Botswana Trip

If you have landed here, it’s either because I’ve bored you rigid about photography and foisted the link on you directly, or you’ve googled something obscure like ‘Botswana and Tatooine’ and are wondering what goggles to pack for your own trip.

The TL;DR version: no matter how long you are staying, pack for about 3 days. Assuming you don’t fancy 40 degrees Celcius in the shade and are going in winter, take a wind-proof coat, a warm hat, and something to cover your nose and mouth. Maybe not goggles though: the lions will assume you’re an idiot and bite your head off.

Packing and Clothes

Packing for this trip turned out to be something of an art form. As most of the camps in the Okavango Delta are very remote you will likely need to travel by light aircraft, which imposes a 20kg total luggage limit; the bags also have to be soft, so no wheelie cases. If the planes are busy (ours weren’t), you can look forward to being weighed with your bags. I’m not entirely sure what happens if you exceed a limit on a busy flight. Maybe you have to travel on your own when you’re thinner.

My camera bag weighed 7kg, which left me with a bit of a struggle to pack everything else in.

I bought a 50 litre holdall which turned out to be a little small, coming in at 9kg fully packed, with enough spare capacity to buy a postcard or a nice sheet of A4. I really regretted not taking a GoreTex shell that I didn’t have room for. The temperature for the morning drives was around 10 degrees Celcius, which started to feel pretty bloody cold after half an hour: while my clothes were warm enough, they weren’t wind-proof. The jeeps at different camps were kitted out with a variety of blankets, fleecy ponchos (if you’ve gotten past the part where you might get weighed in front of the pilot and the other passengers, you can see that these trips don’t really cater for your vanity) and blankets. I took a peaked cap, but could have done with something warmer. I also missed the part where our travel agent recommended taking lip balm. I expect my lips will grow back at some point.

All of the camps we stayed at do laundry to accommodate the luggage limitations; you may need to wash your smalls though. I guess close encounters with apex predators might have some unintended consequences in that department. It’s a weird thing to get your head around, but you probably only need to pack for about 3 days, regardless of how long you’re staying.

Now we get on to the juicy part: what to wear.

Oh. My. God.

Lots people were dressed like… Let’s say a paratrooper crossed with Crocodile Dundee – except that they were mainly in their 60s and and from Surrey. I admit that I packed what I jokingly call my high performance trousers, a pair of middle-age affirming Rohans that I bought nearly 20 years ago. These have been quite useful for other trips down the years as they are fast drying (or what the Rohan blurb would probably call something like ‘UV activated surfactant wicking’, under a picture of someone rugged pointing meaningfully at the horizon). For this holiday, the most active we got was climbing into the jeeps. If your trousers need to be fast drying, it’s most likely because you spilled some white wine on them.

None of the big cats can see in colour [well, they have very limited colour perception], so wearing your army issue greens and browns is largely pointless. I asked two of our guides about this separately and they both agreed. One, a former soldier, joked about having to take cover. If your last line of defence is pattern dispersal, you’re screwed. The only rule is ‘not very bright’: if you are shuffling around in the jeep in your disco shirt, it may break the illusion that the vehicle is a single entity which the cat will ignore. Other colours may have a bearing on insects: wearing black will obviously make you sweat like one of these:

Warthogs – ISO 200; F5.6; 1/250 second

The final packing observation is about dust. The delta is in the Kalahari Basin so everything that isn’t wet is covered in a very fine sand, and it gets everywhere. We saw a few people wearing the sort of masks you see cycle couriers wearing. I saw one person who was wearing a mask, untinted skiing goggles, a hat and a scarf wrapped over everything. If you can imagine a Tusken Raider with an expensive jacket and a Nikon… I ended up improvising with one of my wife’s scarves. The dust is quite abrasive: I’ve noticed that Touch ID on my iPhone has stopped recognising my thumb print on my right hand, which has worn down to nothing. It’s probably not very good for you over the long term.

Kit: Wins and Fails

I brought two lenses: a 24-105L and my 100-400L. I also took my 1.4x extender, which I used for a couple of bird shots and the aard-animals (which I’ll come back to), which we couldn’t get close to. Having to focus manually with it is a pain in the arse. I could have left the walkabout lens at home. My wife’s OnePlus has a fantastic camera, and I was conscious of getting dust on the sensor with changing lenses. I’m going to get my camera body serviced at some point over the summer. I must have taken it in and out of my bag hundreds of times over the course of the holiday to try to minimise the dust exposure, but it’s got to have been affected by it.

