4. Cargo boat from Avalon

So he set sail to the North, but the sea
to him seemed empty and boring and cold.
Volsunga Saga.

D'Ankarafantsika National Park is administered by Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. I always had a lot of respect for the late Gerald Durrell, and I'm happy to see that his vision and genius persist in his heritage. The park has a smart director, a working generator, and every small detail seems to be in place. For example, showers at the campground are probably the only ones in the Afrotropical region where hooks for hanging clothes are not missing.

The journey to Madagascar was Durrell's last. He wrote a book about it called Aye-aye and I. Thanks to the Trust and many other environmental organizations, the deforestation on the island has significantly slowed down, and the borders of protected areas remain mostly intact, which is very unusual for a tropical country.

Now the greatest threat to the dry forests of western Madagascar is fire. Every winter, farmers have to burn dry grass to prevent the pastures from being overgrown by brush. In August, much of the island is covered with smoke. In d'Ankarafantsika, the park scientists figured out how to protect the forest. During the wet season, when grass doesn't burn well, they set small fires along the entire perimeter of the park, creating a firebreak.

The road along the forest edge is a good place to look for grassland wildlife. At night, bushpigs walk out of the forest to feed; long-nosed civets and fossas patrol the road, leaving their footprints in the sand. In one place the road leads to a deep narrow canyon, inhabited by rock thrushes and falcons. The forest is crisscrossed by a network of excellent trails. It's probably the best place on the island to see nocturnal lemurs.

The park has a breeding center for endangered turtles and tortoises, and a beautiful large lake. Every evening, thousands of herons, egrets, ibises, ducks and other birds come here to roost. There is even a nest of extremely rare Madagascar fish-eagles. The lake is a great place to snorkel: lots of colorful tilapia fishes and ghost shrimps, creepy foot-long transparent monsters with thin blue limbs and luminescent eyes. But swimming without a mask is dangerous: Nile crocodiles have eaten a few people here.

While exploring the park, Mary and I are busy trying to choose her a new name. She has to obtain fake documents, so it's better to severe any ties with her past. On the coast, your social background doesn't matter much, but if she ever moves to Tana, it's better to have a more aristocratic name. The Merina don't have slaves, but they have a cast system, and people of "worker" origin have little chance of making it in the capital.

The Merina also don't have much respect for other tribes, but they make an exception for the Sakalava, the only tribe they couldn't conquer and had to make a treaty with. The French, who invaded the island in the late 19th century, also spent a lot of time fighting the Sakalava. Many French soldiers were killed by poisoned blowdarts and spears.

One of the park rangers tells us that a tour company in Mahajanga (the nearby city) is looking for an English-speaking guide. We go there, and after a five-minute interview Mary gets her first job with a reasonably good salary. An extra advantage is that this area gets a lot of American tourists, and they are known for leaving much better tips than the French. It's important: you can live for a week on a good tip.

I try to change my return ticket again, but the clerk at Air Mad office refuses to exchange it, because my visa has expired. It's too late to go to Tana: my plane leaves next morning, and the last bus has left. I manage to change Tana-Nairobi flight to Moroni-Nairobi, and find a cargo boat about to leave for the Comoros.

We rent a small room for Mary, then go to an Internet cafe to print a recommendation letter. I'm glad to see that she still remembers how to use email. There are no ATMs outside Tana, so all I can leave her is two hundred dollars. Half of this money will be spent on bribes to get a fake birth certificate. The rest should be enough for a few months, unless the exchange rate jumps too drastically.

She cries all morning. I promise to return someday. I really would like to come back, but I have no idea how soon I'll have a chance. And I am not so sure she'd be happy to see me a few years later: after all, I'll be the only thing connecting her with her not-so-happy past. The ship slowly moves away from the pier; we keep looking into each other's eyes. The crew is lining the bow, watching Mary. She is so beautiful... And I am already worried sick about her, alone in the city and in the world.

The reddish line of the coast disappears in dry season haze. It's more than 24 hours' sailing to Mayotte, the first of the Comoros. There are no birds and no dolphins in the sea, so I put up my tent on top of a container and try to get some sleep. I'm about to spend two more months in Africa, there will be little time for rest there.

At midnight a sudden shower wakes me up. My tent is made in such a way that wind doesn't tear it, just presses it down. But the camera bag gets covered with wet cloth, and the video camera stops working again for a few days.

When the name Madagascar became the one most used, the old Arab name Jazair al-Komor (Islands of the Moon) was transferred to a group of small volcanic islands halfway towards Africa. They are inhabited by Sunni descendants of immigrants from the Swahili Coast and Yemen. The local language is a dialect of Swahili, but most people can speak French. The Malagasy often come to work, but they are generally not liked after centuries of Sakalava pirates' raids.

In 1974, three islands voted for independence. The fourth one, Mayotte, chose to remain a French colony. It is a peaceful and prosperous place, while the now-independent Union de Comores has had ten military coups in thirty years.

Mayotte is probably the most expensive place in or around Africa, so I return to the ship next evening to continue the journey, and get to the small, quiet island called Moheli. Its southern coast is very beautiful and rich in both forest and marine life.

The ferries between independent islands are cheap, so I take one to the next island. There are no banks or ATMs on Mayotte, but I promise the captain to pay as soon as we get to Anjouan.

Anjouan is a very conservative place. Any attempts by the central government to modernize anything result in hysterical threats to quit the Union. Streets are crossed by covered bridges that allow women to visit relatives without being seen by strangers. Many houses have stone benches so that residents can meet their guests without inviting them inside (where a woman could occasionally be glimpsed). The interior is still forested and has a few nice crater lakes.

The largest island, Grand Comore, is also the only place to get a visa, although I never bother to. The Old City has a few cute narrow streets. Wandering around this little labyrinth, I discover a truly magic place, a souvenir store that looks like an illustration to Arabian Nights. In this enchanted little shop I buy a 100 Mb memory card for my digital camera for only five bucks! Other places of interest include Ancienne Mosqee de Vendredi (Old Friday Mosque, 1427) and an active volcano called Kartala. I am two months late for the most recent eruption, but the densely forested slopes have a lot of interesting birds.

Compared to Madagascar, the Comoros are a bit boring. Or may be I just can't wait to get to Nairobi and find an Internet cafe.

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