Costs and logistics of a RTW trip

Costs and logistics of a RTW trip

Friday, March 23, 2012

Travel costs and information for Norway - Oslo, Tromso, Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)


  • When I visited (March 2012), the exchange rate was about NOK8.9 = £1.
  • Though there are ATMs all over the place so that it's easy to get cash, I found that most businesses actually seem to prefer credit cards - I guess the advantage for them is that they don't have to carry tons of change. 
  • Norway is expensive by any standards, especially for food and drink and alcohol.  You'll be unlikely to get a beer in a restaurant or bar for less than NOK60, and that will probably only be 400ml (i.e. less than 3/4 of a pint) - Norway is the first country I've ever travelled in where the cost of a beer actually put me off the idea of having (another) one.  A main course in a cafe will set you back from NOK140.  I limited myself to eating out every other day (partly for financial reasons, partly because eating as a solo traveller isn't the same experience as dining with others) - the rest of my meals consisted of either bread/ham/cheese bought from a supermarket, or hot paninis/calzones/pizzarolls (usually NOK50-60) bought from corner stores such as 7-11/Narvesen/ICA/Deli de Luca/Kiwi/Rema 1000.
  • No hassle from anyone, and apparently very little crime.
  • Most people that were raised in Norway can speak English, however that won't necessarily be the case for more recent immigrants.
  • Most buildings seem to be well-heated, but not to the point of feeling tropical.
  • Norway is 1 hour ahead of GMT.

4th March 2012 £6.49 EasyBus from Baker Street to Stansted, leaving at 5:20AM (they leave on average every 20 minutes) and taking about an hour (i.e. 15 minutes faster than the schedule).  I bought this ticket about 7 weeks in advance and the bus was full.
4th March 2012 £52.79 Flight (Ryanair) from Stansted to Oslo (Rygge), including the extra payment for having one item of checked luggage.  This left at 8:35AM and took 1 hour 40 minutes (i.e. 30 minutes faster than the schedule).  I bought this ticket about 7 weeks in advance and the flight was full.

  • There's very little in the way of cheap accommodation in Oslo - even a dorm bed will set you back from £25.
  • There are plenty of down-and-outs shuffling around near the central train station and the lower portion of Karl Johans Gate, but I didn't see any trouble.
  • Public transport on the T-bane (subway)/bus/tram network costs at least NOK27 per hour (depending on how you buy your ticket).  Remember to get the ticket validated at the beginning of your journey, as otherwise you could be liable for a fine if an inspector checks your ticket and finds it unvalidated.  I didn't see an inspector on any of my journeys - there's no way that such an "honour" system would work in the UK.  You can get 24 hour tickets as well as for longer periods.  Taxis start at NOK80 so they really aren't worth it unless you have no other option.
  • The National Gallery is free to visit on a Sunday (vs NOK50 any other day of the week).  You can take pictures anywhere inside except for the Munch Room, which contains (among other pictures) one of two painted versions of "The Scream" (the other is in the Munch Museum).
  • You can walk right up to the Royal Palace (Det Kongelige Slottet) but the only way you can see inside is via guided tour, and they only run in the summer.
  • Cafe Sara in Grunerlokka had a good atmosphere for dinner and/or drinks, and was relatively inexpensive.
  • It takes about 30 minutes to walk to the Vigeland Sculpture Park from central Oslo.
  • There is free wifi at the Opera House, Use It (Mollergata 3), and La Baguette (Jembanetorget), among others.
  • There are free toilets at the Opera House, Use It (Mollergata 3), Akershus, Glasmagasinet (2nd floor, Stortorvet 1B), Paleet (2nd floor, Karl Johans Gate), and City Hall.

4th March 2012 NOK140 Rygge Express bus from Rygge airport to Oslo central bus station, taking about an hour.  Apparently this bus runs based on the plane arrivals at the airport, however you would be advised to hurry to get on it, as if it fills up (like mine did - I got the last seat) then you will have to wait for the next one.  I think incoming flights are frequent enough that the next bus won't be more than 30 minutes or so away.
4th March 2012 £63 (Average) nightly cost for a single ensuite room at the P-Hotels hotel on Grensen.  I booked this about 7 weeks in advance, making use of a 10% discount voucher from Expedia.  The room was compact but fine, with a single bed, TV, radiator, free wifi (though the signal sometimes faded out in my room), and breakfast (a pack of sandwiches, a carton of fruit juice, and a piece of fruit, which is left in a bag outside your room each morning).  The bathroom floor is heated, which is a nice welcome first thing in the morning - it's also handy if you've washed some socks/undies and need somewhere for them to dry.
5th March 2012 NOK340 48-hour Oslo Pass, bought from Tourist Information.  The cost of the pass this year should actually be NOK395, but there had been some (unspecified) errors in the 2012 batch of passes so they were still selling the 2011 passes at the 2011 price (though with all the functionality of the 2012 pass).  The pass enables you to enter over 30 museums for free, as well as having free transport on the subway/bus/tram routes, not to mention providing discounts at some restaurants.  It's also available in 24-hour and 72-hour versions.  With most museums costing at least NOK50 (though some are up to NOK100), and transport costing at least NOK27 per trip, the pass can represent great value if you intend visiting several museums - even though I did a lot of walking, I still got about NOK700-worth of entries and transport out of my pass, i.e. it paid for itself twice over.  Remember that the opening days/hours of museums vary, with one factor being the time of the year, so make sure to plan your visits to make optimal use of the Oslo Pass.  Here is a list of the museums which have free entry with the Oslo Pass (note that some of them are free anyway), together with their opening hours and normal entry fees (as far as I could establish for the period when I was there), and other comments where appropriate.  Several of the most interesting museums (e.g. Fram Museum, Viking Ship Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, and Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) are on the Bygdøy peninsula, which can be reached on the No. 30 bus from central Oslo, taking about 20 minutes (in the summer you can alternatively take a ferry).

  • Akershus Castle (Festning) (Sa/Su 12-5, NOK70)
  • Armed Forces Museum (Tu-F 10-4, Sa/Su 11-5, FREE)
  • DogA (Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture) (M/Th/F 10-5, W/Th 10-8, Sa/Su 12-5, FREE)
  • Film Museum (Tu/W/F 12-5, Th 12-7, Sa 12-4:30, FREE)
  • Football Museum (M-F 10-3:30, NOK90)
  • Fram Museum (M-Su 10-4, NOK60).  Contains the Fram, the ship built for Nansen's (unsuccessful) expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage.  The Fram achieved its main fame by being Amundsen's ship on his successful South Pole expedition - near the museum building there is a monument to the 5 men who reached the South Pole, unveiled by the King on 14th December 2011.  Outside the museum is the Gjoa, the ship in which Amundsen successfully navigated the Northwest Passage.
  • Historical Museum (Tu-Su 11-4, NOK50)  There is currently an "Arctic Experts" exhibition here about the indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic regions.  Though you probably won't have come to Norway to look at Egyptian sarcophagi, bear in mind that at least you can take photos of the ones here - unlike in either the Cairo or Luxor Museums.
  • Holmenkollen Ski Museum and Tower (M-Su 10-4, NOK100).  It takes about 30 minutes to get to Holmenkollen on the T-Bane from central Oslo, then another 15 minutes by foot to get to the ski jump and museum.  The museum supposedly contains Scott's skis from his doomed South Pole expedition but I couldn't find them.  Note that you need to go through the sliding door on the left when you exit the Tower lift in order to find some stairs to get to the viewing platform right at the top of the Tower.
  • Holocaust Centre (M-Su 9:30-4, NOK50)
  • Ibsen Museum (M-W/F-Su 11-4, Th 11-6, NOK85 (?)) Can only be visited on a tour, on the hour.
  • Intercultural Museum (Tu-Su 11-4, FREE)
  • International Museum of Children's Art (Tu-Th 9:30-2, Su 11-4, NOK60)
  • Kon-Tiki Museum (M-Su 10-5, NOK70)  This contains the Kon-Tiki as well as Ra 2, boats that were used by Thor Heyerdahl to demonstrate how people of the ancient world, using ancient technologies, could have navigated the seas - in particular, his Kon-Tiki voyage was intended to show that Easter Island could have been settled from South America (the prevailing wisdom is that it was settled from Polynesia).
  • Munch Museum (Tu/W/F/Sa 10-4, Th 10-8, Su 10-5, NOK95 (?))  Note that you have to leave any bags in a locker room, and you have to pass through an X-ray machine to get in.  Note also that there is a painting of "The Scream" in the National Gallery as well as here, however photography is allowed everywhere in the Munch Museum (but not in the Munch Room of the National Gallery).
  • Museum of Decorative Arts and Design (Tu/W/F 11-5, Th 11-7, Sa/Su 12-4, NOK50 but FREE at the weekend)
  • National Gallery (Tu/W/F 10-6, Th 10-7, Sa/Su 11-5, NOK50 but FREE at the weekend).  You can take photos in here except in the Munch Room, so if you want a photo of "The Scream" then you will need to go to the Munch Museum, which also has a version of the painting.
  • National Library (M-F 9-7, Sa 9-2, FREE)
  • National Museum - Architecture (Tu/W/F 11-5, Th 11-7, Sa/Su 12-5, NOK50 but FREE at the weekend)
  • National Museum of Contemporary Art (Tu/W/F 11-5, Th 11-7, Sa/Su 12-5, NOK50 but FREE at the weekend)
  • Natural History Museum (Tu-Su 11-4, NOK50)
  • Nobel Peace Centre (Tu-Su 10-6, NOK80)
  • Norway's Resistance Museum (M-F 10-4, Sa/Su 11-4, NOK50)
  • Norwegian Maritime Museum (Tu-F 10-3, Sa/Su 10-4, NOK60) NB this doesn't seem to be open on Monday, unlike the rest of the museums on the Bygdøy peninsula. 
  • Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (M-F 11-3, Sa/Su 11-4, NOK100)  This contains about 150 buildings from different eras and different parts of Norway, as well as various exhibitions (including one devoted to Sami life).  Unfortunately the stave church is currently undergoing renovation so you can't see any part of it at all.  There was also a lot of snow and ice on some of the walkways, which made for exciting walking.
  • Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology (Tu-F 9-4, Sa/Su 11-6, NOK90)
  • Norwegian Telecom Museum (Tu-F 9-4, Sa/Su 11-6, NOK90)
  • Oslo Cathedral (FREE)
  • Oslo City Hall (M-Su 9-6, FREE)
  • Oslo City Museum (Tu-Su 11-4, FREE)
  • Oslo Reptile Park (Tu-Su 10-6, NOK100)
  • Vigeland Museum (Tu-Su 12-4, NOK50)
  • Viking Ship Museum (M-Su 10-4, NOK60)  This contains the best-preserved Viking longboats ever found.
  • Voksenasen Gallery (M-Su ?, FREE)
8th March 2012 NOK150 Flybussen express bus from outside the Best Western on Grensen to Gardermoen, taking about an hour.  These buses run about every 20 minutes.
8th March 2012 £51.90 Flight (SAS) from Oslo (Gardermoen) to Tromso, leaving at 10:30AM and taking 1 hr 20 minutes (i.e. 30 minutes faster than the schedule).  SAS ticket prices already include one item of checked luggage.  I bought this ticket about 7 weeks in advance, but the flight was nowhere near full. 

