Madagascar – September 8th

Today was our tour of Tsingy De Bemaraha National Park. This park is a 200 km area of unique spiky rock formations.

The rock formations were made almost 200 million years ago after Madagascar broke off from the continent of Africa. The area of Tsingy, although now about 80 km inland, was previously under water. This can be seen in the many seashell fossils in the rocks.

The tectonic plates along a nearby fault line in the Mozambique Channel collided forcing the rock upward, thus creating the rock formations. However, they weren’t sharp and spiky at this time. The acid rains slowly eroded the formations into the sharp spiky points we see today. The acid rains erode the formations about 1 mm per year creating sharper and sharper rocks.

The Malagasy word Tsingy actually means to “tiptoe barefoot.” The people who first lived here had to walk along the sharp rocks barefoot, or tiptoe. 

This morning, Rado got up at 5  o’clock am to drive to the ticket office, buy our tickets, find an English speaking guide, and drive back to pick us up by 7:30am.

He picked us up with our guide Richard in tow. Richard is actually from the village of Bekopaka where our hotel is located.

Our guide, Richard

We arrived at the park after about an hour of bumpy dusty roads. Unfortunately, there were also many other tourists there as well. We put on our harnesses which we would use on several steep sections in the park and headed into the forest trying to beat the other groups. 

We spotted a couple of lemur species right off the bat including a Western spotted lemur and a white sifaka lemur. 

3 white sifaka lemurs in the tree

After about an hour of hiking, we started to see the rock formations. They were incredibly interesting to look at. You would never think that rock would form into the spiky wavy formations that we were seeing. 

We crawled through a cave to get further into the park. We were glad to have our headlamps here which we actually turned around to get on the drive over. 

Then, we climbed up a fairly steep area with wires that we could clip into with our harnesses. 

We eventually made it to two viewing platforms that looked out over all the formations. 

My only complaint was that the platforms got clogged up with tourists because we all started the hike at the same time. A caravan was required to drive to the park, so it was almost impossible to stagger the start of the groups, but it was still a little annoying having to wait for tourists to finish taking all their pictures. Anyway, we enjoyed the views and took in the uniqueness of the area. 

The route is an out-and-back on the forrest part and makes a loop in the rock portion. The climb down the rock portion had many more areas which required us to clip in with our harnesses. It was basically a via feratta with ladders, steep sections, bridges, and cliffs. We also went through a couple more caves on the way out. 

Once we made it back to the forrest section, our guide Richard took us along a different route at our request. Most tourists go back along the same route they came in on, but we got to go out an adventure route. It was more climbing and scaling sharp rocks, but it was cool to get to climb around more on the rock formations. We went through a couple more caves and saw some bats. Our path took us along a large fissure in the rocks until we were able to climb out.

We finished our hike explaining to Richard the differences between the words “hot” and “warm” at his request and promising him we would email him some of the pictures we took that morning. He wanted the pictures for his business pamphlets. 

Rado met us at the end of the hike and we climbed in the car to head back to the hotel at around 1:00pm. We had to drive back with the caravan and we timed it perfectly to be back right when it left. 

Along the way, another car in the caravan broke down, so we took in their passengers and drove back to town. 

The rest of the day we spent lounging by the pool and relaxing. Tomorrow we head back toward Morondava. 

Madagascar – September 7th

If you’re a little confused about our route here in Madagascar, I will try to explain it a little bit better. It took me awhile to figure out exactly where we have been going with the complicated Malagasy names and many different national parks and reserves. Additionally, when you have two travel agents (Rado and Jay) figuring out all the details and making the plans, it’s easy to just sit back and take in the sites. 

We arrived in Antananarivo via plane. So far we have headed over to the west coast to visit Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Then we headed back to Antananarivo which is more central, and continued east toward Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park via a route through Antsirabe and Morondava. 

Ok, now that that’s all cleared up, I’ll keep going with the blog. Today was another long drive to our destination of Bekopaka which is the town outside Tsingy De Bemaraha National Park. It has taken 3 days to get here partly due to the trip to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park which was admittedly out of the way. Tsingy is actually relatively close to Antananarivo, but you can’t reach Tsingy any other way than through Morondava because the roads are bad and frequently flood.

