Saturday, November 1, 2014

Masoala: Beach and RAINforest

Another week, another beach!  After a quick stopover in the capital, we flew to the northeast coast of the island.  On the two-hour ferry ride to our lodge adjacent to the primary rainforest, we passed miles of jungle-clad hills descending to white sand beaches.

With our intrepid guide, Claret, we spent our first afternoon trekking through the nearby secondary forest.  Although it was not the awe-inspiring dense jungle that we explored the following day, we still met a bamboo lemur, chameleons and other endemic creatures.  We were also intrigued by all of the spices growing in the forest around us, as well as growing immediately adjacent to our bungalow – we saw cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and coffee, all in the wild.

In the middle of the night, we woke up to the sounds of heavy rainfall outside our bungalow.  We were in the middle of the rainforest, after all, so this was certainly not surprising.  It did not, however, bode well for our plans to explore a larger swath of the forest in the morning.  We went back to sleep hoping it would dissipate before breakfast.  As we walked along the sandy paths early the next day, only a few drops of rain remained and we counted ourselves lucky to have escaped the downpour. 

Although the sun had yet to reappear, we set off toward the primary forest with Claret.  A river, rushing toward the ocean filled with significantly more water than usual, immediately interrupted the path.  As we waited for a nearby pirogue to ferry us across the water, the rain started again.  We continued to make our way through the trees alongside the beach and were soon in the middle of a full-fledged downpour.  Given that we were already hopelessly soaked, we trudged on through the rain, thankful that the tree cover protected us from some of the deluge. 

A little over an hour later, after a couple more river crossings (without the accompanying pirogue), we arrived at Masoala National Park.  We entered the primary forest, full of immense trees rising up over 20 meters and vines dangling over our heads. 

Some of the most impressive arboreal specimens take hundreds of years to grow.  Rosewood, highly prized for both furniture and guitars, grows extremely slowly – many rosewood trees that we saw still looked like small bushes despite being several decades old.  Although the logging and export of these trees is banned, the illegal trade in rosewood continues to flourish as the wood is shipped to China (much like the rhino horns from South Africa).

As we wandered through the forest, we realized that we were the only tourists that had braved the rain.  Furthermore, the rain had stopped and the animals were emerging from their hiding places.  We were incredibly lucky to see Madagascar’s largest chameleon, red-ruffed lemurs, and two crested ibis.  Despite our usual indifference toward birds, Claret’s excitement after spotting the ibis was contagious – he mentioned that we were the first group he has been with to successfully take a picture of the fowl in over a year.

Back at the lodge, we savored being able to stay at the beach while also being in walking distance of the national park.  We spent the afternoon snorkeling, although we did not encounter any of the dugongs promised by our guidebook.

On the second night, we were once again awakened by the sound of pouring rain pattering on the thatched roof of our hut.  In the morning, it gave no sign of letting up and threatening white caps filled the ocean.  We made the executive decision that, since we had already trooped through the forest in the rain the day before, we didn’t need to do so again.  The other guests at our hotel, an older group of Germans, weren’t so lucky – they had refused to hike in the rain the day before and now it was raining even harder.  Since they were also scheduled to leave the following day, they decided to brave the weather while we spent the day watching the downpour from the comfort of the lodge.

Having a beer and playing with the lodge’s resident cat, Ephraim’s (skinnier) Malagasy doppelgänger, was an enjoyable interlude to several days of strenuous hikes.

It was also quite entertaining to watch the Germans trudge back several hours later in the middle of the monsoon.  With their clothes drenched, they then decided that pants would be optional for the rest of the trip – the sight of the elderly crew in their tighty whities for the next several hours was almost too much to handle.

On our final day in Masoala, we woke up early, crossing our fingers that the rain had let up and the waves had died down.  We were scheduled to take the boat back to town to catch our flight, with a stop at the island of Nosy Mangabe en route.  Luckily, both the rain and the waves had slightly dissipated.  Regardless, we were in for a pretty exciting boat trip.  First, we had to clamber onto one vessel to ferry both our luggage and us to the main boat.  Even without the prior day’s torrential downpour and accompanying wind, the waves were still quite large.

