Voyage to Madagascar with Mauritius, Reunion, Comoros & Zanzibar
Published on Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - Mauritius: Today we gathered at Sugar Beach Resort, located on the southwest coast of Mauritius. Our setting had spectacular views of the island’s rugged volcanic landscape, with contrasting serenity of the beachscape viewed directly from our rooms. A sense of anticipation for our island voyage to Madagascar loomed in the vastness of the sea.
We met our fellow travelers for cocktails on the lawns of the resort before enjoying dinner. Weary from our long journeys and knowing the next day required an early rise, the call of bed bade us not to linger long over coffee and tea.
Wednesday, February 22 - Mauritius / Embark Clipper Odyssey: After a sunrise breakfast, the birders set off in search of the avian endemics of Mauritius, which include some of the world’s rarest birds. The first stop was the lower reaches of Black River Gorges National Park, which revealed a single pink pigeon and a pair of Mauritius kestrels, both once considered critically endangered but now benefiting from intensive captive breeding programs. A stroll near Bassin Blanc produced Mauritius olive white-eyes and fly-by sightings of the echo parakeet.
The non-birders enjoyed a lie-in, before an exploration of the island. From the rim of our first stop, the Trou-aux-cerfs crater, we had sweeping views of the island. From there we drove to Grand-Bassin, where a small cup of Ganges water had been poured into the lake to make it a sacred pilgrimage site for Mauritian Hindus.
The road climbed up the slopes of another extinct volcano with magnificent views of the flatlands below. Our lunch stop at Varanguesur Morne provided us with a delicious taste of Creole cuisine and spectacular views to the Indian Ocean. The museum there gave us insight into the precious ebony, its slow development, and the many uses made of this beautiful hardwood by Mauritians.
After lunch we visited the Chamarel Waterfall and the seven-colored earths of Chamarel, believed to have resulted from the weathering of volcanic material. The soft mounds of colored earth looked like delicious scoops of ice cream.
On board the Clipper Odyssey we were shown to our cabins and unpacked or explored the ship before the mandatory safety drill, dinner, and bed.
Thursday, February 23 - Réunion: This morning we docked at St. Denis on Réunion Island, a French Territory in the Indian Ocean. A band of hardy birders tackled the muddy trail up Roche Ecrite, high in the mountains above St. Denis, and returned to the ship triumphant after spectacular sightings of Réunion paradise flycatcher, Réunion stonechat, and Réunion harrier, all species found nowhere else on the planet.
Those going on the full day island tour followed shortly. Our guides explained the history of Réunion Island as we drove towards what is claimed to be the most active volcano in the world, the 500,000-year-old Piton de la Fournaise.
Our first stop was Nez le Boeuf, providing a breathtaking view down the valley, once deeply carved by molten lava pouring from the volcano’s crater. From here we continued climbing to 7,582 feet above sea level to another lookout over what seemed a lunar landscape, Pas de Bellecombe, the old crater of the volcano. From above we could see people trekking to the rim of the current crater, looking like ants.
We wound our way back to a restaurant in Plaine des Cafres, the Auberge de Volcano, serving a delicious Creole cuisine. Fully nourished we continued our tour of the island, now heading to the wetter, east coast where we turned north towards a vanilla plantation at St. Andre. Here we learned just how difficult it is to produce good quality vanilla. Once harvested, each pod is individually handled a total of 22 times before finally being packaged and exported to the French market. Réunion vanilla is of a very high quality and much sought after in the European market. We were revived in the humid climate by a delicious drink combining rum, coconut milk, and vanilla.
As we sailed out of the port, those gathered on the decks of the Clipper Odyssey were treated to the sight of feeding frenzies of tuna around bait balls of shoaling fishes, which in turn attracted the attention of flocks of noddies, shearwaters, and Barau’s petrel, a seabird whose total global population of 5,000 pairs breed on the high peaks of Réunion’s volcanoes.
We enjoyed cocktails on the pool deck by invitation from Captain Alan McCarty. The staff was introduced and we enjoyed a delicious dinner from our onboard chefs.
Friday, February 24 - At Sea: With a day to relax, our lecture series kicked off with Jonathan Rossouw and his presentation entitled The Galápagos on Steroids: An Introduction to the Wildlife in Madagascar. Shirley Campbell followed with her presentation, Discovering Madagascar.
