The Road To Ankarafantsika, Madagascar

After finally breaking free of the horrendous traffic in Tana, we were once again on a good road with pretty scenery.  Highway 4 is the main road between Tana and Mahajunga and is a well-kept, paved road.

Ankarafantsika RoadIgnore what Google says.  It will take a good 7-8 hours to make the trip.  The road traverses a mountainous area where you can’t drive at speed and you will also have to deal with slow moving vehicles as this is a major road but only one lane.

As I mentioned before, make sure you have plenty of cash.  No one anywhere near the Ankarafantsika National Park takes credit cards and there are no BNI branches where you can use foreign ATMs.  Visit the ATM before you leave Antananarivo and stock up with cash.  You will also need to top up your petrol as most vehicles won’t make it there and back and will need to refuel along the way and you must pay in cash.

Leaving the outskirts of Tana, there are lots of farms and small villages.

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After about 100 km, you enter the mountainous area.

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Maevatanana which means “beautiful village” according to our driver is a good place for a meal break.

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Hotel Restaurant Chouchou has good, cheap food, clean toilets (a rarity along this road) and also cheap rooms if you want to stay here enroute.  We only had a late lunch here.

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We are getting closer to the park from here on. Here are some scenes of typical village life.

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Never Underestimate Antananarivo Traffic Jams

This was a loooong travel day!  We left early from Andasibe and would have to cross the busy city of Antananarivo (usually called “Tana”) before finding the road to Ankarafantsika.  We retraced our route back with only one stop in Moramanga where I was hoping to hit up an ATM for cash.  When we got there, I tried two banks, one ATM was out of order and the other didn’t like my foreign debit card.  So we pushed on to Tana where I finally had luck at the BNI Bank which is the only bank that is reliable for both Visa & Mastercard debit cards.  We stopped at the same Jovana petrol station near the US Embassy, the driver seemed to like that one in particular.  We hit major traffic jams all throughout the city and even for about 20 km once we got past the city.  Fourtunately there is enough of interest to watch out the window.  While we were driving past markets, the driver cautioned me to keep the window rolled up for fear of grab & run thieves so I had to shoot through the window.

It took about 90 minutes just to get from one end of the city to the other!  I hope you enjoy these traffic jam and city scenes!

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Tana Laundromat

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One of the dodgy markets where thieves can be a problem.

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Now we are downtown in a less risky area.

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Passing Lake Anosy

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Another market where we had to be careful and keep the windows up.

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All kinds of traffic in this jam!

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Craft market just outside the city on the road to the airport.

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Anima Mundi Magazine – Madagascar Issue

This is a really cool wildlife photography online magazine.  It caught my eye because this issue features Madagascar.  Although I got some decent bird and lemur photos, I didn’t get any of chameleons.  They are just one more reason people love to visit Madagascar!

Due to copyright I can’t reproduce it here.

Click here to see magazine.

 

Scottevest’s Big 14th Anniversary Sale Ends 2 March

Scottevest is offering a huge 40% off most of their unique jackets with 20-23 pockets.  I use these all the time to get around carry-on baggage limits to get heavier items such as camera lenses and birding field guides on board.  Some airports are weighing carry-ons at the security checkpoints but they don’t weigh your clothes!

*** Don’t forget to use the promo code for the discount! ***

Sale ends 2 March.  Click on the image below.

Scottevest sale

I have an affiliate relationship with Scottevest and get a small commission if you use my link for which I thank you.

Eco-Lite: Lemur Island, Vakona Forest Lodge, Madagascar

OVERVIEW

Lemur Island is located on the grounds of the Vakona Forest Lodge.  The lemurs here are tame and will jump all over you, especially if you have bananas.  It’s basically a glorified zoo but in natural foliage setting.  It’s fun to spend an afternoon visit there when it’s too hot to go birding but don’t confuse this with real eco-tourism.  Kids are welcome.

HOW DO YOU GET THERE?

From Andasibe village, keep going north to the Vakona Forest Lodge.  Lemur Island is just near the main gate.  After you buy a ticket, you will be rowed across a small river to the island where you can wander around as you wish.

HOW MUCH IS IT?

Tickets are 15,000 ariary per person.  You can buy them at the reception of the Vakona Forest Lodge and use a credit card (when the machine can get a signal).

