Indian Ocean - Morondava, Tsingy and Kirindy

We were up very early and out to the airport in the dark, courtesy of Gaps, who had to drop his mother off at church by 5am! Our flight to Morondava was scheduled to leave at 7am. We were all boarded by 6:35 and took off at 6:40; the pilot was so anxious to be in the air that we were already accelerating for take-off as we came around the corner onto the runway. It was truly the most astounding piloting I've ever experienced, and the first time I've ever been on a commercial flight that left early.

We were met on arrival by Natha and Danny. Natha was the organiser, and Danny was our driver for the five days; once we settled all the arrangements we dropped Natha off and set out immediately towards Belo-Sur-Tsiribinina, in the north. Not far out of town we saw our first chameleon, crossing the road.

We turned off the sealed road not far out of town, and then had seven hours of terrible tracks to Bemaraha, the village near the Tsingy. The route just got worse and worse for Danny, who had to continually judge whether to straddle gaping chasms or to tilt us at unlikely angles, one set of wheels up and one set down. While it was difficult for Danny, Carmel and I found the drive quite fantastic. We stopped at the avenue of the baobabs, had an interesting ferry crossing, and drove through varied forests, villages and farmland.

We stopped at Belo for an early lunch. Danny took us to the Mad Zebu, where we had fresh fruit salad with lemon and avocado sorbets - it was perfect; totally unexpected and totally wonderful. Back on the appalling road north, a second ferry trip, and we were delivered to Hotel Tanankoay, where we found a welcoming and friendly owner, an icy-cold beer and a charming A-frame bungalow out in the garden.

We were up early in the morning to drive to the Grands Tsingy, where I had a four-hour walk with Simon, our local guide, while Carmel and Danny waited at the car. Simon was an excellent guide, and right from the start we found interesting animals: a translucent cave gecko hunting a moth; a snake which terrified Simon; a rat with a bushy tail. The walk was hot and tiring but totally exhilarating. The Tsingy are more extensive than I had imagined, and the walk was reasonably challenging, with lots of climbing and dark caves. The guides are very safety-conscious, and we had safety harnesses to clip onto steel wires in the more dangerous areas, although I didn't find any of it too difficult or scary, and would have happily done it all without the harness and clips.

At the end of the walk over, under, around and through the Tsingy we came out into forest, where we looked for and found sifaka. We also saw a number of bright green chameleons as we drove along. The road between Bemaraha and the Grands Tsingy had some of the worst track to negotiate. Simon was in the front seat, so I got him to take movie of our passage through the mud. I wish I'd filmed him instead, as he later acted out his attempt to hold the camera steady while we lurched and slew all over the place and all he wanted to do was hold on fast.

After lunch back at the hotel we went to the Petits Tsingy, back next to the village. This involves a shorter and much less strenuous walk, so Carmel came along and got a taste of what the Tsingy are all about. We were told that there were telapia and crocodiles in the pools.

In the morning we took a pirogue trip up the Gorges de la Manambolo to a cave, where there were geckos, bats and a snake (this one had Simon actually jumping around with fear until he saw that Carmel and I were totally unfazed by it and just wanted pictures). We also went further up the gorge to the village cave burial site, where a body could clearly be see in a slit high up on the cliff face.

We said goodbye to Simon and Danny drove us back to Belo for the night. We had the best meal of the trip that night, at the Mad Zebu; a shot-glass of green pepper sorbet to start, then filet of capitaine with exquisite vegetables followed by a parfait flavoured with chocolate, caramel, coffee and thyme - it was perfect, and could have graced any restaurant I've ever been to.

After breakfast we were ferried across the river and drove to Kirindy Forestry Reserve, where we walked through the forest and saw nocturnal sportive lemurs, sifaka, and brown lemurs. We stopped at the avenue of the baobabs on the way back to Morondava, and watched as the sun set and the light changed, although I was more taken by the zebu, as they moved into the pool behind the baobabs and started to eat the water lilies.

We had a day to spend in Morondava. We were staying in a hotel at the end of Nosy Kely, so walked into town in the morning to do a bit of banking and see what the place looked like. It is obviously far more prosperous than Tana. Schools are better, roads are better, and there aren't any obviously destitute people sleeping on the streets. When we asked people what the difference was due to they said that anyone who wanted to work in Morondava could get work. There were a few more tourists around, but some of the work must have been coming from sources other than tourism.

In the afternoon we went out on a pirogue trip through the mangroves, looking for birds along the way. There were the usual herons, but we also saw some small kingfishers. We landed on the other side of the river at a fishing village and our pirogue man give us a guided tour. Carmel hated it - she was hot, she doesn't speak French, and her shoes trapped every bit of grot and sand - but I was finally getting better at having conversations in French and the boatman and I were managing to communicate on a wide range of topics. We paddled back across placid waters, being passed by dhows looking totally romantic, while Carmel sat looking totally pissed off - I have the picture to prove it! We had an excellent Italian dinner to make up for her afternoon discomfort.

Our flight back to Tana featured another early departure - fifteen minutes before the scheduled time. Gaps met us at the airport, and soon has us signed up for our next excursion. We wandered around Tana for the afternoon, and sought out the Kudétat restaurant (Tana's "in" place) for dinner. Pretty good, but not as good as the Mad Zebu, which turned out to be run by Gaps' cousin. We should have guessed.

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