It’s an all-day affair to fly the 150 miles from Mayotte to Moroni, the capital of the Comoros, as I have to go via Réunion. I’m still trying to work out why. (Unless its name demands it?) It’s even more frustrating when the plane flies directly overhead of Mayotte on the second leg. Mine is not to reason why.
The immigration officer is surprisingly friendly and addresses me in English. She then offers to find me a driver. Well that’s a first, an immigration officer trying to sell me services. Reassuringly, after my refusal of her offer, my guide is waiting for me in the baggage hall. It’s not Mohammed, as intimated on my travel paperwork but Omar, who fills me in on the latest island happenings.
The young man who has arrived on the plane with me is scrambling into funeral gear, as his father was murdered by his brother yesterday. The brother had been sending money home from France and was not very happy to see how it had been spent when he came home for vacation last week. After killing his brother he then hanged himself, so it’s a double funeral. His widow was on the plane with me too. It’s just like the Nollywood movies I watched in West Africa.
Omar drives incredibly carefully, as everyone else’s driving is a problem it seems, but his English is good. And suddenly most people are happy to speak a little English. Perhaps it’s because they are very Francophobe at the moment - there are ongoing tensions over France’s retention of Mayotte. Omar tells me that Mohammed will be with us tomorrow.
And I’ve come full circle hotel wise. This one is reminiscent of Kinshasa; it’s not a good idea to look too hard at anything, especially the corners and the shower. My safe doesn’t work, the Wi-Fi crawls (there’s no 3G or 4G data at all) and the dinner buffet is cheap, but nasty. Re-heated chips, rice and chicken. A cocktail would have eased my suffering, but this is a Moslem country and the hotel is dry.
Comoros is an archipelago of three main islands in the Indian Ocean. Rate. The total population is about 800,000 people.
Ngazidja, also known as Grande Comore Island, is the largest island. This is where the Comoros capital city of Moroni is located. There are also Anjouan and Mwali, the smallest.
More than 20 species of birds are unique to the Comoros, including the Karthala Scops-Owl, the Anjouan Scops-Owl, and the Humblot’s Flycatcher.
It is thought that early inhabitants of the Comoros Islands were people of Malaysian and Polynesian origin. Colonists also came to the islands from Madagascar, Indonesia, and Arabia.
The presence of Islam is recorded as early as the eleventh century. With the arrival of Muslim Arabs, tribal chiefdoms evolved into sultanates in the fifteenth century.
The first European visitors were the Portuguese, in the early sixteenth century, but the islands were subsequently a base for many European and American sailors. These included whalers, merchants, and pirates, including the infamous Captain Kidd.
In 1886 - Comoros become a French protectorate and in 1912 a formal colony , administered from Madagascar.
There have been over 20 coups since independence from France was granted in 1975 and presidents took over from sultans and princes. In 2008 this was listed as one of the most unstable countries in the world. It’s also one of the poorest –ranked eleventh from bottom.
The official languages are French and Arabic.
Crime levels are low, but it is advised to take the usual precautions against pick-pocketing and mugging and not to walk alone at night on beaches or in town centres. I didn't have any problems.
According to The World Bank, the living standard of almost half the population falls below the poverty line .
I took a guide with a car round Moroni, the capital and north and south, exploring. There is some stunning scenery, volcanoes, glorious beaches and a lot of litter.
Much to my surprise the tiny airport features a business lounge. An online reviewer has given it 1/10. I’m surprised anyone actually makes it that far. The queues inch along. And that’s if you can work out which ones to join. The check in procedures are excruciatingly slow and the clerks seem bewildered. There is no sign for departures at all. The immigration officials’ booths are labelled 'Information'. And there is one scanner operating for the security check, with one man feeding it, extremely slowly. It’s no surprise at all that the plane is delayed by two hours while they load the luggage. I spend most of the time talking flying with an Ethiopian Airways captain. He’s brought out a Hajj charter and is returning as a passenger.
Finally, we take off. It’s the end of another epic trip.
I've been told my guide to visit Comoros is called Mohammed. I meet one Mohammed fleetingly and accidentally, but it seems he’s leading an English speaking group today. This is an absolute deluge of tourists for the Comoros. Omar, who met me at the airport, as I fly in from Mayotte, informs me that he (Omar) is to drive me (although he also tells me he’s actually the chief guide), as a tall young man in check shirt, baseball cap and jeans bowls up. Omar says that this is my Mohammed and he will be my guide. His English isn’t great, but he has enough for a very basic conversation.
