpriced it was a nice train, traveling at speeds of up to 160 km/hour it was way faster than the new Seattle airport link though it must be said that the destination of the Seattle train has much more in the way of worthwhile attractions than the Jo'burg train.

We disembarked at Sandton (the terminus of the train) and made our way to Nelson Mandela Square, which on the plus side did have a square with a statue of the man himself:

However, on the minus side it was centered around a giant shopping mall which was a bit of a letdown. The only saving grace was that I needed to get a book to read on the flight home, so I browsed in the book store to find something interesting while Roanne had her daily fix of "Gone with the Wind". One funny thing we noticed as we entered the book store was that it housed a cafe called "Seattle Coffee Co":

By this point in the trip I was starting to miss some things about Seattle (coffee, for one, much of the coffee we had been served was pretty lackluster, and I was also worried that it had been snowing without us there and I was missing out on skiing) so it was fun to see this reminder of our city in such a farway place. We then exited the mall and walked around a bit just to confirm that the mall was really the only pedestrian-accessible thing of note in Sandton. Having done this, we walked back to the outdoor square and sat down in one of the outdoor cafes to have a drink and sandwich and watch the locals strolling by before walking back to the train station to catch the 6:00pm departure back to the airport. Back at the airport, we checked into our overnight flight that would take us to Paris, followed by a flight the next day back to Seattle.

I must say that I had been a little skeptical of Roanne's plan to go to Africa, but it ended up being an amazing trip. Here are my top three most memorable things from the trip, and things that I would highly recommend:

1. Taking the trip to "Coral Camp" on Nosy Hara with New Sea Roc and staying for a few days in this little island paradise for climbing, snorkeling, relaxing, and meeting great people. Holy smokes was this ever awesome! If we had to do it again I would have stayed for 6 days instead of 3. By the end of 6 days you would be running out of routes to do, but I was definitely wishing that we had been able to stay longer than 3 days. New Sea Roc has some other camps that are probably highly worthwhile if they are anything like this one.

2. Seeing Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope on the southern end of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. This was an incredible sight to see, partly because it is visually stunning and partly because of all the history that you feel you are soaking in just by being there and seeing it.

3. Seeing the lemurs in the National Parks of Madagascar. All of these species that have evolved to be so unique in isolation from the rest of the world are pretty indisputable evidence for evolution, it is amazing to see them in the flesh. The highlight was probably seeing and hearing the Indri, since their wailing cry is so loud and haunting and their resistance to staying alive in captivity means that they can only be seen in three remaining locations of their natural habitat in Madagascar.

Antananarivo, Madagascar

The drive to Andasibe from Tana had taken place in the dark, so it was nice to do the drive back in the daylight so that we could see some of the countryside. In particular, the 10km windy ascent up and over the mountain pass had me wishing I was on my bike, and after coming around a corner I was astonished to a road cyclist making his way up the climb with a follow vehicle behind him (wise choice, given the "daring" driving styles of most of the locals):

He looked pretty young, and I leaned out the window shouting encouragement as we motored by ("Allez, allez!") which he seemed to appreciate, as when I looked in the rear view mirror I saw that he had jumped out the saddle and was sprinting as if there was a Preme on offer up ahead. This was fun to see, the only bicycles that we had seen in Madagascar up until this point were beat up mountain bikes used for transportation (understandably so in a country where the average yearly wage is less than $500 USD and the Look bike this guy was riding probably cost upwards of $3000 USD and there aren't many roads that you could even ride a road bike on). Needless to say, I go into withdrawal without bikes and it had been almost 2.5 weeks since I had seen an expensive European racing bicycle, so I felt revitalized after we passed the only cyclist in Madagascar.

As we dropped down over the other side of the mountain pass and began to approach Tana we saw a lot of rice fields such as these ones:

Rice is one of the staples of the Madagascan diet with most people eating it three times a day, and apparently the land around the capitol is well suited to growing rice. We didn't yet have a hotel booked in Tana so as we drove we called a few places, eventually settling on a reputable french hotel in the city center called "The Louvre". The traffic in Tana was pretty congested and chaotic (we never saw a single traffic light during our entire visit to Madgascar, though they did have a few roundabouts) but we eventually made it to our hotel where we bid adieu to our driver after arranging for him to drop us off at the airport the next morning for our 10:30am flight to Johannesburg.