One piece of kit that served me particularly well was a pair of noise cancelling Bose earphones which I’d researched, and bought in Duty Free on the way out – QuietComfort 20s. They were fantastic for the flights (particularly the small planes). The camps we stayed in were universally noisy at night – both wildlife and, at Kanana, some sort of generator or water heater. I’m a light sleeper so they were a godsend.

The biggest fail was inconsequential but amusing: my FitBit. With the shaking around on game drives I got credited with tens of thousands of steps that I didn’t take. On one record breaking day that I barely walked the length of myself I apparently clocked up 29k.

Masuwe Camp, Zimbabwe

We flew into Jo’burg with Virgin Atlantic, our first time on a 787. I was particularly taken with the button to tint the windows instead of having an old school sliding shutter. It also managed to land in ‘mist’ (which in this case is a euphemism for ‘fog’): we were told we were making a ‘special landing’ (that got our attention!), which required us to turn off all electronic equipment, including kit already in flight mode. The continuing mist then caused a 3 hour delay to our hop to Vic Falls airport in Zimbabwe. The queuing for visas there was farcical: you really need to know in advance what you want [we needed a Kaza visa for Zambia] and it was fairly apparent that most people didn’t.

Our guide picked us up and drove us to Masuwe Camp. We were the only guests there for the two nights we stayed, and it was fantastic. We dumped our bags and went straight out on a game drive, where we saw some elands (massive antelopes) which are a little uncommon, and then came back for dinner. I think the chef was bored: he really pushed the boat out.

Giant Elands

The reason the video above is quite grainy is because it was sunset, which is way past my long lens’ bedtime.

The camp has an artificial water hole which attracts a range of animals (mainly elephants and buffalo). It was good fun sitting up on the balcony watching the passing traffic.


View from the balcony at Masuwe – ISO 100; F9; 1/160 second

No cats though. We had a couple of raiding parties: vervets. Our first morning, they stole the jam from our table and, on the second, the toast. On the latter occasion I tried shooing the thing off with my napkin. It paused for a heartbeat and mentally went ‘yeah, right’, and ignored me, picking up the slices it had knocked onto the ground one at a time. I know from previous holidays that they’re dangerous, so I was pretty half-hearted about it.

We did wonder if they saved any of the jam from the morning before…

All of the camps we stayed in had a policy of accompanying the guests to their rooms after sundown. I initially thought this was a bit of theatre, up until the point on the first night when we couldn’t get back to our room because a buffalo decided to come and have a drink from the swimming pool.

On our first full day we had a trip to the falls (which were breathtaking), which we followed with a walk across the border for an hour in Zambia. One of the guys in work (Andre) has been to 120 countries, so I’m determined to clock up as many as we can! Anyway, apart from a fantastic view of the falls from a bridge on the other side of the border, it was a bit sketchy: a very hard sell from a couple of hawkers who walked with us for about 5 minutes. It was just the right side of threatening.

We rounded off our last full day in Zimbabwe with a pleasant enough – by which I mean boozy – boat trip on the Zambezi. Wildlife-wise it was a mix of hippos and birds.


Hippo – ISO 250; F5.6; 1/500 second
Cormorant, about to launch – ISO 800; F5.6; 1/400 second

A bee eater (not eating a bee, the shithead) – ISO 250; F5.6; 1/320 second

Chobe Elephant Lodge, Botswana

We had a short drive across the border, via Kasane airport, to our next lodge which was just outside the Chobe national park. The routine there was the same for the rest of the holiday: up before 6; breakfast at half past; out for the first drive; back for about 11:30; lunch at midday; break until 3 (because it’s hot enough even at this time of the year to reduce the animal activity); ‘high tea’, and then out for the second drive or boat trip.

Baboon kitten (possibly not the right term) – ISO 200; F5.6; 1/250 second

We had our first lion encounters in Chobe, which was fascinating. We also had an obscured view of them munching on something unlucky on our second day. Towards the end of our stay we had a pretty interesting boat trip, the highlight of which was watching a small herd of elephants crossing the Chobe river.

River crossing – ISO 200; F8; 1/400 second

Tidying up – ISO 200; F5.6; 1/160 second

This cracked us up: it’s a group of young elephants ‘head-waggling’: our guide said that when they are this young they have trouble controlling their heads because of how heavy they are. I’ve subsequently googled it and there may be other explanations…

…regardless, it reminded me of this:

Fast forward to about 1:16
Giraffe (partially deflated) – ISO 100; F5.6; 1/640 second
Buffalo: short-sighted, grumpy and a baked potato where their brain should be –
ISO 100; F5.6; 1/160 second

Okuti Camp, Botswana

After 3 nights in Chobe we had our first light aircraft transfer to the Delta. It was 55 minutes of sheer hell. My wife loved it. As a fairly nervous passenger at the best of times, I found that by the third one I’d got a bit more used to them, but I’ll never get to a point where I enjoy them.

