A Guides Travails in Madagascar

By Euan John Edwards


Edwards, E.J. (2002). A Guides Travails in Madagascar. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, May 2002. (http://www.chameleonnews.com/02MayEdwards.html)

Introduction by the CHAMELEONS! staff:

Travel reports are fascinating and allow us to vicariously venture into the unknown. But this time we hear from the guide's point of view. Stuck in a land with two leaders and a looming economic crisis, he dodges potholes and roadblocks to deliver the simple pleasure of seeing a chameleon in the wild!

A Guides Travails in Madagascar

What an interesting couple of months it has been. I have lived in underdeveloped countries for a good percentage of my life and it always amazes me what can happen next. If anyone has wondered why these countries are underdeveloped, just live in one for a while. According to Murphy's Law, what can go wrong will go wrong and that is the case this time. During the summer months here in Madagascar quite a few people visit just to see chameleons in their natural habitat and this year was no different. Over the last couple of months, some folks from the USA and some from Europe wanted my help sorting out the logistics for them to visit and see as much as possible, in the shortest period of time, for the least amount of money. Not everyone was arriving at the same time, so I had to try to coordinate things to try and make the plans happen as comfortably as possible.

All the trouble started last December, in 2001, when Madagascar decided that Presidential elections were needed. On December 23rd they took place. As per normal in underdeveloped countries, things did not go as planned. But having said that, didn't they also had some hiccups in the USA Presidential elections recently. Anyway, here we have a man twenty-three years in power of military background facing off an opponent with little political experience from a business background. So who won, you ask??? Well, the answer still is, who knows. To this day (as of March of 2002) the results are still disputed. The locals in Antananarivo would not accept that, so they all went on strike, right when everyone was supposed to arrive. So now I have five people trying to arrive and nothing is certain. The planes stopped flying, then they started flying again, then one of the Air Madagascar planes was confiscated in Paris, and rumor grew further that three planes are now on hold. So what to do, what to do?

The first person from the USA, Trevor, arrived on time without a hitch, which was amazing, to say the least. Oh, it was very important for me as he was bringing the ultra-rare and unobtainable (in Madagascar) Salt & Vinegar Pringles. Life without Pringles is not life at all. The others travelers, due to arrive from Europe, were expected in a couple of days. So I figured, let me show the boy the town while he waits. I'll show him a discotheque to liven up the mood. After nine road blocks manned by locals with no authority; he was getting a little less in the mood. Then, at the last roadblock, we were asked to step out of the car to be frisked. Now just let me say Malagasy people are not very big. I was frisked first, no problem, I'm a little guy. Then Trevor gets out next and he is a little bigger, the little Malagasy looks up, smiles, mutters "Van Dam", quickly frisks him and sends us on the way. Oh, what we would do for a drink at that stage! Finally, in we walk to the disco and no one was there. No problem, let's sit down in the best seats, relax and have a drink. After a couple of hours, Antanarivo's best male and female workers of the night stroll in. Trevor looks at me; I smile, wink at my wife and have the last laugh. Next time I'll take him to a better place without the humorous inhabitants.

The drive home was fine. The roadblocks were mostly unmanned since the guards had all gone to sleep. As we turned down the last street there was a car, nose down in water. No problem, I figured it was just a little pothole and with a few helpers we would get it out. So, I jumped out of the car to have a closer look, and much to my amazement, it was a Toyota Land Cruiser nose down in the pothole. Now that is what you call a pothole. The owner was a little embarrassed being found drowning a Land Cruiser, the king of the 4x4's. We decided to leave our car on the side of the road and escorted the poor helpless driver to the local hotel.

Now, unbeknownst to me, the "thought to be" arrivees from Europe did not arrive the next day. I did the usual morning things, breakfast, read the paper, laugh about the confiscated plane and then headed off to the airport. Due to the blockage of the main road from the port of Tamatave there was no fuel readily available. So it had to be purchased out of plastic bottles on the side of the road from dubious looking characters. The airport is quite a distance from my house, so when we got to the airport to find out that not only the Europeans did not arrive, but also that the plane they were due to arrive on was the one that had been confiscated.

With my pockets feeling quite shallow, I decided to ask Air Madagascar if they would reimburse me for the lost fuel. This didn't even register a smile, frown or anything, some people have no sense of humor. The reality of the situation was that none of this would of happened if Air Madagascar had just paid their fuel bills in Paris. The fact that there was no functioning government here to pay the bills is beside the point.

So what to do, what to do? Let's go to the bush and not worry about the Europeans, if they arrive, we will come back and get them. Anyway, the more time I'm in the bush, the happier I am. So we visited those plastic bottles on the side of the road, handed over $150USD (1,000,000 FMG) and off we went.

