Dear Traveler,

I discovered recently an interesting overlap map, showing the real dimensions of the African continent. Our colonial ancestors modified “a bit” the immensity of the newly conquered and exploited continent. It is an obvious attempt to exaggerate the importance of their European homelands. How pathetic!

True size of Africa

But even this illustration is incorrect. Because the fourth biggest island on the planet, Madagascar (587,713 km2) is more than twice bigger than the eighth – Great Britain (209,331 km2). How little we know and how absolutely wrong is our perception of this beautiful island, which looks like a little spot under Africa on our maps!

There are so many amazing facts about Madagascar. But I will not take your time here with statistics. What you should know in advance yet is that Madagascar is not an ordinary island. It has been separated from the rest of the prehistoric mega-continent Gondwana 160 million years ago. The fact that the first Austronesians reached the island around 250 AD makes Madagascar one of the last places in the world invaded by human race. When I say, “invaded”, that is quite literal. The most ruthless predator on this planet – the human, exterminated large part of the unique endemic creatures of the island. Since his arrival, man destroyed up to 80% of the island’s forests to gain land for rice production. Yet here we have one of the best-preserved rain forests, and most of the plants and the animals are endemic. This is the land of the lemurs. Because of the lack of monkeys, more than 100 species of lemurs live in peace as the country’s landmark. Well, they were much more, but humans exterminated the biggest species and subspecies. It was the faith of all large animals like the elephant birds and giant fossa (a mongoose like mammal).

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

Madagascar is the homeland of another two iconic species – the chameleon and the baobab tree. Two thirds of all chameleons on the planet live only here and six out of all eight types of baobabs exist only on this island. A unique paradisiacal land, so big and so different from anything else, that some call it the eighth continent.

Parson's Chameleon

Parson’s Chameleon

The first Austronesians from Borneo mixed with Bantu newcomers from Mozambique in an amazing cultural mix of people with rare beauty.

But let me tell you about our trip. It consists of two parts after arriving in the capital Antananarivo (locals use as well the French short name Tana).

A big baobab near Isalo National Park

A big baobab near Isalo National Park

The first part was dedicated to some of the main National Parks, where we enjoyed observing the rare species of animals and plants. The second part was a relaxed stay on the coast of the Indian Ocean with its long, white-sanded beaches.

Our first destination is the Perinét National Park. All along the journey, except at Tana and Antsirabe, we stayed at eco-lodges and bungalows. Most were not too luxurious, but quite comfy and charming. Don’t forget to put a torchlight in your luggage. In these places people use generators to provide electricity, which is switched off after 10 pm. A torch is also what you’ll need for the night walk in the forest the first day at Perinét.

Lac Anosy in Antananarivo

Lac Anosy in Antananarivo

Here and in the small private reserve Peryera we saw the first lemurs. Being so close and touching these amazing creatures is the most sensational experience I had in Madagascar. Perinét is the home of the largest lemur – the mighty Indri. You can hear their love cries similar to the sounds of the whales.

Eulophiella Lodge

Eulophiella Lodge

Perinét (or Analamazaotra Special Reserve) has one of the best-preserved forests on 155 km2. Speaking about rain forest, don’t forget to bring a raincoat, long trousers and light hiking shoes. Annually, there are over 200 rainy days in these forests, making them home of all kinds of insects and leeches. So, no shorts and sandals!

Indri in Perinét – it looks like a messed up panda

Indri in Perinét – it looks like a messed up panda

We had a short stop at Antsirabe, a town created by Norwegian missionaries for its fresh temperatures at 1,500 m of altitude and the thermal springs.

Dimo in the rainforest of Perinét

Dimo in the rainforest of Perinét

Next main goal is the Ranomafana National Park – one of the most important reserved areas on the island, named UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Antsirabe is famous with its pulled rickshaws or 'pousse-pousses' (in French)

Antsirabe is famous with its pulled rickshaws or “pousse-pousses” (in French)

Lined Leaf-tail Gecko in Ranomafana

Lined Leaf-tail Gecko in Ranomafana

Chameleon in Ranomafana

Chameleon in Ranomafana

Golden Bamboo Lemur

Golden Bamboo Lemur

Apart from the lemurs, this is the first time we saw the unique fossa or Malagasy civet. I can only imagine how the exterminated giant fossa must looked like.

Malagasy civet or fossa

Malagasy civet or fossa

The Golden Mantela is a tiny but venomous 3-centimeter long frog, similar to the South American poison dart frogs. It is the most endangered of all Madagascar species. Like the Tomato frog, the venom their skin produce when they feel attacked can’t kill you, but it may cause allergic reaction. Once again – long sleeves, long trousers and good shoes in the rain forest!

