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Madagascar: A Trip of Extremes


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Start of the trip might be tough but photos you have got more than make up for the challenges. Great writing, great photography, from this side of the screen looks like a great trip.

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@Atdahl you certainly had a challenging start in Madagascar. Would you recommend including the  tsingy walk - was worth the time or is it something that could be dropped from a primarily wildlife trip? 



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Those gekkos are amazing! fantastic photos....maybe the Geico gekko appears later in the trip???


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Yes i have to echo the others, beautiful photos. I took a sneak peak and am totally jealous that you got to see some tenrecs! I never ventured to the north either, so it;s nice to see a different area. Were there specific target species you wanted to see up there and would you say it was worth the effort to get there?





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Great photos, the first day gekko (the one in the red flowers) is just beautiful. I also loved the 3-photo sequence of the chameleon...now that's a story :-)


The logistics to get there and the roads make me think twice about a trip, but the nature, wow! If you were to go again, would you do the same itinerary, add some? Skip some? Use the same operator? Look for someone else? Thanks.

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Thanks everyone, the reptile sightings were certainly very good in the north.


@Treepol It was nice to see the tsingy.  But, if the tsingy de bemaraha is already part of the itinerary then I don't think it's worth a trip to the north to see the tsingy there at all.  The reason to go to the north is to see a few of the endemic lemurs and lots of reptiles.  The bird life is a bit sparse in the north.  If you are already in Ankarana then it's worth hiking the tsingy a little bit but if you want to prioritize looking for wildlife then I wouldn't do the full 4 mile round trip.


@mtanenbaum, believe it or not, the Geico gecko is based on the Madagascar Day Gecko apparently.  At least that was the consensus I found online.  These geckos are endemic to the north of Madagascar so we didn't see them anywhere else and none of the ones we did see tried to sell me insurance. :(


@kittykat23uk, I think I answer your question in my next post.  But, if I don't, let me know.  


@xyz99, lots of good questions.  My answers are no, maybe, probably, yes, no.  Does that make sense?


Just kidding.  No, we definitely wouldn't do the same itinerary again.  As a matter of fact, I would be hard pressed to pick a place I would want to return to.  So, if we went again then it would be all new I think.  But, I haven't really given it any serious thought so I am not sure. We definitely would use Cactus Tours again.  We have no complaints about them.  They used good guides, good drivers and provided us with good service before and during the trip.  We didn't have to worry about any of the logistics from airport pickup to airport drop off.  It was what we wanted and they delivered.





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At around 6PM we headed out of the lodge gates and towards Amber Mountain National Park for our night walk. Unfortunately, for absolutely no good reason, the Malagasy park system won't let you do night walks in any of the national parks.  So, the only option was to do it outside the park on a nearby road. Luckily, we were sheltered from the winds on this road.


Unfortunately, the road was well populated so we had locals walking around us for most of our hour night walk.  But, that didn't stop it from being a very productive walk.


I immediately found some eye shine which ended up belonging to our first mouse lemur.


Amber Mountain Mouse Lemur (Microcebus arnholdi):



It was extremely fun to watch the little guy leap around in the bushes but it just wouldn't stay still for a really good photo.  Seeing these little big eyed creatures almost makes up for striking out on Tarsier in Borneo twice...almost.


A local guide had joined us for this walk and he soon found a really cool Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus finiavana).

Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus finiavana)


We ended up seeing 5 different mouse lemurs (all the same species) but most were just eyes bounding away.  However, the last one we saw stayed still for me and I managed to get a decent photo of it:

Amber Mountain Mouse Lemur


We saw lots of chameleons along the road including this sleeping Panther Chameleon:

Sleeping Panther Chameleon


Other chameleon species encountered were the Petter's (Furcifer petteri) and many Northern Blue-nosed (Calumma linotum).


So, while it only lasted about an hour, it was an extremely productive night walk.  I can only imagine how much better it might be in the park away from civilization.  It absolutely killed me that they didn't allow you into the parks for night walks.  What a stupid rule and no one I asked knew why they made it.


