Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rampaging Elephant Almost Kills Tourists


I know, you are reading this to find out about the raging elephant, but alas, that is later in the tale – so be patient but do read on.

Lisa and I just returned from the most exhaustive two days I can remember in a long time. Our ship arrived at the port of Richards Bay, South Africa early yesterday morning. Richards Bay is located in the northeast corner of South Africa, very near the borders with Mozambique and Swaziland. Mid-morning we set out on a 2 ½ drive north to the Phinda Game Reserve, where we would spend the night.

Our bus arrived at the Reserve a little after noon. At the entrance to the Park, everyone was transferred to small Land Rovers for the trip to our lodge in the nearby mountains.IMG_6119 The material we had been given in advance said we would be driven directly to the lodge for lunch, check-in, and then we would have time to rest before our long afternoon safari. Well, that is not quite what happened. Immediately after setting off in the Land Rovers, our drivers began a safari drive that lasted almost two hours. This produced two problems for the group right off the bat. First, no one in the group had prepared themselves with sun screen and bug spray. Both were critical; the sunscreen because the sun was quite literally hot enough that merely touching the seats of the vehicle would burn your hand. The bug spray because the Reserve is located in a known area of malaria and we had all been advised of the importance of insect repellent, trousers and long sleeve shirts. Just to make matters even worse, unlike our last safari experience, these vehicles had absolutely no protection from the sun. That made it great for viewing and photography, but it was extremely uncomfortable. By the time we did reach our accommodations, Lisa and I were already burned to a hot red.

Far from roughing it in the African bush, the Lodge was a magnificent structure discretely built on the top of a small mountain. It had a commanding view over the valley below, and even though it had no air conditioning, the breeze kept the area quite comfortable in spite of the heat. In addition to the main lodge, each guest had an individual accommodation on one of the many trails which lined the hill. Our rooms were unreal. Far from the tent we had in Kenya, these were luxury villas, complete with a small air conditioning unit. We had a King size bed, with a step down sitting room. IMG_6282 The bathroom was unique in that the entire side wall was glass, and sitting directly in front of the glass was a beautiful stand alone tub, which had magnificent views of the surrounding hills. Outside was a beautiful deck with a table and chairs, and our own small private pool and outdoor shower. Sadly, with our schedule, we never got to enjoy the accommodations. There was one negative to the rooms; the thatched roofs. While they looked nice, they also harbored little critters, little critters that leave droppings on the unsuspecting people below. Every time we entered the room there would a new collection of droppings around, some on the bed itself. Kinda made me skitchy about sleeping with my mouth open, don’t you know.

Unlike our stay in Kenya, this lodge was not surrounded by any physical barrier to give protection from the animals, and so the animals were free to roam the property. For this reason, after dark no one was permitted outside their cabin without a security escort. You might think the animals would avoid the property, but that is not the case. Animals were all around, all of the time. In fact, the next morning a pair of male lions were roaming outside cabin 10, which was just a few paces from where we were staying in cabin 16.

Our actual safari drive started at 4:00 pm, and by then the group was fully prepared. You might wonder about why we were starting so late. The heat and the sun are almost unbearable during the mid-day, not only for the tourists, but also for the animals; for that reason, most of the animals seek shade and are not as easily seen until the early evening and early morning hours. So, for the next 4 ½ hours, we bounced and jerked along, up and down the hills, holding on for dear life, all the while searching out “big game.” Every game drive is a new experience and you never know what will happen. The fact that each of the drivers carries a large rifle does add to the excitement I must admit. For the most part, I will let the pictures tell our story, but there were two “stand out” events that distinguished this drive.

Let me setup the first scenario. Our Land Rovers were huge vehicles that in addition to the two seats in the front, had three rows of bench seats behind. In addition, mounted on the front bumper was a single seat where a “tracker” would sit. For our group, there were four vehicles in total, but the four set out in different directions in order to maximize the chance of finding animals. Whenever something was discovered, a broadcast would be sent out over the radios, and the other vehicles would close in on the find. This meant that the first vehicle to locate game would be alone with the animals for some while before the others would arrive. In charge of the entourage, was a young white driver, who appeared quite full of himself. Our driver, on the other hand, was an old native who had lived in the area his entire life. That expertise was to produce two very memorable moments for our small group.

