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Madagascar: A Trip of Extremes


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We now have recovered from our 3+ weeks trip to Madagascar in October, and I have processed all the photos and videos (which didn't take very long since I only used 4 memory cards).


So, there is nothing left to do but start the trip report.



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Looking forward to reading this! 

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Also looking forward to this, and an eventual report from @janzin. I'm still on the fence whether I ever want to visit Madagascar, so the more reports the better! 

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Ah you beat me too it :)  I'm almost done processing photos, but not quite yet. Really interested to see how your trip compared!


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@Atdahl You have so beautiful images from Madagascar on your homepage. It was a pleasure to go through. Thanks very much.  

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@Zubbie15, you will have to read our experiences and what @janzin shares and then make a decision.  It may not be an easy one still though.  


@Botswanadreams, thanks!  You have had the sneak preview then.



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Madagascar Day 1 - Travel, Tana, and Ankarana


Ah, Madagascar.  How you've teased me for years with your lemurs and chameleons.  But, I knew that one day we would meet and that day has finally come.


Madagascar has been at the top of my "dream" trips for years but I have always put it off because it was "too expensive" or "too far away" or "too hard to coordinate".    However, I read some trip reports from other people that went recently and I found what appeared to be a very reliable tour operator.  That, coupled with the fact that we feared every year we waited to visit would mean more extinct species, gave me the kick in the butt I needed to start planning.


The trip turned out to be a trip of extremes and over all there was an undeniable feeling of disappointment.  But, you'll have to read on to to see why.


It only took a year of planning and countless emails back and forth with our tour operator Cactus Tours to make it all happen.  We would be traveling with our friends Bill and Peggy again which was great.  We all finally settled on the following itinerary since it would be impossible to see all the prime areas in one 3 week trip:






Depart Home for Tana




Paris Hilton


Arrive TNR late evening

Relais Des Plateaux


Flight to Diego Suarez

Relais de l’Ankarana



Relais de l’Ankarana


Ankarana to Amber Mt

Nature Lodge


Amber Mountain

Nature Lodge


Flight to Tana

Tamboho Boutik Hotel



Vakona Forest Lodge



Vakona Forest Lodge



Vakona Forest Lodge


Andasibe to Antsirabe

Maison Tanimanga



Thermal Hotel



Thermal Hotel



Thermal Hotel


Ranomafana to Isalo

Jardin du Roy



Jardin du Roy


Isalo to Zombitse to Efaty

Dunes d'Ifaty


Fly to Tana

Relais Des Plateaux


Fly to Masoala

Masoala Forest Lodge



Masoala Forest Lodge



Masoala Forest Lodge



Masoala Forest Lodge


Charter flight to Tana

Relais Des Plateaux


Depart Tana (1:55 AM)




The high-lighted map below shows almost all the locations except Ifaty which is on the coast west of Zombitse.  We skipped over a few well known sights like Berenty, Kirindy, and Bemaraha due to lack of time.  Maybe next time...Ha ha!





Unlike past trips, we didn't have to leave for our first flight until 1:15 PM in the afternoon.  So, we didn't have an early wake up call for the first time ever which was really nice.  Our initial flights to LA and then on Air France to Paris went just fine and, being a huge romantic, I wasn't going to let our first night in Paris go to waste.  So, I decided to spring for a top of the line sounding hotel for our 17 hour layover called hôtel d'aéroport de Paris.  Sounds fancy right?  Well, Karen didn't buy that either since it was hard to miss the big neon sign saying Airport Hilton when we arrived.  Oh well.


The Hilton actually worked out pretty well aside from the 75 Euro basic dinner...ouch!


The next morning we caught another Air France flight that went direct to Antananarivo, Madagascar (otherwise known as Tana) and it was nice to actually be pretty well rested before this second long flight.


In fact, I was so rested that I decided to put my 3 years of high school French to the test.  So, as soon as the flight attendant came by and addressed me in French I decided to impress her:


Flight attendant: Voulez-vous boire quelque chose?


