MADAGASCAR: Masoala National Park

Our hearts sunk the moment we reluctantly added our rucksacks to the chaotic pile of luggage at Heathrow Terminal 2. Red-faced, flustered airport employees loaded up trolleys and tessellated them inside a cordoned-off area, like a giant game of Tetris. All baggage for all flights to all destinations in one enormous, disorganised heap. Whilst most workers were unwilling to answer our questions, one porter declared it very unlikely our luggage would make it to the plane. Loitering just beyond the makeshift barrier, trying hopelessly to calculate a strategy to enable our bags to somehow triumph over the thousands of others, we were eventually forced to accept our fate and moved through to departures.

Things didn’t improve. Our flight time of 9pm arrived and disappeared whilst the information screen still instructed us to ‘please wait’. There was no one from our airline – Ethiopian – available to explain what was happening so we did as it said. At 10pm, as the terminal was beginning to shut down for the night, the digital display came to life and informed us that the flight would be departing at 11pm. With no gate listed, we took a wander to try and find a help desk: all were unattended. Eventually another airline’s employee suggested a gate to try and so, for want of an alternative option, we made our way there. She was correct and we were finally able to speak to someone who explained there were storms over Europe delaying the flights and that we’d probably be departing around midnight. The outlook for the bags – an unrelated matter it transpired – was not positive.

Eventually, we boarded. It was a tense seven-hour flight, knowing that we would have missed our connection in Ethiopia and wondering whether our bags would make it. Our other main concern was that being more than 12 hours late arriving in Madagascar would mean us missing an expensive chartered flight to a remote area of rainforest.

On landing in Addis Ababa, after circling a fight between a very irate passenger and an armed guard, a helpful employee instantly put us on replacement flights to Antananarivo (Madagascar’s capital), via Nairobi, Kenya and assured us our bags were in the airport ready to join our next flight. We would make it in time for the chartered flight! Relieved, we relaxed a little and made our way to the Silver Lounge for a complimentary meal of chicken casserole, rice and vegetables and a snooze in some comfier seats.

Two flights later, feeling guiltily optimistic after over-hearing another passenger being told that one of their bags was the only one missing from the flight, we disembarked at Antananarivo airport. It was 2am. We’d been travelling for 31 hours and had missed our intended night’s accommodation in the capital, so had resigned ourselves to an uncomfortable few hours in the little airport before the next flight.

Wearily, we stood by the baggage carousel and waited. And waited. And waited until, through a little window, a man gestured to me that there were no more bags. They weren’t there. As the last few remaining passengers departed the airport and the porters lay down on the stationary carousel to sleep, we filed our ‘property irregularity report’.

We had four hours until our unmissable flight to the tiny town of Maroantsetra that would be our jumping-off point for reaching the most remote area of Madagascan rainforest. Our minds whirred. Where in the world were the bags – London, Ethiopia, Kenya? How long, therefore, could it take for them to arrive? And, if they were found and sent to Madagascar, how would they catch up with us if we kept moving? We had nothing but the clothes we were wearing and our uselessly camera-filled hand luggage. As it sunk in, we began to recall all the items we didn’t have: malaria tablets, waterproof coats and leech socks for the rainforest, toiletries, contact lenses needed for diving, sun cream and mosquito repellent, sleeping bags and warm layers for the cold nights, my camera battery charger… not to mention clothing of course.

I guess we’d been complacent. We’ve taken a lot of flights over the past few years. We no longer planned for the worst. We were absolutely not prepared to be without essential medication and basic toiletries!

We made a list. What could we not do without? It was like a very distressing real-life version of the game where you choose ten items to take to a desert island. Sticking to the absolute essentials, we translated them into French, and set about trying to establish the existence of some kind of 24-hour shop. However, we quickly realised that our halting French was useless to the kind of people milling about Tana airport in the middle of the night. Needless to say, our Malagasy was non-existent so we were stuck. Feeling rather helpless and waiting for morning, we purchased a local SIM in the hope it might help in the coming days whilst trying to chase down our bags.

Eventually, at around 5am, we decided to make our way to the Sky Services office a couple of streets away, where we’d been instructed to meet for the next flight. The sun hadn’t yet risen so we were shivering as we reached the office but we were met by a friendly man who offered us strong coffee, pastries and a place to sit. Incidentally, I should point out that we are not usually in the habit of travelling in style on chartered flights, but once we’d read the guide books and learned of Masoala National Park – it’s remoteness and it’s untouristed-ness – we became hooked on the idea of going there and this was the only way that fit our itinerary. You only live once – we figured – and you really only go to Madagascar once so you may as well make it count!

