Jan 152017

So, yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a travel blog. I think after Iceland I was a bit exhausted, and combine that with the fact that October-December are always my busiest months at work it meant I really didn’t have much time for travel – or for writing about it.

If there’s any interest, I can put together blogs on two trips I took in the past few months to Zagreb and Bangkok, but you’re not going to see too much outside of hotels and tons of airplane pics because it was long work days without much time to get out and about. However, if you want to see more Lufthansa First as well as my impressions of the first day of United Polaris service I’ll be happy to put those up.

February is going to be an interesting month. I had originally planned to stay closer to home and enjoy the car I make payments on but never seem to drive and take a long roadtrip through the Southern United States to visit four of the eight states I haven’t been to.

However, travel has a way of pulling you back in, and so I started looking at what I could use some of my miles for…and managed to piece together a crazy 17 day round the world with stops in some of my favourite cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cape Town, Paris….oh, and it would involve first class travel on ANA longhaul, Thai on the A380, Qatar on the A380, Emirates on the A380, and yes, more Lufthansa first. It’s pretty hard to say no to, even though I should be a bit fiscally responsible…time will tell!

I recently did an interview for another website which will be up shortly, and I’ll link to it when it’s live. As part of it, I was asked to pick some of my favourite travel photos of myself, which was fun going back through memories. So, my favourite are below. Promise I’ll write more regularly again!

Top of Huayna Picchu near Machu Picchu, Peru


Crossing the river from Rosso, Senegal to Rosso, Mauritania:

IMG_1144 2

Jumerah, The Gambia


New Years Eve stranded in Gabon, due to a coup in Democratic Republic of Congo:

gabon bottle

Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan


Koala cuddling in Brisbane, Australia:


Cuzco, Peru:


Hanging out with the Wrestling Cholitas in La Paz, Bolivia:


On the equator in where else, Ecuador:


Waiting for the tube in London, UK:


Friendly lemurs in Madagascar:

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Inland lake in Comoros:


Pyramids of Giza, Egypt:


Leptis Magna, Libya:


Feb 122015

Up early to do a bit more exploring in Tana before heading to the airport for my flight. I’m generally not a big fan of organized tours, but in this case I’m super glad I booked it. Despite only having three nights in Madagascar, this company packed a lot in when I told them I wanted to see as much as possible and they really did their best to not only be flexible when I changed what I wanted to do – but also to cram in as much as I wanted.

That said, early check out from the hotel and off to do a bit more touring. First stop was Haut-Ville, the part of the city built high in the hills overlooking downtown Tana:


The National Stadium:


After walking around the upper town for a bit, we got back in the car to visit a souvenir/craft market on the way to the airport. Lots of interesting little things, but nothing I liked so much I wanted to haul it around Africa for another couple of weeks. View of the river next to the market:


Some of the market stalls:


Check-in wasn’t open yet when I got to the airport, as it was nearly three hours until the flight. My driver was afraid of traffic jams, so wanted to be sure to leave plenty of time just in case. The queues to get to the check-in counters weren’t marked at all, so I had to ask around which one to get in. “Oh, and is there a business class one?” Nobody seemed to know. Everyone just sort of lined up, and waited. It seemed there were no mid-morning flights at all, but plenty of them around the same time as mine…as there were three different flights waiting to check-in.

As it got more obvious they were about to open check-in I asked a few security guard looking types where Air Madagascar business class line was. They just escorted me to the front, and I was first to the counter when check-in opened. No problems at all, immigration and security were a breeze, and soon it was time to see what the Air Madagascar Business Class Lounge was all about:


There’s no pictures. For a reason. It was so dark in the lounge I’m not sure they would have turned out. It was also incredibly warm, despite the fact it was nice and cool outside. There was a fan…which I commandeered and pointed at my seat. There was plenty of beverages – coffee and espresso made to order, which the lounge attendant happily delivered. The internet kept cutting in and out, and was more or less useless. With an hour to go to flight time, I decided to go people watch in the terminal instead. Soon, my plane arrived:


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Feb 092015

Woke up way too early just after 6am, and met my friend from DC for breakfast before getting ready to head out on my tour. Driver picked me up as planned at 7:30 on the nose, and of course I got distracted catching up over breakfast so was running a little late. No worries, we headed out just before 8 to head to the east part of the island and find some lemurs! Traffic getting out of Tana was quite bad, and the joke the driver had was that it was the Lycée Français – not sure why this was so funny, but every time he encountered traffic that’s what he’d say. Pretty sure you can’t blame ALL the traffic on the French!

Soon we were clear of Tana, and winding our way over the hills/mountains towards Andisibe Park in the east of the island:


Stop one was the Pereyras Reptiles Farm. After a short trek through the woods, we spotted our first lemurs, who came down from the trees…because we had bananas. Clever.


Who wants a banana!


After playing with the lemurs and taking pics, we headed to the chameleon enclosure. It was a bit too zoo-like for my tastes, but at least it guaranteed we’d get to see them since the chameleons can be really hard to spot in the wild. First up, a Parson’s Chameleon:


…and a tomato frog…gee, I wonder how it got that name!




I’d had enough of the zoo at this point, so it was back in the car to drive a bit further. We stopped at the edge of the park to get lunch, since it was already after 1pm at this point. Zebu in madagascar green curry…it was pretty tasty…especially the onions! …not to mention cheap. The entire meal with a beer was hardly $8.


After lunch we kept driving, and our next stop was the Vakona Forest Lodge, where I’d be spending the night. Lanai to my hut:


It was pretty basic inside, but much better than I’d expected. There was no AC, but the temperatures outside were reasonable enough that it wasn’t needed. The big downside, however, was the 99% humidity in the park. Everything was instantly damp, but hey, that’s what you get when you come to the rainforest! It had warm water on demand, was very comfortable, and all in all, for being in the middle of a tropical rainforest was all-around excellent!

The lodge has it’s own private island, which serves as a refuge for lemurs which had either been in captivity previously, or were in endangered areas. (ie, logging companies were destroying their land, etc.) Got in a small boat to cross the moat onto the island (literally 20 meters across), and I hadn’t been out of the boat for two seconds before this happened. This little brown lemur leapt right at me and jumped on my head. No warning at all, lol, I can see how this wouldn’t go over too well with some people…


5 seconds later, he was joined by this guy:


Apparently, they thought I was a tree.


Lemur kisses!


What are YOU looking at!


After managing to pry the lemurs off me we got back in the boat to go down the moat a bit and look for more species. Next up was the golden sifooka:


…and finally, the ringtailed lemur:


Right after the ringtails, a torrential downpour started, and we paddled back to the car as quickly as possible, but still got soaked. That’s what happens in the rainforest I guess!

After relaxing at the lodge for a couple of hours, using the wifi in the main lodge, and having a couple espressos, it was time to head out on the night walk. We saw the two smallest species of lemurs – the mouse lemur and the dwarf lemur, but unfortunately they were too far away (and it was too dark) to really get pictures of them. We did get a few cool frog pictures, however:


After walking in the dark for about 90 minutes I was exhausted, and had had enough, so it was back to the lodge for dinner. More Zebu stew and wild forest mushrooms. Every time I had Zebu, I kept thinking back to that old Simpsons episode where Lisa is trying to teach Maggie the alphabet, and Z is for Zebu…see Maggie? Zebu? With a hump and a doolap. Dooooolap.


Slept reasonably well, although it felt like sleeping in a swamp the humidity was so high. Up early, decent breakfast provided by the lodge including eggs, bread, and fruit, and then it was off to the National Park to go lemur spotting. Our goal this morning was to see the Indri Indri which was the largest species. About an hour in, we’d seen a few more common brown lemurs and a couple of bamboo lemurs (so named because they eat bamboo) but no Indri Indri. We did, however, see a massive snail:


…and another Parson’s Chameleon up close and in nature!


