Land of the Lemurs

We woke up this morning about 7.00am, to the sound of the captain’s voice coming over the tannoy saying that they would shortly be retracting the ship’s stabilisers as the Voyager made her way into Port d’Ehoala, Madagascar.

We arose at 7.40 and went along to the Discovery Restaurant for our breakfast which we took with our malaria tablet. Madagascar is the one place we are visiting where the malaria-carrying mosquito is rife. We’d also bought some insect repellant cream as I didn’t want a repeat of being eaten alive by other biting insects as we had been in Réunion.

Afterwards we assembled in the Darwin Lounge to await the call for our excursion. Today we were having a tour of Port d’Ehoala and its sourroundings, including a visit to the Saiadi Botanical Gardens.

As we were not allowed to walk about in the port area, we had to wait for a shuttle bus to take us outside the port to where the main buses were waiting. At the bus stand several makeshift stalls were set up, with the vendors selling their wares, including hand-made jewellery, colourful sarongs and woven baskets and mats. Walking from the shuttle bus to the main bus, we were accosted by hawkers and ragged little children, trying to sell us trinkets or just asking for money.

The buses were fairly primitive and we sat in vinyl-covered seats next to the open windows. Once everyone was aboard, we were introduced to Benoit, our guide, and he passed out vouchers to everyone so we could obtain a free cold drink later on in the tour.

The bus set off, and rattled and lurched along the unfinished dirt track, a lot of which was very muddy from the recent heavy rains. Benoit explained that Madagascar gets about two metres of rain a year, and this was evident in the lush greenery we could see, including palm and banana trees, sugarcane and the unripe rice plants growing in the flooded paddy fields.

The brisk breeze blowing through the open windows provided a cooling relief from the tropical sun. As we took in our surroundings we passed through small villages consisting of simple wooden huts, some with thatched roofs, and tattered clothing hung out to dry on fences, or makeshift washing lines. Throngs of laughing and chattering children would rush over to wave at the passengers on the bus, and here and there we could see small herds of humped oxen called zebu, as well as flocks of chickens. The evidence of poverty was everywhere, and it seemed as though very large families were living in pitifully small huts.

Nearing our destination, the bus slowed down as it lurched along a tree- and shrub-lined track, some of the branches coming in the windows, on our way into the Saiadi gardens. We parked up and everyone got out, looking around us in anticipation. I was here to see one thing in particular – the famous Madagascar ring-tailed lemurs.

As we walked along a shady path containing many trees and shrubs, our guide pointed into the branches of one of the trees and there they were – a couple of beautiful lemurs making their frisky and agile ways along the branch. I was mesmerised; they looked so cute, like something out of a Disney film. They had cheeky little faces with orange eyes and pointed ears and their long tails, about two feet in length, were deeply striped in black and white. As they picked their way from branch to branch they used their long tails for balance. We saw lots more ring-tailed lemurs, including a mother with her tiny baby; it was a lovely sight to see and I felt privileged to be here in Madagascar, seeing what is probably the country’s most famous symbol.

It was really very pleasant walking along in the beautiful gardens. Despite the hot sun, there were plenty of big, shady trees under which to seek refuge, and there was also a welcome gentle breeze. We saw little lizards darting along tree branches and a couple of gorgeous dragonflies at the edge of a pond; one had a red body and the other a yellow, and when they landed on a leaf their wings glittered in the sun; they looked so perfect they could have been jewelled brooches.

We came to an enclosure which contained caiman crocodiles of varying sizes, basking on the edge of their pond. One of the park’s keepers came along with a basin containing large chunks of raw meat, which he proceeded to toss over the fence into the crocodile enclosure. All at once there was a loud snapping of powerful jaws as the largest and quickest of the crocs got his prize, and as the guy threw more pieces of meat over the fence, other crocs came and joined in the frenzied mêlée, the smaller ones getting trampled in the rush. I couldn’t believe how loudly the jaws snapped shut over the meat (and sometimes other crocodiles) in their quest for blood. An amazing reptile that hasn’t changed since prehistoric times.

Leaving the crocodiles, we wandered further along and saw more ring-tailed lemurs as well as brown lemurs. The lemurs had a single wailing cry, which sounded a little like a cat. When I copied the sound, one of them looked at me and answered back! Some of the lemurs were eating bananas, sitting on their hind legs and holding the fruit in their tiny paws. So cute!

We also saw a pen full of tortoises of all sizes; they were sitting placidly in the sun, slowly eating some leaves and grass.

Further along the path, we spotted a chameleon making his way slowly up a tree trunk and onto a branch. Benoit, our guide, pushed a stick onto the branch to stop the chameleon and let us get good photos of it. It then climbed onto the stick, and Benoit carefully lowered it down so we could see it close up and get some great pictures. He then placed the stick on the ground, allowing the lizard to scamper back into the undergrowth.

