Sunday, March 29, 2015

March 28th – The Road Less Travelled in Mahajanga

Even though it's the 4th biggest city in the country, the obscure port town of Mahajanga in north eastern Madagascar isn't used to getting many tourists..... and it shows. That isn't necessarily meant in a negative way, because the people we met had a real enthusiasm about them, and we saw a side of Madagascar that hasn't been adulterated in any way for us tourists. There is though, a downside to the lack of tourism - in that the infrastructure and the equipment wasn't really ready for a bunch of 5 star tourists. However, if you saw our visit as "an experience" rather than purely as a sightseeing opportunity, then it could be a fairly rewarding and definitely very interesting experience. Here, we were seeing the "real Madagascar".

Tracy went on a tour that took her around town and into the countryside beyond, so I'm using some of her pictures of town. However, while she saw that Mahajanga has a relatively developed infrastructure (all things are relative, so it wasn't very smart in the slightest), I joined a tour that crossed the wide estuary by speed boat and went to the Antrema Natural Reserve – a part of Madagascar that looked like it didn't even get visits from the Mahajangans, never mind from any tourists.

We'd been warned that the buses that were to provide our transport were going to be old and basic, but we really weren't quite expecting them to be quite as old or as basic as they turned out. The bus I travelled on must have been at least 50 years old, while instead of a windscreen, it had a sheet of plastic across it – God knows what would have happened if it had been raining.

But, when we saw the state of the roads, we could see why the suspension was shot, and why the bus was totally beaten up – the road was just mud, and it was totally rutted and pot-holed. After a push start, the old engine roared deafeningly as we slowly bounced, bumped, and ground our way along this assault course of a road – I dread to imagine what the Madagascans consider to be "off road", but it was unbelievable to hear that this track we were travelling on was officially designated as a National Road.

This was by a long way the worst road that I've ever driven on, and in my most dilapidated tour bus, but this really was a genuine Madagascar experience and it gave our trip an added adventure. With roads as bad as this, you can understand why the most repeated phrase heard in Madagascar is "mora mora" – slowly, slowly. Nothing happens (or can happen) here at a fast pace.

As we bounced along, out of the cracked windows, we got glimpses of Madagascan rural life – basic villages of straw huts populated with barefoot children. It looked pretty poor, but no-one appeared to be starving.

Eventually, after our vertebra-altering drive, we made it to our end destination – the Antrema Reserve, where we were greeted by an enthusiastic group of women, singing lustily and dancing energetically. After that drive, we needed someone to re-energise us, and they certainly did that.

Unfortunately, it had taken a long time to get our tenders into the port, so our time at the reserve was somewhat truncated; however, we had time to meet the "King" of the village (a man whose royal regalia appeared to be having the best sunglasses in the village). He insisted that we take part in an incomprehensible ceremony in his hut, which (almost inevitably) ended in some money changing hands.

We just about had time to see some white lemurs in the trees leaping around from branch to branch, before it was time to head back through the forest to our awaiting beaten-up transport. Somehow, the road didn't seem as bad going back as it had on the way there – maybe we'd got anaesthetised to the bumps by now.

In the cruising world there's not many places where you really are getting off the beaten track, but Mahajanga was it.

March 26th – Playing With The Lemurs in Nosy Be

Madagascar is one of the world's economic basket cases in economic and political terms, but what the ongoing economic and political crises can't dull is the brilliance of its nature and wildlife, and particularly its population of captivating lemurs. So, from the inauspiciously-named port of Hell-Ville on Nosy Be, we took the boat trip out to the island of Nosy Komba to get a close encounter of a lemur kind.

As soon as we'd waded ashore on the beach in Nosy Komba, it soon became apparent that Madagascar is sitting on a demographic time bomb – there were children absolutely everywhere, most of them trying to make some a few dollars from us tourists, by singing and dancing. Our guide tried to tell us that they were off school for the Easter holidays, but I suspect that they'd have been waiting for us anyway. It made me feel a little uneasy, seeing 4-year old children desperately singing and dancing for our entertainment, but at least they weren't just begging hopelessly like they do in other parts of Madagascar.

The lemur park on Nosy Komba is on a fairly well worn tourist trail, so in addition to the many groups of busking children, the whole village seemed to be one giant souvenir stand, while even the lemurs seemed to appear to order for us. On our trek up into the thick forest, we saw so many colourful geckoes and lizards, and chameleons so incredibly well-camouflaged against the tree bark that you could scarcely make them out at all.