HOW LONG SHOULD YOU SPEND THERE AND WHAT SHOULD YOU SEE?

We spent about an hour there.  The lemurs will jump all over your fellow tourists, sometimes with hilarious results.  Staff will give you bananas to feed them.  The lemurs found here include bamboo lemur, the black & white ruffed lemur, brown lemur and diademed sifaka.

VALUE TO CONSERVATION

While not affiliated with any conservation programs, the island does provide a home for some lemurs that were formerly captive as pets and rescued and can’t live in the wild.  You can get excellent photos as the lemurs come right up close.

 

WHERE TO STAY NEARBY ON POINTS

There are no points hotels anywhere in Madagascar.  You can earn airline miles by bookng through Pointshound or Rocketmiles.

PHOTOS

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My husband making friends

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Look at the hands on this close up – 4 fingers and a thumb just like humans!

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Mama and baby

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A few birds we saw on Lemur Island

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Travel Planning When Your Currency Is Taking A Nosedive

I’ve always had big dreams and big plans to travel to lots of countries where I can see wild birds and parrots in particular.  Dreams are not enough, I also carefully spreadsheet my goals for accumulating enough miles to make these dream trips come true.  I’d like to say I am in charge of my own travel destiny but in some ways I can’t be.  Having your country’s currency lose 20% of its value can throw a huge monkey-wrench into even the best laid plans.

This first chart represents the last 6 months for those who have AUD and want USD.  Pretty shocking, especially when you consider how many tour operators quote in USD.

AUD nosedives

This chart shows the last 5 years to give a bigger picture.  We’ve had some ups and downs but mostly ups.  It’s been a good few years for Aussies!

AUD nosedives2This year we are only doing one overseas trip to Thailand and Malaysia for birding and the Cook Islands (to see family).  The AUD has also gone down against the Thai Baht, but the overall cheapness of the country makes the visit still economically possible.  Surprisingly the AUD has pretty much stayed the same against the Malaysian Ringgit.

Next year we are in trouble.  I had big plans for Peru, Bolivia, the Caribbean (birding) and the USA (to see family).  The birding in Peru & Bolivia requires dealing with locally based tour operators who price their packages in USD and you have to pay a substantial deposit up front and the balance 30 days before arrival.  We can’t do these trips as DIYs as you have to use private river transport (Peru) or possibly small planes (Bolivia) packaged with accommodation and birding excursions.  So the unfortunate result is these two trips have to be postponed to a time the AUD is more favorable.  The Caribbean is also USD-centric but I can use points in some places like Puerto Rico and Hotels.com Welcome Rewards to ease the pain and all other expenses would be paid on the spot, not in advance.

I still want to go birding in South America so what to do?  The answer is to find countries where I can book and pay for lodges online ad-hoc and watch for discounts on hotel booking engines such as Pointshound & Rocketmiles.  I found the ideal countries in Ecuador & Colombia.  Ecuador is small, easy to get around and other than the Amazon region I can book lodges online and pay for guides and other expenses when we get there.  Colombia is no longer as risky as it used to be and has an amazing bird list, plus it’s still cheap.

We can use Lifemiles for Aerogal in Ecuador and Avianca in Colombia and also use Avios for LAN in Ecuador and Colombia.  In fact either option even gets us to the Galapagos! Some places can be cheaply accessed by bus.  By choosing countries where I can pay with Aussie credit cards or withdraw the local currency from an ATM against my Aussie bank and avoid involving USD, I can keep the costs down and take advantage of better rates in cheaper countries.

The lesson here is don’t let currency fluctuations derail your whole trip!  Peru and Bolivia will still be there when the AUD goes up again…………..and it will.  Just be flexible and look for alternatives, they are out there!

 

Vakona Forest Lodge – Lunch With A View

This is the lunch that almost didn’t happen.  The Vakona Forest Lodge is the only place in Andasibe that accepts credit cards and since my cash reserves were low after paying for the hike in the park and guiding fees, I was keen to use plastic wherever possible.

Vakona Forest Lodge is quite a ways out of town, you can’t walk it so you need transport to stay or visit here.  It is a beautiful drive and you may see birds on the way.  After passing the gate, you still have a km or so to get to the main building.

