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Archive for October, 2016

Monday 31 October – Around Auberge de La Table

Having seen the local flora and fauna in the Arboretum yesterday, today Christophe wanted to take us to St. Augustin and see Aloe descoignyi var augustina in nature. We left the comfort of the hard top and were back to bouncing along dirt tracks again, on a scenic coast track. We passed a sea-cucumber farm; nothing like a mass of greenhouses as found in het Westland in the Netherlands, but partitioned off sections of the bay in the Indian Ocean. Sea cucumbers are not plants but are marine animals with a leathery skin and an elongated body that are farmed here for export to China where they are sold for consumption. I was surprised to learn that there are some 1,700 different species!

The track went into the Protected Area of Tsinjoriake and before too long we stopped for pictures at the monument marking our passing of the Tropic of Capricorne.  Nadia waskeen to have her picture taken here as she was born under the star sign of Capricorne.

Tropic if Capricorne marker

Tropic of Capricorne marker

A familiar sight, as we had posed with similar markers in Namibia, north of Antofagasta in Chile and in NW Argentina, as well as at the Tropic of Cancer marker in Baja California and on the Mexican mainland. Although each marker has the precise coordinates of the tropics written on them, Nature rarely cooperates rarely in accordance with human expectations. Planet Earth spins around the sun with an axial tilt of 23.4371 degrees which corresponds to the latitude of the Tropics – Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere and Capricorne here in the Southern Hemisphere. A graph showing the zonally averaged monthly precipitation on Earth shows that after the North and South Pole, the latitude of the Tropics are the two most arid regions on Earth, which is of course of interest to those interested in cacti and the other succulents that are adapted to life in extremely arid conditions. May be I should consider a presentation of ‘What I Saw at the Tropics’?  But the Earth’s spin around its axis has a wobble so that the exact position of the Tropic can vary by a few meters each year around the 23.4371 degrees mark.

Boy and dog

Boy and dog

This boy, walking his dog, personifies the happy smiling character of the Malagasy people, waving and keen to inspect images that we had taken on our camera’s monitors. The exception was in the tourist hotspots where immediately begging hands would reach out and requests for bonbons (sweets) and cadeaux (presents) were made.

Christophe parked the car and pointed to a sandy footpath leading up a hill. ‘About one hour to the Aloes’ he announced. Should I wait by the car, in the nice cool breeze coming off the bay? Or struggle up the hill in the boiling heat? I reminded myself that I was here on a plant trip and decided to take just one camera and 1 litre of water (cold when we set off this morning, but around my body temperature as I carried it up hill.)  I must have acclimatised since that aborted hill on my first day in Madagascar that had shaken my confidence. This path was not as steep and at a steady speed we walked up the hill, with Christophe pointing out plants of interest.



We paused for images of lizards that followed our progress, offering the opportunity to lookover our shoulders to note good progress up the hill. Once at the summit, the news came that we had to walk down the other side and up another hill to get to the small Euphorbia that was our other target plant, but again, already seen before ‘in captivity’ in the Arboretum.

Nadia was the first to spot another miniature Aloe, Aloe antandroi (Kew reports it as A. antandroy), a small grass aloe, related to Aloe isaloensis. Its leaves are narrow, dark bronze, 5 inches long, 0.25 inches wide (6 mm), edged by small soft thorns. The undersides of its leaves has white spots.

Aloe antandroi

Aloe antandroi, very thin leaves, but its red flowers were the give away.

Not much farther, and still on the way down from our first hill, Nadia again was the first to spot clusters of Aloe descoignsii.

Aloe descoignsii

Aloe descoignsii

Just as in the Arboretum yesterday, I was a little disappointed seeing the smallest Aloe in habitat. Christophe assured me that after the rains started anytime soon (?) this plant would show off its leaves in all their glory. I had first become interested in this small Aloe when I saw it in the collection of John Bleck in Santa Barbara, Ca, who used it in creating his hybrid ‘Lizard Lips’ that is still popular in cultivation and often distributed amongst the hobby as a raffle prize in Branch raffles. I’m sure that is also among the parentage of the wonderful hybrids created by Kelly Griffin and Karen Zimmerman in California that aim to create plants with the best leaf patterns, surface textures and teeth along the leaves’ edges.