The traffic is terrible and Omar is exceedingly cautious with his driving . At one point we actually reach 30 kph. To be fair, discretion is definitely the better part of valour here. There are wrecked vehicles round every bend. However, he also gets lost once and there are several near misses on left hand turn manoeuvres.
The main island of Grand Comore is similar (unsurprisingly) to Mayotte. It’s more obviously volcanic, considerably poorer, and absolutely filthy. The beaches and river beds are almost obscured by litter. Moroni is a cluster of corrugated metal dwellings, generally unpainted, several sections of land fenced off and signed to say they are to be developed, a large number of unfinished concrete buildings (including several mosques), a few Arab style edifices around the medina and central square and some modern official constructions, such as the presidents' palaces and the parliament houses (mainly provided by the Chinese).
We visit the museum, where I tell My Mohammed what the signs say and the highlight is a stuffed coelacanth. I’ve never seen one before. The lower floor is mainly devoted to the Grand Mariage. This multi-ceremony event lasts more than a week. Families save for it for years and can spend their life savings on providing meals and other celebrations for the entire village. Omar says it is expected of every member of society at least once in their life. He also tell me that he isn’t ready for it yet. He has six children. My Mohammed chirps that he has no intention of getting married anyway. He’s a twenty-one year old DJ, part time, and very happy with his way of life.
We then saunter through the old market and medina. The clothes here are also similar in design to those in Mayotte –again it’s an almost entirely Moslem population- but here the women are less stylish and the men more likely to wear Arab garb, with embroidered skull caps. Most people are very friendly. They all have a greeting and a smile, unless you take out your camera.
The women are even more hostile to photography. I’m not even allowed to point the camera at their produce. My Mohammed explains (via Omar and much giggling) that they shouted at him to say if he wants me to have a souvenir photograph from the Comoros he should take down his jeans. Some of the men are more amenable and a few volunteer to pose, especially in the huge central market, which is hustle and bustle and amazingly colourful. The medina is quietly charming, in a dilapidated crumbling fashion. The ancient Friday mosque is a distinctive and unique landmark, curving in front of the port. Now, the sights of Moroni are exhausted.
We proceed extremely slowly south to the cliff where 350 women committed suicide, rather than submit to pirates and slavery. Beyond is a (very) ruined sultan’s palace, basalt beaches, ylang-ylang plantations (another still) and the Marabou Lake, where you can make sacrifices to get rid of your evil spirits. Finally, up to the top of the ridge for the view of the lava flow from Mount Karthali, the largest active volcano in the world, at Singani.
My camera isn’t getting much exercise in Comoros, what with the women refusing portraits, the litter spoiling the scenery and the FCO advising visitors not to photograph official buildings anyway, because of anti-French sentiment. It seems that the president has just recently imprisoned the whole of the opposition party, who were objecting to his recent referendum which purported to confirm that he should remain in power beyond his current term. Riots and dissent are highly possible. Omar says not to worry, he’s sure he can influence anyone who objects to my photography. Nevertheless, I’m not keen on risking being carted off to jail.
Back at the hotel I’m asked out for a drink by the other Mohammed's tourist group of six, who have crossed our path during the day. Yes, a proper drink, in a bar up the road, where they kindly send out for tonic. There are four ladies (all imbibing), two Americans, one Australian, one Kuwaiti. Two of them are called Julie, so I have a 50% chance of getting the name right. They complain that their Mohammed has talked only about himself (showing them 25 pictures of his wife) and politics (how much he hates the French). It seems that Omar was the better option – I may have to resist attempts to poach him.
Today, we’re almost in convoy with the other Mohammed group, exploring the island. Omar is absent and has brought in another driver for me, as his wife’s father has died. I’m not sure how the arrangements were made, but My Mohammed seems to be summoning him from the midst of the hotel hedges. Hassan doesn’t speak a word of English, or French either it seems. Mohammed and I muddle through in Franglais. My French is as good as his English, which isn’t saying much. But I’m now convinced I have much the better deal guide wise. Mohammed tries exceptionally hard to make sure I see everything I’m supposed to in the Comoros. He has learned the programme off by heart. It’s a little disconcerting when he tries to stroke my face a couple of times, but I assume he’s only helpfully moving the hair out of my eyes.
