Madagascar, the Aye Aye and other wildlife

Madagascar is one of the most fascinating places on the earth for nature lovers as 80% of the wildlife there is indigenous, therefore totally unique to the island and seen nowhere else on Earth. The reason for this is that millions of years ago in the Jurassic era Madagascar broke away from the main part of Africa due to a shift in the earth and drifted out to the Indian Ocean; it is twice the size of the UK and listed as the fourth largest island in the World.

20 years ago I read a book called Last chance to see by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine about travelling to places in search of critically endangered wildlife, one of the places they visited was the unique small island of Nosy Mangabe in the North of Madagascar to look for the elusive Aye Aye.

The Aye Aye is a very strange-looking lemur that has long teeth, shaggy fur, huge ears and an extended forefinger that it uses to tap tree branches for termites to eat. Due to its rather ugly appearance the Malagasy people have persecuted the Aye Aye believing that if it points the finger in your direction that you will die, whole villages have been known to move 5 miles further away should an Aye Aye wander into their village. These poor lemurs were consequently killed on sight and are now not only extremely shy, but also very rare.

Whilst living in Bristol 4 years ago I volunteered at the Bristol Zoo looking after the Aquatic section and one day while having my lunch break a tiny, odd-looking ball of fur with huge ears came into the area where I was sitting and did a forward roll. I was mesmerised by this little creature and was told it was a baby Aye Aye, known in the Zoo as ‘Ras’. It was love at first sight for me and I spent most of my breaks at the nocturnal Aye Aye enclosure.

The book of Last Chance to See was followed up in 2009 with Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry replacing the late Douglas Adams going with him in search of the wildlife once more to all the former locations. I watched this series waiting for the part on Aye Ayes in Madagascar and being caught up in the magic of it decided that I must go to Nosy Mangabe one day.

In November 2011 I flew from Heathrow airport to Paris to make a connecting flight to Madagascar where I would be joining a small group to explore the Northern regions and look for an Aye Aye and other wildlife, one of the places we would be visiting being Nosy Mangabe.

Once in Paris I met up with the group and we waited in a holding area ready to board the plane, we were just queueing up to get on it when we were told that Air France had gone on strike that all the staff apart from the Pilot had all just walked off the plane.

It would be 2 days before another flight out to Tana in Madagascar, we were told to wait and so sat miserably waiting to see what would happen. We were extremely lucky as the airport staff managed to drum up some more air crew for the Air France flight and a couple of hours later were on the plane and on our way.

Tana

We arrived in Tana in the early hours and after collecting my bags, picking up and signing for a visa headed off to bed in a nearby hotel at 01:30am, though it was hardly worth it as we had to be up and ready to go again by 04:00am. The night was a sleepless one as at 02:30am a local cockerel started crowing only to be answered by all of its friends until 03:30 when I got up.

There followed a bus journey back to Tana airport where even in the early hours of the morning it was very hot and so we queued up for the long wait to get our bags grouped weighed for the small propelled plane that was waiting on the tarmac outside.

Maroantsetra

We flew to Maroantsetra on the North East coast of the island at the far end of the bay of Antongil where we had a jeep through interesting villages and markets which bustled with life. As we passed by many of the local people were waving and smiling at us and young children ran alongside the vehicles, it was a really welcoming start to the trip.

We arrived at a stunning place to stay overnight where huts were set out in beautiful gardens full of hibiscus flowers and palm trees with a huge lake running through it and the sea a stones through over a wooden slatted bridge.

Hundreds of Dragonflies flew past settling on foliage in the gardens and colourful birds perched high in the trees, I threw my bags into my room opting for a camp bed with a mosquito net, got kitted up and went straight out to photograph and film as much of this as possible. I remember noting that it was only 11am and already was so hot that sweat continually ran down my neck and back.

Dragonfly, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

There were some huge Orb Weaver spiders in their webs and some tiny, pale lime green tree frogs which were sleeping in the spines of some of the palm leaves. I photographed as many of the Dragonflies as I could along with the tree frogs, spiders and anything else I could find.

Later I joined the small group for a walk down a track past a small local village which was surrounded by a rickety old wooden fence where fires were lit where the locals were cooking their meals and chickens ran around the area freely. A little boy came walking up the path, he had caught two huge fish and proudly held them up for me, so that I could photograph him, he was clearly very happy with his catch.

Boy with his catch of the day, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

After the walk we had an evening meal, it was getting late and the time seemed to have passed very quickly here, I decided to go for a walk about the grounds with my head torch and look for insects to photograph.

Something seemed very odd that night as the moon was etched out by clouds making the night inky black and the sea crashed onto the shore noisily opposite, but as I wandered through the grounds I kept jumping thinking that someone was behind me. It was a very strong feeling and so I stopped, turned and stood still watching, waiting.

It looked as if very tall, human shapes were coming out of the trees towards me, yet I knew that there was no one there, I turned back and continued walking, but again felt that someone was direct behind me and this made me jump a second time, it was enough to make me run back to my hut. I went inside for a moment then re-emerged to the gardens, yet exactly the same thing happened and I was seeing shapes coming out of the trees, all very tall, all walking in a straight line. It was one of the strangest things I have ever experienced.

I went back inside to discuss what I had seen with Sandra, a lady I was sharing accommodation with on the trip and she said that she had also felt very odd and uneasy that night, perhaps it was the storm and I was seeing shadows, perhaps it was the malaria tablets making me see things, I was very spooked by it.

My nights sleep was broken as I felt things running over my body, on turning on the head torch I found them to be cockroaches, they were in my bed and also moving around on the inside of my mosquito net, I like cockroaches as I got used to them in Costa Rica and used to spend time watching whole families of them, I caught these ones and put them outside the net as although I liked them, did not want them running over me in the night.

I got up at 4am re-packed my bags with my day pack and main bag ready to leave at 5am where the group and I boarded a bus and were driven down to the jetty, a pretty place that was busy even at that early hour with all the shops open.

