June 5 - June 9 - Road trip to Ankarana National Park and Diego Suarez

We took a mooring at Crater Bay Marina (20000Ar/day) for our trip north. After a taxi ride to Hellville, our Malagas friend, Sergio, accompanied us and everything was so much easier with him interpreting and leading the way. He seems to know about everyone everywhere, and we were definitely in good company. We arranged for the fast boat from Nosy Be (Hellville) to Ankifi. This is a 30 min ride, compared to the 2.5-3 hour trip on the regular passenger or car ferry. Once there, we wondered about the fast boat, as the taxi-bus we chose waited an extra two hours for a few tardy passengers, thereby negating our time advantage. Oh well…”mora, mora” is what is said locally. It means “slowly, slowly…” We finally got going close to noon, and made it to Ankarana by about 4pm. The road is some of the worst you can possibly imagine. A 4 x 4 was a very expensive option instead of the taxi bus but, believe me, no one can negotiate the deep ruts, holes, broken road, and drop-offs that much faster than anyone else. Most of the larger taxi-buses are Mercedes diesels, and have really racked up the miles going back and forth from Ankifi to Diego Suarez. At any rate, our impressions of the ride are numerous, and I’ve tried to give a flavor of it all. Here goes…because we got such a late start, dozens of school children were walking single file down the road to (from?) school. Their blue shirts stood out, but everyone, small children included, know to jump way off to the side of the road when they hear any vehicles coming. You see, the buses are swerving all over the road and shoulders of the road to try to avoid the holes; an impossible task, but one that makes for a slow ride and allows time, if one is a tourist, to take everything in. People were tending the road, their fields, and their small yards. Chickens and zebu are numerous. There’s no electricity or running water anywhere, so villages are composed of small stick huts, with a small open fire to cook by. The countryside is beautiful, and long grass sways in the wind. Mango trees and baobob trees were numerous. Smaller trucks and buses carried way too many people, their belongings piled 6 feet high on the roof and tied down. Many people rode bicycles, stopping frequently for ruts and drop-offs. Building materials and vegetables for the market place were carried in large wicker baskets. There weren’t that many motorbikes, and a compulsory helmet law is in effect. Police check-points are placed to effect security, and the passengers are scrutinized, driver’s papers are checked, and a small gratuity is usually made to ensure rapid transit (or you may sit and wait). The men were dressed in shorts and T’s or button down shirts; women wore colorful sarong-like dresses, often with a matching head and neck scarf. Many women carried heavy filled baskets on their heads, and many people carried those ubiquitous yellow rectangular containers filled with water. Each container probably is 5-6 gallons; so probably about 40-45 pounds of weight there. This is a very poor, agrarian existence in one of the poorest countries on the planet. Sergio had arranged “reserved” front seats for us next to the driver, so our views were unobstructed. Let’s see…where are we…ah, Ankarana. At Nosy Komba, we had met a young Belgium woman who works for an NGO with abused children from the Diego Suarez area. She had told us about the Chez Aurelian, a complex of bungalows just outside the Ankarana National Park east entrance. Aurelia, his son Z-Z, and many of the staff speak French, Malagas, Italian, English, know a bit of Arabic and a few words of German thrown in. These folks were delightful, and we stayed in a small, plain cottage with a separate, but very basic, ensuite, and mosquito netting above our heads. Electricity was on from 6pm-10pm; that’s it. Depending on the size of the cottage, prices ranged from 25000-35000-50000Ar/night. On a smaller scale without ensuite, prices were 10000-15000/night. We ate our meals there; food was good, prices were also. This same afternoon of arrival, we went to the Park to find a guide and make hiking arrangements. The Park is set up like an a la carte meal; that is, there are numerous trail heads and viewing areas; price is based individually depending on what you do. Guides are compulsory, and their cost also varies depending on what you have chosen to see. We chose to do two days of various hikes, and the experience was dramatic. We saw lemurs (3 different species), snakes, many different birds, several kinds of chameleons, centipedes, and a number of tree species. We saw dried river bed and underground caverns, walked two suspension bridges over the tsingy canyons, and also walked on top of the tsingy, which is pointed limestone rock. If you fall…let’s not go there…you definitely don’t want to fall….the edges of the limestone are very sharp and unforgiving. We hiked miles of forest and our legs felt like jelly. It seems like it’s all or nothing when cruising; no serious exercise, or times like this when we really pay for it with sore knees, legs and backs. Picnic lunches must be purchased from the lodge, there are no facilities in the park. We took our own food and water. We also planned one sunset walk, and ended up on the top of a very tall mountain about 5 km away; that was a very special place. Also, my cell phone finally worked as there were cell towers in the distance! By noon the second day we were ready for a rest, and returned to shower and get on the taxi bus to Diego Suarez. There are numerous sites around Diego to go see, but we went to see our friend and the town, just too tired to consider more hiking. The road from Ankarana to Diego was every bit as bad as the first half from Ankifi. We arrived to town in the late afternoon and ended up staying at the Suffren Hotel. Clean, ensuite, security, convenient location, a bit loud outside as it was Saturday night, but the price was right: 20000Ar/night. We walked around and sampled the local food; good and affordable also. Sunday, we went out of town as we had arranged to get together at the Hotel Suarez. This is a very upscale place with prices commensurate. Our friends weren’t staying there; they just use the pool and sunbathe every Sunday, as the hotel will allow that as long as you buy a beer or eat there. Nice. We returned to town by 5pm, and packed for an early departure back to Ankify. The taxi-bus left at 0300, and went direct from Diego to Ankify. If there’s one thing worse than the road as I described above, it’s that same road at night when you’re in a taxi-bus with only one functioning head light as it’s twisting and turning to try to avoid the holes….what fun….We arrived at the fast boat ferry area by 0900, and were back in Hellville by 1030. What a trip. Not for everybody, and certainly maybe not in the fashion that we did it, but one with lots of great memories and a fantastic overall experience. Pictures will be forthcoming. Thanks for hanging on to this long-winded narrative! Details: Sergio: 034 72 386 98. Suffren Hotel: 261 32 59 209 67. Chez Aurelian is in Mahamasina. At this time 10000Ar (MGA) equals $4.14USD.
Pic: Michael on the suspension bridge in the park.

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