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madagascar trip report part 1: ranomafana, or, you couldn't do this hike

2007-12-08 - 6:05 a.m.

all photos � 2007 by elaine radford
Note: Here's part 1 of my Madagascar trip report. If you are looking for my bird list, please click here. As per my Nov. 9, 2007 entry, I flew from New Orleans to Johannesburg, South Africa in business class, and stayed a couple of nights in an atmospheric hostel in the hills overlooking town. A visit from a Spotted Eagle Owl got my trip off to a start with a bang. And now it's time to head for Tana.

November 10, 2007

I added Pied Crow to the South Africa bird list as I took the shuttle to the airport. I got a bulkhead aisle seat on Air Madagascar to Tanarive or Antananarivo or whatever you like to call it. Me, I like to call it Tana. As a funny note, when flying IAH-AMS, I was seated next to a Nigerian businessman, who once lived in Baton Rouge (!) and now lives in the Netherlands. When I said where I was going, he said that he had visited once long ago and had a great vacation. Then, at some point, he noticed that we were both avoiding saying the name of the city. "That's a very hard name to pronounce," he said.

Anyhoo, I landed in Tana and there was no gate. We had to climb down the steps of the airplane down to the tarmac and then into the airport. Just in time too...moments later, it was pouring down rain. The whole gang had turned out to pick me up at the airport. Apparently Sooty Falcons were somehow involved, but I didn't see them, thanks to the storm. There were three other Americans, one Canadian, one person from the Netherlands, and our local leader, who is director of the Peregrine Fund for Madagascar as well as the multi-talented discoverer and/or rediscoverer of various endangered species.

As usual when turned upside-down by jetlag, I had no appetite and just had a glass of wine while everybody else ate dinner. I felt a little funny about it though, since it turned out that the waiter was bringing free appetizers for everyone, me included, and I hated to free-load when I hadn't ordered any food.

November 11, 2007

I woke early and looked out the window, and there he was, my first bird of Madagascar -- the winning Red Fody, and a beautiful adult male at that.

We began the trek by van from Tana to Ranomafana Parc, going quite slowly and stopping often as we observed good birds. It wasn't long before we were observing some of the many Madagascar Kestrels, including a very nice rufous morph. Other notable Kestrels included one who was mobbing a Madagascar Buzzard and a female who was preening her lovely feathers after the rain. The first Yellow-Billed Kites. The first Eleanora's Falcon.

At one of the early stops, I looked to the sky and noticed a rainbow, a large sun dog, and also a huge circle around the sun. Quite dramatic.

Much of the land along this route was terraced rice fields and hence rather Asian in appearance -- a bit what you'd imagine villages in China to be like.

When I arrived at my riverside cabin late in the evening, there was a green tree frog of some kind in the bathroom -- and a flesh-toned one in my bed. Hey, guys, joke's over.

gorge near entrance to ranomafana parc

November 12, 2007

What do you say about a day like today? I'm tempted to say that we tagged the target and we were alive at the end of the day, so perhaps we couldn't fairly complain. Still, there was some considerable miscommunication about this particular hike. Keep in mind that as far as I know, I'm the youngest member of the tour group, and sadly I'm no longer in the first bloom of spring chickenhood. The guides thought we could hike it in an hour, two hours tops, and that there was no need for special footgear or much need to carry a lot of food or water. As it happened, I carried no food at all but I did think to stuff three bottles of water into my capacious pockets. The hike took over 10 hours, much of it straight up or straight down vertical ridges. I honestly don't know how I did it. At some points, a personal guide with a panga was cutting out steps in the sides of the mountain so that I could climb up -- and I still needed his help to lift me over the various ridges. Going down, I simply sat down and went on my butt, as I did on that pyramid at Chichen Itza. Except it doesn't take 10 hours to bump down the pyramid at Chichen Itza.

I don't believe you would make the same climb in the United States without specialized equipment. I mean, we're talking about scaling 90 degree verticals. People do that with rock-climbing equipment, not in their bare feet -- as my guide was reduced to doing after his sandals dissolved. And why did his sandals dissolve? Well, it's likely because of all the streams and rivers we had to ford.