We still had afternoon to explore the city, so after dropping off our bags in the room we headed out for a walking tour of the sights recommended by our guide. We started by walking down to a lake (about the size of Green Lake in Seattle) that had a WWI monument in the center, and after circling that we continued around the stadium and through some markets. One thing that took us aback was the utter lack of sanitation in the city. There was garbage everywhere as there had been in the other cities we had visited, but here we encountered several instances of people (both male and female) relieving themselves in the wide open whenever they felt a need. In one case a young boy (probably between 5 and 10) was about to cross a busy street at a crosswalk, then seemed to changed his mind and whipped his pants down and started peeing into the street. Nobody else took any notice, as if this was business as usual. I would have expected there would be some sort of public sanitation in place in the capitol (this was not in a slum area, it was adjacent to the national stadium which seemed to be in excellent repair) but apparently this was not the case. There wasn't much to do but hold my breath and be thankful that I live in developed country, but it was pretty sad to see the types of conditions so many people live in.

After spending some time searching for some stairs that would take us up to the highest point in the city and the city of the royal palace we were finally successful, here is Roanne heading up with me in close pursuit:

There were great views from the top of the hill and a number of nice buildings, some of them remnants from the colonial era. Here is Roanne paused to look out over the city with the lake and the monument at its center visible below:

From here we made our way back along the crest of the hill towards our hotel, becoming mildly lost at times because while we did have a map, there are no street signs anywere and one is not much use without the other. Along the way we saw some evidence of the elections and political activity that had taken place in the last couple of weeks (ENY is the name of one of the national parties):

We didn't have access to the internet during our entire stay in Madagascar so we were a little out of the loop with world news, but apparently there had been a political coup about a week prior. It had been non-violent and unsuccessful, but it was a little disconcerting as we had also been told that the Tana airport had been closed as a result so we were worried about our flights in and out of the city (we later learned that the airport had not been closed after all).

We passed through the largest market area of the city area on the way back to our hotel, a bustling area with lots of activity. As we walked through my nostrils fluctuated between delight at smelling some delicious food being prepared and disgust at the smell of a pile of garbage or worse. Here is Roanne navigating the crowds:

After showering back at the hotel we headed out for our last dinner out in Madagascar, for which we chose a french restaurant called "Le Rossini" which our guidebook touted as having the best french food in Tana. We definitely agreed, as the dinner was amazing with great service and a nice atmosphere (with added points for the camoflouge-clad solder randomly standing outside on the street corner holding a semi-automatic rifle). We finished with the special dessert called "Madagascar Chocolate Adventure" which our server refused to describe for us, insisting it had to be a surprise. It turned out to be 5 different samples of Madagascar chocolate, prepared as a mousse, a crepe, a pudding, etc. and was a delicious and great way to end our culinary experiences in Madgascar.

Back at the hotel we settled in for a good night sleep before rising early the next morning to catch our flight to Johannesburg enroute to Seattle.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Andasibe, Madagascar

By the time we landed in Antananarivo (Tana, for short) it was 6:30pm and already dark out. We would be spending some time in Tana towards the end of our trip, but for the time being the plan was to head north east from the city and spend some time at the Vakona Lodge, which was close to Andasibe and its two national parks of Analamazaotra and Mantadia. These parks are home to the largest living species of lemur, the Indri Indri, and are a good spot to observe a wide range of lemurs and other wildlife. Roanne had received good recommendations on the Vakona Lodge from a co-worker who had spent some time there, so we were also excited to the check that out. It is considered very upmarket accommodation in Madgascar, but at the equivalent of just under $100 USD per night it is still a pretty affordable splurge by western standards.

The lodge had arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport and shuttle us to the lodge (which was 150km north east of Tana), so after meeting with him we set off on our journey. The trip ended up taking about 3.5 hours as the road, while in good condition by Madagascar standards, was torturously windy and traveled up and over a significant mountain pass with numerous other vehicles to avoid and pass along the way. We stopped for a quick dinner at around 8:30pm and then continued on, reaching the lodge just before 11:00pm.

The lodge was set right in the middle of the jungle, and it was pretty fun to walk the lit path to our bungalow through stands of giant ferns amid the cacophony of crickets, frogs, and other nocturnal jungle dwellers. It was considerably cooler here than it had been in Diego Suarez, and we thankfully settled in for a delicious night's sleep. Here is a shot of our accommodations taken the next morning to give an idea of our surroundings:

We rose at 8:00am the next morning and headed to breakfast, which while passable, did not meet the bar of expectations for an establishment of this quality. I had been reading through the Vakona Lodge brochure in our room before breakfast, and was pretty excited to spend the day engaged in activities on their premises, such as mountainbiking, hiking their extensive networks of trails, canoeing around islands of lemurs, etc. We decided the first order of business was to go for a hike to try and catch some Indri calls (which usually take place between 7:00am and 11:00am). We set out onto their trail network, which the brochure had advertised as "clearly marked, impossible to get lost!". We, however, quickly disproved this claim as we soon had no idea where we where and were covering terrain that did not look well traveled at all. Nonetheless, we were still enjoying ourselves and seeing some nice flora and fauna. Here is one of the many lizards that we saw, this one is a skink:

We also enjoyed seeing the giant ferns. Having moved from Ontario, Canada, out to Seattle in the pacific northwest, I was well aware that they do things larger on the west coast, with plants reaching epic proportions compared to what is seen back east. As we found out, they do things even bigger in Africa, here I am standing beside a few of the ferns and shrubs that we encountered:

We also encountered several different forms of spiders that we carefully bypassed, though we found out later that they were not poisonous. One was a crab spider who looked fairly friendly:

And another was a slightly meaner looking one who had some sort of pattern on his back that seemed to mimic the face and eyes of a larger animal in hopes of intimidating predators:

We eventually emerged onto a road, and after asking directions from a local we found our way back to the lodge. We then decided to go inquire at reception at how we had managed to become lost on their foolproof network of trails, and how we could get the other activities that we had planned for the day coordinated. The young man staffing the reception desk informed us that the reason we had become lost was that the network of trails described in the brochure did not exist, and only two (of the 12 or so described) were actually marked and maintained. He also informed us that a mountain bike excursion that afternoon would not be possible, as the Lodge's fleet of mountain bikes did not exist either (no explanation was provided as to whether they had existed at one time, or if they were just a myth existing solely in the imagination of the brochure author).

This was a little disappointing, but we did manage to sign up for several other activities including a visit to the Lodge's reserve, a trip in the canoe around the lemur islands, a visit to the one island that is home to habituated lemurs that can be fed and handled, and the guided night walk that evening for observing some of the nocturnal forest dwellers. One surprise to me was that we had to buy tickets to all of these things, I had assumed that the lodge would be more of an all-inclusive set up where visitors who stay there can make free use of the Lodge's facilities. Nevertheless, it was still inexpensive by western standards so we were happy to fork over the ariary to take part in the activities.

First up on our agenda was a trip to the "Private Reserve", so after making our way there on one of the two trails that actually do exist, we were met by a guide who toured us through the reserve. It actually turned out to be more of a small zoo, the word "reserve" in my mind invokes connotations of a confined yet large and open area where animals are allowed to roam freely and visitors can wander the reserve in hopes of seeing some of these wild animals. The animals in the Vakona Reserve were actually in cages, which was still interesting as some of them were animals that I had not seen before, but different than I had expected. The first animals that we saw were crocodiles, which while not new to me were still fun to see lying around motionless with their mouths permanently open to cool themselves off (note to crocodile: you might realize more effective cooling by getting off your belly and moving out of the sun to the shade, instead of just opening your mouth):

I never quite figured out whether crocodiles are native to Madagascar, I suspect not though they do live there now (in several spots they are farmed for their skin and meat). Next up was a slow moving tortoise who looked pretty friendly:

Next on the tour was my favourite critter of the day, a Madagascar boa who I was lucky enough to be able to hold while he squirmed around in my hands, yikes!

He was full grown, they don't grow all that large compared to other species of boa constrictors. Still fun to hold, though! Another interesting one was a chameleon, made even more interesting when our guide held some crickets close to him and he fired out his tongue to grab them and reel them back into his mouth. Apparently their tongues are as long as their tails, and from the looks of it this was definitely the case.

We saw a few other interesting animals including the Fosa, a predatory cat that hunts lemurs. They are nocturnal and pretty hard to see in the wild, so it was good to be able to see one in captivity. I asked the guide if they fed it lemurs but he said that was not the case. After finishing the tour we continued on to the next thing on our itinerary, a canoe trip around the lemur islands. There are three islands in total with a network of waterways around them, two of them hold wild lemurs and one holds lemurs that have been habituated to humans. We declined accompanyment by the guide and set off on our canoe adventure, with myself having claimed the leadership role in the back of the canoe. Roanne likes to think of herself as an expert canoeist and was feeling frusterated at being relegated to the front, so she continued to carry out subversive actions from the front of the canoe that ran us into the bushes or reeds and then look back at me as if it was due to my incompetence at manning the back of the canoe. Eventually I gave in to her whims and let her occupy the back, and we made better progress from there on out:

We could hear the loud cries of the lemurs as we paddled, and eventually we were treated to a show with the lemurs leaping through the trees at the edge of the water. Here is one of the lemurs staring out at us from his perch:

After about 1.5 hours of paddling we had seen most of the waterways that were navigable by canoe, so we decided to bring it to shore and take a stroll on the lemur island. A guide escorted us over there, taking along some bananas to feed the lemurs, and before we knew it we were surrounded by lemurs who seemed happy to jump on our shoulders and crawl on us in the hopes that we would give them bananas. Here is Roanne with one of the little guys, note that they both have the same facial expression:

