We love Madagascar but from time to time we need a break – a change in scenery, a change in pace. Mauritius is great for that. It’s green, with a pleasant climate, and…nice. Mauritius has come a long way in a short time, and today boasts Africa’s highest Human Development Index. This post is a bit of a hodgepodge of our trips there – we’ve been there a few times – but hopefully it will highlight the variety and character of this small island nation off the eastern coast of Africa.
First, meet Pieter Both. No – not the first governor-general of the Dutch East Indies company in the late 1500s. I mean the second highest mountain (by 8 meters) in Mauritius. You can see this odd formation from much of the island – from some angles it looks like a part of the mountain is hovering above the rest. It can be climbed. If you do so, the last bit, a 30-foot rock perched on top, has handholds hammered into it that will allow you to climb onto the very top. There you can balance in the wind on a six-foot flat area with absolutely no handrails and survey the green fields as far as the eye can see. As far as the real Pieter Both, as far as I know, he never lived in Mauritius, which was a resupply point for the Dutch East Indies company as its ships traveled from the Netherlands to what is now Indonesia. In 1615, he left the Dutch East Indies for the last time, with four ships. Two of them sank off the coast of Mauritius, and he drowned. And that’s how the second highest peak on an island nation off the east coast of mainland Africa ended up getting named after some Dutch dude who lived in Indonesia 500 years ago.
The Portuguese discovered Mauritius, and weren’t interested in it. Mauritius became a Dutch colony in the 1500s. A rare case of a European colony established in a place that didn’t already have inhabitants. Then the French took over, and finally the English. As for the Dutch, they are responsible for the extinction, 75 years after its discovery, of the bird Mauritius’s beer is now named after: the dodo. I don’t think it was very tasty – it was nicknamed the “walgvogel,” or “disgusting bird,” but I guess if you’re hungry enough… Nowadays, there’s plenty of much tastier food. I guess that’s a French contribution.
The island is very ethnically diverse. Not only descendants of the colonists, but also former slaves – many from Madagascar – and half a million indentured laborers from India, brought in by the English after slavery was outlawed in 1835, resulting in a unique ethnic and religious tapestry. Looking at the island nowadays, it would appear that the group which left the biggest mark on the ethnic makeup of the island are the Indians. Everywhere we you go in Mauritius, you can see the ornate Hindu temples we came to know and appreciate in our time in Tamil Nadu.
Much of the work on Tamil temples, often carved by craftsmen brought from Tamil Nadu, is brightly colored and has a distinct style, like this representation of Ganesh, above. But other works were carved in black granite, or in more muted colors like the cat, below.
And just like in Tamil Nadu, everyone was super friendly. They didn’t even get mad when we woke them up from an afternoon nap, even when we were trying to secretly take a picture of them napping.
The lake is peaceful in the low season – a quiet place for reflection, no matter what your religious beliefs. And yes, pun intended.
During one of our visits we discovered the Grand Bassin, a crater lake which, commonly known as “Ganga Talao” (Ganges pool), has become one of Hinduism’s largest pilgrimage sites. Hardly anyone was there when we visited, but if you carefully watch the video below, you’ll see the wide, paved walkway that has been laid parallel to the road. Imagine up to 400,000 people on that walkway, coming to visit the lake, make offerings, and worship at the temples that surround it.
The lake was discovered and designated a holy site by a Hindu priest in the late 1800s, but in 1972, sacred water from the Ganges was added, giving the lake its current name. You can read more about it here.
Even for non-Hindus, it’s not only pleasant but also quite fascinating to stroll around the lake and to see the countless offerings that have been made on the surrounding pillars, or to climb the stairs to a hilltop temple where you may spot a monkey or two, or the holy trees with strings winding around them or different artifacts and items left at their base by worshippers. The large quantity of food left by worshippers for the various Hindu gods ends up, to a large extent, in the lake. As a result, the lake supports a huge population of fish swirling in the water in all directions everywhere you look. And there is a clan of local cats which has mastered the art of catching these fish. Eager to see them in action, visitors will throw bread near the edge of the water, which sends them into a frenzy, and this in turn allows the patiently waiting cats to scoop them up in one quick movement. Once a cat catches a fish (often twice as wide as its head), it will dash off into the bushes, fish in mouth, to consume it before the competition shows up and demands a share.
This is a representation of Hanuman, the monkey god. With offerings at his feet. That’s correct – Hanuman is not an invention of the film “Black Panther.”
There are plenty of other things to do in Mauritius, of course. If you’re an American living in Madagascar, your interests may be different than the typical tourist – for us, a stop at McDonalds or a visit to a movie theater or shopping mall held a special attraction. But for everyone else, there are plenty of other things to do as well. Mauritius has beautiful beaches for swimming, diving, or just relaxing. As noted in a previous post, you can go out and actually swim with a pod of dolphins (video). You can take a relaxing drive through the countryside. Eat excellent food. Or you can go for a hike in the mountains – for hours and hours, if you like.
We also recommend the “adventure of sugar.” Mauritius’s agricultural land is covered with sugar cane, and the island has a long history of processing this cane into sugar…or rum! A now-defunct sugar refining/processing plant has been turned into a museum, where you can easily spend two to three hours learning all sorts of fascinating things about a food we all take for granted, and honestly, I never gave much thought. And at the end, you can sample over a dozen different types of sugar (honestly, I had no idea!) in addition to just as many varieties of rum. Bring a credit card, because you’ll definitely want to take home either some sugar, some rum, or both!
So that wraps up what we’ve experienced so far of Mauritius. If you visit this country, regardless what you choose to do, be sure and take a camera!
I finally got around to trying something a photographer friend suggested a couple of years ago. At the time, I was new to film photography and not trying anything too fancy, beyond simply getting the 50, 60, 70-year-old cameras I was finding on eBay to take reasonable pictures (also no small feat). I had discovered the combination of Kodak Tri-X 400 film and the gritty streets and buildings of Chennai, India combined to produce interesting, grainy black-and-white photos. Elise suggested it might be fun to “push” the film, but at the time, I was using completely manual cameras and metering by “feel,” and trying to factor in underexposure and overdeveloping (or was it overexposure and underdeveloping?) was too much to handle at once.
Shoes are displayed for sale in an informal, roadside shop in Antananarivo, Madagascar
Since then, I’ve gotten more confident, and more importantly, bought fancier cameras that do some of the work for me (and discovered an iPhone light meter when that doesn’t work). Tri-X 400 is still my favorite film, and now I’ve acquired a Nikon F100 that has become my favorite camera. Combining the two seemed like a great opportunity to try pushing the Tri-X. And I’m happy with how things turned out!
In particular, I like how the breaking waves and ripples of the Indian Ocean turned out. I don’t normally think of the sea as a good black-and-white subject, but when we were visiting Reunion Island, that’s the film that happened to be in the camera. So that’s what you shoot.
I like the contrast and the grain. Though I think in some of the darker parts of the photos, it’s maybe too dark. I prefer solid, dark blacks, but these blacks feel like I’m losing some detail. This meat stall in Antananarivo, for example.
But in most of the shots, this is not an issue. I didn’t take that many shots of people, but I like how they turned out. Lots of greys, but still grain and dark blacks where they look good. The two shots below are also from Antananarivo.
The last two examples have a little bit of a story behind them. The photo below shows how many – probably the majority – of people in Antananarivo do their laundry. The lakes and canals have dirty water, but without other options, people can be seen (often on Sundays) doing the family’s wash. The clothes are spread out on rocks, bushes or grass to dry. And while my own shirts get bleached and washed in an automatic machine with the water set on hot, I find they are gradually turning gray. Yet the white clothing I see laying out to dry is often whiter than white, and spotless. We can’t figure it out.
Finally, the photo below really confused the vendor. I had been told that prisoners in Madagascar receive a daily ration of 300 grams of cassava. It turns out that’s incorrect – it’s actually around 700 grams – not a huge improvement, but different nonetheless. Anyway, I had been on the lookout for weeks for a cassava vendor with an old-timey scale, to capture what 300 grams looks like. Through hand gestures and bits of French, we managed to convey that we didn’t want to BUY the cassava, I only wanted to photograph the cassava. I ended up paying her what the cassava was worth (maybe a quarter dollar) to compensate her for her time. We wondered as we left what they were saying about us.
A notification from 35mmc today with Hamish Gill’s review of Kodak’s re-released P3200 reminded me that I, too, recently shot my first roll of P3200 – I just hadn’t gotten around to sharing my results. I’m a little bit late to the game, given that the film was re-released in mid-March – but it takes two to three weeks to get film shipped to Madagascar, so there are a few other reviews with which I can compare my results – for example, here and here.
I was (and still am) admittedly a bit confused about exactly what this film is. I initially thought this was simply a counterpart to Ilford’s Delta 3200, which I’ve recently experimented with. But Alaris’s website says this film is actually rated 800, and the “P” in P3200 stands for “push.” So that’s what I decided to do. My Nikon F100 reads this film as ISO 3200, but it’s ISO 800, so I was unsure whether shooting at 3200 was “pushing” or not. Comparing the datasheet times and the Massive Development Chart, I opted to shoot it as ISO 1600 and push one stop in development.
Given what I had read about the film, I thought it might be fun to bring this along to South Africa. We’d be doing a self-drive safari into Addo National Park, entering at 6 am, nearly an hour before sunrise. It’s supposed to work well in low light, and I thought elephants (textures!), zebras and Cape buffalo at dawn sounded like a fun use of this black and white film. Results were as expected – super grainy – though about a third of the shots were either slightly overexposed…or out of focus – probably because of camera shake and slow shutter speeds. I have one more roll, and I plan to go the other direction – pulling one stop.
They were so majestic. About a half-mile out, I would swim directly overhead a pod of dolphins swimming directly beneath me, maybe 7 or 8 meters down. They’d swim slowly, all most like they were “letting” me keep up. Then they’d gradually float up to the surface, let their dorsal fins break the surface a few meters ahead of me, take a breath or two, and then sink back down. It was magical – so much that I could almost tune out the fact that I was surrounded by 30 to 40 other tourists, paddling furiously to catch a glimpse, and 5 or 6 boats, waiting to take the foreign tourists back to shore.
Somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, just off the southeast coast of Mauritius, there’s a GoPro camera with an SD card inside that has amazing footage of the scene I describe above. I was fumbling with it at some point when I realized I was grasping at air, and looked down in the water to see it tumbling quickly into the darkness below.
Fortunately, I did manage to send the drone up overhead. Hopefully you can imagine what it was like actually swimming just a few meters away from them…
I posted awhile back about my first experience with Ilford Delta 3200 film – or any high-ISO film, for that matter. I was initially disappointed, but later the results grew on me. I had no idea just how much grain would result from pushing the film to ISO 4000, given that it is actually (allegedly) around ISO 1600, and I looked forward to trying it again at a more reasonable speed. I finally got around to shooting another roll of the stuff and was very pleased with the outcome.
A cemetery seemed like an interesting place to shoot high-contrast black-and-white film. In the late afternoon, as the light faded, with an already gloomy, cloudy sky, we visited a crowded cemetery on Reunion Island.
As the light faded, the shots became grainier and grainier, and some of the blacks were not as solid as I might have liked, but I was happy with the results. The clouds are a key element though, in my opinion.
I tried some shots in full daylight as well, and the blacks ended up better but the sky looked like it had smudges on it. The high shutter speed required to compensate for the film speed is great for capturing ocean droplets in midair!
I was also really happy with this portrait – probably my best, I think, though the subject of the photo was not as impressed. I plan to continue experimenting with Delta 3200, but it seems this one-of-a-kind film will soon have a competitor – Kodak Alaris recently announced they will again produce TMax P3200 film, discontinued in 2012, in addition to the recently-announced rerelease of Ektachrome. P3200 is actually 800-speed, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with a film I never managed to try when it was originally sold.
Last year in November, Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo unveiled a new road, from the northwest of town to the airport. Within three days, workers were filling potholes, and within a week, the road was closed.
In the year since, there have been repeated predictions that the road would be re-tarred and reopend, but nothing has happened. But in this year’s extremely rainy “rainy season,” the rice harvest has been very good, and the locals on both sides of the road have taken advantage of the black (partially, at this point) tarred surface.
Local rice farmers pull the rice out of the flooded fields, and beat it on a drum (or somethign similar) to separate the rice from the stalks, and the stalks are then tossed aside. The rice (still in the hull) is spread out on a tarp to dry, and later they will use a tray to toss it so the hulls blow away. The hulls are kept for gardening. The stalks are gathered, spread out on the roads to try and then piled into “haystacks.” This is to feed the zebu later in the year.
Last year, all the rice farmers had to spread out their rice and straw on the dirt dikes that run left to right in the video. This year, they have this nice black road that gets nice and hot. What will happen if the road ends up getting re-tarred?
I picked up this old camera and I want to make it work. It’s hidden inside a nondescript, beat-up box, which happens to be made of mahogany and covered with cowhide. But after 115 years, it looks like this:
When you open it up, there’s this magnificent specimen of 1902 technology, brass and red leather, polished mahogany, and a little knurled knob that operates a pinion to telescope the camera’s triple bed out to its full length (dog bowl left in the background for scale):
This is a Century Grand. Or maybe a Century Grand Special – it’s hard to know for sure, since the two cameras were very similar, and this one is missing the viewfinder, and its lens and shutter have been replaced with a 7.5 inch, Ilex f/4.5 Paragon Anastigmat, which appears to have been manufactured from the 19-teens for several decades following.
The Century Camera Company was started in 1900 (gee, I wonder how they came up with the name) and acquired by Eastman in 1903. It appears that they manufactured these grands for a number of years, but by 1904, the sides of the bed were lined with brass plates, rather than the scalloped wood edge you see above – so that puts this one around somewhere at 1902-1903. I also found a 1904 Century catalog that talks about “an entirely new feature for hand cameras” – a rotating back – i.e. the part where you put the 5-by-7 inch sheet film can be rotated from portrait to landscape, and the addition of a mirror so the image on the ground glass (where you focus) is right side up. My camera has a back that pops off and can be snapped back in a different orientation, and no mirror.
I’m disappointed by the missing viewfinder, but I’m amazed that, as much leather as is involved, the bellows are still intact. It’s possible the bellows are not original either – the brass loops about 2/3 back connect to metal hooks screwed into the side of the lens holder, instead of pegs at the top and bottom like in the photos I’ve seen. Still, it would be great to make it work again!
So here’s the problem. The guy who sold it to me (it was a Facebook post on a film camera group) implied he had taken pictures with it, and suggested ISO 400 Bergger 5×7 sheet film, which is nearly 60 bucks for a box of 25. So I order that, and I wait for the camera to arrive. I’m ecstatic when it does, and everything seems to be intact, but I notice the lens has aperture markings, but hey – wait – where are the shutter speed indicators? Hey, there’s no shutter!
So I contact the guy on Facebook and he’s all, “Yeah, barrel lenses don’t come with shutters. Back then, film speeds were slow, and you just take a picture by taking the lens cap off for like a second.” But I’m like, “So WHY would you suggest 400 speed film??” Back in the day you could get super slow film and this method would work. He suggests an ND filter, and I ask to see some specific photos he’s taken with this camera (all he did was point me to his website), and then radio silence.
Fortunately there’s Google, however. I discover that barrel lenses, in fact, DO go into shutters. A bit of research looking at Ilex lenses and I conclude that I need a Universal or Acme No. 3 made by the same company – and I score one on eBay for $38. It works like a charm and I show my colleagues at work what a wonderful clicking sound it makes every time I operate the shutter. It’s exactly the same diameter as my lens.
So now for my problem. Both the shutter and the lens are made of pieces that seem to unscrew from each other – I’ve not managed to decode everything (the aperture parts, for instance). It should be possible to unscrew everything and then put the lens into the shutter – but I’m not clear where everything should go. I think the shutter leaves should stay behind the aperture parts and it ought to be very simple – but it would be helpful if I could find someone who has done this before.
There’s a guy, SK Grimes, who would do it for money, but I’m not quite there yet (even if I could find a dependable way to ship the parts from Madagascar. And a great blog post that describes similar situations also offers suggestions (especially if I hadn’t already bought the 400-speed film!). But I’d really like to make this work! Any help appreciated.
cows and bananas and canals…all on my run route between home and the office!
I’m not a dumb person, but I’ll admit I’ve always managed to confuse myself when reading or speaking about “pushing” or “pulling” film. Now that I’ve finally given it a shot, it makes more sense, and I’ve learned a few new things in addition.
In case you’re like me, “pushing” film is to shoot a roll of film as if it were faster/had a higher ISO than it actually does. This means you set up your camera to actually underexpose the film. Then you make up for that by leaving it in the developer longer, since it needs an extra “push.” Somehow this was always confusing to me, and I’ve heard other people get it backward as well, so I don’t feel alone. And pulling is the opposite – you overexpose the film and then underdevelop. I imagined that pushing would create more contrasty results, and that pulling would emphasize the grays in the middle. But honestly I didn’t know what to expect.
I had picked up a roll of Ilford Delta 3200 film in the States, and was reading up on how people use this film. I carried it with my camera on a few trips, but I don’t walk around much in low light in Antananarivo, and I didn’t want to be “stuck” with a half-shot roll of 3200 in my camera, so I decided to take it out on a bright sunny morning instead, and push it. I’ve read that Delta 3200 film is not really 3200 ISO – it’s actually more like 1600, so by shooting it at 3200, I thought, you’re already pushing it. But the developer instructions are made for shooting 1600 film as 3200 film, so I decided to take it up farther – to 4000. Because that’s where my Nikon F100 stops, mainly.
after the rice has been harvested, local farmers use the mud to make bricks, which they sell. This photo shows a brick kiln, which fills the air with smoke during part of the year
some of the fields show young rice shoots, just planted, poking out of the water.
Honestly, I was pretty disappointed when I saw the results. That morning on my walk to work, I thought I had gotten some pretty good shots, and they all seemed ruined. I had expected more contrast. But I hadn’t figured on all the noise in the photos, which ended up obscuring/blurring some of the details, like facial expressions. I know digital cameras pick up a lot of noise when you set them to high ISO, but it never occurred to me that analog film would do the same.
I suppose this picture came out because it was one of the few I actually shot in somewhat low light.
Would have been a great portrait on normal film and not pushed.
A couple of the pictures were salvageable, but most were just way too noisy. But the more I looked at them, the more some of them started to appeal to me, in a more experimental sort of way. Like this picture of ducks in a rice field.
ducks splashing in the rice field.
So I spent a bit of time (I’ll admit) running them through photo editing programs, mostly to darken the blacks a bit and nudge up the detail to give a better sense of what was in the exposure, and I’m happier with them now. I spoke to a photographer friend who explained to me that pushing works better with 400 speed film, so I will try that next. But in the meantime I ended up ordering more 3200 film, just to play around with that a bit more. I probably won’t push it. But I wonder about pulling…hmmm.
I’ll share the rest of the salvageable photos here, maybe you have some thoughts. The results remind me a little of how I imagine film reticulation would work. Only more so. And which is also something I’d like to try.
these guys are using a flat-bottomed pirogue to transport yellow 5-liter plastic just of water from the public tap to individual users. The yellow jugs are ubiquitous in Madagascar
Young men (mostly) use these carts to transport goods throughout the city. Often, barefoot.
A cyclist wearing a bike racing jersey “trains” while transporting milk jugs.
Young boy has recently woken up and seems to have gotten distracted while getting dressed.
The locals thought it curious that I was taking a portrait of a sleeping dog – but it was the tongue that caught my eye.
Not far from the office.
Probably my favorite picture on the roll. I wish I had caught this runner with 1970s hair, shorts and shoes coming toward me – but from behind it was still a good shot of this classic look!
Madagascar’s rainy season normally runs from November-ish to February or March. Last year, we hardly even noticed it – beyond a handful of late-night, pretty intense, rainstorms, there was very little rain. And everyone was worried – rice yields were down, the reservoirs were down and we were rationing and storing water – even electricity was intermittently out because the hydro stations didn’t have enough water to power the turbines.