Lilac crested roller – ISO 100; F5.6; 1/800 second

The Okuti camp was absolutely stunning. We ended up staying in a family unit – basically a permanent tent-like structure, with a balcony looking onto a lagoon. We’ve been lucky enough to stay at some pretty fancy places down the years, and Okuti was right up there with the best of them.

Hyena mother with pup – ISO 160; F8; 1/640 second
Now be honest Mum: did you actually wash your face this morning? ISO 160; F5.6; 1/1250 second

The staff were amazing. On our last night, we were surprised with a private dining experience – they had set up a table on one of the remote parts of the raised walkway around the camp, surrounded in candles – to celebrate a significant birthday my wife had a few months back. We hadn’t mentioned it, so it must have been passed on by our travel company. It was a really nice touch. So we ate our fantastic meal and drank champagne, listening to hippos grumbling and vaguely wondering if it was safe.


Side-striped jackal – ISO 200; F5.6; 1/400 second

Kanana Camp, Botswana

Our last two nights were in Kanana, via a 25 minute flight on a 5 seater Cessna. That suffered from the strangest turbulence I’ve ever encountered. Imagine sitting in an old mini, which is suspended – and swinging wildly from – a rope, but 4.5k feet in the air. Once again, my wife loved it.

The nutter.

Kanana is in a private concession. This was a new one on me: it means the guides are allowed to drive off-road. The animals are still completely free to wander: the only fences are there to try to keep the larger creatures out of the camp.

The already-impressive game moved up a notch at this place.

Hello, gorgeous – ISO 160; F5.6; 1/400 second
Say ‘ah’ –
ISO 160; F5.6; 1/640 second

This is one of my favourite photos from the trip:

Painted wolf (AKA African wild dog) –
ISO 500; F8; 1/800 second
Lovers’ tiff – ISO 160; F7.1; 1/500 second

The Aard-animals

I’m going to include a couple of shots that aren’t great, but which are of animals that are less common to see. First up we have the aardwolves, having an intimate moment in a not particularly intimate location (i.e., in plain sight):

Aardwolves – ISO 250; F9; 1/800 second (with extender)

I’d never heard of these before – I think they look a bit like a science project that went a bit wrong. We were quite a long way from the loving couple. With the 1.4x extender, I’ve found that adjusting the focus while holding the shutter release down (firing off about half a dozen shots) generally gives some reasonable results. It’s not pin-sharp, but it’s the best I got.

Next up we have an aardvark:

Aardvark – ISO 2500; F5.6; 1/10 second

The sun was going down when I took this so I really pushed the ISO. I jammed the camera into the arm rest on the jeep to keep it steady for the slow shutter. It’s ok, and about as good as I could have hoped for. They are odd looking spuds, got to be said.

…And home again

The trip home was a slog. A 25 minute flight – which my wife sat in the co-pilot’s seat for – on a light aircraft, which took us to Maun. From there we got on a reassuringly large SA Airways flight back to Jo’burg. That flight was notable for having the most bizarre food we’ve had since our fruit salad with prawns on an internal flight in Vietnam 10 years ago. I had cold meatballs, served with what appeared to be minced up pasta mixed with coleslaw.

Yum.

The flight from Jo’burg was long but uneventful. And so we are back in the startlingly grey Blighty, fatter than when we left, and talking about nothing except the wildlife, the hospitality and the downright fabulousness of Botswana.

I’ll add a few more pics and videos when I get round to it.

Hello Laos, Cheerio Aperture

We got back from our latest long haul trip at the end of January. I normally try to write up our interesting trips as quickly as I can while I can still remember everything, but I’ve been migrating off my old Mac Pro – or more specifically, Aperture – which has turned into a pretty torturous affair. As it’s also something that has a direct bearing on the photos I’ll be embedding in this post, I’ll make a few comments on it. With the demise of Aperture landing at some point, I imagine there are a lot of people planning a similar move.

The long and short of it is that you have a few choices with your library under management with a view to moving, and – beyond the obvious, like organising your source files in a sensible directory structure – they all revolve around what to do with your edited files. You can either save them as separate duplicates files into the same library and live with the repeats, you can store them separately and live with the disconnect, or you can throw them away. After a lot of messing around I chose the final option.

This sounds draconian, but most of the changes I was making in Aperture were pretty minor – just topping and tailing exposure settings. There are a couple of exceptions to that, and the first is portraiture: I’ve tended to put a lot more effort into those. However they tend to be one-offs: I find I work on them at the time, send them to people, and then don’t really think about them again. I still have all of my original Aperture files backed up on a cloud service, so I have a few months to make up my mind as to whether or not I care; for now, I don’t think I do. The other exception is HDR but the Nikor plugin for Aperture that I was using saved the resulting merged file back as a Tiff, so I’ve got all of those.

