1. Northwest Madagascar

Travel to Madagascar was an arduous trip by modern standards, including two, ten-hour flights and a long layover in Paris, yet I was excited for almost three weeks of adventure. We were jet lagged when our tour group of fourteen birders arrived in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar and its largest city with 5.4 million people. We dragged ourselves off the plane, prepared to take one more short flight to our first destination and a much-needed nap. Immediately, we hit a snag. Our tour guide, Mark Smith, gathered us together in the almost deserted, open-air airport to explain the situation.

“OK, here’s our first bump,” Mark lamented. “Not surprisingly, we will not all be able to take the next plane to Majunga.”

My spirits dropped, I so wanted to lie down and sleep.

“I tried to pick up our tickets for the next leg of our trip,” Mark continued, “and the agent informed me that only half of us can go on the next plane, but there is another plane this afternoon.”

There goes the lovely snooze by a peaceful beach, I thought. The other thirteen experienced travelers did not seem bothered at all, so I had a little chat with myself. Things happen. You have to change gears.

This was only my second international birding trip with an organized tour. On my first trip to Antarctica, we lived on the ship and went ashore for excursions, which was very different from being part of a group that moved around mostly by plane and bus. I realized we all needed to be considered when the plans changed.

Mark continued, staying chipper, as a guide must be. “It’s something about having too many people getting off in Majunga where we are going, and no one getting on the plane at that stop for the Comoros Islands, the plane’s next stop. But don’t worry, I’ve made arrangements so we will all be together by this evening.”

Mark had led many tours to Madagascar and I soon became quite impressed with his remarkable ability to find and identify birds, matched by his keen interest in other wildlife and plants. After that first day, I thought he could also cope with the irregularities we would face, so I relaxed and waited to see what came next.

Mark sorted through a handful of plane tickets. “I have tickets for those of you who will fly out in two hours and the others will spend the day here in Antananarivo. We will have time for a nap and maybe take a tour this afternoon, then we’ll follow on the next flight to Majunga.”

Mark turned to see a small dark man with a big grin walk into our circle. “Oh, good to see you Rivo,” Mark exclaimed. They shook hands with a half man-hug and backslapping. “Hey, everyone, this is Rivo Rarivosoa, our in-country guide. He knows the birds, the animals, and better yet, the local languages to deal with bumps in the road like this one. Nothing goes as planned in Madagascar, so be warned.”

Mark smiled, relieved to have our local guide with us. Rivo nodded in agreement, acknowledging his comfort in dealing with irregularities like this.

In the following days, I learned that Rivo was an excellent naturalist and proficient in English, French, Malagasy, and Japanese. He also has a good sense of humor that proved to be an asset in dealing with our diverse group. Among us, we had a range of enthusiasm and personal agendas for the trip—from eager birders to avid photographers to parents who just liked to travel with their adult daughter. I was surprised to find myself among the more serious birders, especially since I certainly was not a seasoned birder.

In time, we learned that traveling throughout Madagascar is expensive, time consuming, frustrating, and exciting. During our tour, we would take four interior flights on Air Madagascar in order to see a variety of ecosystems in a reasonable time frame. The airline is safe, though frequent schedule changes disrupted our planned itinerary. The government had changed the name of Madagascar Air to Air Madagascar in 1962 because the locals had nicknamed their national airline “Mad Air,” adding levity as well as chagrin to the inevitable disruptions.


Royal Hill, Seat of Culture

Rivo took half of our tour group and left on the scheduled flight. I stayed behind with Mark and the others for a short nap at a nearby motel. After some food—no one knew what meal it was—we had time for a tour of Ambohimanga, a World Heritage site close to Antananarivo. This traditional fortified royal settlement is the oldest spiritual site in Madagascar. For many years, this site was off limits to foreigners because it is regarded as a sacred area, but the regulations had recently changed to allow tours like ours the privilege of a visit. Now this site draws a constant flow of pilgrims and tourists throughout the year, though the day we visited there were few visitors.

Royal Hill entry

The sacred nature of the ancestors buried in the royal tombs made Royal Hill at Ambohimanga the hub of the well-developed Merina civilization and the center of their tribal identity and spirituality between the 15th and 19th centuries. It is recognized throughout the world as the seat of a notable dynasty from 1817 until the present. Today, the Merinas’ spiritual beliefs still include a strong sense that the spirits of the ancestors reside in the tombs in order to watch over those still living.