…and this frog!


After nearly four hours of walking, and consulting with other guides we ran into, we still hadn’t seen any Indri Indri. My guide (a local guide, not the one from my tour company) was growing visibly frustrated, and kept wandering into the forest for 30 minutes at a time looking for them and leaving us behind to stand around. It was pretty frustrating. I told him several times it really wasn’t that important we find them, but he refused to give up. Finally, he was really frustrated, and got out his cell phone and started calling around to all the other local guides.

A friend of his had spotted some Indri Indri at another Park about 10 minutes drive away, so he rushed us out of the National Park, into the car, and off we drove to another park. Another 15 minute or so hike into this park, and finally, there it was….way up in the trees. I needed the binoculars to get a good look at it, but he seemed happy since we could at least tick the box that we’d seen it and he could do his job. It was really cool, but probably not worth all the stress.

At this point it was after noon, so we piled back in the car to begin the drive to Tana. We weren’t hungry when we reached the restaurant we’d eaten at the day before, so I agreed we’d stop at a “clean local restaurant” which was really the only other option on the way back to Tana. I ended up having “steak” which was actually pretty good grilled in some sort of a sweet sauce with a side of fries for a whopping $4. Including a large bottle of water. Hah!

View on the drive back to Tana:


Pretty bad traffic, and finally made it back to the hotel around 6pm. I rested up a bit, and it was pouring rain outside by this point, so decided to just have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, since it looked like it had a decent menu. Tasty fois gras starter:


Grilled fish with blue cheese sauce and veg:


Moëlleux au Chocolate with ice cream:


Three courses and two beers? Yes, $21. I think Madagascar is by far the best value for food and lodging of anywhere I’ve ever visited. Every meal was under $25 and high quality, lodging was under $100 a night for solid three star standard, and everything was clean, comfortable, and most importantly all the employees seemed happy and well-provided for.

By this point I was seriously about ready to pass out having been up since 5:30, and crashed early, since we had one more morning tour before flying out.

Feb 072015

Woke up way too early, had a nice light breakfast in the exec lounge and headed down to the Gautrain to head back to OR Tambo Airport. The airport line of the Gautrain doesn’t go to Rosebank, so had to take the train one stop to Sandton, go down the escalators, and change to an airport train. Nice and easy, and only a two minute wait for the train, so it was very smooth. I’d budgeted an hour to get from the hotel to the airport, but ended up taking barely 30 minutes.

Check-in for Airline is way over in Terminal B, practically halfway to Mozambique. The irony is, once checked in, you have to walk all the way back over to Terminal A for departures. Logical? No. But somehow, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I guess I was already getting in the Africa mindset a bit and accepting that sometimes (often) things just don’t make any sense.

Security had only one line open, so was about a 15 minute wait to get through. Off to the SAA Business Lounge, for a light pre-departure chocolate muffin and espresso:


Walking to the gate past some of the shops…oh, good, I’d forgotten my zebra pelt at home so it’s a good thing the airport had them for sale!


View out onto the tarmac:


Down the escalator to the bus gates. My gate was swarming with Mormon missionaries. One started chatting me up and asked “what does YOUR church believe in?” Um, no thanks, not interested in a chat. I was tempted to explain the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to her, but didn’t feel like it was worth the effort 😉


Boarded our bus, and when there were 29 people on board (which exactly matched the seatmap on Expertflyer – it appears for SAA/affiliates at least Expertflyer is completely accurate up until departure) we were off to the plane.