This year has been completely different. It has been raining increasingly since September. In January, it has rained almost daily – huge amounts of water per day, we’ve had our first cyclone of the season (Ava) and there are more expected.
For the financially secure, the rains are an irritant. Your commute may be longer, your yard may flood, your roof may leak a bit…but for most people in Madagascar, this much rain is a major problem. People standing outside waiting for public transportation, getting splashed by cars going through potholes, riding bicycles and scooters, selling or buying goods in the open markets…
In Antananarivo, the term “low-lying areas” is a euphemism for the poorest parts of the city. These areas are, generally speaking, the low areas in town, next to dirty canals, along huge flood plains or rice fields, along the river – a ramshackle of self-constructed brick homes or improvised houses, sometimes built on an area that has been elevated above the water table by piling trash, broken rocks, vegetation, or a mixture. Raised wooden walkways criss-cross these communities, often with missing planks here and there, but the locals somehow keep their balance after years of practice.
Normally these walkways are 2-3 feet above the water level, but a friend and I visited the Anjezika community, where we have built a crowdfunded youth center, and we were shocked to see that many of the walkways were at water level, or sometimes below the surface. We navigated the slippery boards in our boots and tried to keep our cameras dry as the rain continued to fall.
Most of the homes were completely surrounded by water – their yards submerged, and a thick layer of water hyacinths was choking the waterways. Several people saw us with our cameras and asked us into their homes to show how bad the situation was. It was too dark to take pictures, but some of the older folks had nicer, wooden furniture they had amassed over the years, all sitting in about 3 inches of water.
It’s not clean water, either. There are some toilets and outhouses, but there is no plumbing. The rising water level has overflowed many of them, which creates huge sanitary problems and risks.
There’s no trash collection service. People don’t amass anywhere near as much excess packaging material as we might elsewhere, and everything is reused and recycled, but eventually things get discarded. In the dry season, the trash collects in designated areas and is often covered by dirt and forgotten, or maybe ends up getting burned. With the rains, it has become uncovered and floats around the community in huge floating “islands.”
Some peoples’ homes are isolated by the rising water, such that the only way they can get to and from their homes is by flat bottomed boats which are pushed along using a long pole. When they reach the water hyacinths, someone at the front of the boat has to push them to the side, while the person in the back forces the boat forward.
People improvise and do the best they can to get through the worst of the rains, but it’s not easy. It reminded us not to take things like a roof over our head for granted.The black and white grainy photos I took in the rain paint a dreary picture – more dreary than it actually is. The next day, the sky cleared and I was able to run to work on the trails running through the rice fields. There was only one spot that was flooded and you had to wade:
But the water everywhere, and green rice and purple water hyacinths, and the red soil under the morning sunlight was actually quite scenic.
But when you look closer, you see the signs that not all is well. I was shocked to realize that about a quarter of the ducklings in the photo above were dead or dying – I have no idea why. People live in the house at the top center above. And below, where you see people walking – that’s normally a pathway where cars and bicycles drive – but now people can’t even leave their homes without wading.
The boy in the photo below (left) was heading to school while his father filled sandbags and worked on a temporary shelter on the walkway, which was above the water level.
And even as people slogged through the water in wet clothes and worked to restore some sense of normalcy, or others walked in chest-deep water to harvest rice that should have been in six-inch-deep water, and was not quite ripe but had to be cut in order to salvage what could be salvaged…but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day and everyone smiled and waved and was friendly to the passing foreigner. The failure of the rain to dampen their spirits is a testament to the resilience and hard-working nature of the Malagasy people, who are all just doing their best to try and put food on the table, and educate their kids so they can have a better life. Let’s hope the weather holds for a bit so they can catch a break before the next storm arrives.
For most people, going on a safari is the trip of a lifetime. And there are numerous well-known game parks and reserves, in many African countries, where you can do just that. But if you decide to take the plunge and see the amazing animals and landscape most people only get to see in coffee table books or on nature documentaries, going to the most well-known and/or popular reserve may not be your best choice.
We’ve had the good fortune to live in southern Africa for a few years now and have learned that there’s quite a variety of options. Most southern African capitals have one or two parks just outside the capital – these are often little more than glorified zoos; sure, the animals are not penned in, but they’re clearly tame – the guides summon them by surreptitiously sprinkling food, you get your photos and you can check the box – great if you’re pressed for time and want to be sure and see something.
There are also the wild, remote places that have been preserved as national parks, where the animals are still truly “wild.” These places are important for conservation, but if you go as a tourist, it can be frustrating if you’ve shelled out thousands of dollars and don’t wind up seeing much – maybe because it’s the rainy season and the animals aren’t particularly pressed to gather at the watering holes.
South Africa has a few really well-known reserves you can get to relatively easily and see plenty of wildlife – but we’ve found they are so popular you find yourself competing with all the other visitors. The guides are all communicating by radio, and the second someone spots, say, a lion kill, the word gets passed and suddenly you’re one of a dozen SUVs crowding around an animal and can’t get a decent photo that doesn’t have other tourists or cars on it.
Madikwe Game Reserve was a pleasant surprise, in that it wasn’t at all crowded, we managed to see an amazing number of animals – to include every member of the “Big Five”plus as a bonus, a pack of wild African dogs. The guides worked together to ensure there were only a couple of vehicles at a time at any one site, and you could tell that they were all motivated for their love of the animals and were interested in sharing that passion with us.
The reserve is in the extreme north of South Africa, buttressed against the border with Botswana. Apparently it was unproductive farmland, so the government decided to set it aside as a game reserve – South Africa’s fifth largest and one of its least-known. There are a handful of lodges scattered throughout the park, but none so close that you see any of the others. Gaborone is just 30 km away or you can drive the 400km from Johannesburg; but we were a bit pressed for time and open to adventure, so we hired a small charter plane that landed us on the small airstrip in the reserve.
Apparently the way this works is, these little planes buzz the airstrip to scare off any errant wildlife, then come around on the second pass. I didn’t know this and was surprised when we didn’t land. The second time, there really was wildlife on the airstrip and I was relieved when we pulled up again at tha last minute. You can see the wayward warthog in the center of the photo below.We were staying at Madikwe Hills Lodge – a bit of a splurge for us, but we were celebrating a late anniversary. The attention to detail by the lodge was like nothing we’ve ever experienced. The guests were all on a set schedule of meals and twice-daily game drives, but nothing felt scripted – it was all completely natural and everything was looked after and the food always fantastic. We were there in the cooler season (meaning fewer guests!) so the early morning game drive (departed in the dark) and the late afternoon game drive (returned in the dark) were pretty chilly – but made much better by the thick blankets and hot water bottles thoughtfully provided for us! There’s a poor guy who has to sit out on a chair on the front of the vehicle who acts as a “spotter” for unseen obstacles and wildlife, and he had it rough – but did a great job.
Giraffes are not one of the “big 5″…but they are big.
How old is too old for breastfeeding?
As noted earlier, we’ve been to a lot of game parks in southern Africa. Despite the scrubby-looking nondescript terrain of the park, no park we’ve visited comes close to this one in terms of the number of animals – big animals – we spotted. We’ll start with the lions. But we came across a pride of them as the sun was edging toward the horizon, and they couldn’t be bothered with us. Which is different from other reserves, where you definitely need to be inside an enclosed vehicle. So yeah, I’ll admit, they were a bit “tame” – but it was a thrill to see them this close up.
Despite the calm demeanor, this guy has been in some scraps in his time!
The light was just amazing. This is video I took with my iPhone in landscape format. So not ideal…
Over the course of the next few days, we also saw the rest of the “Big 5.” Rhinoceroses, both day and night…
Elephants galore (actually, they are becoming a bit of a nuisance in the park):
Above you can see just how close we are to these amazing animals…below, to prove we saw one, a blurry photo of a cape buffalo that surprised us just 150 meters from our lodge! And finally our leopard. Not ideal photos – the guides had spotted a leopard which was eating a warthog up in a tree. We saw her during the daytime and went back again at night. Could hear the leopard eating its prey but the photos obviously were not ideal. We were particularly impressed that the guides coordinated to make sure there were just two vehicles at the site at any one time – we had to wait about a half kilometer away until we got the “green light” and then only stayed 15 minutes or so, to ensure the next vehicle got a look as well.
Everyone was pretty excited about the leopard (OK we were too) but the one animal we have never managed to spot on any of our game drives is a hyena. When we stopped for a “sundowner” drink, not only did we spot a hyena, but the rare(r) brown hyena!
Then it was time to track some African wild dogs, aka painted dogs. These animals have been wiped out in many parts of Africa but have been reintroduced in selected reserves, including Mandikwe. People have a hard time with the way they hunt – they work in packs and will basically tear chunks of flesh from an animal they are chasing until it falls down from exhaustion or blood loss.
We chased the pack for some time before they disappeared into the thick vegetation on a hillside. But we could hear them chattering in the distance.
The next day, we once again set out after them. They were clearly hunting something, and they paid no attention to us at all as our guide expertly navigated the thick brush to always stay near them.
A few other animals we saw – they’re not included in the “big 5”, but they’re still pretty cool. Meet the world’s fastest land animal. A pair of brothers who took a nap when they got bored with the humans taking pictures of them.
Also zebras. Anne took a pretty good picture of them. My film photos were pretty much awful. But if there’s one thing black and white film is good for, it’s zebras:
Oh, and also these guys. It’s a banded mongoose. So that about covers it. You should go to South Africa, and check out Madikwe Game Reserve, and see if you can get better pictures than I did (honestly, it won’t be that hard – other than the b/w photos in this blog, none of mine were any good – PC Anne Daugherty). But to close out this post, I want to add that even at our room, which was built in such a way that it appeared to overlook a private watering hole that played host to kudus, impalas and other animals, had separate little visitors throughout our stay:
top left: the rooms at the Mandikwe Hills lodge have lots of glass, and feature a plunge pool that runs about 2 degrees Celsius. Bottom right: a hornbill pays us a visit. Bottom left: some sort of big fat bird that was waiting for us one day when we get home. Is it a quail???