The scenery today is sublime. We’re on the other side of Karthali, with views down to the coast, more lava flows and an ever extending vista of palm trees. There’s the High Plateau of Diboini, with seven volcanic cones and a whole string of stunning beaches. Surprisingly, they are white coral sand, admirably framed by the dark basalt. And thankfully, on the whole, the beaches of Comoros are clean, though the same can’t be said for the backdrops. One delightful cove, Chomoni, is signposted – Une Plage Propre. There’s more ylang-ylang, and a few mongoose lemurs.
Possibly the highlight is the Dragon Rocks, which really do look like the backbone of a dragon, head rearing. They are perched on the crest of a cliff, looking out to the volcanoes, across the lagoon and over to minuscule Turtle Island. There are fishermen working with nets and buckets. My Mohammed helps me scramble to the top and shows me the best view points. The other Mohammed has stayed in his minibus on the road and seems disinclined to do anything. His group eventually mutiny, having seen me up top and ascend too. Their Mohammed follows lethargically. Australian Julie’s voice wafts across on the breeze. ‘He’s not a guide. He’s an idiot.’
Their group does have very nattily dressed driver, Francois, braces, cropped trousers, little kipper tie, fancy boots and a small goatee. He’s also enraged, because no-one has provided lunch for him. Mohammed II has mopped up his group’s leftovers. (I’m sitting eating with my two men). It’s all quite exciting.
The last stops are a thousand year old hollow baobab tree (very similar to the one in Boma, I definitely have come full circle) and a beautiful. supposedly bottomless aquamarine salt lake in what looks like another caldera. Mohammed tells me it was created by the marabou, who submerged a village in there, as no-one would give him a drink. As Kuwaiti Ayesha observes, ‘That’s quite a harsh punishment’.
Up early to wave my new friends off. They’re heading for the other islands. I’m very sad to see them go. They have been welcome and fun company for the end of my journey. There haven’t been many other tourists on the way and hardly any that speak English. Omar is taking me to my beach hotel today. My phone is showing three calls from Mohammed. He says he misses me a lot. ‘Oh dear!
My last two days are to be spent in what is described as the best hotel on the island, on one of the prettiest beaches, just south of Moroni. Except that the fates have conspired against me. After all the weeks of dry weather it’s now bucketing down. (Incidentally, the overly optimistic weather forecast summary says ‘Mainly sunny’.) The streets of Moroni have become a river. The hotel is called the Golden Tulip Hotel and Spa. So I decide to have a massage to compensate for lack of beach time. The receptionist looks bemused. There’s no spa. And my stomach is twitching. An upset is probably overdue; I have been in Africa nearly six weeks.
Reasonable weather – some cloud, a little rain. Good enough to spend most of the day on the beach. The hotel makes a decent but incredibly strong caipirinha. The effects sneak up on you slowly. So the room is spinning when I make it back – I only had two with my farewell leaving dinner lobster. There’s ice in my drink, so I ask them what water it’s made from. ‘The machine’ the girl says. No wonder my stomach is dodgy.
Naturally, the sun is shining more consistently on my last day, but I manage a morning on the lovely little beach. It’s lively today, the fishermen are dragging in their outrigger canoes. Then I’m heading for the tiny airport and home,
Mayotte was incorporated into various sultanates before finally being sold to the French by a Malagasy sultan in 1841. Together with Comoros the islands were known as Mayotte and Dependencies.
The department status of Mayotte is recent and the region remains, by a significant margin, the poorest in France. Mayotte is nevertheless much more prosperous than the other countries of the Mozambique Channel, making it a major destination for illegal immigration.
Mayotte is surrounded by a typical tropical coral reef. It consists of a large outer barrier reef, enclosing one of the world's largest and deepest lagoons, followed by a fringing reef, interrupted by many mangroves. All Mayotte waters are included in the National Marine Park, and many places are natural reserves. So water sports are the order of the day. Diving, snorkelling, or looking out for marine life: whales, dolphins and turtles.
There are beautiful beaches and some great French cooking - at a price.
A two hour domestic flight in a Dreamliner (it's going on to Paris), from Reunion back across Madagascar (I can see my old haunt Nosy Be beneath us) to Mayotte. I’m reading the airline magazine and I’ve discovered, to my astonishment, that Mayotte consists of more than one island and we’re actually landing on the smaller of the main two. It’s called Petit-Terre or Pamanzi, and the other is Grand-Terre or Maore, which can only be reached by ferry. None of this was mentioned on my itinerary. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to begin another adventure.