You will notice that I am including the scientific names for all mammals and herps we spotted.  That is because there are many species with multiple common names and I went on the trip prepared with a species list by park so that I could talk using scientific names with the guides.  This turned out to be key since I discovered that many of the guides got IDs wrong once in a while much to my chagrin.  But, I was able to correct/confirm IDs with them using my cheat sheet.  They were much better with birds than mammals or herps though.


While there wasn't much time spent looking for wildlife today, the time that was spent was really fun.  Hopefully, Amber Mountain has more critters to reveal for us tomorrow.


We returned to the lodge for a so-so dinner and my two favorite bottles...


What a lifesaver


Drank too many of these


In that order...

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@kittykat23uk, OK I lied.  I talk more about the north after we leave Amber Mt.  So, the answer to your question is still to come.

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Madagascar Day 4  -  Amber Mountain


Well, the wind howled all night shaking our cabin.  So, between that and dogs that barked most of the night we did not get out of bed very refreshed in the morning.


Breakfast was very small and only included a crepe, rolls, and some fruit.  We only ate cooked food this entire trip so the fruit went to waste even though we told them not to bring it out.  Needless to say we took advantage of the suitcase and a half of food we brought.  Yup, you read that right.  A suitcase and a half.


We made it to the park entrance at 8AM and met up with our local guide Manoot again.  While Bruno was inside paying, Manoot asked if we wanted to see a mossy gecko.  Heck yes!


So, he leads us over to some branches and asked if we could find it.  Can you?


Let's play


I was able to find it after a bit of searching. It was on the lower end of the left most vertical branch.  Here is a close up.


Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus sikorae)

He's hiding in plain sight of course


And here are a few shots of the entrance to the park.


Amber Mountain National Park


Amber Mountain NP Map


Amber Mountain Entrance


As you can see, the forest was pretty thick but we ended up starting out our hike on a dirt road which made things a bit easier to see.


Amber Mountain Hike


It didn't take long before we spotted some cool birds like the Pitta-like Ground Roller (the picture was lousy) and some cool reptiles.


Karen found this Amber Mountain Chameleon (Calumma amber):

Amber Mountain Chameleon



Manoot spent some time digging around in the leaf litter and I knew what he was looking for but I was still shocked at how extremely small and cute this was:


Full Grown Montagne d'Ambre Leaf Chameleon


That is a full grown Montagne d'Ambre Leaf Chameleon (Brookesia tuberculata).  How freaking cool is that!


Later we found another new chameleon the Arthur's Chameleon (Calumma ambreense):

Arthur's Chameleon



Bill saw this little guy crossing the road.  Thank goodness he did since it might have gotten stepped on.  It was only a few inches long.


Antakarana Leaf Chameleon (Brookesia antakarana):

Antakarana Leaf Chameleon



Our guides found another tiny chameleon that they ID'd incorrectly for us.  But, thanks to a very cooperative herpetologist I found online after the trip, I found out that this is another Montagne d'Ambre Leaf Chameleon.  But, it's cool none the less.


Another Montagne d'Ambre Leaf Chameleon


What a great morning for reptiles!


Later on in the hike, we found a completely wild crowned lemur that was a little curious of us at first but then took off:

Crowned Lemur


While Madagascar doesn't have a huge amount of bird species (low 100's I think) they do have some VERY cool looking birds.


Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher:

Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher


Female Cuckoo Roller:

Cuckoo Roller


An Amber Mountain endemic the Amber Mountain Rock Thrush:

Amber Mountain Rock Thrush


We spotted a Northern Blue-nosed Chameleon and in the day time and it was obvious how it got its name:

Norther Blue-nosed Chameleon


Amber Mountain was quite scenic and towards the end of our hike we passed a pretty waterfall.


Amber Mountain Waterfall


While we were looking at the falls, Karen decided it would be a good time to "check the tires".  So, she asks Bruno if it's OK to go in the bush and he says "#1 or #2?".   "#1" was the reply but he still had to ask the local guide.  I guess you aren't supposed to go in the bush in some if the parks.  If true, that's another rule that makes little sense especially since most parks have no restrooms or have no restrooms you would actually want to set foot in.


