Monday, 28 May 2012

Monday photo - 28th May


Sitting in our truck in Kenya, we patiently waited for the elephants to cross the road. A range of ages and sizes, they slowly strolled past, completely uninterested in our eager faces peering out at them. Suddenly the group parted as a small baby barged through, trunk swinging as it tried to get across the road first. From deep within the older elephants, a grey trunk reached out like lightning, halting the baby's progress and pulling it back with a scolding. Only once all the other elephants had crossed was it allowed to go on, head hanging low as though thoroughly embarrassed.

Just like human children, in fact...

Friday, 25 May 2012

Madagascar: Do's and Don'ts!


Travelling through Madagascar is exhilarating, exhausting, amazing, challenging, and above all else a real adventure. It requires time, a willingness to change plans at the last minute and lots of energy. In return, you'll receive the warmth and friendliness of the locals, a completely hassle-free environment, unique wildlife and plants, and breath-taking landscapes.

The country more than rewards anyone who journeys there, and with relatively few tourists passing through, it will sometimes seem as if you've got the whole place to yourself. Here's my humble advice for avoiding some of the most common problems (hint: the key here is having an idea of what to expect!) and getting the most out of a trip...

Do's

- Factor in plenty of time for travelling between places, whether using land or air transport. A couple of the key roads leading out of Antananarivo are paved and in good condition, but leave central Madagascar and it's dirt tracks all the way, if you're lucky. 4x4s used for the Tsingy trips are in particularly poor states, and liable to break down, and roads may suddenly become flooded after heavy rainfall. Flying isn't much better, with the single domestic carrier, Air Madagascar, known for cancelling or re-routing flights at the last minute, leaving passengers stranded for days on end. If you are prepared for delays then you'll feel less frustrated, and when things do run smoothly, it'll be an unexpected bonus!


- Try to visit a few national parks. Although lemurs can be found almost everywhere, particular species live in particular parks, so if you want to spot a range then you'll need to get around a bit. The very central Route 7 is ideal for this - five national parks lie along its length, and could be visited in a week if short on time.

- Shop around before choosing a tour company for the boat and Tsingy trips. Although international companies run tours to Madagascar, I would recommend using a local company who will have contacts and can react quickly to any issues that may arise. I found a few recommended individuals on the internet with working email addresses - it's worth emailing a few to check prices, types of accommodation and back-up plans to find a best fit.


- Feel sorry for the vegetarians who won't have the opportunity to gorge on the incredibly delicious Zebu dishes available. Soft, tender and juicy, the flesh of the humped Malagasy cattle is incredible stewed and grilled; alongside fresh vegetables or just on its own. My mouth is watering just thinking about it...


Don'ts

- Forget that it is compulsory to hire a guide almost everywhere. Personally, I felt that this was one of the biggest positives - it provides jobs and education for the local population, who are both knowledgeable and respectful of the animals and forests they are surrounded by. The many guides we hired taught us about some of the numerous medicinal plants in Madagascar, and spotted things we would easily have missed otherwise. Prices are low, but it's important to factor in these almost daily costs, along with tips.

- Forget plenty of mozzie spray. The little buggers are rampant everywhere, and Malaria is rife, particularly along the coast. Even after drenching myself in Deet every morning, I still managed over eighty bites in three weeks. Scratch scratch...


- Leave home without either conversational French or a phrasebook. Aside from guides, very few people we came across spoke much English at all. This isn't really a problem until something goes wrong - without a reasonable understanding of French we would definitely have struggled with dealing with our cancelled flights, and if you want to interact a little with locals then some French goes a long way to break the shyness barrier.

- Wait too long before paying Madagascar a visit! Although not quite as empty of tourists as others places we've visited, the country is still off the major tourism radar and we saw very few other visitors whilst there. With more flights and advertising every year however, it won't stay that way for much longer...


Missed any posts about our trip to Madagascar? Find them here:

On our way to...Madagascar!
Toffee water, emerald forests and lots of children: A multi-day boat trip in Madagascar
Mud, mozzies and allergies - One very long day in Madagascar
Exploring the Tsingy and the second car journey from hell
A final bump in the road...
Exploring beautiful and diverse Isalo national park
A whistle-stop tour through some of Madagascar's incredible national parks
The cutest lemur competition: A photo-blog

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The cutest lemur competition: A photo-blog

During our time in Madagascar, we were fortunate enough to see a range of unique and extraordinary wildlife. Often dubbed 'the eighth continent' on account of its early separation from the mainland and the subsequent independent evolution of many species, the animals never fail to impress. Huge, fat tomato frogs plopped in and out of bushes, multi-coloured chameleons marked our progress with their ever-swivelling eyes, and bright butterflies littered the air, wings beating furiously.

