Saturday, October 19, 2019

Madagascar Day 11 and 12 - Ranomafana

Despite being pretty big and bustling with people, our room at the Thermal Hotel was not noisy so we slept pretty well.

Unfortunately, we woke up to rain with no signs of it going away.  Still, we got dressed and headed down to breakfast with the hopes that it would clear up.

The breakfast at the Thermal Hotel was sparse.  Really sparse for us since we weren't eating any fruit we couldn't peel ourselves.  Plus, the staff didn't speak great English and couldn't tell us if the milk was pasteurized.  We asked if we could order eggs and the waiter bluntly said "no eggs!".  So, we ended up having dry cereal (literally) and some pastries (all the bread and pastries in Madagascar were very good).

We left at 7:30 AM and picked up our local guide Jean Chris on the way.  Jean Chris turned out to be a very good guide.  It was too wet and rainy to head to Ranomafana he said so he had Dida drive down a road that was blocked off to all other traffic.

We walked along the road looking for chameleons and anything else we could find but we all eventually got too wet and headed back to the van.  Meanwhile, both Jean Chris and Bruno stayed out to locate something...anything.  Jean Chris managed to find this Baron's Mantella (Mantella baroni) and brought it over on a leaf to show us.  It was gorgeous but hard to photograph:

Baron's Mantella

At that point, some wind came along with more rain and we all decided to call it a morning after only an hour and a half.

After the sparse breakfast, we were quite hungry so we headed to the dining room as soon as they started serving lunch. The Thermal Hotel gives you 2 choices for lunch and dinner. If you don't like either one, you are pretty much out of luck.

For lunch today I chose tilapia and it ended up being the boniest fish I had ever had.  I couldn't get the bones out of mine at all but Karen did manage hers OK.  Bill's lunch was also so bad he couldn't eat it so we both were looking for other options.  At that point, a big table next to us got served huge omelets which weren't on the menu.  When our waiter came over we asked about them and he said they weren't on the menu but were the vegetarian option.  We didn't even know they had that since it wasn't on the menu.  Anyway, we ordered one and split it and it was quite good.

Lunch took a long time (like usual) but since the rain hadn't stopped we were in no hurry.

After lunch we hung out in our room.  At one point I looked at the window and spotted this Souimanga Sunbird at the top of a nearby bush:
Singing in the rain...

We met again at 2:30 PM to try walking in the main park. Since it was still raining, I decided not to take a camera except for my point and shoot.  Most photo ops in the rain forest are above you and the second you point your camera up in the rain, it's all over. I didn't have water proof housing for any of my DSLRs and I just didn't want to mess with trying to keep one of them dry. 

The hike was wet, muddy, and cold at times.  We did see a huddled eastern woolly lemur and a satanic leaf-tailed gecko but neither were in any position for photos even with my point and shoot which I did bring.  So, the whole 2 hour afternoon hike is photo-less.  I discovered that if I can't take pictures, it's just not that enjoyable for me. Karen said I was grumpy the whole day and I am sure she was right.  I know the anti-malaria has an effect on me but I am sure it was the inability to take photos that really brought out the inner grump.

Our scheduled night walk was also rained out so today ended up being a total rain out.  But, it was really the only day where rain impacted us much. So, for a 3 week trip that's actually not that bad.  Luckily, we had added a third night to our Ranomafana stay just a few weeks before the trip and that was a good call as it turned out.

We woke up the next morning to some mist but it was the kind that you could tell would burn off and it did.  It ended up being a lovely day.

We had more dog issues overnight as the lodge's dogs which they let loose all night for security liked to bark under our window.  I swear it's like the dogs know exactly where to find us.

Today we went down to breakfast expecting another sparse selection but when I asked a different waiter today about eggs he said "how would you like them?"  Eggs were no problem today so we were able to pack away the calories this morning which was good since we did a lot of walking today.

From 7:30 AM to 11:30 AM we hiked in the main part of the park.  Ranomafana is 161 square miles in size so it's very large but as far as I can tell it only has two access points and the main entrance is the one everyone uses.  So, everyone ends up on the same trails.

Ranomafana National Park

Ranomafana Map

The parking lot was a lot more crowded today.  I guess lots of local guides just hang out hoping that people will show up that need guides.

As I mentioned before, Jean Chris was very much a good guide.  He always seemed "in tune" with his surroundings and his approach was much different.  He would walk slowly with his hands behind his back listening.  Then he would point out what made this noise and we would go check it out if we wanted to.  It was hard not to step on his heels but once we figured out that slow walking was his M.O. we were able to give him some space and try to get in tune with the surroundings as well.