  • At this time of year, there's still plenty of snow and ice around.  I found these grips to be invaluable:
  • Obviously you shouldn't wear them inside but they're so easy to take on/off that it's no big deal bearing that in mind.  I had no problems wearing these on a pair of size 11 hiking boots.
  • Eurospar has a massive selection of ham/cheese/bread so you can make sandwiches on the "cheap" if you don't fancy dropping large wodges of cash by eating out all the time.  Sample prices are packet of sliced ham (NOK33.5), packet of cookies (NOK11.9), diet cola 1.5l (NOK12.4), packet of cheese slices (NOK35), and pack of "Ryvita" (NOK10).   
  • There is apparently free Internet at the public library, and free wifi at Burger King, Peppes Pizza, and Kafe Verdensteatret (among others).
  • Solid Cafe on Storgata is a lively bar in the evening.
  • De 4 Roser on Gronnegata is a decent, relatively inexpensive cafe (they also have an upstairs restaurant), but it was pretty dead when I visited on a Saturday evening.
  • Many shops are closed on Sunday (including Tromso Souvenirs and Eurospar).
  • Most restaurants are closed on Sunday evening.
  • Postcard stamps to elsewhere in Europe are NOK13.
  • Two things I didn't do were go on a tour of the Mack brewery (at 1PM, minimum 4 people) or go up the cable car (runs every 30 minutes between about 11AM and 3:30PM - NOK120).
  • I think bus tickets are NOK26 for one hour - if you intend making multiple journeys, I think you can get a 24 hour ticket.
8th March 2012 NOK90 Return ticket on the express bus from Tromso airport to central Tromso, taking about 15 minutes.  The return is valid for a month.  The express bus runs every 30 minutes or so during the day but, for getting to the airport, if you have one of the earlier flights then definitely check the timetable as the service is much less frequent first thing.  The public bus is only NOK26 (?) each way, but I figured that with luggage it would be less convenient.
8th March 2012 NOK720 Nightly cost for a single ensuite room at the Viking Hotel on Gronnegata.  I booked this about 7 weeks in advance.  The room was compact but fine, with a single bed, TV, fridge, radiator, free wifi, and a good eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet breakfast.  The bathroom floor is heated, which is a nice welcome first thing in the morning - it's also handy if you've washed some socks/undies and need somewhere for them to dry.  However the sink is rather small and doesn't appear to have a plug, making it less than ideal for doing the washing in the first place.
9th March 2012 NOK35 Entry fee to the Arctic Ocean Cathedral (Ishavskatedralen).  Note that they only accept cash.
10th March 2012 NOK105 Entry fee to Polaria.
11th March 2012 NOK50 Entry fee to the Polar Museum.
13th March 2012 £112.10 Flights (SAS) from Tromso to Oslo (Gardermoen) then Oslo (Gardermoen) to London Heathrow, leaving at 10:15AM and taking 1 hr 50 minutes and leaving at 3:05PM and taking 2 hrs 20 minutes respectively.  SAS ticket prices already include one item of checked luggage.  I booked these flights about 2 months in advance.

Seeing the Northern Lights in/near Tromso
There are numerous pieces of advice scattered all over the web related to this topic, but I didn't find one post that combined all the information that I found useful in my pre-trip planning - plus when I actually got to Tromso I realised that there was some information that I hadn't found anywhere.  The aim of this post is to summarise in one place what I learned.  I visited Tromso between 8th and 13th March 2012, meaning I had 5 nights in which to hopefully see the aurora.

There are several variables to take into account if you're hoping to see the Northern Lights.  The first is WHEN to go.  Ideally you want to go at a time when there are plenty of hours of darkness, so that there is the greatest contrast with the aurora.  This generally means the winter time in the Northern Hemisphere.  For Tromso, that means between September and March.  In fact September and March are considered to be THE best months for aurora viewing near Tromso, because the sunspot activity that leads to the Northern Lights is at a peak around the equinoxes, plus the weather tends to be cloudier (meaning the Northern Lights won't be visible) during the real depths of winter.

As for what time of day to look, in theory you could see the Northern Lights any time the sky is dark, but in practice the best period to look is between 8PM and 2AM.

The second variable is WHERE to go.  You need to be somewhere within the aurora zone, which covers parts of northern Scandinavia (including Tromso), Iceland, and parts of northern Canada and Alaska.  I can only speak of Tromso, and there are several reasons why it is probably the most popular base for viewing the Northern Lights.  One is that it has an airport, so it is easy to get to.  It is a major town (by Arctic Circle standards) so there are things to keep you occupied during the daytime.  And it is on the west coast of Norway so its climate is affected by the Gulf Stream - this makes it relatively warm compared to most of the other potential viewing places.  Tromso also has a fairly active nightlife, which unfortunately you probably won't see much of because you'll be out looking for the Northern Lights :-)

As for where to go locally, you need to be somewhere with as little cloud as possible (though you may be able to see a strong aurora display even through cloud).  In Tromso's case, there is often coastal cloud so you may need to go inland (which will also be colder) or further up/down the coast, depending on the forecast.  Also, because of Tromso's size, there is a fair amount of light pollution meaning that any viewings you have within the town will not be as clear as if you were in the middle of the countryside.  (Some of the resorts you can visit in Canada/Alaska have strict light policies specifically to help reduce the problem of light pollution, but you can't really do that in a town of 70,000 people.)

If you decide to chance your arm in Tromso itself, suggested places are the cemetery behind the town or (continuing up the hill to the top) the lake (Prestvannet).  Apparently the Tromso Camping area (beyond the Arctic Ocean Cathedral) also has reduced light pollution.

However because of the light pollution and coastal cloud, you are most likely to have Northern Lights success if you get out of Tromso.  There are 3 ways that you can do this.  

Firstly, you can use public buses to get away from the town.  The downsides to this are that you won't get any great distance away from Tromso, you're limited as to how long you can stay out as you will need to get a bus back to the town (I think the public buses stop running at 11:30PM), and you'll be outside for the duration of your viewing time (i.e. you'll have nowhere to warm up). 

The second option is to hire a car.  I was told that this would cost about NOK600 for a day (not including fuel) so it is an expensive option for a solo traveller (cf the cost for a tour below).  In addition, it's not everyone that wants to be negotiating wintry roads in an area they don't know in the dark.  But if that doesn't bother you, and you have a map and a weather forecast, then hiring a car might be a good option.  You also have somewhere to keep warm.

The final option, which is the most popular, is to go on a tour.  The guides all rely on the weather forecast as well as local knowledge and possibly their own network of spotters in order to find areas where there is little cloud and hopefully a decent Northern Lights display.  Tours cost anything from NOK700 upwards.  Though there may well be differences between tours in terms of how knowledgeable the guide is about the aurora, how much the guide can help you with setting up your camera gear, the quality of the chocolate cake and hot drink that you get, etc, the main difference is how long the guide is prepared to drive around for - and also how far they are prepared to drive - in order to find the Northern Lights.

There are a number of companies offering tours from Tromso.  The information I will give below is mainly gleaned from the Tromso Tourist Information booklet.  You can book tours directly through an individual company, via Tourist Information, or (probably) via your hotel.  It doesn't seem necessary to book in advance unless you want to go with one of the famous guides such as Kjetil "Joanna Lumley" Skogli or Guide Gunnar (who tend to be booked up weeks in advance), so you can simply book on the day.