In addition to the various creatures we saw many interesting trees and plants, the most fascinating of which were the carnivorous pitcher plants (nepenthes). These grow along the water’s edge and contain cone-shaped flowers with a lid to keep out the rain. They give off a scent that attract the unfortunate insect into the cone, the inside of which is coated in a sticky substance which prevents the insect from crawling back out. The insect is then slowly digested, which provides additional nutrients for the plant.

We spent about an hour and a half in the botanical gardens, then we made our way back to the bus for our tour of the town.

As we rattled our way along the potholed track we came out into the main street and looked around us, agog at the scene. Along the edges of the unfinished road were lots of shacks which served as shops and restaurants. They were all a bit ramshackle and grubby looking. Many of the stalls sold fruit and vegetables, particularly tomatoes and onions as well as melons and what looked like mangoes. There were also shops selling colourful clothing, household items like cooking pots, baskets, mats and bedding, and some selling tools and auto-repair stuff. The streets thronged with people along the roadside, with a few dusty looking cars and pick-up trucks. We didn’t want to get out of the bus here, but it was certainly very different from the comparatively-privileged life we lead back in Britain.

After we’d done a complete tour of the area, the bus set off for our final stop; a beautiful wide sandy beach across the bay from where the Voyager was berthed. Here we could redeem our free drinks vouchers and spend half an hour looking around the local craft shops or, for those who wished to brave the beach and the onslaught of all the local pedlars, go for a brief swim in the sea, which had very lively waves and looked perfect for surfing.

We traded our vouchers for a couple of bottles of cold Fanta and browsed the little shop, which was selling t-shirts, hand-made jewellery, baskets, wooden carvings and items made from local semi-precious stones. We didn’t see anything we wanted to buy.

Outside the shop there were a few tables, chairs and sunloungers, in an area that was fenced off from the beach. It was obvious that the hawkers had been told they were not allowed in this area, as there were a few security guards patrolling the area and the hawkers were all lined up at the fence, putting their arms through the gaps displaying whatever they were selling, from shells to bangles to bundles of vanilla pods. No sooner had you said “no thanks” to one of them, another one would try to get you to buy. We did see a lady from our party venture onto the beach, and she was immediately surrounded by three or four hawkers, one of them even tugging on her sleeve as she walked along.

Once our time was up, the guide rounded us all back up onto the bus, and we set off for the 15 minute ride along the bay back to the ship, in nice time for lunch. As the bus pulled up at the bus stand, we saw the large queue for the shuttle buses back to the Voyager. Of course there were crowds of the local children, all asking for “la monnaie, s’il vous plaît” (spare change, please) and holding our their grubby little hands. There were a couple of young mothers there with their infants, and they would thrust their baby into the arms of the nearest visitor, then ask for money to be photographed. One young woman looked no older than 14 or 15, and tried to get me to hold her baby; her left breast was still hanging out of her dress where she must have been giving the child a feed.

Thankfully a couple of shuttle buses pulled up then, and we quickly boarded and went the few hundred metres back to the Voyager.

Back on board we enjoyed a light lunch, then went back to our cabin for a rest in its welcome coolness. I must have been tired because I slept for a couple of hours. Then I got washed and tidied myself up a bit before we went to do the afternoon quiz. Our favourite barman was there and when we ordered a pint of Stella for Trevor and glass of fizz for me, the receipt he gave us to sign showed he had only charged for the beer.   😉

After the quiz we went up to the topmost deck to watch the ship preparing to sail.

At 6.00pm the Voyager gave several blasts of her foghorn, which echoed back from the distant mountains in the bay. Then we watched as she slowly made her way back from the dockside. We were underway once again.

What an interesting and fabulous experience Madagascar had been!

We decided to go into the Discovery Restaurant for our dinner tonight, and we were placed on table #26 with another two couples. The meal, as ever, was delicious, but I can’t really pretend that I enjoyed the company of the other couples; they were both quite snobby and when we told them we came from the north-east of England (and are proud of the fact) my hackles started to rise as they subtly ran the north-east down. I think they still thought it was like a scene from When The Boat Comes In or something out of an LS Lowry painting. They knocked the shipyards, the coal mines, the steelworks and all the other great industries on which the north-east was built. Luckily the conversation switched to other things before I could think of a withering riposte.

After dinner we did the usual – went up to the Sunset Club for the quiz (nope, we didn’t win) and then along to the Darwin Lounge for tonight’s cabaret, which was a female South African singer called Rachelle Kruger. She started off doing fairly boring contemporary songs but then she got better when she did a couple of classics, such as The Prayer and Time To Say Goodbye. Once again, however, she sang to recorded music; there was no sign of the orchestra which is a shame.

Then we finished off the evening back up in the Sunset Club, where another of the singers did a rendition of Motown hits for half an hour or so.

As usual, the place emptied rapidly after 10.30pm, and only a few stalwarts remained for the disco. We left about midnight and returned to cabin 4130. We had a couple of sea days to look forward to, en route to South Africa.

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