I went into a local grocery store and bought some bottles of water a bottle of Vanilla Rum which I drank on the boat ride across to the island of Maroasata. The boat ride took approximately 3.5 hours but the sea was calm and it was interesting passing by several islands, one of which was Nosy Mangabe where we would be returning;and one which had a huge colony of fruit bats in a some trees, the bats would occasionally scatter only to re-perch on the tree branches again to hang upside down. The time passed well.

Masaola National park

On approaching the island, we had to jump put of the boats into the sea and get our bags onto the beach, this place was a true paradise with a long white sand, palm fringed beach and huge grey smooth looking rock formations jutting out of the sand. This was Tampolo Lodge situated on the Masaola Penninsula.

There are 8 thatched wooden huts on the beach which are lit by candles, there is 2 hours or so of generated power permitted each night to charge up camera batteries, etc, the rest of the time you must use your head torches and the candles to get around at night.

I went snorkelling in the sea over by some rocks and swimming in and out of some deep, dark crevices was intrigued to see some brown coral with fluorescent patches of bright purple that glowed, I had never seen anything like this, but as I was the only one who went snorkelling could not show it to anyone.

After a while I found the rip tides to be a little too strong and felt as though it was trying to pull me down and out beyond the rocks, so after an hour of fighting against the current I gave up and went back to my hut.

The light started to fade and with our guides Cliff, Claude and an additional local guide we got kitted up and started out on a night trek through the island forests to look for wildlife.

The island was very steep in places and we walked in single file over twisted tree roots, up, up, up steep climbs then down again then back up and on it went. We climbed over and under several huge fallen tree trunks, one of which had collapsed, crossed bridges made out of tree trunks and waded through rivers, careful not to drop our equipment in the water or slip with it.

My head torch gave off little light and I wished I had a brighter hand torch with me as a back up, the moon could be glimpsed through occasional breaks in the canopy above. We saw a Mouse Lemur which I filmed, a Horn Nosed Chameleon, Scorpion and many spiders.

As I had been filming and photographing to document as much as possible I had fallen behind the group ho moved way too fast for me as I wanted to take my time and do a thorough search for wildlife. Sandra, my room mate was loitering behind too as she was older than most and so needed to take her time on the treks out, Claude the guide had stayed back with us and was very patient while I stopped at every opportunity to examine a spider in its web or photograph and try to identify a resting gecko on tree bark or a sleeping chameleon on a branch.

The tree forgs were tiny and would leap away as you approached them, though sometimes you would get the odd one jumping and landing on you.

Tiny tree frog on guides sandal, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

We had been walking for about 4 hours so far and now we were steadily climbing upwards, we walked up for about an hour or so when i noticed that it seemed very quiet. I commented on this quietness and Claude suddenly seemed to panic saying that as we could not hear the sea in fact we were lost.

We had worked our way part way up a mountain on this very steep climb, the forest was so thick and dark, but we turned and started to make our way carefully but quickly back down, the roots underfoot were slippery and stuck out threatening to trip you on every other step, we crawled under yet more fallen trees and kept walking on and on.

Eventually the sound of the sea returned and we moved slowly forward through now very thick foliage as we were off the track and kept moving until we emerged through the trees out and a climb down a steep embankment onto the moonlit beach.

Here we could easily now walk back to camp, it was so much easier walking on the sand compared to having to constantly watch your step in the forest, as we walked hundreds of Ghost crabs scuttled away from us running sideways into the sea.

When we returned sweaty and dirty looking, the others were already at dinner and had started eating, so we had little choice but to join them as we were, we said nothing about getting lost, just sat down and smiled.

The area of Masaola that we were exploring is one of the richest areas in Madagascar with over 400, 000 hectares of virgin tropical rainforest and one of the rarest palm trees grows here Voaniola gerardii which is described as one of the most endangered trees on the planet.

I had little sleep that night as I was getting bitten by mosquitos due to holes in the mosquito net, more cockroaches came under the net again with me and then the wooden frame which held the net collapsed on me, so I had to curl up on one side and stay in that position for fear of the rest of it falling and knocking me out; there was nothing to be done until morning.

Up at 4am and tried to fix the fallen frame, it was knackered and so was I, had an early breakfast by candlelight felt a little grumpy due to lack of sleep.

We got kitted up ready for a long trek up a rainforest covered mountain to look for Red Ruffed Lemurs which are only seen in this area.

We trekked for 7.5 hours up, up, up and back down searching for the lemurs, we had neared the top when we saw some Lessor Vasa Parrots flying to and fro over the canopy, they were making primitive screeching sounds that made me feel as though I was standing in the middle of a prehistoric scene; Madagascar has a way of doing that as it is so far removed from anywhere else in terms of the indigenous flora and fauna.

Moving on we were eventually rewarded with a sighting of the Red ruffs along with the rare blue billed Helmet Vanga bird, Madagascan Sunbirds, Long Billed Sunbirds, Leaf Caterpillar and a really intriguing lace web spider. It was a very successful trek and I was extremely impressed by the amount of wildlife and insects that we saw on that mountain including an interesting Leaf Caterpillar.

Leaf Caterpillar, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

The trek was very long and heading back to base seemed to take forever that day, once down off the mountain I walked the last bit of it along the beach which took another  couple of hours to get back across to the base area. On the way I found some small striped fish that would jump out of the sea and sit on the rocks and passed by a small village where children played and the men were sat gutting fish by the huge green fishing nets that they had thrown over some trees to dry out.

It was a blessed relief to be back and get a cold drink, I had a tonic water followed by a much-needed vanilla rum. After some food I went off swimming and snorkelling in a different area that was gentler than the former where the rip tides were. Later I walked the camp area and found a female Giraffe Necked Weevil by a patch of rotten leaves, I searched and searched for a male but could not find one, much to my disappointment. Giraffe necked Weevils are black with bright red wings, the males have a long neck that they often lock in battle with male intruders to fight for the females.

I was so fascinated by the Giraffe necked weevil that I spent a couple of hours the next day camped next to the rotten leaves waiting to see if a male would make an appearance, but I did not get to see one. I will have to return to Madagascar for my male Giraffe necked weevil as they are endemic, so there is nothing for it.

