Confessions of a tour leader: inside my Madagascar diary

‘There are three of them in the bathroom! One is spread-eagled across the sink!’

Starting in 1983, I sent annual Christmas letters to friends recounting notable happenings of the year. Unlike many of these ‘round robins’, mine didn’t feature the achievements of children or grandchildren but generally the latest disaster of my tour-leading trips.

Madagascar featured heavily – perhaps a fatal combination of inept leadership and a raw, undeveloped, but utterly marvellous country. Here is one of my favourites from 1993 – maybe the most disastrous trip to date.


What happened in Madagascar, you may be wondering? A better question would be, what didn’t happen in Madagascar?

I had a cheery group of 12, two-thirds Americans and one-third Brits. Things went very well for two days. The hotels were nice, the food was good, the sun shone, the people smiled. Then Roland, the local guide, started loading tents on top of the bus. How come? Oh, it’s just possible the hotel in Ranomafana is double booked and there’s no room. Hm, well, we won’t say anything til we know, OK? OK.

So we arrived in Ranomafana to find another group of Brits sitting drinking warm beer while their leader scurried around putting up tents. I mutter consoling words to him…

“Don’t worry, I can see your group are pretty miserable. Oh, ill are they? Well, I’m pretty sure we’ve got rooms and my folks are so wonderfully sporty some of them will actually want to camp, so your sickest people can have our rooms. No, don’t thank me, all part of the job.

“Ah, we’ve not got any rooms. Oh dear, and it’s getting dark. Free drinks for everyone while I put up the tents! What, you fell down and cut your hand? Oh dear… never mind, have another beer while I work out why we don’t quite have enough tents and what to do about it. We’ll go on a night walk and look at all those wonderful nocturnal lemurs. On second thoughts, perhaps we should get a good night’s sleep so we can get up at 04.30 and have a gorgeous dawn hike. Yes! That’s when the rainforest is at its best!

“You don’t expect to sleep a wink, Julian? How about those sleeping pills you were telling me about? Oh, you don’t expect to sleep anyway so no point in taking them. I see. Well, good night – I’m off to sleep in the bus with Roland…”

From bad to worse

Well, after that it was downhill all the way. Tight-lipped, they suffered the gorgeous dawn walk and tight-lipped, they packed up to journey to the coast. On the bus I brightly told them I hadn’t actually been to the town we were heading for, but it seemed a really nice place. Lips compressed even more.

We arrived in a thunderstorm, driving at breakneck speed over several chickens to re-confirm our flight in the Twin Otter the next day. Just made it to the Air Mad office on time. No problem, seats confirmed. But we were to be weighed, with our luggage. Please could we take only the minimum and send the rest back with the bus. David, who is corporally challenged, looked upset.

Up bright and early and to the airport, heart in mouth, small bags in hand. No problem, a shiny little Twin Otter landed, complete with wings and propellers and Roland handed us all our boarding passes. Then Roland called me over to have a word. Problem. Yes, there were seats for all of us. But the problem was, the weight limit was used up because they’d loaded the plane with cans of kerosene. I beetled over to speak to the pilot. No, he couldn’t do anything. No, he couldn’t take it off. Well, he’d just taxi over to the far side of the airstrip and talk to his boss on the radio. He taxied over… and he took off. And we were left.

I was not popular. Air Mad was not popular. Roland was popular because he spoke to the Right People by radio and they promised a plane the next day. It came. We even had two trouble-free days in the lemur reserve with me telling everyone about the wonderful meal we would get in this wonderful hotel overlooking the sea. Yes, indeed it was the hotel we should have stayed in if we’d caught the Twin Otter, but so it goes… So, Air Mad put the flight forward 3 hours giving us 15 minutes to eat a three-course meal.

And from worse… to even worse

Things were falling apart. If people weren’t too angry to speak to me, they were too ill. I had to fetch doctors. They cost a little less than a bottle of wine, and had about the same effect. Never mind, I said to the eight or so who were still turning up for meals, it’s Nosy Be tomorrow and that’s a real holiday.

We got to the airport. No flight. Go to the Hilton, said Air Mad, you can stay there for the night. Now isn’t that lovely, say I through fixed grin, some of you have been saying how much you’d like to stay at the Hilton! We drive to the Hilton. No, they’re full. We drive to the Panorama. One squelches – literally – down the corridor and to one’s room, which smells strongly of mildew.

Carol shoots out of her room.

‘There are three of them in the bathroom! One is spread-eagled across the sink!’

‘What?’

‘Cockroaches!’

I’ll draw a veil over the rest of that day.

Up at 03.00 to get to the airport for the 05.30 flight, which we are assured will go to Nosy Be. Margaret is deathly ill. In between being sick she lies semi-comatose across three seats. Suddenly we are aware of three Air Mad ladies hovering over her. What’s this paper they are waving? It’s a waiver. It says that if Margaret dies on the flight it’s not their fault, she flies at her own risk. Margaret sits up briskly and says she won’t sign it, so they giggle and melt away into the dawn.

Margaret doesn’t die on the flight, but she is the one who falls into the sea when trying to board a boat to go to Lemur Island. She is carrying her very expensive video camera. She is not pleased.


Read more of Hilary’s marvels and mishaps in September’s issue of The Travel Club.