Getting there

Friday May 31 2024 – In what is a strong candidate to be our most exotic trip yet, we are travelling to Madagascar to spend about three weeks exploring the place.  This will be our first time in Africa. Well, not quite; we visited South Africa a decade ago, but I don’t think that really counts as Proper Africa, whereas Madagascar definitely does, in my book.  I’m quite daunted at times by what awaits us, despite the reassurance that comes from knowing that the whole thing has been planned by an expert – Kate at Whisper and Wild has put together an itinerary which takes us all over the island to experience the widest variety of what it has to offer in the time available.

Lemurs, mainly.

Actually, I expect there will be a bewildering variety of wildlife for me to attempt to take photographs of, under the auspices of various guides who will be looking after us as we go along.  Given our experience in Costa Rica, I’m expecting to test their patience to the limit as they try to point out wildlife that they can see clearly but which I’m struggling to make out.

Preparation actually started quite some time ago. Because this is Exotic Foreign, as opposed to just Normal Foreign, we needed various jabs to protect us against the multitude of potential lurgies awaiting the unwary – typhoid, tetanus, polio and diphtheria. And there’s malaria, medication of course, which is optional, but which we decided would be a Good Thing.  I have no idea what it’s like to suffer malaria, but, at 71, I’m not sure I want to find out, particularly since an infection could well prejudice our next trip*.  Anyway, a major discovery as part of the preparation is that malaria tablets cost three quid a pop, and we each needed 32 of ’em. Not a huge cost in the overall scheme of things, but slightly unsettling when you’ve got used to free access to medication.

The itinerary has broken one of the rules which Jane and I like to observe whenever we can, which is to avoid the ghastliness of early morning flights.  Sadly, in order to get there in one day, we have to catch our first aeroplane at 0615 tomorrow morning; we fly first to Paris and then board an 11-hour hop to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. That being the case, an overnight stay at an airport hotel is called for, and we find ourselves in the Crowne Plaza, by Heathrow’s Terminal 4, which is somewhere we haven’t been to for well over a decade. It will be grim to have to wake up at 4am in order to stumble across to check in, but at least the hotel room is well-equipped.

It may not be Twinings Finest, but at 3.30am one’s taste buds are unlikely to be that discerning.

Saturday 1 June 2024 – I’ve never been at an airport at opening time before, so today was a first.  Terminal 4 at 0415 is not a busy place

and there was actually a queue waiting for security to open.

Everything went very smoothly – we didn’t even have to take phones and other hardware out of our bags, which is a blessing – and by 0430 we were able to take a seat by our gate.  There was a small ripple of excitement for some people at 0500,

and Jane went to get us some coffee once the initial queue had died down.

The last time I travelled to Paris, it seemed to me that the various terminal 2 buildings at Paris Charles de Gaulle were all quite small – terminals 2A to 2E were all of a size and not at all imposing (Terminal 2E was opened in 2003 and had 11 gates).  That said, my last visit to Paris was in 2010. How things have changed in the intervening years!  Now, Terminal 2E has a train connecting three stations, each with a group of gates.  We had to get from station K to station M (after first having to go through a considerably less smooth security operation than we saw at Heathrow) and then saw the extent of this section of the terminal.

Our flight was slightly delayed, so we had a short wait in the terminal – an opportunity for some more coffee – during which Jane got an update from the people who run the first segment of our trip, the Masoala Forest Lodge.

It was good news and bad news.

The good news was that they were actually expecting us and could provide details of the next day’s travel arrangements to get us from Antananarivo, (aka Tana) the Madagascan capital, to the north east of the island. The bad news was the travel arrangements themselves.  The size of Madagascar, and the undeveloped nature of that area, means that getting to the lodge involves a flight.  We had to check in for that flight at 7am. Our departure was eventually quite significantly delayed; last-minute baggage to be loaded, air traffic delay and a technical issue meant that our landing time was around midnight and we still had to clear immigration, get some local currency and transfer to our hotel.

I’m very glad that we had been at the front of the bus, as it meant that we were among the first off the plane and therefore towards the front of the various queues we had to go through.  The first queue was to buy a visa – €35 for us, a short stay 30-day visa. Then we had to queue at passport control, and it became clear that the queues for those behind us was beginning to become quite lengthy.

The queue for passport control

Behind us, the lengthening queue to buy a visa

We had an anxious wait for our bags, partly because at first we waited by the wrong carousel. In our defense, there were no signs to tell us what was coming out where.  In the end, Jane went off and found our bags on another carousel, to much relief all round.

A driver, Aina (?sp – rhymes with hyena), was waiting for us, and after I’d changed some money into local currency (Aryary) he escorted us out to his car. He cautioned us not to let anyone else touch our bags. The reason for this became clear as we left the terminal; there were legions of people hanging around, some in official-looking gilets, but also a few others, one of whom walked with us to Aina’s car. It became clear that he was after a handout even if he hadn’t done anything to help us.  I have a feeling that this won’t be the only time we come across this behaviour.

The hotel – Relais des Plateaux – is only a few minutes’ drive from the airport and (according to its website) is dead posh, but the timings meant that we weren’t in a position to appreciate any luxury; instead another severely curtailed night’s sleep beckoned.

The journey to the lodge looks to be Quite Interesting.  The flight is a charter flight rather than a scheduled one, so heaven knows what manner of aircraft we’ll be on. It’s followed by a boat ride of about an hour, during which we’re enjoined to let the crew stow our day packs to avoid them getting sea spray all over them. It might even be possible to see whales on the boat ride, who knows? Come back to these pages in due course to find out how the day went, won’t you?


* “Where’s that,” I hear you cry?  You’ll have to watch these pages to find out, won’t you?

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