Our tracker alerted the driver to something deep in a nearby grove, and so we set out to see what had been discovered. Our driver told us that we had located a large family of white rhinoceros, but they were so far in the distance that all I could see were moving shapes. No matter how hard our driver tried to get closer, the bush was just too thick to allow it. So, he stopped, sat for a minute looking over the situation, and announced that we would move a few feet down the field and then sit quietly. He did not make any announcement on the radio to alert the other vehicles; we just sat in quietly by ourselves. In a low voice, he explained that the white rhino is almost blind and has a very poor sense of both smell and sound. Because they do not digest their food well, they are like perpetual mowing machines that keep moving and munching all the time, occasionally heading back to the water to cool off. He had observed the herd and could see that they were advancing in a line towards our direction, and behind us some distance was the water hole. He reasoned that if we just stayed put they might well come right up to where we were sitting before even sensing we were there.IMG_6385 He was absolutely correct. We watched in fascination as these huge magnificent animals slowly approached our vehicles. We all knew that if they became startled and charged that the large males could easily hook our Land Rover with its horn and turn us right over. Slowly they advanced. No one said a word. They kept getting closer and closer, until I thought they just might run into us. Suddenly the lead male reared up his head slowly and looked around. The group stopped and likewise raised their heads for the first time. At that point, the herd was no more that 10 feet distant. We stared, they stared back, and not a sound was made. Rather than being afraid, they seemed confused. They clearly wanted to go straight ahead to the water hole, but we were in the way.IMG_6408 They backed up, some turned around, and then around again. Some went left, some went right, but always they came back to the same spot and looked at us as if to say – go away. The larger male finally came to the conclusion that if they deviated just a little, they could walk around us. Slowly and cautiously he began to do just that, and when the others realized that they could proceed by us, they joined in the line marching and munching the entire time. I can tell you that to be that close to a herd of such large wild animals was quite an experience. As they moved away, our driver finally reported the finding, and winked at us saying that we can go now.

For a game drive, that was about as good an experience as you could hope to have, but it actually got even better, much better. Some time later the cocky lead driver reported locating a large herd of elephants. All of the vehicles converge on that location. As we turn a corner in the road, we can see up ahead the lead driver in the center of the road facing us. Directly in front of us half way off the road is another vehicle, and as we pull up the final vehicle comes in behind us, blocking our exit.IMG_6531 Because the vehicle in front of us stopped short of the clearing, we cannot quite see all the activity, but I can hear the bushes moving and see some small elephants to our left. Suddenly there is the sound of something crashing through the trees just to the right of our vehicle. IMG_6542 I see a tree pushed over and the sound of crashing bush gets louder when the bush parts and coming towards us less than 50 ft away is a bull elephant who is quite agitated. As he breaks out of the bush, he stops and flaps his ears at us, and rustles the bush some more, making a terrifying scene. The lead driver starts his vehicles and roars down the road telling us as he drives by to leave now, this is just too dangerous. The vehicle that was blocking us in front does a wild u-turn in the bush, and in a flurry of dust roars down the road behind him. What about us?

Our driver just sits there quietly. The bull has accomplished his goal of defending his territory and so he turns and goes off to a nearby tree to start tearing down limbs that contain a bright red fruit. The driver behind us is very young and quite scared, but he seems to figure that if our driver is staying then by golly he is too, but he is clearly not comfortable. Our driver gets out of the car and walks a little down the road. When he comes back he turns the Land Rover around to face down the road away from the herd, but then he starts slowly backing up the road towards the group. He explains that the male who charged us is “in musk” and as such can be very unpredictable. However, he thinks that having shown his prowess, that he will be happy for awhile eating the nearby fruits. Slowly, we back up until we are now in the center of the clearing. He turns off the motor and we wait. To one side of us are a group of females and some young males. They seem to be quite happy eating and playing. On the opposite side of us, we cannot see the big male, but you can clearly hear him, and you can follow his progress and he bends trees like matchsticks. From down the road behind us, a large male with beautiful tusks emerges and wanders towards the females. Soon another equally large male emerges and the two start to engage their tusks. The clicking of their tusk and the grunting noises are something to behold. Clearly the two males are determining who will get to the females tonight.