The traffic is heavy and we have to queue some time for the fifteen minute crossing to the capital, Mamoudzou, before heading for my hotel on the southerly tip of the main island. It’s already obvious that I’m back in Africa proper. Mayotte has only been a French departement since 2011 and the infrastructure is way behind that of Réunion. The roads are poor and it’s a little unkempt. But it has heaps more atmosphere. This is a Moslem country and the women dress accordingly, but with ultimate style. The prints are bright and striking, the jewellery chic and the headdresses ornate and varied. The make-up, for the most part is also immaculate, but it’s commonplace also to smear your face with yellow sandalwood. This is considered a sign of beauty, as well as contributing to the quality of one’s skin.
It’s dark when I arrive at my hotel, which sounds promising in the write-up. The restaurant is open air, on the beach, waves lapping and my bungalow faces the sea surrounded by tall palm trees and baobabs. The hotel website also promises a plethora of turtles and lemurs.
I’m up early in search of the advertised fauna, but there's no sign of animal life. I’m met by my guide, Hanifah, who informs me that the lemurs like to sleep in and they will definitely be around later. Now, an island tour. The countryside is dominated by a huge pyramidal volcanic peak, Mont Choungui, and banana plantations and there are a succession of views across turquoise bays. It’s a real shame that the lovely beaches and roadsides are strewn with litter.
There’s nothing of huge importance to see, but it’s a fun outing. The driver, Rachidi, is cynically amusing. He tells me, in French, that he has four children and is a Moslem, but hasn’t got married yet, as he is still trying to learn how to get on with their mother. ‘C’est tres difficile…’ . There are restored original style mud houses, complete with graffiti, at Banga, beneath the pyramid peak. Musical Plage is renowned for a gigantic baobab tree and named because this is where the Madagascan immigrants first brought music to the Moslem population. It is indeed musical. There are sounds of drumming emanating from a house across the road, so we wander in and are invited to listen whilst a band rehearse their forthcoming gigs.
Down the road the the Salt Museum, where the ladies still scrape up the top layer of salty soil, left by the tide retreating across the flats. This is then added to water and filtered (I remember doing this experiment at school) before being evaporated in flat pans over log fires. We stop at a corner café for a peek in. Rachidi’s sisters and mother all live around here he says (so he has a house on the other side of the island) and there’s a very famous singer (wearing a leather beret) drinking coffee, I’m told. So I dutifully take his photograph.
Next, a botanical garden (sadly it’s not really flowering season) and lunch in the ylang-ylang plantation area (the flowers are plucked on Saturdays and distilled on Sundays.) The final stop is at Sada, the second city and ex-capital, where gorgeously attired ladies weave palms to make idiosyncratic hats and baskets. They are adamant that they won’t have their photos taken. This is the response around most of the island - it’s frustrating when they look so incredible.
Back at the hotel Hanifah is proved right. The lemurs appear in abundance. They are not indigenous, they are the brown variety, imported from Madagascar. The hotel website has suggested that guests encourage them with bananas. However, confusingly there are signs posted warning that they should not be fed and referring to them as maquis. Anyway, Rachidi ignores the latter and they venture pop-eyed along the branches of the trees to retrieve the papaya he has bought, the juice dribbling down their chins. There are also scores of fruit bats (flying foxes) hanging above the lemurs.
As suggested, the hotel is idyllically situated. It’s sad that the service doesn’t match. I struggled with French attitude in Réunion, but here it seems that if I am stupid enough not to be fluent in French then I deserve to be ignored. Menus are banged down. I’m tutted at, mocked if I don’t understand and generally treated like a gross intruder. I’m eating dinner with a couple from Hamburg, Barbara and Fred, who confirm that they are receiving similar treatment from most of the staff, even though Barbara’s French is very proficient. I’ve heard of behaviour like this historically in mainland France, but never encountered it myself. It’s an odd way to treat paying guests. It’s also even more expensive than Réunion. Set dinner - 35 euros.
I’m imagining a quiet cruise around the lagoon, basking in the sun and admiring the views (another one boasting to be the world’s largest but I believe that’s New Caledonia). What I’ve got is speedboat trip zooming along with eleven French twenty-somethings. The boat’s alternative existence is as a dive boat, so the seats are in two columns facing forwards. I’m sitting pillion style (which is not at all comfortable) behind a bearded young man called Julian.
The boat captain speaks to me in reasonable English to tell me that he has no intention of repeating everything he says for me, as he hasn’t the time. In fact he doesn’t say anything else in English at all. That’s okay, I won’t find the time for a tip either. Needless to say I can’t follow much of what he says, but I get the general gist and he certainly hasn’t mentioned life jackets.