Rado told us that today would be 8 hours of dusty, hot, bumpy roads with 2 river crossings. The roads are so bad a car with four wheel drive is required to make the trip. All the reviews of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park said it was a difficult place to get to, and they were right! But, from the pictures we’ve seen of Tsingy, I’m pretty sure it will be worth it. 

We started our morning driving out Baobab Avenue which was a dusty bumpy road. Then we drove 3.5 hours along roads that could give anyone whiplash until we reached the first river crossing. We have done river crossings in cars before and it was easy. You just drive the car up a ramp onto the large ferry boat that takes you across the river, and then you drive the car off again. 

However, this river crossing was not like this. There was a flat wooden boat that looked like a barge, but had a catamaran-like boat underneath the wooden platform of the barge. Two of the barges were lined up along the riverbank and tied together. A dirt ramp went down to the river bank where the barges were parked and two metal grates were placed on the barge. This was the ferry we were supposed to drive our car onto. Not only our car, but two other cars and a minibus were also lined up. 

Rado told us to get out of the car, so we did. One car drove on. Then it was our turn. Rado drove down the ramp onto the first barge, over the part that was tied together and onto the second barge. The other cars and minibus followed, and to our surprise, the loading process was pretty seamless. We got on after the cars and went floating down the river.

Jay and I both agreed that we would be very nervous to drive our car onto this small wooden platform in the river (where there are crocodiles). But Rado did it with ease saying he had done it over 100 times. We asked him how many cars had sunk into the river trying to get across. He said just one. Something broke on the ferry and a car went in the river 2 years ago. Crazy!

We met some kids excited about technology while waiting for Rado to drive off the barge
Driving off the barge
Kids asking for bon bons

After the first river crossing we drove a short distance to our lunch spot called Mad Zebu. We had a delicious French lunch (I had vegetarian ravioli and Jay had red snapper). We also bought some “beer hats” which were sold at the restaurant because they were just too cute not to. “Beer hats” were little sombreros the restaurant put on the beer bottles to prevent flies and dust from getting in. We bought 4 for about 1 dollar and they threw in a fifth one for free!

Then we walked around the little town. Jay found some baskets that he liked and bought them for about 50 cents each which he was overjoyed about. 

Rado had told us to be ready to go by 1:30pm so that we could drive with the rest of the tourist cars in a caravan. We didn’t really understand why we needed to drive with the other tourist cars, but we didn’t question it. When we found Rado again and headed back to the car, we found out that we had to have an armed police escort for the next part of the drive. The caravan happened at 2:00pm every day because that is when the government organized the police. There were about 20 cars with police in the front, middle, and rear. 

Rado and Jay driving in the caravan

I guess about two years ago, the tribe that lives along this road had been robbing tourists of cameras, money, and laptops. So the police were organized to prevent further robberies. We made it through without any incident. 

The road (National Road 8) was remote and rough. It required 4 wheel drive due to the many holes, dips, and climbs. We bounced along the hot dusty road for about three hours. Then, we came to the second river crossing. By this time, we were pros. We hopped out of the car. Rado drove onto the barge, and we followed. Whereas we went quite far upriver during the first crossing, this one was a short straight shot across the river. 

Once we made it across, we hopped back in the car, and were at our hotel in the next 15 minutes. We checked in and Jay took a quick swim in the pool. Then we had dinner and called it a night. Tomorrow we head into Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. 

Madagascar – September 6th

Today we drove from Antsirabe to Morondava. We watched the countryside change from green rolling hills to brown wintered hills. 

Along the drive, Rado stopped at a bridge and showed us an area with many many Malagasy people pounding at the rock of the riverbed with sticks. Rado told us that they were looking for gold. Gold had previously been found there and the people continue to dig and pan for gold. Apparently, they still find some daily.

Malagasy people digging for gold

While we were watching the people dig for gold, a group of kids gathered around us as normally happens when “vazaha” (pronounced “va-za” and meaning foreigner or white-skinned person) go anywhere. The kids here are something else. It was a common occurrence for them to yell at us as we drove by, “Vazaha, bon bon” asking for a sweet treat. They would wave and dance for us if they saw us and would always crowd around cars with vazha inside to see what they could get – candies, pens, hair ties, clothes, and notepads for school were most common. However, they were kids and would often fight for the gifts if there wasn’t enough for all of them. So Rado would organize them into a line and we would hand out candies to all of them one at a time so they wouldn’t fight. Rado warned us to never give out candies if we didn’t have enough for everyone and only to do it when he could organize the kids for us (we didn’t speak Malagasy or French). We found out why when other tourists threw out candies and the children dove on the floor fighting the other kids for the sweets.