Anyway, while Karen was gone, the guides found a really colorful Panther Chameleon:


Panther Chameleon


Panther Chameleon


We pretty much had the hike to ourselves except for a few locals that passed us on the road.  One of which was carrying a large stick across his shoulders from which dangled a half dozen chickens.  Since we had all ordered chicken for lunch prior to the hike from a nearby restaurant I joked "there goes lunch" and I was probably right.


At one point when we hit the main trail we were inundated with cell phone wielding tourists so it was hard to get good angles to take pictures and we pretty much gave up and waited for the groups to move on.


Other than that, it was a very pleasant hike and we saw some, wait for it... extremely cool wildlife.


Before leaving the park we went to the picnic area since our guides mentioned that the ring-tailed mongoose can be seen there occasionally.  So, we waited around for a while but nothing showed up except people.  As we were leaving it started to rain a bit.


We went back to the restaurant outside the park for lunch.  We were seated outside in their very nice garden.  Once the food came, so did the entertainment.  First it was a dog or two begging for scraps then it was a cat or two or three or five!  They all seemed to sense that Bill was the "softy" in the group and he obliged by throwing some of his chicken on the ground.


I should have done the same since the chicken was just about inedible. This was the first of many experiences with what they call "chicken" in Madagascar.  It looks like you are getting a thigh and leg combination but when you actually cut into it you realize this is not the chicken you are used to assuming you are used to chicken with actual meat on it.  I called this particular chicken "Griswold Chicken" since it was so dry you had to chew for 5 minutes then use water to wash it down.  I ended up eating very little of it but the fries that came with it got devoured.  Note: Bill, Peggy, and I had all ordered the same chicken.  Karen had ordered the coconut chicken.  However, they served her curry chicken by mistake (luckily it was not spicy) and it was super tasty including the chicken which was all breast meat.


We finished eating around 2PM and I finished chewing sometime after that.  We decided not to go back into the park since the weather was a bit iffy and we were not prepared for rain.  Back at the lodge the winds were howling again.  Karen took the opportunity to ice her foot again.  We didn't have a night walk included in the schedule so we just had to hang around the lodge all afternoon and evening which was quite boring.


I did manage to get a parting photo of my favorite gecko.  They are endemic to the northern part of Madagascar so we would not be seeing these big guys again.


Giant Day Gecko



I had mentioned that the Nature Lodge was a bit quirky.  Besides the "old ball and chain" key, French only menus, and the insistence on ordering dinner hours ahead of time, they also wouldn't serve breakfast early.  Bruno had to really talk them into serving us at 6:30 AM since they didn't want to serve us before 7AM.  I have to think that most people staying there are there to visit the park and see wildlife so why they didn't server earlier or even offer "to go" breakfasts was beyond me.


They also  had "waffle" like towels that were the opposite of soft and really lumpy pillows.  To be fair, we found most of the lodges had flat, firm, lumpy pillows so that must be a Madagascar thing.  Because of that, and the noisy night life at most lodges, we pretty much only survived on 5 to 6 hours sleep the whole trip.

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Wow, your experience was so different to ours! We had plenty of issues, but we always had great food (including good chicken :) , hearty breakfasts, and comfortable accommodations. And no crowds or cell-phone wielding tourists. Its strange but it almost seems like you are describing a different country!


On the other hand...you saw a lot more reptiles than we did! One of the issues we had...but I'll get to that when I do my trip report (I'll wait for you to finish before I do mine.)




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Stunning pictures, I love the cuckoo roller.  

Shame your night walk was a bit busy, our night walks there were the best of the trip and were done in a private reserve on our own with just our guides.

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I see...lumpy pillows, tough chicken, bad roads....but wow!!! the wildlife is amazing, out of this world. And your photos fantastic! Thanks for sharing your experience.

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@janzin, wow that's quite interesting. It will be great to read your report to get a different perspective on things.  Especially for the areas in which we overlapped.

I can't believe you had "great food".  We always stayed at the "nicest" places at all locations and I don't consider myself a picky eater (I eat most anything).  Karen on the other hand...:)  But, I think she liked the food better than I did because they did make some special dishes for her.  The food was certainly was hit and miss and maybe I constantly ordered the "miss"?