But, we were here for the star of the show, the super-cute lemurs, who were more than happy to pose for photos on our shoulders, round our necks, and on our heads in return for a bit of mushy banana. Even though I've now encountered lemurs quite a few times, I can never get enough of them – they are so incredibly cute, with their big, bulging eyes, their slightly quizzical looks, and their soft, gentle hands. They'll gently nibble away at the banana off your finger without ever being too grabby, and they delicately grab your hand to pull it closer to them.

The lemurs in the park are black lemurs (although the females are chestnut brown), and they were as friendly as any I've met – although one did manage to wipe his less-than-clean backside on Tracy's shoulder, which wasn't her best birthday present. In contrast to her lemur, the one that was on my shoulder actually smelt very nice (almost freshly laundered), and he didn't appear to want to get off, in spite of lots of encouragement from me once the bananas had all been consumed.

As ever, it was another magical lemur experience – I love these animals!

At the end of the tour, before I went back to the ship, I had time to get the shuttle bus into Hell-Ville, to see what was going on there. The town always used to be a fairly hellish place, but over the last couple of years, it appears to have cleaned up its act a little. A lot of it is still fairly dilapidated, but the roads in town were good and many of the buildings seemed to have been freshly painted (although, you only had to go into the backstreets, to find the non-existent roads and crumbling buildings that I've come to expect from Madagascar). The fact that 2 direct flights from Milan arrive every week at Nosy Be's international airport, bringing package tourists into its burgeoning beach resorts, is obviously injecting some badly-needed cash into the local economy. The people were well dressed and friendly, and there was no begging that I could see.

I went to the market, which also seems to have cleaned up its act a little – although, the meat section was as smelly and fly-covered as you can imagine it would be after a day in 40 degree heat without any sign of refrigeration. Then, on my walk back to the port, I passed plenty of once-grand colonial buildings in vary states of repair – as the first place where the French put down roots in Madagascar in the 1840s, this must have been a surprisingly developed place at the start of the 20th century.

Madagascar may not have had much money spent on it since then, and especially since independence in 1960, but Nosy Be appears to be as good as this deprived country gets.

March 26th – “Back in Europe” in Mayotte

Having left behind the chaos of the East African coast, we sailed into the relative order and calm of the obscure French territory of Mayotte – finally leaving the huge stretch of ocean that is within the reach of the dreaded Somalian pirates.

In fact, it was odd to be this far from Europe, yet now be entering into the European Union. Because, this Indian Ocean island has the distinction of being the most recent French Departement, when it became a full part of France in 2011, and so the French government is spending millions of Euros trying to bring the territory out of the Third World, and into the First World.

Whether an African and overwhelmingly Muslim island can be integrated into Europe (both culturally and economically) remains to be seen, but the French are trying hard. Certainly, the people of Mayotte enjoy one of the best standards of living in the region – light years ahead of East Africa, or their neighbours in the Comoros Islands, or in Madagascar that we'll be visiting tomorrow.

According to our admittedly jaded ex-pat guide, the handouts from France have only served to make the local people lazy and unwilling to take much initiative for themselves. It emerged that this was our guide's final ever tour and that he was leaving the island for good after 10 years, so he had clearly fallen out of love with the island – but he gave us a lot of examples to back up his viewpoint. His view was that the wonderful natural environment here (with fruit growing naturally in abundance, and the seas full of fish) meant that the people had never had to work too hard for anything, and that now that they could qualify for French benefits and subsidies, local "industry" had slowed down to a standstill.

They're certainly lucky to be living on such a fertile and lush island – our visit to the colourful botanic gardens confirmed this, plus we also caught a sight of the island's distinctive makis (Mayotte's version of the lemur). After the gardens, we were taken on a drive around much of this beautiful island, stopping for lunch at one of its gorgeous beaches. Most of the beaches that we saw was deserted – this is down to two causes. Firstly, the locals have traditionally been taught to be scared of the sea, so few of the adults can actually swim – we bumped into a large group of over-excited kids at one beach being taught to swim by their teachers from France. Secondly, the tourist industry hasn't really discovered Mayotte yet – there are high hopes that the island can be turned into a new Mauritius or Seychelles, but they're some distance from achieving that.