Sadly, the children are also very poor here and do odd jobs to try to get money or food. It was another common occurrence to see children filling in the holes in the roads with dirt and then begging for money as cars drove by. We saw children as young as probably 3 years old doing this. We didn’t know whether it was better to give them money and basically promote child labor or to not give them money and see them sad and hungry. Rado would only give money to adults filling in the potholes, so we followed suit.

For lunch, we told Rado that we wanted to find a market and just buy PB&J sandwich supplies to save money instead of going to a restaurant. He turned us loose in the city we were in. It was surprisingly difficult to find bread, but we eventually just bought some Malagasy pancakes and small round doughnuts and said those would do.

But then, we saw a woman selling what looked like rolls, so we tried to buy some. She only spoke French and Malagasy, so we didn’t understand how much she said they cost. So, we handed her small bills to pay for the rolls until she looked satisfied. Our lunch consisted of the breads we had bought and the largest grapefruit we had ever seen which we bought in a different town a couple days back. It was too sour to eat, so at the suggestion of Rado and a friend he was talking to, we gave it to some local kids. They ate it up!

We drove from 8 o’clock that morning until about 5 o’clock that evening and finally arrived in Morondava. We wanted to reach Morondava before 6 o’clock so that we could watch the sunset on Baobab Avenue.

Baobab Avenue is a place that is famous for its baobab lined road out in the country. These trees have impressive trunks that hold many thousands of gallons of water. They look like they are upside down with their roots sticking up in the air – at least now that they don’t have their leaves. We took a million pictures and watched the sunset on the trees. Then we headed back to our hotel for the night. 

Madagadcar – September 5th

Today we drove from Andasibe (pronounced an-da-see-bay) -Mantadia National Park to Antsirabe (pronounced ant-seer-a-bay). This was a stop over point on our way to our next destination – Morondava which we will arrive at tomorrow night. 

We left Andasibe-Mantadia Park and headed back to Antananarivo along the same winding mountainous road that we drove in on.

Along the drive we saw many vans headed toward Antananarivo flying a yellow and white flag. These are the colors of the Catholic Church. We learned from Rado that the pope was visiting Antananarivo today and all the vans were coming from around Madagascar to see him.

We bypassed Antananarivo city center with all the traffic (which would have been even more with the pope’s visit) and headed southeast on highway N7 toward Antsirabe. N7 is a tourist route according to Rado. There are many small villages along the road that sell specialized items that their villages are known for. The first village sold strawberries. The next one sold pineapples.

The next one sold foie gras. We had lunch in the foie gras town at a foie gras restaurant. Jay tried a plate of three different kinds of foie gras, but I just couldn’t bring myself to try fattened duck liver. His face made me laugh the entire lunch because he couldn’t hide his dislike every time he took a bite. 

We passed many more towns after lunch until we came to one town that specialized in aluminum. The people who work in the aluminum shops find scrap aluminum all over the city and melt it down to make cooking pots and carve trinkets. Rado gave us a tour of their work area. The men worked in dusty hot conditions.

They also worked barefoot while pouring boiling liquid aluminum into sand molds at their feet. This didn’t seem very safe, not to mention the fact that they were breathing in the aluminum fumes, dust, and smoke for 9 hour days.

They did hard laborious work, and we wanted to support them, so we bought some aluminum crafts from their shop. 

The rest of the ride was beautiful. It turned from mountainous lands to more of green rolling hills. Everything was still terraced on the smaller hills. Here, many of the rice fields were dry turned dirt. Rado said they were getting the plots ready for the rainy season. 

We finally made it to Antsirabe. Antsirabe means “big salt” in Malagasy. The area is an old volcanic site that now has many natural springs full of salt and minerals from the volcano. 

Looking over Antsirabe during our walk around town.

