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Madagascar: A Ride in a Taxi Brousse

The Malagay traveling leaves nothing to be desired: there's adventure, cramped vehicles, and no timetable. Yet getting from here to there is entertaining if you can spare some time, and on the whole, getting around is, like all things Malagay, mostly easy.

A walk around the taxi station. Whities don't attract much attention.

I get the last seat on an already cramped minibus, the driver waves me in and binds the door shut with a piece of string. Around me, women, men, children and chickens sit on seats or sacks of corn, a flock of geese is nervously honking on the rooftop in their woven mobile pen. But, incredibly, what strike sme most is the comparative silence inside. No shouting, no aggression, everybody treis to make him- or herself as small and invisible as possibkle, so as not to intrude on others too much. The driver slides the taxi brousse into gear and we depart, wedging ourselve s through crowds of pedestirans, past lychee stalls and pousse pousse bicycle rickshas.

Hitching a bicycle ride the Malagay way.

I gain new insights into the extents of Malagay demureness about an hour into our way to Andasibe. The petrol perfume and curvy downhill road come to collect their due from a teenage girl. But there is nop way of stopping, no way of appealing for pity. Instead, she silently vomits jets of orange stomach contents into a plastic bag, without the neighbours so much as raising an eyebrow. When the bag is full, it is thrown out the open window between two villages. Several bags are filled and gotten rid of in the same way. and all teh time, not a sound, not a wail. Only the tacky religious music playiong on the stereo system of the cab provides something like consolement as we not exactly speed towards our destination.

Finally back in Tana.


Madagascar: Sea-kajaking Masoala

A traditional Malagay dugout canoe. Also nice.

If you are looking for the perfect way to experience nature, consider going along a coastline by kajak. Silent, swift, and superfun, a kajak expedition gets you to places where no road or path have ever lead and no foot or shoe have tread. In Masoala, you have the special benefit of the tropical rainforest coming down gentle slopes to meet the ocean, clear rivers and streams provide fresh water, and evers few hundred meters or so, the rocky shore forms alcoves of paradisical beaches, just large enough to pitch camp.

I wake at the crack of dawn from the songs of birds and insects. The night was peaceful, but now I urgently feel the need to quickly find a private spot. Within minutes, I know that my intestines will be wringing themselves in cramps, and so I go sprinting out the tent, grabbing 'Doug', the spade, in passing. „But be quick about it, eh!“ a voice from a neighbouring tent warns me. Doug is in high demand. It's the Madagascar stomach bug, and it has hit our group like it will hit most tourists who come out here for the first time.

A little later, everything is very much more relaxed. A little swim in the warm oceans before breakfast, then oatmeal porridge with honey and fruit, add a little whiskey for some, and we are set to commence the day. Breaking camp is quickly accomplished with the help of our support team, and after loading the main boat with all the gear, we head off onto our leg of the trip in the sleek kajaks that seem to be impatiently waiting for action on the shore.

Plastic sea-kajaks and a Klepper model resting on shore.

Swish, swish. The paddles make almost no sound at all as they dip into the water, each stroke pulling the kajak swiftly along a coastline of green lushness and dark ragged rock formations. There are 20 or so kilometers to go today, and we must make the most of the morning, before the sun blazes down too fiercely to do anything but sleep in the shade or snorkel the reef. Soon, as my movements synchronize themselves with that of my paddle partner, I find myself getting in the flow. My thoughts drift and wander, I clear out all those dusty cupboards of my brain, thinking about instances, people or ideas that seemed long forgotten. We drift along, only an occasional bird call or a school of hunting bonito surfacing in my conscience. The wind picks up, wavelets form. We have to paddle harder. Now, there is no more time for thinking or losing yourself in dreams. Everything is focused on pulling the paddle along cleanly while keeping my balance. There is a simple goal, to keep moving, and all my energy goes into fulfilling that one mission.
Stop for a break, enjoy the sand and rocks.

Shortly after lunchtime, we reach our detsination: A little island on the tip of the Masoala peninsula, inhabited only by crabs of all shapes and sized, and featuring a shipwreck on the outside reef where nicely-sized waves break. We go through the routine of setting up camp, my arms still a bit shaky from paddling. A simple, but hearty meal in the shade of our tarpauline strengthens spirits and body alike, and now there is only one thing left to do: Decide whether to go for that snorkel – or rather snooze in the shade.