We searched in vain for the small Euphorbia that should have been found on the other side of the path. Christophe and John went on to search some more on the steep rock side opposite our hill, but John reported finding only a few small plants in this harsh environment.

We had over taken and been overtaken by a bus that seemed to be part of a Guinness World Record attempt at getting as many people as possible in and on the top and sides of a bus. We were unsure if, while we enjoyed lunch overlooking the bay, the bus had reached its terminal and changed its passengers for an even larger number or had just collected even more passengers for the World Record attempt. Amazing. How many UK traffic violations could the bus driver have received. Where is Health & Safety when it’s needed? Later I found a painting at one of the hotels that shows another attempt at the record. That painting too is being framed in Amesbury as I catch upon my notes.

Where is Health & Safety?

The Health & Safety manager sits on the roof of the driver’s cab.

Sunday 30 October – Ifate to Toliara

Toliara turned out to be a large buzzing town. Christophe took us to the artisan market, on the beach, where we enjoyed picking up small stocking filler type souvenirs (mainly for myself) and negotiating with the store holders to arrive at a price where we both felt that we had made a fair deal. There were lots of larger, more expensive and perhaps less ethical items on offer, but these were just not practical until the end of the trip.

Christophe took us to an Italian restaurant for a pizza. The walls of the restaurant were covered in paintings by local artists. The price, in ariary seemed like a huge amount but quite reasonable in Euros and even better in Pounds Sterling. The folded copy of the Sun Newspaper had gone down in volume since our arrival, but was still enough to afford the purchase. We would return to town the next day when the banks would be open so that I could change more Euros. But how would I get the picture home? Simple, they would take it off the wooden frame and roll it into a tube for easy transport. The image below shows the picture before packing. Back in England, getting it put into a proper frame costs the same as the painting itself.

Ring-tailed lemur painting

Ring-tailed lemur painting

The painting, stillon the wall

The painting, still on the wall

We continued out of town and soon arrived at a turning sign posted to the chalet complex that would be our home for the next two nights at Auberge de La Table and the Arboretum d’Antsokay. Yes, back in comfort and with wifi in the bar / restaurant when the electricity is on. By now the discipline of daily blog postings had gone out of the window, so I made do with just a few brief messages to assure friends and family that all was great. Although the chalets were again very comfortable, many of the rooms where we stayed relied on solar energy and did not provide sockets in the rooms to enable camera batteries and laptops to be charged. After the car battery problems, now resolved, I had not even considered asking to use the car chargers that I had brought along. So daily priorities were to charge laptops, so that images held on the camera could be downloaded to the laptop, then to clear the memory cards in the camera before attempting to split the images into sensible ‘stops’. The accommodation complex and the arboretum was established around 1980 on the initiative of Swiss amateur botanist Hermann Petignat, whose son, Andry,  is a good friend of Christophe and Nadine. Christophe is acknowledged as a contributor to two books co-written by Andry: ‘Baobabs of the world’ (2012) and ‘Guide to the succulent plants of South-West Madagascar (2016) both with text in French and English. Both books were on offer in the souvenir shop which also provided one of few opportunities to use my credit cards,  so came back to the UK..

What is the point of staying in an Arboretum without taking the opportunity of a guided tour by Christophe. Again, there was clear and very useful labelling on the trees and shrubs that again would come in useful for plant IDs back home. It turned out to be quite a long walk and the best light had gone as we got back for a beer before dinner. ‘Do you want to go back for another walk?’ Christophe asked. No thanks, as I was checking my emails and had two cameras full of images to download before the power went off. I thought he had been joking but he and John joined the garden’s guide to take a look at a family of nocturnal lemurs that were due ‘to perform’.

Here is a selection of today’s images:

Operculicarya pachypus

Operculicarya pachypus

Angie grows a Operculicarya pachypus in a pot in the living room. I’ve often wondered why. If it’s for the flowers – don’t bother! Tiny!

Terpsiphone mutata - Madagascar paradise flycatcher

Terpsiphone mutata – Madagascar paradise flycatcher

Between all the stems, branches and twigs, it was nice to find this splash of colour! You won’t find this bird in Angie’s living room!