Anyone selling tours will have access to both the weather forecast and the aurora forecast, which you may choose to look at to see if it's worth going out that night.  Note that these forecasts are not guarantees of anything!  For example, the first night I was in Tromso, the aurora forecast was the best they'd seen in 5 years.  I went on a tour, we had a decent amount of clear sky, and we didn't see even a sliver of the aurora.  My fifth night in Tromso, the aurora and weather forecasts were both better than for the previous night when people had seen good displays - I went on a tour again, and didn't see much either.

All tours described below leave Tromso at around 7PM.  Make sure you have dinner beforehand, as there won't be much open when you return.  If you need the loo on the tour, just find somewhere where no-one can see you and go ... 

Natur i Nord (Natur i Nord's website)
The main guide with Natur i Nord is Ivar.  His trips cost NOK700.  There were 2 minibuses on my trip, though I don't know if he would increase that number if more people signed up.  As he says in his preamble, he aims to return to Tromso for midnight - on my trip, we got back at about 12:15AM.  This makes this tour one of the shorter ones on offer, and means that it misses a good chunk of the night.  On my trip we had our best sighting of the Northern Lights on the way back to Tromso, which meant that we only stopped for about 10 minutes to enjoy it.

Ivar himself is friendly and seemed to make the effort to say something to each of his customers.  While driving out of Tromso, he put on a video/slideshow that explained the science behind the Northern Lights as well as their occurrence in Scandinavian folklore.  Every time we stopped, he left the engine running in the minibus so that you could stay in the warmth if you didn't fancy standing outside.  We were given a mug of hot chocolate and a slice of chocolate cake for sustenance.

Verdict: my only quibble with Natur i Nord would be that the tour time is shorter than the other tours. 

Scan Adventure/Adventures
The main guide with Scan Adventure is Karina - the company has been going since November 2010.  Her trips cost NOK700.  We didn't return to Tromso until 2AM, making this a long trip durationwise, which sadly produced absolutely nothing in the way of aurora sightings.  She is a keen photographer so can help you with your camera settings if necessary.  Each customer is also provided with a torch.

Karina didn't give any kind of spiel about the Northern Lights other than mentioning a couple of folk tales associated with them.  She didn't mingle much with the guests during the tour either.  She also said on multiple occasions that she had actually wanted to spend the evening with her accountant but had been persuaded to come out because the aurora forecast was so good - though this was said in a jokey manner, I didn't need to hear it so often.  But my biggest quibble was that whenever we stopped, she turned off the minibus engine meaning that there was nowhere warm to go to - this was on a cold (and extremely windy) night too.  Every review I'd read of any Northern Lights tour had mentioned that you could always get back in the minibus if you were cold, so it was an unpleasant surprise to find that that wasn't the case (at least on this tour), especially as I'd not worn my thermal leggings and other layers because I hadn't been expecting to be in the cold for so long.  We were offered a hot drink and a slice of carrot cake for sustenance.

Verdict: a good duration though we didn't drive that far, but make sure you wear all your cold-weather clothing if you take this tour! 

Kjetil Skogli (Kjetil Skogli's website)
This chap was Joanna Lumley's guide when she saw the Northern Lights.  His tours cost NOK1,750 (i.e. much more than the other tours) but he seems to take fewer guests, he drives further than the cheap tours (e.g. into Finland), and as a professional photographer he can no doubt provide useful tips if you're having problems with your camera.  His website says that his tours generally return between 1 and 2AM but there's flexibility.  Even so, that's one heck of a price! 

Guide Gunnar (Guide Gunnar's website)
This guy is also very popular.  His tours cost NOK950 and he seems to drive similar distances to Kjetil Skogli (the duration is listed as 6-8 hours). 

Arctic Fishing Adventures (Arctic Fishing Adventures website)
Despite their name, this company also does Northern Lights tours.  They charge NOK1,290 for tours that can range as far as Kjetil Skogli and Guide Gunnar's (the duration is listed as 6-8 hours). 

Arctic Guide Service (Arctic Guide Service's website)
This company charges NOK850 and they also drive reasonable distances (the duration is listed as up to 7 hours).  Tromso Tourist Information said that this company takes out as many vehicles as necessary (they do tours for passengers from the Hurtigruten ferry) so in theory they should always have a seat available. 

Arctic Pathfinder (Arctic Pathfinder's website)
This company charges NOK995.  It looks like their vehicle is just a Toyota RAV4 (i.e. only a few passenger seats), so for this price I would imagine that means they don't drive very far (the duration is listed as 5 hours). 

These companies and others also offer tours including dog-sledding, snow-shoeing, visiting Sami households, taking the ferry, etc combined with viewing the Northern Lights but I can't really say anything about those as I neither researched them nor took part in any of those activities. 

My experience
I don't like tours so I decided that I would only take 2 tours and on the other 3 nights I would do my own thing.  The forecast for my first night was so good that I booked a tour with Scan Adventure and, as mentioned, we saw nothing.  I wasn't enormously impressed with that tour for the reasons mentioned above, which made me even less inclined to take further tours in case they were all similar.  My second night, I walked up to Tromso cemetery to see if I could see anything from there, and in fact got the best aurora sighting that I was to have on my whole trip - it certainly wasn't brilliant, but it was definitely green (with the naked eye).  Unfortunately it only lasted for a couple of minutes, then cloud came over for the rest of the evening.  My third and fourth nights, it snowed constantly in Tromso and the forecast wasn't good elsewhere either so I neither went out on my own nor on a tour.  My final night, I took a tour with Natur i Nord and, though the tour was better run than the Scan Adventure one, we saw only the faintest glimpses of aurora (which looked like faint cloud to the naked eye and only looked green after a 30 second exposure on my camera), plus we only spent 10 minutes at the best spot because the tour was due to end. 

From my own experience, I would recommend that you take a tour EVERY night until such time as you have seen the Northern Lights.  I think I was unlucky that in 5 nights I had 2 tours with meagre results, 2 nights of snowing in Tromso, and 1 night in Tromso with a quick glimpse of the aurora, but it just shows that it can happen!  Even more frustratingly, people that I spoke to subsequently had seen decent displays on tours on the nights that I didn't go out.

Also, if I was to go again (which I probably will ...), I would try out Guide Gunnar and/or Arctic Guide Service, as they seem to offer the best combination of price/distance/duration.  I regret now going for the cheaper options.  Of course, the Northern Lights don't discriminate between who they appear to, but if you want to maximise your chances then it seems to make sense to pay that bit extra to be on a longer tour that goes further.  I think I was made overly optimistic by the fact that 95% of all the trip reports I'd read had resulted in people seeing the aurora.

Note also that there's hardly anything open in Tromso on Sunday evening in the way of restaurants or bars, so this is an ideal night to take a tour! 

Photographing the Northern Lights
The best site I found for information regarding photographing the Northern Lights was this one.  However note that this guy is operating in a much colder part of the aurora zone, so that some of the problems he outlines (short battery life, ice on the lens, condensation when going into a warm environment, effect of the cold on plastic parts, etc) will probably not be a big deal near Tromso.

Since that article is quite a long read, I would summarise it as follows:

  • You need a tripod.
  • You need a lens with an aperture of at least f2.8, preferably larger (i.e. a smaller f number), and set it to be wide open.
  • Remove all filters on your lens.
  • Don't bump up the ISO too high or the graininess of the resulting photos will be unacceptable - how high is too high will depend on your camera (e.g. ISO1600 is about the limit on a Canon 50D, but you wouldn't want anything more than about ISO200 on most point-and-shoot cameras).
  • As a very rough guide (it's difficult to generalise across cameras), if you have a f2.8 lens, start with ISO400 and an exposure time of 30 seconds then adjust from there.
  • Shoot in RAW if possible so that you have the most flexibility in post-production.
  • Set the white balance to automatic (though that doesn't matter if you're shooting in RAW), pre-set the focus to infinity (which may not be as easy as you think - see the article), and activate any inbuilt software for long exposure noise reduction.
  • To ensure minimal vibrations, use mirror lock-up and a cable release.
  • Bring a head torch so that you aren't left fumbling in the dark.  However bear in mind that ANY light will ruin your (and your companions') night vision, so use no light if possible or a red light.
  • To aid in not needing a light, practice setting up your stuff at home so that you're familiar with the procedure and with your equipment.
  • Make sure you have adequate cold weather gear (or at least a warm vehicle to retreat to!).  My Tromso viewing outfit - and bear in mind Tromso is relatively "warm" - was a T-shirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a fleece, a woollen sweater, a windproof jacket, thermal leggings (Marks and Spencers' best), jeans, woollen gloves inside a pair of Thinsulate gloves, scarf, woolly hat, woollen socks inside a pair of cotton socks, and a pair of Goretex hiking boots.  This was just about acceptable, when coupled with a bit of stomping around occasionally to get the blood flowing, though I would advise having a jacket/coat with a hood as if it's snowing a woolly hat just gets wet.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Travel costs and information for Madagascar - Antananarivo, Miandrivazo, Tsiribihina River, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Belo sur Tsiribihina, Antsirabe, Fianarantsoa, Ambalavao, Ranomafana National Park, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park

Note that all information in here was valid at the time (September 2009) - it may well have changed since.  It's also possible that I was ripped off, that I did some exceptional haggling, or that I accepted a price that I should have haggled over :-)  Currency indicators are £ (British pound), $ (US dollar), and Ar (Malagasy ariary).  At the time, the official exchange rates were roughly Ar1,800=$1 and Ar1,100=£1.


