When visiting Madagascar, it is almost essential to hire a driver and vehicle to get around the island. Although you technically could visit everywhere via public transportation, the scarcity of rides in remote areas would involve long waits and very uncomfortable rides (remember Tsingy?) While hiring a private car can often be very expensive, when you split costs with other birders and have access to get around easily, the price tag is more than worth it. We had planned to use Eugene as our driver in Madagascar, a guy that birders had used in the past and recommended via a few trip reports. We opted on using Eugene for our trip despite the fact that he was nearly double the price of other drivers because after the issues we had with our first driver, we wanted this section of our trip to run smoothly. But as it turns out, our experience with Eugene ended up being one of the worst driver experiences of anywhere we’ve ever been!
When we met Eugene at the airport, we found out that he was not our driver at all. Rather, we had two drivers, Eugene and Andry, or so we thought, but as our time progressed with them we learned that Eugene was simply along as a translator. And to take up another seat in an already crammed car. Because we had an extra person in the vehicle we were now extra crammed. Paying double to be extra crammed was not what we had hoped for when we signed on to use Eugene but we figured that his knowledge of what birders want would more than make up for it. After all, we had a 4WD vehicle and a driver who knew that we would certainly be putting the responsibilities of 4×4 to the test.
Our initial ride was a bit crammed as all of our luggage had to fit in the back and we had to ride three across in the back seats, but after only a little over an hour’s drive, we arrived at Amber Mountain National Park. Our visit to Amber Mountain NP resulted in few new birds, as the subspecies of rock thrush found there has since been lumped back into Forest Rock Thrush. For what it lacked in bird life it more than made up for in being what we had expected Madagascar to be, full of crazy critters and great for night time spot lighting.
We paid our entrance fee and were immediately offered a guide. We simply stated that we did not need a guide but Marcus had attached himself to us and the park office officials told us it was mandatory. (Whether or not this is true at Amber Mountain is still up for debate.)
Marcus was an odd fellow, the fact that English was his second language and he constantly stuttered were the least of our concerns. But more on that later…
We arrived in the park and Ross and I set up our tent under a covered roof next to a picnic table while Geoff snagged a spot under a nice tree and Josh in an open field. We were spread out but could do so because it appeared that we were the only ones camping in the park. I have no idea why nobody else was camping, the setup was nice and had bathrooms to use, not to mention super cheap – 4000 ariary, aka $1.30 USD for one night and allowed entrance into the park after dark.
The rock thrush is very common and after we arrived and set up our tents and started on our walk with our “guide” we quickly had a pair of Amber Rock Thrush right in the campground. Yes, we made a whole trip up to Amber Mountain for a lumped bird but we had nice views of it and when they decide to re-split it, we’ll already have it in the bag. Ring-tailed Vontsira (a red mongoose type mammal) were common around the campground and rather bold, coming within feet of where you might be standing. They were reminiscent of mongoose but much prettier with a rufous and black striped tail. We saw a few camouflaged Leaf-tailed Geckos and the world’s smallest chameleon while with Marcus, but after he attempted to show us pineapple plants as if we had never seen them before and was shocked that we knew the names of certain types of plants such as pandanus and ferns, we began to doubt how knowledgeable he really was. When we asked him what kinds of lemurs were found in the park he didn’t know. How a “guide” doesn’t know the names of Madagascar’s iconic lemurs is beyond me, but luckily we are the type of people who don’t need a guide at all, and are fully capable of finding things ourselves. Such was the case when we spotted Crowned Lemurs up in a tree, one of the two different types of endemic lemurs found at Amber Mountain that we hoped to see.
After taking us down a rather lackluster trail and attempting to show us pineapple plants as if we had never seen them before and constantly talking and making noise, we were about ready to rid ourselves of Marcus. We attempted to do so kindly and explained that we did not need his help finding “the lake”, but he was certain that we did not know how to read our maps and would get lost. Fine, we’ll go with you but it became clear that he was more of a nuisance than anything else. Geoff rode up via our vehicle while Josh, Ross, and I started on the trail with Marcus. Soon Ross and I simply had to have a break of Marcus and agreed to meet up later. We walked up the path to a small waterfall where we had Malagasy Machlite Kingfisher and then a large flock of small birds including Long-billed Berniera, Madagascar White-eye, Common Jery, Souimanga Sunbird, and a Madagascar Coucal that had decide to join the small bird party. On our walk up to the lake Ross and I had excellent views of Sanford Brown Lemurs feeding next to the road, the second of the two endemic lemur species we were hoping to see.
Soon we spotted Geoff and Marcus. Apparently Geoff, in an act of kindness, took Marcus off of Josh’s hands so he could have a break from quite possibly one of the most annoying people we had met thus far in our Madagascar travels. Geoff explained to us that he was hoping to teach Marcus how to act as a bird guide but was not getting very far. Soon he gave up and asked Marcus to follow behind so as to not flush any more Pitta-like Ground-rollers from the trail before he could see them. Just after finding Geoff, we managed to see two Pitta-like Ground-Rollers along the road and shortly afterwards great looks at an Arthur’s Chameleon. The only bird we had left to find was the local subspecies of Spectacled Tetraka and after hearing from Josh that he had a few down near the lake, we decided to venture down that way ourselves and quickly found the local distinct looking form of Spectacled Tetraka. With all possible daytime mammal and bird targets seen, we all headed back to the campground to wait for dusk.
After dark, we had an amazing time walking on the trails around the campground where we managed great looks at the local race of Rainforest Scops-Owl as well as at least two species of chameleon (including the endemic Amber Mountain Chameleon), multiple leaf-tailed geckoos, and both the local species of mouse-lemur and dwarf lemurs.
The next morning we spent the first part of the morning birding around the campsite where we manged great looks at Madagascar Ibis as well as White-throated Rails and more Amber Mountain Rock-Thrushes. By 0730 we decided to leave and start the long 10 hour drive towards our next destination.