Me: Je m'appelle Alan. J'ai 17 ans


Fight attendant looking at me funny: Bonjour Alan, voudrais-tu boire quelque chose?


Me: Où est la bibliothèque?


Flight attendant looking perplexed: Pardon?


Me: J'ai une mère et un père et une soeur.


Flight attendant obviously not understanding my perfect pronunciation: C'est gentil monsieur, voudriez-vous quelque chose à boire?.


Me: Je dois aller à la salle de bain


It was at this point that the flight attendant smiled at me and moved on obviously wowed at my mastery of her language.  Weird that she never offered me anything to drink though...


Our flight landed without incident and it only took us 30 minutes to go through immigration and customs although being at the front of the plane really helped us in that regard.  Converting US dollars to Malagasy Ariary was easy at the airport but I did have to avoid a rather shady character who tried to convince me to go with her to convert money since her rates were better.  Wisely, I said no thanks and proceeded to the official currency exchange office.


Now, in my ample research on Madgasacar I read that tipping was optional and our tour operator had confirmed that.  Well, no one told the porters at the airport because even though we had some small bags we could have easily carried ourselves they insisted on taking them and then each one insisted on getting a tip and were quite aggressive about it.  Unfortunately, that trend continued at almost all our stops but more on that later.


Our first night's stay was at the Relais Des Plateaux hotel which was only about 15 minutes from the airport but we still didn't get there until 12:30 AM so we were pretty tuckered out.  Consequently, when the phone rang at 5:15 AM I was rather startled.  Apparently, the hotel thought we were supposed to leave at 5AM and were wondering where we were.  I told them they had the wrong room hung up and tried to go back to sleep.  Then 15 minutes later there was a knock at the door and it was someone from the hotel saying that it was time to leave.  This time I was very firm and said they had the wrong room because our flight didn't leave until 10 AM so the guy left.  At that point, we couldn't fall back asleep since we were worried that maybe our ride was here even though we weren't supposed to leave for hours.  We originally did have an earlier flight, but that was changed.  I guess the hotel didn't get that message.


Well, we needn't have worried since I ride hadn't arrived but when I mentioned all this at the front desk later and pointed out the person that came to our room the staff was rather indifferent and offered no explanation or apology.  Hmm...welcome to Madagascar I guess.


As I have already mentioned, I did ample research prior to this trip so I knew that we unfortunately we had to waste an entire day anytime we needed to take a domestic flight. This is because Air Madagascar was notorious at changing or cancelling flights at the last minute.  But, recently they had re-branded their domestic air business as Tsaradia and were supposed to be getting better.


We showed up to the airport and had to deal with aggressive porters again who would not leave us alone in the terminal until we tipped them enough money.  Just as we were checking in our guide Bruno showed up.  He was late due to horrible traffic and we later learned he had to have someone from the office pick him up on a motor bike so they could get through the traffic in time to meet us and make the flight.


Well, just as he arrived we were having issues checking in because the agent was giving us a hard time about our carry on bag weight.  We had read that camera backpacks weren't weighed but that wasn't the case for us.  They weighed everything and gave Bill a huge hassle that his carry on was overweight.  In fact, they spent so much time hassling him that they forgot about my overweight backpack but unfortunately they made Bill pay $50 for his carry on.


Once we finally got past this point we all stood around waiting and that is when we realized that our flight was delayed.  Our 10 AM direct flight was now scheduled for 11:30 AM and was no longer a direct flight.  To top it off the flight didn't end up leaving until after Noon.   So, we were stuck for over two more hours standing around in the hot airport terminal.  During that time, I came up with a slogan to go with their new name:


"Tsaradia, new name, same horrible experience".


We finally landed in Diego Suarez on the northern tip of Madagascar at around 2:15 PM to howling winds that nearly knocked us over on the runway.  By 2:45 PM we had piled into two separate 4x4 vehicles for our trip to our lodge near Ankarana National Park.  Our route would be along National Road 6 (RN6) which our driver said was nicknamed "National Road Sick" and then he laughed. Uh Oh...