So here we are snapping pictures right and left. We have a herd of females on our left, a large male on our right still rampaging around the forest, and directly behind us two equally large males are carrying on quite a show. In front of us, the remaining vehicle with the young driver is sitting across the road, facing us – he did not turn around when we did, and he is partially blocking the road.

Then it happened. I was looking at the road behind us when suddenly right in front of my eyes appeared the largest elephant head I have ever seen, and it was attached to a huge bull elephant in a furious rampage running full bore for our vehicle; IMG_6546 trunk in the air, screeching and its ears flapping in a furious display. It happened so fast, that all I can remember is feeling my heart jump and saying out loud “Oh S#@#!”

Our driver quickly started the car and slammed the gears as that Big, BIG elephant was bearing down on us. He got to within around 10 ft of our vehicle before we flew down the road in a cloud of dust. Our driver ran over the side of the road to get around the other vehicle, whose driver was now in a wild eyed panic – his engine still not started and facing the wrong way even then. Our driver was laughing riotously at the poor guys panic. I guess he made it out safely, but we continued on down the road in a cloud of dust. Our driver’s laughter became infectious until we were all laughing – why I don’t know, except for relief of being alive.

A little after sunset, our driver pulled over at a beautiful small lake and proceeded to set up a small table complete with a tablecloth. From the trunk, he brought around a cooler and setup glasses, several different kinds of alcohol, snacks, and we quietly formed as a group for our “sundowners.” IMG_6578 The last of our trip was made in total darkness. Our tracker sat up front with a large searchlight swinging back and forth to clear our way. Several times we ran up on large animals just standing in the darkened road, so his work with the light was appreciated. Finally we arrived at the lodge and proceeded directly to dinner (since it was after 9pm). Dinner was served in a large outdoor compound called a BOMA, complete with a roaring fire to drive away the evening chill. Afterwards we had to have a security guard take us to our cabin, where we fell immediately into a deep sleep – until our

5 am wakeup call so we could start the entire thing over yet again.

We departed in our Rovers by 5:30 am hoping to catch the animals before the heat of the day. Nothing major happened this morning, and we returned to the lodge at 8:30 am. Our rooms had already been turned, so we quickly threw our things together and went to breakfast at 9 am. From there everything was in reverse, but I don’t remember very much because I fell asleep on the long drive back to the ship.

We had some absolutely wonderful moments on this trip, but sadly Lisa is now even more ill than before and has once again gone to the doctor. She had another breathing treatment, and coughs and “barks” constantly. She is miserable. They have changed her antibiotic and want to see her again tomorrow. I think, at this point, the trip is pretty much over for her. Between her bad bronchitis and her sunburn, she is pretty bummed. She will be doing good just to get home in one piece. I find that I am also exhausted and fighting sunburn, particularly my eyes, which have burned all night.

When I started this story I mentioned that these last two days were among the most difficult we had encountered, and I had to stop and ask myself why that is so. We have certainly been places that were hotter, and this trip was almost identical to our safari in Kenya, but on that trip, in addition to the safari, we had to make multiple flights and even transfer countries, which added up to extremely long days. I guess the answer is as simple as one word: “the sun.” We spent a total of ten hours out in the sun with absolutely no shade on this trip. I can not adequately describe the heat of the full sun at these latitudes. If I touched the metal railings on our vehicles it burned my hands, so we really could not hold onto anything while we bounced around. To keep from burning our bottoms on the seats, we sat on top of wool blankets. They did not burn our bottoms, but they sure kept us hot.

So, I hope to get our pictures up tomorrow, and there might be one more report before we head home on the 13th, but that will depend on how Lisa is feeling.

Looking forward to seeing everyone soon,


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rock and Roll Madagascar Style


Map picture

I had not intended to write this afternoon, but frankly, short of lying in bed, this is about all I can do given the current sea conditions. The winds outside are a steady 50 mph with even higher gusts. They have whipped the sea into a frenzy of white water with long deep swells. The captain just came on to the ship’s speakers to inform us of the obvious – his earlier forecast for clear skies and calm seas was proven to be incorrect. According to the captain, there is no metrological reason for our current conditions, but nevertheless, that is what we have. He is hoping that as the sun sets conditions will improve, but for now, he has closed off all access to the outside, and asked everyone on the left side of the ship to please keep their doors closed and to remain inside. The Silver Wind is not a large ship; it only carries a maximum of 280 passengers, so in these conditions the motion of the ship is quite severe.