We’re doing much better at seeing the country to which we’ve been assigned early in our tour, rather than late, rushing, and ending up with a list of “places we wish we’d gone.” Of Madagascar’s noteworthy destinations (really the list is endless, but let’s focus on the main towns), we have yet to make it to Mahajanga, on the west coast – but we did get pretty close.
We made it to Antsanitia Resort, about 45 minutes north of Mahajanga and the airport. Individual cabins perched on a cliff overlooking a river as it opens up into the sea. It’s got a pool overlooking the beach on the ocean side, which is probably a good thing – I usually am up for ocean swimming but it seemed a bit sketchy here. The water was cloudy and the locals told me the river current made swimming difficult. Their mention of a group of sharks that “like to play in the river mouth” didn’t help either.
So we mostly kayaked, and walked, and relaxed. As far as photography, the photo below pretty much covers it:
Showing the kids my new drone
I had just gotten a new drone in the mail – the DJI Mavic Pro. So literally all my photography on the trip was from the sky. Showing the local kids how “their” beach looked from the air also made for fun photography.
The cool thing about the Mavic, compared to my previous drone(s), the 3DR Solo, is portability. I carry the Solo in an airplane carry-on-size case that straps to my back, and the hardware is in compartments in a foam block that would probably float for quite some time if it fell from a capsized kayak. But the Mavic can be put inside gallon-size ziplocs, inside another backpack, and still leave room for sunscreen, extra clothes, bottled water and snacks, and another camera (also in a ziploc bag), and you can kayak without worry.
So that’s pretty much what we did, and I’m going to share a couple of videos I made.
But first I want to tell you about a friend we made. A skinny black dog, ribs showing, must have sensed that we were missing our dog at home and thought he’d have a go at being a surrogate. We’d steal him food from the restaurant and he would hang out at the cabin, and would walk for miles with us through the countryside. One morning, I went for a run, and he not only came along, but he brought a friend, and they both ran up the beach 2.5 miles, and 2.5 miles back, without complaint. Even when it started pouring down rain at the end.
When we went to the restaurant, he apparently knew the deal, and would slink off to the bushes, sticking as close to us as we could but just out of sight. We’re pretty sure the staff didn’t see us flinging food from the patio…
And when we appeared in the morning, they would laugh and ask why the dog was following us, and offer to shoo him away, and we’d pretend to have no idea why. But suffice to say when we left, his ribs were no longer showing. He’s in the video:
The second video was taken out on a sand bar. It looks like the drone flew dangerously close to the seagulls, but that’s the magic of “zooming” the 4K video the Mavic recorded. Having said that, I wasn’t exactly far from the birds either. I’ve always wanted to use this particular Philip Glass track for a video too.
I’d recommend this resort to other travelers, if you’re coming to relax and enjoy the spectacular sunsets and good food. If you decide to go, please see if our friend, the little black dog, is doing OK.
Oh and he likes hard boiled eggs. OK he likes pretty much anything you give him….
The main reason I returned to film photography, after years of shooting digital, was the feeling of nostalgia – remembering the washed-out square prints from my Kodak Instamatic, with the colors that weren’t quite right, and the horizon that sort of faded into white. The mechanical cameras, dusty, smelling of attic and mold, that you could take apart, and marvel at how the tiny levers and gears somehow meshed together and made the whole thing work.
But the more I rediscovered film photography, and managed to progress far beyond where I had been back in the “instamatic” days, the more I realized it’s not just about getting a different product – it’s actually a different process. With a digital camera, I tended more toward a “spray and pray” technique – snap a bunch, look at the LCD screen, click, look down at the screen, click, look down – delete, click, click click. I’d come home from a trip with 5, 6, 700 pictures, run them through Lightroom, end up with maybe 50 or 60, and maybe 5 that were really good, worth sharing on Facebook.
But when you’re shooting a roll of 120 film, where you’ll get 8 photos, the process becomes completely different. You’re focused on the framing of the photo, waiting for the right moment, thinking about the light, where the sun is in relation to the subject. And you won’t know the outcome until a week from now. If you finish the roll, anyway.
There’s a fun project happening over at Against the Grain, a new-ish podcast about photography, which takes this last point to extremes. They suggest that people shoot over the course of an entire year, and wait until next September to develop the film. You can structure the rest of the project however you want – shoot every day, shoot selfies, vary your film, vary your cameras, a roll per month – whatever. Just wait until a year from now to develop the film and share it with the group. The point is, take it slow.
How I will be participating
I thought a bit about what might yield an interesting result, maybe provide some insights, and actually be doable. I’ve got a pretty full plate, and I wanted a sampler without ending up with hundreds of photos next September that really didn’t tell me anything.
So what I’ve decided to do is to shoot with a different camera from my collection every month – but in time sequence. This month I’ll shoot with a camera from 1890, next month from the 1900s, the month after from the 1910s, and so on. I can cover ever decade through month 11 – the only camera I’m missing is a film camera from the 2000s. But I’ve got nearly a year to come up with one.
The film will all be Kodak Tri-X. I’ll choose the best from each month, and maybe we’ll learn something interesting about the last 120 years of film cameras in the process.
What are you going to do for “Let it Develop 365”?
I knew we had chosen the right place when the owner/manager greeted us in shorts and bare feet. No snooty welcome drinks and wet towels here! Although when I think back, I think there were actually welcome drinks and wet towels. But with a different vibe…
Nosy Be is a mixed bag in terms of reputation. It’s one of the few destinations in Madagascar that receives direct flights from Europe , rather than requiring travelers to pass through the capital Antananarivo. So it has a reputation as a mixed bag of mega-resorts with scripted activities, as well as a popular destination for older men seeking younger female company.
But with a little research, you can find a place like Anjiamarango Beach Resort, where Philippe meets you with bare feet, and you get a lovely ocean-facing, stand-alone cabin with huge sliding glass doors and shady trees that are just perfect to hang a hammock (I know, because I did). A half mile of pretty much private beach, and a snorkle-worthy reef about half a mile out and a shallow, open-water-swimable bay.
Pretty much the entire island is reachable within about 45 minutes. The resort will arrange outings according to your preference – we went on a snorkeling trip off one of the small islands that surround the main island of Nosy Be. We spotted lots of happy fish, several octopi, and a creepy, meter-long wormlike creature.
We also took a day trip to the peninsula that hosts the Lokobe Strict Reserve, a protected area which has several lemur species which occur nowhere else in the world. But some of the most interesting creatures were the tiny ones we found near the resort. Such as these weird flying antlike bugs all lined up on a stick at the top of a well…
We went out walking one night and heard a loud racket coming from just off the road – it sounded like birds, not really what we expected frogs to sound like. But with patience, flashlights, and wet feet, we finally managed to isolate the source of the sounds.
Some of these little guys have remarkably ornate undersides, as our guide would show us at Lokobe…
There were also the usual nighttime suspects. It’s not all about lemurs and chameleons out here.
During the day, we wandered along the tidal pools and discovered pools containing hundreds of these odd, starfish-like creatures living in the rocks and cracks between them. It was one of those rare times when I was truly stumped about what sort of animal we were seeing. Later, we identified them as brittle stars – Wikipedia tells us there are 2,000 species of them but the majority live in very deep waters.
Finally, we enjoyed just hanging around our own beach – snorkeling, kayaking, and flying the drone at sunset. Here’s a sampler of the footage I captured with the drone.
Recently I bought a few lots of cheap plastic point-and-shoot cameras – the kind we all had in the 90s – where you slide open the front, the lens comes out with a buzz, integrated flash pops up… I’m planning to do a photography class with some local kids, and for around 20 bucks you can get from 5 to 10 cameras on eBay, sometimes a few more.
Inside one of them I found a roll of film, and given that it’s probably not all that old, I decided to chance it and develop them in color. Here are the half dozen photos that resulted:
It’s always fun to try and figure out where they’re from, but I can’t find any clues whatseover, other than the people themselves. So I’ll just leave them here, in case someone else recognizes them!
The last two were kind of murky but I’ll post them in case there’s a clue.
Up at the tippy-top of Madagascar sits the world’s second-largest natural bay, The main city there, commonly known by its former name, Diego Suarez, is called Antsiranana since 1975, and the area served as the entry point for the Battle of Madagascar, in 1942.
We recently visited the area, and stayed at a relatively new resort geared toward kitesurfers, Mantasaly Kitesurf Resort, in a sheltered bay on the east coast. At low tide, it was ideal for wading, but at high tide you could swim to your heart’s content in the protected water that was uniformly no more than about two meters deep. A strong, steady wind blows from the sea, making it perfect for kitesurfers, and a fun outing is to take a boat up to “Emerald Bay” which can be seen clearly on the map above, just north of the resort. You spend the afternoon on a deserted island until they bring you a feast of fresh seafood.
Funny story about the resort that involves being shocked several times because they had their wiring mixed up. It took an hour or so to convince them that this was the case – they kept insisting I needed to wear shoes in order to avoid having 220 volts coursing through my laptop and down my arms. Hopefully they are working through their growing pains.
As usual, I brought the drone along, and though it struggled a bit in the wind, here is a short impression of the resort.
If you drive down the highway about 32 km southwest of Antananarivo, you may be surprised to see a giant white satellite dish next to some abandoned buildings not far from the road. This is a relic of the American space program in the 1960s and 1970s. Here’s an excerpt about it from NASA’s book, “I Read You Loud and Clear,” about the worldwide communications network it built in countries around the world to support space exploration:
On 19 December 1963, the U.S. entered into a 10-year agreement with the Malagasy Republic allowing for the installation of a transportable ground station outside the port city of Majunga in northwest Madagascar. This agreement was reached in accordance with the spirit of a United Nations resolution calling for the application of results of space research to benefit all peoples. In addition to benefiting that region of the world by generating much-needed weather forecasts (especially during hurricane season), the station provided jobs for some 200 local residents in nontechnical positions for handling of day-to-day station maintenance. In reaching this agreement, NASA sent a delegation to the capital city of Tananarive where they were “received by the president, Mr. Philibert Tsiranana, most graciously in an office decorated with space memorabilia.” He soon gave the United States his enthusiastic support and permitted NASA to start bringing telemetry vans into Majunga.