Wandering further off I saw what looked like a snake, but was in fact a Lizard with an extremely long, narrow tail. I set up the tripod and got ready to film it as it moved about in the leaf litter looking for berries to eat that had fallen from the tree above, the Lizard was living in a hollow of the tree roots.

I went for a swim in the sea to cool off and was shocked to be almost hit in the face by a huge fish that leapt out of the water and shot past me, I could feel the breeze of it as it passed by an inch or so from my face. There followed four more of these huge fish that seemed to jump out of the sea and fly some way before repeating the process, it was really interesting to watch.

I waded across to a little island opposite but saw little there apart from a fly eating a smaller insect, which I photographed, but got scratched by the sharp thorned foliage and bitten constantly by Horseflies, sand flies and mosquitos that seemed to be out at all hours here.

Fly with insect in mouth, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

As darkness began to fall we set off as a group to do a night walk of the area again over fallen trees, through water and scrambling over rocks, this one was excellent as we saw a chameleon, gecko, egg bellied spiders, baby common reltonia bird, wholly lemurs, greater dwarf lemur and tree frogs.

At one point I stopped and let the group go ahead to record and listen to the sounds of the forest, tiny lights flitted about like faeries and were in fact fire flies which glittered along with the stars above me, it was one of those moments that I will never forget and if I close my eyes I could be standing there still.

The trail back was long and felt challenging not to trip as we again walked through water, over twisty roots, under and over huge fallen trees and over slippery planks across stagnant swamps.

On the way back I talked to Claude our local guide who told me of a man who came to the area in search of a very rare spider he was trying to track, they searched for 5 weeks and it was not until the very last day that they came across the spider. He was so pleased that he named it after Claude as Habenaria claudius.

I got up at 5am the next day to do a solo walk and film some of the camp area for the natural sounds, photographed lots of insects and some Green-backed Mantella tree frogs.

Headed back and packed my bags ready for the 2.5 hour crossing to Nosy Mangabe, as I packed cockroaches jumped in and out of my bags which made me laugh out loud.

Nosy Mangabe 

Arriving at Nosy Mangabe was exciting as I had wanted to come to this island for many years, jumping out of the boat into the sea and dragging my bags up the beach under some palm trees I looked around and thought how lucky I was to finally be here.

I wanted to get some bits out of my main bag so unzipped it and on opening it saw a cockroach sitting there looking at me, it then jumped out and was off out of sight, I had inadvertently introduced it to the island, I hoped it was not a female.

We were given tents and I moved mine underneath some trees on a nice stretch of the beach, put my things in with my mosquito net fixed over the entrance and rolled up some clothes to use as a pillow.

My tent on Nosy Mangabe Island, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

I walked off alone along one of the jungle trails looking for tree frogs, chameleons and insects, interestingly although there was plenty of water in this area, little bogs and streams, there did not seem to be any Odonata here. Unlike the previous island where Dragonflies and Damselflies had been everywhere, Nosy Mangabe seemed to be lacking in them; I saw just one in the three days on the island.

I found an insect disguised as a bird dropping, it was really fun to watch as it moved around erratically on a leaf, running in one direction before changing to another, its tiny legs moved very fast and I filmed it for some time.

Insect using the art of disguise as a bird dropping, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

Later on I rejoined the group and we got kitted up for a night walk of the island to search for the nocturnal Aye Aye. It was very hot here on Nosy Mangabe and there was no respite from it at night-time, it remained as hot and humid as in the daytime which made the walking tough.

We moved steadily through the forest and started a long, steady climb up in the darkness lit only by our head torches, over twisty roots, scrambling over rocks and climbing once again over or under huge, fallen tree trunks. We had to move in silence and at the sign of the guides signal would stop, head torches off and stand and listen in the total darkness, I longed for fireflies to light it up a little but none came.

We would then continue on moving further up and repeat the whole process, the rocks were a nuisance to cross over as they were so slippery as were the tree roots that were constantly underfoot. I was paranoid about tripping and damaging my cameras and that feeling never left me.

The night seemed to get hotter and I was getting continually bitten, even through my long-sleeved clothes, sweat poured down my neck and back and my hair stuck to my head, I have to admit that I did not enjoy the nights search at all and it seemed to go on forever.

We had searched for the Aye Aye from 6:15pm to 01:00am with one hours break for dinner and I was shattered as were the rest of the group, I think everyone was relieved when we started to move steadily back down the mountain allowing the familiar sound of the sea to return to us. We did not find the Aye Aye that night.

We saw nothing that night and on getting back down to the beach where we were camped I put down my equipment and ran fully clothed straight into the sea to wash off all the sweat, cool down and sooth my bites, it was a blessed relief.

The sea was calm and looked stunningly beautiful lit up with the natural moonlight and occasional flashes of bright green known as biolminesence. This phenomenon occurs from Marine species including organisms from bacteria, dinflagellates, diatoms, green algae, jellyfish and fish. It can be found in all colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. No-one really quite knows why it exists, but there are a few theoretical reasons for example communication and courtship purposes, light may reveal food or lure prey and organisms with poorly developed or nonexistent eyes may use light to blind in order to scare off potential predators.

I returned up beach to my tent but had little rest that night as the bites were so itchy, it drove me slightly mad and I went back into the sea at various hours from 02:00am to 07:00am to get some relief from them, none of the bite remedies I had taken had worked, not one.

Although I barely slept it was good to rest in the tent as I could look at the stars through the netting and listen to the sounds of the sea and the breeze through the palm trees with crickets chirping steadily in the forest behind me. I felt exhausted but lay content in my cotton sheet listening to these sounds.

In the morning I got up ready to join the others on a trek in search of Diurnal Black and White lemurs and so we set off on another trail that was once again a steady climb over fallen trees and slippery rocks and roots.

I enjoyed this much more than the previous nights search though as we had seen nothing the night before, yet today this walk was in total contrast and we were rewarded with amphibians, reptiles, birds and insects all the way along, it was one of the best walks yet.

