Searching for Meaning, Northern Madagascar

September 26 - October 7, 2013

Endemic chameleon gazing skyward in Montagne d'Ambre National Park.




Another short flight takes us to the northern tip of Madagascar, at the city of Antsiranana (aka Diego Suarez.) This place seems like a cross between Panama City and New Orleans, with its ancient cars, potholed streets, and crumbling French colonial architecture. It appears there has been no maintenance on the buildings since the French left in 1960, and several are unoccupied and literally falling down.

Diego is an historic and important port town, sitting on the shores of the second largest bay in the world (after Rio de Janeiro.) This is the place of earliest Austronesian settlement in Madagascar, and has been a center for Arab, East African, and European traders for centuries.

Eventually we take a liking to this hot, windy, atmospheric town, with all the street markets and bustling activity. This will be our base for exploring the nearby parks of Montagne d'Ambre and l'Ankarana (oh boy, more taxi brousse rides!)

Sampling the yummy street food in Diego.

View from our hotel high above the blue waters of the immense Baie Andovobazaha.


We are just leaving one of the many restaurants that dot Diego Suarez's crumbling main street, when we spot a perfectly circular cloud, hovering high in the dark, star-filled sky. As we watch, this strange cloud slowly moves west, like a glowing donut with a twinkling star in the middle. A young Malagasy girl sees us looking at it and comes running up, excitedly telling us (in French) that she has seen this strange object three nights in a row. She just can't stop talking about it, and seems both excited and scared. Maybe extraterrestrials are trying to communicate, or maybe there will be an earthquake, or it could be a lunar eclipse -- she finds a clear plastic bag blowing down the street and peers through it, demonstrating how we should be looking at this strange 'eclipse'.

We are convinced it must be a satellite, and the next morning find that the International Space Station flew directly over northern Madagascar at precisely the time we looked up (which we verify with a rare weefee connection.) What are the chances of that? Imagine the theories and debates raging in small villages around the globe, night after night, as the ISS circles the globe.

(On the federal ISS website you can find out exactly what time the space station will be traveling over any given location in the world, but, as I write this, that website not available, thanks to the Republican-led US government shutdown.)


For some reason it always seems odd to see fresh baguettes for sale in the markets, but they're ubiquitous!



We stop in to see what all the excitement is about when we hear music blasting out from Diego's municipal stadium. On stage is a 'selegy' band rocking out with some serious booty shaking.

But wait, at the same time, we've got something else, as the crowd rushes over to watch. Oh yes, of course, we have a boxing match too! This looks brutal, with gloves off, one short knock-out fight after another takes place in the ring with the onlookers cheering them on ...très bizzare!



Stocking up on important supplies in Joffreville...

The boys, with our guide Henri at Montagne d'Ambre National Park

Perhaps the most incredible animal we see in Montagne d'Ambre National Park is the mossy leaf-tailed gecko. Trust me, without a guide, you will never find one of these creatures! We couldn't see it even when it was pointed out and we were standing a meter away. During the day, these nocturnal geckos rest upside down (right) and camouflage so perfectly they look exactly like the tree trunk, complete with lichen-looking patches on their body. Even their spooky lidless eyes have a special pattern that helps them blend in to the background.

Ace chameleon photographers hard at work.

Thumbnail-sized chameleons tickle as they walk across my palm!

These stylish little geckos are all over the place: running up the walls or hanging on the ceiling eating mosquitos (yay!), warily creeping up on the breakfast table to see what we're eating. At one point we are devouring ripe mangoes for lunch and one courageous gecko runs right up and starts licking mango juice off my plate. Love these guys!



It is a sad day in Diego when we must say goodbye to our friend Didier. He heads back to normal life in Belgium, and we are on our way west to l'Ankarana National Park and on to Nosy Be.

We divvy up the cagnotte (the shared pool of money we use for all our joint purchases), Didier gives us final advice on riding the taxi brousse and how to bargain our way across Madagascar, we exchange the special Madagascar three-cheek kisses, and poof, he disappears in a beat-up yellow taxi...

Veluma, Didier!





Interesting dry forests, geology, and limestone caves in l'Ankarana National Park.




Simon, yet another super-talented multi-lingual trail guide.

This gecko lives only in the tsingy (unusually spiky limestone.)


Lemur camouflage.


Who knew that lemurs were so cute and experts at both yoga and levitation?

It's too bright!