We spend most of the journey bouncing over the waves (it’s a fresh breeze today, as the forecasts say) searching for whales and dolphins (les baleines et les dauphins). The whales and their calves are very easy to spot. After we have pursued a mother and calf for some time they obtain their revenge by emerging right alongside the boat. The calf and I are engaging eye to eye. I’m relieved they haven’t tried to come right on-board.
Les dauphins are more elusive, but are eventually discovered, offering their usual fascinating aerial displays around the prow of the craft, before the formation loops away. Another case of so long and thanks for the fish...
We visit a couple of pretty islots, with classic white sands, before finishing with some snorkelling. It’s a pretty drift reef, but most of the twenty-somethings prefer to stay aboard and smoke. I don’t think they want to get their designer gear wet. I’m not asking what they’re smoking - it’s roll ups. My shorts have gone AWOL, which is annoying and no-one is owning up. I don’t suppose the beautiful people have pinched them - they’re only Dorothy Perkins. Perhaps they’re still on the islot. Unfortunately, my bungalow key is in the back pocket.
There are indeed plenty of turtles out in the bay, just in front of my bungalow. They are happy to ignore me as they, and their attendant scavenger remora fish, feed. There’s also a very rewarding little reef 100 metres or so off the shore. All in all, it’s an excellent beach on which to park my sunbed. I’m adopted by a group of young policemen; ‘Cops on the Beach’ they say, flirting and posing for selfies with me, in front of their girlfriends.
Back on the ferry to Petit-Terre and the airport. It’s the end of the holidays in Mayottte and the first day back at school, so I’ve had to leave early, in case the roads are congested. There are indeed some grands bouchons. This is partly because some of the roads are closed. The French education minister is visiting to supervise the big day.
I’m on my way to my last stop this trip, the Comoros Islands. Mayotte is actually part of the Comoros group, but I’m routed back to Réunion (the other side of Madagascar) and out again. I inquired about this when I got my itinerary and I still don’t have a satisfactory answer as to why I can’t go direct. There are three flights to Comoros on the departure boards, some of them with the same airline. Not for the first time I’m bemused and not a little frustrated. Moroni, here I come - eventually.
Next, Madagascar, 2000 kilometres long and the fourth largest island in the world. (plus a few smaller peripherals) and a biodiversity hotspot. It split off from mainland Africa and then India (in that order surprisingly) in the era of tectonic plate division, following the prehistoric breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana. This allowed native plants and animals to evolve in relative isolation. So, Madagascar has (I'm told) heaps of endemic wildlife, like the renowned lemurs. Over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. Wow! Sadly, though It has more endangered species than anywhere else in the world. Madagascar has already obliterated a huge number of species. Once, (I kid you not) there were birds big enough to pick up elephants.
Madagascar belongs to the group of least developed countries in the world, according to the United Nations. It has a very poor and wild, western side populated by African immigrants in the main and a slightly more affluent east, populated mostly by earlier immigrants travelling long distances oversea from Indonesia and even Polynesia.
Malagasy and French are both official languages of the state. The majority of the population adheres to traditional beliefs, Christianity, or an amalgamation of both. This is going to be both exciting and challenging.
Travelling from Rwanda to Madagascar involves diverting back through Nairobi and an afternoon stop in a hotel. The queue for check in at Kigali goes on forever. The guy at the desk is taking ten minutes for each passenger. ‘This picture isn’t you is it?’ Chortle, chortle. I amuse myself by imagining all the different ways in which I could torture him. Metaphorically, of course. It doesn’t help that the baggage conveyor keeps breaking down and they have to wait for it to start up again.
Imagine my delight, when I finally get to the front of the line to be told that I am in the wrong place. This is the line for Entebbe. They haven’t switched off the Kenya Airline sign and I should be in the adjacent queue, where the sign is also wrong. Once in the skies, a one hour on paper flight takes four hours, as we have to go via Burundi..
When I finally arrive in Kenya, everyone is totally obsessed with Obama, who has landed in Air Force One, not long before me. There is nothing on TV except his meetings and speeches and no-one is allowed to use the roads unless they are a tourist or have urgent business. The airport road has been specially re-tarmacked and decorated with little bushes; I get frisked on every corner and there are helicopters clattering overhead the whole time. The travel agents are nervous about delays, so I have to leave ridiculously early for my return to the airport to find the roads empty, as no-one else is allowed to use them.