Golden Mantela

Golden Mantela

Tomato frog

Tomato frog

Our hotel, Chez Gaspard with its modest looking bungalows happened to be quite nice. And there was Wi-Fi, something not so common in Madagascar. There is a mineral water pool in the nearby village of Ranomafana, so we took our swimming suits out of the luggage for the first time.

Chez Gaspard, our hotel in Ranomafana

Chez Gaspard, our hotel in Ranomafana

The Isalo National Park is the last big reserved area (815 km2) we visited on our trip. We were already in the grassy plains of the western part of the island. If you are a francophone, you will find it easy to communicate with people in Madagascar since French is a second official language. But there is a “dark” legacy left by over 60 years of French colonial rule – crappy hotel breakfast. If you are familiar with the hotels in France, you know what I mean – just a simple croissant with your coffee. We had only a couple exceptions of this rule on our trip. And hotel Relais de la Reine, near Isalo was one of them. It was the nicest place we stayed on the island.

Relais de la Reine Hotel

Relais de la Reine Hotel

The hotel organize a visit to the nearby open sapphire mine in the nearby town of Ilakaka. It is a spectacular experience. You should know that Madagascar produces half of all sapphires on the planet.

Ilakaka Sapphire mine

Ilakaka Sapphire mine

The Isalo National Park covers a large sandstone massif that has eroded over time by the 17 rivers running through it to form picturesque canyons, plateaus and valleys. It is a heaven for hikers.

Elephant's Foot Plant (Pachypodium rosulatum), Isalo NP

Elephant’s Foot Plant (Pachypodium rosulatum), Isalo NP

It is required to hire a local guide to enter the park and you can follow different trekking routes from few hours to a week. The landscapes in Isalo are otherworldly. From rocky canyons to palm lined oases with waterfalls and natural pools.

Piscine Naturelle, Isalo NP

Piscine Naturelle, Isalo NP

Canyon des Makis, Isalo NP

Canyon des Makis, Isalo NP

On the 10th day of the trip we headed to the harbor town Tulear (or Toliara) on the West coast of Madagascar. On the way we saw some of the biggest baobab trees in the region.

The biggest baobab on the road to Tulear

The biggest baobab on the road to Tulear

We didn’t go north to the famous Allée des baobabs, but the trees we saw were massive. Baobabs stand in the fields like giant lone warriors. Once deciduous forests surrounded them. But the forests were burned and slashed to open space for rice paddies. Because baobabs are not a good construction material and don’t burn well, they were left. Today they stay as a reminder of human ignorance and self-destructive greed.

Baobab near Isalo NP

Baobab near Isalo NP

The next day we crossed the bay south of Tulear with a boat to the Anakao peninsula and the small fishing village Vezzo.

Vezzo fishermen

Vezzo fishermen

Our hotel, The Prince Anakao is far from royal luxury, consisting of simple bungalows full with a selection of local insects. But, hey, who cares about comfort when you sleep on the white sandy beach just steps away from the ocean and eat fresh fish in the village!

Fishing boats in Anakao

Fishing boats in Anakao

There’s a tiny stripe of sand just across the beach, called Nosy Ve Island. On the second day we took a boat to Nosy Ve and spent some time picnicking and bird watching.

Bungalows at The Prince Anakao

Bungalows at The Prince Anakao

At The Prince you can hire a pirogue, windsurf or snorkeling equipment. My advice is to bring your own mask and snorkel, since you never get the right size. Or you can visit the Anakao PADI club – Atlantis (http://www.atlantismadagascar.com). We wanted to go for diving and this was quite an experience! After all wildlife in the parks, we enjoyed exploring the wonderful underwater world of corals, anemones, clown fish and all kinds of flora and fauna. That was a great last day experience.

Nose Ve Beach

Nose Ve Beach

Diving-in-Anakao

Diving in Anakao

Leaving Madagascar I was both excited and sad. Having the chance to see the unique creatures and plants transported me in Conan Doyle’s “Lost World”. One can’t imagine how different the wildlife on this huge island is from everything we have ever seen. Yet I was sad. I saw the results of long years of human stupidity devastating this island, rich in resources. For decades, because of the corrupted postcolonial governance of the country, Malagasy are one of the poorest nations in the world. As a matter of fact, the National Parks we visited are like islands of eco-balance. They are surrounded by land, exhausted by centuries of slash-and-burn agriculture and rice production. Today on the deforested lands apart of rice people plant huge fields of sisal. It happens to be the best and cheapest plant for the production of biodegradable eco-packaging. How ironic! Instead of helping Madagascar in the restoration of the original forests, we once again exploit the island for our fashionable “green” hypocrisy.