After lunch we had a Zodiac briefing and tips for successful snorkeling. The divers met with Mike Murphy to discuss diving protocol. Equipment was handed out and we had a few moments of quiet before the shipcame to a halt and our expedition leader, Mike Moore, announced that the ocean was waiting for us to jump in! We had a wonderfully refreshing swim in the ‘big blue’ for 30 minutes before we were on our way again for Madagascar.
A delicious array of ice creams with every imaginable topping was our reward for the afternoon, while Utpal provided his expert henna skills for those who wanted the ancient Indian tattoo.
Lyn Mair finished the day with her presentation, Malagasy Way of Life and Death. Now, fully prepared for our destination, we enjoyed cocktails over recap.
Saturday, February 25 - Nosy St. Marie, Madagascar: Today was our first encounter with Madagascar. We had an opportunity to explore some of the natural wonders of this unique biosphere and to interact with the Malagasy, an Austronesian-speaking people whose ancestors voyaged across the Indian Ocean 2,000 years ago from western Indonesia.
The nature tour was led by Peter Harrison, Rich Pagen, and Jonathan in 4x4s while those wanting to walk through Ambodifotatra, a relatively large center of commerce for the islanders, boarded 4x4s that took us past villages and subsistence plots of manioc, taro, and rice. The houses were constructed from local resources including coconut plaited walls and thatching, and quite reminiscent of houses in Indonesia. Upon reaching Ambodifotatra, we ambled through the markets set in from the main road. The shops displayed the kinds of material goods required by the local population to meet their daily needs; plastic bowls, cutlery, clothing and cloth, buckets, and all manner of simple domestic items.
After a delicious barbecue lunch at the Princesse Bora Lodge and Spa, complete with an ensemble of singing and dancing entertainers, we spent time in the water and on a little island adjacent to Ile Sainte-Marie. A group of hardy explorers trekked into the interior of the island to reach the other side of the isle, where we were treated to black-and-white ruffed lemurs. These beautiful creatures frolicked in the trees above us and weren’t too timid in taking fruit from us, or hanging upside down and only holding onto their perch via their hind feet.
The day was a spectacular introduction to Madagascar.
Sunday, February 26 - Nosy Mangabe: Our planned disembarkation for the little island of Nosy Mangabe, ‘the great blue island’ and nature reserve, was delayed due to a cyclone veering our way. Things improved little, but nothing would hinder us from viewing the wonders awaiting us!
Many joined the excursion to the island, and found riding our Zodiacs, at times manifesting as surfboards,as much a part of the adventure as finding lemurs and poisonous frogs! What’s a little rain when there are many endemic species to find? And find we did! We saw two species of lemur, the black-and-white ruffed lemurs and the white-breasted brown lemur, all cavorting about in family groups in the canopy above. The plant life glistened with shiny wet leaves, some as big as dinner plates. We saw the Indian almond and the seeds from the monkey-puzzle tree and the Entada sp bean.
A green-backed mantella, related to the poison dart frog found in South America, croaked incessantlyamong the bamboo, while a leaf-tailed gecko thought it was invisible against the branch of a tree. We also saw both a juvenile and adult female panther chameleon displaying quite different markings. Finally, we were treated to one of the smallest vertebrates in the world, the tiny Brookesia minima, a tiny chameleon found only in small habitats of the island.
After lunch onboard, the ship repositioned and we had a lovely afternoon with a lecture by Larry Bowman entitled, Visualizing and Collecting the Indian Ocean with Maps and Prints followed by a screening of Sir David Attenborough’s Madagascar – The Land Where Evolution Went Wild.
Monday, February 27 - Masoala National Park: This morning we enjoyed a much smootherdisembarkation to Masoala National Park. From the beach landing we headed into primary rain forest, filled with the sound of cicadas calling out to potential mates before their short lives end. The path was a relatively gentle climb up the rising mountain, our feet carefully seeking safe footing amongst the damp leaf litter, roots, and rocks.
The smells of the rain forest were a rich bouquet of compost, damp wood, and warm earth. We found many beautiful examples of buttress roots supporting the tall canarium trees. Among the canopy, birds enticed us with their calls but darted out of sight and into the tangle of branches and creepers. Some of us spotted a blue coua, but we only heard the lesser vasa parrots calling to each other.
We saw many small animals hiding in the leaf litter or making their way across rocks and leaves to whatever destination they had in mind; millipedes, frogs, praying mantis, butterflies. Some managed to find a giraffe-necked weevil, a particularly interesting insect of the Madagascar rain forest. Red-ruffed lemur and white-faced lemur troops rested and played within the foliage of the higher trees, delighting us with their agility.