But I ain’t seen nuthin yet. I arrive in Madagascar at 3 a.m. and this definitely is a much poorer country, very different in terms of infrastructure. Immigration is a total scrimmage. I squeeze past the melee and right past the immigration officials, to the baggage carousel and then eventually decide it might be wise to go back and get a stamp in my passport. I have an internal flight to the west coast the next morning at noon. Except that it isn’t.
Air Madagascar have been on strike for the last month. (It used to be called MadAir - really.) The good news is that they are now back to work. The bad news is that they have changed all the flight times, so it’s up again at six. An even bigger scrimmage to get into the terminal. I’ve got good at pushing, like the locals.
But déjà vu. (Well they do speak French here). I get to the front only to be told passengers for my flight can’t go through for half an hour. In the end though, they relent, and I am first in line at the counter for my flight to Morondava. I trot off to security, taking the quickest route I can see. I am told off and sent back by an official who sends me wandering all around some rickety fencing for a hundred yards and I end up back exactly where I started. But hey, there’s the plane.
First, I'm heading to the wild west. This part of the world is the antithesis of Rwanda, and unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Mozambique. It is very flat, the villages are incredibly poor, (with open sided palm thatched bamboo huts) and the roads are extremely bumpy, very slow going, heavily rutted sand (the Chinese have quite a lot still to do). Where there is forest it is very low as it is cut back for agriculture.
Not surprisingly there isn’t much traffic. Bush taxis (taxi-brousses) crammed to the gunwales occasionally veer past, as does the odd cart drawn by the hump backed Zebu cattle. (Dinner’s Zebu steaks are very tasty). The soil is red, the sky picture perfect blue and the upside down baobab giants soar 30 metres into the air above the neat emerald paddy fields. Many of the trees are over five hundred years old. The locals never fell them as the trunk is not terribly robust – it’s very fibrous. They sacrifice to them though and my guide tells me that the granddaddy is 5,900 years old. Surely not?
The most celebrated trees are grouped together along the road in an achingly picturesque stretch known as The Avenue of the Baobabs. It’s a Madagascar tourist mecca at sunset.
It’s hard to find something positive to say about the fossas. They prey on the lemurs, are only found in Madagascar and look something like an ugly grey cross between a dog and a cat. They are actually part of the mongoose family. I am supposed to go night trekking to look for them, but like the colobus in Rwanda, they have come to find me instead. One sneaks into the open air dining room and eats my lunch. The fossas are hungry, because it’s the dry season and there isn’t much food around. I am told they can get very aggressive, so I don’t argue with this one and no-one offers me any replacement food. (Above is the fossa looking content, after he, at least, has feasted.)
There's other wild life too. Red fronted brown lemurs (gidros) proliferate and are tempted in to have a welcome drink from a plastic beaker. That must be why I don’t see any on my forest walk.. In 1994 the pygmy mouse lemur was rediscovered here. At a mere 35 grams, it is the smallest of all primates. There are giant jumping rats (they can leap almost three feet in the air!) looking deceptively cute. And chameleons stretch languorously along their branches. Also, woolly white sifakas, who bounce around using their back legs only, two feet together along branches, and chubby red tailed sportive lemurs (boengas), sleepy and blinking during the day because they are nocturnal (I'm told) .
The night trek offers more rewards, but involves much stumbling over branches and falling into holes. The guide's torches pick out sportive lemurs and mouse lemurs lurking. The sportive lemurs aren’t any more sportive than they are in the day time. I decide they must be conserving their energy for their giant leaps. With their huge back legs, they hop like kangaroos on the ground. The tiny grey mouse lemurs, however, scuttle away very fast.
Tonight’s accommodation is pretty basic - a wood and thatch camp in a forest clearing. Not a peep of a mobile signal and hot water in buckets. My chalet is right on the edge of the camp. I hope the fossa stays well away.
The road gets even more bouncy and even rosier, as we travel north into bush country proper. The surface has been almost totally destroyed by recent rainy season floods and it is possibly the worst road I have ever travelled on (but I have a feeling that I’ve said that before). We stop in Belo for a drink, at a bar owned by the local royal family. Everyone runs out to wave and I'm still perfecting my ergonomic royal wrist waggle. Here of course, the accompanying greeting is ‘bon-bon’ and ‘stylo’ rather than ‘sweet’ or ‘pen. The women carry their babies on their backs in lamda (sarong) slings and the little girls copy them, but with roughly fashioned stone dolls.
The journey involves several fords and two river crossings. The ferries consist of wooden rafts lashed onto two boats, with the oldest fan belt driven motors you can possibly imagine, belching out thick black smoke. We lurch on, across two steep bendy metal strips (ramps would be an overstatement) and the car is restrained with wooden blocks (chocks would also be an overstatement). Then the skipper steers the metal rudder with his foot.