Setting a brisk pace...

Ranomafana River

Ranomafana is very hilly. So, there were lots of ascents and descents.  Sometimes there were steps and sometimes there weren't.  It was quite the workout but the forest was really pretty.

Ranomafana Hike

Once we crossed the river which marked the entrance to the park, Jean Chris said that we were going to go see the bamboo lemurs.  He proceeded to lead us over to where they had been spotted and all we saw at first were people.  That had to be close to 100 people on this one trail. Half were looking up and half appeared to be local guides that were just milling about blocking the trail.  Eventually, we were able to find holes large enough in the foliage and crowd to see the lemurs:

Golden Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur aureus):
Golden Bamboo Lemur

Golden Bamboo Lemur Eating

The golden bamboo lemur was only discovered in 1986 and it critically endangered.  This is one of the species that we really wanted to see since there is a chance they will go extinct in our life time.

As you can see, getting a clear photo was just about impossible and was made harder with other people bumping into me.  Plus, whenever a spotter found what he thought was an opening he would call over to me "mister mister, come here".  The first couple of times I went but then I realized that while the views may have been closer they were worse since they were looking up.  I had this problem in multiple parks where the spotters didn't understand that a longer lens meant I didn't need to get closer.  I needed to get more at eye level so that the sky wasn't in the background.

Once again, I think they were more used to people with cell phones.

While it was cool to see these rare lemurs (although these 2 were always in this general area we were told), it wasn't fun sharing the experience with so many other people.  So, we left pretty quickly and headed to the next thing on the list.  The greater bamboo lemur.

Once again, these lemurs were surround by people although there were less here. They were high up in the branches and I only was able to get a couple proof shots that aren't worth sharing.  We did come back later when it was less crowded and got better looks.

Next on the list was the Milne-Edwards Sifaka which the spotters had already located so Jean Chris took us directly there..

On the way to the sifaka we encountered this nesting Rufous Vanga:
Nesting Rufous Vanga

The sifakas were quite active so while we got good looks, they weren't easy to photograph so I only have one decent one to share:
Milne-Edwards Sifaka

Yes, those are flies around the sifakas but they didn't come near us.  Speaking of bugs, the whole trip was relatively bug free.  I never used bug spray and I only got one bite.  Mosquitoes were scarce except for a couple places later on the trip.  The lack of bugs the whole trip was really nice.

Jean Chris thought it would be a good time to go back to the greater bamboo lemurs so we did that and on the way spotted this cool Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus).  It was hard to maneuver to get a decent photo though:
Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko

The Greater Bambo Lemurs (Prolemur simus) were closer to the ground now and there were less people.  Both made for better photo ops:
Greater Bamboo Lemur

We had two other cool sightings that morning.  The first was a Eastern Red Forest Rat (Nesomys rufus) but no pictures of that one.  The second was a Big Nose Chameleon (Calumma nasutum):
Big Nose Chameleon

Ranomafana has spotters that go into the park early and radio back telling the guides where everything is.  So, you don't really ever "happen" upon anything.  It felt more like Disneyland then a national park if you ask me.  First you have Golden Bamboo Lemur Land, then you have Sifaka Land, then you have Greater Bamboo Lemur Land and all the while you dodge a parade of people.  Once in a while between "lands" you would encounter a "character" in the form of a gecko, bird, or chameleon. All that was missing was huge turkey legs and people dressed up as animals. Although, Karen does call me Goofy a lot...

We escaped Ranomafana and somehow made it past all the people hard selling wares and an overflowing parking lot to our van.

Instead of going back to the Thermal Lodge for lunch, we stayed near the park entrance and went to the Setam Lodge. It can't be worse than the lunch yesterday....right?

Despite having to dodge more people selling wares are the restaurant entrance (they have to be able to stop this, right?) we had high hopes for a good meal since the restaurant looked really nice and it was combined with a nice gift shop.

The choices for lunch were slim and I ordered chicken and sausage.  Everyone else's food came out in about a half hour including the exact dish I ordered which bill also ordered.  The waitress said nothing to me and I told everyone not to wait for me.  10 minutes later I asked the waitress about my lunch and she said it was coming.  Well, once everyone had finished their lunch mine finally arrived. An hour after I ordered it!  It wasn't bad actually but it certainly wasn't a "quick stop for lunch" like Bruno had hoped.  I wonder if it is even possible to have a quick meal in Madagascar?