My photos did not capture the feeling of impregnability of the tall massive walls of Royal Hill, which withstood numerous attacks until Merina rule prevailed. The stone and plastered walls loomed over us as we trudged up toward them in the intense heat. Once gleaming, the whitewashed walls showed the gray and black streaks of mold from tropical rains and constant moisture. Nicely laid out walkways lacked the lovely vegetation that I imagined filled the empty dirt spaces when the royalty resided here many years ago. The wooden buildings inside the compound badly needed attention. (Fortunately, since our visit in 2004, some of those buildings have been restored to their original condition.)

Outside the high walls, a pair of giggling children caught my attention. A boy and a girl played together, both about three years old with chubby cheeks and bright smiles. They sat in a recessed doorway across a narrow cobbled street from some simply constructed souvenir shops. Their mother, one of the vendors, had dressed the children in sturdy clean clothes and lovingly placed a fly deterrent of rawhide on each of their heads.

Kids outside Royal Hill

When the kids moved, clean hair from a cow’s tail woven into the edges of the a leather headband disturbed the flies attempting to home in on the moist eyes of the youngsters. Their mother’s care saved them from eye infections spread by flies desperate for any liquid in that dry environment.

As we approached the stall, the mother said something to the children and then turned to us, trying to engage our interest. She pointed to the toys on her tray wrapped in plastic bags. They were unique and quite cleverly made. For example, one craftsperson had created a tiny delivery van by removing the top and bottom of a Coke can, flattening it, and folding it so that the “Coca Cola” label ran across the toy van’s roof. I wanted to buy one but we had a three-week tour ahead of us, and the toys looked too fragile to survive the journey.


The Port of Majunga

Our late afternoon arrival in Majunga thrilled the people in our tour group who had arrived earlier. We were all happy to be reunited. Our hotel was the first of several French-managed hotels where tourists expect late dinners. We were tired and hungry in spite of the early hour and I felt a bit grumpy, too. The kitchen was not yet open, so Mark urged the French-trained staff to prepare something for us to eat—to my great relief.

Majunga, also known as Mahajanga, is a coastal city where high-end, destination dive resorts are located. The city was built for vacationing scuba divers primarily from France and the Scandinavian countries. We stayed in Majunga because the park we planned to visit the next day, three hours to the south, did not have accommodations for tourists.

Majunga served as a port for early trade ships sailing between Europe and India, and as a result, it has one of the most diverse populations in Madagascar, including descendants of Arabian, Portuguese, French, and Indian sailors. Unfortunately, the city lies in the direct path of annual hurricanes. Several years before our visit, monster storms hit the region and many people evacuated inland. Some returned slowly once rebuilding was allowed. (As of 2013, about 220,000 people live in Majunga.)

Over dinner, there was lots of lively conversation as we caught up with the day’s activities. At one point, Mark stood to get our attention. He cleared his throat and announced in an energetic voice, “This is a good time to tell you what we have planned for tomorrow. We will be visiting Ankarafantsike National Park, which is located in a tropical dry forest.”

We learned that these forests exist where there is lots of rain but a long dry season. The deciduous trees and shrubs survive the dry season by shedding their leaves, similar to our oaks and maples in the United States. In the tropical dry forests, the wildlife is as unique as the environs. Mark emphasized that we were in for some spectacular birding, assuring us, “Some of the birds we will see are only found in this type of ecosystem.”

Oh, boy, I thought, so unusual. My favorite kind of place!

After a few questions, Mark then told us, “So, we’ll have to get up at 3 a.m. in order to be at the park at dawn.”

Of course! I thought. The local birding I did at home prepared me for this. Birds get up at dawn and we have to be there for their first songs. But 3 a.m.? We just got here and I’m still exhausted.

In one voice and without hesitation, the entire group groaned, “No.”

Mark seemed taken aback at our collective response.

While we ate, he disappeared and returned just as we polished off our sweet gelatin dessert.

“Alright, “ Mark began, “the wonky airline schedule can accommodate our change of plans for our next flight out of here.” Then he happily added, “So, we can go to the dry forest the day after tomorrow, and still be able to do everything we had planned to do.”

We all sighed with relief, then staggered off to our beds.


Our First Birds in Madagascar 

The first morning in Majunga I awoke to a delightful birdsong that wafted through my open window. After breakfast while we birded on the grounds, once again I heard the lovely song that had awakened me. Mark pointed out a dark bird the size of a robin that had a glossy black head and erect forehead feathers. Mark called it the ubiquitous Crested Drongo, a common bird that we saw throughout Madagascar. The drongo is not a spectacular bird to see, but his melodious dawn song is glorious, which is often the case in the bird world. It seems birds either have brilliant feathers or a glorious song—but usually not both.