Regulations for the flight had been strict. Upon booking, we’d been asked our weights (you had to be under 85kg or buy a second seat!) and this was checked and documented on arrival. We’d also been informed that all a passenger’s bags must total no more than a completely non-negotiable 20kg. We’d worried endlessly about this back home and had both been just under the limit when we’d last seen our bags in London but, as it turned out, it was a moot point!

This is when the best stuff started to happen. We asked the man in the office if there might be a pharmacy nearby intending to get a rush there in a taxi to buy some essentials. But, with barely a word, he led us to his car and drove us a fair distance through the dawn streets that were just waking up. Our hearts sank, again, when we realised the metal shutters were all pulled down. Confused, we followed him to the shop anyway where we were surprised to discover a small, square hole in the thick wall – probably no more than 25cm wide. Beyond sat a young man with his earphones in – not particularly the sort of person you expect to be running a pharmacy – and behind him were well-lit displays of an array of ointments and lotions and bottles and boxes. I’m not sure he knew much about the goods he was meant to be selling since locating what we requested, via our list of French translations and our helpful friend turning them into Malagasy, proved something of a challenge for him. He also only looked for one item at a time resulting in upwards of ten trips around the shop for him. The whole process had the air of a game show to it! Anyway, the long and the short of it was that we managed to get soap (made for babies and not very soapy), a toothbrush (yes, they only had one in stock!), toothpaste, mosquito repellent (which turned out to be excellent), painkillers and some awful-smelling wet-wipes. It wasn’t much but it was a start.

Time was running out so we drove back through the hustle and bustle of an early Madagascan morning with market stalls selling everything imaginable including underwear which we gazed at longingly from the car window! Back at the office, our seven fellow passengers had arrived. We got chatting and the inevitable question of, ‘How are you travelling so light?’ arose, garnering a lot of sympathy as you might imagine. A girl travelling with her friend gave us a second toothbrush (an odd thing to carry a spare of, I thought) and donated me a long-sleeved top. I was so pleased! But then the most unbelievable thing happened: a woman travelling with her family of five said they had excess malaria tablets that they’d be happy to give us! People don’t usually travel with malaria tablets they don’t need. And malaria tablets cost a fair amount of money so people don’t generally just give them away. We had enough for 15 days! These were the only tourists we had encountered (and would encounter) and yet they had just what we needed most!

Anyway, so around 7am we arrived at the little airstrip to find our tiny propeller plane waiting for us.

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Despite really needing a fresh set of clothes and some sleep, we felt very fancy! The pilot greeted us all individually and we climbed aboard, Dean and I getting the front seats. Here’s a blurry photo of us all squeezed in:

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The 100-minute flight was amazing. Exhilarating! For a while, we forgot our worries and flying over the rainforest only made us more excited about the days ahead!

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As we touched down, we sped along the runway barely noticed by local farmers, women doing their washing, chickens and zebu just metres away! The small airport building had seen better days and was covered in flaking white paint. There were no discernible employees around to instruct us so we made our way over to the door which was obstructed by a small group of people who had been watching the plane land. We had nothing to collect from the very low-tech baggage area so, realising we had no phone signal to contact the guide we’d arranged, we took a taxi named Rosalinda (a man’s name here believe it or not) to the town. Our ‘plan’ was to cruise around until we found someone who knew the guide we were looking for – Lauriot (details of all guides and parks will be in a forthcoming post). It didn’t take long.

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He was about our age and spoke English well. We explained our situation and he agreed to help us shop. We knew that, without his help, we would struggle to make ourselves understood and would almost certainly be charged a premium for anything we purchased. The shops were more like market stalls and the choice was limited. We soon discovered that we are generally large compared to Malagasy people and that they don’t wear socks! Over the next hour, though, we managed to buy three pairs of underwear each, a pair of socks each (limited by availability not requirement), a pair of trousers for Dean, a T-shirt each, some deodorant, a plug adapter and a rucksack to put it all in. Our usual predisposition towards indecision had to be shelved and all in all I think we were fairly efficient in the time available. Knowing we’d want to claim back our expenditure, we tried to get receipts but this was an alien concept in most places!

Next we were introduced to Augustin who was to be our guide. We returned to where we’d left our bags, had a quick omelette for brunch, then boarded a waiting speed boat which took us beyond the town and about 90 minutes across a bay to the little village of Tampolo.