If you are planning on a more sophisticated approach, like import tools, don’t bet the farm on it. I couldn’t get LightRoom’s offering to work.

It appears that I’m not alone in finding the subscription model that Adobe is applying to Lightroom unpalatable, and paying a perpetual license for the never-to-be-updated-again version amounts to swapping one timebomb for another, so I’m trying a couple of the alternatives that have sprouted up. The one I like best so far is On1, which has much more sophisticated editing features than Aperture [something of a mixed blessing], and won’t break the bank.

One final comment before I get onto the trip. I made a mistake over the 8 year period that I was running Aperture on the same machine. As I ran out of space I added a couple of SSDs as I went along, and decisions I made that seemed like a good idea at the time – in terms of splitting up my photos – were messy to retrace years after the fact. If it happens again, I’ll deposit READMEs for myself as a memory aid.

Anyway, on with the trip. The numbers of photos we took were well down by recent holidays’ standards: I took less than 400 and my wife took 275. There were a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a low key destination for wildlife. I sweated blood over what lenses to take to Cambodia a couple of years ago, and ended lugging around everything, including my 100-400, which I used precisely never. So this time I took a more conservative approach: I packed my wide lens, my 24-105 and 100mm macro. I forgot my dust blower, which made me wary of getting dust on the sensor [a bloody nuisance to clone out after the fact] so, barring a couple of half-hearted, half-drunk HDR sessions with 16-35, I kept my walkabout pretty much nailed on the whole time we were there. That meant I could take a much smaller bag – annoyingly, still too big to put under the seat in front of me on the Thai Airlines flight. It was an A380, and the cabin service was pretty decent [putting Air France to shame on our last long haul with them], but the seats had an odd configuration. There was a metal container along the side of one of the legs in front which, never mind my bag, meant that we couldn’t put our legs out straight for the flight. Bearing in mind that we’re both at the smurf end of the height distribution, it was pretty uncomfortable. I’ve a feeling that the metal boxes may have contained life jackets, so I guess we can file those under “necessary compromises”. So I ended up doing what I hate: putting my camera bag in the overhead storage and then having kittens every time someone goes near it.

The second reason for the low exposure count was that I got a camcorder for Christmas. I’m not going to post the results here because, frankly, I’m rubbish.

We flew in via Bangkok. The only point worth passing comment on is the fact that Bangkok airport is furiously expensive. Our layover was about 4 hours so once we’d figured out the puzzling procedure for transferring without a boarding card, we could relax and try to stay awake. Then we had a couple of hours on a twin prop plane into Luang Prabang airport, which was painful getting out of. There was an incomprehensible – well, with jet lag descending – queuing system for the visas, which flummoxed everyone, but which was endured in a good humoured manner by everyone. The patience started to evaporate when we spent a good half hour at the baggage reclaim, getting dizzy watching the same bags going round, and wondering why there was a queue forming at a desk next to it. We eventually found out that the plane was unburdened by luggage for all the passengers who had transited via Bangkok. That was about half the plane we reckoned: you have to admire the even-handedness of it, if nothing else. One American lady was threatening litigation. The bags duly appeared at the hotel the same evening, so I doubt she’d have had a chance to dispatch her lawyer.

Our first pit stop was Le Sen Boutique in Luang Prabang, which we both really enjoyed. The room had an unusual layout, with an absolutely enormous bed right next to the bath. It also had two showers, which I think was a first for us, solving a problem which we didn’t know we had: who showers first. I think it also had the best breakfasts of the trip. Luang Prabang [I have to almost physically restrain myself from adding ‘Kipperbang‘] was a mixed bag. While it’s touristy, we had some absolutely cracking meals there.

On the whole, the food we had throughout the holiday was fantastic. Having been to the 3 countries comprising former French Indochina, based on our admittedly limited experience, I think I’d rate the food in Laos the best. It’s a combination of unusual flavours, and very heavy uses of herbs and spices. My predominant recollection of the food in Cambodia was that it tended to be quite sweet. The Lao food is closer to Vietnamese in style, but is very distinctive in its own right.

We ate in a place called the Coconut Garden on the first night [a bit simpler than subsequent nights but nice], then had a fairly fancy tasting menu at the 3 Nagas, and finishing in Tamarind on our last night. I’d rate Tamarind as one of the food highlights of the holiday.