However, the number one draw to Madagascar are the many species of lemur. From the loud cries of the Indri, to the soft mewing of the Ring-tailed, the tiny face of the Mouse to the bright gold of the Sifaka, I couldn't get enough.

So, in homage to these lovely creatures and indulging my primate-obsessive tendencies, here's a photo-blog of the lemurs we spotted, competitors for the 'cutest lemur' title. Which would get your vote?

The Diademed Sifaka, with their golden fur?

Perhaps the loud Indri, largest of the lemur species with their distinctive black and white colouring?
Or the tiny Mouse lemur, barely inches big and looking remarkably like their namesake...
The playful White lemurs kept us company during the three day boat trip, leaping huge distances from branch to branch
Possibly the sociable and ever-popular Ring-tailed, long tails draping over branches and cat-like meowing filling the air?
The cheeky Brown lemurs popped up everywhere we went...
Whereas the Golden Bamboo was much more elusive...
Or how about the sweet, small Red-fronted lemurs, who played with our camera and reached out their hands?

So, which Lemur should win the title? I just can't decide...


Want to read more about what we got up to in the national parks of Madagascar? Check out our experiences here:
A whistle-stop tour through some of Madagascar's incredible national parks

Monday, 21 May 2012

Monday photo - 21st May


Everyone said that Budapest was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. That when the sun hit the river, the surrounding area sparkled, and the gorgeous old architecture shone.

On our first day in the city, trudging through the slushy streets in late December, we were yet to feel it. Instead of a cold, crisp winter's morning, it was a dull, cloud-covered sky that greeted us as we stepped out of our hostel. Cold, yes - very, very cold, but not a shimmer or a sparkle in sight. We crossed the river, icy air pelting our exposed faces, and mounted the hill, partially for the viewpoint, and partially to circulate some blood through our numb toes.

And there it was. Even encased in cloud, the view was lovely. The river flowed lazily below us, parliament loomed in the distance, all majestic spires, and the bridge stretched out in front, layered with snow. The hills surrounding looked dusted with icing sugar, and we temporarily forgot about our frozen feet.

Even the poor weather couldn't hide the beauty of this marvellous city.  

Friday, 18 May 2012

A whistle-stop tour through some of Madagascar's incredible national parks


Without a shadow of a doubt, it's Madagascar's sensational national parks that make a trip there unforgettable. Vast and beautiful, with incredible diversity of landscape, they are also well-managed. Guides are compulsory everywhere, and consist of local men and women whose love for the environment is obvious. We were particularly impressed by the divisions in place within the park boundaries - some areas are open to tourists, with habituated Lemur groups, whilst the greater parts are often out-of-bounds, allowing the wildlife to roam freely without human interaction.

During our time in Madagascar, we visited five parks - Andasibe, Tsingy de Bemaraha, Isalo, Anja Reserve and Ranomafana. Very different and with their own charms, here's a short guide to each and our own impressions:

Andasibe

Of the heavily forested national parks, Andasibe was probably my favourite. From the relaxing jungle lodge accommodation nestled right on the boundary to the park, to the friendly and extremely knowledgeable guides, you could easily spend a week here and never run out of things to see. The park is home to both diurnal and nocturnal lemurs, and we spent a great evening after dark hunting for the tiny Mouse lemur, whose small face that peeked out at us from a large cluster of bushes we would never have spotted if not for the sharp eyes of our guide.


There's no way, however, to miss the large Indri, the real attraction of the park, whose loud calls penetrate the early morning silence and travel up to 3km. Most active in the morning, we hiked high into the park, batting away mosquitoes, to watch them eat and play in the canopy. There are a number of troops in a relatively small territory - we saw two quite close to each other. Standing right underneath them, their calls were loud and piercing, echoing and filling the air around us with sound.


The beautiful Diademed Sifaka, arguably the most stunning species of lemur, are also relatively large and easily spotted near the Indri. They elegantly leapt from tree to tree, their golden fur lit up by the early morning sun dappling through the leaves.

We also spotted white, brown and dwarf lemurs during our time in Andasibe, as well as a range of frogs and chameleons (including Parson's chameleon, the world's largest). Despite the close proximity to Antananarivo, there were relatively few visitors, and we only ran into a few other people during our visits.