Explanatory literature handed out to familiarize station workers assigned to Madagascar described the environment as an area of mild winters and rainy summers, a relatively expensive but charming place to live. The handbook noted that the people of Madagascar were not politically minded and were predisposed to favor America and Americans. Harry McKeehan, who represented GSFC in negotiations with the Republic, called “our friendship with the president and the people of this island republic invaluable in building and operating this Indian Ocean site.” This cooperation was to play a pivotal role later when a political uprising in nearby Zanzibar created a tense situation, one in which American lives were put in jeopardy that required an evacuation to the Malagasy Republic.
The station in Majunga was later moved to “Tananarive,” as the capital of newly-independent Madagascar was called in French. Eventually, however, the relationship between the United States and Madagascar would sour, and the station would be shut down.
At age 80, Mr. Ratsiraka still makes the occasional public appearance. I wonder if he ever drives by the station and thinks about those turbulent times in the 1970s?
Back in mid-October, I heard that DJI, the company that manufactured the first drone I owned, was releasing a small, foldable drone with an integrated camera. In other words, one that would allow me to carry something besides just a drone on my back when we go hiking in Madagascar! I figured 2, 3 weeks…
Months later, I was still waiting. The company I had ordered it from wrote me every few weeks to let me know it was still on back order. Then, finally in mid-December, I got a notice it had shipped.
Followed immediately by a notice that the item had been rejected by our mail service because of lithium battery restrictions.
So I had them ship it to a friend who was in the U.S. for the holidays, and he removed the battery and shipped it again.
Again! A rejection notice telling me it was being returned to sender! I was distraught.
But then my colleague walked in smiling a few days later with my DJI Mavic Pro which had actually been delivered to him by mistake (we work in the same office).
It’s an awesome little drone – the menus and settings are much more customizable, and therefore much more complicated – but once it’s all set up for the first time you can just unfold it, turn everything on, and be airborne within about 45 seconds. The 3DR Solo I have is a great workhorse, but it can take 3, 4, 5 minutes to get airborne, depending on how quickly the Wi-Fi connects and everything synchs up.
Here is its maiden flight, over the rice fields of Antananarivo, about a mile from our house:
So the weird thing happening in the lower left quarter of the frame is from a plastic cap that comes on the drone, and snaps over the camera and gimbal to protect it. It seemed natural to leave it on, but from now on it comes off!
Expect a lot more footage from this thing as I get better at flying it over the coming months!
I got an email from somebody at some point, soon after we arrived in Madagascar: there was to be a full solar eclipse, and we were invited to stay at the “Bush Camp” on the Pangalanes Canal, wherever that was.
I did some digging and found out that there is a series of lakes and canals – similar to the inland waterway we have on the east coast of the United States. Called the Pangalanes Canal, it is apparently pretty scenic and worth a visit. According to the email, we would be able to experiene a full solar eclipse on September 1 (yes, it has taken me awhile to post this!) so I booked the trip and it was just a matter of waiting until September.
Our trip there was a minor adventure in and of itself. We took a 5-hour car ride east and south of Antananarivo, where we live, and followed a deeply rutted dirt road for about 10 kilometers. After a couple of kilometers, we passed a couple of women walking barefoot, carrying loads on their heads. They gestured at us, and we continued on, but about 5o meters later I realized what they wanted – so we backed up, loaded their goods in the back of the Land Cruiser, and invited them to jump in the back seat. They laughed and waved to people they knew as we passed through village after village…
We arrived at the canal and had lunch while we waited for our boat. Eventually it arrived and we got our suitcases and loaded everything up…but to our disappointment, and for unknown reasons, the boat wouldn’t start. If we hadn’t been on vacation, it would have almost been comical as our boat drivers kept summoning different people from various places on the beach to help them. Eventually, they managed to start the boat and we were on our way. It took about 40 minutes to get to our hotel. Here is an aerial overview of the surroundings where we ended up.
Most of Madagascar’s lakes are unsafe to swim in – or even to wade in – because much of the water is infested with parasites that cause schistosomiasis. But the lake that forms part of the canal system, in front of the Bush House (where we stayed) is pretty clean (I think) so I had a great time open-water swimming. The risk here is crocodiles, which hang out in some of the “inner” lakes. How do we know? We saw them during the hours and hours of hiking we did in the area.
Across the lake from the Bush House is the Palmarium, another lodge, much more “touristy.” From there, you can take a night boat out to see the Aye-Ayes (see previous post) on a nearby island, or you can walk around the grounds and see a number of different species of lemurs that are semi-tame. Like I said, “touristy.”
One of our longer hikes, we went to the fishing village across the lake, built on the thin strip of land separating the lake from the ocean. We walked along the edge of the lake until we eventually ran into the canal – a 40 meter stretch of water – and we convinced an old fisherman to take us across in his little boat, which was patched in various places with plastic. The ocean on the other side was very rough, and the villagers told us a few fishing boats had gone missing the day prior.
The villagers were interested in showing us around and trying to encourage us to buy the handmade crafts, vanilla, pepper, and other products they were selling in their shops. Before we headed back, I showed the kids what the strange object was that I had been carrying around in the odd backpack I had on my back:
Walking back, we passed by a hotel on the lake that appeared to be empty except for a family maintaining it. And in the distance we saw these odd cat-like animals running on the beach. When we got closer we realized they were lemurs! We had a few bananas left:
Toward the end of our visit, we heard there was a soccer match between a couple of the villages taking place. All afternoon, we saw people passing by the lodge on their way to the soccer pitch out in the jungle (you can see it on one of the videos above, I think) and so finally we decided to go and check it out. It was pretty impressive to see a few of the players were barefoot, and a few of them had split a pair of shoes between them. But one of the teams was clearly sponsored by the Palmarium Hotel…
So yeah – it was a great trip, a great getaway to get out of the city for a long weekend.
…and oh yeah, there was also the eclipse!
If you’re interested in seeing a few more photos from the trip, you can check out this Flickr album.
Meet the bizarre, but wonderful aye-aye. It’s an odd nocturnal lemur with a kind of creepily long middle finger and a bizarre, wild and wide-eyed expression. We were lucky enough to see a few of these in the wild and thought we’d share them with you.
By the way, did you know lemurs are primates? Yes, this is your distant cousin…
In the third and and final installment in this series I have written about a trip we took out to a remote village in Madagascar, to help film a crowdfunding video for a great cause, Onja. In this post I share (with the help of Anne’s photos) our impressions of life in the 700-person village of Andovolalina, about 35 kilometers west of Mahanoro, Madagascar, and the nearest drivable road.
The first thing I should probably talk about is food. We had thought to be as self-sufficient as possible. We’re not big eaters anyway, so we brought dense foods – nuts, granola-type stuff, pop tarts (vitamins!!) and a few ziplocs of sugary, fortified cereals…candy. I grabbed a few small apples out of the bowl on the dining room table on the way out. Boiled the last few eggs in the fridge, filled the water bladders in our backpacks with 3 liters each, filled some ziplocs with powdered gatorade…
It turns out that Sam had planned ahead. To make sure we didn’t go hungry. Every evening, the women in our small group would disappear, and then reappear mysteriously an hour later with the lady that lived in the next house, and a huge dinner (pictured here). The neighbor and her son would join us for dinner. We’d have red rice, some sort of spinach, and there would be french-fried potatoes and a delicious grated carrot salad. Sam made a point of telling me they had brought peanuts and fish, I believe – which were added to various dishes. For those of us not used to these foods, we probably looked like reaaallly moderate eaters for the first few meals. I will admit that we were craving Coca-Cola by the second night, and I found the store where I’d buy a big bottle for us to share. The village store charged me just over a dollar for the big bottle – which was a huge luxury for most of the village. And seemed like a really good deal when I thought about how it had been carried the entire distance we had walked a few days earlier.
Around the third day I had grabbed an apple out of my pack, and Sam explained to me that there were no apples to be had in this area. He explained that the “normal” food was just the rice and the spinach, every single night. He told me that it had been our group which had brought all the potatoes and carrots, so we (Anne and I) wouldn’t go hungry. Feeling guilty, I went and dug all the apples out of my bag and gave them to our host…
The real treat for me was breakfast. We’d walk across the village every morning, to a house where we’d be served bread which was made by dropping lumps of batter in hot oil cooked over a wood fire. We’d go inside this “Andovolalina Denny’s” and sit on small stools, and be served this bread with little metal enameled cups with the best coffee we’ve had yet in Madagascar. The secret is that it’s sweetened with cane juice. And while we’re on that subject, here’s where cane juice comes from:
Basically you take chunks of sugar cane and put them in this device, which looks like it’s made of stone – but it’s wood, and the stick is used to smash the cane so the sugar runs into the pot underneath. Mmmmm. So like 4 or 5 of us would eat our fill, and everyone had a cup of this delicious coffee, and at the end one of us would pay like 300 ariary. An American dime. There are completely different economies at play in Madagascar.
After some time in the village I reached a point where I couldn’t stall anymore, and so I asked Sam, “Um…so where’s the bathroom?”
I wasn’t sure – the village was surrounded on three sides by creeks, and hills. There are actually twochurches – one Protestant and one Catholic, all on hills surrounding the village, plus a major river.
Sam, ever the gracious host, didn’t say anything at first. He left for a bit, and then came back 20 minutes or so later and announced that he had arranged for us to use the “toilet.” I realized he meant that he had asked for permission for us to use the single outhouse in the village and I laughed, “No, I meant, like which ‘woods’ are the ones we’re supposed to use when we have to ‘go’? I don’t want to just pee anywhere I want and risk offending someone!”
Laughing, h briefed me where we should ‘go’…when we had to go. And so that was that.
I should mention at this point that mobile phone coverage in Andovolalina is pretty much nonexistent. And as it turns out, where you go happens to be up one of the hills surrounding the village. So one evening I figured, well, I guess I can kill two birds with one stone! So I went out into the night to do my business. And check email.
The former didn’t take me that long, but the latter…well, I never got a decent signal. But I stumbled around in the dark for awhile searching. And getting to and from the hill took a bit, and I didn’t really notice time slipping by. But as it turns out, while I was away, a major crisis had erupted in the village.