Up we moved through the thick jungle until we came to an overgrown area with some Tombs some of which were covered in brightly coloured cloths.

Deremy one of the local guides explained that these were his ancestors and that his great-grandfather had been killed by wild dogs so the tribe had buried him high up there where they believed his spirit would be safe from the dogs.

When someone dies it is customary to take them a gift of something that they had had an interest in when they were alive and place it there by the Tomb, this will please the spirit. They then cut off the heads of twelve Zebus, long-horned local cattle, and place the heads on sticks by the Tomb in honour of the dead, if they do not do this they believe that the spirit will be angry and come back to haunt them and cause trouble to the village.

These traditions have not been lost and are continued on today, the people are very superstitious and even if they have to sacrifice a few days food to get a gift for the deceased, they will do so.

The Tombs, Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

Moving away from the Tombs we started to walk down a track where small streams of water ran alongside the trail and numerous tiny camouflaged frogs the size of my thumbnail would jump, scattering as we approached.

Following the calls of some lemurs in the vicinity we hurried on until we came across a group of Black and White lemurs, they were wonderful to watch and I set up my camera and started to film them, one of them caught my eye as it kept lurching forward on its branch. I trained the camera keeping it on this particular lemur and watched and waited, it started to cough continuously until it threw up, all caught on camera, I can only imagine that it must have eaten some bad berries that upset its stomach.

We spent some quality time with the lemurs, they stayed close although high up in the trees and we enjoyed watching their behaviour as they played, groomed each other and looked for food in the branches.

Eventually we had to move on, it was hard leaving the lemurs, i think we could all have stayed there for many more hours just watching them at play. We began moving back up the track and to my delight found a Praying Mantis, I am obsessed with Mantids and this one was no exception. I photographed it from every conceivable angle and as we moved on we found that once your eye was tuned in that the mantids were everywhere, we must have seen a dozen or so in one small area.

We headed back to base on the beach for a well deserved lunch and two of the group Steve and Jonas asked me if Id like to join them on a walk to explore the other side of the island and look for some rocks that had been inscribed by 17th Century Sailors. I jumped at the chance and we set off with two guides, Deremy being one of them.

On the walk, although we moved quickly, we saw more praying mantids, green backed mantilla frogs, crickets, thorn spiders hanging in their webs, a paradise fly-catcher bird and some eggs in a tree hollow. This was my favourite walk so far, it was good being with the guys as we worked well together in looking for wildlife and documenting it on camera, between us I knew we would have captured some good images of what we were seeing.

Praying Mantis, Madasgcar 2011 by A.K.

Deremy demonstrated how to use palm leaves as spoons by folding and then folding them again, he also talked of the medicines they use from the plants, nothing here is wasted, everything has its place and is used in some way.

This far side of the island seemed even more beautiful than where we had been with the group, it was more lush and here was where I saw my one Dragonfly as it flew seductively past us, too fast for an image to be taken and it did not land, but disappeared out of view. The trek had been fast as it was a long way to the other side of the island where we needed to get to and we eventually walked out of the jungle onto a small cove with huge caves covered in overgrown vines that were in the process of choking the trees in the area.

There amongst the foliage where the rocks with the names of the 17th Century Sailors in scripted quite clearly with the names ‘Thomas’ and ‘Edward’ there were other writings that we could not make out as they were not clear at all.

We started to make our way back moving as quickly as we could as we knew it was a long way back to base and we had to get there in time for the planned night search for the Aye Aye that was scheduled for 18:30pm. I started off moving at a good speed matching the guides and the boys over the trail, which was like a forested rollercoaster.

I suddenly started to feel unwell, it was odd how it came on so quickly as I had been absolutely fine all day until this moment when I felt cold and shivery, even though I had sweat running down my face, stomach and back; I also felt very nauseas.

I continued on as fast as I could, but by now the boys were well ahead of me, Deremy my favourite guide saw that something was wrong and altered his pace to accompany me and ensure I kept moving. My heart was beating very fast and dizziness kept sweeping over me, I kept stopping trying to be sick then would move forward again. The sweat poured off me and I felt colder and colder, all I wanted to do was lay on the ground and try to sleep, but knew I could not. Deremy seemed to recognise the fever that I had and encouraged me to keep going and get back to base, I was grateful as although we followed a trail would not have found my way back without him as there were many forks in the path.

We kept moving and Deremy encouraged me by saying “almost there, we almost there” and pointing forward, this made me feel cheered and move quicker, but it was another hour before he would say it again. Deremy then said, “we have long way to go still”  and my heart sank but as we moved over a hill we came into view of our little beach. Deremy laughed a huge belly laugh at my relieved face and said “it was a trick, I played a trick!” I had to laugh too as I had totally believed him.

I drank two bottles of coke to get some sugar into my system and went into the sea to wash off the sweat, even though I was shivering and cold, then once cleansed got into my tent, dried off and went to bed using all of my clothes to try to keep warm.

I knew I could not make the Aye Aye search that night and lay in my tent looking out to sea and watching the sky turn dark as the stars came out and Bats flew back and forth. Still I sweated and shivered, it was an awful feeling and the red, itchy bites I was now covered in were really irritating me which did not help when all I wanted to do was rest and recover.

Camp was quiet and empty, apart from Sandra who was sleeping further down the beach as she had been too tired to make the walk out, the rest of the group had all gone out on the search. So at around midnight I got out of my tent again and went into the sea to wash off more sweat and went naked as no one was about and hung my clothes on a tree outside the tent.

It was such a lovely moonlit night and the sea was as still as a millpond, I got in a lay there enjoying the temporary relief from all the bites which stopped itching when in the water.

The sea was once again lit up by bioluminescence and I lay floating in the water enjoying its comfort, after some time I started to get cold again and got out to walk across the moonlit beach back into my tent. As I did so I was suddenly aware of someone running towards me:

“Womans, womans quick!!! Aye Aye….they found the Aye Aye….”

It was a native who had been out helping the team to search and had been kind enough to come back knowing that there were two of us missing out on the experience.