Andasibe here we come, oh well, the next morning anyway. We were off to a cracking start, 8:00am is early enough. On the way, we briefly stopped at Mandraka, but decided to push on. Our next stop was Marozevo Park, run by Andre Peyrieras. Here we could cheat and see lots of reptile stuff in captivity before the big night out. Improvements there were slowly coming into effect, which was pleasing to see. There were still some overfilled small cages with little beasties and things. But up in the back was a new huge walk-in chameleon cage. Each tree had a chameleon sitting there waiting to be photographed. Now me, I get bored seeing things in captivity, so I just sat and watched Trevor clicking away for hours. Eventually, after he had photographed every chameleon a zillion times, we headed off to our real destination.

Andasibe is only 150 kilometers east of Antanarivo, but takes two and a half hours driving straight through and all day when you stop to look at everything on the way. So we got there in the afternoon, no sense rushing things. We all climbed out of the car to startled builders to ask if the hotel was open. Yes, of course it was open, we were just the only people, that's all. Who would risk flying into a country with everything up in the air with no disposable fuel, drive 150kms to see a few sticks with leaves on them, oh and the few beasties floating around. Well, we were here, so that settled it, open the kitchen, we were hungry and in need of food. But then along came a minibus full of French tourists to dullen the mood. Time to get moving.

We decided to cruise on down to the guide center and find a guide for tonight's foray into the chameleon filled forests. Would there even be any guides? Maybe they had all packed up and gone back to tilling rice paddies as the only occupation still available. Luckily, there were three guides forlornly moping around the guide center. OK, so down to business, we needed a guide for as long as it takes to search for chameleons that night. How much??? Whoops! Hang on; we have to ensure we didn't get the bad guide. A guide took a researcher from Germany for a ride, so we had to make sure that we got one that was honest. We figured out who was who and didn't use the guide that was being black listed. Ha, he was the one looking the sorriest for himself, maybe next time he will think before he tries to cheat the brotherhood of herptile idiots. So, with a guide found, fees discussed, meeting time finalized, species requested mentioned, we headed back to the hotel for food.

We finished the food and left the women and kids at the hotel, heading off for the serious business of chameleon finding. As we pulled up to get the guide, that darn pesky Trevor spotted the first chameleon from the back seat. I'm in the front, I'm supposed to see them first. Out we get and there, hanging onto the end of a tree fern leaf, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere is a juvenile Calumma brevicornis. Right, out with the cameras, on with the flash brackets, in with the flash cables, angle the flashes right, get ready, and wait, the darn chameleon has decided to jump off the leaf. Ok, put him back and lets try again, a couple of frames later we are off to Mantadia Park, home to loads of little and big beasties, just what the doctor ordered.

After a few kilometers of driving and not seeing a thing we came to the track we were to walk along. Out with the camera gear again, this time it is already assembled, so on with the walking shoes. The first thing we spotted was a bird sitting on it's lonesome. Bird watching is normally a daytime sport, but tonight was to prove that the unexpected does happen. We cruised along the track with the guide out front to leading the way as we followed behind to locate any beasties missed. The first chameleon was sitting on a branch overhanging a small swamp, what it was we have no idea as we would have to hack a way through he scrub to see, and that is a no no. After walking along the trail some more we found a small Calumma gastrotaenia hanging off the very tip of a leaf. C.gastrotaenia proved to be quite common during the evening's stroll. This season's babies were only a couple of centimeters long. The reason we were in Mandatia was to find Calumma malthe; we managed to find a couple ranging from this season's young to adults. We found one adult female C. malthe with a mosquito sucking the life out of it. The next chameleon species we found was an adult male Brookesia therezieni on the end of a bare twig around knee high, overhanging the path. Some frogs were also seen as we were in Mantadia.

So, after a few hours strolling through Mantadia Park, it was time to head back to Analamazaotra Park to see what was about there. Unfortunately, the next couple of hours only involved plodding along, trying to keep awake. There was not much to see, so we were wearing out quickly. We did manage to find a large female Calumma brevicornis, with its tail twisted around a bit, on the path leading into the forest. There we also found several of the now mundane C.gastrotaenia. But luckily, half way around the track, we found a half-grown female Calumma parsonii cristifer, just in time to finish off the walk with a positive end. So, in one night's walk of six hours, we were able to see five different species of chameleons.

The next morning we headed back to Antananarivo to see if the Europeans had arrived and to plan more opportunities to search for chameleons.

Euan John Edwards

Euan John Edwards has travelled to over fifty countries to see animals in the wild. He has a keen interest in all forms of wildlife and natural history and presently makes his home in Madagascar.


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