One of the other species of lemurs on the island was the diademed sifka, which is one of the larger lemur species and a pretty impressive sight:

Eventually a common brown lemur happened by with her new baby in tow, the baby clings to the mothers back as she makes her way through the forest, with its tail wrapped around her midsection as an added means of adherence:

We then made our way over to another part of the island where we found some smaller lemurs called bamboo lemurs, due to their diet of bamboo (apparently they also like bananas):

Funny little guys! After a little more lemur watching we decided to make our way back to the lodge as we were getting a bit hungry. We sat down on their deck and enjoyed some Fanta and sandwiches over a game of scrabble:

After lunch it was necessary for Roanne to feed her reading addiction, so she settled into "Gone with the Wind" and I headed out for a run along the dirt road towards Mantadia National Park. It was a nice run passing some nice forests where Indri cries could be heard, and some of the local boys ran along side me for a while and we tried to make each other understood in french. Upon returning I went for a swim in the hotel pool and then we suited up and headed over to the meeting point for the guided tour of nocturnal animals. The tour was fairly unstructured, no lights were provided to the participants and the tour consisted of slowly stumbling behind the guide who walked with his flashlight pointed at the forest looking for animals. We almost didn't end up on the walk at all, as no announcement was made that it was leaving but Roanne and I happened to be standing at different exits to the lodge and I happened to see a group leaving that looked like they might be part of the tour.

There was one guide from the lodge, Roanne and myself, and a group of three Americans (from Ashland, OR) who happened to have their own personal guide along with them. The endeavor as a whole was boring to the point of being painful, as we would stumble along in relative silence for about 10 minutes and then a guide would announce in a loud voice that he had found a lizard (most of which were not even nocturnal and we had already seen them during the day, the only difference now was that they were sleeping and the lighting was worse so they were harder to see). Nonetheless, in a homage to the famous nightwalk here is one of the sleeping lizards that we saw:

As the tour continued and stretched past the one hour mark the alarm bells in my head continued to sound, accompanied by images of flashing red letters spelling out "ABORT, ABORT!", but every time I suggested this course of action to Roanne she replied with a stern look that told me I must change my attitude and start to enjoy the famous night tour. Things did pick up in the last 10 minutes of the tour, as we saw two legitimately nocturnal animals, a mouse lemur (the smallest primate on earth) and a dwarf lemur. With the night tour having concluded we were free to have some dinner, after which we headed back to our room for a warm shower followed by bed.

The next morning we rose bright and early at 6:00am and had breakfast and checked out in order to be ready when our driver picked us up at 7:00am. The plan was to head to the Analamazaotra Park to try and see some Indri during their most active hours (before noon) and then head from there directly back to Tana. We reached the park by about 7:30am, and after getting a guide we headed out to try and see some Indri. Their cries are exceedingly load, so we could hear them well before we could see them. Here are Roanne and our guide as we made our way through the forest learning about the local flora and fauna:

This guide spoke english so it was easier to converse with him, he had been working for 10 years in the park and was quite knowledgeable. After seeing a wide range of wildlife we finally happened upon the noisy Indri, who were sitting together up in a tree. They live in families of about 5 individuals, and have a territory of about 5-7 hectares. They are the largest living lemur, and can only be seen in the wild because they are so sensitive to changes in their living conditions that if they are ever taken into captivity they always stop eating and die. They have been described as looking like a 4-year old in a panda suit and this was a remarkably apt description. They have only very short and stubby tails in contrast to the other lemurs we had seen, and it was incredibly to watch them leaping sideways from tree trunk to tree trunk, making it look totally graceful and effortless.

Before humans arrived on Madagascar (about 2000 years ago) there existed species of lemurs that weighed up to 200kg (about the size of a gorilla), unfortunately these were driven to extinction by humans and the Indri are the largest living lemur. It is quite possible that the Indri would have suffered the same fate, but there was a local taboo against killing them so thankfully they are still alive for us to see today. The english name Indri for the species came about in a funny way: an early European explorer was walking through the forest with some of the locals when an Indri lemur was sighted overhead in the canopy; the locals cried "Indri!" which means "Look up!" to the European explorer to indicate that he should check out the lemur above him. The European took "Indri" to be the name of the lemur instead of the verbal cue to look up, and the rest is history.