“Hurry, hurry we go now” he said

“well I need to get dressed first! I replied

“quick we go now!!!”

“I need to get dressed” I said again

Realisation dawned and he looked at me properly and said “oooohhhh”

It was very funny, I went to my tent to get some dry clothes and he ran off down the beach to wake up Sandra who was sleeping. Sandra and the man arrived back up by my tent just as I emerged still feeling nauseous but ready to go into the forest for the chance to see the Aye Aye. Sandra was disgruntled saying that the native had run down to her tent shouting: “old womans, get up, Aye Aye they find it, wake up old womans!” which made me laugh out loud.

We followed him through the dark forest and it was not too far before we reached the rest of the group, they were all in high spirits at the sighting of the Aye Aye, but it had moved off and was now long gone. We looked for the Aye Aye in the surrounding trees in the direction it had moved off in, however there was no sign of it and to be honest I felt so weak and sick that I lost the will to look for it and headed back to camp, stopping every few minutes on the way as I was feeling so sick.

Another sleepless night followed full of cramps, shivers and nausea, I lay there watching the stars fade one by one as the night sky lightened into dawn.

I folded down the tent, scanned the trees for any stray clothes hanging up and took my bags and put them ready with the rest of the groups ready to be picked when the boats arrived.

I was still getting bitten even though I had thick socks on and long gloves covering my hands and arms, it simply made no difference. Although I loved this island, it had been the worst place for getting bitten, it could do with some Dragonflies to keep down the numbers of these biting insects, as I had noticed that where there were greater numbers of Odonata I got bitten much less.

I went back into the sea fully clothed to wait for the boats as I could not stand the biting any longer, it was literally driving me to distraction, only one other time has it been this bad and that was in Costa Rica on a coastal area.

After an hour the boast arrived and I jumped on one with Sandra, Steve and Jonas, the boys sat at the front and we sat at the back, the sea was very choppy as the boat lurched forward. We all got soaked by the waves, I had my camera equipment sealed up in waterproof bags, the boys being at the front got it far worse than we did and we laughed all the way across to the next landing at Maroantsetra.

Maroantsetra

I had been hoping that the boats would take us past the rum shop again in that little jetty, but this time they bypassed the area and took us straight to our destination enabling us to disembark onto a mass of spongy mosses where chickens ran freely and ducks waddled in and out of a large pond.

We were back at Maroantsetra where we had spent our first night and I loved it here as it was full of dragonflies that again flew past us in all directions and the huge orb weaver spiders were still in their webs. Some of the Dragonflies were so colourful with an irridescence.

Dragonfly, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

I was to share a hut once again with Sandra and before putting our bags in we headed for the bar and ordered a vanilla rum each. The Madagascans like to infuse their rum, there were bottles of rum with Vanilla pods, banana, chilli, cinnamon, ginger, etc. These are all left to infuse for 3 months before the rum is ready to drink, I tried the banana one and it was also very good.

After lunch we walked back up the dusty track past the village we had passed the first time we were here, chickens scattered as we walked and little boys ran alongside us with bicycle tyres and sticks, a game they all seemed to enjoy.

We reached a smart bridge over a large river and crossed it into a large town and market area, I much preferred it back in the quieter part as instantly felt uneasy in this busier area.

I walked with three members of the group and as we walked through a teenage boy came up very confidently and started to speak in broken English to us, I talked to him as we walked but two others joined him and I did not like the look of them at all. As we walked he nodded and the two other teenagers went behind me with one to the side, I turned sharply to face them then moved on hurrying to stay with the group. They followed us the whole way and we all felt that they were just waiting for the right opportunity to grab a bag.

We then walked down a side grassy ditch which smelled appalling as it was a sewer, the three youths hung back a little but stood watching us as we proceeded to look for Tomato frogs. one of the guides jumped into the ditch and after some searching emerged with a Tomato frog from under the foliage.

Tomato frogs are much larger than I had imagined with the females at 4 inches and the males between 2-3 inches, they are interesting fat, squashy looking frogs and are a bright red when hydrated turning a duller, faded red when dehydrated. These frogs will release a toxic substance when frightened which will cause an allergic reaction to humans, but is a great defence against birds and other smaller predators.

Tomato Frog, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

I wanted to leave this place as I still felt very uneasy, we were still being watched by the three boys that had followed us and I wanted to get back, this was the only area where I felt slightly threatened. We started to walk back and I walked with some of the group, the boys still tailed us but once we were at the bridge they stopped dead and turned back leaving us to cross back to the quieter dust track on the route past the village, I was much happier to be back in that area.

We walked down the long dust track and the villagers passed quietly by nodding a greeting as they went. back at base I charged up my camera batteries, we get a couple of hours of power here by a generator from about 6pm, so everyone rushes to get back and charge batteries while they can.

At dinner I sat with Steve and Jonas and they told me about a Tenrec that they had seen in the grounds earlier, I really wanted to see a Tenrec and so the three of us set off after dinner to search for one. We walked up and down the gardens with our headlights each covering different areas, it seemed hopeless as there was so much throny scrub and ditches everywhere set in the huge orchards. We searched for a while then I told the boys I had to get back to settle my bill at the bar, but would come back afterwards and continue with the search.

I wandered off in completely the wrong direction before realising and then doubled back, as I was sorting the bill Jonas came running in saying they had found a Tenrec, I ran back with him through the orchards really excited at the prospect of seeing one.

Steve was shouting “hurry up, I cant keep this thing here for too long, its really fast” the little Tenrec, which looked like a striped miniature hedgehog was running in all directions in an attempt to escape into the hedgerow. I just had enough time to take three quick photographs of it before it disappeared off out of view.

Tenrec, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

Tenrecs are nocturnal mammals that are like little hedgehogs, they vary in size from 2 inches to 15 inches, the one we saw that night was approximately 4 inches long, so very small.

We headed back to our huts looking for insects to photograph on the way, once there Steve could not find the key and we realised that we must have lost it back in the orchards looking for the Tenrec. The three of us headed back to search the area, on the way I spotted a snake coiled up and Jonas and I photographed it then helped Steve look for the key. We did not find it and had to go and confess to the staff that it was lost, they assured us that they would send some gardeners out to search for it in the morning.