Thanks @Zim Girl.  The cuckoo roller was a very cool bird.  We actually saw one flying later in the trip and Peggy got to see it "rolling" a bit but I missed that.  Do you remember the reserve where you did your night walks?  It's very interesting to hear that you did something different.  We weren't given any options for night walks really except the standing "walk the road outside the national park". 


Thanks @xyz99. Yes,  that was our experience. Now, while I may not be picky about food and think I am about beds and pillows so I couldn't get used to their pillows.  They were typically stuffed with "egg carton foam" if you know what that is.  In the US we would use that as a mattress topper and not a pillow "stuffer".  Plus, beds were on the hard side which is actually pretty normal in our travels.

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I have been enjoying your report so much that it made me want to revisit my own report from 2012. Interesting comparison, I'd be interested to read your report of the masoala peninsula as that was one of the places I didn't get to but the one area that I had earmarked for when I go back.


I felt very satisfied with what I saw and covered in my trip but I also had my share of frustrations.


There are some key species I'd like to get if I do go back, notably the tenrecs, aye aye, red-ruffed lemur, giraffe-necked weevil, helmet and blue vangas, asities and some more of the ground-rollers, especially scaly, which I only got a glimpse of. 

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1 hour ago, Atdahl said:

Thanks @Zim Girl.  The cuckoo roller was a very cool bird.  We actually saw one flying later in the trip and Peggy got to see it "rolling" a bit but I missed that.  Do you remember the reserve where you did your night walks?  It's very interesting to hear that you did something different.  We weren't given any options for night walks really except the standing "walk the road outside the national park". 


The reserve belongs to a hotel called the Domaine de Fontenay.  See here https://www.sunsafaris.com/beach-holiday/madagascar/northern-madagascar/domaine-de-fontenay.html

All 3 of our night walks at Amber Mountain were in this reserve and it was amazing.  It is set next to a ravine in the rainforest and was very productive for chameleons and the nocturnal lemurs.

Speaking of good food, the other accommodation option for Amber Mountain in I think, the same price bracket as Nature Lodge, was the The Litchi Tree, which is where we stayed.  The owner is a chef and the food was the best of the holiday - top restaurant quality.

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1 hour ago, Atdahl said:

@janzin, wow that's quite interesting. It will be great to read your report to get a different perspective on things.  Especially for the areas in which we overlapped.

I can't believe you had "great food".  We always stayed at the "nicest" places at all locations and I don't consider myself a picky eater (I eat most anything).  Karen on the other hand...:)  But, I think she liked the food better than I did because they did make some special dishes for her.  The food was certainly was hit and miss and maybe I constantly ordered the "miss"?


Well I'm not saying it was gourmet ;) but always good. Certainly better than we expected. We never expect much on a birding trip.  We thought it was mainly the French influence--great breads! and almost every place had chocolate mousse for dessert! And lots of very good seafood options most places. We both gained weight on the trip!


However the only really horrible food, and I bet you experienced this, were most of the "boxed lunches."  Tiny bits of chicken on a roll, we always told them no salad so that's what we were stuck with. I always asked for the "cheese" option but it wasn't any better. Luckily we had brought a lot of granola bars and trail mix. And we stopped at gas stations and bought lots of cookies.


I should probably leave more details for my trip report :)

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Hi @Zim Girl.  Thanks for sharing that info.  I re-read your whole report and enjoyed it all over again.  I am kicking myself for not re-reading it while I was still planning our trip since I could have asked about that reserve.  We did look at staying at the Litchi Tree but they were booked.  Sounds like that might have been a better fit for us.


@janzin, gained weight?! :)  We certainly can't say that.  We also lived off the food we brought.  We rationed over 2 granola/protein bars a day each and ended up almost eating all of them.  You are right about the box lunches.  They were bad.  You were also right about the bread. It was good everywhere.


@kittykat23uk, we are glad we went to Masoala.  It is worth a visit in my opinion since it's so pristine.  My understanding is that the tenrecs tend to come out more in their summer (Nov. onward) which is also when the rains come.  We got really fortunate with our sightings but we only saw one species.  We did pretty decent on that list you posted too.  More on that to come...