  • A fair amount of hassle, in particular from pousse-pousse (rickshaw) and taxi drivers.  Also, in Tana, from vendors of everything from vanilla to newspapers.  You can expect to be mobbed at taxi-brousse (minibus) stations, as the various companies compete for your custom - sometimes the touts may come to blows, but you personally should be safe.  Usually there is a price list in the company's office so you can check the price.  I didn't always have this information, but I think I was only overcharged a couple of times (in maybe a dozen journeys).
  • Transport is generally not too crowded, and it's always worth asking for one of the more comfortable seats up front next to the driver or in the first row of passengers - you may be given one of these anyway, as a foreigner.  If possible you should book your seat in advance.  However even the good roads are single lane only and can wind all over the place, so journeys can take a loooooong time.  No transport leaves until it is full, so try to make sure you pick a vehicle that nearly has a full complement of passengers.  Try not to pay until the minibus is about to leave, as once you've handed over your money then you're committed to that vehicle!  Luggage generally goes on the roof.  You'll probably be asked for your name when you buy a ticket.
  • Due to how long the journeys can be, if you are only in Madagascar for a couple of weeks you would be advised to hire a car and driver, as otherwise you will spend too much time simply getting from A to B.
  • French is the main European language here, but some English is spoken too.  Madagascar is the first country I've ever been to (other than France) where French tourists seem to be in the majority.
  • All the ATMs I tried would accept my Mastercard ATM card (didn't try Visa).
  • It's hot and humid at this time of year! 
  • Even though it's expensive to get to Madagascar, the country itself is cheap to travel around - exceptions are items like sunscreen (generally more than Ar30,000!)  Batteries are also expensive - Ar20,000 for a 4-pack of Kodaks, with no sign of any Energizer or Duracell.  I had a heck of a job finding a battery charger for AA batteries when mine decided to give up the ghost, and ended up having to buy one for a random brand I'd never heard of before (Ar44,500 for a Upin charger with 4 batteries - it charged OK, but took about 8 hours to do so!).
  • The main beer is Three Horses Beer, more commonly known as THB but pronounced as if it was French, i.e. Tay-Aitch-Bay. 
  • Malagasy dishes are usually half the price of Western ones, even in restaurants offering both. 
  • Bear in mind that doctors in Madagascar only earn Ar17,000 per day so guiding rates are really high by comparison.  This can be misleading if, say, the guide is only able to get work once a week or month, but do bear a doctor's wage in mind when you're thinking about what (if anything) to tip!
  • Don't be tempted to try Bonbon Anglais - it's a disgustingly sweet soft drink.

22nd September 2009 When I visited, the 30 day visa was free, in an attempt to boost tourism (which had been hurt by political violence), but I think that there's now a charge. 

Antananarivo (aka Tana)

  • Having searched in several countries for a reasonably-priced place in which I could burn all my camera cards to CD or DVD, I was ecstatic to find an Internet cafe right next to Hotel Niaouly that burned 3GB of photos to DVD and made an additional copy, all for the princely sum of Ar3,700 - most of the guys working there speak English.  Internet access was Ar60 per minute and quite fast, though you may want to change the keyboard settings from French to English.
  • Watch out for pickpockets on Ave de la Independence. 
  • A guy tried to charge me Ar5,000 to see the Monument aux Morts (i.e. the column with an angel on it) in Lac Anosy.  No idea if this was a scam, but the views from pretty much anywhere around the lake (for free) were fine.
22nd September 2009 Ar30,000 Taxi from Tana airport to Hotel Niaouly, taking about 30 minutes.  I'd booked my room (and taxi) in advance.  The Hotel Niaouly taxi guy, Justin, charges more than if you caught a taxi in the street, but he speaks English, is friendly and helpful, and doesn't drive like a madman.
22nd September 2009 Ar25,000 Nightly rate for a private ensuite room at Hotel Niaouly, including towel, soap, and a great view.  There's also free wifi.  Note that the plugs in this hotel seem to require an earth pin (above and beyond a typical European plug) but I didn't find this anywhere else in Madagascar.  The address is Lot VE49, Ambatovinaky, Antananarivo 101, not far from Place Rabetafika - it's up a hill from the centre of town so can feel like a bit of a slog.  It's owned by a French guy and his Malagasy wife, and is very nice indeed - good restaurant too.  The owner speaks good English, the rest of the staff not so great.  At the time, it wasn't in the Lonely Planet so only attracted French tourists, but I think it's now listed and hence no doubt has backpackers from all over the place.  Justin the taxi guy offers various tours as well as lifts to/from the airport and taxi-brousse stations - for the latter, he can be helpful in tracking down the cheapest, soonest-leaving taxi-brousse.
24th September 2009 Ar10,000 Haircut in the Colbert hotel.  The barber spoke no English but the combination of my dodgy French and a photo I had of me with short hair did the business.
25th September 2009 Ar8,000 Taxi fare (with Justin) from Hotel Niaouly to the southern taxi-brousse station.  We were still a couple of hundred metres from the station, moving in slow traffic, when a crowd of guys gradually started forming around the taxi, all shouting in French asking where I wanted to go.  This got more frenzied once we'd stopped and gotten out of the car.  Justin found me a suitable taxi-brousse and I then sat waiting for it to fill up, watching several more foreigners come into the vicinity and be mobbed!
25th September 2009 Ar8,000 Taxi-brousse fare from Tana to Antsirabe, leaving at about 9:20AM and taking about 3 hours 40 minutes (for ~160km), including a food stop and about 10 police/army checkpoints.  I had to wait about 1 hour 20 minutes for this to fill up in Tana. 

Lots of pousse-pousse hassle but if you walk against the flow of traffic then you can keep it minimised.
25th September 2009 Ar19,000 Nightly rate for a private room with shared bathroom (hot showers) at Chez Billy, which I'd booked in advance, including a towel.  Billy speaks decent English as well as French.  This place has a nice restaurant, though it attracts a lot of French tourists, meaning your meals will be taken in a smoke-filled room - not to everyone's taste.  It's about 25 minutes by pousse-pousse from the taxi-brousse station.  Though I had no issues with the accommodation or food, some of the other aspects of the place were less agreeable.  I'll deal with the tours they organise a bit later, but here's another bone of contention - I was met (unasked) at the Antsirabe taxi-brousse station by a pousse-pousse driver and an English-speaking guide from Chez Billy.  This put me in the awkward position of having to take the pousse-pousse when I had no idea what it should cost - the guide refused to tell me what it should be, and I ended up paying more than twice the "real" price (should be Ar2,000).  I don't mind so much getting screwed over a price in the street, but when a hotel sends transport specifically to screw me, I'm a little less tolerant.
27th September 2009 Ar840,000 7 day/6 night Tsiribihina "safari".  I would NOT recommend doing this through Chez Billy, for reasons given below, however I think most companies do pretty much the same itinerary:
Day 1 Drive (private minibus) to Miandrivazo, leaving Antsirabe mid-morning and taking about 4 hours 45 minutes, including a 30 minute lunch break at a rather grim roadside cafe.  Had a private room (with basic shared bathroom) at Gite de la Tsiribihina, with fan, sink, mossie net and towel.  The owner speaks some English and the food is fine.  Dinner (not included) at the Gite.
Day 2 Breakfast (not included) wherever you like.  Head off down the Tsiribihina river by pirogue (dug-out canoe) at 8:30AM.  We were split into 2 pirogues - one containing 2 tourists, a cook, the guide's girlfriend, and the piroguier, the other containing 3 tourists, another cook, the guide, and a second piroguier.  Nice picnic lunch in a shady spot.  Back on the river until 5:30PM.  Set up camp.  Dinner.
Day 3 Breakfast at 7AM.  Back on the river at 8AM.  Lunch at about 12:30PM near a waterfall and a couple of natural pools (the entries to the pools are really slippery due to moss cover) - a much-needed opportunity to cool down.  Back on the river from 2:30PM to 5:15PM.  Set up camp.  Dinner.
Day 4 Breakfast.  Back on the river from 6:20AM to 1:15PM.  Lunch in a restaurant shack filled with tourists from all the other boats.  Travel by zebu cart for about 1 hour 15 minutes to a nearby village - perched on top of your luggage in the cart, and with mud/water/shit being thrown up by the zebus' feet, this isn't necessarily as pastoral an experience as you might imagine.  Drive 1 hour by 4WD from the village to a ferry, then a 30 minute ferry ride, then a 20 minute drive to Belo-sur-Tsiribihina.  Private room with ensuite bathroom (hot water) in the Hotel Karibo, including mossie net, towel, fan, and TV.  I think rooms here are normally Ar20,000, but ours were included in the trip price.  2 further guys were added to our group here.  Dinner (not included) in the hotel.
Day 5 Breakfast (not included) wherever you like.  Left by 4WD at 10:20AM, getting to a river (don't know which one!) at 2:10PM (had a 15 minute break part way through), then a short ferry ride, then to the camp just beyond (don't know the name but it's near the Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha.)  Set up tent.  There are bucket showers and squat toilets here, as well as Restaurant Generation (or Chez Olivier - couldn't quite figure out from the sign what its name was) where we had all our meals.  Lunch and dinner (neither included) at Restaurant Generation.
Day 6 Breakfast (not included) at Restaurant Generation.  Drive to Grand Tsingy in morning, taking just over an hour down a bad road.  We stopped at the main park office (about 20 minutes' drive) to pick up a guide, but I couldn't understand a word he said and the others said his French was appalling.  We were issued with climbing harnesses which you could clip onto the safety cables for going up/down ladders, but a bigger danger is cutting yourself on the tsingy themselves.  Don't point at things in the tsingy with an extended finger as that's fady - use your knuckle instead.  It was roasting here so, with the exertions of climbing, you'll need LOTS of water.  The "walk" took about 3 hours, during which we also saw several lemurs.  We were then given the option of doing another walk (taking 2 hours and costing extra), but the group as a whole declined.  Lunch was a baguette.  After relaxing back at the camp for a couple of hours, we went to the Petit Tsingy - a 5 minute walk from the camp.  These also involve some climbing and there are steel cables in place, but we weren't given the harnesses this time.  More lemurs.  Night walk (Ar10,000) from the main park office, lasting about an hour.  Saw various lemurs (including a mouse lemur), chameleons, and a snake.  Dinner (included) at Restaurant Generation.
Day 7 Disaster today.  No meals included.  In theory, we should have driven back to Belo and then on to Morondava, hitting the famous Avenue de Baobabs near sunset.  That didn't happen, so read on to see what did!  Left camp at about 7:30AM by 4WD.  Had a break after a couple of hours, but the driver couldn't restart the 4WD.  The guide hitched a lift to Belo with the intention of sending a replacement 4WD - this was going to be a long wait as we were about 1 hour 45 minutes away from Belo.  After waiting for a couple of hours, 3 of us were able to get a lift too (bear in mind that this track didn't get much traffic at all), and when we found the guide he said that the back-up 4WD was coming from Morondava, about 4 hours further south of Belo!  So the others had to wait stuck in the middle of nowhere, but eventually were able to hitch back too, arriving in Belo at about 9PM - they still beat the replacement 4WD!  This meant we had to stay the night unexpectedly in Belo, which the guide paid for only reluctantly, and even then he made all the guys sleep in 1 room and all the girls in another.
Day 8 Disaster today too!  No meals included.  Left Belo at about 8AM in the replacement 4WD.  After about 4 hours the steering broke but was fixed.  Shortly after, the rear axle sheared in two (!), fortunately while we were going quite slowly.  We had to carry our stuff a couple of km to the nearest village then hitch a ride in the back of an eighteen-wheeler.  So instead of seeing the Avenue of Baobabs at our leisure at sunset yesterday, we saw them in the middle of the day from the back of a bucking, jerking lorry.  We stopped at a village about 14km from Morondava, where 3 of us took a (private) taxi-brousse back to Antsirabe with the guide (costing Ar124,000 per person), and the rest continued to Morondava.  The taxi-brousse left at about 4:20PM, reaching Miandrivazo at about 9:50PM (where we stopped for a 20 minute break), and Antsirabe at about 2:30AM.  

