Aye Aye!

I recall having a conversation with Alex just over three years ago, before the start of this voyage, basically pleading with him to add Madagascar to our destination list. It’s a country that has always fascinated me and somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, mainly due to its abundance of highly unusual wildlife.

In Mesozoic times, Madagascar was part of a gargantuan supercontinent called Gondwanaland, which included mainland Africa, Indian, Arabia, South America, Antarctica and Australia. The primates of this era evolved into the most dominant animals on the Earth today – us. Those same ancestral primates on Madagascar, however, followed a completely different evolutionary path and became what are now known as lemurs. Due to the lengthy separation from the rest of the world the wildlife here has evolved into a collection of truly weird and wonderful species that are found nowhere else. You can imagine why, as an ecologist, Madagascar is at the very top of my bucket list!

My first lemur sighting in Madagascar – the white fronted brown lemur (female).

To say it’s been a struggle to get here would be a massive understatement! We had to endure over 30 sea-days in the relentlessly lumpy Indian Ocean. My sea-sickness was like having a huge and chronic hangover, only without the initial fun of actually getting drunk. On top of that we had to divert to Rodrigues to avoid a 90-knot cyclone, which put us even more behind schedule. We’re now well into the cyclone season and are located in a particularly vulnerable part of Madagascar that could get completely battered at any moment should a cyclone decide to form. I should also mention that being one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar is known for its super high crime rates and boasts an intimidating list of horrendous infectious diseases. Cholera, tuberculosis, dengue fever, bubonic plague and the worst form of malaria in the world are just a few of the people-killers to be wary of. This is a hell of a lot to contend with all for the sake of some lemurs! At one point I was convinced that Madagascar would remain nothing but a pipe dream for me… but amazingly, we made it! Against all the odds, we’re actually here.

Our first glimpse of Madagascar.

Our priority destination was a town on the east coast called Manara-Nord, where just up the river from the bay is a small privately owned reserve called Aye Aye Island. The Aye Aye is a nocturnal species of endangered lemur and according to my research, this is the most likely place in the whole country to see them (in the wild at least). The island is owned by a hotel called Chez Roger and through them, you can hire a local guide to take you on an evening tour.

A truck arrived at the hotel a few hours before dusk to take us, by road, the first part of the journey. The word ‘road’ is used very loosely in Madagascar and what is considered a road here looks more like the surface of the moon. After about 30 minutes of bouncing and hitting our heads on the truck’s ceiling, we arrived at a small opening to a river, across from which we could see our destination – Aye Aye Island. Our guide, Romanha, hailed down a man passing by in his homemade dugout canoe and paid him to take us across. We boarded the large piece of floating drift wood, but our combined weight caused it to immediately start sinking! We frantically bailed out the rising river water as our guide paddled us to the other side and, thankfully, we made it with all camera equipment dry and intact.

I took this photo overlooking the river to Aye Aye Island while we we’re waiting for a passing canoe.

The island is not exactly an untouched wilderness. It’s a farmed property with cows, chickens, dogs and reams of planted fruit trees. Nevertheless, it’s extremely densely vegetated in places. We spent the hours after dark in a frenzied march, trying in vain to not step in cow pats (Alex racked up five strikes) while following our guide through the bush looking for signs of Aye Ayes.

As we waited for night to fall, we were entertained by a number of young bulls gently sparring with each other.

This is our guide fetching us a huge jack fruit to snack on.

After less than an hour of searching, there it was – just above our heads climbing along a coconut frond. Our reward for travelling all this way! A glimpse by torchlight of one of the world’s rarest lemurs staring inquisitively back at us.

Apologies for the quality of these photos. It’s very difficult to get good shots of these fast moving animals – in the canopy, at night, being illuminated by a super intense beam of light. These were the best I could do.

You can see they are well set up for a nocturnal life style with their large eyes and even larger ears.

You see that long middle finger that looks like it belongs to ET? It taps that finger up to 11 times a second on tree branches and listens for invertebrates living under the bark. It’s thought to be the only species of primate to use echolocation to find its food.

This is a creature that, for many years, has fascinated me far more than any other. I feel a truly dizzying thrill knowing that I am one of the lucky few to have witnessed this animal in the wild. Still, I must admit that an eerie sinister feeling came over me when I first saw it. A feeling I was not expecting. Perhaps it was due to the strange and dark environment, or perhaps because the torchlight made the Aye Aye’s eyes appear hot and fierce, but it’s like this creature really can see over your left shoulder and into the gates of hell. No wonder some of the locals think they are deathly omens.

As creepy as these animals are, this visit has reinforced my belief that they are one of the coolest, most interesting species on the planet! I mean, where else can you see a real-life gremlin?!

Not only have we managed to see one of the world’s weirdest and most remarkable animals, but Madagascar has turned out to be a truly beautiful place in itself. Moreover, our worries about crime have been so far unfounded and most people seem to be incredibly friendly.