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We docked on a tiny stretch of pebbles in front of a wooden terrace and timed our jump from boat to shore to avoid soaking our shoes. A welcome drink of mango juice and some fresh, hot samosas were awaiting our arrival.

Our stilted bungalow at L’Hippocampe was basic. It was not very clean. Waterproof but far from wildlife-proof, it had a mosquito net and a thick blanket for the cold nights! There was a normal toilet but a bowl instead of a sink; a bucket and a hose pipe with a spray nozzle delivered cold rainwater as a shower.

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I’d say we took a few minutes to freshen up and change our clothes after our near-sleepless 45-hour journey but, alas, we didn’t have clothes to waste so it was straight out on our first Masoala National Park hike with Augustin! To get there, we had to head along the beach where we saw houses belonging to fishermen (and their wives) and an enormous number of geese. We poked our heads inside one to see the shelves of fish being smoked next to a simple bed and its owner’s few meagre possessions.

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Once we got to the forest we didn’t see a whole lot before it grew dark, but it was great to be out in the jungle at last: the soaring trees, the river and its waterfalls and the green. Endless green. The trails were clearly marked so that the forest and its inhabitants could be respected whilst allowing humans to explore it.

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Back at camp that evening, we enjoyed a forest-style three-course meal. I don’t make a habit of describing our meals but, so you get the idea of what the three days were like, I’ll detail this one as a representative. The starter was a large plate of macaroni, sweetcorn and red onion pickled in vinegar, which was weirdly nice, and accompanied by freshly-baked bread rolls. This was followed by omelette for me and fish skewers for Dean with carrots on the side. And then we finished with a kind of vanilla blancmange and banana. Simple but filling.

That night – although freezing cold – we attempted to shower and wash our clothes. We later realised this had been a foolish plan given that even dry things don’t remain dry in the rainforest so drying wet things was a challenge!

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We fell asleep to the sound of the sea and the frogs, but the night was a restless one due to the scuttling noises which seemed to be in the room with us!

A stack of crepes with jam and fresh forest honey, along with warm bread rolls awaited us before sunrise. The sounds had changed. Now it was the birdsong that filled the air: they were waking up and we were keen to get out into the forest to join them. Here’s who we spotted: Madagascar bulbul, Madagascar magpie-robin, red-breasted coua and crested drongo.

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The deal with this kind of trekking is that you must be silent. You walk behind the guide; you stop when he stops; you listen and look; you feel guilty if it’s your footstep that breaks a twig! Augustin was on high alert throughout, as all good guides are. His stick of bamboo was used for clearing spider webs from the route and for pointing out wildlife and trees like cinnamon, wild ginger, aniseed and palms.

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He would stop from time to time, poke the ground with his stick and then reveal the most camouflaged frogs!

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We trekked all morning, not seeing another soul, then finally, as we were approaching lunchtime, Augustin seemed to start walking in circles, backtracking, straying from the main paths. Suddenly, he stopped and pointed upwards. There, high, high in a tree was a solitary, shy red-ruffed lemur.

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We stayed to watch for a little while then left him to sleep.

The afternoon brought a walk around the village and a chameleon encounter. Augustin showed us a small nearby garden growing papaya, lychee, cacao, cloves, coffee, jackfruit, banana, mango, coconut, breadfruit and the much-coveted vanilla (which became dearer than silver for a short while recently). (The second photo shows a separate kitchen next to the main house.)

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This is Augustin showing us how a certain leaf can be turned into a spoon; it’s still used today for large gatherings and celebrations.

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There were also pigs!

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I’d mentioned I’m a teacher so Augustin also arranged for us to pop into the local school. There were four wooden buildings spaced out around a playground. We met the principal who looked to be in his early 20s. He showed us the reception class with a very excitable collection of children dressed in matching uniforms then showed us inside each of the other rooms one by one.

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After the first, I asked him where the teacher was: he said he was the teacher. He came with us to the other two and it materialised that he was actually teaching all three rooms! And two of them had two separate classes in! With little but chalkboards and wooden furniture in each, they were very sparse. Every time I visit schools around the world, I’m reminded how lucky we are in the UK to have our education system, flawed as it is.

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That night, we took a night walk around the village on the hunt for some nocturnal critters. I opted out of photography so these are from Dean: a sleeping Madagascar paradise flycatcher and a baby tree boa.

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After turning our bed into a mosquito net island, raising all our belongings off the floor and putting in earplugs, we managed to have a much better night of shut-eye!

Early the following morning, we packed (ha ha!) and readied ourselves for the speedboat ride to our next destination: Nosy Mangabe – a tropical island all of our own! More on that next time!

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