After observing the lemurs for a whle we continued on our walk which took us through the territory of one more Indri family, and after tracking them down and observing them for a while we started making our way back towards the park office. Along the way the guide pointed out an interesting plant battle, where a vine and tree were locked in a struggle for survival:

Apparently in some cases the vine wins by strangling the tree so that it can no longer bring water up through its bark and the tree dies; in other cases the tree wins by growing fast enough to snap the vine. I guess plant battles are just as dramatic as those in the animal kingdoms, they just play out over longer periods of time. Back at the park office, we bid our guide farewell and hopped in the car with our driver for the trip back to Antananarivo where we would spend the rest of our time in Madagascar before starting to make our way back to Seattle.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Diego Suarez, Madagascar (again)

During our last stay in Diego Suarez at the La Rosticerria hotel we had both awoken each morning with a mysterious collection of new bug bites that we attributed to bed bugs, so we decided to look for alternate accommodations for our final night in Diego. Constantino and Sylvia had highly recommended their hotel, Le Petit Paradis which was a little further from the city center (coincidentally, right across from the city jail). We decided to give it a shot, and found that in sharp contrast to its surroundings it was really nice, just as they had said.

We had intially thought we might make a foray out that afternoon to see some sights in the countryside surrounding Diego Suarez, but the last few days had left us feeling a bit tired so we were content to take long showers and lounge around the hotel for a couple of hours before heading out for a tour of the city markets.

Our tour took us through some pretty run down areas of town, but the markets themselves were pretty interesting to see with hundreds of vendors selling everything from zebu steaks to mangos to stereos. It was interesting to see that everything is obtained by going to the market on a daily basis, we had been in a "grocery store" in Diego during our last stay, but it was really small and it's wares paled in comparison to what was available in the open air market. Here is Roanne as we make our way through the meelee:

After checking out the market we did a tour of the local craft vendors and checked out some of the local art, procuring a hammock to bring back to Seattle so that Roanne can replicate her Nosy Hara lounging activities in our backyard. We had dinner at a restuarant called the "Balamanga" which we would most definitely not recommend to anyone else, as it served up the least desirable food we had consumed on our trip so far. It was unfortunate that we had picked this night to sample the Malagasy "national dish" of Romazanga; it wasn't very good but that was more likely a reflection on the restaurant we were in than on the dish itself.

We then made our way back to our hotel and arranged for our previous Diego Suarez taxi driver Livy to meet us the next morning for a trip out to see the Baie des Sakalava before our afternoon flight to Antananarivo. Livy showed up on schedule and we headed out, along the way taking some sights such as some nice Baobob trees on the hillside of the Montagne des Francais:

We soon left the main paved road and finished the 35 minute trip by bouncing over a dirt road that would be better suited to a qat-qat but Livy seemed to have no problem negotiating in his vintage 2WD miniature taxi.

The skies were slightly overcast when we reached the Baie des Sakalava and there was a bit of rain, but we headed out to fill the few hours that we had there with a walk along the beach. Here is Roanne setting off:

It was quite a nice looking area, with a bay that is sheltered from the waves but still sees a lot of wind (it is supposed to be really good for planche a voile - windsurfing). The shelter for the bay was provided by a series of sandbars and low islands, beyond which the seas looked pretty rough. We decided that the best use of our time would be to wade out and explore these islands, so off we went, wading through water that was waist deep at times but eventually reaching the outermost island that we could access:

Things got interesting as we traversed around to the ocean side of the island, where there was a platform of tidal pools that was periodically swept by the larger waves that came rolling in. Additionally, the conditions were such that the waves were coming from two directions, so periodically there would be a really big wave formed by the superposition of waves from the two directions (physics in action!) that would make things really exciting. Here is a view looking out from our island to a smaller one:

There were lots of little critters running around the tidal pools, here is one of the crabs that would scurry away as we approached:

We continued our traverse, but at one point a really big wave came pounding in where we were prompted to hold onto the rocky outcroppings as we were pounded by water, at this point we sensibly elected to continue our traverse on the upper part of the island. Here I am beating a hasty retreat onto the pointy limestone spines that formed the surface on the upper part:

And here is a shot looking back down onto the flatter table from which we had retreated:

As we made our way back along the top of the island the sharp limestone gave way to soft grass, and we elected to stop for a group photo:

After making our way back to the beach we found Livy chatting with some of the locals, and we retraced our route along the dirt road and back to our hotel, where we picked up our luggage and checked out. We then continued on to the airport where we bid Livy adieu and checked into our flight. Not much confusion was possible during check-in as there were only two flights departing the airport that day, as shown on the departures board (yes, that is a chalk board):

We also noticed that security at this airport was even more lax than it had been at the Nosy Be airport, with the metal detector not just optional but installed against a wall, making it very difficult for a travellor to screen oneself, should he/her voluntarily choose to do so:

Our flight unfortunately ended up being about 1.5 hours late for unknown reasons, but eventually we boarded the plane and were whisked off to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Nosy Hara, Madagascar

Our alarm went off at 5:30am, and after checking out of our hotel we walked the few blocks to the New Sea Roc headquarters where our trip to Nosy Hara would start. There were four other people who were going on the same trip: an Italian couple (Constantino and Sylvia), and a French couple (Julien and Vanessa). After introducing ourselves we all sat down for a quick breakfast before loading up into the truck. Everyone spoke either English or French to varying degrees, so conversations were in one of those two languages usually depending on who was initiating it. The owner of New Sea Roc, Mathieu (who was French) was also accompanying us, as were several Malagasy staff.