Tsingy de Bemaraha

I've already written about the Tsingy national park here, and our disastrous journey to reach it. Although exhausting and at times downright unpleasant, I am very grateful to our guide for pushing through and insisting that we kept trying, as I would have definitely regretted not spending time amongst these incredible monuments to nature.


The sharp spikes of limestone soaring high were dramatic yet appeared so delicate, the maze below fun to explore (although I'd recommend skipping breakfast in order to squeeze through some of the smaller gaps!)

Although hot and very sweaty, it's a great feeling to stand atop one of the viewing platforms, looking out over a sea of pale grey stone.


Isalo

Isalo is certainly unlike any of the other parks we visited, and was my favourite overall thanks to sheer number of things to see and do. It was a completely unexpected couple of days - when we'd imagined what the national parks in Madagascar would be like, images of thick forested jungle or lush green plains floated through our head. What we hadn't anticipated was high views across vast rock canyons, peering down on the town from the edge of sheer drops and hidden waterfall-fed pools of cool, dark water.


There was plenty of forest too, with more brown lemurs and also possibly the most recognisable species, the sociable Ring-tailed. To read more about our visit to Isalo, check out my post devoted to the park here.


Anja Reserve

Although Anja is a tiny private reserve compared to the much, much larger national parks in Madagascar, it often features on routes because of the large colony of ring-tailed lemurs it protects. Although the lemurs are easy to spot and willing to pose for photos (well, were happy to sit in the branches whilst I snapped away anyway...), the small area the reserve occupies means that all the visitors tend to congregate in the same patches, and it can get a little more crowded. However, 'crowded' in Madagascar generally means 5 or 6 people, so not actually very crowded at all...


We were warned about one small scam at Anja - you pay your guide by the hour, at a fixed rate, and guides have been known to try to convince visitors to stay 'just a few minutes' longer, so that they arrive back 5 or 10 minutes over the allotted time, and have to pay for another hour. We checked our own watch to make the most of our time, but bearing in mind that this was the only scam we heard of during our whole time in the country (Madagascar was definitely one of the most honest, hassle-free countries I've ever travelled to), the small sum charged hourly wouldn't have been a great loss.


Ranomafana

Ranomafana national park was definitely one that makes you gasp when you first approach it. Set at high elevation in central Madagascar and thickly forested, the trees seem to reach up into the lower-lying clouds and fast flowing water crashes below. Even our hostel was built into the steep hillside, resulting in a climb of many steps to reach our room (why do we always end up in places with steps?!).


The park itself was the busiest we explored - this seemed to be a result of the single path which leads through the main sections of the area, as once we ventured further in and off the beaten track the groups disappeared. I did find it a little difficult to keep my cool at the beginning though - there were a number of groups entering at around the same time when a small troop of Golden Bamboo lemurs, the highlight of the park, were spotted. Instead of keeping a reasonable distance, groups starting jumping off the path and crashing into the trees, shouting 'over here!' and 'Oh my god!' in very loud voices, sometimes encouraged by their guides. Not surprisingly, the lemurs took one look at the hoard and dashed back deeper into the forest. We were very impressed by our guide, who quietly took another guide aside and told him off, and eventually the lemurs returned, if a little more hesitantly.

The real highlight of the day came later. We'd spotted Red-bellied lemurs playing in a patch of trees, and our guide suggested waiting a while to see if Red-fronted brown lemurs, who are often in the same area, would make an appearance. After 15 minutes they was no sign, but we weren't in a hurry and asked to remain a little longer. Suddenly, a small brown face peered down out of the leaves next to our heads, and a red-fronted body gradually edged forward curiously.


We stood still as he or she poked their nose up to our faces, before retreating back slightly, and returning a few seconds later, this time accompanied by several friends. They took turns coming up to us, sniffing and reaching tiny hands out, before jumping back again. When I pulled my camera out, they swiped at it and stuck their faces into the lens (resulting in some particularly blurry pictures of brown furry blobs). Eventually they got really brave, and started gently licking our hands before finally getting bored and leaping back into the forest. It was an incredible experience, and really demonstrated what a little patience can bring!


Madagascar's national parks were absolutely stunning, and I only wish we'd had more time to visit others. The lemurs were just as cute and numerous as we'd hoped (which still didn't stop me taking hundreds of photos every time we spotted a new one - just in case it was our last chance...), and all our guides friendly and accommodating. I can't recommend seeing them highly enough!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Exploring beautiful and diverse Isalo national park


Although Air Madagascar had dashed our beach-related relaxation days, once we finally arrived south and back on track we were determined to make up for lost time. Luckily, beaches aren't much of a priority for us whilst travelling, and our plans for visiting a range of national parks were still fully intact.