Arboretum d'Antsokay

Arboretum d’Antsokay

This map of the Arboretum provides perhaps the best view of the huge number of things that we saw and photographed. Well worth a visit!

Saturday 29 October – around Ifaty update

Please take a look at

Saturday 29 October – around Ifaty

for an updated version, including images.

Saturday 29 October – around Ifaty

I forgot to mention THE event of yesterday – after what seemed to be an eternity of bouncing along rough roads – yes, we had been warned! – we hit new, smooth asphalt. No potholes (yet) so I guess that this stretch had been opened very recently. Why? as apart from a few carts drawn by zebu, and two mopeds we saw no traffic until we got to the bustling part through the town of Ifaty. We were some 15 km from the town of Toliara (or Tulear or Toliary depending on your age, religion or preference).

Christophe and Nadia needed to get to the town to take the lottery element out of starting the car and to get the puncture fixed. The activities organised by the Bamboo Club included a guided tour of the local botanic garden, the Foret de Baobabs and so John and I found ourselves in a zebu drawn ox-cart, fitted with a mattress for our European rears, for the short ride to the ‘Foret de Baobabs’ botanic garden with two guides to educate us. They spoke good English and did a great job, leading us through a maze of tracks and showing us all sort of plants, mainly of medicinal use, but also those of interest to a Cactus & Succulent plant lovers audience. A great help for when I get round to putting names to some of the pictures taken in nature during the trip.

One of our guides would run off to gather or spot some wild life that can not be guaranteed to be rooted to a particular spot, while the other guide explained the medical uses of some of the plants. When I told him of some of the pills that are part of my daily breakfast routine, he was very knowledgeable – he was studying medicine at University, looking at all aspects of the subject.

We saw a large weaverbird’s nest in one of the baobabs,

Weaverbird's nest amont baobab fruits

Weaverbird’s nest among baobab fruits

a trail in the soft sand that led to a snake of the constrictor group,

Constrictor type snake

Constrictor type snake

at least three different species of lizard,

Three-eyed lizard - Chalarodon madagascariensis

Three-eyed lizard – Chalarodon madagascariensis

nearly stepped on a very well camouflaged nightjar (bird), asked why there was no obvious regeneration of the baobabs, only century old giants showing signs of old age and much more. Our guide showed us three twigs, some 30 cm ( 1 ft) tall and told us how these had been grown from seed sown 20 years ago! He thought that growth could be faster if the plants received more water and nutrition in cultivation, but it certainly put the plant’s reputation as a slow grower into context! We saw a fish eagle couple at their nest high in the top of a baobab. Our ‘spotter’ guide brought us three scorpions that he had found hidden underneath old rotting branches. Two were of the same species, with the female carrying the formidable sting.

Scorpion #1

Scorpion #1

All three scorpions

All three scorpions

All of a sudden there was an unexpected rush as a lizard which must have been curious to see what was going on, rushed in, believing that the scorpions were his lunch. Our guide used a stick to knock the female scorpion with sting from John’s boot, before it could cause him any harm. No body was hurt and the lizard left hungry.

In addition to the lizards, our spotter also managed to find a chameleon:

Chameleon sp

Chameleon sp

It took a while before we were able to ID these enormous ‘mealy bug’ type insects, you need to read on to find the answer on future pages:

'gigantic mealy bugs'? read on for the answer.

‘gigantic mealy bugs’? read on for the answer.

Our outing was complete when our spotter reported having found a group of lemurs in the trees ahead. Lemur taxonomy is controversial and I use the term to cover all Malagasy primates Unlike the plants in this garden, the Lemurs did not come with ID tags. They stayed in the trees and were difficult to catch on camera as twigs and branches distracted the automatic focussing. What ever their name, they always look cute.

Lemur sp

Lemur sp

Back at the Bamboo Club, Christophe and Nadia had returned and reported that the alternator had been replaced with a new one so that we could stop pretending to be religious by saying a prayer before Christophe would try to start the car.

Friday 28 October – Salary to Ifaty

The Hotel laundry goes to work

The Hotel laundry goes to work

I believe that the original plan had been to stay two nights at Salary, so I was glad that there was an opportunity to move on a day early to the much more comfortable accommodation at the Bamboo Club on the beach at Ifaty. I introduced the staff to my own variation of the French drink, Pastis, mixing it with a bottle of Sprite into a refreshing long drink. Some French guests looked on in disbelief as I first added an ice cube and then the Sprite to the neat Pastis. Disgraceful. Members of a German coach party seemed to like the idea and were seen to order some themselves.