I slept really well under my mosquito net that night as I was no longer being continually bitten which was a relief. I got up at 04:30am ready to leave for the 3 stop flights across to Tana where we would spend one night before flying out to Amber Mountain, another area that I particularly wanted to see in Madagascar.

We flew in a small plane with propellers and with the three stops where we were required to get out of the plane each time, it took us 4 hours to get to Tana when in actual fact without the 3 stops  it would have taken 45 minutes. This did not matter though as it was interesting to see the little airports.

Tana

We arrived in Tana and headed off back to the Chinese hotel where we had stayed that very stop in Madagascar, after lunch we headed off to ‘Bird lake’ which was a park with a large lake, lots of litter but also lots of water flamingos and waders congregating in clusters on the mud banks by the waterside. Rather than go for the birds though I turned my attention instead to the foliage and found it to be rich in Praying Mantises, which I filmed and photographed.

After a happy day I went to bed hoping for sleep, but none came as I was kept awake by the barking dogs and crowing cockerels which seemed to be in competition on what could make the most noise.

Montagne d’Ambre 

It was a 03:30am start the next morning, I worked out that we will have done 11 flights in 17 days by the end of this trip, this is necessary though in saving time to get to each national park. We flew from Tana to Amber Mountain and arrived to stay in some wooden chalets with verandas set in beautiful grounds with mountain views. This was my favourite part of Madagascar and is located on the most Northern tip of the island, it was much cooler here.

I washed all my clothes with soap as they reeked and my socks were frankly shocking! I hung them on the little fence surrounding the chalet, but the winds are strong here and I found them strewn over the gardens later on.

We were picked up and had a longish drive to the most stunning place I have ever seen, Amber Mountain reserve, we had to sign in and were only granted a short time to see the area. We began walking up through cool forests past waterfalls and little streams that glistened in the sunlight. I hung behind to film bits of the area with just the natural sounds and no talking from anyone.

There were huge white flowers that hung down from hedges like white trumpets with avenues of trees bent over from the wind making it look like a green tunnel, it was just the most magical place I have ever seen. I intend to go back to Amber Mountain in 2013.

I caught up with the group and together we saw a Paradise fly-catcher in its nest with its long tail feathers sticking out over the top of the nest, none of us wanted to leave, the air was so fresh and cool here and there was so much more to see.

On the long drive we stopped and did a night walk, but I did not enjoy it as there were potholes everywhere that kept tripping me up and my head torch was not giving off sufficient light for the dark area. Sandra later said that she had not enjoyed the walk either, although we saw some fantastic chameleons.

Ankarana 

We packed early the next morning ready to leave at 06:15am for the 4 hour drive to Tsingy Reserve, I jumped into a vehicle with Steve, Jonas and Michael. The drive was long, dusty and very bumpy over ridged track roads that threw up red sand dust, I filmed some of the journey, which threw you up on your seat with some of the bumps.

We eventually stopped on a mountainside and started a walk up a very steep track with thorn-bush either side of it, the area was intensely hot and very exposed and I could feel my skin burning from the sun, in fact I felt as though I was being fried as the sun was so intense. It was a great walk though as we saw Black Crowned lemurs and a nocturnal Sportive lemur sitting in a tree hollow with its huge orange eyes peering out at us, if there was a staring competition the Lemur would definitely win.

I was happy to get back down to the vehicles to escape from the intensity of the sun, but had enjoyed the walk and we set off once more along the very bumpy track for an additional hour across to our next destination nearer the Tsingy reserve itself.

Tsingy is made up of a vast, dramatic landscape of razor-sharp limestone formations, pinnacles and caves that are surrounded by dry, deciduous forests, the area is also extremely hot and arid. The place we stayed at was a set of chalets painted white on dry, open land that was surrounded by mostly dead trees ravaged from the constant winds, I tried to keep the front door open by using 5 rocks, but the winds still forced them to shut.

The next day we walked through the deciduous forests of tall, straight silver trees that rustled their leaves in the breeze and walked on and across some rocks through more forest until we reached the Tsingy rock formations.

Tsingy was as amazing as I had imaged it would be with a sea of razor-sharp rocks pointing skywards, it was a photographers dream.

On the walk back we found a Scops Owl sitting on a branch, it was beautiful and I had not realised that Scops Owls were so small, it sat there contentedly occasionally hooting gently and let me film it, that was an absolute highlight for me, I was inches away from the owl.

My Scops Owl, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

I really enjoyed this area and the walk back through the silvery trees, we saw a sportive lemur and its baby in a tree and a lone Dragonfly which flew from tree to tree.

On returning back to base we were give some time off before the afternoon trek out to see a Bat cave, something that I was particularly interested and excited about seeing. I washed out my clothes and hung them out to dry on the dead trees, they were dry in 10 minutes. The wind was really strong as it whistled and howled through the buildings, I had never heard wind make such a howling noise before, it was really loud.

At 15:45pm we got kitted up ready for the trek to the Bat cave, the walk was amazing as we saw Crowned Lemurs with their babies on their backs, one which had jumped into an old water tank that randomly sat in the forest. As it drank it would lean right into the barrel to get to the water, the baby clung wode eyed on its back and would disappear from view only to re-emerge when the adult lemur came up for air.

On the water barrel, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

We then heard someone ahead of us shout that a Ring Tailed Mongoose was sighted so we ran forward to have a look at it, in fact such was our enthusiasm that we stampeded right through the middle of a campsite jumping over their fire as they cooked their food. There were four Americans at the site camping and they were extremely good about us appearing out of nowhere like that. The Mongoose was a joy to watch as it scurried about the camp site looking for scraps of food to eat, it slinked about in a secretive, sneaky way.