We had an early start on our first full morning with alms-giving. Someone at work had done this a couple of years ago and said it was packed. We were the only tourists at the spot we were taken to, which was a little off the beaten track in a residential part of town. I have to say I had mixed feeling about participating. It felt like a bit of an intrusion, and it’s part of a faith that I know practically nothing about.

Glass Buddha

We spent rest of the morning walking around the town, the highlight of which was the local market [distinct from the night market]. Among the delicacies on sale were barbecued rats and squirrels. They look like any other cooked meat up to the point where you get to the head and feet, still attached, and with their teeth queuing up to get out of their mouths. We passed: having been hospitalised on our last trip to SE Asia, we tend to be very conservative with the street food options.

That afternoon we drove up to the Kuang Si waterfall. It was quite busy, but it was a pleasant enough walk up there, and the falls themselves were spectacular. I enjoyed watching a bloke flying what seemed like a very fancy drone. I have to admit they are on a [very] long list of toys I’d quite like. But as my wife will attest to, I have  enough expensive hobbies to be getting on with, and there is a huge potential for expensive mistakes with them. They must make packing for holidays interesting. I could see myself with a choice between the drone and clothes.

Kuang Si

We had the next day to ourselves, and had a long walk from the hotel to the far end of town, which was a nice way of spending our last day while still wrestling with the jet lag.

Temple in Luang Prabang

The next day we flew to Vientiane, which we both really liked. My wife said that she could imagine herself living there. She didn’t say whether or not I’d be in tow her but I remain hopeful. But, as we told ourselves, it was the middle of winter. It would be a very different proposition when it’s 40C+ and in the middle of the rainy season. There was a really relaxed feel to the place, lots of interesting shops and big wide boulevards. I was tempted to buy an old, ornate opium pipe in an antique shop for all of about 10 seconds, up to the point when I realised that it might turn into an interesting discussion at customs on the way home. We didn’t have any excursions planned for our first day in the capital, so it was nice pootling around and taking in the sights and sounds.

Vientiane

The room we had in the Ansara Hotel was vast. It had its own office area, just in case we were missing work, and had access onto a large terrace overlooking the pool. I was quite taken with the little laptop in the office which was running Ubuntu in some sort of kiosk mode, something I’d never come across before. I had a bit of a poke around: it seemed to create a new user every time it rebooted, which was quite an interesting approach to privacy. A point lost on whoever used the machine before me [without rebooting] and who failed to clear their cache: nothing dodgy, just really careless.

Anyway, back to South East Asia…

Vientiane HDR

We had what my wife rated as her standout meal on our last night, in a spot called the Lao Kitchen. She was amused to overhear a scrotal old duffer [he was English] telling his other half at the table next to us, “that’ll be on bloody Instagram in a bloody minute”, when my wife took a picture of her food – for private consideration, I might add. Part of me can’t wait to get to that age where all sense of discretion and your ability to judge how loudly you’re talking simply sail off into the sunset. Off to meet your long-departed moderate political views, I might add.

I won’t think of it as “going on holiday” any more, but rather “going abroad to complain about all the bloody foreign stuff” :).

Our second and final day in Vientiane was taken up with a tour of some temples. Interesting enough, but wasted on me. From there, we started a long trip south on Route 13, which we’d continue for the rest of the holiday. Our first stop was at a place called the Spring River Resort in Hin Boun. It was a stunning location. The room itself was a little on the basic side [no air con; electricity off for the early part of the day], but it overlooked a river with steep limestone formations looming over the other bank. The jagged karsts dominated the views for much of the rest of the journey.

Spring River Resort

Despite having relatively basic facilities, the network at the Resort was fantastic – something that we found repeated throughout the country. One more quick aside on the technology front, which really made me giggle: my iPhone wasn’t exactly tying itself down too much with the location for the weather:

The weather in the general vicinity of…

For what it’s worth, I’ve played around with the Google API that takes GPS coordinates and turns it into an address. This looks like a backing off of accuracy, based on address availability, taken to an extreme level.

It was a shame that we only had one night at the Resort because we really enjoyed it, but the main purpose of the stay was to break the journey so we could do a tour of the Kong Lor cave. It was really good fun: unlike our crystal maiden experience, we had full access to cameras, but I bottled out and left my SLR at home. The cave itself is huge [so even the flash would have been a waste most of the time] with most of the trip covered in a motor boat going at full tilt. The site could do with some more development: everywhere we pointed the head- and hand torches there were interesting rock formations, but we spent the majority of the hour or more we were in the cave in the dark, hoping that the guy driving the boat knew where he was going, and when to slow down.