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Madagascar Day 5 - Back to Tana


Well, after complaining about bad sleep yesterday, we actually did pretty well last night.  The wind didn't howl nearly as bad as the night before and the dogs were mostly silent as well.


Initially, I had thought the dogs were owned by neighboring properties but at breakfast today there was a dog who just stood and barked for about a 1/2 hour outside the dining room and none of the staff did anything about it.  I have some baggage when it comes to barking dogs if you couldn't tell...


Today we were leaving the north and flying back to Tana.  We saw some great wildlife, especially reptiles, but it just didn't seem worth it for only 4 nights.  We basically will have 3 travel days and only two wildlife watching days.  That's not a great ratio.  There is more to see at both Ankarana and Amber Mountain so maybe staying more nights would make the travel worth it.  But, then you likely would have to give up nights elsewhere.


Anyway, as I mentioned today was another dreaded travel day but we still had to plead for an early breakfast so that we could leave at 7AM to make our 9:30AM flight out of Diego Suarez back to Tana.


We arrived at the airport at 7:45 and then stood in a long line to check in.  Luckily, Bruno worked some sort of magic with the agents and they didn't hassle us about our carry on bag weights.  But, we did see other passengers getting hassled so having Bruno along definitely helped us.


We finally got all our tickets and carry on bag tags at 9AM (yeah, there must be no Malagasy word for "efficiency") and then had to wait in another line for our checked bags.  That's when Bruno said that the flight was delayed until 11:05 AM.  But actually didn't leave until 12:05.  Just great...


When the plane finally arrived, we had to get in another line to go though the metal detector that didn't work.  So, they made everyone open all their bags for inspection and gave us the FULL pat down prior to letting us on board.


Once on board, the captain made barely audible announcements in Malagasy, French, and English and I was pretty sure I heard the words "Nosy Be".  Uh, oh...


Yes, this "direct" flight to Tana was going to stop at Nosy Be on the way but unlike the first unscheduled stop we had on the way north, they made us all get off the plane in Nosy Be.  Here was yet another example of us trying to practice "mora mora" which is basically Malagasy for "relax and be patient".  There was more mora mora on this trip than I could stand however.


The stopover on Nosy Be did have some entertainment as Karen went to the little food counter they had to buy some water.  They also  had some pastries and other goodies so a line quickly formed.  However, the guy behind the counter was the world's slowest worker and half the line didn't even get to buy anything before we all had to board the plane again.  Karen thought that he might have been enjoying a little local plant if you know what I mean.


By the time we landed in Tana it was 2:45PM and we were all starving.  That's when we made our first stop at a chain called Gastro Pizza.  Yes, that's right.  We went all the way to Madagascar to eat pizza.  It was pretty good too though.  But, what wasn't good was the high pitched out of key karaoke going on.  If you can picture Yoko Ono, Bjork, and a dolphin all singing together you get the idea.


Before the trip, we had decided to change our hotel for this day from the Relais de Plateaux to the Tamboho Hotel.  The latter was closer to a lake that Peggy thought would be worth a visit that afternoon.  Unfortunately, we didn't count on the long flight delays or the after lunch traffic getting through Tana to our hotel. So, we didn't make it to that lake (although Bill and Peggy went the last day of our trip). In fact, we didn't arrive at the hotel until 5:15PM which was almost dark.  The utter chaos and squalor that we drove through to get to the hotel was once again very eye opening.


The hotel itself was nice and located by some wetlands and across from a little mall.  So, we were able to buy some water and other essentials there  (booze and wine) quite easily.   We enjoyed some drinks and a decent dinner outside on the balcony of the hotel.


You will notice that I didn't post any pictures from this day.  Well, that is because I actually didn't take any for the entire day which is a vacation first for us I think.  Well, actually I lied. I did take one cell phone picture to show the rather unique "port hole" located in our bathroom that lowered the level of privacy just a tad:




I guess they put that in so that you could be passed food and water if you were having a particularly long "session".