  • Most of these trips end in Morondava, and how you get away from there is generally left up to you.  There are several taxi-brousses leaving at 1PM and taking about 12 hours to reach Antsirabe, costing Ar35-40,000.  That's a long time to be in a taxi-brousse.  In theory you could buy a couple of seats to yourself to make it more comfortable, but remember that this is pretty much the only way for local people to make the journey so you'll be depriving someone of a seat.  You could also fly, though tickets are at least $200.  Supposedly you can also hire a car and driver for only Ar200,000.  Probably the best option is to hitch (there's a filling station there that is renowned for being a good place to hitch from) - you should expect to pay about the same as for a taxi-brousse, but hopefully it will be more comfy.  I was actually approached by a couple of people at Restaurant Generation asking if I needed a lift from Morondava a couple of days thence as they were trying to fill a car, however if you go with this approach I would NOT advise handing over any money until you're actually in the vehicle and it's about to leave.
  • It is hot, sunny, and exposed on the river so you must have a hat, plenty of sunscreen, etc.  We were also provided with parasols.  Our seats were the mattresses that we then slept on at night, which were fine to begin with but after several hours in the pirogue started to get a tad uncomfortable.
  • The consensus among everyone I spoke to who did this journey was that 2.5 days on the river was too long (though it only takes 1.5 in the rainy season).  Apart from the comfort, there isn't enough variety in the landscapes or flora/fauna - we saw a few kingfishers, a couple of chameleons, a couple of crocodiles, various lemurs, and bats. 
  • The only meals included in the cost are lunch on day 1, breakfast on days 3 and 4, lunch/dinner on days 2, 3, and 4, a meagre lunch on day 6 and dinner on day 6.  The meals prepared by the staff on the river section were good, both in quality and quantity.  However you'll need to bring/buy your own booze for the river section, as any booze brought by the staff is for their consumption only. 
  • Be wary of how many people are in your group, as the 4WD stretches are not fun if the vehicle is full.
  • I overpaid for this by about 35%, due to carelessly accepting a price that tallied with what the owner of Hotel Niaouly in Tana said it should be - I know I overpaid because the other customers said they paid a lot less.  To go with my stupidity were a few other drawbacks.  Firstly I was told that an English-speaking guide would be accompanying the trip (the other 6 customers were all French and 4 of them spoke decent English) - he pulled out literally minutes before we were due to leave, with no apology, meaning I was left with a French-speaking guide who I could barely understand (and who the other customers said provided no useful information anyway).  Secondly, the tour was done on a potentially dangerous shoestring (see what happened on Days 7 and 8).  Thirdly, the behaviour of the staff on the tour left a little to be desired.  One example was that one of the boatman grabbed an unsuspecting chameleon from its hiding place in a tree, and then plonked it on a branch closer to where we were - not my idea of "observation not interaction".  Another example was that at one of the lunch stops, the staff gave all the leftovers to some young kids who had been hanging around begging - again, this hardly sends the right message.
  • I don't think there are many English-speaking guides available, as most of the good ones have been snapped up by more upmarket tour companies, so don't expect to find one! 
4th October 2009 Ar30,000 The guide had booked a triple room (actually 2 double beds and a single bed) for the 3 of us for our late arrival at Chez Billy, which I moved out of the following day back to a private single (see 25th September 2009 entry for details).
6th October 2009 Ar15,000 Taxi-brousse from Antsirabe to Fianar, leaving at about 8:50AM.  The staff at Chez Billy had booked this for me in advance.  After about 3 hours, the steering broke (yes, my 3rd vehicle breakdown in 4 days).  The driver hitched to Fianar and returned about an hour and a half later with a new vehicle.  Eventually got to Fianar at about 4:40PM, including a 15 minute lunch break. 

Fianarantsoa (aka Fianar)
More English-speakers here than in Tana.
You can find ATMs in the upper part of the town.
6th October 2009 Ar20,600 Nightly rate for a private room at Hotel Ancre D'Or with shared bathroom (cold water).  This place is up a hill behind the taxi-brousse station.

7th October 2009 Ar5,000 Taxi-brousse (the company was Kopfmm) from Fianar to Ambalavao, leaving at 7:25AM and taking about 1 hour 15 minutes.  Another passenger told me the actual price was Ar3,000 (I'd booked my seat the previous evening). 


  • This place is famous for a few things.  It's where Antaimoro paper is made (sisal-based paper containing flowers and leaves) - the factory is in the grounds of the Hotel aux Bougainvillees.  There's also a weekly zebu market at the south end of the town - it's on Wednesdays between 10AM and 4PM, and Tursdays between 6AM and 11AM.  A zebu calf supposedly costs Ar50,000.  The Anja Village Reserve isn't far away, and is a good place to see habituated ring-tailed lemurs (maki, in Malagasy).
  • Note that there are no banks in Ambalavao.
  • There is Internet available at the CITE office, on the northern apex of the market opposite L'ecole "Les Bambins". It's Ar50 per minute and sloooow ... 
7th October 2009 Ar30,000 Nightly rate for a private ensuite (hot shower) room at Hotel aux Bougainvillees, just next to the taxi-brousse station.  This is a nice-looking place and has a good restaurant.  It's popular with French tour groups.
8th October 2009 Ar1,000 Taxi-brousse from Ambalavao to the Anja Village Reserve, taking about 20 minutes (though it took an hour and a half for it to fill up and leave).  These taxi-brousses don't leave from the taxi-brousse station where vehicles from Fianar come in, but - if you're coming from the taxi-brousse station - from a side-street on the right off the main road about half-way down the side of the market.  Given the place is only 12km away, it might be nicer to hire a bike.
8th October 2009 Ar7,000 Entry to Anja Village Reserve.  You'll be assigned a guide in the reception.  To get back to Ambalavao, just flag down a taxi-brousse on the main road.
8th October 2009 Ar8,000 Anja Village Reserve guide (obligatory).  I was given 2 "English-speaking" guides (I'm guessing 1 was in training), but neither of them spoke English well and at times I had to lapse into French to figure out what they were talking about (!)  The 2 hour guided tour was most memorable for the large number of maki.  The maki here are used to humans so they're not as shy as "genuine" wild ones.  They were keen on shaking the trees in order to get the lemurs to "perform", so I had to tell them to stop.  Also saw a chameleon, some birds, some plants, and some tombs, but my guides weren't exactly founts of information.  There are longer walks available, costing more. 
9th October 2009 Ar2,000 Taxi-brousse from Ambalavao to Fianar, leaving at about 7:30AM and taking about 1 hour 15 minutes.  Interestingly I asked one of the other passengers what it should cost and he said Ar3,000, but when I gave the conductor Ar3,000 he gave me Ar1,000 back. 
9th October 2009 Ar5,000 Taxi-brousse from Fianar to Ranomafana, leaving at about 9:30AM, arriving at Ranomafana National Park entrance at about 11:30AM then Ranomafana village 10 minutes after that, including a 20 minute stop when a load of sacks needed to be put on the roof.  In Fianar, the transport guys may try to persuade you to book a return seat from Ranomafana, saying it will be hard to get a seat otherwise, but don't believe them! 