Our next stop was in a town called Thakhek, which had a wild west vibe, and had what was probably the worst of the hotels we stayed in – the Inthira. It wasn’t terrible, it was just that the staff were almost universally miserable, and the food was a bit pants. Still, there was a decent little bar in the square across the road, where the beer was cheap and ice cold. Slightly incongruously, we had fantastic pizza on our last night there at a spot called Patalai.

Thakhek

We had one full day of sightseeing when we were in Thakhek, which started around a village called Ban Nakhang Xang in the morning. It was the closest that we came to something going wrong for the entire trip – other than the errant luggage – when a local guide failed to materialise for the first half hour. The walk started at the village, and quickly became quite steep via an overgrown path, at which point the shorts and sandals were starting to seem like a bad idea. After passing by a lake called Nong Thao, which was stunning, we ended up at our second cave, called Nong Paseum. It was occasionally a bit hairy clambering up and down over boulders, but interesting enough. Our final underground adventure was that afternoon, with a trip to the “Buddha Cave” at Nong Pa Fa. It was spectacular, but as an active Buddhist religious site, no cameras were allowed.

The last leg of the holiday started with another long drive down Route 13 to Champasak. We were staying at a hotel called The River Resort. The staff were fantastic, but it was very pricey. We ended up spending more in our 3 nights there than we did during the rest of the holiday combined. It has to be said it was a spectacular location, right on the bank of the Mekong.

Next up on the itinerary was the “4,000 island tour”. My wife was starting to feel the pace by this stage so decided to sit it out. A white lie that she wasn’t feeling well [rather than just saying she needed an idle day by the pool] started to take on a life of its own when our guide insisted on telling the every staff member at the hotel to look after her. Meanwhile I was sheepishly saying that, really, she wasn’t that ill, all the while receiving withering glances for being a heartless bastard.

It was a physically demanding day, the best parts of which were the boat trips to and from the island of Don Khone. I could have taken or left the island itself: it was OK, but not really enough to warrant the long journey at that stage of the trip. Part of the day out involved transferring onto yet another boat to go and have a look at some fresh water dolphins. “Boat” is an evocative word, all sleek lines and sunglasses. By contrast, ours was a bloody wreck. I could see the water through a joint in the wood at the pointy end where I really don’t think you should have been able to. It was also incredibly uncomfortable, sitting on a slat a few inches high. We did see the dolphins but by that stage my back was so sore I could barely have mustered interest if they were doing somersaults, rather than just breaching the water every now and then.

Or as dolphins probably call it, “breathing”.

Mekong

Lippi Falls

Our last outing was a look around the Watt Phou temple complex. This was a highlight of the trip. It was scorching though: the further south we travelled throughout the fortnight, the hotter it was getting. There is a slog up some steep steps to the temple so it was tough going in, what I reckon was mid-30s Celcius the day we went up there.

Watt Phou

Watt Phou

We weren’t able to stay in the country as long as we liked, because all of the hotels that made sense for our itinerary were full at the end of the second week. So, we had a long drive starting in the early afternoon of the Thursday, from Champasak across the Thai border to a regional airport called Ubon Ratchathani. One notable experience on the drive: we started it on the right hand side of the road and then, after crossing the border on foot, we got back into the car and continued on the left. It was a first for us. Contrary to what I guessed at the time, it’s actually not that unusual. There are vast swathes of former British empire influenced countries were you can do it.

When we got to the airport, we’d been misled by a couple of little details with the online check-in process that you normally take for granted: the time and the flight number, neither of which were on the departure board. Not a great leap of faith in the end – we worked out that ours was a flight with the same company going 10 minutes earlier or later – but it got our attention for a while. One slight nuisance was that we had to get our luggage at Bangkok. We were debating whether or not we would have to go all the way out through customs and passport control, and whether we’d have enough time. We did, and we did.

So, that was our couple of weeks. We’ve talked about going to Laos off and on since we went to Vietnam back in 2008. It’s hard to put our feelings about the place into context without sounding like we’re damning it with faint praise, but it’s lower key than some of the other places we’ve visited in Asia. Cambodia left more of a mark on us, but that’s principally to do with visiting places which remind you of how utterly traumatic its recent history has been. And we did get spectacularly ill in Phnom Penh, which we won’t forget in a hurry. Rather than raving about it since we got home, we’ve been a bit more measured in our praise. But there was plenty to see, the food was great and people were really friendly. Well worth the trip.

Madagascar: Walking Flowers. Who Knew?

I guess when The Beeb and Attenborough have made a series about a country, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s going to be a humdinger of a place to visit. We got back from Madagascar on Friday afternoon, our tenth outing with the same company we’ve been using for all our long haul travel. I’ll cut to the chase: it was fabulous.

