Monday, October 28, 2019

Madagascar Day 1 - Travel, Tana, and Ankarana

Ah, Madagascar.  How you've teased me for years with your lemurs and chameleons.  But, I knew that one day we would meet and that day has finally come.

Madagascar has been at the top of my "dream" trips for years but I have always put it off because it was "too expensive" or "too far away" or "too hard to coordinate".    However, I read some trip reports from other people that went recently and I found what appeared to be a very reliable tour operator.  That, coupled with the fact that we feared every year we waited to visit would mean more extinct species, gave me the kick in the butt I needed to start planning.

The trip turned out to be a trip of extremes and over all there was an undeniable feeling of disappointment.  But, you'll have to read on to to see why.

It only took a year of planning and countless emails back and forth with our tour operator Cactus Tours to make it all happen.  We would be traveling with our friends Bill and Peggy again which was great.  We all finally settled on the following itinerary since it would be impossible to see all the prime areas in one 3 week trip:

Depart Home for Tana
Paris Hilton
Arrive TNR late evening
Relais Des Plateaux
Flight to Diego Suarez
Relais de l’Ankarana
Relais de l’Ankarana
Ankarana to Amber Mt
Nature Lodge
Amber Mountain
Nature Lodge
Flight to Tana
Tamboho Boutik Hotel
Vakona Forest Lodge
Vakona Forest Lodge
Vakona Forest Lodge
Andasibe to Antsirabe
Maison Tanimanga
Thermal Hotel
Thermal Hotel
Thermal Hotel
Ranomafana to Isalo
Jardin du Roy
Jardin du Roy
Isalo to Zombitse to Efaty
Dunes d'Ifaty
Fly to Tana
Relais Des Plateaux
Fly to Masoala
Masoala Forest Lodge
Masoala Forest Lodge
Masoala Forest Lodge
Masoala Forest Lodge
Charter flight to Tana
Relais Des Plateaux
Depart Tana (1:55 AM)

The high-lighted map below shows almost all the locations except Ifaty which is on the coast west of Zombitse.  We skipped over a few well known sights like Berenty, Kirindy, and Bemaraha due to lack of time.  Maybe next time...Ha ha!

Unlike past trips, we didn't have to leave for our first flight until 1:15 PM in the afternoon.  So, we didn't have an early wake up call for the first time ever which was really nice.  Our initial flights to LA and then on Air France to Paris went just fine and, being a huge romantic, I wasn't going to let our first night in Paris go to waste.  So, I decided to spring for a top of the line sounding hotel for our 17 hour layover called hôtel d'aéroport de Paris.  Sounds fancy right?  Well, Karen didn't buy that either since it was hard to miss the big neon sign saying Airport Hilton when we arrived.  Oh well.

The Hilton actually worked out pretty well aside from the 75 Euro basic dinner...ouch!

The next morning we caught another Air France flight that went direct to Antananarivo, Madagascar (otherwise known as Tana) and it was nice to actually be pretty well rested before this second long flight.

In fact, I was so rested that I decided to put my 3 years of high school French to the test.  So, as soon as the flight attendant came by and addressed me in French I decided to impress her:

Flight attendant: Voulez-vous boire quelque chose?

Me: Je m'appelle Alan. J'ai 17 ans

Fight attendant looking at me funny: Bonjour Alan, voudrais-tu boire quelque chose?

Me: Où est la bibliothèque?

Flight attendant looking perplexed: Pardon?

Me: J'ai une mère et un père et une soeur.

Flight attendant obviously not understanding my perfect pronunciation: C'est gentil monsieur, voudriez-vous quelque chose à boire?.

Me: Je dois aller à la salle de bain

It was at this point that the flight attendant smiled at me and moved on obviously wowed at my mastery of her language.  Weird that she never offered me anything to drink though...

Our flight landed without incident and it only took us 30 minutes to go through immigration and customs although being at the front of the plane really helped us in that regard.  Converting US dollars to Malagasy Ariary was easy at the airport but I did have to avoid a rather shady character who tried to convince me to go with her to convert money since her rates were better.  Wisely, I said no thanks and proceeded to the official currency exchange office.

Now, in my ample research on Madgasacar I read that tipping was optional and our tour operator had confirmed that.  Well, no one told the porters at the airport because even though we had some small bags we could have easily carried ourselves they insisted on taking them and then each one insisted on getting a tip and were quite aggressive about it.  Unfortunately, that trend continued at almost all our stops but more on that later.