When we entered town, Rado took us to our hotel. Then Jay and I headed out for a walking tour and dinner. We needed to stretch our legs after our long car ride. We had a nice dinner at a pizza place that also served Malagasy food. The menu was in French and the waiter barely spoke English, so I ended up just getting a pizza and Jay got a ginger chicken. Then we called it a night. 

Madagascar – September 4th

Today Rado had a big day set up for us. First we had a guided tour of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in the morning, followed by an afternoon at Vakona Lemur Island and Crocodile Park, and ended with a night hike in Orchid Park. 

Our bungalow

We drove to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park and met up with our guide Patrice, whom Rado had set up for us. We spent the entire morning (5 hours) hunting lemurs, bushwhacking through rainforest, learning about the plants, and birdwatching. 

Jay found a worm with our guide-in-training Robhin
Giant flower I found

The hike started with Patrice spotting a Scopes owl that was sleeping in a tree. He was about eye level and barely opened an eye as we snapped pictures of him (or her). 

Scopes owl

We also saw several geckos including a mossy leaf-tailed gecko that is so well camouflaged, it was difficult to see it even after being pointed out. This gecko also has an interesting evolutionary adaptation. If a predator such as a bird comes to eat it, the gecko will disconnect its tail. The tail will fall to the ground and continue to move which distracts the predator away from the gecko. The gecko is able to regrow its tail if it loses it. 

Mossy leaf-tailed gecko

The highlight of the tour was seeing the lemurs. Neither Jay nor I had seen a lemur in the wild. We got very lucky and saw all five of the species of lemurs that existed in the park: 1) common brown lemur – don’t have territories, just roam and eat leaves 2) eastern wooly lemur – nocturnal 3) bamboo lemur – small and shy 4) indri lemur – biggest lemur native to Madagascar 5) golden sifaka lemur – called dancing lemur because of how he jumps through the trees and walks on two legs. 

Indri lemur
Golden sifaka “dancing” lemur

After seeing all the lemurs, Rado took us to a nice restaurant for lunch. We tried some of the local dishes. I had Ravitoto which was pork smothered in a sauce made of cassava leaves (local crushed greens). Jay had Ro-mazava which is basically a soup made from local greens with chicken, pork, and zebu (a type of local cow). 

Our guide, Rado, and Jay

Next Rado took us to a resort lodge called Vakona Lemur Island and Crocodile Park. We went to lemur island first. Lemurs are afraid of water, so there is a moat around the island and that keeps all the lemurs from escaping. However, it required us to cross the moat to reach the island. This entailed about a 20 foot canoe ride in about a foot of water. It was pretty funny to get in a canoe when we could literally have taken our shoes off and walked. But, we took the canoe. 

Canoe ride to lemur island

The island was very fun. They had the common brown lemurs, bamboo lemurs, and a type of lemur we hadn’t seen yet, the black and white lemur. The fun part of this island was that the lemurs were tame. You could pet them and they were surprisingly soft. We fed them some carrots and bananas and they would grab the pieces out of your hands. Their hands were very soft too. The common brown and the black and white lemurs would also jump on your back which was fun to get pictures of. The bamboo lemurs were more shy and didn’t get that up close and personal. 

We also saw a red lemur which was not on lemur island, but on another island across the river moat. 

Red lemur

After taking the canoe back off the island, Radu took us to the crocodile park. There were over 30 adult crocodiles, 1 teenager croc, and about 15 baby crocodiles. They were surprisingly lazy while we were there only occasionally opening their mouths or adjusting their position. They only ate (were fed zebu) on Saturday, so they weren’t very motivated to do much. 

Not only did the park have crocodiles, but they had an endangered species of turtle, geckos, chameleons, and birds. 

Endangered turtles

We finished our afternoon tour and headed back to the lodge to grab our headlamps and prepare for our night walk. Rado had set up another tour guide for us, who was actually Patrice’s younger brother. He wasn’t a certified guide yet, but Patrice was so good, we trusted his brother too. 

During our night hike we saw many chameleons, frogs, and two kinds of lemurs. One was the eastern wooly lemur which we had seen in the park during morning. The other was the smallest lemur in the area which was the mouse lemur. It was the cutest little guy with giant eyes. 

After our night tour, we were exhausted from our day and headed back to the eco lodge for another night’s rest before a big driving day tomorrow. 