It wouldn't be a trip report from me without a little potty humor so there you go.  And, since you had to put up with that you get a bonus report for the next day thrown in for free!


We actually woke up a little more refreshed thanks to a decent night's sleep but I found that the Tamboho was another hotel with no coffee in the room.  They had a hot water kettle and tea, but no coffee.  What happened to the French influence?  But, at least it was quiet over night.


Anyway, once the sun came up I ventured outside to check out the wetlands.  There were quite a few herons around and a few other birds.


Tamboho Hotel Wetlands


Black-crowned Night Heron.  One of the few birds for us the entire trip that wasn't a new species:

Black-crowned Night Heron


Malagasy Kingfisher:

Malagasy Kingfisher


The hotel served a big buffet breakfast that included eggs to order which was really nice.  But, they took their time so breakfast lasted about an hour which delayed our departure.


When we eventually left the hotel,  the street in front of the hotel was empty and quiet.  Wow, what a nice change we thought.  We climbed into the van and our new driver (named Dida) drove down the street and stopped at a huge gate.  Whoa...we didn't realize that this little neighborhood around the hotel was gated.  But, that would explain the stark lack of traffic and people around the hotel.  But, as soon as the gates opened, that all changed.  It was like passing through the huge gates into Jurassic Park except that it was an urban jungle and all the dinosaurs were people and cars and they had already escaped and were causing bedlam.  The noise level went up about 100 decibels with honking, music, and shouting.  We couldn't believe that our quiet little wetlands hotel was just one block behind us.


This satellite view kind of shows you what it was like leaving the empty streets of our hotel into the mass of humanity along the RN3:




Here is a fun fact, there is no Google street view in Madagascar.  Rumor has it the Google van was last seen trapped in a pothole.


The drive to Andasibe was 5 hours with two short breaks. Luckily the RN2 was a better road than the RN6 up north.  I didn't say it was good. I just said it was better.  But, we did encounter people and vehicles everywhere.  Bruno mentioned that he has done that drive in over 10 hours a few times due to all the truck traffic.  It also became apparent that Madagascar has no emission standards.  Every vehicle seems to spew out exhaust and a few were so bad I actually thought they were on fire.  Maybe being over filled with people and supplies were the cause because we sure didn't see any empty vehicles.  So, the two breaks we took were welcome to not only stretch our legs but also to breathe in some exhaust free air.

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I appreciate this trip report @Atdahl - but it reinforces my total lack of desire to ever visit Madagascar!



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Ah I imagine the lake that you had planned to get to was Lac Alarobia. We actually got there twice (once unscheduled, long story ;) ) and it was well worth it. Too bad you missed it--some good birds and photo ops there.


Now I'm really curious to see how you did in Andisabe as its the only location, other than Tana, that our trips overlapped...and we even overlapped in dates on one day...although we didn't find each other!


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@offshorebirder  we loved our trip to Madagascar, we thought it was culturally fascinating, wildlife was amazing and we don’t remember it being particularly hassley

We didn’t visit the north, and it was many years ago.

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9 hours ago, Atdahl said:

Now, while I may not be picky about food and think I am about beds and pillows so I couldn't get used to their pillows.  They were typically stuffed with "egg carton foam" if you know what that is.  In the US we would use that as a mattress topper and not a pillow "stuffer".  Plus, beds were on the hard side which is actually pretty normal in our travels.


I understand, I am picky about pillows too, and I learned I'm better without one rather than a bad one. I think I know the kind of "stuffing" you are talking about. NO! Not my kind of pillow.

And I like good food, too. Not necessarily gourmet, but tasty.


Your last traveling day seemed long and tiring. Hope it gets better.

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@offshorebirder If you don't visit the North you can still see a huge variety and cut out a lot of the hassle of the flights. I see that @Atdahlvisited most of the sites I did from Tana, to Andasibe-mantadia and then down via ranomafana, anja, isalo, zombiste and ifaty. That covers a wealth of great reserves. Its easy to do that in 2 weeks or less especially if you then fly back to Tana from tulear. You do not lose a lot of time in travel doing that. 


Madagascar is a unique country with unique wildlife, well worth a visit. Just stay away from the local cocktails... 

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