This photo was taken on a small nature reserve off the southern coast of Ile Sainte-Marie. This is where we first arrived in Madagascar before heading to Manara-Nord. The young man in the background spent over half an hour doing backflips, just for fun 🙂

The coast of Ile Sainte-Marie.

One of my long-exposure shots taken during our hike to a nearby waterfall.

An evening view of the harbour as we ate our dinner at a local restaurant.

We’re now sailing south, working our way out of the (now non-existent) trade winds and away from the tropics, to Fort Dauphin in southern Madagascar. Hopefully there’ll be more wildlife adventures waiting for us there and, with even more luck, no terminal tropical diseases either!

Back on dry land

I should probably start by apologising for my recent silence. You may have been wondering if I had been lost overboard during our Indian Ocean crossing given the supreme amount of blogs written by Alex compared to the meagre amount (well, none) written by me. I’m sure you’ve been sick with worry about me! Please, worry no more – I am alive and well!

We arrived in Rodrigues a few days ago and never have I been happier to set foot on dry land. I’ve been walking around with a new and bountiful lease of life. The world seems better somehow – brighter, cleaner and generally more pleasant than I remember it. In all honesty, I had forgotten that it was possible to get this much enjoyment out of life. Of course escaping from a deathly cyclone probably has something to do with my enlightened feelings, but mainly my intense happiness comes from being away from the unforgiving high seas.

This recent passage was a very difficult one for me. It turns out that my initial excitement in Indonesia of “having gotten over my sea-sickness” was completely unfounded. The seas in Indonesia were so wonderfully calm and the stark contrast of the reputably-lumpy Indian Ocean meant that I spent most of the passage in a prostrate position feeling very sorry for myself. I had very little energy or motivation for blog writing and anything I would have posted would undoubtedly have been very negative. I must admit that I did, in fact, write a blog towards the end of our passage but it ended up turning into an outlet for venting my frustrations. It’s actually quite hilarious to read back as it clearly demonstrates the psychotic episode of a woman going completely insane. In the end I decided not to post it for risk of sounding too negatively opinionated about the sea. I hope you can forgive me.

The good news is that we are now safely in Rodrigues and refuelling our energy reserves. The island is charming. It has a relaxed Caribbean feel alongside tasty French desserts. We went for our first snorkel yesterday and today we hope to rent a scooter and do a spot of sight-seeing. Apparently there is a lot of interesting endemic wildlife here along with some impressive cave networks, which I’m very much looking forward to seeing.

Most of our boat jobs have been completed and we are ready to head back to sea once the time is right. We are keeping a close eye on the weather and assuming there are no major changes we hope to continue on to Madagascar on Wednesday morning. In the meantime, I am doing my best to repress the memories I have of the Indian Ocean so that I can bring myself to board Bob once again and head back to sea. It would be unfortunate for Rodrigues to acquire itself an illegal immigrant.

Setting anchor in Port Mathurin, Rodrigues.

A local fisherman on the edge of the reef outside of the main town.

Change of Plans

Sitting out in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a storm bearing down on us, just holding our breath and hoping it will go away. The forecast models still can’t agree on where this cyclone is going to go or what it’s going to do. Some say it’ll go West and sit over Northern Madagascar. Others say that it’ll go South and cut across our track about 400 miles to the West of us. Either way, we’re faced with sitting out here for four more days, doing nothing except watching films, reading books and trying not to be too nervous. There is an alternative though. Rodrigues Island lies 500 miles to the South West. That’s four and a bit days of sailing. It is also far enough East that none of the forecast tracks hit it and it would leave us no further from our destination in Madagascar than if we had simply stayed put. We’re tired and haven’t had a fun time of our Indian Ocean crossing. We’ve had relentless squalls for the past week and before that winds dead astern and sloppy seas. The lure of land is strong. So, we’ve decided to change our plan and head for Rodrigues. We have set sail and are now making 5.5kts South West under a triple-reefed mainsail and a little sliver of genoa. It’s pretty rough but Bob is handling things very well.

Since we’ve decided to make landfall earlier than expected we can afford to be a little more opulent with our supplies. So this morning I decided to make bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast, with jus de baked beans. I managed Sarah’s sandwich successfully, but it was too much to expect to be able to pull off a second performance without a hitch. At the critical moment, just as the sandwich was being converted from a menagerie of parts into something of beauty and elegance; just as the bacon had been laid onto the toast but had not yet adhered to it with the aid of a liberal smearing of mayonnaise, a particularly large wave re-distributed my sandwich impressively. One bit of bacon was hurled across the cabin and slid down the side of the portable generator. The other bit of bacon landed on the floor and became one with the hairball in the corner. The mayonnaise on the toast worked beautifully as a glue, adhering it to the side of the companionway stairs. The beans, thank Neptune, we’re still safely contained in the pot on the stove. I picked up the pieces, and through careful timing with the swells managed to reconstruct the sandwich. There were some distinctly unusual textural aspects but overall I was determined to enjoy it. Sarah, meanwhile, having eaten and enjoyed her un-molested sandwich, proceeded to laugh at me. I couldn’t help but laugh along with her.