There's at least one accommodation option right opposite the entrance to the national park, but I decided it might be nicer to stay in the village itself (about 6.5km away).  The village certainly does have more options, but to then get to the park you really need your own vehicle or else you'll have to walk there (all uphill) or hitch (I tried but no-one stopped for me!) or get a taxi-brousse (they apparently only come through between 6AM and 8AM).  So if you don't have your own transport, I'd recommend staying by the park entrance (there used to be shuttle run by the park authority ANGAP but it no longer runs).  Also, the lemurs in the park are most active first thing in the morning, so you want to get in there ASAP.
9th October 2009 Ar38,000 Nightly rate for a private ensuite (hot water) bungalow at Chez Gaspard (the Catholic mission, of all places), including a mossie net.  There are some bright green geckos here, and plenty of frogs at night. 
10th October 2009 Ar25,000 Entry to Ranomafana National Park, valid for 1 day (it's Ar1,000 for locals) 
10th October 2009 Ar35,000 Guide fee (4 hours) at Ranomafana National Park.  The fee structure here is a bit stupid - there are several set walks of differing durations and costs, but if you (or your guide) do something different then the cost is based on the duration from these set walks.  However the set walks' prices are set as much on their level of strenuousness as their duration, e.g. the 3 hour walk is Ar22,000 but the more-strenuous 4 hour one is Ar35,000.  This means that if your guide suggests doing a route composed by him, he can charge you Ar35,000 for 4 hours of walking, even if the level of strenuousness is nothing like the 4 hour set walk (hope that's clear!)  My guide was good, and also brought along a trainee with him (who did absolutely nothing yet who I was asked to tip in addition to the guide).  We saw golden bamboo lemurs, greater bamboo lemurs, brown lemurs, diadem sifakas, and a leaf-tailed gecko, among others.  The trails aren't in brilliant condition, so you will have a fair amount of pushing branches out of the way, looking for footholds, etc.  You can also do a night walk on the road outside of the park (i.e. you don't need to pay the entry fee), costing Ar20,000, starting at about 6PM and taking 1-2 hours.
11th October 2009 Ar5,000 Taxi-brousse from Ranomafana to Fianar, leaving at 7:25AM and taking 1 hour 50 minutes.  I'd been told that taxi-brousses were especially infrequent on Sundays (which today was), so maybe I got lucky that I only had to wait 45 minutes. 

Fianar (again)
11th October 2009 Ar25,600 Nightly rate for a private ensuite (hot water) room at Hotel Ariofny, including a mossie net, towels, and a nice view.
12th October 2009 Ar23,000 Taxi-brousse from Fianar to Tana, leaving at about 9:15AM and taking 8 hours 10 minutes, including a lunch break at Ambositra and a couple of loo breaks.  This is considered fast, even though the distance is only about 400km.  I booked the seat the day before. 

Tana (again)
I was annoyed (but also amused) that today Citibank suddenly noticed "abnormal patterns" in my ATM usage and put a block on my card - this despite me using the card repeatedly in the last eight and a half months of my Africa trip. 
12th October 2009 Ar7,000 Taxi from some (!) taxi-brousse station to Hotel Niaouly.
12th October 2009 Ar30,000 Nightly rate for a private room with shared bathroom at Hotel Raphia (just down the street from Hotel Niaouly, which was full), including a towel.  This place seems overpriced compared with Hotel Niaouly, but the restaurant is very nice (and also overpriced).
14th October 2009 Ar5,000 Taxi to the eastern taxi-brousse station.
14th October 2009 Ar12,000 Taxi-brousse to Andasibe, leaving at about 11:40AM and taking 3 hours 20 minutes (including a lunch stop).  I had to wait three and a half hours for this to go, because I didn't realise that the first wave of taxi-brousses on this route all leave before 8AM.  Note that the final destination of all taxi-brousses going through Andasibe is actually Tamatave, so you will be charged as though you were going all the way through (since they don't know if they'll be able to find another passenger after you get off).  It may be better to get a taxi-brousse to Moramanga instead (this is the last major town before Andasibe) and then get a local taxi-brousse to Andasibe.  You're dropped off on the main road at the turn-off to Andasibe - the park entrance itself is maybe 1.5 km down the road.

Andasibe (also called Perinet)
There are 3 areas of interest here.  2 of them comprise Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, which is administered by ANGAP - these 2 are Analamazaotra Special Reserve (the most-visited part) and Mantadia National Park (over an hour away down a bad road and hence not so popular).  The other area is Mitsinjo Analamazaotra Forest station, which is administered by an NGO and is not far from the entrance to Analamazaotra Special Reserve. 
Make sure you get up at dawn to hear the indri wailing - though you'll probably hear them from your bed anyway. 
14th October 2009 Ar19,800 Nightly rate for a private chalet with shared bathroom (hot water) at Feon'ny Ala, including mossie net and towel.  Good restaurant (which opens at 6AM - handy if you're going out early on a walk - but closes for a few hours in the afternoon) and nice grounds.  This place is a few hundred metres down the Andasibe road and about 1km from the park entrance.  Chalets with ensuite are available for about Ar50,000.  It's highly likely that you'll be approached by guides offering their services.  If you intend doing a night walk, make sure you either eat first or place your order before you leave as the restaurant might not still be serving if you get back after about 9PM.
15th October 2009 Ar37,000 2 day entry to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
15th October 2009 Ar35,000 Guide fee for the Aventure (4 hour) walk in Analamazaotra Special Reserve.  There are several other walks you can do here:  

  • Indri 1 (Ar15,000): 2 hours to visit 1 habituated Indri group
  • Indri 2 (Ar25,000): 2-4 hours to visit 2 habituated Indri groups
  • Anivokely (Ar20,000): 2 hours
My guide was called Donna (male) and he was excellent (though I think by now he will probably have been snapped up by a tour company) - we overran by over an hour.  We saw indri, lemurs (woolly, common brown, and golden bamboo), chameleons (including a Parsons and a stump-tailed), birds (e.g. crested drongo), a small boa, and frogs.
15th October 2009 Ar15,000 Night walk near Analamazaotra Special Reserve, starting at about 7PM and lasting 1 hour 45 minutesThis was also with Donna.  This is outside the reserve but there are plenty of chameleons and frogs along here.  You may also get some lemur sightings but they'll probably be at a distance.
16th October 2009 Ar60,000 Transport and wait time to Mantadia National Park.  This is for an entire minibus, so if you can find other people to share with then it will bring the cost down.  It takes about 1 hour 15 minutes down quite a bad road.
16th October 2009 Ar40,000 Guide fee for the Tsakoka (4 hour) walk in Mantadia National Park, also with Donna.  Like with Analamazaotra Special Reserve, there are several other walks you can do here:

  • Rianasoa (Ar15,000): 2 hours to see a pool, insects, birds and orchids
  • Chute Sacree (Sacred Waterfall) (Ar15,000) 2 hours to see a waterfall, lemurs, birds, orchids, and reptiles
  • Belakato (Ar30,000):3 hours to see indri and the waterfall
  • Trekking (Ar50,000): 4+ hours to combine all the Mantadia trails
Note that the trails are in much worse condition than at Analamazaotra Special Reserve.  The bird life here is a big draw, but I was more interested in lemurs and frogs.  We saw black and white ruffed and common brown lemurs, but didn't find any diadem sifakas.  We also found a gorgeous mantella baroni frog.  Again, we overran by 1.5 hours but Donna didn't seem to mind.
16th October 2009 Ar12,000 Night walk at Mitsinjo Analamazaotra Forest station, starting at 6:30PM and lasting about 1 hour 45 minutes.  This took place actually inside, rather than along the road.  We saw the usual creatures, but unfortunately the guide's English wasn't great.  The terrain is quite up and down so watch your footing.  
17th October 2009 Ar2,000 Taxi-brousse from Andasibe to Moramanga, leaving from the main road at about 9AM and taking 50 minutes. 

17th October 2009 Ar5,000 Taxi-brousse from Moramanga to Tana, leaving at about 10:20AM and taking 2 hours 30 minutes. 