The island camp. Home of giant crabs and stomach cramps.

I decide for the snooze – the Madagascar stomach bug did take some of that wind out of me - and tomorrow is another day in paradise.


Madagascar: Masoala Jungle Walk

Madagascar: Land of Chameleons. This is a short-horn female in Andasibe.

It must be the dream of every biophile to visit a tropical rain forest. The abundance of life, the diversity of species, the colours, and bizarre shapes we know from Attenborough films makes us expect tigers, snakes and butterflies behind every leaf and tree. The very first visit can therefore come with a little shock of revelation that the rainforest is primarily just that: a forest. And all you see at first – are plants.

But then again, some plants aren't plants after all. Leaf-tail Uroplatus taking flight from intruding tourists.

We are walking single file through the undergrowth, the path just a narrow strip of crunchy leaves. It is the dry season in Masoala, a good time to visit if you are scared of leeches. It is surprisingly quiet, I would have imagined more sounds, but maybe it is just that ten people pushing through vines and scrub is not exactly a stealthy approach to the secrets of the forest. From time to time Sarafein, our Malagasy field guide, stops to listen. He then smiles good-naturedly, and occasionally asks: „You see something?“ to which I shake my head, inducing and even broader good-naturedly smile.

A pair of giraffe-necked weevils romanticising in the shade under a leaf.

Insects are the first animals that attract attention and camera flashes, bizarre creatures flaunting their extravagance, or, for the birders, it is the flutter of a brown spec in the bush a few meters away, followed by a muted call. A millipede crosses our path, unfazed by the threatening twenty feet of that human horde snaking along. A couple of giraffe-necked weevils romance in a leafy hide away, and – there! Somebody points, you strain to see, but there are just leaves, leaves, and then the shape of a small frog suddenly becomes a defined entity your brain can pick from the chaos of shades and lines on the ground. A golden eye watches you unblinking, until a camera or a foot breach the invisible comfort zone of the little amphibian and with a quick jump it's gone.

A Mantella frog flaunts its colours. Shot in Andasibe.

Sarafein has heard something. He looks up the tree trunks, with its bird nest ferns and other epiphytes, scanning the canopy. „Wait here,“ he says, and departs like a forest spirit. He needn't have said it, even if we tried, we couldn't follow that agile, light-footed forest hunter with our clumsy Western physiques. We each find a patch to rest, on a moss-covered stone, a fallen log sprouting a colony of mushrooms, or against a tree. Our breathing is heavy, our clothing stained dark with sweat.

A Madagsacar groudn boa relaxes in the sunshine. Shot also in Andasibe.

As silence falls on the group, the forest regains its voice, cicadas are the first to start, then other insects follow suit, then a bird calls, another answers, frogs start their concert. And then, there is a dark, racous, grouchy call from somewhere high in the canopy, a bellow that speaks of aggression and territorialism.

Our guide resting while the tourists are shootintg away at isnects and egkkos like maniacs.

Sarafein reappears, pointing to somewhere up in the trees. A rustle of branches, a flash of red. Then a crash and another flash of red, and then – a jump. A full-grown red-ruffed lemur leaps across a blue hole of sky in the green cover, for a breadth of a second extended to full length, easily clearing an unbelievable distance between two trees, then another, and another, before he comes to a stop on a swinging branch. More calls can be heard, and a group of five or six other lemurs settle in noisefully. Clumps of seedpods and bits of fruit start raining on us, the lemurs are here for breakfast, and they are messy eaters.

Tourists scrambling to get a better look at the world's smallest chameleon, the Stump-nosed Brookesia.
Can you see it?

Our own group of primates scuffles about on the forest floor, straining their necks to get a better look, or a better angle. Shutters click, in hushed voices we remark on the spectacle above us. The lemurs stay with us for quite some time. After a while, the feeding frenzy abates, and the forest regains that quiet of before, as one after other, the lemurs curl and cuddle up for a round of chillaxing in the lofty heights.

We sit and watch, transfixed, removed from the world, dreamy, until Sarafein gently reminds us that is is time to go.

This is home in the Masoala Forest Lodge. A good place to relax after seven hot hours in the jungle.