There was a quick stop in "town" for water and Bruno handed out some sandwiches (bread and cheese or bread and chicken only).  I looked at the sandwiches a bit dubiously but I was so hungry that I had one during the drive. Karen passed on hers (since it was too hard to eat bouncing around on the road) and we ended up giving most of our "food" away to people along the road.


What proceeded next was a 3 1/2 hour drive on one of the worst roads imaginable.  Some of the pot holes were so extreme that I swear we lost sight of the sun when we drove into them.  We were jostled left and jostled right.  In the back of the truck was some sort of buckle that kept hitting one of the metal struts which made a dinging sound like a bell.  So, trying to make the best of things, I joked that..."Every time a bell rings, Alan and Karen get a bruise".  Too bad that was closer to truth rather than fiction.


Despite the crazy bumpy drive we did have a chance to check out the scenery a bit but there was very little to see.  We pretty much just passed one poor village after the next.  Most "houses" were made of sticks but a few had corrugated metal as well.  The extreme poverty was eye opening.  People were washing clothes and themselves in the few streams we passed and we learned that the Malagasy people didn't need any privacy to go to the bathroom.   We saw multiple people just stop and whip it out or squat right on the side of the road.  This was certainly not a world we were used to.


We took one break along the 3 1/2 hour drive to see our first chameleon but otherwise there were no other stops. Not for the bathroom or anything else since we were trying to get to the lodge before dark. Needless to say, it wasn't a very pleasant drive.


Just after dark we arrived at Relais De L'Ankarana which would be our lodging for the next two nights.  It felt REALLY good to not be moving anymore.


Sine I am feeling guilty that I haven't included any pictures yet, here are some pictures of the lodge that I actually took the following morning:


Dining Area:

Dining Area


The outside of our room:

Relais de l'Ankarana


And now the inside:

Our Room


The room was nothing special but it served its purpose fine.  It was really windy and our room door kept opening by itself but I was able to rig up one of the wire hangers we brought to keep it closed during the night thankfully.


Dinner was actually pretty good and the cold beer was even better.  The lodge did have some grounds to investigate but we found nothing except for a night hawk hunting moths attracted to one of the lights.


So ends a fairly crappy first full day in Madagascar.  I wish I could say that this was our one and only fairly crappy day but that is not the case.

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Not a great start @Atdahl, Madagascar's roads & airline don't have many redeeming features do they! I hope the upcoming non-crappy days outweighed the crappy ones.


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Well its hard to click "like" to that initial post but I do appreciate you telling it like it is and not sugar-coating it. I think we had some very different experiences on our trip, due to many factors but I do recognize some similarities :o  Hopefully you did have some positive experiences and I'm sure you got at least some excellent photos :)


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Madagascar is very high on our list for 2021.  It will be interesting to read yours and  @janzin reports.  My sister did a tour there in October and enjoyed it.

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Alan, oh, my. I said in another post that we tend to follow in one another’s footsteps.  But, yikes!  I’ve been eyeing Madagascar very closely. And I’m not prepared to concede defeat at this point. Do continue. Whatever the outcome, this is going to be an interesting experience, I can already tell! 

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Maybe I have established too somber of a tone so far.  So, for anyone thinking of going to Madagascar don't get scared away just yet. 


It was a trip of extremes and the first day was just a low.  We did have some highs as well and one was seeing our first lemurs on day 2.

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Madagascar Day 2 - Ankarana (Part 1)


We woke up today with renewed energy and I was able to make it out early to walk the grounds a little bit.  Besides taking shots of the lodge that I shared yesterday I also managed to spot some new birds:


Crested Drongo:

Crested Drongo


Sakalava Weaver and nest:

Sakalava Weaver and Nest


The plan today was to spend most of the day at Ankarana National Park.  But, since the park didn't open until 8AM we didn't leave until 7:30AM.  It turned out that the park was only 5 minutes away but we got there early so that Bruno could take care of the entrance fees and we could meet our local guide.