By the numbers:

  • Photos taken 1466 [me] and 683 [my wife]
  • Of which, keepers: lots. Seriously, if you can’t manage to get memorable pictures in Madagascar, it’s time to give up.
  • Kilometres covered by car: 1500.
  • Species of lemurs seen: 14.
  • Weight lost through illness: about 2kg.

I’ll start with that last point. Clearly, I upset some pagan poo gods by judging the phantom shitter on our Belize trip so harshly. I had the most sustained period of travel sickness that I’ve experienced to date. I only missed a day, but was under the weather from the third day and for about a week. My wife came down with it as well, but didn’t have it for quite as long as me. I jokingly put her stronger constitution down to her less literal enforcement of food best-before dates than me.

There were a couple of options for getting to Antananarivo [which, sympathetic to the world shortage in letter Ns, everyone calls Tana] but we ended up going via Paris. We had an overnight stay in a hotel about 10 minutes drive from the airport. The airport itself is pretty hectic: be prepared for enterprising ‘porters’ to descend on you and try to grab your luggage out of your hands – probably before you have any cash. While I think of it: there isn’t a great selection in duty free if you’re looking to get something last minute on the way back. It’s a similar sort of fare that you see in hotel shops. Oh, and if you’re transiting, be prepared to pay extra for a plastic bag that they staple shut for you – something I’d never come across before. As the 1 Euro represented 12% of the cost of the bottle of rum I was thinking about getting, I decided to skip.
Back to the itinerary. The next day we had two consecutive flights on the same plane – another first for us. First stop was Taolagnaro, and then we went straight on to Tulear, which is in the far south west corner of the country. We’d been warned by the travel company that there was a reasonable chance that our bags wouldn’t make the trip with us into Tana, and then that the internal flights might be rescheduled at short notice. Everything went really smoothly – in fact, the same could be said for the entire holiday. Every long haul trip we’ve had something has gone wrong. This was the first that the entire itinerary worked as planned.
We met our driver and guide for the rest of the holiday at Tulear [Yves and La La] who drove us to our next accommodation, called the Hotel Bakuba. It was a lovely place, something of an ongoing art project for the guy who runs it. That said, some of the features had practicality a little lower down the running order. Our room had a sunken seating area with a glass table in it, which I don’t think was really catering for the guest who might decide that a dozen postprandial Jager bombs are a good idea. It immediately made me think of this.

Mantrap

There was also a table with wildly splayed legs that we both stubbed our toes on every time we walked past it.

Fancy bed

It was undeniably top drawer accommodation but I couldn’t quite shake the sort of vibe you get in a bed and breakfast, because the couple who run it live there: you half-feel like you’re intruding when they are having dinner.
During our two night stay there we had a couple of outings, first to a spot called the Antsokay Arboretum, which was right next to the hotel, and then the Reniala forest. The Arboretum was an interesting enough hour but is really more for the gardening geek. Reniala gets you up close and personal to baobabs, which are fascinating.

baobab

From Tulear, we transferred to Isalo, and our next hotel, the Relais de la Reine, where we stayed for 3 nights. This, again, was pretty fancy: just the way the itinerary played out we had a gradual decrease in snazziness of accommodation.
It was in the Isalo national park that we had our first encounter with lemurs, specifically this little fella:

Hubbard’s  sportive lemur

Isalo is also one of your best chances to see sifakas doing their hoppity run along the ground – which brings me to another point. Travelling as we did at the start of July meant that we were right at the start of ‘shoulder season’ [which I’d never heard of before this trip]. It’s mid winter, so the animals are less active than pretty much any other time of the year. However, it also meant that the numbers of tourists around were very low. Probably the busiest of the parks that we went to was Ranomafana, where sightings are co-ordinated among the spotters and guides and so groups of people will coalesce when something interesting happens. I guess at one point we were up to about 15. Our guide said that during the high season, people are tripping over one another. We were told that the sifakas are most likely to hit the ground running in September to October but, given the propensity for the same ground to be covered with people, you’re extremely unlikely to see it.

Sifaka

The little bundle under this mum’s elbow is an infant:

Sifaka with infant

And another common brown lemur. I can’t help but anthropomorphise about this picture, that this guy is thinking ‘oh for God’s sake, get on with it, will you?’:

Grumpy common brown lemur

And so we get on to the title of this post: the ‘walking flowers’. I’d been ill for a couple of days by this stage and wasn’t feeling like the sharpest tool in the box. Our guide pointed a plant covered in white flowers and said, ‘have a look at these’. We’d never seen anything like them before and it took a while for me to notice that they were moving:

Flower bug

I’m not entirely sure which end is which. Needless to say, you don’t get them anywhere else except Madagascar.