At the end of our tour, we had a quick explore of the capital, Mamoudzou – even though there were a lot of people around, it had a fairly sleepy, laid back atmosphere that really didn't seem very Islamic at all. Perhaps its best feature was its lively covered market (one of the cleanest that I've encountered in Africa) and it was well stocked with all the spices that are grown here.

So, Mayotte is an odd mixture of First and Third World, a blend of Africa and Europe, a combination of Islam and the secular. With its backing from France, it's a place with plenty of potential – as long as its people are willing to grasp the opportunity.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

March 22nd to 24th – Ngorongoro Crater

Leaving the seething, chaotic city of Mombasa is never too hard a prospect to contemplate, but when you're flying out to go on safari in the amazing Ngorongoro Crater, then you really can't wait to go. I was joining the ship's overland adventure that would take us on a succession of buses, light aeroplanes, and safari jeeps rides, from the urban jungle of Mombasa in Kenya, to the open spaces of Tanzania, and eventually to the spectacular caldera at Ngorongoro.

It took a long time to get there, but there was lots to see on the way - the flight passed by Mount Kilimanjaro peaking out of the clouds, while the bus ride passed through so many interesting villages with lots of colourful local life going on. It's hard to get the feel of a country from a jeep window, but Tanzania clearly has lots of challenges (in terms of its infrastructure and economy); however, the people aren't dirt poor and economic development appears to be moving fairly quickly. We got lots of waves and smiles from the locals as we passed, and generally, it seemed a fairly happy environment.

But, at last we got there, and arrived at the luxurious Exploreans Lodge – every need was catered for, and the individual lodges were simply huge. Seeing as Tracy was accompanying the trip to Galdessa Camp in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, and staying in a tent there (albeit a glorified one), I did feel a little guilty enjoying the electricity, the hot water, the wifi, the mini-bar, and the views from my private terrace – ok, I didn't feel guilty for long.

So, the next morning, we were full of anticipation for our day in the crater, although that excitement was tempered a little when we could see the thick layer of fog that was enveloping the crater rim up above us. As we drove up the track, the fog only got heavier, and for a few minutes we were driving in a pure white out. It felt quite unlike any safari I'd ever been on, but our guide kept on telling us that these were quite typical conditions, and that it would soon clear.

Then, as we began to descend again into the crater, we finally got below the layer of cloud and we got our first thrilling glimpse of the enormous caldera below us. Even though I'd googled pictures of what it looked like, it was bigger, more open, and the crater rim that encloses it more complete than I'd expected. I often overuse the word "spectacular", but there's no other word for Ngorongoro – this is the largest (unflooded) complete caldera in the world, and it's created a unique eco-system for the animals. Providing the perfect environment for one of the largest collections of large mammals in the world.

The caldera provides such a great habitat for the wildlife because of the year-round presence of water – all that fog eventually feeds the streams, which in turn feed the lakes in the crater, which means that the animals don't have to migrate elsewhere for food or water. And, because it's so complete, it's easier for the authorities to patrol and prevent poaching.

Even though we were here to see the animals, every now and again, you just had to admire the stunning views – miles of open grassland, interspersed with small patches of forest, streams, marshes and lakes. However, the openness of the landscapes was just perfect for viewing game, and what an amazing concentration of game there was!

The first animals to come into view were a small herd of photogenic zebras. As ever with safaris, you go totally overboard on photographing the first thing you see, before you realise that there's much more interesting sights out there. Because, things just got better and better.

We next saw a few gazelles, a few elephants munching away on the grass, and then, we had the most amazing safari experience of my life, as we got to get up-close and personal with a huge pride of lions. It started when our eagle-eyed guide spotted a lone lion sitting upright in the yellow grass about 50 metres away from us. Then, another one jumped up next to him, then another, and another. Amazingly enough, they then started to troop over to our jeeps, nonchalantly coming up right next to us, to get into the shade of our jeep – it was unbelievable to be so close to these magnificent beasts, close enough to smell!

Then we realised why they wanted to use our shade rather than the shade of the tree a bit further along. There was already a dominant male lying under the tree, and for some reason he wouldn't let them join him. Nevertheless, they decided to give it a go, and they headed for the tree. As they approached, the male got up to tell them they weren't welcome after all, and when he moved, we could now see at least ten other lions in the bushes with him – I've never seen so many lions in one place.