But I’ll try to remember Madagascar for its beauty. And the fact that the poorest nation is one of the happiest, declaring their island as a land of “mora-mora”, a Malagasy phrase meaning to take life slow.

 

Discover winter mountain of Bulgaria
Discover Pirin Mountains during winter
The incredible views of Pirin Mountains

Photo Winter in the Bulgarian Mountains

Story and images by Emil Danailov

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

Spending the night on Mount Polezhan, even during the winter, is not a big challenge. Some do it at 6, 7 and even 8,000 meters altitude in far harsher meteorological conditions. With its 2.851 m above sea level, Polezhan is minuscule according the Himalayan standards, being although one of the highest peaks in Bulgaria. Yet from the snowcap of its graceful pyramid a dream view reveals!

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

If through the day the mountain leaps to the eyes with its wedding dress, by sunset Pirin undergoes the most fascinating metamorphosis nature can offer. The severe monochromatic dress code is abandoned and white following its playful foppery, tries on all colors of the rainbow in a hurry. From perky yellow to burning red, and from tender blue to deep purple in the obscure shadows. But when sun vanishes, the mountain slowly downcasts, like changing its outfit again – this time to an evening dress.

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

The night is time of ruthless revelations. The sky becomes fathomless and under its cold light the well-known cozy world turns into a lifeless wilderness.  This is a moment when one realizes not only how small a human is in the cosmic scale of universe, but how vulnerable and helpless he is amidst the hostile eternity, deprived from the reassuring corrective of our views for good and evil. Life indeed is a miracle!

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

Sunrise is far for now, but darkness anticipates it’s unpreventable end and gently settles down into the mountain folds. Skylights up and Pirin becomes taw again. But it is sleepy still. Yet sun did not splashed into its eyes. This is the perfect time for taking photographs. Contrast is low, halftones are rich and fine nuances softly shade over the mountain slopes and peaks in the short moments between the kingdoms of black and white.

Here it is! Finally! After a long and freezing night its beams disperse so quickly all disconsolate thoughts. Fanfares of light reverberate. And their shiny sounds start flickering around the mountain like a spectacular, sweeping Ode to Joy.

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

This is the day-to-day resurrection. Life keeps going on. Yet difficult is to forget the night, in which one felt like ephemeral spark into the icy maw of eternity.

Polezhan - the highest granite peak in the Pirin Mountains

Mozambique – a discovery of an African treasure

A Dhow on the Sand Bank, Mozambique
A Dhow on the Sand Bank, Mozambique

Dear Traveler,
There is a country in the South-East of Africa you know by name, but probably don’t have a clear idea what stands behind that name. Often people associate Mozambique as a neighbor of the Republic of South Africa. Those of us born in the 60’s still keep the image of a country thorn apart by a civil war and devastated by a weird Marxist experiment. Our journey revealed a land of immense beauty, a jewel every dedicated adventurous traveler should discover.

The country blessed by nature with many resources through its history has been invaded and exploited by Arabs, Portuguese, Brits, French, its own little dictators and corrupted tribal leaders. Yet, the beauty of its nature and the unique cultural mix lay in the ground of Mozambique, turning it into one of the most interesting destinations to be discovered today.

You need to have the right mindset arriving at the Maputo airport. The visa procedure (if you haven’t get it back home) can take some time. The relaxed attitude of the authorities may catch your nerves. But time here runs at different speed and as soon as you accept it, you’ll have your senses opened to more important things. Like diving into the chaotic but charming life of the capital, with its old and new houses, the messy streets, the beautiful botanical garden, the buildings created by Gustave Eiffel, the marketplace or the Nucleo d’Arte cultural centre with its exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and carpets.

Mozambique Fisherman

Mozambique Fisherman

Yet our main goal is far away from the city life of Maputo. We head North. Most tourists take the road to the Gorongosa National Park in the centre of the country and then to the Bazarouto Archipelago with its beaches. Don’t get me wrong – these are beautiful places. But we are travelers, not tourists. We want to discover the history and culture of Mozambique, the spirit of the land. There’s no better place for this than the Island of Mozambique. It’s a small stripe of land a couple of kilometers long and one kilometer wide. The only connection to the continent is a 3.8 kilometers-long narrow bridge.

The Island of Mozambique is the first capital of the country. Established by the Arabs, it was taken by the Portuguese in the 16th century, after Vasco da Gama discovered the South route to the Indies. The Portuguese have built fortresses, cathedrals and beautiful houses. This has been the centre of the slave trade until almost the end of the 19th century. Today the Island is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a large restoration project has been initiated. They started with the old fort, but the remarkable houses in faded colors are still in poor condition. One can see and feel how splendid the place was in the times of its glory. Our guide was excited by the fact that there were 23 tourists in total on the island that day. You can imagine how far we were from mass tourism sites. We were staying at the beautiful mansion Terraco das Quitandas next to the former Governor’s Palace.