Our small craft slowly made its way to our destination – bobbing from the peak of each wave to the trough behind it and occasionally rolling so much that we had to grab ahold of anything handy to avoid tipping overboard.

At times we questioned our captain’s skills, but we fortunately arrived safely at our destination.  Nosy Mangabe is a small island and wildlife reserve off the coast, with several groups of lemurs living on site, as well as a variety of other fauna, like leaf-tailed geckos.  After our exciting expedition, we were more than happy to arrive at the reserve’s beach and start exploring the forest.  We found white-fronted brown lemurs, leaf-tailed geckos (all face down on the trees so as not to drown from raindrops in their nostrils), tiny green frogs, and crazy crabs.

Giorgio was also quite entranced with several large spiders, busy weaving intricate webs – Stephanie studiously avoided all such arachnids.

After our brief island-hopping expedition, we were back to the main island and the airport for our flight back to Tana.  “Airport” might be a bit of an exaggeration for the ramshackle aerodrome de Maroantsetra.  To hold our place in line as we waited for the check-in counter to open, we placed our ticket and passports in “line” with the other passengers’ on the desk.  When the counter did open, we realized there were no computers and each bag tag and boarding pass was filled out by hand.  The same thing had happened in Tulear a few days prior.

With no seat assignments, it was a mad dash to board the plane when it did arrive.  Also absent was any sign of security protocols throughout this process -- who knows what people brought onto the airplane.  We took this opportunity to smuggle three large bottles of water onto the plane (take that, TSA).  We had a fairly lengthy wait for our flight, and passed the time by having a beer in the “lounge” and tracking the aerodrome’s resident chicken through the terminal.

Arriving back in Tana, we had just one more night in Madagascar – our flight to Johannesburg was scheduled for Friday afternoon and our flight to New York for Saturday evening.  We stayed at the top of the hill overlooking the city, the oldest part of the town and took in the spectacular view from our balcony.  On our prior visit, we had been equally entranced by the views of Tana’s twelve sacred hills from the King’s Palace in Ambohinga. 

To cap off our trip, we celebrated with dinner at Tana’s best restaurant – you really can’t beat a meal of foie gras, zebu, and Malagasy chocolate.  Plus a nice bottle of wine and some local rum.

We were sad to leave Madagascar as our Malagasy vocabulary had grown to two-digit numbers.  Upon arrival, we really didn’t know what to expect – this portion of our trip was entirely different from our travels in continental Africa. Spending the month seeing so many different parts of the vast island was incredibly rewarding and unlike any of our prior adventures in Africa or elsewhere.

Leaving the country was a stark contrast to our arrival and all our domestic air travel.  For starters, no one asked us for a bribe.  More surprising, however, was the ridiculous number of security points we had to go through.  Our passports were checked at seven different points between check-in and boarding.  Computers, cameras, and bags were thoroughly inspected at least a couple times.  No one was taking a water bottle on a flight out of Madagascar, that’s for sure.

Impressively, the flight departed on time and we arrived in Johannesburg three hours later.  There was hardly any wait for Stephanie’s bag, which was one of the first ones out onto the carousel.  As time passed and all bags were taken, Gio’s backpack was nowhere to be found.  An attendant mentioned to us that some bags had gone missing, but “the good news is that we think they are still in Madagascar.”  The bag was finally delivered to our hotel the next day, apparently it was still in Johannesburg, and someone had simply placed it in the wrong pile.  Really?  Really.

We are sad to leave the Dark Continent behind but ready to tackle new adventures.  We will be resting in the first world for a week before heading out to Asia.  Excited to see all our friends in NYC (if only for little bit) and really looking forward to our quick stop in New Orleans, followed by the most important event – Lisa’s wedding in DC!


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