After our morning excursion we were back on the ship for lunch with a wonderful presentation by our Malagasy agent, Raharinosy Vy Andriamanampitrisa, or Vy, on Turning the Bones. Chocolate cookies and fondue tempted us before we settled in for Peter’s presentation, Facts and Figures of Feathered Friends.
Tuesday, February 28 - Diego Suarez: This morning a few hardy souls gathered on the top deck for an hour’s yoga session before breakfast. Rich Pagen gave an interesting talk entitled, Productivity on the Reef: How Interspecies Relationships have Built an Empire. Shirley followed with her presentation, Creating Ancestors: Connecting Past and Present.
Just before lunch we sailed into the beautiful Diego Suarez Bay, edged by rising mountain formations signaling the Tasaratanana massif that lies to the south. Diego, as the locals refer to it, is the fifth largest town in Madagascar. It is the home of the Antankarana people. It was named after two Portugueseadmirals, Diego Diaz and Fernando Suarez, who arrived in 1506 and proceeded to sell the inhabitants into slavery. Today the town is a bustling center for surrounding villagers who come to sell their produce and return with material items.
After lunch we had the choice of two excursions. The first group headed out of Diego Suarez in a line of 4x4s, following the shores of the bay, towards the Orangea Peninsula. We stopped along the roadside to photograph chameleons, their two eyes each independently surveying the scene around them. We also explored the flats around some mangroves, where male hermit crabs waved their enormous pinkish-white claws in an attempt to attract a female of their species. We visited a gorgeous beach where small dugout outrigger canoes were resting in between fishing trips. A stroll around the vegetation behind the beach revealed a pair of beautiful Madagascar bee-eaters, which were ambushing flying insects as they unsuspectingly flew past their perch.
The second group explored the town. Those who chose some retail therapy visited a thriving market that seemed to go on forever, twisting and turning down little passageways and opening into wide pedestrian thoroughfares. More conventional shopping was to be found in the opposite direction with shops selling T-shirts and beautifully crafted pieces in wood, horn, raffia, and cloth.
This evening we had an interesting presentation by Vola, the Diana Regional Coordinator of World Wildlife Foundation, Madagascar, about the organization’s efforts to protect the natural habitat, and the incredible biodiversity of this island.
Wednesday, February 29 - Diego Suarez and Montagne d'Ambre: We had an early morning rise to catch our 4x4s and journey into the hinterland, passing children headed for school, zebu- and human-drawn carts carrying goods to market, and villages of people beginning their daily chores. Our destination was 18,500 hectares of Montagne d’Ambre National Park. The park is a splendid example of montane rain forest, ranging in altitude from 2,788 to 4,839 feet. The name comes from the amber-colored resin that oozes from rotra trees. The resin is used medicinally by the local people.
Our 4x4s struggled up the deeply rutted and slippery slope of the rainforest to our drop-off points, some ultimately succumbing to the mire and needing human brawn and ingenuity to get them heading up the track again!
We chose between a long walk, a medium walk, a walk for birders, and a gentle walk leading us to the Cascade Sacree (Sacred Waterfall). Although we were able to catch glimpses of a Sanford’s brown lemur near our picnic site, we could only hear the crowned lemurs from the looming canopy above. A variety of chameleons were a delight to find and photograph. The tiny Brookesia minima, the blue-nosed and elephant-ear chameleons all showed off their diversity of color and form, while the little leaf-tailed gecko proved incredibly difficult to distinguish from its perch.
There were a number of very special birds, some endemic to this park only, that the birding group found. The lesser vasa parrot made its presence known throughout the day, while more elusive birds were the Madagascar crested ibis, the white-throated rail, cuckoo roller, yellow-billed roller, the Madagascar kingfisher, and the Montagne d’Ambre rock thrush.
While the morning cloud wrapped us in a gentle mist, by the afternoon on our various walks the heavens burst with a vengeance. Drenched, but still in good spirits, we made our way to our rendezvous points with the 4x4s, humming, and sometimes cursing, “Slip Sliding Away.”
Thursday, March 1 - Nosy Hara: Today was filled with sun, beach, and water and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day! We chose to swim and snorkel off a beautiful little spit, or dive and snorkel off two Zodiacs. The glass-bottom boat ran for those enjoying the sea life below while remaining absolutely dry.
Mike took his divers close to the snorkeling area and commenced their dive in about 20 feet of water. The diversity of corals was amazing, a mixture of beautiful soft and hard corals all in superb condition. The reef fish were plentiful and it was fun to search among the nooks and crannies, finding all sorts of small critters.