At one point, we had to cross a rushing river w-a-y down below by walking across on a damp log. Yikes. We were supposed to keep our balance by using a pole in each hand. Well, maybe, but I honestly didn't think I could make myself walk across on that log. I was certain to fall. My guide sort of put his fingers on a place in the middle of my upper back to help me keep my balance, and somehow I did it. But I knew that there would be no going back the way we came.

At some point in the morning, we got openly lost, admitted to because it became obvious when we had to back-track along the same trail and down again one of the more noticeable mountains. Perhaps a couple of hours after that, I began to notice that the guides were following orange ribbons tied to the trees along the way. (There were other colors too, such as pink and blue, and I suppose at first I'd assumed that they marked various trees that were going to be managed in some way.) My suspicions aroused, I unfolded one of the orange ribbons and read what it said: 3500 m.

Now I may not read a lot of French, but I'm afraid the horrid implications were instantly obvious to me.

By now, it was getting into the afternoon, and we had not yet reached the bird. In fact, I had a strong suspicion that the ribbon was the trail to the nest and that it therefore meant that we had 3.5 kilometers left to scrabble up hill and down dale. (A suspicion which proved to be correct.) At that point, the guides were assuring us that the nest was a mere 30 minutes away. But the nest was always a mere 30 minutes away. Would you have said something? Me, I didn't comment, assuming that everyone had figured out by now that the guides' estimates of time and distance were at best...imaginative. I figured that "it's three-and-a-half more kilometers and then we still have to hike out of here" was not news that anyone could use. So I just went on and hoped for the best.

Were there leeches? As a matter of fact, there were. They were not big fat leeches, they were little skinny leeches. And, though I had always believed that leeches killed George Washington, I'm assured that leeches are actually somehow good for your health. Nonetheless, I removed any leech attempting to attach itself to my body and grant me eternal life as soon as I saw it. I'll give 'em this, though -- they didn't seem to hurt or itch or anything. They just did their business and fell off. So maybe the horror of leeches has been greatly exaggerated down through the ages.

In the end, we had a great view looking down into the nest of the Henst's Goshawk, with the female standing up, flying around a bit, then coming back and standing on the nest to give us great looks from pretty much every direction. Her golden eyes flashed, and she spoke right up. Then we exited the forest on a different, shorter trail. Why didn't we use that trail to get to the nest in the first place? Frankly, I have no proof but I strongly suspect that the guides got lost. I think they were trying a new trail, that they hoped would be easier. Oops. At least we got out of the forest before full darkness, an outcome that was in doubt when we still believed we'd have to trek out the way we came.

Some notables along the way:

  • Madagascar Buzzard on the nest in the mist
  • Spectacled Greenbul sitting on her nest close enough on the path to touch -- although we didn't touch, come on, we're not that bad
  • Red-Tailed Vanga with moth
  • Velvet Asity -- a chunky dramatic bird eating a big red berry
  • Our first lemurs, two Milnes-Edwards Sifaka
  • Exiting the hike through some rice fields, my guide and I got Madagascar Snipe, but we were too tired to mention it to anyone else -- heck, my guide did the responsible thing and packed his broken sandals all the way out of the forest, oftentimes throwing them ahead so that he could then come back and hoist me over yet another ridge so maybe he was a little bit bushed by the end of the day

i don't think the picture even gives a hint of how steep it really was, this is because the guide taking the photo couldn't figure out how to include the people who literally had their feet over our heads just outside the top of this picture

November 13, 2007

The slow drive back to Tana by way of Tritriva, the lake of the lovers. Our muddy, stinking shoes had to ride back on top of the van.

Highlights along the way include:

  • the glorious Madagascar Blue-Pigeon
  • A displaying Cuckoo Hawk
  • Cuckoo Rollers
  • A wonderful feeding exchange between Kestrels at the scenic lake itself
  • a glorious orange sunset over Antsirabe

You've just read part 1 of my Madagascar trip report. For part 2, click right here.

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