Our hotel in Majunga was located right on the beach with lovely swaying palms that provided shade for our relaxation and recovery after the grueling trip to reach Madagascar. Small fishing boats glided past our hotel at dawn on their way to the reefs. One boat sailed quite close to shore and I could clearly see the fisherman sitting comfortably in the stern, steering with one bare foot on the tiller. The triangular sail hung diagonally from a single boom fastened high on a loosely stepped mast. Outriggers added stability to the narrow, twenty-foot hull. The whole rig is called a lateen rig. These boats are a smaller version of the ancient trading dhows that Arabian traders used on their trips between Asia and Africa. Eventually, this style of boat brought the first humans to live on Madagascar.

Majunga moorage

We toured the lively seaport of Majunga, noting the busy fishing fleet just back from a morning at sea and the freighters anchored out in the deep waters of the bay waiting to offload their cargoes. At the thriving market, people wandered, chatted, and inspected items for sale. Men wore t-shirts and pants, while most of the women dressed in camisole tops and light pieces of brightly printed cloth wrapped around their waists. A display of aluminum pots, pans, and cups made from melted down pop cans drew a good crowd. I cringed at the thought that people might be using the toxic aluminum pots for cooking.

Most of the people around Majunga are descendants of the Bantus who migrated about one thousand years ago, mixed with the blood of European and Arabian traders and sailors. Though the Bantus formed the first kingdom in Madagascar, it did not survive well after the founders died and subsequent generations broke into small tribal groups. The Merina kingdom in the highlands easily subdued the Bantus, resulting in the Bantus’ second-class status that still exists hundreds of years later.

After we strolled through the market, we climbed aboard a small motorboat for a ride across Bombetoka Bay at the mouth of the Betsiboca River. Our primary target bird for the day was a Malagasy Kingfisher. These birds live at the edge of a mangrove forest across the bay. I had seen kingfishers that fish from low hanging vegetation near streams. A bird waits in the reeds that grow between the forest and the slow moving river and when a small fish swims past him, he flies up and dives into the water to catch the fish. The kingfisher returns to the reed, carefully aligns the fish in its beak and swallows it whole. Mark told us that the color on the malachite was an unbelievably intense blue. My kind of bird! I couldn’t wait.

Mangrove trees are of medium height and grow along saline shores in the tropics and subtropics. Healthy mangroves serve as nurseries for certain types of fish. The young can feed safely within the complex tree roots and branches underwater until they are large enough to move out into the sea. With little air movement in the mangrove forests, the humidity is extremely high, creating yet another special environment that supports unique wildlife like certain species of mollusks, crabs, turtles, and other small creatures that become food for birds. The mangrove roots also slow down incoming silt-bearing water, causing the soil to build up and create new land, as well as guard against land erosion and protecting fragile coastal areas. Unfortunately, mangrove trees have been harvested for lumber in many places, exposing the shore to erosion and threatening villages and farmland with saltwater inundation.

We motored past a family wedged into their narrow dugout, carved out of a tree trunk. The family seemed to be on their way to one of the nearby islands. The father paddled the boat in the stern, and the mother and children sat quietly, one in front of the other, on the floor of the slim craft. One child hung his arm over the side and dragged his fingers in the water, watching the ripples flow back as their boat moved forward. Although it was 2004, it could have easily been 500 years earlier as I watched this timeless scene of a family serenely cross the water in an ancient form of transportation.

As we neared the mangrove forest, our motorman turned off the engine when we were still thirty feet from reeds that grew out into the bay. We drifted toward the mangroves with only bright licks of water brushing against the hull to break the silence.

“There it is,” Mark whispered, pointing toward a bright metallic-blue bird about five-inches long, the Malagasy kingfisher. The kingfisher’s tiny feet gripped a thin reed and swayed in the light breeze, giving us a great opportunity to observe the dazzling blue of his back and his reddish-brown chest, speckled head, and long black bill. The bird had no interest in us but watched the water for ripples that might indicate something tasty below. No fish swam by as we watched, so although there was no drama, it certainly was a stunning little bird.

To our delight, we also found a Madagascar Sacred Ibis, Threskiornis bernieri, which has a white body with a black head, legs, and rump feathers, and the long, curved, ibis bill good for poking in soft river bottoms. Any bird with Madagascar in its name is found only, or almost only, in Madagascar. As I carefully observed this brilliant-colored bird, I kept telling myself, Take a good look—unless you plan to return.

The first full day observing wildlife in Madagascar was relaxing, and we all looked forward to three more weeks of exploring this fascinating and diverse island country.