They were certainly worth the wait.


First up was a couple of days in the spectacular Isalo national park. Worth the airfare to Madagascar on its own, the diversity and beauty of the scenery coupled with high chances of wildlife sightings make it a must-see on any itinerary. As always, a guide is compulsory, but there are numerous hiking options available and the opportunity to target particular areas according to your interests.

The incredible thing about Isalo is how, in the space of one day, you can hike up and through vast canyons of grey stone, emerging at viewpoints stretching miles and teetering high above sheer drops, drop down to wander through lush green forest, and even stop off at cascading waterfalls for a dip in the chilly pools below. The landscapes we started and ended up in were a world apart, and completely unexpected.


The hiking itself wasn't particularly tricky, although the presence of my arch-nemesis, steps, combined with the ever-present blazing sun, made it hot work. A lot of the route was exposed, although without this we would not have had half the amazing views. As ever there was plenty of wildlife to keep us occupied if we could tear our eyes away from the landscape - chameleons hung below leaves, snakes slithered past us and birds circled high.


As we arrived at our lunch point, hot, sweaty but welcoming the shade of the thick forest, we were greeted by a whole troop of Ringtail lemurs, bravely edging closer to say hello. Draping the long silky tails that give them their names over low-lying branches, I spent ages quietly observing and photographing them as they carefully groomed each other before leaping to the ground and sitting in rows, tails hanging across their arms like handbags. Beautiful and inquisitive, only the smell of a much needed lunch could drag me away.


As we set out the food, some more visitors popped up, this time in the form of Brown lemurs hoping for a bite. Keeping our lunch out of their grasp turned into a game, as they crept forward slowly, before quickly scurrying away once we'd spotted them. At one point we were surrounded - lemurs perched on the rock next to my head, on the branches barely skimming the tops of our heads, and sitting patiently beside the table. Although cute, it was sad to think that some visitors must feed them to be so confident. Once the food had been cleared away and we were no longer on our guard, they leaped up onto the table, peering at us and sitting merely inches away.


With the sound of lemurs in the background, we scrambled across rocks to a couple of lovely waterfalls, huge spider webs stretched across above us, as we sank into the dark cool water before commencing our afternoon hike. Isalo truly was a wonderful place, and a real highlight of our travels in Madagascar.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Monday photo - 14th May


Today's Monday photo is courtesy of some cute kangaroos roaming wild in Australia. When planning my first trip to the country, many years ago, trying to spot these symbolic animals was high on the list. Little did I realise at the time quite how many of them there are. Instead of the desperate searching and keeping my eyes peeled at all times that I'd imagined, there they were, hopping around happily in parks everywhere.

Seeing them in their native country for the first time was still pretty exciting though...

Friday, 11 May 2012

A final bump in the road...


After the excitement/hell of the disastrous journeys to and from the Tsingy, we were looking forward to flying south and having a couple of days relaxing in coastal towns. I imagined myself, drink in hand, admiring the pleasures of a Malagasy beach, taking jaunts to explore the unusual vegetation of the area. Alas, it was not to be, with one final problem still in store before smooth sailing for the rest of our travels.

We arrived at the airport after barely three hours sleep, checked our bags and hopped on the plane. It was a multi-stop journey, heading first to Antananarivo before moving on back south. Only as the plane was preparing for take-off were we informed that Antananarivo would in fact be the final destination, and we would find out there when we could catch a plane south. On arrival, we combined our French to figure out that there wasn't another plane leaving until the following evening, and we would be put up overnight in a nearby hotel.


Off we went, grateful that we were fortunate enough to have three weeks in the country, and therefore time to spare. Another couple we met whilst hanging around at the airport were less lucky - like the tour group we'd come across, they had been forced to abandon their trip to the Tsingy, and now were losing their time at the coast. The following evening we were back at the airport, checked our bags in, and waited. And waited. And then waited some more. The hours ticked past, and no information was forthcoming. Finally the tanoy crackled into life, and our fears were confirmed - there would be no flight that evening, as the plane had broken down. It was now almost midnight, we had to collect our bags and queue to get a place in another hotel.

Finally, the following day, we caught our flight - three days late. On the upside, we met a lot of interesting and friendly people in the airport, and heard much worse stories than ours involving the ridiculously unreliable Air Madagascar, as a result considering ourselves remarkably lucky!