My chalet had two double and one single bed, all to myself and there were huge ceiling fans to cool me down until the electricity went off after I had fallen asleep. There were three dead cockroaches underneath the beds, but that was the only negative. A huge plus was that while there was electricity, there was wifi in the bar that entertained us with a great range of Rock and Soul music. What a contrast. Obviously I have become a spoilt brat, but hey, I can live with such accusations!  Finally an opportunity to catch up with some 200 emails – mostly adverts and Facebook messages, but also a couple of bookings for talks in 2017.

Looking forward to tomorrow’s zebu cart ride to the local botanic garden!

Friday 28 October 2016 – news flash from Ifaty

We’re back in civilisation for a day or two, which means in the rather comfortable Club Bamboo (http://www.bamboo-club.com/)

There was a small cheer as we hit tarmac for the first time in over a week, from memory.

This is just a quick update for friends and family who might have become worried about the long silence. We’re still having a good time, still very hot & sweaty and amazed at some of the things that we’ve seen that I’ll try to cover in more detail by updating the diaries once I get home.

We know that we’ve hit civilisation when the price of a bottle of cola doubled in price – but still very affordable compared to the UK.

I see that there 184 emails waiting for my attention, so more later, time permitting!


John & Paul

in The Bar of Club Bamboo

Thursday 27 October – Andavadoaka to Salary

Again, the track bounced through the dry forest with plenty of Baobabs alongside between the shrubbery or standing on burning or still smouldering fields. Plenty of signs of ground clearing but little evidence of re-using the land for agriculture.

Our itinerary says of Salary: ‘an authentic Malagasy hotel, perched at the top of a dune with a magnificent beach at its feet. Possibility of making an exploration in the forest of mikéas.’  My memories of the day are limited to arriving mid afternoon at the village. Images taken reveal another drive through the dry spiny forest with baobabs along the side of the track. The internet helps with ‘Salary is a true gem with probably the nicest totally wild beach of the whole country. It takes about 4 hours to get here from Tulear on a 4×4‘. We were now just over half way our 28 day tour and I was happy to treat it as a place to relax, i.e. have a nap in the single huts and a trip to the shared outside toilet and shower facilities. Angie usually takes care of bringing or packing torches, but this time these were missing, so I had got used to using my laptop screen as a torch as I ventured out for my midnight bladder call. Here, it really was pitch dark, with a cloud cover keeping out any light from stars and the moon. I had walked the route to the toilet during daylight but had forgotten to remember the high second step onto the soft sand near where the car was parked. The resulting tumble gave me plenty of opportunity to search the sky for moon and stars, until I had managed to find and switch on my laptop again. Note to self: MUST pack a torch and batteries for Mexico!

The small settlement was authentic Malagasy witch chicken, ducks and a turkey, apparently unaware that Christmas was approaching were running around between the young children of the village, not bothered by cats and dogs lazing in the heat. John went for a swim but found the sea warmer than his bath water back in England and observed that any cooling effect had been undone by the time that he had reached the top of the chalet  at the top of the sand dune again. Had we been the typical sea, sun & sand holiday makers, the place would have been ideal. As it was, the rest day was very much appreciated and Christophe and I had a go at putting names to some of the more obscure (for me) plants that I had photographed. I decided to use the caption facility in the metadata displayed on my ACDSEE image browser / editor but was disappointed to find later, after I had backed up the image files to the plug in hard drive that I had brought along that much of the data entered had not been saved or had got lost in transferring the files. Unlike my MS database where the data entered is automatically saved as the cursor is moved to the next field, this is not the case for the ACDSEE metadata input screen where the data entered for each field has to be saved by pressing the return key. Lesson learned!

Despite the somewhat primitive accommodation, they had laid on a great dinner, of grilled fish, sautéed potatoes and a variety of vegetables, washed down with bottles of THB (Three Horse Brewery) pilsner beer

Authentic Malagasy village at Salary

Authentic Malagasy village at Salary