Airlink flight 8252
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Antananarivo, Madagascar (TNR)
Depart 10:00, Arrive 14:10, Flight Time 3:10
Avro ARJ-85 Regional Jet, Registration ZS-ASY, Manufactured 1997, Seat 3F

Business and economy seats on the ARJ-85 were exactly the same, just with a small moveable divider between them. The plane was a 2-3 config with four rows/20 seats in business. Only five were occupied today. I was beginning to wonder if anyone flies on SAA regional flights, as there were only 24 people for about 50 economy seats too. View after takeoff:


There’s not too many ways you can do towel service – hot or cold, with or without tongs, maybe some lemon squeezed on them, but this was definitely a new way of handing people cold towels:


Post-takeoff beverages – water and red wine:


Meal choices were beef strips and chili sauce, or chicken strips and sweet chili sauce. Both were cold. I went with the chicken and it was actually pretty tasty. The pasta salad was good too, and I actually ate all of it. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for something containing mayonnaise on a plane, which usually scares me. Oh, and the berry mousse dessert was fantastic as well. Overall, a rather impressive meal for a short regional flight.


Landing cards were passed out, which were actually small booklets containing a bit of information on the country as well:


View out my window on approach:


Immigration was a mess. There were a few lines, but none of them were marked, so it was completely unclear who was supposed to go where. There was a visa on arrival window, but it listed 0-30 days as free, so I went to the other window, where I was directed to a third window. There were about 20 agents at this third window, and it was unclear who was doing one. First one asked for my onward ticket, ok….then passport…then what was I going to do. She handed my passport to another person, who looked at it, looked at me, and then handed it to a third person. He looked at it, paged through it, and handed it to a fourth person…who didn’t even look at it and handed it to a fifth person. Number Five put it in a stack, so Number Six could stamp it. When he’d stamped it, Number Seven added another stamp….and I was off. Well, that was entertaining…

My driver and guide from Jean Be Tours were waiting for me in the arrivals area and we went to the car to do paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Sign this, read that, stamp stamp stamp, more things to sign, explained the detailed itinerary to me. It was definitely the most legalistic tour I’d ever been on, with everything documented, stamped, and signed. Not sure if this is a government requirement, or just how this company operates.

Then, we were off on the very long drive to my hotel. I’d originally booked the Hotel Carlton but when I found out that it has rather poor internet I looked at other options. Turned out a friend from DC happened to be in town at the same time (what are the odds!) and was staying at the IBIS, so I decided to give that a try for my first night. I could always switch to the Carlton for my second night if I chose to. Some scenes from the drive to the hotel….selling meat and sausages on the side of the road:


Vegetables for sale:


There had been very heavy rains most of the day, and the streets were pretty flooded:


Finally got to the hotel, where I hadn’t made a reservation, but I had confirmed online that there were rooms. No problem, they found my corporate rate, and rooms were a full 50 Euros cheaper than the Carlton as well. Got to the room and was pleasantly surprised at it, so looked like I’d made the right choice!

Met my friend for a drink and caught up for a bit before heading out for dinner. I generally try and avoid hotel restaurants as much as possible so looked online (and on google maps) for what might be near. There was an “Italian” place called Au Stade about 900 meters away which got good reviews, so off I went. Then it started raining. Then there were no sidewalks. Then there were no streetlights. Either I would eventually get there, or I would be abducted by lemurs in the process. Fortunately, after about a 15 minute walk I found the restaurant, where I was one of three tables.

Reviews online raved about the lasagna, but decided I was a bit hungrier so went with a pizza which was actually pretty good. Along with two large bottles of THB – “Three Horses Beer.” Pretty grim beer, but went well with the pizza.


For dessert, the Crêpe Surprise….what was the surprise? Turned out to be bananas and honey. With a bit of vanilla ice cream it was rather tasty!


Large pizza, dessert, and two beers was 40,000 francs including a small tip, or about $15. It was quickly becoming pretty obvious that Madagascar isn’t exactly a very expensive destination. Fueled by beer the walk to the hotel wasn’t as bad, plus the streets had completely emptied out so there weren’t nearly as many people (or traffic) to content with plus the rain had stopped. Quick walk back and passed out tired from a very long day, plus…I had to be up early to head to the National Park in the morning to go nature walking!