Tana (again)
17th October 2009 Ar30,000 Nightly rate for a private room at Hotel Niaouly (see 22nd September 2009 entry for details, though this time my room was a double not a single - hence the price increase).
18th October 2009 Ar10,000 Entry to Tsimbazaza zoo/botanical gardens (only Ar400 for locals).  It took about 25 minutes to walk from Hotel Niaouly.  Unfortunately the vast majority of descriptions are in Malagasy only.  I'm not a fan of zoos generally, and this one wasn't very nice.  I was asked a couple of times by staff if I wanted to see the aye-aye (a weird nocturnal lemur), the implication being that they would rouse it into activity. 
19th October 2009 Ar30,000 Return trip and 2 hours waiting time with Justin (from Hotel Niaouly) to the artisanal market (I think it was La Digue).  This is literally about 1km of craft stalls.  You're more likely to find bargains if you start at the furthest end, because many tourists never make it that far so the vendors are just glad to get some custom.  Having seen the prices of goods in places like the ANGAP store at Andasibe, i.e. prices that were already inflated, the initial quotes I was given at Digue were generally 5 times even those prices!  There are lots of nice gifts though, my favourite being a giant coloured chameleon-shaped wall-hanging made from raffia, for which I paid Ar15,000.
19th October 2009 Ar1,500 Stamp for postcard to Europe
19th October 2009 Ar1,700 Stamp for postcard to US
19th October 2009 Ar14,300 Postage to send 3 CDs to the UK
19th October 2009 Ar2,500 Doxycycline (50 pills)
20th October 2009 Ar Taxi to the airport with Justin (from Hotel Niaouly).
20th October 2009 Air Madagascar flight to Joburg, departing at 6:30AM and taking 2 hours 30 minutes (see South Africa entry for further details)

Friday, February 03, 2012

A Guide to Guidebooks

With the rapidly increasing availability of Internet access throughout the globe, and the surge in the number of travellers toting smartphones, tablets, and netbooks, the market for guidebooks would appear to be only narrowing with time.  Certainly, when it comes to recency of information, you can not compare the freshness of an online post from hours ago with the stale data contained in a book that, even if only published this year, contains information from possibly several years ago.  Even putting recency to one side, who in their right mind would choose to lug a couple of kilograms of guidebooks around in their luggage if they had the option of storing that very same data electronically?  Trying to determine your whereabouts in a strange city via street signs and a guidebook map seems positively quaint when your smartphone's GPS/accelerometer/compass combination can show you exactly where you are with little chance of error.  

Guidebook sales are perhaps a more concrete indication that the physical guidebook is on the decline.  The average guidebook will shift 1,000-2,000 copies per year, and that number has been dropping significant percentages every year for the last few years.  Even a very popular guidebook will struggle to sell 10,000 copies per year.  It would appear that travellers are rapidly losing both the need and the desire for physical guidebooks.

My own travels have involved dozens of guidebooks which now take up two tightly-packed shelves in my bookcase, and I would not want to embark on any future trip without a guidebook in my shoulder-bag.  Here are my reasons why, in no particular order and given with the caveat that I realise that some of them are personal rather than necessarily objective:

  • Comfort - in common with many, I don't like reading from a screen for extended periods.  I also like to be able to flick back and forth between pages that may not be adjacent, which is easy to do with a physical book but less so if you are having to scroll on an electronic device - this problem is exacerbated with small-screened devices.  In addition, there are times when I want to view several consecutive paragraphs, or a map, at the same time, which may not be possible with a small-screened device (unless I choose a minuscule font).
  • Low maintenance - a book requires no battery power and no Internet access, and can cope fairly well with most conditions such as rain, dust, etc.  In fact, a bit of poor treatment will give character to it - the same can't be said of most electronic devices.
  • Extendable - I can scribble hints, recommendations, new information, e-mail addresses, etc all over my guidebook, which may not be possible with electronic data.
  • Memento - a guidebook, especially when "enhanced" with the above-mentioned scribblings, and with the creases, foxing, and grime acquired from constant page-thumbing, can induce the recollection of a whole host of memories once the journey has been completed.
  • Safety - pulling out a guidebook or an electronic device in the middle of a crowded street will mark you out as a tourist, which can increase your chances of being mugged/robbed/pickpocketed, depending on where you are (though most of my travels have been conducted in countries where my physical appearance and clothes gave me away anyway), and hence is not advisable.  However those chances are increased more if what you have in your hand is a tempting gizmo rather than a battered book.
  • Conversation starter - having your nose in an electronic device tells those around you nothing about what you're doing on it, and as such may be a barrier to them initiating a conversation with you.  If you're flicking through a guidebook, though, it's pretty obvious what you're up to, and that may be a convenient "in" for them.
  • Cost - physical books are generally cheaper than their electronic equivalents, especially in the second-hand market.   (I should note here that Google Books can be a very useful resource - though the latest editions of guidebooks may only have a limited viewing capability on it, or none at all, older editions may be viewable in their entirety.)
  • (Some) information - one obvious flaw of physical guidebooks is that the information contained within them is often years old, which is especially detrimental with regard to accommodation, restaurants, bars and other changeable aspects of travel.  However much of the historical and geographical information will still be correct, and that by itself can be worth having.
I'm not going to dwell much here on the merits of having ANY kind of guidebook, physical or electronic.  There is a school of travelling thought that says that guidebooks are fundamentally flawed, both in the way that they are researched and in the way that their recommendations can end up determining your trip rather than complementing it.  My view is that a guidebook is just one of several information sources that you should make use of, but it can really come into its own in certain situations, e.g. if you arrive in a strange town in the wee small hours and need to find a guesthouse in which to spend the night.

I should add that my travelling style would probably fit into the category of "flashpacker", i.e. I generally try to keep to a low budget by avoiding 5 star hotels and expensive restaurants but I have the financial capacity for a splurge every now and then.  Where possible, I try to travel overland by public bus or train, partly to save money, partly because I have the time, but mainly because that way of travel is more likely to bring me into contact with local people.

Visit any bookstore, or look on Amazon, and you will find guidebooks produced by a variety of companies.  Habitual browsers of the Travel section will know of Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Bradt, Frommer's, Fodor's, Footprint, Rick Steves, Moon, DK Eyewitness, Discovery, Trailblazer, Berlitz, AA, Time Out, BUG, etc etc.  Each of these companies is attempting to cover one or more niches in the travel demographic.  I have not used products by all of these companies, but I would like to give some opinions, both general and specific, based on my own travelling experiences.  It will be pretty obvious which companies I like/dislike, but that is in the context of all things being equal - if I have to choose between a recent publication from a "poor" company rather than a decade-old one from a "good" company, I will choose the recent one.

[Full disclosure: if you click through to Amazon from any of these links and buy the book, I will make a small percentage - though obviously it won't cost you any more.  If you don't think my information deserves that small perk, then simply open another tab, go to Amazon and search for the book title!]

Lonely Planet
I spent roughly four years travelling through India, Australia, Southeast Asia, China, Russia, South America, and Africa, seeing or meeting hundreds of other travellers in that time.  It is no exaggeration to say that 95% of the guidebooks I saw being wielded were from the Lonely Planet series.  Lonely Planet was the original mass market budget backpacker publisher.  Its accommodation and restaurant recommendations have generally been at the cheaper end of the spectrum, which is one source of its appeal.  Looking at the current Amazon Bestsellers in the Travel and Holiday Guidebook section, Lonely Planet titles account for 13 of the top 20, with the next most successful company being DK Eyewitness with just 4 titles.

I will confess that I am not a fan of the Lonely Planet series, and will only reluctantly use their books.  One reason is due to their overwhelming popularity.  Any establishment listed in the Lonely Planet will immediately become swamped with visitors, which not only means that availability can be an issue, but also that there will be a temptation on the part of the owners to lower standards and hike prices.  A second reason is that their emphasis on budget travel tends to attract, not surprisingly, young people - though I do not consider myself old as a mere cough*fortysomething*cough, I'm not particularly looking for that young a crowd to hang out with.  Thirdly, the writing style of their titles tends to be a little on the quirky side, and not - in my opinion - in a good way.  And finally, I have a slight personal grudge against them.  Other guidebook series will send you a free title if you submit a decent selection of corrections and suggestions, however the company to who I submitted the most - a laundry list of over 300 items - and received merely a tepid thank you in return was ... Lonely Planet.  They also requested that next time I wished to do something similar, I should make an individual submission for every item - which would obviously be a great use of my time for hundreds of items.

Lonely Planet does, however, score highly on maps.  Maps are one of the most useful aspects of any guidebook, simply because they can be used as a canvas on which to add information relating to any logistical parts of travel, e.g. the location of guesthouses, where buses depart from, etc.  The map for a particular town/city/site can also be ripped out of the book and taken with you as you explore, which is a lighter and less obtrusive alternative to taking the entire book (the rest of which can be left in your room).  Of all the guidebook series, Lonely Planet consistently provides the most map fodder (though see the Trailblazer section for one brilliant exception to this).

The Lonely Planet series is one of the largest out there, which means it contains some titles that cover regions not available in any other series.  This was how I came to use the Lonely Planet Africa guide, as there was no other single guidebook covering the Cairo-to-Cape route that I intended taking.  Like any multi-country guidebook (in this case ~50 countries), there's only so much space that can be given over to any one country or location, so there are bound to be glaring omissions.  It also suffered from the general Lonely Planet problems that I mention above, but it's still - 3 years on - the only pan-Africa guidebook available as far as I know, and hence it gets a recommendation from me, partly because there's no competition.

Rough Guide
I'm a big fan of the Rough Guide series, due to its combination of catering a little more for the "flashpacker" demographic than necessarily those on a shoestring budget, and what I consider to be vastly superior writing to that contained in the Lonely Planet.  It also gains points for NOT being a Lonely Planet guide, meaning that many of its recommendations not common to the Lonely Planet will not be knee-deep in dozens of other tourists.  I should also add that I have used so many Rough Guides now that there is a pleasing familiarity to their layout, so I immediately know where to go to find any particular piece of information.