On top of everything else, poor Lisa has been ill for the last three days with a bad bronchitis that has now set off her asthma. She has been on antibiotic and steroids for several days, but is back down now seeing the physician for another breathing treatment to calm her asthma. Still I was amazed to see her gamely go outside this morning for our 4 hour tour – in hindsight that was perhaps not a good idea. The air was filled with dust and smoke, and that clearly made her condition worse. Let’s hope her treatment will help.

Today, we visited the island nation of Madagascar. Earlier in our trip we visited one of the small islands (Nosy Komba) just off the coast, so today was our first chance to actually set foot on the big island. I say “big” because Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, covering over 227,000 sq. miles. It is home to 5% of the world’s plant and animal species, of which more than 80% are endemic to it alone.

At Nosy Komba we found a primitive third world culture, and I wondered if that was typical of what we would find on the main island; the answer is, yes. We docked at the port city of Tulear on the southwest corner of the island, and from what I could see, the dock could only support one ship at a time. Transportation was primarily by walking, bicycle, or rickshaw. IMG_5872 There were very few cars, and fewer still buses. We made our tour in small mini-vans that would hold six people each. They were not air conditioned and were poorly maintained.

We drove to the City Market for our first stop. Along the way it was obvious that most of the population lived in very small shacks. Some are made of cardboard cartons, some are made of thatch, and many are made with galvanized sheet metal. Some were nothing more that old sheets and feed bags hung on posts to give some measure of privacy. The market was colorful, and as usual, people were friendly and mildly curious. The one thing I saw that was a little unusual was that people were carrying live chickens for sale. IMG_5897 The poor birds had their feet tied together, and were carried upside down by their legs in large bunches. A buyer would approach the merchant and then begin holding up one chicken after another until finding one to his liking. Our walk lasted no more than 30 minutes after which we all crawled into our little vans and started a drive out of town.

Coming to the edge of town, we were confronted with a police checkpoint. Every vehicle and person entering or leaving the city had to be securitized, and their paperwork examined slowly. As a tourist vehicle, we should have been waived right through, but apparently the guards were not aware that our ship was in port, so a heated discussion ensued before they finally relented and allowed us to pass.

Once outside the city, the landscape changed dramatically. We were on the National Highway, which was nothing more than a narrow one lane paved road filled on both sides with people walking or riding ox carts. IMG_5950 There were very few cars, and almost no signs of civilization. Occasionally there were some huts by the roadside where the families had set up a refreshment stand, but pretty much, the road went for miles and miles with just people walking in the barren dry hot landscape. Every couple of miles, we would come to yet another police or military checkpoint.

We drove for perhaps 30 minutes when the road begins to climb in snake like fashion up the low surrounding hills. We climbed, and climbed, and suddenly on a straight stretch of road, our van pulls to the right side and attempts to do a u-turn. The road is too narrow, so he backs up and completes the turn and in doing so pulls to a stop along the side of the road. At this point, we had been driving for around 45 minutes outside the city and we are stopping where? There is absolutely nothing at this point that is any different from the miles and miles of roadside we had just traversed. Soon the other five vans pull in behind us and everyone gets out and stands around. Our guide starts to tell us about a tree along the roadside, and then we walk into the bushes about 10 ft where he continues talking for a few minutes. IMG_5954 That’s it; tour over, everyone back into the van for our next stop! More than I was a little confused by this antic, but get this – we are all herded back onto the vans, and we pull onto the road headed back to town. Two minutes later the vans pull over and we are asked to once again get out. This is basically the same spot where we just stopped a hundred yards up the hill or so. Same view, but this time they point out what they did not mention before, that we could see our ship. IMG_5965 Perhaps we would like to take a picture of our ship which is about 15 miles in the distance, it was suggested. We could and did take that picture at the last stop.