A little more time in Antananarivo than we'd expected!
I know the past few blog posts haven't painted the greatest picture of our travels in Madagascar, but I promise that it was just a small part of the overall journey and it really is sunshine and rainbows from here on out (well, Lemurs and waterfalls anyway). But it's worth knowing that travelling through Madagascar can be challenging, and requires patience and a bit of spare time left aside for sudden changes of plan. As a French traveller we met said quite succinctly: 'If people want adventure, then here it is!'

My advice? Don't fly Air Madagascar (or 'Air Maybe' as everyone seemed to call them), unless you really have to. Unfortunately this means foregoing domestic air travel in the country, which adds lots more time onto journeys. However, having spoken to many other travellers whilst hanging around, every single one had at least one major delay or cancellation, which would in fact have made overland the quicker option.

We'd made it at last though, and were ready for the second half of our trip: exploring the sensational national parks, which definitely makes it all worth while!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Exploring the Tsingy and the second car journey from hell


After the trials of the previous day, we wanted to make the most of our time at the Tsingy, and so set off early. We met with a fantastic local guide who went above and beyond during the day to not only lead us through the maze of rock, but also explain the uses of medicinal plants along the way, and entered the national park.

Although we'd seen many photos of the Tsingy when researching the trip, nothing could compare to actually being there. The sharp, jagged limestone spikes rose high into the air, silvery-grey and shining in the bright sunlight. Between the towers, bright green vegetation grew, making it seem like we were looking out over a vast forested mountain range.


Although the peaks of the Tsingy are most often the main focus for photographers, the maze below is just as interesting. We wove through tall canyons and squeezed into tiny gaps, clambering over boulders and edging our way along narrow ledges. It's a very physical day - climbing high up to a view point before descending back to the cool of the shaded floor, and then repeat over and over again - but not exhausting or technically difficult. Our tour finished with a walk through the forest close to the entrance of the Tsingy park, learning about the local plants and catching sight of snakes and chameleons.


In the evening we had dinner in the local village with our guide - the house we ate in seemed to be the entertainment hub (in that it had the only television), and when we arrived crowds of children were already gathering at the windows, squeezing forward in an attempt to get a better viewing spot. A DVD of music videos blasted at full volume out of the small TV as the younger population of the village sang along, enthralled. The creamy coconut curry was delicious, a lovely way to end the day.


The following morning we were up at 4am, allowing ourselves plenty of time for the return journey. Despite the absence of rain since we'd arrived, the track was still heavily flooded, and the first part of journey very closely resembled our arrival, digging the 4x4s out of muddy holes and towing them at times, hoping desperately that everything would hold (as they were beginning to look quite bashed). The return journey took merely 9 hours this time (as compared to the 12 before), but the heat was blistering so we were glad to stop for lunch and a cold drink. Unfortunately we still had some distance to go, as we were driving on to Morondavo in order to catch an internal flight the following day to the south of Madagascar.

After re-fuelling (both ourselves and the car!) we set off for a ferry crossing and then the final few hours of driving. And that's when it got really exciting/terrifying.


Due to a delay in the arrival of the ferry, it was beginning to grow dark as we started the second half of the drive. Thick forests reared up on either side, and at times the road crossed small, barely visible bridges over fast-flowing rivers. After a while, day-dreams clearing as I came to my senses, I suddenly realised that it was much darker than it should have been - in fact, I could barely see the road. And why was our guide hanging out of the window?

Naturally, the car lights had failed. We were driving in the dark, late into the evening, on a poor quality road through forest, and using a small head-torch to lead the way. With 80km left to go. Our driver crept forward, slower and slower, watching out for the many sudden bridges. Kilometres crawled by at a snail's pace, and at last the car broke down completely, the battery gone, with more than 40km remaining and nothing in sight.

Luckily, another 4x4 arrived not long after, and the drivers and guides stood hunched over the bonnet, trying to fix our car. The other vehicle had experienced problems too, and their battery was close to failing. After an hour of head-scratching and sympathetic noises, the drivers were running out of ideas, and decided to try swapping the batteries. By some miracle, our battery came to life in the other car (but still no lights), so we all jumped in/on, leaving our 4x4 by the road side, and made the remaining distance with a combination of luck and multiple head-torch batteries. We arrived after 2am, and immediately fell into bed...


Monday, 7 May 2012

Monday photo - 7th May


A common truth about travellers is that whilst we will venture to the extremities of the world for new experiences, we often forget about those directly on our doorstep. Despite my obsession with ancient cultures and the artifacts they have left behind, it was only three years ago that I finally made it to Stonehenge, arguably one of the most recognisable images of the UK.