It turns out that at a certain point, Sam had become concerned at my absence, and when Anne told him I was out tromping in the woods in the dark, he worried that maybe something had happened to me. By now, most of the village was in the process of settling down to sleep. Apparently this evening would be when the village drunk would decide to try and make off with someone’s hen by crawling under their house where they had settled for the night. Hearing the ruckus, the chicken’s owner had come out to investigate, and caught him in the act, and with a loud shriek, instantly had the entire village on its feet!
Of course since I had gone missing, Sam assumed that I was somehow involved in the crisis, and as he hurried out to rescue me, the entire village went running up the hill to confront the thief. The villagers “handcuffed” the thief, scolded him, and marched him around the village to shame him.
Of course, minutes later I wandered nonchalantly onto the scene, frustrated that I couldn’t check my email and wondering what the fuss was about…
Evenings, our cabin was a hotbed of activity. During the day, kids would watch us shyly from a distance. We were always horrified when some of the village’s youngest residents would burst into tears as we approached! We learned that it’s a common practice in Madagascar to tell young children if they don’t behave, the “vazaha” (foreigners) will come and take them away. So naturally they were terrified that the boogeyman – us – had appeared in their midst.
But by the second night or so, the older kids, curious, would visit the cabin. Anne had brought bags of crayon sets and small coloring books, so this was the entertainment for one evening. And lollipops. And Pixie Stix.
On other evenings, Sam would give English lessons, or teach the kids how to play “rock, paper, scissors.” Which apparently in New Zealand, is called “scissors, paper rock.” You know, southern hemisphere….
Sam had been talking to us about “market day.” Apparently, Andovolalina is a sort of hub in the region, and people were expected to come from miles around for the market which would take place the day before we left. And that night, there was to be some sort of dance. We thought this would be a great video/photo op.
Early the morning of market day, we were awakened to the most horrendous sound coming from near the creek. And then again. And again. The expression “like a stuck pig”? We learned about it at 5 am on market day. Bacon in the making.
Since we were awake, we stumbled down to the creek with our toothbrushes and our towels, and came upon the process where fire was used to singe the hair off the pigs, and then cut them up into sellable portions. Because we are used to our food magically appearing on the shelves at the supermarket, all of this biology caught us off guard a bit. So we decided to go upstream a bit for our morning personal hygiene rituals…
Nevertheless, market day turned out to be a great photo op as we suspected. People came from miles around, and they all wondered who these strange foreigners were, wandering around taking pictures of the most mundane, everyday things…
But it was an interesting day – people came from miles around to trade in all sorts of goods and we got a better idea of how things work out here, far from all of the shopping centers and malls, “in the middle of nowhere.”
As the market wound to a close and people started to close down their booths, we thought things were winding down. We went to start packing down our bags and equipment, and there was a commotion outside. I ran out with the camera to see what was going on.
It seems that part of market day, which we had apparently missed, is a soccer tournament. Fans belonging to the winning village had been celebrating throughout the tournament already, and things really came to a head once their team won the final championship!
We left the winners to their celebration and continued our packing. Sam told us that tonight there would also be a dance. We had caught a glimpse of the huge speakers, powered by several car batteries that had been charged with solar panels. After dinner – as late as 10 pm, we were told, the party would get going, and it would go all night. We were a bit skeptical – after all, we were in a remote rural village. We thought about getting up to check out the party, but by the time things got going, we were all quite literally sacked out, exhausted from the previous few days’ activities.
But we would not be left out of the fun.
While we tried to sleep, literally all night – until well after sunrise, at about 6:30 am – the “dance hall” – a large hut at the end of the village, packed with speakers and lights and all of the young people from miles around, were the scene of throbbing techno music that kept the entire village up all night long. It was completely surreal.
When we made our way down to the coffee shop in the morning with our packs, saying goodbye to our new friends, paying our respects to the President, to Jerome and his family, we saw many of the night’s revelers, still tipsy, tired from the party, and preparing for their own journeys back to their villages.
We said our goodbyes, and in a light rain, we reversed our journey on foot through the many villages we had passed through a few days earlier, stopping each time to pick up our escort policeman from each village’s President. Anne passed out the last of her lollipops and Pixie Stix as we passed through the last few villages, and we arrived exhausted at the village where the pickup truck had dropped us off.
We were too late for the truck, which was already full, and would have to wait for the next. The prospect of being crammed again into the back of one of these trucks was not something I was looking forward to.
Down on the river sat a barge. I asked Sam if he thought he’d be able to talk the boatman into taking us downriver. Apparently the boat was waiting for a load of bananas, but after some haggling and a fair amount of pressure from my end, the boatman finally agreed to take us back to Mahanoro.
We had a pleasant ride back and reflected on the adventure we had experienced. Sam was very thankful for our help with the video, but in fact it was us who felt the most grateful, for simply having been able to have an insight into village life as it is not experienced by many outsiders in Madagascar. Now it was time to head back home…and actually edit the video!
As usual, photos are mostly – but not all – by Anne. Video clips my own.
Postscript: As it would turn out, it took months – hours and hours of work editing the video, uploading it, dreading the corrections Sam would suggest but would ultimately make the video better. We probably sent 25 versions of the video back and forth before we finally felt comfortable with the end product. It wasn’t until one of the late versions that Sam finally convinced me to add some music (a huge improvement) and I finally convinced him to finally choose a name (other than “Project Livelihood”) for his NGO and project, and he furnished us a logo for the end of the video.
We also thought about our trip – in the meantime we also managed to print many of the photos and had them sent to Mahanoro, where someone was able to carry them out to the village and distribute them. Separately, we had asked Sam to look into whether anyone knew what it would take to repair the village’s well. Other members of our team located a technician who knew what the issue was, and though we offered to cover his trip to Antananarivo, the cost of the parts, and his return trip to the village to make the repair, as it would turn out, the technician and a variety of other people ended up contributing their time and money and the well ended up being repaired about a month ago. A village of 700 people has a working well again for a grand total of about $10 in parts…
We have talked with Sam about returning to the village, and hopefully carrying out some things they can use like schoolbooks or other supplies, and going out to film/photograph updates to the project. So far, no firm dates – but we’re in the middle of the rainy season.
In the meantime, if the people of Andovolalina have made a little bit of an impression on you, as they did with us, you can visit the crowdfunding page that was created using the footage and photos we managed to collect on this amazing trip, and learn more about the unique project Sam has come up with to try and help talented kids like Jerome from his region. Thanks for stopping by!
This is part two in a series. Part one can be viewed here.
So as I noted yesterday, after our long trek into the countryside, the first order of business was to meet with the President of Andovolalina, the village we were staying in, to explain what we were up to and get his blessing. Before I go on, I want to share a bit about the President.
He’s 50 years old, with 10 children and – if I remember correctly – 30 or so grandchildren. I tell him I’m 50 too. We share a bonding moment. He ends up being one of our biggest allies/advocates over the next few days, explaining our strange behavior to the villagers who wonder why these “vazaha” or foreigners are walking around taking pictures of their ordinary daily tasks, their homes, their kids. He tells them we are taking pictures because we really like Andovolalina. Which is true. Of course there are other reasons too.
Here’s his family – part of it, anyway:
And here he is clowning around a few days later when we’re filming:
Sam and I spend a lot of time the first couple of days scribbling on paper – rewriting the script now that we have a better idea of the context of the village. Anne and I spend the morning walking around taking “b-roll” video and photographs that might come in handy later, to help convey to outside audiences what life is like in Jerome’s village. Filler stuff for the video, since we won’t be able to come back if we need a particular scene.
drying rice in the sun
washing clothes in the river. the well is broken.
I believe this is a piece of sugar cane he’s peeling with a very sharp tool.
Finally we decide it’s time to pay Jerome a visit to introduce ourselves and explain what we’re up to. It almost ends up in disaster.
When we arrive at his house, there are a group of kids his age carrying bags and looking like they are preparing for a trip. We meet Jerome’s mother and realize that all these teens – Jerome included – are minutes away from embarking on the walk we just did, but in reverse – to Mahanoro, for a field trip of sorts. It seems that, since the previous visit where Jerome had done so well on the aptitude test and there had been an agreement on making a video, others who hadn’t met Sam had talked her out of the whole thing.
In crisis mode, Sam explains to Jerome’s mom and his uncle again what we are up to. Initially they are not convinced. She calls in Jerome’s uncle, who listens patiently. Jerome cries a little. He’s not sure; he wants to do both. His friends are waiting… Eventually everyone agrees it’s best he stay, and we breathe a sigh of relief.
Except now the pressure is on to make sure we can make it worthwhile for him.
So now it’s time to start filming. We choose our locations strategically, to get the best light, the best time of day, reveal a little about the character of the village. We visit Jerome’s school. Jerome’s teacher is part of our group that made the hike from Mahanoro. He’s going to speak on the video. We realize Jerome’s mom is a key part of the video, and talk about how we plan to capture that piece. We don’t want to tell her what to say – we just want her to explain the situation in the village.
We worry that Jerome will end up being a poor actor, probably because he looks so much younger than his 16 years.
filming the village scene, where we first meet Jerome
at the school, trying to figure out how we’re going to get the proper lighting, using strategically placed open windows.
Jerome’s mom, after the interview. Our light ran out of batteries during the key part of the interview. Jerome’s little brother was getting restless, so I slipped him a lollipop. As we were filming, he began restlessly clicking it on his teeth, even though I was doing everything to gesture him to stop!
Sam watches his scene. We want to review everything, but we’re also conscious that once the batteries run out, there’s no way to recharge them…
No matter where we’re filming, everyone is curious. Lots of people ended up on the video without realizing it. Even the youngest kids are quiet and well-behaved when we ask them not to make noise. We’re lucky to have great weather the whole time…
After Jerome’s mom does her interview, we realize we should get some filler scenes where she is working, doing typical things – so we can alternate scenes a bit while she’s speaking. We go to find her, to ask her if she can stage something for us – and as we come around the corner we find exactly what we’re looking for, already taking place!
With the weather cooperating, we manage to get all of our shooting done, and we make it known that with the extra time we have available, we will take as many free family portraits as we can until it gets dark. The next morning will be an early one, and to be honest, I was still a bit sore from the walk in!
