In many ways, Madagascar was an obvious place for me to go. My travels tend to be driven by interesting music and interesting wildlife, and Madagascar is known for both. Then I found a website that listed something called the Fitampoha as among the most colorful festivals in the world. It happens at pretty infrequent intervals (every four to eight years, according to different sources) so finding out that it was on for August 2008 gave me some incentive to make the trip during that time period. I figured that combining the festival with seeing some lemurs and a little beach time (to do some snorkeling) would make an interesting vacation.
The catch is that the Fitampoha happens in a small town (Belo sur Tsiribihina) in the west of the country. None of the small group tour itineraries I could find was going to work, so I started researching options for custom tours. There are any number of companies (in the U.S.) who do this and I sent email to four. Two of them told me outright that it was beyond their capabilities. One took ages to get back to me. That made the choice to use Adventure Andy's Travel Company a lot easier. Ignoring the lack of interest from other companies was probably mistake #1.
People have often asked me how I find travel agents to work with. Most often it's either from web surfing (more by reading travelogues than by searching for companies directly), articles in travel magazines, or word of mouth from other travelers. In this case, I had gone to the Adventure Travel Expo in New York a couple of years ago which happened to be going on while I was up there for a theatre-going weekend. Andy was among the people I talked to there and I had asked him specifically about Madagascar.
He did admit to a lack of direct experience with the Fitampoha and suggested that he could at least get me in the right place at the right time. We exchanged several emails and got to a tentative itinerary. Since this was going to be expensive, I decided to try using frequent flyer miles and was pleased to be able to get tickets on South African Air, via my United miles.
That was all fine until the local agent in Madagascar (Boogie Pilgrim) told Andy that the festival dates had been finalized and the itinerary needed to be reworked. More significantly, so did my plane tickets. A few millennia on the phone with United's Mileage Plus Indian Call Center did get me new tickets - but I would have to stay about a week longer than originally planned. In retrospect, using the miles was mistake #2, as it limited my flexibility. But $125 in taxes is a lot less than $1800 in airfare.
After several more email exchanges (and one telephone conversation) with Andy, everything looked fine. From Antananarivo, I'd travel south to Antsirabe, then head west to Miandrivazo. From there, a three day river descent (with camping on the river bank) would take me to Belo sur Tsiribihina for the Fitampoha. Then there would be an excursion to the national park of Tsingy de Bemaraha, a drive through the Avenue of the Baobabs, and a flight to the southwest coast for beach time. I did question the apparent lack of guides on the itinerary for nearly two weeks from Miandrivazo until the Tsingy excursion, but Andy reassured me that I would have English-speaking guides all along the way. Mistake #3 (and this was his mistake) was not getting that in writing from Boogie Pilgrim.
A few weeks before departure, a crisis hit. I was checking my upcoming itineraries on-line and noticed that most of my flights had disappeared! United listed only the United flights Washington to London and New York to Washington. When I called them, they said that a "glitch" had led to South African Air canceling their part of the itinerary. Fortunately, they were able to fix this, but it was decidedly a good thing that I had checked.
As far as other trip preparation, I do buy travel insurance for trips like this. U.S. citizens require a visa to go to Madagascar, which was easily handled via two trips to the embassy (one to drop off the forms and passport and one to collect them). By the way, I had previously been to the Embassy of Madagascar during an open house and enjoyed the food and music, which boded well for the trip.
I also needed a visit to the travel medicine nurse for a booster to my typhoid vaccine and the inevitable prescription for a course of malaria prophylaxis. I stocked up on the other travel essentials - batteries (for camera and flashlight), sun screen, and insect repellent. Sleeping bag, hiking boots, snorkeling mask, clothing, and a copy of the Bradt guidebook packed, all seemed ready. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and Miriam. Or you will if you read on.
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last updated 7 January 2009