Ring-tailed lemur

On our last full day we did a fairly long walk in the Namazaha Valley. It was supposed to be a 10km hike but my world was still being metered out in distances between toilets so we foreshortened it to about 6km in the end. Interesting spot, and a classic example of the arid environment in this part of the country.
The stones [centre left] in this picture are covering the entrance to a grave.

Isalo

On our last evening in Isalo, I was sitting outside the room when I noticed these weird shaped motes floating in the air. Given the recent experience with the flower bugs, I assumed that they were some sort of whacky insect, until one of them landed on me and I touched it with my finger:

Slash and burn

It’s hardly the most fascinating picture but it was quite a poignant one for me: it’s a piece of ash. ‘Slash and burn’ is a common agricultural technique in the country. We were told a fire got out of control a few years ago: it affected 60% of the Isalo park and killed all but two of the sifakas. You see a lot of fires as you are driving through the countryside.

We visited one other smaller reserve before we moved on, called Zombitse. It was ok: plenty of ring-tailed lemurs and chameleons in the mix but by this stage, unless the lemurs were species we hadn’t seen before or were doing handstands, it was time to move on. Despite the name, there were no zombies.

We had a long drive to our next venue, which was the Ranomafana national park and the Setam Lodge. We passed this along the way. I love this shot, which is pretty much straight out of the camera:

The sky from the start of the Simpsons

The change in the weather over the course of the day reflected our move out of the arid region and into rainforest. We had a very interesting night walk on the first evening with the highlight being a mouse lemur:

Mouse lemur

The guide got a banana and smeared it over the branch [which is the brown slimy stuff you can see in the shot]. You then hope that the smell attracts a lemur. It took a couple of goes as the first fishing expedition attracted a rat. Being Madagascar, you half expect the rats to have, I don’t know, wings and a handlebar moustache at the very least. Nope: they have plain old rats, just like everywhere else.

Anyway, the mouse lemurs are lightning fast: they run along the branch hoovering up the banana as they go. They are ridiculously cute. These and the bamboo lemurs look like the result of a conversation between a toddler and a cartoonist.

“Bigger eyes.”

“No problem.”

This is a baby long-nosed chameleon. It’s not a great shot but the conditions were pretty difficult: macro depth of field, at night, with the 2 inch long subject on a branch that was moving…

Baby long-nosed chameleon

The next day we had our physically toughest hike, which was about 8km over very hilly ground. Just on that point, in our experience I’d say it’s second only to Borneo, in terms of the physical demands of getting around in rainforest. That said, the temperature we had last week was low- to mid 20s. If you were covering the ground that we did in Ranomafana at the height of the summer, you’d have a real slog on your hands.

Ring-tailed mongoose

Golden bamboo lemur

Flat-tailed gecko

From Ranomafana we had another long drive to our final venue, which was the Eulophiella Lodge, next to the Andasibe national park. We broke the journey with an overnight stay in a guesthouse called the Maison Tanimanga in Antsirabe. That was notable for what I rated as the best meal of the holiday.

A quick aside about the grub before I get on to Andasibe. It’s French influenced, with every place we stayed in serving baguettes and croissants for breakfast.

  • Tulear had pretty decent food, but with the odd ‘miss’: like a zebu carpaccio starter which was frozen.
  • Relais de la Reine: very rich food, with lots of creamy sauces.
  • Setam Lodge: I’ve no idea. I was in full-on emergency mode and had boiled rice and vegetables for the entirety.
  • Maison Tanimanga: fabulous home-cooked French food.
  • Eulophiella: slightly simpler fare but still very nice.

Andasibe was the coldest of the places that we stayed, with the temperature down to 11C at night. I enjoyed this park the best, I think: it was slightly easier going and there was a fantastic variety of wildlife.

Velvet amity [I think]

Indri

Diademed sifaka

Nightjar [breeding pair – sleeping]

The last place we visited of note, which was on our way back to Tana was ‘Lemur Island’. It’s basically a mini-zoo built into the grounds of one of the fancier lodges in Antsirabe. Our guide was pretty diplomatic about it: it’s a for-profit affair, and the lemurs that are kept there don’t get rotated back into the wild. That said, where else in the world are you going to have a lemur jump on your head? They have 4 species: black and white ruffed, ring-tailed, common brown and bamboo. The ruffed and common brown like to get up close and personal, and the ruffed have particularly luxuriant fur. Once again, being out of season, we had the place to ourselves.

Golden bamboo lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur, and me. I’m on the right.

So that was our fortnight in Madagascar, and it really is an extraordinary place. You’ve got to hand it to that Attenborough fella: he really knows his onions.