Thursday, 26 November 2009 12:00 AM
Sara LeHoullier is going exploring both on and off the beaten path on the world’s fourth-largest island for three months. She shares her experiences in Madagascar with travelbite.co.uk in her 17th blog entry:
I almost tacked this on to the Diego post, but decided that it should get its own space. I know, I know, I skipped Marojejy because of time constraints (saving it for next time) but I’m really glad I had the time to get to Ankarana for a day. It’s now one of my favorite parks in Madagascar!
I organised the whole trip through a friend who happens to be a tour operator, Toto, in Diego. He set us up in a car with Jean Claude, who drove us first to see the Red Tsingy. At first, I couldn’t understand what the hubbub was about – sand formations like fingers coming up out of a dead red-clay pit. Then we got closer.
The Tsingy was actually really cool, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was like a gigantic child had been making sand creations to look like people, or churches, or cauliflowers.
Jean Claude took us to Chez Aurelien, a lodging establishment next to the east entrance to the park, in a town called Mahamasina. I use the term ‘town’ very loosely. I think it had one store and one school. And the park of course. There might have been more stuff but after a day in the park my legs were nearly paralyzed so I didn’t venture out much.
Sasha, my guide, met me on the first day at lunch to discuss the programme for our walk. He said a bunch of stuff, and I agreed; I wasn’t really paying that much attention because I was really hungry and I was attacking my coconut chicken. I didn’t know what I had agreed to until the next morning; I had scheduled my breakfast for 05:30, we were to start off at 06:00 or so. That’s the earliest I’ve had to wake up for a park visit yet! Around 09:00, I started to figure out why, when my skin was melting off of my body.
From the very start, we saw lemurs in groups and lemurs alone, lemurs carrying babies on their backs, lemurs sleeping in holes and lemurs on trees getting ready to go to sleep after a long night of work. We saw at least 20 huge green geckoes, birds galore (even one sitting on its nest!), and one lonely land crab.
We walked up and down hills, through the primary forest, the secondary forest, and then emerged onto the Tsingy. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Spikes of grey rock formations jutted upwards for miles, and the terrain was certainly rough going (I had given my sneakers away, so I was in flip-flops). All was grey and green and razor-sharp.
There were several points on our walk through the Tsingy that Sasha said were difficult for Americans because they’re usually too fat to fit through them. I squeezed through all right, but I could see what he meant. Some of the formations looked as though they were on purpose, like huge art installations or maybe a very intense way to keep the neighbors out; it was a strange place.
Right near the end of our time together, after having eaten lunch with the crowned lemurs who insisted upon licking everything from my hat to my backpack to my camera case (and my hand, so cute!), after seeing the giant hole in the ground and the natural amphitheatre, we saw a fosa!
Sasha said out of every 50 or 60 people they take out to Ankarana, only one or two see a fosa.
They’re the largest carnivore on the island, and they look like a mixture between a cat, a dog and a lemur (because of the long tail). I was really excited. There we were, surrounded by the sounds of parakeets and other birds, about to descend into the murky depths of the bat cave, and we see a very rare animal. It was some kind of luck – maybe bad, maybe good.
Every time Sasha said something about the bat cave, I had a little chuckle to myself. “To the bat cave!” I’d say. When we got to the entrance, Sasha told me the fady, or things you’re not allowed to do in the bat cave. You can’t bring in beans, or pig meat with smashed cassava leaves. You can’t wear a hat. If you are a woman, you can’t be menstruating. And you can’t take flash pictures of the bats (like anyone would want to, yikes).
I didn’t realise how terrifying bats are. The noise they make, the smell of their droppings, the very idea of them hovering up there; it wasn’t the most pleasant part of the trip. I don’t think I like bats. Also I think the ammonia in the guano almost made me have a heart attack – it was at least 20 minutes until my heart started beating normally again.
After the bat cave, we headed back to camp, which was about 2km away. I think we figured out that we walked between 17 and 20 kilometres during the day between 06:30 and 13:30, only stopping for about an hour. When I arrived back at our bungalow, I was the dirtiest, sweatiest person alive. I showered, lay down, and couldn’t get up again for hours.
I almost decided to skip Ankarana – I thought I had seen enough parks, and had just started being aware that I have very little time left to see some very far-away places. I’m so happy I changed my mind!