So, we now had lions coming and going, before two more male lions showed up – one of them sniffing the air with his mouth wide open showing his enormous fangs, his mane billowing in the wind, like he was posing for that perfect lion roaring shot. Even I couldn't take a bad photo of that one. All in all, we saw 17 different lions.

At this point, you could have told us that our safari was over and we'd still be happy, but it was only 10am and there was so much more to see. The further we got into the crater, the greater the concentration of animals – a large variety of different birds, plus so many buffalo, gazelles, wart hogs, zebras, elephants, and huge herds of wildebeest. Wherever the wildebeest were, there would be some menacing hyenas stalking in the distance. It was fascinating to watch the patterns of movement as the hyenas ran after the wildebeest from different directions, hoping to isolate a sick or young animal. Luckily for the wildebeest, but unluckily for my photos, those horrible hyenas weren't successful.
Apparently, all of the Big Five do inhabit the park; and, with three of the Big Five ticked off within an hour, we wanted to see more. Although we had reconciled ourselves to not seeing an elusive leopard, we would have been disappointed not to have spotted a rhino. And, as our day in the crater was coming to an end, our guide delivered – pointing out a dark splodge on the horizon that he was sure was a rhino. Even with the most powerful binoculars it was hard to make out any features, so it may have been a rock or a cardboard cut-out, but we were happy to be able to say we saw the Big Four. It was an incredible day of game viewing.

On our way back to the lodge, we stopped in at a Masai Village, where the tribesmen in their colourful cloaks treated us to some of their trademark pogo-ing leaps as they sang their rhythmic chants. Even if it turned into a bit of a sales pitch for their handicrafts, it was fascinating to see how their traditional ways of lives persist as Tanzania modernises (although we had a sneaking suspicion that the basic mud huts were for show, and that they'd all de-camp to more modern accommodation as soon as we'd left).

A perfect day was completed with sundowners back at the lodge, as an elephant invaded the lodge's grounds to have a munch on the thick vegetation. Wonderful!

So, the next day was set aside for travel, as we drove to Arusha, and flew to Zanzibar to re-join the ship, where it suddenly felt that we had left Africa and arrived in Arabia. The previous 2 and a half days had involved a lot of travel, but every second of it had been worth it to get to the crater – the best safari of my life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 19th - Paradise Found in Seychelles

If the Maldives seemed like Paradise Lost, then our visit to the beautiful Seychelles was definitely Paradise Found. While the Maldives was congested, traffic-filled and slightly tense, the Seychelles was scrupulously clean, spacious and incredibly relaxed. While the Maldives has lost its grip on democracy and the people are regulated by its increasingly conservative version of Islam, here on the Seychelles democracy is working, wealth seems fairly evenly distributed, and the joyful Creole culture revolves around a fairly laissez-faire form of Catholicism.

Although the country was a British colony for 150 years, the island was first colonised by the French, so French (or at least the Creole form of it) is the pre-dominant influence here, on a population that largely consists of the descendants of the slaves imported from Africa to work on the plantations. With this Creole culture, the lush green mountains, and its gorgeous beaches, the whole island has a feel of the Caribbean, although a wealthier and cleaner version.

I joined the ship's "Spice Trail" tour, which gave a good introduction to the island, as we visited the island's lively capital, Victoria, and then visited the colourful Botanic Gardens, which featured plenty of exotic flora, (including the endemic coco de mer trees with their distinctive fruits), and the star of the show, the island's ponderously slow-moving giant tortoises – endearingly ugly in a prehistoric kind of way.

Next, we climbed up into the mountains behind the town, to get some amazing views over the whole island. Because so much of the island is mountainous, a lot of Victoria is actually built on reclaimed land – we could see whole developments being built into the sea, which are testament to the economic health of the island.

We then went down to the beautiful west coast, and had lunch overlooking the unbelievably idyllic Takamaka Beach. The sand was like powder, the clear seas were as warm as a bath, and the beach was virtually deserted – when there's a choice of over 70 beaches, none of them get particularly crowded. Our final stop was at an old Plantation House, which had a craft village in its grounds, selling all sorts of Creole souvenirs.

The Seychelles were a real breath of fresh air after the Maldives – even when I've been to one of the resort islands in the Maldives, they never have the feel of a "real" place, like the Seychelles. Coming before the chaotic Kenyan port of Mombasa, we needed a bit of rest and relaxation, and I don't think there's many better places to do that than this charming little country.