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I was so nervous about the credit card not working, I insisted they run the card and get an approval code before serving our lunch.  Turns out I had good cause to worry.  It took them forever to get a signal!  The clerk was taking the machine and walking as far up the stairs as possible, then climbing a small hill while I waited below biting my nails.  It was a good 45 minutes before he finally succeeded in getting a signal and charging the card.  Woohoo – we can eat!

Actually, they had already given our order to the chef and the food was prepared before the card was approved.  I don’t know what they would have done if the card hadn’t gone through as we didn’t have enough cash to pay for it and I had asked them not to prepare the food until I was sure it was paid for.  I had also charged a few bottles of water to take with us to get us through until we were back in Tana and could hit up an ATM.  The food was really good.  I can’t remember exactly what we ordered but it was good, we were definitely satisfied customers!

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The dining room has a beautiful view of the small pond and an outdoor terrace so you can watch birds while you eat.  A birding group staying at the hotel came in shortly after us so it was interesting to compare notes.  They had clearly seen a lot more birds than we had so it does pay to have the best possible guide.  Money talks and the large birding companies do have a big advantage over independent birders.  Unfortunately, we will never be in the financial position to join one of those tours so we have to do the best we can.

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My apologies for not taking notes on these birds.  If anyone can help me identify them, please do so in the comments.  It was still fun to just enjoy them while having lunch!

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Andasibe Village, Madagascar

After our morning hike through the Andasibe National Park, we met up with our driver to see some of the villages surrounding the park.  There is a tourist enclave with a few small hotels in the road leading to Moramanga.

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This is the only place I could find that is advertising wifi.

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Another small guesthouse – Chez Luc in the village.

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Small shop selling souvenirs and general items

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Feon’ny Ala is one of the most popular hotels and often booked out with formal birding tour groups.

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Another small shop

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Now we are entering the village where the locals live.  There is a small train station but service is very limited.

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Beautiful church

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Some scenes of the market and main drag.

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The sole was coming off my shoe after the hike in the park so I had it repaired in the village cost less than $1!

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Chase Ultimate Rewards Loses Major Travel Partners

One of the biggest incentives to pay with a Chase credit card is the opportunity to earn bonus points by using their “Shop through Chase” online mall (formerly called Ultimate Rewards Mall).  Although I don’t buy a lot of consumer goods, I have used them primarily for Expedia and Hotels.com.

I am currently chasing United miles for next year’s travel plans so I would make Rocketmiles my first port of call.  But in this case, the hotel options on Rocketmiles were too expensive.  I only want a mid-range guesthouse in Chiang Mai and Hotels.com has several in the $25-30 range.  Who goes to Chiang Mai to sit around a hotel?

Anyway, I logged into Chase about to use the portal as usual and saw that Expedia, Hotels.com, Priceline, Hotwire and all their travel partners are gone.  The travel category has disappeared from the drop-down menu.

Shop thru ChaseA quick look at Flyertalk confirmed it.  The only thing I have to fall back on is TopCashBack as a portal since Hotels.com don’t partner with any of the airlines.  If you are in the same position and want to go for the cashback option, you and I both get $10 bonus by clicking my link.  I must admit that I rarely use cashback instead of portals that earn miles as I get more value from the miles but sometimes there isn’t any other option.

Anyway, now I am feeling better about my decision to cancel my formerly prized CSP.  It was once my go-to card but I don’t think its worth the $95 fee anymore.  I will be using a combination of the Freedom and Ink to maximize the 5x bonus categories.

New Lightweight Scottevest – The Featherweight

During our trip around Africa, the use of Scottevests was essential to allowing us to stick to carry-on bags only.  It wasn’t the size of the bags, it was the weight.  Most birders have lots of heavy camera gear and bird field guides.  At several airports, they weighed our carry-ons and we would have been forced to check some bags if we didn’t have the Scottevests to stuff the heavy stuff into!  Here’s their latest product – the Featherweight Vest!  Don’t forget to check out the daily sale tab, they have a different item on sale each day!

Scottevest FeatherweightIf you use my link, I will get a small commission for which I thank you.  I wouldn’t recommend these products if I didn’t use them myself and were very happy with them.