Ringtailed Mongoose, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

We continued on through the dry forests, it was a great walk as we were getting to see so much wildlife on the way with lemurs, geckos and chameleons. We reached a very rocky area, the rocks were huge and steep in places and we had little choice but to climb over them to get down to the cave, which was quite a long way down. Sandra had come to a halt and was crying, I felt so sorry for her, she said that the walk was too physical for her and that she could not go on any further. It was understandable, one of the guides came and sat with her, I gave her a hug and but explained that I had to go on and get to the cave. A couple of the others in the group also hung back as they were a little uncomfortable with the drop down rock scrambles, I am not sure whether they made it to the cave or not, as I did not see them, only the first part of the group that were ahead.

I continued on climbing downwards and then reaching approximately 90 rock steps which I walked carefully down until the cave came into view. It was huge and the area was filled with the echoed sounds of the bats as they called to each other and flew in and out of the cave entrance. I filmed some of this with the first part of the group going into the cave, they looked tiny in comparison to the size of the entrance.

I then went in myself and marvelled at the sheer size of the cave, looking upwards the roof was covered in Fruit Bats, there were hundreds of them, some hanging there and others fighting with each other for their chosen spot. The group melted away and I just stood there in the darkness listening to the sounds of the bats, it was so impressive and their cries were so primitive sounding, I recorded the sounds but also do not think I will ever forget them.

The lovely looking Jonas came over to me, he was sweating profusely in heat of the cave and said he had found a giant spider further in, Steve, Michael and a local guide came with us. I was extremely glad of the guide as the area was pretty dangerous to cross being a narrow ledge with a drop on one side and the cave wall on the other, I had no choice but to edge forward, inching my way along. I kept my balance by putting my hands into the crevices of the rock wall, but in doing this often found my hand going through thick webbing, it was better I thought not to look with the head torch at the wall too much as there were many whip scorpion spiders and huge crickets in there, better just to go for it and get across.

I was shaking with fear at that crossing as even the guide slipped, however, cross it we did and it was worth it to see the spider, it was indeed huge, the size of a mans hand and I photographed it and even filmed it for a few seconds before inching my way back across the ledge to the wider cave floor.

Nearer the entrance I took some time to film the bats flying in and out of the cave, from here it looked great as the sky was fading fast into night and they looked fantastic in flight. I then made my way slowly and carefully up the rock steps and then the climb over the huge rocks upwards, Steve, Jonas and Michael were sat where the rocks ended watching the bats from there as many of them flew through the area at close quarters.

We moved on and back along the forest trail, spotting things as we went and finding a Leaf Tailed Gecko near where the vehicles were parked at the end of the walk, which we photographed from every conceivable angle.

Leaf Tailed Gecko, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

I got back to my room and having the twinges of the usual stomach upset return headed for the bathroom to find a bright red centipede in the shower, I filmed the arthropod as it ran around the space erratically in all directions, I hoped it would be gone my the morning down the plug hole from where it had come from.

Once again the wind howled loudly through the night and so at 04:45am as soon as it was light I got up and went outside to film some Cattle Egrets that were scratching about looking for food, the moon was full and the sky was still dotted with stars that were fading fast.

A madagascan full moon, 2011 by A.K.

Afterwards, I went back into the bathroom the centipede or the ‘thing’ as I called it had gone so I jumped in the shower, suddenly I felt something run over my foot and there it was again, it had re-emerged out of the plug hole, its stinging front venom claws clearly on view. I jumped out and ran to get my plastic box ‘creature catcher’ and coaxed the thing into it and released it outside.

The centipede would no doubt head to the nearest damp place it could find out there as they require moisture losing it through their skin as unlike other insects do not have the wax protective coating. I was glad to see the back of it as although I love insects, I was not so happy with this one being around due to the size of its stingers.

Bags had to be packed ready once more for the next stage of the journey, this would involve a 4 hour drive to a waterfront, then a boat ride across to a place called Helle-Ville, Andoany near to the islands of Nosy Komba ad Nosy Be.

Helle-Ville/Nosy Komba/Nosy Be

After the 4 hour drive which was really pleasant seeing the countryside, we had a 45 minute boat trip across to a small port where we had to disembark up some iron steps that were so rusty half of them had completely rotted and fallen away, so it was a case of watch where you step. Bags were handed up over our heads to porters waiting on the dock above us and the place bustled with people and looked like a scene from ‘Casablanca‘.

It was a wonderful little port with a tiny shed saying ‘Police Station’written on it, you would struggle to get three people in there standing up, this amused us greatly. We were given flower garlands as a welcome and got onto two mini buses with a short drive to a hotel for two nights stay.

We drove past some really interesting little markets where people seemed to be selling everything, there were even TVs stacked up by a hut, this made me smile as there is very limited to no electricity in these areas so I wondered how they were going to watch the TVs. A local guide told me that many of the locals just like having a TV, but did not switch it on, it was more a thing of pride to have in the house.

I did not like it that we were staying in the hotel and would have far preferred a couple of nights camping on the beach here instead, the hotel seemed out-of-place. After lunch I met Steve, Michael and Jonas and we set off in search of wildlife, we followed an overgrown path by a disused railway track and there found two striking Panther Chameleons  and three Geckos on the tree trunks. Then we went back and the boys had a beer and I had my rum and we talked of planning further adventures as we watched the sunset go down. 

I went back to wash my clothes and hung them to dry on a fence outside, unlike Tsingy where it was so arid that things would be dry in 10 minutes, here it was humid and took over 2 days to get the clothes anywhere near dry, even then they still remained damp.

At dinner we were joined by a couple of stray cats that looked as if they were starving, Steve, Jonas and I all gave them bits of our dinner which consisted of crab, fish and meat for the boys. Although we did it discretely, the staff soon realised what we were doing and came and stood right next to us shooing off the cats and then hovering around us looking disapproving. This really only served to make us want to feed the cats even more and we did so rebelling against the staff at every given opportunity, the cats did well out of it.

After dinner that night Steve, Jonas and I went off looking for chameleons to photograph, we went back to the spot by the old railway track and photographed the two Panther Chameleons that we had found earlier. We also found some really interesting insects including a type of Lace Moth and some Golden frogs mating in an old water tank.