Travel from Cape Town to Antananarivo, Madagascar – September 3rd

Today we woke up at 3:45 am to catch our flight from Cape Town to Antananarivo, Madagascar. We had a short layover in Johannesburg, and then headed out into the Indian Ocean toward Madagascar. We arrived at around 2:00pm (we gained an hour) and met our driver, Rado, outside. He is going to drive us all around Madagascar for 11 days. It’s cheaper to hire a driver here than to rent a car, if you can believe it. 

On the plane to Madagascar

We were very glad we had a driver once we saw the roads. The city is incredibly busy (over 1 million people) with no road signs or lanes. Rado has lived here his entire life and has been a tour guide for 15 years. He navigated the traffic with ease.

After dropping off Rado’s wife near their house (she was waiting for us with Rado at the airport), we headed out of the city. 

Our destination was Andasibe-Mantadia National Park which was ~130 km away. We figured it would be a couple hour drive. We drove about an hour, mostly waiting in traffic to get out of the city. Then Rado told us it would be about a 4 hour drive to our hotel in Mantadia National Park. We were shocked that it was going to take so long. But we soon found out that Madagascar’s roads are quite bad. Plus, it is an extremely mountainous region and the roads to our destination were constantly winding up and down mountains. 

I was surprised at the landscape here. It is very hilly with houses build up along the sides and all the flat lands used for farming, at least on the west coast. It’s very green everywhere and Jay is loving taking pictures of the colorful houses scattering the hills. 

Antananarivo, Madagascar

We arrived to our hotel at about 8:00 pm. We were pretty exhausted. Rado is quite the professional though. He is basically a driver, tour guide, and travel agent all in one. He pre-booked us a hotel for the night which was a beautiful eco lodge for ~$25/night. Plus he’s arranged tour guides for us in three different areas of the national park tomorrow. 

We had a quick dinner at the lodge and went to get some much needed rest for the night. 

Cape Town, South Africa – September 2nd

Today we packed up our tent and the car and headed back to Cape Town. We rented a place near the airport because we have to leave at around 4 in the morning tomorrow to fly to Madagascar. 

We had a little trouble at the campground before we left because there was no one at the main office to return our deposit we paid for key access to the beach. However, we finally got it straightened out and were on our way. 

Protea flower I found while waiting for the manager to come give us our deposit back

We again took a scenic drive back to the city because we couldn’t check in to our B&B until 3pm. We headed to the beach for lunch and found a beautiful spot in a field of lilies. 

Jay being romantic
One of the many fields of lilies we saw on the drive
Walking to our lunch spot

After walking the beach for about an hour, we headed to our B&B, did some laundry, and relaxed the rest of the day. Tomorrow, it’s off to our second to last destination of the trip – Madagascar. 

Kleinmond, South Africa – September 1st

Today was a recovery day after our night out drinking the previous night. We nursed our hangovers as we drove the long way to our next destination. We wanted to camp along the beach and found a nice campsite called Palmiet Campground in the city of Kleinmond, so that’s where we were headed.

We took a scenic route to the campsite and saw some beautiful farmland along the way. There were fields of yellow, purple, and orange flowers in addition to the greenery.

We stopped about half a dozen times to get out and take pictures because Jay said it was too beautiful not to take a picture. We eventually arrived at our campsite around 3:00pm. 

When we got to our campsite, Jay gave me an impromptu lesson on how to drive a manual car. I was a little scarred from my first experience driving manual (that’s another story). So, he taught me the very basics and I drove about 40 feet in the campground parking lot. Yay!

We set up our tent at the site we chose. Then we took a walk along the beach. There was an entrance to the beach right by our campsite which is one reason we chose the one we did. 

The beach was of course beautiful and empty like almost all the beaches we’ve been to in South Africa. The waves were huge and we were enjoying watching them crash and spray on the rocks. 

After returning from the beach, Jay got the braii going and we cooked some dinner. Then we enjoyed the rest of the night at the quiet campground. 