In Madagascar, it is required that you use a local guide whenever you venture into a national park.  This was a good thing for the most part because the local guides knew where the wildlife would be.  Our guide for Ankarana was Frankie and he turned out to be so-so.


There was some really cool signage at the entrance to the park.


Ankarana Sign


Ankarana Entrance


Ankarana Mural


Before we headed into the park, Bruno said we would be having lunch at a restaurant right next door to the park entrance and we needed to order ahead of time.  I joked that this must be because they need to know what to kill but I think I was more right than I wanted to be...


Frankie took us aside and showed us the plan for the day.  We would hike to the tsingy in the morning and then return after lunch to visit the caves.  However, he really didn't give us an indication of the length of the hikes or how difficult they would be.  This would result in us being a little unprepared for what was to come.


Ankarana Map:

Ankarana Map


The "Circuit TSINGY MEVA" looks pretty innocent on the map doesn't it...?  The yellow dashed line leading to it is a road.  So, we only walked the blue part.  Looks like a loop trail to me, doesn't it?


Before we got to the tsingy, we walked through a really nice forest and it was here that we found our first lemur.


Ankarana Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur ankaranensis):

Ankarana Sportive Lemur Hiding


Sportive lemurs are nocturnal but for some reason they like to hang out around their tree hole during the day.  The guides know where their holes are so it's pretty easy to find them and we ended up seeing three.


Here's one that showed a bit more of itself:

It's almost out...


This one really cooperated with a full view:

Whoomp, there it is!


Besides the lemurs we also found some other wildlife.


White-breasted Mesite:

White-breasted Mesite


Madgascar Day Gecko:

Madagascar Day Gecko


And, we had a final sportive lemur that was just "chillin"...


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I love your fabulous photos so far! I look forward to reading the rest of your report. It's interesting to hear more about the realities of traveling in Madagascar--thanks for your frank reporting.

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Thanks @mtanenbaum.   Traveling in Madagascar was definitely different.  I will never complain but US traffic again (well, at least not for a few months). :D

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Madagascar Day 2 - Ankarana (Part 2)


Soon, the forest ended and the tsingy began.  For those that don't know, tsingy are limestone formations that were formed over millions of years by rain water into razor sharp edges as far as the eye can see. In fact tsingy means "place where one can't walk barefoot"...nor would you want to.


The tsingy at Ankarana pales in comparison to the large tsingy at Bemaraha but since we weren't going there this was our one chance to experience tsingy.


The hike began with some really cool plants and the beginning of the black tsingy formations:

Ankarana Tsingy



Tsingy Hike



And then the plants disappeared and it was as if we were walking on another planet:

Yup, it's sharp.


A planet that must have been MUCH closer to the sun because it was out of this world hot!  One might even say...extremely hot.


Tsingy in all directions


Close to two hours into this very hot hike we reached what Frankie said was the end.  "That structure is the end" he said.  Of course as we got closer we saw that there were a few more obstacles to cross to get to the end:


Of course I didn't go first...


That's when Bruno said that we didn't have to cross if we didn't want to you because it was a dead end and we had to turn around and hike all the way back.




None of us had brought enough water so the prospect of doing that hike all over again was met with a lot of muttering and a little cursing.  OK, I lied...


It was met with a little muttering and a lot of cursing.


But, most of us decided to cross the bridges (yes, there were two) since we had already gone that far and didn't want to let a couple flimsy looking wood bridges get in our way.


Here is a shot of the two bridges we crossed with Karen in the background. She chickened out on crossing the bridges so she kept an eye on Bill's tripod and 600mm lens.  Yup, he carried it the whole time without complaint.