Both divers and snorkelers found a zebra lionfish, racoon butterflyfish, nudibranchs, Moorish idols, long-finned bannerfish, bluestreak cleaner wrasse, and emperor angelfish.
Above the sea several birds made their presence known; the dimorphic egret, gray heron, sooty falcon, Madagascar coucal, and the majestic Madagascar fish eagle. Many of us saw a splendid Madagascar ground boa, and snapped pictures of its magnificent coloring.
We enjoyed a scrumptious barbecue lunch while the ship relocated. Once replete, we were off again to a lovely beach.
One of the highlights was an encounter with a rare species of mammal in these seas, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. About six individuals fed while we watched from our Zodiacs. These magnificent animals never failed to delight as they surfaced to take in air and display their unusual hump located at the dorsal fin. We would have been entertained for hours but we had another adventure awaiting us.
An evening by Zodiac around the islands, some formed from columnar basalt and others from uplifted sandstone, completed our day on the water. It was peaceful scooting between the islands, then exploring closer to find little crabs scuttling around, and barnacles and oysters attached in the tidal zone while waves crashed around the rising island formations. One group was fortunate enough to spot a dugong. As an ominous dark sky approached, it gave a magnificent backdrop to the colors of the islands and the washing of the foam and waves as they hit the rocky surfaces. What a wonderful finale to our fabulous day.
Friday, March 2 - Nosy Komba / Tanikeli Island: This morning we traveled by Zodiac to the coastal village of Nosy Komba in search of the black lemur. As we walked through the village we were beckoned onward by beautiful Richelieu lace cloth fluttering gently in the breeze. However, our goal was to find black lemurs, so on we trekked up the slope. It didn’t take us long to find these amazingly accommodating animals. The brown female, with her adorable little face framed in white fur, leapt with great agility from branch to branch, sometimes venturing to perch on waiting shoulders for a taste of banana. It was the black males, however, that boldly moved from one shoulder to another, grasping a human hand holding a piece of banana and delicately taking the tasty morsel. All those who wanted a picture with a lemur on their shoulder were able to feel the softness of their paws and how lightweight these beautiful animals are.
Moving further up through the village into the forest, we saw radiated and giant Aldabra tortoises, a baby Madagascar ground boa, and panther chameleons. The rest of the morning was spent wandering around the village and spending our remaining Ariary before leaving Madagascar.
After lunch on board we set out for various water activities. Divers, snorkelers, and those on the glass-bottom boat encountered several kinds of coral—staghorn, plate, mushroom, brain, and black corals were habitats for many reef fish, including both the skunk anemonefish and Clark’s anemonefish, fusiliers, sea urchins, longnose filefish, slingjaw and goldbar wrasse, parrotfish, sweetlips, and emperor butterflyfish.
Mike asked the locals for a good dive site and was rewarded—the dive was amazing in less than 10 feet! As they descended, directly below lay a 6-foot leopard shark, only too happy to stay around for photographs. Superb corals, both hard and soft, and a vast variety of fish including the huge Malabar groupers, lionfish, sweetlips, and schools of snapper, made this a ten out of ten dive.
On the island Lyn and Peter led people to see the Madagascar rufus flying fox and later, towards the lighthouse, they found brown lemurs.
Saturday, March 3 - Mayotte, Comoros Islands: We had a leisurely morning as we were still at sea making our way to the Comoros Islands. Larry gave a presentation titled, International Relations in the Indian Ocean, followed by Lisa Steel from the World Wildlife Fund and her presentation, Getting to Know the Panda: Not Your Father’s Conservation Organization.
During lunch we sailed into the large lagoon of fringing reef surrounding the two major volcanic islands, Grande Terre and Petite Terre. We cruised by Zodiac to explore the southern part of Grande Terre; as we pulled up to the little jetty, we were welcomed by local men and women dancing and singing outside a market with all kinds of produce. On display were several kinds of spices, fruits, and vegetables many of us had not seen before, such as kaffir limes, tamarind pulp, and breadfruit.
Traveling from the capital of Mamoudzou on the local buses, we visited an eco-museum displaying ylang-ylang and vanilla production. At this stop we discovered a troop of common brown lemurs resting on the telephone wires and in the boughs of large trees. We visited the Coconi Botanical Gardens and were welcomed by singing women with decorative face paintings. Many of us had the opportunity to see a squacco heron blending easily into the pond landscape of the gardens.