Stellenbosch, South Africa – August 31st

Today, we wanted to rent bikes and ride to the Stellenbosch Chocolate Festival which we had read about in the travel magazine on the plane. The Air B&B we rented advertised that they rented bikes, but when we inquired with the guy who checked us in, he said that they don’t have bikes to rent. Strike out #1. So we headed over to a place we found online that said they rented bikes for 400 rand. When we arrived, the guy told us that people come in often asking to rent bikes, but they don’t actually rent them. Well, it’s probably because your website says that you rent bikes and lists a price – just a guess. Strike out #2. The guy was nice enough to direct us to another shop that did rent bikes just across the way, so we headed over to this shop. We met a lady standing in the doorway who asked if we were there for the bike tour. We said no, but we wanted to rent some bikes to tour ourselves. She informed us that all of their bikes were rented for the day. Strike out #3. She directed us to another place that she thought rented bikes a little further away. So we headed over there. We didn’t end up finding the place, but we did find a beautiful walkway that ran along the university buildings.

We ended up seeing the same lady that told us about the bike shop we were looking for while she was out on her bike tour. We asked her again where the shop was located. She said it was close and road her bike over to check it out. Unfortunately, it was closed. Strike out #4. So, after 4 tries, we called it. We weren’t able to rent bikes which Jay was very sad about. I even tried to download an app to unlock some bikes from a bike share company, but I couldn’t find the right app. We tried everything, but it wasn’t in the cards for us. 

Instead, we decided to walk to the Chocolate Festival. It was about a 40 min walk according to google. We popped the champagne that we bought the day before and made some mimosas. Then we headed out. 

We weren’t sure what to expect from the chocolate festival. We didn’t know if it would have a lot of vendors or people, but we were hopping it would be worth the money we spent for the tickets. We did get a goody bag of chocolates with our entrance fee, so that was a plus. 

Stellenbosch Chocolate Festival

The festival was pretty standard. A bunch of booths were set up along the inside perimeter of a big building. You could get free samples at most of the booths, but they expected you to buy something if you sampled. So, we actually didn’t eat that much chocolate. We bought some assorted chocolates and some brownies and that was it.

Assorted chocolates

There were also a ton of gin, wine, and beer booths, so we sampled a lot of those.

Gin tasting table

We sat down at a table with our beer and brownies and were listening to the live band.

We ended up sitting across from another couple that was out on a date night. We ended up chatting with them, and one beer turned into a bottle of wine and before we knew it, we were at another bar with them.

We drank the night away and ended up at a little bar close to our Air B&B before calling it a night. We had a great time hanging out with these South African locals! 

South Africa – August 30th

Today we took it easy after our two day hike. We woke up and took a nice walk along the beach which was just out our front door.

Then we drove up to West Coast National Park where we heard they had beautiful wildflowers. However, it was raining and the ranger told us that the flowers needed “clean air and sunshine” for the best viewing. So we decided to skip the park (which also came with a $15 per person entrance fee) and just drove up the coast. 

We learned pretty quickly that South Africans have a unique way of passing on two lane roads. The slow moving cars pull over and drive along the shoulder to allow quickly approaching cars to pass in the lane. When the car passes, they give a quick “thank you” by blinking the hazard lights and the car that pulled over replies with a “you’re welcome” by flashing their brights. It worked out very well, but only because the shoulder was paved and plenty big without much debris. 

We eventually came to a spot with a boat put-in ramp called Alabama Slipway with a beach. We parked and walked along the beach for about an hour. We watched the seagulls and saw the carnage of crabs they left after eating them and leaving their shells along the shore. 

It had been raining off and on throughout the day, so we were hesitant to do too much outdoors. We did see some kayaks for rent, and thought it would be nice to take them across the bay. But, it was just too risky with the weather. 

So we hopped back in the car and started heading back to Stellenbosch where we got a room for the next two nights. As we drove, we saw the countryside turn from bushes and wildflowers to miles and miles of farmland. It was then that we knew we were getting into wine country. 

Stellenbosch is the second oldest city in South Africa and is know for its many vineyards. We decided to take a gamble and turned off the main road to see if we could find a winery and do a tasting. We were in luck and found Simonsig Vineyard. Interestingly, we had bought a Simonsig wine earlier in the trip that we really liked. So, we pulled in and asked for a tasting. After sampling quite a few wines, we decided on a couple and bought them. Then we had a quick PB&J lunch in the car and headed over to our Air B&B. 

We checked in and settled in with another bottle of wine for the night.