Back into the van we all go and this time we travel about a mile back along the road to town before turning off to the left on a small gravel road that will take us to an arboretum. As we turn a corner, we come across a beehive of activity where small groups of people are making bricks by hand. It took some doing to get our driver to pull over, because this was not on his list. Finally, he relented and we all poured out to go take a look. We walked over to a group of thee people. A small boy was carrying water from a nearby stream and pouring it into a trench dug in the soft clay soil. In that trench, a large man was mixing the soil with the water to produce the clay, and from time to time, he would pick up a big handful of clay and raise it over his head and put it at the feet of the third worker. IMG_5982 That worker would then put a mold over the clay and quickly lift it up and carry the molded clay over to the flat ground where the clay, now in the shape of a brick was removed from the mold and left on the ground to dry in the sun. Eventually it would be set on its side to complete the sun drying process, after which, the bricks would be used to construct an oven like structure. On the inside of the oven, wooden logs would be set on fire, and the intense heat would harden the bricks. After cooling, they would then be sold. After proudly showing us their work, the workers gathered around and asked to be paid for allowing us to take their pictures – well, they got that part right.

Back into the vans and a short distance down the dirt road brings us to the arboretum. The earlier clouds have now disappeared and we are taking the full brunt of the mid-day sun. The climate is dry and dessert like and everything is baking in the heat. After a quick bathroom stop, the groups set off into the arboretum. Because of the dry climate, the trees and specimens on display do not produce much in the way of shade. Our guide starts down the path, and after going about 5 ft. stops to describe some bush or other, and then repeats this process every 5 ft. or so. IMG_6042 She is very hard to hear, but when I can catch what is being said, it amounts to nothing. I’ll give you an example. We come upon a sign that list the birds of Madagascar. Our guide has everyone gather around the sign, which takes quite a few minutes. Then when she has everyone’s attention she says “these are the birds of the forest, but you will not see them because they hide from you. Now let’s move on.” After 45 minutes of this heat torture, I leave the group and set out on my own to return to the entrance and shade, where a cool bottle of water awaits me. The group spent almost another hour working their way slowly back to the entrance, and most people were beet red and exhausted.

Once again, we climbed into the little vans and headed back to the city. Along the way, we saw the Madagascar International Airport – it consisted of an old WW II hanger and a concrete building with a long dirt airstrip and had a very narrow and much shorter paved section in the center of it. We passed the National Radio and TV Station, which I suspect is still using equipment with vacuum tubes. The Federal Bank of Madagascar was a small rundown building next to an even more rundown building that was labeled the Ministry of Tourism. The only building that seemed even remotely busy was the City Hall, again pretty run down.

After a short stop where we could buy souvenirs, IMG_6082 we headed back to the cool comfort of our ship, and said our goodbyes to Madagascar. Considering all that this island has to offer the world, it is a shame that it is so enmeshed in poverty. This is one of the few countries we have visited where the government does not even provide the children a basic education. Parents may pay to send their children to private schools, but very, very few can afford to do so. The few schools we saw were extremely run down and we saw very few children dressed in school uniforms. Most people on the island are not educated and will remain so given the current conditions. How sad.


Monday, January 4, 2010

The Middle of Nowhere Reunion Island and Mauritius

Map picture
Map picture

The Middle of Nowhere

Reunion Island and Mauritius

We travelled almost 800 nm east of the island of Madagascar to visit two small spots on the map of the Indian Ocean. First, we visited the Island of Reunion, and then the following day we moved another 135 nm east to visit the Island of Mauritius. I hope I can be excused in admitting that prior to this trip, I had never heard of either place, but then again there are over 100,000 islands on earth, so the lapse is perhaps understandable.

I have a saying about islands “every island looks like every other island.” I have found that to pretty much be true, but occasionally I find an exception, and Reunion Island would certainly be one of those exceptions. Its main source of revenue is, first and foremost, the production of sugar cane and its related products, which are processed on the island. The next major source of income is production and assembly of electronic devices. Tourism is only the third major source of revenue. The tiny island is a Provence of France, and as such, is a member of the European Union. The roads on the island are first class, and the entire island can be traversed by 4 lane interstate type roadways. In fact, if I had been blindfolded and suddenly dropped onto the island, when my blindfold was removed I would have guessed I was driving in the French countryside. The official language is French, and there is at least one flight per day to Paris.