We visited the Musical Beach, named for the music that local musicians once played, where families and young men gather for Sunday afternoon barbecues. The highlight of this stop was the 640-year-old baobab tree, with a 22 person girth at its base. We marveled at its great age and giant stature towering above us.
The day was coming to an end and with Madagascar flying foxes filling the sky as we headed back to our landing site, we boarded our Zodiacs and returned to our ship. Cocktails were out on deck as we sailed gently out of the lagoon.
After dinner, Shirley Metz gave us a wonderful presentation of her adventures being the first woman to ski to the South Pole.
Sunday, March 4 - Moroni, Grande Comore: Moroni is the capital of Grande Comore Island, officially named Ngazidja, and the capital of the Comoros nation. Grand Comore Island is the youngest in the Comoros group and has the most active shield volcano.
After breakfast those signed up for the Karthala Forest Adventure boarded buses with Peter and Jonathan and headed out in search of birds endemic to the Comoros, finding the bulbul and blue pigeon.
The rest of us toured a small part of this island. We visited the fishing village of Iconi and the ruins of a fortified post, positioned to warn Comorans of approaching Malagasy marauders looking for slaves and resources. We were taken to a forested area and shown the cinnamon tree, nutmeg, pepper, and ylang-ylang. One of our stops was at the Moroni Museum where a coelacanth, caught in these waters in 1987, is on display. According to fossil evidence, this fish lived in the Earth’s primeval waters 400,000,000 years ago. It was thought to be extinct by 65,000,000 years ago, but specimens were caught in these waters in the early 20th century. It is well accepted by evolutionary biologists that this species represents a link between our ancestors in the sea and our terrestrial ancestors.
The markets were a highlight with all kinds of merchandise, fruits and vegetables, tea stands, fish and meat butchers, and vendors. The smells, the colors and the variety of people here gave us a real flavor of Moroni life.
In the afternoon we had an opportunity to relax at the Itsandra Beach Resort where the snorkeling was verygood and the sea breeze welcome in the shade of the trees. Mike found a local diver who took the diving group to a sloping reef just 328 feet offshore. There were beautiful, healthy corals and enough fish and critters to make it a great dive.
Monday, March 5 - At Sea: The yogis onboard joined Shirley for our last yoga session of the trip before breakfast. Rich presented the first lecture of the day entitled, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef, followed by Peter and his fascinating account of changing the direction of his life in favor of researching and writing a definitive book on sea birds in,Seven Years and Seven Continents. After an ice cream social and another opportunity to have a henna tattoo by Utpal, Jonathan presented Biodiversity and the Bucket List.
Tuesday, March 6 - Zanzibar, Tanzania: We woke to a beautiful sunrise as we slowly made our way to dock at Zanzibar. We docked right off the World Heritage Site of Stone Town, the old part of the city. From the ship we could see the sultans’ palaces and imagine the labyrinth of small alleys hidden behind.
We boarded buses and headed out of Zanzibar to Jozani Forest where we hoped to see red colobus monkeys. The birding group didn’t have to go too far before hitting gold—they saw pied kingfishers, blue-winged stilts, purple herons, intermediate egrets, and many more. We were all rewarded in the forest with unperturbed red colubus monkeys leaping between branches and feeding on the ground.
The mangrove swamp was a magnificent example of mangrove habitats. This one had three different species of mangrove in it together with lots of crabs and was easily explored via a well-built boardwalk.
In the afternoon a group of us went on the Spice Island Tour, taking a drive into the countryside to see, smell, and taste a variety of spices and tropical fruits. We also visited the Kidichi Persian Baths built in 1850, the Maruhubi Palace ruins built by the third Sultan of Zanzibar, and Dr. Livingston’s house, built in 1860 for Sultan Majid. Others took the opportunity to stroll through the wonderful little alleys of Stone Town and to take in the smells, sights, and colors of this old city.
Our last night onboard, we bade farewell to each other and exchanged emails at our last dinner. Afterwards, Mike Murphy presented the slideshow he had been working on throughout our trip, a wonderful look back at where we came from and all the adventures we had.
Wednesday, March 7 - Zanzibar / Disembark: Our last day of the journey, we said our goodbyes to the crew and walked through Stone Town, marveling at its narrow streets and amazing wooden doors with brass décor. We had lunch at the Serena Hotel and awaited our flights home, with fond memories of the days aboard the Clipper Odyssey, lemurs, chameleons, geckos, many varieties of birds and fishes, and the wonderful people we had met along the way still fresh in our minds.