I was really enjoying the night walk but started to get bad stomach twinges again, it seems Steve and Jonas were also feeling ill and so we gave up for the night and headed back, I looked for insects a little longer as I wanted to find a Praying Mantis in this area.

Next morning at breakfast, everyone looked a little poorly, I ate very little then went off to the gardens to look for things and found a Tortoise eating Hibiscus flowers, I ran back to tell the boys and they came out to photograph it.

Later we caught a boat across to Nosy Komba Island famous for its Black Lemurs and disembarked by jumping into the sea and onto this beautiful island where children were playing jumping off boats into the sea and women hung out rows and rows of huge brightly coloured embroidered cloths often used here as curtains. We headed across to what looked like a shack and had one of the best meals of the entire trip of fishes, crabs, rice and chips.

Jonas and I went off looking for wildlife, as the group often sat long at the table and we could not bear to waste a second in case we might see something. We decided to explore a pretty looking area that had some trees and foliage to look for Geckos and Chameleons only to find that it was in fact a latrine area.

We joined the group and went off to find the Black lemurs, we soon found them grooming each other up a tree and I filmed this while the others photographed them, they were so interesting to watch. It was a lovely day spent here watching the Lemurs and later wandering through the coastal village which was so friendly, I bought some fresh vanilla pods to infuse my rum with.

Black Lemur, Madagascar 2011 by A.K.

The next day we got a boat across to the island of Nosy Be, in complete contrast to Nosy Komba which was far more rustic and interesting, Nosy Be was commercialised with a European feel to it.

While the rest of the group went to look at the island, three of us Debbie, Michael and myself went snorkelling in the clear waters as the coral reef here is known to be excellent. It was, we swam over brightly coloured corals, red fire coral and huge brain corals, corals of red, yellow, orange, purple, green and blue with huge black, spikey sea urchins lodged between them, there were clusters of the urchins everywhere. You had to be careful not to put your foot on them as the pain from a spike entering your foot is said to be extremely painful and one of the best ways to help it is to urinate on it.

Shoals of brightly coloured fish weaved their way navigating through the 30 metres of coral gardens, they were amazing, from huge striped silver fish to minute bright blue fish, species included: surgeon fish, groupers, parrot fish, unicorn fish, barracuda, king fish, tazar and yellow tuna.

There were also hundreds of Jelly Fish, all of which seemed to be stinging me, I could see at least four different types of species and they left red marks on my arms and legs that looked like small whip lashes, at one point I was literally jumping out of the water to get away from the stingers.

Later I walked with Michael up beach to a small area of trees where there was a colony of Flying Fox Bats all hanging in their upside down positions from the branches.

We started heading back to Helle-Ville on the boats, Steve and Jonas sat opposite Sandra and I, the sea was very choppy further out and at one point a huge wave came over our small boat and slapped both boys in the face, soaking them completely.

Sandra and I laughed and laughed at the boys who sat there drenched through, they took it well grinning at our obvious delight at their misfortune.

It was the final night of the trip and as soon as dinner was finished I was off and out searching the grounds, I found a delightful Praying Mantis that was stalking a beetle, as it went for a beetle, the beetle flew off, just as a cat’s paw swiped the mantis and the mantis flew off. I wish I had caught that little sequence on film.

The cats were surviving on a diet of beetles and cockroaches, I could tell from the cats faces when they were eating them that they did not enjoy eating the insects, but that they had little choice and I followed them and watched them hunting for while. I also found the Praying mantis again and stayed almost 2 hours watching its behaviour.

Also there was a colony of ants attacking an unfortunate golden beetle and moving it along the stoney ground, I filmed this for a while but felt sorry for the beetle that was putting up a good fight against the relentless ants. In the end I rescued it and moved it well away from them to recover and get away.

The next morning we were all packed to leave but had 3 hours or so to kill before leaving for the airport, having itchy feet as usual I had suggested that Steve, Jonas, Michael and I hire a small boat and go and explore the tiny island opposite to see what was over there.

They all agreed but on the day Steve and Jonas were both ill, Michael and I decided to do the crossing anyway. I had arranged for a boat to pick us up at 9am, we waited and waited but nothing, as we were about to give up a local called out “boat come, boat come” and so we headed off in the small boat. We had to make it very clear to the boatman to please come and get us at 11:30am as we had to leave for the airport at lunchtime, I was slightly nervous that he had not understood and that we could be left there.

The island was a real little gem to explore, after walking into the village latrine area ( I seem to have a habit of doing this ) we climbed to the top of the island and took in the spectacular view. We walked over a lava field and old volcanic rocks on a trail of red dust surrounded by lush vegetation and came to a large hut where some perfect harmonised singing could be heard, we realised that it being Sunday it must be the local islanders church. I filmed it and recorded the singing from outside so as not to disturb anyone.

We walked on and found a cluster of huge twisted mangrove roots in a dried out swamp that was now a ditch covered in flies. We jumped down into it and found hundreds of Green backed Mantella frogs and a species we had not seen with a different marking on its back. We were getting bitten badly here though and could only tolerate so much before we had to get out and then realising the time headed back across the island down to the beach.

Thankfully the boatman had understood and was waiting for us as he talked to some fishermen, he took us back across to Helles-Ville and we tipped him. Fish, one of the group (he is called ‘fish’ as he writes about them) was standing onshore and as we approached said “welcome to Cleethorpes” which made us both laugh.

I went off to get my bags, joined the group and we flew firstly to Tana and had couple of hours there for a meal and freshen up before flying on to Heathrow Airport in the UK.

I was very sad to leave Madagascar, this has been perhaps the best trip I have done so far for the diversity of the endemic wildlife, in the adventures of exploring places such as the bat cave and in the group being such fantastic company, its rare to get all of that.

To see the entire gallery of Madagascar images please go to: www.amanda-king-akimages.com

Since this trip I have made plans to go on a caving expedition with Jonas in 2012 and also Jonas, Steve, Michael and I have talked of returning to Madagascar to map out our own routes to explore in 2013.

To view the full Gallery of images please go to: www.amanda-king-akimages.com