Here are some of the portraits Anne took.
this is Jerome’s family
This couple owned the empty house we stayed in. They live up on the hill overlooking the village, and when we came up to the house for a photo, he proudly pointed out his outhouse – the only one in the village.
Jerome’s mom and sister
As a postscript to this post, I’ll mention that the actual editing of the video ended up taking months. We wanted to get it just right, but were constrained by the fact that the footage we had was all we could work with – so no major changes. You can, of course, see the video on the Onja crowdfunding page at http://tiny.cc/onja.
All photos in this post were taken by Anne. In part three, I’ll talk a little about our leisure time in the village, and some of the surprises we experienced!
It started back in July when I got an interesting item in my “Google Alerts” for Madagascar. A small NGO was looking for a filmmaker and a social media manager to support their project in eastern Madagascar. I quickly fired off an email doing my best to convince “Sam” that this project was tailor-made for us – me, with my passion for short films, and Anne, with her love of photography and her experience managing a large social media effort. “I’m not a professional,” I confessed, but I hoped our passion, and the fact that we live in Madagascar and came with our own 4×4 would act in our favor.
Excitement mixed with disappointment when Sam wrote back raving about Anne’s photography, but he’d keep me in mind if he didn’t get a better offer. Still, we were welcome to join and help out where we could.
As things would turn out, there were no other takers and we were both in. The task would be to make a crowdfunding video that would persuade donors to contribute to this new NGO. We’d explain how they planned to find talented young people in remote, rural parts of Madagascar, and turn them into computer coders. They’d learn English and be given the skills to work and earn many times their potential salary otherwise, and feed back part of their profits into the system which would help train others after them. They were currently testing young people, and we agreed that in mid-September, we’d go out and shoot a video featuring one of the top scorers, to introduce people to the concept by relating it to real people. He didn’t know how far we’d have to go but there would be some walking involved. “Are you fit?” he asked, and we started to worry a bit. Maybe that 4×4 wouldn’t be so useful after all…
As the day came closer, gear started arriving from Amazon. Most of it would be useful, but along the way we also ended up with a solar panel, and what amounted to a car battery, which we had somehow imagined would solve our power needs, but was ridiculously heavy. We were going to be off the grid for a few days and we’d need to think about other ways to keep our cameras, phones and lights running for the duration of the project.
The plan was to meet Sam in Mahanoro, a town of maybe 50,000, on the east coast of Madagascar. According to Wikipedia, “though a small airport is situated on the north side of the town, the location is quite isolated and with limited tourism, though it is reported to have a single hotel.” We’d stay overnight, then set off overland for a day or so to meet “Jerome,” the star student of the testing they’d been doing for weeks. The Land Cruiser would be staying in Mahanoro, because where we were headed, there were no roads…
I was nervous as we met Sam, a quiet young Kiwi who, we would learn, had developed the concept for his NGO while still in New Zealand, and had specifically chosen Madagascar based on his own research and its potential. A trained engineer, he had quit his job, and brought his savings to Madagascar, moved into a village, learned the local language, local customs, learned to plant rice and survive on the local cuisine, gradually gaining the trust of the villagers. Only once he had done all that, he had launched his search for a “video maker.” The more I learned, the more I worried maybe I had taken on more than I could handle. Was Sam really depending on my videography skills to collect over $30,000?
Too late to turn back now…
We woke up bright and early, packed all the food, water, and supplies we thought we might need for 4-5 days into our brand-new REI backpacks. Plus another backpack with lollipops, notepads, crayons…to hand out along the way. We walked down to the local “bus station” and loaded into the back of a covered pickup truck. All of the bags were strapped to the top, and maybe a dozen or more of us piled into the back of the truck and tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible sitting on the spare tire, bags of rice, cases of Coca-Cola… We had negotiated with the driver that we’d pay extra, and that he’d cram fewer passengers than normal into the back. We wondered how many would fit in the back had we not done that…or maybe the joke was on us…
Along the way, we picked up a few others who would be introduced by Sam as additional members of our entourage. One of them was Jerome’s teacher, who Sam thought might be useful in the video.
We tried our best to keep the circulation in our legs moving as we headed eastward down a sandy road that would rise and fall almost rhythmically where the rain had worn huge indentations that were often filled with water. After more than an hour (it seemed like three!) Sam announced that we had arrived at the end of the road, and would be continuing on foot.
Things started off OK, but it quickly became obvious this was not going to be a walk in the park for us old folks…even though I had said I was “fit.” The days of carrying a 60-pound pack and hiking through the North Carolina woods had gone long ago. We went up and down hills, through streams, slid on muddy clay roads. I spent the first hour cramming more and more unneeded clothing items into my pack – starting with shoes, which would have just been heavy, wet blister machines.
Here I decided to strategically include the first of two photos, where Anne has gone calf-deep in mud, and I am crossing on the log. In the next photo I am calf-deep in the mud, hanging on to the log to avoid toppling over into the creek. I was carrying all of the electronics, and this would have spelled disaster.
Every now and then, I would ask Sam, “how much farther?” and he would say “oh about an hour.” After about 3 hours, I asked one of the others, “Are we getting close?” and she answered “We’re not even halfway!”
In the photo above, everyone wondered why I had stopped – I had overheated, and had pretty much immersed myself in the stream for some relief.
Every now and then we would pass through a village – maybe 300 people or so – and the locals would stare curiously at the odd band of people who were passing through. We would get a break while Sam would drop his pack and pay a visit to the village “President.” The President would listen to Sam explain what we were up to, and would give his permission for us to pass through his area, and assign us a “policeman” (the gentleman in the red t-shirt is one such policeman) to escort us to the next village, whereupon he would disappear and be replaced by someone else. Invariably, the policeman was always carrying Anne’s pack…and would carry it like it was filled with pillows, not 50 pounds of gear!
Along the way, we would pass others, either carrying their own luggage in rice bags, or often it was young men carrying (for example) two cases of large soda bottles tied to the ends of a bamboo pole which was balanced on one shoulder, or the equivalent amount of commercial goods, for sale upstream.
Finally, I was told, we had arrived. We crossed one last stream and climbed uphill into the village that would be our home for the next four or five nights. The locals stared as we came into town – a few smaller children cried, afraid. We went to pay our respects to the village President, to explain what we planned to do, and he gave us his blessing and showed us to a vacant hut – one of the few which had a light, thanks to a solar panel – and a low bed with a mattress stuffed with straw. The others insisted we take the bed. When I protested, they insisted…”because you are the oldest.”
Getting old has got to be worth something, I guess.
In my next post, I’ll introduce you to the village of Andovolalina, and we’ll meet Jerome.
Photos are mostly by Anne, and some by Sam.
Learn more about the crowdfunding project we were supporting here.
I have most of my collection of 100-plus cameras on a couple of shelves made from old Indian doors whose multiple layers of paint was peeling. By collector standards it’s not many, but it’s enough so that they grab your attention when you walk into the room. Eventually they ask, “Do any of them still work?” and are surprised to hear that in fact most of them still work. “Yeah but can you still find film for them?”
Yes, but sometimes you have to get creative. Definitely the case for this camera.
The “No. 2A” (don’t ask me how the numbering works) is oddly called a “pocket camera” – odd because you’d need pretty huge pockets. The camera is 8.5 inches wide, two inches deep, and nearly 4 inches tall. I suppose back in 1910 when they started making these, competing cameras were all significantly larger, so maybe it was all relative. But for 7 bucks ($170 in today’s dollars) you had an attractive camera that was relatively portable and simple to operate.
According to the website Brownie-Camera.com, they made about 120,000 of these, starting in February 1910 until about November 1915. They are all serial-numbered, and mine is 57635, which puts it around mid-1912 because in November 1912, starting with serial number 62,551, they manufactured them with black bellows instead of red. I like the red bellows.
This camera used one of the many film sizes that existed in the early days of cameras – 116. It was a bit smaller than some of the other film spools of that time but still bigger than 120 film, which is the largest you can reliably find nowadays. So one way to make this camera work is to find an old roll of 116 film where you can salvage the backing paper and spool (it’s not always possible – sometimes the old film is fused to the paper); and you get a roll of 120 film – easily orderable by mail.
If you’re interested in trying to use 120 film in place of 116, 616, or any other old spool film that’s at least as wide as 120, check out this video.
Operating the camera can be a bit tricky. Once you’ve focused it, based on your best estimate of the distance from subject to lens, you’ve got two more settings you can change. First, you can set the shutter to “instant”, “bulb” or “time.” The other switch can be moved from the numbers 1 thru 4.
At first, I had no idea what this was about – but I found a manual online and this is the aperture setting. There’s no shutter speed, but according to the manual:
I took the warning in the last line quite seriously – the last thing I want is to experience “absolute failure!”
Thanks to Ivan Lo’s excellent Vintage Camera Lab, we know that the four stops are f/8.8, f/11, f/14 and f/16 (roughly, I assume). He says the shutter is 1/25 second, which seems reasonable, given f/8.8 is the default stop. Not that I had any luck figuring out what typical 116 film speed was in the 1910s.
So having figured all of this out, I took the camera out for a spin with a roll of 100-speed black and white film, and here is what I got:
In this first photo, someone jumped into the frame from the left right as I clicked. Frustrating when you only have 6.5 exposures!
It’s actually trickier than it seems to keep the camera horizontal. For fun, I took the same photo again, and then photographed a bush, to get this double exposure:
The last photo is probably the best, and it reminds us why, even with a relatively cheap lens and simple camera, “medium format” photographs can still be useful.
The amount of detail in this photo is phenomenal. Using a relatively inexpensive scanner, even at 2400 dpi you end up losing much of the detail on the original negative. The scans end up being 10,000 by 5,000 pixels (a 50 MP scan!) and a 150 MB file. I reduced them drastically before I posted them here, and they get squashed down more to fit on your screen. Below you can see what a portion of the original photo looks like, displayed at full size (hint: it’s the left part of the center plant):
Overall verdict: I’m always amazed that these old cameras still work as they should, even 105 years after manufacture. It’s always difficult to estimate distance, so inevitably I ended up with some blur. It would be beyond me to try and use a camera like this in low light or inside, using the “bulb” or “time” function, or adding a flash into the mix. We’re lucky our modern cameras do all the work for us but it’s still fun to try and see what you can make these old cameras do using a little trial and error.