So that’s life on Bob, as we bob around out here trying to dodge cyclones. There’s another tropical depression to our North East that we need to be careful of in addition to the one we’re really concerned about. The French meteorologists on Reunion Island think it won’t amount to much but we don’t want to take any chances. It feels good to be sailing away from these things rather than just sitting like the proverbial duck with our fingers crossed.

Cyclone

Officially the Indian Ocean cyclone season starts in November. This year, apparently, it’s spot-on!

We got an email yesterday. To paraphrase:
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there’s a cyclone forming and you’re headed right for it.”

Bummer.

I downloaded a weather chart via the satellite phone and discovered that he wasn’t exaggerating. Our projected course took us directly into the centre of a nasty-looking storm.

A few years ago I was in Bermuda and there was a tropical storm passing by. It was supposed to pass a couple of hundred miles from the island and we’d get 35 knot winds for a few hours. No big deal. 12 hours later, the eye of the hurricane passed directly over the island. The anemometer at the weather station blew away when the wind speed exceeded 120 knots so nobody really knows how strong it was. It caused widespread devastation. I was on my boat at the time anchored out in the most protected spot I know of – inside Paradise Lakes. Nevertheless it was a harrowing experience. There was no distinction between the sea and the air – they had merged into a single mass that was hurling itself at everything in its path, like a pressure-washer with a nozzle miles wide. I stuck my head gingerly up above the cockpit coaming into the wind and glimpsed a hellish seascape. The wind-sea came in waves. As I saw each one coming I ducked my head down and felt it pass over me like a freight train. The dinghies tied behind the yachts that were anchored in St. George’s Harbour were said to be flying horizontally behind their motherships doing pirouettes on their bow lines, their engines still attached. I certainly have no desire whatsoever to ever experience something like that in Bob, at sea.

I would say I have a healthy respect for these tropical systems, as well as a healthy skepticism of the forecasts associated with them.

Currently, as of 0600UTC on the November 4th, we are at 13 00 S, 069 25 E, about 400 miles South of the developing storm. We have hove-to (the nautical equivalent to being parked) and are slowly drifting SW at about 2 knots. Wind speed is about 22 knots, except in the squalls when it gets up as high as 35 or so. Apart from a freak wave that woke us up quite abruptly this morning by coming right through the forward hatch, all is well. We plan to stay like this for another day or two and let this thing move away to the west, which the current models suggest it will do. Fingers are crossed that they are accurate. This time. Yesterday they predicted a South West and then Southerly track, so they haven’t got their story straight yet.

This is the weather forecast looking a few days ahead. The green marker shows our current position and the red marker is where we would end up if we continue as we are.

Cake and Death

We’ve put the clocks back twice now and still have another three hours to go. We really should have changed three hours already but one of the luxuries of being out here on our own is that the number on the clock is largely irrelevant. The only schedule that matters is our own, and we’ve decided we like it getting dark at about 7.

Our position as of 1000 (UTC+6) on the morning of November 2nd is 12 58 S, 073 03 E, putting us about 2500 miles from Bali and 1500 miles from our destination – the island of Nosi Be just off the North West coast of Madagascar.

The days are much the same. The wind comes and goes and shifts back and forth a few degrees, but for the most part Bob keeps plodding along and slowly eating away the miles. Yesterday, however, was special. It was Sarah’s birthday. We’d been keeping a camembert in the fridge for this occasion, so she had that for dinner along with some bread that I made the day before. I also made a cake, and took pleasure from the thought that the list of people who have ever made a cake out here is almost certainly very small.

Putting the finishing touches on Sarah’s birthday cake.

There is life out here, however. Lots of it. The sea floor is 5 kilometres below our keel and in this location is virtually featureless. No sea mounts or chasms or ridges. Certainly no islands. Nothing to bring nutrients up to the surface. Nevertheless there are an abundance of flying fish skittering across the wave tops. Long, thin ones with flat heads and short, fat ones with rounded heads. I was once smacked in the head by one in the Atlantic and I could feel it for days afterwards. I was standing in the cockpit at the helm of a boat, minding my own business and the next thing WHACK! It was like being punched by someone. Fortunately the Indian Ocean variety seem to be much smaller, which is a good thing otherwise I’d be afraid to stand outside for too long for fear of assault. There are literally hundreds of them and Bob has become a kind of death machine. Sometimes we hear them flapping around on deck and I go and plop them back into the sea, but more often than not they get scooped up unnoticed. The deck is strewn with them every morning. I counted 101 in my clean-up the other day. At least we know they won’t go to waste; something living down there will eat them.