But, I did cross


Here is a sign that wins an "Obvious Award":

The world's most obvious sign


Once we crossed back over the bridges and told Karen she missed the best views we had EVER seen, we divvied up our water among the four of us and headed back.  The only wildlife we saw on the way back (this could be because my head was down and my feet were dragging) was a couple crowned lemurs one of which was in a rather "exposed" position.  Luckily, I had a leaf play censor for me and hide his "tsingy":


Leaf Censorship



All told, it was a 5 hour hike.  This sign says it was only about 2 miles to "Point Suspendus" which I assume was the suspension bridges at the end of the hike.  But, it sure felt like we walked more than 4 miles round trip.


Don't believe it...it's longer...


Lunch at the restaurant was quite good and was just about the best chicken we had on the trip.  Little did we know that we should have really enjoyed that boneless breast meat since that is NOT how chicken was served at most other places.


Lunch did help us get energized for the afternoon and this time we made sure to ask about the length of the hike and what we should bring.  We ended up bringing lots of water and drove into the park towards the afternoon trail head.


At the trail head parking lot we were met by a very curious crowned lemur:


Crowned Lemur


Hamming it up...


Then the guides said that there were more down the trail so we headed off to find about a 1/2 dozen milling around close to some man-made structures.  They were very tolerant of us and this one proceeded to clean its tail in front of me.


Tail Grooming


That's when I spotted the banana peel and we suspected that these lemurs were tolerant of us because someone was slipping them a little banana.  That was disappointing so we headed off on our hike towards the caves.


After a relatively short walk there was a long descent on 150+ tiny cement stairs to the caves.


Yup, 150. 


It was here at the bottom of those stairs that our guides said that we needed to remove our hats and leave our water.  These were sacred caves and the Malagasy don't allow hats or water in the caves.  I didn't really understand why but we took some final swigs of water and I was too tired to worry about my lovely "hat hair".


The cave itself narrowed down pretty quickly but not before we managed to spy a couple different species of bats which was great.  Luckily, there were not enough bats to make the cave smell too badly.  After we left the first cave, Bruno pointed up to another cave that we were going to venture into.  Karen's foot was bothering her (turns out she twisted it a bit on the tsingy) so she wisely stayed at the base of the stairs and didn't venture up the steep climb into the second cave.


Here is a view of those stairs from the mouth of the second cave:

Ankarana Cave Approach


The cave mouth was huge:

Cave Entrance Looking Out



Then we headed up a shale covered hill to a second cave that started out pretty big but narrowed and shrunk to the point that I couldn't stand up and had to walk bent over.  It was about that time I regretted holding two cameras and lugging a backpack.  There were a few places inside the caves that I just about couldn't bend down far enough to pass through.  But, thank goodness I was dripping with sweat which helped me squeeze through.  This little "hike" turned out to be quite a workout.


If only I had some water...


We ended up seeing a 3rd bat species in this cave but the guides couldn't identify it so it will be absent from our final mammal count.


After over an hour, we made it out of the hot cave into the hot air outside, I climbed back down the shale hill to enjoy some...hot water.  Ah, vacations...


Going back up the 150 stairs was easier than coming down but there were audible cheers when we made it to the top and headed back to the vehicles.


Back at the lodge, I enjoyed a nice cold beer (which ended up being a luxury as I would find out later in the trip) and we had another nice meal at the lodge.


The extreme winds that picked up that evening were an appropriate ending to a day with extreme heat and extreme fatigue.   But, we also started to see some of the extremely cool wildlife that Madagascar has to offer.

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I think maybe they changed the name of  the airline because they got tired of being called Air Maybe.  I don't know anyone who hasn't found a trip to Madagascar challenging.  But also, so amazing.  I'm looking forward to hearing about your Masoala experience -- that was the highlight of our short trip a few years ago.

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A great start, if a little tough for you. When we went (a long time ago) we didn’t visit this part, so fascinating to see

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This is going to be interesting to compare to our trip last year.  We must have been quite lucky as we never had any issues with our internal flights, both left bang on time and we didn't have any porters bothering us either.  

We did the tsingy walk in Ankarana and I also found the bridge crossing a bit of a challenge!!  I hope things pick up for you soon.