Lisa and I rented a car and driver for the entire day, but he told us that it would not be possible to see the entire island. Well, he did not know us, we are quick travelers, who did not need for example a two hour lunch, but instead could suffice with a chicken McNugget and fries at the ever-present chez McDonald’s. Also, our visit occurred on a Saturday over the holiday weekend, so that there was almost no traffic.

After a short drive around the city, we headed into the mountains. The main attraction on the island is the volcano Piton de la Fournaise. The center of the island is a massive basaltic shield culminating with the giant crater at an elevation of over 8,000 ft. The volcano is among the most active in the world, erupting almost every year. The last major eruption was as recent as December 14th, 2009. I did manage to get some very good pictures of the moon-like landscape, which I think you will enjoy.IMG_5663

Leaving the mountain, we descended in the opposite direction from which we arrived, thus putting us on the other side of the island. It was obvious that unlike some islands, Reunion is not known for its beaches. It has a few, some of them black sand beaches, but nothing spectacular. It is a young volcanic island with an incredibly diverse topography. From the bare desert-like landscape of the volcano, we travelled into dense jungle-like growth to visit the other extraordinary feature of this beautiful island, the Cirques of Salazie. A Cirque is a unique natural landform of lush dense vegetation covering the surrounding deep chasms and narrow valleys in the south part of the island.IMG_5718 As you drive into the very narrow chasms, the mountains tower above you on all sides and the air is filled with the constant sounds of the many, many waterfalls dropping along the chasm walls. Climbing up the steep narrow winding roads is quite exhilarating, but eventually the narrow chasms open into deep wide valleys of incredible beauty. I was able to get some pictures, however the day had clouded over and the rains were beginning to fall, so our visit was cut somewhat short. We did get to stop briefly in a small town on our way back down the mountain for a few local pictures. IMG_5746

At the end of the long day, we had indeed managed to see the major attractions of the amazing island, and make it back to the ship with an hour to spare before it departed for an overnight run to Mauritius.

We arrived at Mauritius early the next morning. Even though Mauritius was once owned by the French (and the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish), the last colonial ruler was Great Britain. When the British departed, Mauritius became an independent republic. So, unlike its neighbor Reunion, it struggles to support itself on its own. English is the official language, but interestingly enough all the signs and billboards are in French, and the people speak French. In fact, we hardly heard English being spoken at all. The population of the island is a mix of cultures; however, the Hindus would appear to be predominant. Mauritius produces sugar like its neighbor, but then relies on tourism for its economy. It was obvious that the island is relatively prosperous, but clearly not as much so as its neighbor.

Both islands share a common ancestry in that they were formed by volcanic activity. Mauritius is the older of the two islands, and the plate on which it sits has long ago moved from the vent on the ocean floor that gave rise to its birth. So it does not have any volcanic activity currently, and what remains has been worn down by time and is now covered with dense vegetation.

Our day started fine enough with a quick drive around the city and an obligatory picture from the old fort atop the hill. IMG_5754 Our driver had such a heavy accent that he was very difficult to understand, and as I was to learn later he had a bad habit of acting as if he understood what I had said, when in fact he had no clue. It became clear that for our half day drive, he was planning on driving along the coast road and showing us the hotels and beaches on the North Shore of the island. This was not of interest to us, so I said that instead we wanted to visit the Carmel Colored Rocks in the mountains, which is a geological formation that puzzles geologists to this day. Our driver kept saying that it was too far for our time, so I offered to pay for his extra time. We were due back at noon, this way we would return to the ship at 1pm. We eventually agreed, I thought, but what I did not understand is that for some reason he just seemed not to want to go there. Traffic was very light, and we made really good time on our drive, but our driver kept veering off the main road to show us something or another. He would literally drive around in circles, stop at a driveway and proudly announce “this is the British Embassy,” and no more had he stopped, then he would slam on the gas and we were off again. This went on until both Lisa and I were about to lose our cool. After several hours of these shenanigans, we finally got quite near to our destination. IMG_5812 We had some good picture shots, and our timing looked just about right, when suddenly our driver announced that it was too far to make the Carmel Rocks and get to the ship by one, so we had to go back now. I looked at the map and I decided he was nuts, but what do I know, so reluctantly we allowed him to head back to the ship.