The first crossing goes three miles down stream, zig- zagging from bank to bank with the currents. Why the road doesn’t continue straight on I don’t know. I console myself that the water looks fairly shallow and I can swim. But oh no, apparently there are crocodiles lurking unseen on the banks. There are modern government built ferries moored by the bank with proper ramps. They are never operated. Needless to say, absolutely everything is covered in a film of red dust by the end of each journey. My hair is as stiff as a yard brush. I had assumed that the car air conditioning doesn’t work, as it’s never on, only to discover, when we reach our destination, that it’s actually fine.
Tsingy means tiptoe and so this is the local name given to the limestone forest; you have to go carefully across the pointy ridges and acid rain eroded crags. I'm told the amazing karst scenery here is best admired by climbing the fifty metre pinnacles in Grand Tsingy. Harnesses are provided. I opt for cowardice and a more sedate, though still challenging, scramble to a view of aforesaid Grand Tsingy. Then a mini, but yes, still challenging, assault course of ladders, tunnels and walkways through Petit Tsingy. A pirogue (wooden dug out canoe) trip up river provides a welcome, if still not entirely safety conscious interlude.
I eat dinner one night with three Frenchmen from Reunion and sample their (very hot) curry and rice. My French is horribly rusty and their English isn’t very good so they ply me with champagne till none of us can stop giggling. Most of Madagascar doesn’t have electricity, so the hotels have their own generators, with power usually only available in the evening. The rooms have very small windows. Heaven would be a place where I can actually see where my things are. Hot water is even less abundant. Dinner has to be ordered an hour ahead of eating, but the cooks don’t actually start on the preparation till you arrive at the agreed consumption time. (Though you can’t quibble at four grilled jumbo prawns for three pounds). And a mouse lemur spends most of the night bouncing on my bungalow roof.
Back in Morondava I'm on the beach (I’ve reached the west coast) at my hotel, in anticipation of a transfer, to get the plane back to the capital of Madagascar, usually known as Tana, (No-one can pronounce its proper name Antananarivo). The flight time has been changed three times so far, so I keep my bags packed and at the ready.
The airport is the exact opposite of Tana. There is no-one there at all, except the check in man. No queues, no x-ray machines. Everywhere else, the bags have to be scanned on entry to the airport and again at the gate. They still take my water from me. I should have hidden it in my bag. The bad news this time is that there is now a stop on the way, to (you’ve guessed it) a place down the coast, which is in the other direction. So I shall have a very late drive to Andasibe in the west, when I do arrive. That’s why there’s no-one here. They’re not stupid enough to take this routing.
Lemurs are synonymous with Madagascar and there are plenty of them, over a hundred species and sub species, of varying sizes, some nocturnal, some diurnal. Night walks are arranged, so I can see both. The ancestors of the mainland monkeys, they leap from trunk to trunk at staggering speed, gripping with their claws instead of using the branches as catapults. I've already seen an assortment of lemurs in Kirindy. Now I'm heading east, to the main lemur parks.
Andasibe is the prime lemur destination. There are two parks here, which I finally reach after a clutch the edge of your seat rally drive through the dark. My Madagascar guide book helpfully advises that one should not drive at night, as there are bandits. Fortunately, none materialise. Though the Friday rush hour traffic through the narrow windy streets of Tana adds to the delay. Tana is fascinating. It is built on seven hills, but each of the valleys is filled with lakes and paddy fields. The three million inhabitants are crushed into jettied and balconied Asian style houses and shops. It is certainly more affluent this side of the island and the streets are thronging with people buying from the colourful stalls lining the road.
Next day’s forest visits involve rather too much more slithering around and the loss of my sunglasses. Conversation with most of the guides and drivers is short, as their English is limited. So is their knowledge at times. My guide here is astonished to learn that England is on an island. However, the parks yields up still more lemurs and my species count has risen to eleven. The prettiest are the ring tailed lemurs, though they have tiny heads and dance around looking very feather brained. The panda like indris have a wailing call that would put the Sirens to shame. The tiny bamboo lemurs are shy and cute. But the woolly sifakas are my favourite.
An added bonus are the chameleons and brightly hued frogs hiding, almost successfully, on leaves and branches and mostly encountered on the night walks. The guides are excellent at spotting these and at using their torches to pick out pairs of glowing eyes high above, as the nocturnal lemurs watch us pass from a safe distance. Just in case I've missed any of the animas in the wild there's a zoo, with lemur enclosures and a crocodile farm.
