Saturday, November 20, 2010

Diego Suarez, Madagascar

Our flight landed at the Diego Suarez airport in the afternoon, and while I had been expecting the airport to be a step up from the one-runway, single-room airport that we had left in Nosy Be, it was actually about the same. After collecting our bags, we stepped outside into the throngs of taxi drivers, picked one at random, and he escorted us to his vintage yellow 1984 Peugot. There was a whole fleet of them parked outside the airport, probably about 95% of the taxis that we saw in Diego were this exact make and model of car:

We headed into Diego Suarez, and as we drove the city transitioned to the makeshift huts and ramshackle street vendors at the outskirts to the more permanent concrete structures in the main part of the city. We didn't have a hotel reserved in advance, so we had the driver drop us off in the middle of what seemed to be the main street and we walked around until we saw something that looked reasonable. We ended up at "La Rosticerra", an Italian restaurant that had a small guest hourse above it. The rooms looked adequare and it had a recommendation from our guidebook so we checked in and then headed out for a late afternoon walk around the city.

Most of the buildings were pretty run down and looked like they hadn't been painted since the colonial era ended in 1960, but there were a few viewpoints that we are able to check out. Here is a shot of one of them that looked out over the harbour:

As we continued our tour we noted how different the construction methods were from what is seen in a modern city. Here is a shot of some scaffolding that had been erected to work on a building, all of the scaffolding that we saw was constructed in this manner:

Another thing we noted about the city was the large amount of rubble and garbage that was laying around. The streets and sidewalks themselves were pretty clean, but every other area seemed to be littered with garbage, crumbled concrete, etc. Despite this, we didn't feel at all unsafe and there were very few people panhandling. People were obviously very poor, but they seemed content to be each doing their own thing to get by. We had a mediocre dinner at the Italian restaurant that night, and before turning in we made arrangments to be picked up by a taxi at 7:30am the next morning for a visit to the nearby national park of Montagne d'Ambre which sounded pretty interesting.

We rose bright and early the next morning, and after having some breakfast we set out with our driver, Livy, in his bright yellow taxi. First stop was a grocery store where we picked up some food for the day and then continued on to the park. The park was only about 40km away but it took almost 1.5 hours to reach since much of it was over unpaved roads that would have been better suited to a 4WD truck (or as the french would say, a qat-qat) than to our 1984 mini taxi.

Despite this, we finally arrived and after bidding Livy farewell we headed into the park office. Our original plan had been to do a long hike to the top of the Amber Mountain for which the park is named, the guidebook made it sound as if this was a long hike that was doable in a day. However, the officials in the park office told us that this was a "trek" which could not be accomplished in one day, so despite our skepticism at this we had to content ourselves with the longest of the official day circuits which took in a lake, some waterfalls, and whatever wildlife happened to be encountered along the way. Hiring a local guide was mandatory for tours through the park, so after paying our entrance fees (the equivalent of about $15 USD per person) we were introduced to Monseiur Fanana. Mr. Fanana spoke only French which made for another interesting day of giving our french skills a good workout.

We set off hiking, with Mr. Fanana providing explanations of the plants and wildlife that we encountered. Here is Roanne trailing Mr. Fanana and gazing up at some of the ferns that land in trees and start growing on the side of them:

Soon after we had started hiking we heard some noises in the trees above us, and after looking up into the foliage we were pleased to have our first lemur sightings, with a good view of some crowned lemurs. They were pretty active as they moved around the treetops, here is a shot of one of them gazing down at us:

After lingering for a few minutes to watch the lemurs we continued on our way, with the next item of interest being a large lake that was in the crater of a dormant volcano:

From here we moved on to a few waterfalls, seeing lots of different species of birds (with one that I remember being a large one called the crested ibis) and flowering plants along the way with good explanations provided by Mr. Fanana. One of the more impressive sights was just gazing out across openings in the trail at the dense rainforest on the opposing hillsides, it was incredibly dense and pretty impressive:

Another of the animal sights that we encountered was a large hanging nest of ants, I wouldn't want to put my finger in this:

We also encountered a lot of interesting trees of all shapes and sizes, with some of them appearing to be in the process of tying themselves in knots:

There were also lots of interesting looking palms and ferns, here is Mr. Fanana listening with amusement as Roanne makes her point in French while a large Vakona plant looms overhead:

Around noon we stopped for a short break at a picnic area, and while we ate the bananas that we had purchased that morning Mr. Fanana dug around in the pine needles (pine trees are not indigenous to Madagascar and were introduced from Europe) and found a really small lizard. I can't remember what type it was, but it was full grown:

After our lunch break we sallied forth, passing through more dense forest en route to a large waterfall. Along the way we had our first snake sighting:

Madagascar does not have any poisonous snakes, so there was no cause for concern. We also saw our first chameleon which was pretty neat:

Eventually we reached the large waterfall which also made for a pretty nice sight though we could only view it from a distance:

This was supposed to be the final stop on our tour, but we had been asking Mr. Fanana about baobob trees so he said that if we wanted he could take us to see the baobobs in the park even though they were not supposed to be part of the our. So we headed off for the baobobs, along the way passing more funky trees:

We eventually reached the baobobs which were quite large at over 40 meters high. They were in a fairly dense forest so it was hard to get a full view of the tree and see the characteristic shape, but here is a shot of Roanne hugging the base to provide an idea of how big they were:

From here we started the trek back to the lodge, continuing our french conversation with Mr. Fanana. We reached the park office at 3:45pm, just before the closing time of 4:00pm, and found that our taxi driver Livy was there waiting and had not abandoned us. Here is a shot of Roanne and Mr. Fanana at the end of our walking circuit with the park visitor center in the background:

We all hopped in Livy's taxi, and after dropping Mr. Fanana off in his home town of Joffreville we headed back to Diego Suarez where we had a quick shower before heading out to find some dinner. The plan for the next three days was to go do some rock climbing on a remote archipelago called Nosy Hara to the west of Diego Suarez, on a trip that was organized by a company called New Sea Roc. We had to meet at the New Sea Roc headquarters at 6:00am the next morning, so soon after dinner we packed up for the next day and called it a night.

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