Our first night's stay was at the Relais Des Plateaux hotel which was only about 15 minutes from the airport but we still didn't get there until 12:30 AM so we were pretty tuckered out.  Consequently, when the phone rang at 5:15 AM I was rather startled.  Apparently, the hotel thought we were supposed to leave at 5AM and were wondering where we were.  I told them they had the wrong room hung up and tried to go back to sleep.  Then 15 minutes later there was a knock at the door and it was someone from the hotel saying that it was time to leave.  This time I was very firm and said they had the wrong room because our flight didn't leave until 10 AM so the guy left.  At that point, we couldn't fall back asleep since we were worried that maybe our ride was here even though we weren't supposed to leave for hours.  We originally did have an earlier flight, but that was changed.  I guess the hotel didn't get that message.

Well, we needn't have worried since I ride hadn't arrived but when I mentioned all this at the front desk later and pointed out the person that came to our room the staff was rather indifferent and offered no explanation or apology.  Hmm...welcome to Madagascar I guess.

As I have already mentioned, I did ample research prior to this trip so I knew that we unfortunately we had to waste an entire day anytime we needed to take a domestic flight. This is because Air Madagascar was notorious at changing or cancelling flights at the last minute.  But, recently they had re-branded their domestic air business as Tsaradia and were supposed to be getting better.

We showed up to the airport and had to deal with aggressive porters again who would not leave us alone in the terminal until we tipped them enough money.  Just as we were checking in our guide Bruno showed up.  He was late due to horrible traffic and we later learned he had to have someone from the office pick him up on a motor bike so they could get through the traffic in time to meet us and make the flight.

Well, just as he arrived we were having issues checking in because the agent was giving us a hard time about our carry on bag weight.  We had read that camera backpacks weren't weighed but that wasn't the case for us.  They weighed everything and gave Bill a huge hassle that his carry on was overweight.  In fact, they spent so much time hassling him that they forgot about my overweight backpack but unfortunately they made Bill pay $50 for his carry on.

Once we finally got past this point we all stood around waiting and that is when we realized that our flight was delayed.  Our 10 AM direct flight was now scheduled for 11:30 AM and was no longer a direct flight.  To top it off the flight didn't end up leaving until after Noon.   So, we were stuck for over two more hours standing around in the hot airport terminal.  During that time, I came up with a slogan to go with their new name:

"Tsaradia, new name, same horrible experience".

We finally landed in Diego Suarez on the northern tip of Madagascar at around 2:15 PM to howling winds that nearly knocked us over on the runway.  By 2:45 PM we had piled into two separate 4x4 vehicles for our trip to our lodge near Ankarana National Park.  Our route would be along National Road 6 (RN6) which our driver said was nicknamed "National Road Sick" and then he laughed. Uh Oh...

There was a quick stop in "town" for water and Bruno handed out some sandwiches (bread and cheese or bread and chicken only).  I looked at the sandwiches a bit dubiously but I was so hungry that I had one during the drive. Karen passed on hers (since it was too hard to eat bouncing around on the road) and we ended up giving most of our "food" away to people along the road.

What proceeded next was a 3 1/2 hour drive on one of the worst roads imaginable.  Some of the pot holes were so extreme that I swear we lost sight of the sun when we drove into them.  We were jostled left and jostled right.  In the back of the truck was some sort of buckle that kept hitting one of the metal struts which made a dinging sound like a bell.  So, trying to make the best of things, I joked that..."Every time a bell rings, Alan and Karen get a bruise".  Too bad that was closer to truth rather than fiction.

Despite the crazy bumpy drive we did have a chance to check out the scenery a bit but there was very little to see.  We pretty much just passed one poor village after the next.  Most "houses" were made of sticks but a few had corrugated metal as well.  The extreme poverty was eye opening.  People were washing clothes and themselves in the few streams we passed and we learned that the Malagasy people didn't need any privacy to go to the bathroom.   We saw multiple people just stop and whip it out or squat right on the side of the road.  This was certainly not a world we were used to.

We took one break along the 3 1/2 hour drive to see our first chameleon but otherwise there were no other stops. Not for the bathroom or anything else since we were trying to get to the lodge before dark. Needless to say, it wasn't a very pleasant drive.

Just after dark we arrived at Relais De L'Ankarana which would be our lodging for the next two nights.  It felt REALLY good to not be moving anymore.

Sine I am feeling guilty that I haven't included any pictures yet, here are some pictures of the lodge that I actually took the following morning:

Dining Area:
Dining Area

The outside of our room:
Relais de l'Ankarana

And now the inside:
Our Room

The room was nothing special but it served its purpose fine.  It was really windy and our room door kept opening by itself but I was able to rig up one of the wire hangers we brought to keep it closed during the night thankfully.

Dinner was actually pretty good and the cold beer was even better.  The lodge did have some grounds to investigate but we found nothing except for a night hawk hunting moths attracted to one of the lights.

So ends a fairly crappy first full day in Madagascar.  I wish I could say that this was our one and only fairly crappy day but that is not the case.

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