This post is a continuation of my previous post, where I described out trip from Antananarivo to Morondava, and then north across two rivers and to the “petit tsingy” and a boat ride through the Manamobolo Gorge and the caves that border it.
In this post, I will share our experience in the “grand tsingy” and give a few tips for the ride home.
So there’s a trick when you visit the Grand Tsingy. We didn’t realize it until later, but our guide told us he was getting up at 3 am to “get our harnesses.” Apparently there weren’t enough for all the visitors or something. He encouraged us to push the lodge we were staying in (Orchidee the Bemaraha) to prepare breakfast as early as possible. Officially they started at six, but at our request, they had a simple breakfast, along with bag lunches, ready for us by 5:30, and by 6 we were on our way.
When we got to the park – if I remember right, it took an hour or so on a bumpy road – there was only one other car there. We walked on the forest floor along towering cliffs, and promptly spotted a pygmy kingfisher – one of two types of kingfishers found in Madagascar, and by far the least common.
Once we turned inward toward the park, it was time to start climbing metal ladders and clambering through rocks. And time to put on our harnesses. The harnesses each had a metal carabiner, and we were supposed to clip those into metal cables that were stretched across some of the more precarious/dangerous stretches. This video gives a bit of a better impression.
It was pleasant and cool. We took our time, took photos from some of the highest parts of the tsingy.
As we started to make our way downhill, we eventually ran into a group of people waiting at the bottom of one of the metal ladders, and we realized the whole point of getting up early for the harnesses. The people who had not gotten harnesses had to navigate the loop backward, and then wait for those of us who had gotten up early to come around and pass on our (sweaty) harnesses. So we felt pretty lucky, passed on our harnesses, and continued on.
As we continued on, we passed larger and larger groups, laughing and joking, blithely heading forward to the point where they would have to stop and just wait for someone to show up with a harness. Then they would have to go in small groups and wait for the preceding groups to finish with the platform up ahead. A long day – and it was getting steadily warmer. Meanwhile, we were making our way through the canopy, spotting the lemurs overhead which the other people seemed to be missing somehow.
Once we got to the parking lot, we were starting to get hot and uncomfortable. And it was packed with cars – at least 50, crammed every which way, several drivers were working to repair their 4×4 while their occupants were on the trail – and at this point we realized how important it had been that our guide had gotten up at 3 am to secure our harnesses and prod us along the road to the Grand Tsingy. If you come to the Tsingy, tip your guide well, and make sure he does this for you.
We headed back to the lodge, and lounged by the pool, ordered up a few $10 massages, and relaxed until dinner, and tried not to think about all the other guests who were still out in the heat. Bear in mind, this is winter in Madagascar!
The next day, we again took our guide’s advice, and got up well before 6 am and headed out as the sun rose. Why? Remember the river crossings. It didn’t take long to get across the Manambolo river, but once we got to Belo Tsiribihina we knew things would be different. We were looking forward to the Mad Zebu, but we knew our driver would be arranging the ferry crossing. Instead of driving down to the river, the ferry “fixers” were in town and they seemed to have some sort of planned sequence in their minds. Once we paid them, they directed us to a different part of town, to an unmarked river landing, where we waited for 20-30 minutes. We got several different explanations for the delay but eventually were loaded on the ferry and were on our way. By the time we left, traffic was starting to back up and we were thankful we had gotten up early.
After a relatively uneventful, but hot and dusty ride, we would arrive once again in Morondava at the hotel we had stayed at a few days earlier. Great place to walk along the beach at sunset and recharge for the long ride home to Antananarivo.
Travel and Leisure has listed Madagascar as one of its 50 places to visit in 2017. Since we’re talking about a country that would stretch from New York City to the tip of Florida, I’ll help narrow things down a bit. Despite the hassle of getting there, the Tsingy the Bemaraha National Park is one of the places you should see if you make your way out to the red island in the future. This post is chock full of lessons learned and travel tips in case you plan to go!
A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Tsingy National Park and Strict Nature Reserve are a geologist’s and a plant and animal biologist’s paradise. Encompassing large areas of extremely eroded limestone karst, resulting in sharp, knife-edged rocks interspersed with deep crevasses, the area is also home to a wide variety of highly specialized plants and animals, nearly half of which are locally endemic – i.e. occur nowhere else. Depending on whom you consult, the word “tsingy” either means “where you can’t walk” or “where you walk on your toes” but you get the idea. There are a number of “tsingy” parks in Madagascar, but this is the most spectacular.
Getting there is a bit of a chore, and there are a few tricks I’ll share. As we live in Antananarivo, we rented a car and driver from there, and drove to Morondava (on the west coast) over the course of two days. But many people take a flight and rent a driver from Morondava. The flights are not always reliable or the cheapest, but you save some time as the scenery along the way is not super-exciting, and there’s a lot of driving to be done once you’re in Morondava.
You can see my previous post on what to do in Morondava. From there, it’s only 70 km – but all of it on dusty dirt roads and you’ll have to take two ferry crossings. So leave early and plan on being on the road all day – after you’ve seen the baobabs, of course!
There’s a steady stream of tourists and rented 4-by-4s on the road between Morondava and Bekopaka, the entrance to the park. Not all of them know what they’re doing, but you’ll want to focus on two choke points: the ferry crossings. An experienced driver will keep you on your time schedule. The first crossing is the Mania River, just south of Belo Tsiribihina. On the way north, you’ll want to hit that early and get across – and then you can take a break for lunch. We stopped at the Mad Zebu, which is popular, not cheap, but very tasty. Your driver will likely grab lunch elsewhere.
The ferry ride is an experience in itself, as you’ve probably realized from the photos above. The ferry consists of a couple of metal riverboats with planking on top of them. Metal ramps which beeeeeennnd are used to get the cars on and off the ferry. They lash two ferries to each other sometimes for loading and unloading. Then we set off for a 4-km trip downstream to the offloading point. For the unitiated, it can be a bit scary. I took a collection of footage from our various ferry rides and stitched them together below. Watch toward the end – we were delayed waiting for a ferry with a single 4×4 that wouldn’t start. Successfully lashed to another ferry, the crew push-started the 4×4, and when it started, it literally ran into the car in front of it. Success!
After this experience, we continued for another 4 hours or so – endless red dirt dusty roads with the windows down because our air conditioner had broken upon leaving Antananarivo – until we reached the Manambolo River. Another ferry! This one had additional excitement.
If you visit the Tsingy, one thing you’ll want to do is ensure you arrive well before 5 pm at the park office, and buy your entry tickets the day before, to avoid a long wait the next morning. We were pretty sure we would juuustt make it in time, when we hit the ferry. It turns out that our rented Mitsubishi with the broken air conditioning lacked the clearance to make it on the ferry at the normal landing – so the crew gestured him off and we had to wait a couple of iterations before they would pull off to the side and we finally got on board. You can actually see this on the video above. Needless to say, we were annoyed – our Land Cruiser with good clearance, also with broken air conditioning, was at home. We made it to our Hotel, the Orchidee de Bemaraha, in time for dinner. While we waited for the ferry, however, I decided to send up the drone for a bit.
So the next morning we waited in line forever. There were only 7 or 8 people in front of us, but the first person was a group of like 30. So we probably lost 1.5 hours right there, because all of the entry tickets are hand written, receipts are hand written, and the guides are assigned right there. It takes time. So another travel tip: if you don’t get there in time the day before, opt for the Petit Tsingy on the day you wait in line for tickets, along with the Manambolo Gorge. We did the Gorge first and then the Tsingy – probably better to do the Tsingy first, and be out on the water and in the caves when it’s hot.
To be honest, the gorge is nice, the caves are nice, but this part of the trip is not the most fascinating thing you can do in Madagascar. But the Petit Tsingy is only going to take you 3, 4 – max 5 hours, and there’s not a whole lot else to do in the hotels, which are basically just lodges for hikers. Ours had a pool, but I’d say go ahead and opt for this trip even though it costs a little extra. Plus it generates work for the boat guys.
The caves were mildly interesting, worth getting out of the boat and having a look around.
After the boat trip it was off to the “Petit” – or small – Tsingy. As we entered the labyrinthine pathways – we were basically walking along the bottom of massive crevasses running in multiple directions – I couldn’t help wondering what the “Grand” Tsingy would look like if this was small.
We walked for some time between these huge cliffs, passing by huge, prehistoric-looking roots that belonged to unidenfied trees growing far above us in the sun.
Gradually we began to make our way upward, and from the patterns in the stone we passed we began to get an idea of what lay ahead and above.
Once we made it to the tops of the Tsingy, you could really get a sense of these rock formations and the razor-sharp edges that gave them their nickname. Despite the inhospitable terrain, there are numerous animals that thrive among the rock formations, including a species of lemur you’ll see in my next post. This place was also said to be the last refuge of the Vazimba, the native people who supposedly lived in Madagascar (according to legend) when the present inhabitants arrived. Our guide would point out broken pots later in our tour.
At the top we were able to pause and enjoy an amazing 360-degree scene. There are numerous birds in the area, including bee eaters and this Eleonora’s Falcon, a bird normally found on Mediterranean islands, but which completes a 5,600-mile (one-way) migration every year to be able to spend the winter in Madagascar.
The sun was setting as we departed the Petit Tsingy, passing cowherds bringing their zebus in for the night, kicking up red dust on their way, people performing last-minute tasks in the rice fields. Our guide waited patiently as we kept stopping to take pictures through the trees.
At the end we passed through a small village, where kids were playing in something that looked more like a submarine than anything else. Of course Anne couldn’t resist passing out some Pixie Stix she had brought along for the kids, and she took the time to demonstrate their proper consumption.
We returned home exhausted by our long, hot day – buoyed by having seen something truly unique and fascinating – wondering what the “Grand Tsingy” would be like. More spectacular? The same, just bigger? More about that in my next post.