It quickly became obvious that we were making really good time on our return trip, and you can see this guy’s brain turning trying to figure out how to avoid getting back too early. He keeps offering to take us to this shop, or that old home, but we didn’t bite. So his only alternative was to slow down. He began to slow down a little at first, and as we got closer, he slowed down even more. When we were back on the highway where the speed limit is 110 kmh, he slowed down to 50 kmh, and kept getting behind large trucks in the slow lane and staying there while traffic flew by in the other lane. I look at Lisa and she looks at me and I am about to say something when he explains that there are many speed cameras and that he had to be very careful. In the end, after all his detours and explanations we arrived at the ship right on time at noon, not at 1 pm as he said we would. Needless to say, he did not get a tip that day.

I will try to have pictures from the last two stops uploaded by tomorrow. Today we are at sea headed for the southwest corner of Madagascar, and will arrive there day after tomorrow.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Nosy Komba, Isle of Lemurs

Map picture

After two days at sea travelling east from Kenya, we arrived at Nosy Be’, Madagascar where we anchored just offshore. Nosy Be’ is a small island just 5 miles off the northwest coast of Madagascar and is home to around 60,000 people. Immediately after dropping anchor, the ship was surrounded with islanders in their small dugout canoes. IMG_5389 Some of them came trying to sell souvenirs, but most came to sing and shout a welcome. In fact, the ship was surrounded all day, and only as we pulled up anchor to depart, did the little boats return to shore.

To us and most of those on the ship, the real attraction of this stop was the nearby small island of Nosy Komba, because it is a sanctuary to a large colony of lemurs. The island can only be reached by boat, and even at that it has no landing facilities, so boats simply pull as close to shore as possible, and you jump into knee-high water and walk up on the beach.IMG_5409 Our ride from the ship took about 40 minutes in a small local boat that held only 10 people. Since over 189 people had signed up for this excursion, there was quite a bit of activity simply getting everyone over to the island.

Immediately upon landing, it was obvious that we were in a third world country. People were friendly and welcoming, but it was sad to see how they lived. I never saw any roads, much less any electricity or phones. There were a large number of children around, while most of the women seemed to be busy sewing, cooking or washing laundry.

After getting organized from the landing, our group started a walk through the little village and up a steep hill to the lemur sanctuary. IMG_5429 As we walked into the IMG_5456 surrounding tropical forest, the air became very still. In the extreme heat and humidity and with no wind, everyone quickly became soaked in sweat. Our guide thankfully stopped frequently. We finally stopped at an area where there were a small family of lemurs and everyone crowded around for a picture. The little animals were quite friendly and completely unafraid of the adoring crowds.IMG_5440 They would sometimes jump down onto peoples’ necks or arms, particularly if they were holding a banana. The males were jet black with big tufted ears and brilliant eyes. The females were light brown with black faces and white tufted ears. They were a beautiful and gentle animal.

We continued on our climb, pausing frequently. Finally, we reached the sanctuary which was right outside a Catholic Monastery. Here we not only saw more lemurs, but also large chameleons, snakes, and tortoises. IMG_5497 I actually got to hold a large boa snake, and also the male chameleon.

On the long walk down, both sides of the path were lined with small huts, and everywhere women and children tried to sell their wares. The children had their faces all painted and they would form in groups of 4 or 5 and sing as we went by, being sure we saw the basket on the ground with a $1 bill sitting there as a suggestion.IMG_5420

After our 3 hour journey in the extreme heat and blazing sun, it was good to return to the cool ship. That, of course, involved the comedy of watching a bunch of old “out of shape” people trying to swing themselves up from the pounding surf into those little boats.

Between the “wet” landing, the sand, and the muddy climb, my shoes were trashed. Lisa and I both jumped into the shower, not only to hose ourselves down, but to try to somehow clean up our muddy, sandy, messy shoes.

All in all however, it was a fun visit. My only regret is that when I got to look at my pictures, there were very few good ones of the lemurs. I checked Lisa’s shots, and they were similar. In the deep shadows of the forest, we did not have much light, and the low light combined with the animals black fur was making it difficult for our cameras to focus and shoot fast enough. Pooh! I should have known better, but at least I did get some good shots to share, and I will post them later today.

At this point, we are sailing east again from Madagascar towards two small islands in the Indian Ocean, Point Des Galets and Port Louis on Mauritius.

For now we wish everyone a very Happy New Year.