British NEMA foundation, Mozambique

British NEMA foundation, Mozambique

We rented a dhow, a local type of boat, to visit Caroushka – a magnificent large beach. There were quite a lot of people, but the site is so immense, that we had the feeling of being alone. Here, on the East coast of the Indian Ocean everything follows the tidal rhythm. So, we had to pay attention when to get into the water and how far we can walk, before the tide returns. I still wonder where this huge amount of water is going, where it disappears for several hours, only to come back and cover everything again and again.

Walking around the island was interesting. There are two towns – one Muslim, and one Christian. They are so different, but there’s no tension between people. Almost no one speaks English, but they are very friendly. When you ask them about the direction, they just take you by the hand and walk you to the place you are looking for.

After the Island of Mozambique, we moved to Pemba – quite a big city with an airport. The next day we were supposed to fly to the Quirimbas Archipelago. The hotel in Pemba was luxurious, which was good, because our flight was postponed 6 times. We finally reached Ibo – one of the 30 islands of the archipelago. Quirimbas stretches up to the border with Tanzania. Looking down from the sky at the emerald waters of the ocean, the white beaches and the trees is a breathtaking experience.

Our hotel, the Ibo Island Lodge consisted of three villas – the governor’s house, an office building and a house – heritage of the Portuguese colonial past. The new owner is a South African and most of the staff is Zimbabweans. The hotel is decorated with hand made furniture from Goa.

Ibo is described in Forbes as “a lost world on the edge of nothing”. Yet the island has a 600-year-old history with the Arab invasion, followed of course by the Portuguese. When walking along the streets, after visiting the three forts, we came upon Senhor João Baptista. He is the living history of the island. The toothless old man was bringing books out of his home, pointing on his name or picture in every story in the books. He was so funny and didn’t care at all that I was not getting a clue of his Portuguese speech.

I love sunsets in Africa, but nothing compares with the views in Mozambique. Sitting on the terrace of the old palace with a glass of wine I was enjoying with every sip the ever-changing pictures. The special program of the evening was star glazing. Our guide was carrying a pointer stick. While I wondered how he’s going use it to show us the stars, the lights were turned off and our terrace was transformed into a planetarium. I know little about the stars in Southern hemisphere and the lesson proved to be useful and interesting.

Ibo Island Lodge Sunset

Ibo Island Lodge Sunset

While on the Ibo Island we organized a picnic to the so-called Sand Bank. This is a stripe of sand in the middle of nowhere. Literally. We went there by our beloved dhow. It was quite windy, but our guides installed a Bedouin tent. We swam, had a snack and collected shells. Local fishermen arrived, threw their nets and then started collecting the modest catch. While taking pictures and admiring the beach, we realized that we had to leave Sand Bank almost in a hurry, before it disappears in just few minutes under the ocean’s tidal water. As I said, in Mozambique everything follows the tide and its inexorable rhythm.

Our last stop was Guludo – a small village on the continent. You can’t compare the Guludo Beach Lodge with any of the hotels and places we visited. The eco-lodge consists of a simple, but stylish and comfortable Adobe Bandas. There is a king size beds under the mosquito nets, a spacious veranda with a hammock and sun loungers, as well as an outdoor shower and basins. There’s no electricity or conventional running water. Guests looking for luxury should be prepared. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the bandas is their “loo with a view”. Toilets are built on a small platform alongside the banda and you have a great view of the beach.

The hotel is associated with the British NEMA foundation. Most of its profit goes to secure food for the children and clean water for the region, as well as scholarships. Kids are the biggest attraction here. They are so friendly and playful. You can find yourself taking part of a football game with local boys. Or be surrounded by a crowd of curious kids who want to play with your camera taking pictures.

Star Glazing at Ibo Island Lodge

Star Glazing at Ibo Island Lodge

The lodge is built along one of world’s top 20 beaches, part of the Quirimbas National Park and offers lots of activities. Ladies can ask local women to introduce them to the traditional “muciro” facemask of thick white paste. Usually only virgins were painted, but now even grandmothers wear the mask. We took a short sail to the stunning little nearby island of Rolas. There you can snorkel off the beach and view humpback whales cruising past from July through October. We noticed there few kite-surfers. The wind is perfect for them.

I couldn’t stop collecting shells. They remind me the white sands and the amazing emerald water of these virgin beaches. In the Lodge even the jam and butter during breakfast were served on shells. It is forbidden to collect corals, but in the end of my trip I had more than two kilograms of shells on top of my luggage. I brought them home as presents to my friends to whom I wish to take the same journey to Mozambique and discover its beauty.