I pick up an extra passenger on the journey back to Tana from Andasibe. Adrian, an Austrian who works here, is marooned; the trains aren’t running. And at least he can speak English and I can have a conversation. Then it’s time to face Air Mad again. I am supposed to fly to Nosy Be (Big Island) at lunchtime, but Air Mad have already rescheduled twice and I'm now not leaving until seven in the evening. It’s cold and raining in Tana and there’s no heating. I have a thumping headache, so I commission a massage and afterwards fashion a hot water bottle out of a mineral water container and a towel, and sleep.
I am still deposited at the airport three hours ahead of departure time and this time the powers that be won’t allow me to check in for another two hours. It’s scant recompense that I'm head of the queue again. They only let one person go through security and the x-ray machine at a time, and then spend another two hours checking the cabin before we can board, so the whole process takes forever. I really don’t know if it’s gross inefficiency or calculated working to rule. Madagascar can be trying at times.
Nosy Be is known as The Fragrant Isle as it is covered in ylang ylang and vanilla plantations. There are small rickety essential oil distilleries dotted around the villages. My bungalow is a welcome haven, with its own small patch of beach views across the reef and amazing sunsets. But there is no such thing as paradise. The staff here are exceptionally friendly and accommodating. They come to my bungalow to get the order for each meal. They still wait till I get there before they start to cook it though.
There’s no netting on the bungalow, so the mosquitoes can sneak in easily. And they do. I sleep under a net, but that still leaves a perilous unprotected run to the bathroom. I already have lines of itchy bumps all over me. The generator is only on in the evening and there’s no hot water at all. This was at first blamed on the lack of sun for an unseasonable couple of days, but the rain was last week, before I even arrived. Meanwhile, I'm facing the Ice Bucket Challenge to wash my hair, with not even a sponsor to make it worthwhile. The laundry has had my washing since I arrived. This delay is also accounted for by the ‘recent’ rain.
I take a boat trip out to little coral islets and snorkel (keeping a wary eye on the harpoon) whilst the boatman catches my parrotfish lunch. Then he grills it on the beach. That evening the barbecue dinner on offer is even more exotic (or bizarre) – frog kebabs.
The next challenge is the flight back to Tana. I have a connection to Nairobi tomorrow. Amazingly, the time, 18.55, hasn’t changed, yet, but planes have been cancelled altogether this week and I'm told there is a back log of passengers. Phillippe, the hotel owner, says that my chances of flying are non existent and that I should go back by taxi. It’s at least 700 kilometres. So a ferry ride and then a minimum of 20 hours in one or more taxis, partly or wholly overnight on Madagascan roads. Not the most enticing prospect for a girl on her own, especially when her grasp of the local language isn’t very strong. My face crumples.
After prolonged telephone consultations with the Madagascar tour operator, both of them trying to avoid taking any responsibility for doing anything. Phillippe announces that their plan now is that I should go down to the airport and spend the whole day there pleading with the manager to let me on the flight.
I can’t see this working for a host of reasons. My lack of French is one. Another is the fact that the airport is small, the doors are usually guarded (when it’s open) and I doubt I will even get in. I am suspicious that I have been fobbed off, but I am told to go pack and so I do. Half an hour late Phillippe appears at my door to tell me that all is well. He has phoned Air Mad and been assured that my seat is confirmed. I can leave for the airport at four in the afternoon. I am not entirely sure it is safe to be relieved.
When I arrive at the airport, there is a long queue outside a guarded door, as usual. And we wait, as usual. And then, amidst much cheering (there are riot police deployed), the manager comes out and reads the list of those who are allowed to travel – agonisingly slowly. My name is not on it. To cut a long and very stressful story short I edge my way to the door in the wake of the lucky few and deploy my best blonde damsel in distress routine on the manager, who is tall and French. I am the last passenger checked in on the plane. Naturally, the plane is two hours late. But who cares? I learn that an international Air Mad flight also had to be cancelled this week. The pilot turned up drunk.
The last hurdle on this leg to Malawi, the following afternoon, is the Kenyan Airways flight to Nairobi. So far they have been reasonably reliable. But guess what? Last night’s flight was cancelled and everyone scheduled to fly on it is now trying to get on my plane. The scrimmage this time is the worst so far. None of the airport screens are working and I have no clue, even which direction to push in. Desperate, and with much shame, I consent to bribing a porter who carves me a path round the edge of the melee.
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