Anyway, after saying "No thank you" way too many times we got past the people selling stuff and back to the van.  The plan now was to go to the upper Ranomafana entrance and hike in there.  This turned out to be a great thing because not only did this actually feel wild but there was no one else around.

On the way, Jean Chris somehow managed to see a mating pair of Madagascar Boas from the van.  We all had no idea how he saw these up off the road in some grass:
Mating Tree Boas

As I mentioned, the afternoon hike was really nice and a complete opposite of the Disneyland experience in the morning.

Frog eggs:
Frog Eggs

Here is Jean Chris debating which way to go.  Of course, we ended up going UP the stairs...
Nope, we went up of course...

We happened upon a troop of Milne-Edwards Sifakas and really enjoyed watching them.  It was so nice to have them to ourselves:
Milne-Edwards Sifaka

Milne-Edwards Sifaka Stare

Milne-Edwards Sifaka

I tried unsuccessfully to get a shot of them leaping.  They were just too fast for me:
One giant leap for lemur kind...

Milne-edwards' Sifaka

Next, we spotted some movement which led us to a pair of Red-bellied Lemurs (Eulemur rubriventer):
Red-bellied Lemur

The males have really cool white tear drops around their eyes:
Red-bellied Lemur

Next, we found another new lemur species; Red-fronted Brown Lemur: (Eulemur rufifrons)
Red-fronted Brown Lemur

Both the red-bellied and red-fronted brown lemurs were far away and didn't really want to pose for pictures but the experience of finding them and watching them were both quite enjoyable.

Muddy trail:

Common Sunbird Asity.  Our only Asity of the whole trip unfortunately:
Common Sunbird Asity

We had another brief encounter with the sifakas before leaving the park:
Get a grip...

As we were approaching the van, Karen spots a small rodent that runs under the van and across the road.  I got a few pictures and I pretty sure it's a shrew tenrec but I don't know the exact species:
Shrew Tenrec

It was 5PM by the time we made it back to the van so we hung out for about an hour until it got dark.  I used this time to talk to Jean Chris about the night walk options.  He said that night walks are only done on the road by the main entrance.  There they "lure" (AKA bait with banana) the lemurs and we were virtually guaranteed to see a mouse lemur and dwarf lemur.  He also said it would be crowded.

Well, we didn't want any part of that so we asked if we could just walk the road instead and see what we could see and he seemed really happy to do that.  I think he preferred it to the staged lemur show.

Before it got dark we noticed someone photographing something so naturally we walked down the road to see what he found.  It was a beautiful O'Shaughnessy's Chameleon (Calumma oshaughnessyi):
O'Shaughnessy's Chameleon

The Tail

I was hoping to find a really colorful chameleon on the trip and we finally had.

Once darkness settled in around us we all walked down the road looking for eye shine or other signs of critters.  The road was fairly busy so we did have to dodge vehicles but it wasn't that bad.

Deceptive Chameleon (Calumma fallax):
Deceptive Chameleon

Eventually, I spotted some eye shine.  It was a mouse lemur that was quite active but eventually it settled down and allowed a few pictures.

Rufous Mouse Lemur (Microcebus rufus):
Rufous Mouse Lemur

Rufous Mouse Lemur

We did see a few other frogs and chameleons. However, seeing that little mouse lemur so well was the highlight of the evening for me.  I wasn't sad at all that I missed seeing a baited dwarf lemur.

Back at the lodge another dinner adventure waited.  Karen, Bill and I both ordered the pork chop which looked great when it came out but it soon became apparent that it was all bone.  I only got 3 fork fulls of meat off of mine and the others did no better.  So, back at the room we broke open the "suitcase of plenty" to fill up.

Of course, I had a few of my favorite bottled Malagasy beverages with dinner:

What a lifesaver

Drinking so much water out of plastic just about killed Karen but you really have no other option.  The only lodge with filtered water was the last one on Masoala.  I am glad I didn't count the number of plastic water bottles we went through since I am sure the number would have been depressing.
Drank too many of these

Surprisingly, today was day 12 of the trip but the first day we actually had a full day of wildlife viewing with morning, afternoon, and night activities. Looking back, it was definitely one of the best days of the trip because of that.  Peggy rightfully pointed out that we certainly made the correct choice by adding an extra day here at the expense of only spending one night later in Ifaty. If we hadn't done that today would have been a travel day and we would have missed so much.

It's tough to know ahead of time how many days to spend where but for us 3 nights at Ranomafana worked out perfectly.

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