The journey to reach Nosy Hara involved a 2 hour trip in a 4WD (qat-qat) over some really rough roads to reach the west coast of Madagascar, followed by a 1.5 hour boat ride to reach the archipelago of islands known as Nosy Hara. The islands are in a national marine park, and it took a lot of effort for Mathieu to procure commission to run his climbing camps there. He is the only one who is able to do this, and the number of visitors he can bring are limited to 1000 person-days per year. This means that if on average, people say for 3 days as we were, only about 300 people visit the island per year. Mathieu and his associate have bolted all of the routes, and the limited number of visitors to the island is evident in their pristine condition and the insane friction on all of the limestone routes.

The qat-qat looked a bit like a huge dump truck, and after climbing into the open back and taking our seats we found out that it rode about like a dump truck also, with lots of bouncing around from the slightest hint of a bump in the road. We rolled out of Diego Suarez around 7:00am and started heading west, taking in the local scenery as we went, such as this zebu crossing:

Zebu are a type of cattle that are ubiquitous throughout Madgascar, they have sizable horns and a large characteristic hump on their back that stores fat to see them through lean times (and from the looks of the country side where they graze there are probably plenty of those). They are used for transportation, plowing fields, and for eating, as zebu steak was on the menu at every single restaurant that we ate at during our time in Madagascar. Here is a shot of the back of the truck as we bounced along towards the coast:

We crossed a number of bridges that were a little spooky as they were built from boards that were not secured in place and rattled around as our big truck rolled over them. Eventually the coast came into sight, and we rolled up to the New Sea Roc staging area for the next leg of the trip. Here is a shot of our qat-qat:

At the staging area we met Laurent, a 7th client who would be joining us on our 3 day foray to Nosy Hara. Laurent was also French, but was unique in that he was not coming for the climbing but instead for the snorkeling, fishing, and relaxing. We transferred our packs and supplies to our next mode of transport, a wooden boat with some sort of crude mast and a 40 horsepower outboard motor. Here we are loading up the boat, with Julien and Vanessa on the right and Roanne speaking with Constantino and Sylvia.

Soon after the boat was loaded we pushed off and started motoring through the calm seas towards Nosy Hara. Mathieu immediately deployed two fishing lines to troll for fish along the way, as the speed that the motor was capable of propelling us at didn't rule this out. About half way there he met with success, and reeling in a slim, meter-long fish that looked like a swordfish to me (though I lay no claims to being a marine biologist). With the night's dinner in hand we continued along our way, and soon the group of islands came into sight.

Soon after we pulled up onto a sandy beach, and after anchoring the boat we began unloading. The island looked totally untouched, with the only structures having been constructed entirely form natural materials available on the island (aside from a solar panel or two). Here is a shot of two of the communal areas, with the eating area on the left and the lounging hut on the right:

For the accommodations, we had been given the choice of either a tent, a hut, or a room. I had assumed that the latter two options would be in actual buildings, but it turned out that the hut was a low ceiling structure with a straw roof, not much bigger than a tent, and the room was actually a cave with some extra walls divisions having been constructed. We had one group in each structure, with Roanne and I having chosen the middle option of the hut, so after everything was unloaded we deployed ourselves in our home for the next three days. After a few deep breaths, the realization hit me: we need to start climbing!!! The island we were staying on probably had about 20-30 routes, and there was another island nearby with about the same number, ranging in difficulty from 3c to 8b in french grades (5.easy to 5.13+ in YDS grades). I couldn't remember the conversion between grading systems, so we just started on something that looked easy and calibrated ourselves from there.

We started climbing in an area adjacent to the kitchen which was shaded and had a bunch of really nice looking routes. Constantino and Sylvia had opted for a short nap (they were actually staying for 6 days so had less urgency to get climbing) but Julien and Vanessa were of the same mind as us so we convened at the kitchen and started climbing. We started on a 5c (5.9) which was super fun, then progressed to a 6b (5.10), and then on to a 7a+ (5.12a). I was surprised to come reasonably close to onsighting it, and after Julien then flashed it I was able to send on my next try. It was a really nice climb, with a steep section and short crux giving way to easier climbing on the headwall. Here is a shot of Julien making it look easy:

At this point we decided to head out for some snorkeling, as we had been warned not to swim at dusk since that was when the sharks came in to feed so we wanted to swim before it was too late in the afternoon to avoid being eaten by a requin (french for shark). We gathered some fins and masks from the bag of snorkeling gear that Mathieu had on hand, and headed in for a dip. Here is Roanne getting ready to wade out and put her fins on:

The snorkeling was amazing, with huge quantities of coral, countless different types of brightly coloured fish, and excellent visibility. After snorkeling for an hour or two we toweled off and decided to get back after it and fit in a few more climbs before dinner was served. Julien had hung the draws on a 7b (5.12b) which he had also onsighted, after doing an easier climb to warm up I had a crack at that, and while I didn't send it I did work out a sequence to bypass the crux holds with a giant reach (why use small holds if you can reach past them to bigger ones?) so I made a mental note to come back for the send on a subsequent day. After I finished Constantino had a run on it, and since it was dark by this point he climbed it by headlamp which looked pretty challenging. After this it was time for dinner, and we all sat down for an evening of mixed french/english conversation over delicious Malagasy food (including the fish and some octupus that had been caught that afternoon) cooked over a fire.

In case you haven't realized it by now, gentle reader, this island is about the closest thing to paradise you will find. Here is the drill: wake up, eat nutella and baguettes for breakfast, walk a few steps down the beach to climb awesome routes on incredible limestone, eat a delicious hot lunch, go snorkeling, climb awesome routes on incredible limestone, watch a jaw-dropping sunset, eat a delicious dinner of freshly caught sea food and have great conversation with people from other countries, cultures, and languages, go to bed, and repeat the next day.

So, after finishing off the rum-based "Welcome Punch" that Mathieu had furnished for us, we all headed to bed. One hiccup to our dreamland was that it rained overnight, and in the early morning we realized that our straw-hut roof was not waterproof beyond its ability to act like a giant sponge and soak up the falling rain. After the sponge roof saturated we were plagued by a steady drip which made it hard to sleep so we ended up getting up on the early side. We were thinking enviously of Constantino and Sylvia in their cave, but it turned out that they had suffered the same fate as the water had run down the roof of the cave and dripped on to them. It turned out that only Julien and Vanessa had escaped our fate, having wisely chosen a waterproof tent. Apparently it doesn't rain much on Nosy Hara, but I still think that some waterproofing upgrades might be in order for the upscale accommodation options.

Any chagrin over a less-than-optimal night sleep quickly dissipated as we drank some coffee and realized that we had an awesome day of climbing ahead of us, and after filling up on baguettes with nutella we all climbed in the boat and headed over to a neighbouring island that also had a large number of routes on it. The climbing was really fun, with a super fun 7a (5.11d) onsight being the highlight for me and Roanne stepping up to lead a 5c (5.9) with some great views. The only blemish on an otherwise great morning was that by this point Roanne and I (as well as Sylvia and Constantino) both had a pretty severe case of the runs which required periodic sprints down to the beach to wade out and take relieve ourselves in the ocean (with an "aqua dump", if you will). We had some immodium with us, so we each took one of those and that seemed to provide some temporary relief.

We saw some interesting looking plants and animals on the island, with some of the more notable being the hermit crabs (which take up residence in discarded shells from other sea creatures) and these interesting looking flowers that were growing on the side of the cliff:

While we were climbing for the morning the support staff took the boat out fishing, and on the ride back to our base camp for lunch we saw the fruits of their labours in the bottom of the boat with a host of brightly coloured fish in one box and a few octupus in the box behind:

After another delicious lunch, I went out for some more snorkeling with a circumnavigation of the island while Roanne decided to take advantage of the excellent lounging facilities:

Upon returning from my snorkeling I managed to rouse Roanne from her slumbers and draft her into belay duty, and after warming up I managed to send the 7b that I had tried the day before. After one more climb we headed around to the other side of the island to catch the last remnants of the sunset before sitting down for another delicious dinner with stimulating conversation and special punch. After dinner we were treated to a nice sight as the almost-full moon rose up over the horizon:

That night be enjoyed an excellent sleep free of any precipitation, but upon rousing ourselves from our slumbers I realized that the runs were back with a vengeance as I took what would be the first of 8 watery number twos that day (a new record for me!). Suitably lightened up, we headed over to the other side of the island to sample some routes in an area that we had not climbed yet. The main attraction over there seemed to be a nice looking 7c (5.12c/d) that traversed out a roof before finishing up a headwall. Julien had given the route a summary visual inspection from the ground and assured me that it would be "facile", so after a few warm-ups we decided to give it a go. Julien went first, and with a bit of hanging managed to work his way up it even though he was feeling pretty spent from some efforts on another climb earlier that morning and this would be the last difficult climbing of the day for him (on the subject of his arms: "when they are gone, they are gone"). Here is a shot of Julien leading out the roof to start the climb, with Sylvia and Constantino looking on:

I tried next, and managed to one-hang the climb after finding some good beta including a nice knee bar that allowed a full recovery before finishing up the headwall (which was easy but run out enough to be a no-fall zone). My efforts left me confident that I could send with some rest and knowing the moves, so after Constantino had a burn up it and refined the beta further with some elegant cross through moves I had one more go before lunch and came pretty close, falling on the last hard moves before the knee bar rest. Here is a shot of Constantino on the route:

After some lunch and a short snorkel, I spent the rest of the afternoon until about 4:00pm lying in a hammock and wishing my stomach didn't feel so sick (with the relaxation broken up by periodic sprints to the bathroom). By this point I was feeling bad enough that had Julien's draws not still been on the route, I probably would have called it good and aborted any further attempts at sending. However, with the need to retrieve "les degans", I decided to rally for one more attempt and Roanne and I headed back to the other side of the island. The tide was coming up so the bottom of the route was almost underwater, but there was just enough room to belay so after the necessary checks I headed up with Julien and Mathieu having come along to watch and offer their encouragement.

A few moves in to the harder climbing I was feeling surprisingly good, as some endorphins must have kicked in and I was really light if nothing else, having voided my bowels on a regular 1 hour cycle throughout the entire day. The crux moves flowed as smooth as beaujolaise sauce, and with a short recovery at each rest I managed to float through the climb and clip the anchors to the congratulatory shouts of my supporters below. Bon courage! After a somewhat involved cleaning process due to the severely overhung and traversing nature of the climb I was back on the ground feeling really happy. Here is a shot of me on the beach pointing up to the scene of my conquest (though the climb itself is not visible):

We then waded back around through the waters of the high tide in the golden light of the setting sun, and made a beeline for the highpoint of the island to watch the last amazing sunset of our trip:

We all met on the summit for the sunset, here is a shot of Roanne and myself waiting for the sun to drop:

And here is a shot of the setting sun in all it's African glory:

By this point the endorphins I had worked up during my climbing exploits had begun to dissipate, and I began to feel considerably worse than I had in the afternoon before starting the climb. It was almost as if my body had taken the energy it would have needed for maintaining a baseline of feeling reasonable in the presence of whatever stomach affliction I had and used it for the climb, and now I was in some sort of energy debt and feeling really crappy. In any case, I decided to head back to our hut for a short nap before dinner in hopes that I would perk up, but I ended up skipping dinner and staying there all night with my reverie only broken by the occasional sprint to the toilet. I did have the presence of mind to deploy the higher strength remedy for traveller's diarrhea that we had brought along, some Ciprofloxin which seemed to work wonders as I felt pretty normal the next morning (the 12 hour sleep probably helped also).

The next morning brought another early start to the day, but unfortunately this time it was not for another fairy-tale day of climbing and snorkeling in our beachside paradise, but instead to make the journey back to Diego Suarez as our time in Nosy Hara had come to an end. I wished desperately that we could stay longer, but consoled myself with thoughts of other Madagascan adventures still to come as we boarded the boat. The boat ride back to the main island was pretty interesting as the seas were rough with pretty sizeable waves, with the result that we were all thoroughly soaked by the time we pulled up on the beach at the New Sea Roc staging area.

Soon after our arrival our land transport pulled up, a much smaller qat-qat that looked like it would be much faster and more comfortable (especially for me since I snagged shotgun). The only hiccup was that there was some sort of mechanical problem with the jeep, and a few of the staff spent about an hour removing one of the rear wheels and replacing it without any real indication of what the problem was and whether or not it had been resolved. Here is a shot of the mechanics at work with Roanne in the background thoroughly engrossed by "Gone with the Wind":

Eventually we were underway, bouncing back through the dry country side headed for Diego Suarez:

We again passed numerous huts in varying state of repair and structural integrity, with many of them constructed from sheets of corrugated metal such as the one below:

Another sight that we witnessed near the outskirts of town really drove home the point about how different the Madagascar economy and way of life is to ours in North America: there were a number of shelters set up constructed out of scraps of material salvaged from a nearby dump, and under these shelters people were engaged in breaking up rocks into smaller, gravel-sized pieces of rock. Outside each shelter was a pile of gravel which appeared to have been created bit by bit as the larger rocks were painstakingly broken up. This was just my interpretation of the scene so maybe I am missing something, but it put the Madagascan economy in context, with the most gainful employment that these people could find being to manually create gravel. Here is a photo of one of these rock-breaking stations:

Eventually we passed into the Diego Suarez city center which was as bustling as ever, and parked outside the New Sea Roc headquarters. After bidding fond farewells to the friends that we had made over the last few days we loaded up our bags and set out to find a hotel from which we could base our remaining activities in Diego Suarez before moving on to Antananarivo.