My first Rough Guide usage for my round-the-world trip was in the inspiration phase, when I also had plenty of trepidation due to having never done any independent travel before.  I picked up the Rough Guide to First-Time Around The World, the Rough Guide to First-Time Asia, and the Rough Guide to First-Time Africa at various points in the run-up to departure, which together gave a high-level overview of travel-related issues, in general and in those particular continents.  Of the 3, I would recommend the First-Time Around The World title, as it briefly covers most of the common areas of the planet that RTW travellers tend to visit, plus it gives some insight into the many aspects of travel that the first-timer might not be acquainted with, e.g. visas, accessing money, daily costs, etc.  The Asia and Africa titles are worth a read for anyone who just wants an idea of what those continents can offer, but they're too high-level to be of any use to anyone actually travelling, and hence you could just as easily browse them in a bookstore before you leave.


I used 5 Rough Guides on my RTW trip, starting with the Rough Guide to India.  Since my 4 months in India took me to all corners of the country, I needed a guidebook that would cover everything (though there are guidebooks available for certain of the more popular regions such as Rajasthan).  India is notable in that each of its states has a distinctive culture, meaning the nation as a whole feels more like a couple of dozen different countries.  I should also add that I supplemented the information with much knowledge from the India Mike website, which is an amazing resource for any India-bound travellers.

I also received a great deal of inspiration from the Eyewitness India guidebook, which I will cover in the Eyewitness section.

The next Rough Guide to make its way into my sweaty mitts was the Rough Guide to Australia, which accompanied me on a total of 6 months travelling around Oz.  Australia is comfortably one of the best set-up countries in the world for backpackers, and if you travel there then you'll soon find out why - there are thousands of the b*ggers!  Misanthropy aside, the most fun I had in all my travels was during that period in Australia, due to the sheer number of people that I met.  There is so much information available everywhere about things to see and do that you could easily get by without using any guidebook at all.


As with India,  I was tremendously inspired by the Eyewitness Australia guidebook, which I will cover in the Eyewitness section.  I also took the BUG guide to Australia, which will be mentioned in the "Other guides" section at the end of this post.

Southeast Asia was then negotiated with a copy of the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia (though it would appear that this has now been superseded by the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia On A Budget).  Again, any book trying to cover multiple countries (in this case 11) will suffer from omissions due to lack of space but the path through Southeast Asia is fairly well worn, so there is plenty of information obtainable from accommodation and fellow travellers.


I also frequently referred to a Trailblazer title carried by one of my travelling companions, but I will discuss that in the Trailblazer section.  I bought an excellent guide to Angkor when I was in Siem Reap, which I will mention in the "Other guides" section.  I should also add that Travelfish is an excellent website for travellers in Southeast Asia - the accommodation section in particular is very comprehensive.

Many Southeast Asia travellers will end up in China at some point, which is not covered in either of these books (though they do cover Macau and Hong Kong - these obviously belong to China, but they have different visa requirements to the mainland, in particular many nationalities (e.g. the British) don't need a visa to visit them).  China has some parallels with India in that it is a vast country with an enormous population, to the point where its individual provinces can more resemble separate countries, hence it needs its own guidebook.  

I picked up my copy of the Rough Guide to China in a second-hand bookshop in Hoi An in Vietnam (there are many street vendors selling guidebooks in the main cities in Vietnam, often photocopies rather than originals, and you can see that they know the market by the fact that the majority of their wares are Lonely Planets).  China was the favourite country that I visited in all of my travels, mainly because being there felt like such an adventure.  A big part of that feeling was due to not knowing any of the language, a situation exacerbated by the fact that most people don't speak any English, especially outside of the main tourist spots (i.e. Beijing/Shanghai/Xi'an).  I found the guidebook to hence be more indispensable than usual, partly due to its helpful written phrases (which I could point at rather than attempting to master any of the tonal language), and partly due to information not being as readily accessible as in neighbouring countries such as Thailand.  The downside of the guidebook was that China is changing rapidly, meaning information becomes out of date even faster than usual.  The main black mark against the book was that the Beijing section had been appallingly edited, which was totally out of character with the other sections.  However it's a definite recommendation.


Interestingly, when I was coming into China from Vietnam, I received a lot of hassle from a customs guy because this guide seems to be on their blacklist - it doesn't contain a section on Taiwan, which is viewed as implying that Taiwan is not a part of China!  I had to be quite firm with him that that was not the intention, as he seemed hell-bent on confiscating the book.  I didn't have this problem when entering China from Macau, but it's worth noting just in case.

On the web, China Backpacker was a useful site.

From China, I travelled via Mongolia and Russia through to Moscow, for which I used the Trailblazer Trans-Siberian Handbook, which I will cover in the Trailblazer section.

Next up on my travels was South America, for which I used the Rough Guide To South America (which appears to have been superseded by the Rough Guide to South America On A Budget).  South America has just over half the land area of Africa yet has less than a quarter of the number of countries.  And unlike most other parts of the world (especially tourist areas), where you can get by in English, you really do need to know some Spanish if you intend doing any travelling in South America.  With most of the countries on the continent speaking Spanish, you also get good bang for your buck if you learn the language, compared with (say) Southeast Asia where trying to learn some Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer, etc would be quite taxing (for Westerners, at least) and of limited applicability.

I only travelled in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia (my few hours to see the Brazilian side of Iguazu don't count), and in the main tourist destinations there was no shortage of decent information from hostels and tourist information offices.  However I was glad of the guidebook when I was slightly off the tourist trail, as sometimes there was no other source of information, or I simply could not understand the Spanish that helpful people were addressing to me!

Eyewitness (published by Dorling Kindersley)
The Eyewitness series of guidebooks is gorgeous but in general they are hopeless as a traveller's companion, due primarily to their emphasis on pictures at the expense of more practical information (the Top 10 city guides in the range are an exception).  Their accommodation and restaurant recommendations are generally high-end.

As pre-trip inspiration, though, they are unparalleled.  Their main selling point is the dozens of detailed, 3D drawings of sites within the particular country of interest, which no other guidebooks offer.  (This also adds to their weight - another reason you probably wouldn't choose to travel with one.)  I certainly found that the Eyewitness India and Eyewitness Australia titles got the excitement mounting in advance of my trips to those two countries.

I've been really impressed by the couple of Trailblazer guides that I've used, though the range only consists of about 50 books, most of which are geared more towards hiking, walking, or rail travel, rather than general country information.  The first that I used (though it was a companion's, rather than my own) was the South-East Asia guide, which is sadly no longer in print.  This had the unique feature that it was based entirely around maps, of umpteen towns and cities - more than any other guidebook.  Obviously this resulted in savings having to be made elsewhere, in particular that text-based information was greatly reduced, but this was by no means a major inconvenience.  The maps would include, for example, indications of which parts of a town were best for budget accommodation, with maybe 1 or 2 specific examples max, and that general info is often as much as you need.  I don't know why this book was never updated (or why the idea wasn't expanded to other areas) - I can only assume that what struck me as being the perfect model for a guidebook didn't appeal to anyone else!  (The current price on Amazon is about £28, which is clearly excessive, but if you can pick it up in a second-hand store for a couple of quid then it would be worth checking out.)

The other title in the range that I used was the Trans-Siberian Handbook, for my journey from Beijing to Moscow, during which I stopped off in Ulan Bator in Mongolia, and Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Yekaterinburg in Russia.  I found the kilometre-by-kilometre section of the book to be fascinating, filled as it was with information about the route that could be correlated to the kilometre markers visible by the side of the track.  The guide also contains sections about each of the cities that you might stop off at en route, but these sections are, of course, nothing like as comprehensive as a dedicated guidebook (Moscow in particular has a lot more to offer than what's covered).  However the book is more aimed at conveying the joy of the train journey, and it accomplishes that aim extremely well.  It seems to be quite common for travellers to do the Trans-Siberian between Moscow and Beijing without stopping - I would certainly recommend stopping off at least once, partly because Russia is a fascinating country to visit (albeit expensive), and partly because going without a shower for a week is a novelty that doesn't need to be experienced voluntarily.

I don't actually own ANY of the Bradt series, but I borrowed one from another traveller and was impressed by the content.  Bradt guides are renowned for their local detail, and the range includes several books about countries for which no other guide exists - which is why I was happy to get my hands on a copy of their Sudan title (the Sudan section of the Lonely Planet Africa wasn't long).  I hadn't bothered with individual guidebooks for each country on my Cairo-to-Cape journey because of i) the weight, and ii) only intending being in each country for about 3 weeks, but this would have been the (only) one to get for Sudan.  I would have bought the Madagascar title but I was in South Africa before leaving for Madagascar, and books in South Africa cost a fortune.

Other guides
I took the BUG guide to Australia with me but it is pretty much just a list of hostels and ratings - you'll find much more recent information on the web, not to mention from other travellers, so it's not worth bothering with, especially as Internet access is readily available all over Australia.

Not so much a guidebook, more a reference work, Ancient Angkor gives an unbeatable, detailed description of the various temples in the Angkor area, including history, maps, interpretations, and numerous photos of these awesome buildings (truly a wonder of the world).  If possible, wait until you get to Cambodia before you buy it (should be less than $5 from a street vendor), then spend a few days reading it before you visit Angkor.

I have used a few other guides in the past, but they were all in the context of holidays where I went to one place and stayed in one hotel, rather than for a period of independent travel, so I won't be mentioning them here.  The thing to remember with ANY guidebook though is that it should be complementing your trip, not dictating it.