I'd braved strong winds to find obscure stone circles in the depths of Wales, had waded through heather to see petroglyphs in Yorkshire, and ticked off castles the length and breadth of the country. And yet I'd never made it to the mother of all monuments, which lies just a few hours up the motorway.

Finally, on a wet and wildy windy December morning, I made the trip and arrived at the site, the weather keeping most other visitors away. The great stones impressed me in the way I knew they would, standing proud on the otherwise bare plain. Although some of the atmosphere is lost as a result of the dominant barrier preventing visitors from getting too close, the sheer impact of the site cannot be denied.

It's a worthy reminder that although the rest of the world will always draw me with its many attractions, there's also plenty at home to occupy me too. 

Friday, 4 May 2012

Mud, mozzies and allergies - One very long day in Madagascar


Finishing the boat trip, we had one night in a nearby hostel before setting off on the second part of our travels in the west - to the famous 'Tsingy' rock formations, sharp spikes of limestone which feature on many images of Madagascar. Upon arrival, we were a little dismayed to find a serious bug infestation in our room (solved relatively quickly with the help of our good friend Deet), and very little running water, although as it was the only open accommodation in town, we sucked it up and splashed ourselves clean before heading down to dinner.


As we settled down to eat, a whole troop of 4x4s pulled up outside the restaurant, passengers jumping out desperately seeking rooms for the night. As one man queued at the fridge for a cold drink, sweaty and exhausted, he turned to us, remarking that we'd got back in good time. Confused, I explained that we had been on the boat trip, and were new in town. We were only staying overnight before travelling on to the Tsingy.

'Ahhhhh', he said, sighing. 'So you haven't heard then?'


For the next few minutes, I sat, heart sinking, as he described his day. Heading along the non-road to the Tsingy, a trip that should take no more than four to six hours, they'd come across the results of an extremely heavy rain of a few nights past. The huge holes and dips in the 'road' had filled with water, forming incredibly muddy lakes. With no way around, the 4x4s had attempted to cross each one, but after hours of getting stuck, digging themselves out and getting stuck again a few metres on, they'd all admitted defeat and turned around. In fact, the road had been so bad that the passengers in the convey (part of the same tour group) had decided to skip visiting the Tsingy altogether.

Half an hour later we recounted the tale to our guide. His reply? 'The drivers must have been inexperienced. It's all fine. We'll get there, no problem'.


The following morning we were packed and in the car by 6am. Pushing the lack of interior furnishings and a non-working dashboard out of our mind, we set off, and for the first couple of hours everything seemed fine. Bumpy and uncomfortable, but fine. Once we'd left the main villages however, the lakes began to appear. Ranging from large puddles, which we crashed through easily, to deep muddy holes, which we didn't, the second half of the journey took over ten hours. It seemed like every few minutes we were jumping out of the car and pushing, mud spraying everywhere.


On occasion, we got seriously stuck, and were extremely lucky that another 4x4 was making the journey at the same time and we could tow each other, attaching chains to already damaged bumpers. Local villagers helped build 'bridges' with reeds hacked from nearby bushes and we waited in water which reached the tops of our thighs. At one point it took over an hour to dig our car out, our guides taking photos with their camera phones. The sun blazed above us, temperatures hitting almost 40 degrees around the car, and we were spending most of the day without any shade to seek shelter in. The mozzies swarmed around the stagnant water in clouds, F started exhibiting signs of sunstroke, and some minor itching on my hands and feet began to get worse the more time I spent in the filthy water. Small bumps appeared, and after a few moments of panic, they became more recognisable. It was clearly an allergic reaction - and there's only one thing in the whole world that I am allergic to - Nickel. A quick chat with our guide, and it was confirmed - Nickel is one of many metals mined in Madagascar, and has seeped into the already polluted soil and water. There was nothing I could do about it, although it was a relief to identify the cause.


Hours ticked past, and although the descending dark made it more difficult to dig out the car when we hit mud, it did give relief from the sun. Finally, we arrived at our destination, muddy and shattered, just hoping for a bed and a working shower. However, after the day we'd had, the gods clearly felt we'd earned a break, and our hotel turned out to be one of the nicest I've every stayed in. Huge private bungalows, gorgeous views and a swimming pool - and we were their first guests of the season!

The day had nicely summed up how travelling can be at times - challenging perhaps, but always with a reward at the end! Well, and major allergic reactions, but that's neither here nor there...