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Great shots of the lemurs, especially the sportive lemur peering out of the tree cavity. 

I can sense your parched throats and sweat-drenched brows as I read your descriptive words. But what a landscape!

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@jmharack, regarding Masaola, we did save the best for last. :)


@TonyQ, thanks.  I bet a lot has changed since you were there and then again a bet a lot hasn't.


@Zim Girl,  things do pick up.  I appreciate the TR you posted.  It was one of the things that drew us to the northern part of the Island.  Such great reptiles!


@Alexander33, thanks.  I think I was parched most of the trip.  Warm water just doesn't cut it.  I actually had to drink soda just to get something cold once in a while.  I had more soda on this trip than I have had in the last year.

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Madagascar Day 3 -  To Amber Mountain


We woke up pretty sore the next morning which was to be expected after the previous days hiking.  But, that didn't mean I was looking forward to getting back in the car for a full morning drive which was the plan.  Karen's foot had swollen up over night and it was rather painful to walk on it.  So, unlike me, she was just fine sitting in a car for a while.


The drive back on the "RN Sick" towards Diego Suarez was no better than the first time.  We heard a lot of bell ringing and did end up with more bruises.


Originally, our itinerary called for a stop at the red tsingy which is a different kind of tsingy but we all decided to pass on that since we saw enough tsingy yesterday to last a lifetime and it meant going down a side road for about 18 km of even more bumpy driving.


The drive to our lodge (Nature Lodge) at Amber Mountain was 4 hours and we arrived in time for a later lunch.  Their menus were all in French and they were out of a lot of items but we managed to find some decent chicken stir fry to eat.


The lodge itself is quite picturesque with nice looking grounds:

The Nature Lodge


Nature Lodge Grounds


Here is a view from the outside dining room taken the following morning:

View from the breakfast table



We stayed in cabin #6:

Outside view of our room


Our Room



Notice the two food staples for the trip; water and bananas:

Uncomfortable Sofa


The bathroom


The lodge ending up looking a lot better than it was.  It had many quirks and the first one we discovered was that our room key was attached to a huge round metal ball.  It was the size of a grapefruit and we had to leave it at the front desk every time we left our room since it certainly wouldn't fit into my pocket.


Here is a shot of "the old ball and chain":



We had agreed to meet at 3:45 PM to do some birding around the property and later we would go on a night walk.  But, I was antsy to stretch my legs right after lunch so I wandered the property by myself looking for critters.  Karen stayed back in the room to ice her foot.  The lodge was very good about providing ice for us a couple times.  Anyway,  I found quite a few cool critters.


Giant Day Gecko (Phelsuma grandis):

Giant Day Gecko Eating


I was also proud of myself for finding this Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis).  It was in a bush and pretty well camouflaged:

Panther Chameleon


I spent a while just watching it move since I find them extremely interesting.  The eyes swiveled about independently while it swayed back and forth on the branch slowly moving towards me.


At first, it didn't appear to see me:



Then, it sort of half saw me:



Finally, we made "eyes" contact:



Not far away was another chameleon.  This one was an Oustelet's Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti) and it was pretty well camouflaged so finding it wasn't easy either.  Look at those cool "hands":



Despite the chameleon's coolness factor, the giant day geckos had extraordinary coloring that I couldn't get enough of:

Giant Day Gecko


Plus, I figured the more time I spent with them the greater the chance that one of them would stand up and say "15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance."


Anyone?  Geico?


As I was wandering the grounds, the wind started to pick up again and was howling by the time 3:45 PM rolled around so our bird watching walk was called off.  We did have to order our dinner in advance again at that time which is a bit of a pain especially when the lodge was out of half of the menu items.  However, we kept our plan for a 6PM night walk which was good.

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Looking forward to this as Madagascar is on my wishlist - although it sounds like I should pack a cushion for the bumpy roads! From what I have seen so far it is not an easy place to get around.

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Love that first shot of the Giant Day Gecko in the flower! You did really well with the reptiles so far.


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