Mad about Madagascar

9 June 2001

Early morning start in the rough heart of Johannesburg to get to the airport by around    7 am.  Ends up being a bit of a waste as the plane arrives late, meaning a flight delay of nearly two hours.  Good spirits do however manage to prevail throughout, despite the fact that seating in cattle class is cramped and the food rather uninspiring.

My first glimpse of Madagascar is at around 1pm when the massive island creeps above the horizon to slide below our airplane shadow.  It is a mammoth landmass, seemingly arid in the extreme with wide sandy river courses leaching topsoil into the indigo ocean.  It is the south western region that we pass across, droning high above the spiny desert and sandstone massifs we will be traveling though later this week.

The airport turns out to one of the easier African ones I have negotiated so far – actual smiles from the custom officials;  a baggage carousel that works and taxi touts, although slightly stoked on ganja, able to actually negotiate a reasonable deal.  Four of us bundle into an ancient Peugeot and head out along the highway to Tana.  Probably not the vibiest of African cities, I find the capital rather agreeable, if unchallenging.  more than 2 million souls, welded together across cultural boundaries and psyches, share the jumble of Indo-Afro-Arabian architecture cavorting and tumbling along ridiculously steep slopes.  A rather murky and fetid lake, playground to cheeky urchins, fat rats, glib bitterns and more mosquitoes I could have ever imagined, burble turgidly at the bottom of the city center.  Rather improbably, a plinth with an angelic statue rise up from the center in memoriam to Diego Suarez, the early Portuguese…

By nightfall we’re safely ensconced in a very European restaurant, shoveling down Zebu fillet tot he accompaniment of a bottle of Madagascan wine of indeterminable vintage and rather unusual palate.  Not my most authentic night on the continent, but rather enjoyable none the less.

10 June 2001

En route to Antsirabe by taxi-brousse while writing this.  Excellent value for money at only MF 15000 for the 3 hour journey.  Also my first African taxi where we are actually sticking within the load specifications as stipulated by the vehicle manufacturers.  C’est bon!  Started off the morning with some fresh leaves from the market stall up the road from Hotel Saka Manga.  Citizen CV’s roar up and down the steep, cobble streets and it is one of these French wonders of automotive engineering that we commandeer for our trip to the taxi rank.  The rank itself turns out to be a deliciously garbled mix of Africa, Polynesia and ancient continental Europe.  Frantic trades in anything from cassava trees and garlic bulbs to cell phones and severed zebu heads rage between passengers and stallholders.  From my vantage point on the roof of our taxi brousse where I tie up our backpacks, with minutely choreographed chaos running its course as far as the eye can see.

The route south to Antsirabe is along an excellent (by African standards anyway) road winding through low hills and granite outcrops.  We cross a few muddy rivers precariously clinging to narrow bridges, while passing zebu ox carts, pousse-pousse rickshas and grand-parents on bicycles as we close in on Madagascar’s third-largest city.

Antsirabe, meaning “place of abundant salt” is a tree-filled and pleasurable town, especially after three hours of navigating steep corners in a cramped taxi-brousse.  One of our first discoveries is a “salon de the / hotely” with a vibey balcony overlooking a small market along one of the main thoroughfares.  despite very broken French, we manage to procure poulét grille and pom frittes and a Three Horses Beer on the side.  Below us Malagasy life runs its course, with street vendors and fruit sellers and raucous pousse-pousse owners engaging the steady stream of taxi-brousse traffic in a nonchalant and gritty reality-bites ballet.

According to one of our many “advisers” en route from Tana, more than 3000 pousse-pousse carts roam the leafy lanes of Antsirabe.  Similar to the richshas of Durban, their bright primary colours, clanging bells and voluble drivers add an edge of excitement to the otherwise cultured and demure streets.  As we march to our taxi pick up point for Betafo, we draw the pousse-pousse drivers who track us like polite by insistent bumble bees.  Before long we bow to the inevitable and, with Cathy and me in one cart and Ugene & Anlie in the other, set off along the side street.  It is soon obvious that our pilot has picked up more than he can pull (to be expected with a cargo of two humans plus close to 50kg’s in backpacks to both).  His wheezing and my guilt get the upper hand along one particularly strenuous little uphill and after a minute or two of arguing, I convince him to let me pilot his pousse-pousse.  Not to be outdone, Ugene follows suit and soon we are the toast of Antsirabe’s streets.  Cries of vazaha and gales of laughter follow us with the wide Malagasy smiles becoming bigger than ever.

The Betafo taxi rank is about as rank as things get this side of Tana, I suppose Rag-tagowers and ancient Peugeots cajole the market, worrying possible passengers like a mangy dog with his heart set on a scrap of meat.  Three quarters of an hour or bargaining, twenty five minutes of waiting in the baking car and twelve kilometers of pothole lurching later and we’re in Talata-Andraikiba, our drop-off point before hiking to Lake Andraikiba.

We end up camping at the Hotel Dera grounds after some discussion with the locals as to security along the lakeshore.  Not very daring, I suppose, but not a bad move with regards to easy access to cold three horses Beer, a flush toilet and the occasional enforced snack from the restaurant.

11 June 2001

Crawl out into a cold and misty morning after a freezing night out in the Madagascan highlands.  Priority number one is to change some money (after going a bit over budget in the bar the night before) and I duly head back into Antsirabe.  By 10 am I have finished my financial affairs (despite being called a pousse a few hundred times) and squash into the back of an ancient Peugeot bus (exactly like that of Inspector Clouseau n the Pink Panther movies) to stutter and jerk back to our camp at Hotel Dera.  Having hiked around the gently lapping shores of Lake Andraikiba the night before, we set our sights on a more substantial hike, tramping off to Lake Tritriva.  Also a crater lake, Tritriva is situated approximately 12 km from Andraikiba along a meandering dirt road traversing stepped rice paddies and idyllic rural villages filled with mud-brick villas, beaming grandmothers and totally over-excited children screaming “vazaha” at the top of their voices.  I succumb to shutter frenzy of the worst kind with visual imagery more breathtaking that I could ever imagine surrounding me.

Madagascar culture seems to blend and fade across Polynesian, Indian, African and European boundaries with an effortless ease.  Every new village opens a new vista, sometimes hauntingly Latin American, occasionally feudal French, often Tibetan or Nepalese to the extreme.  Rice paddies and ox-carts piled high with straw morphs you into a scene from rural Vietnam, while the braided coal black hair and colourful headscarves of an ancient gran-měre could just as easily have belonged to a matriarch from small-town Mexico.

We eventually reach Lake Tritriva after an endless stream of amiable villages and descend towards the deep blue waters of the volcanic lake reflecting/slumbering in the steeply sloped caldera.  Green slopes, densely forested with verdant stands of pine, rise up towards a still, blue sky mirroring the placid lake surface.  Despite the fhandy (prohibition) of swimming in Tritriva according to our guidebook, our self-appointed local guardian declares it OK and Ugene and I dive in to join a flock of dabchicks drifting on the rippled surface.  We break the 12km return hike with a bread and avocado picnic in a grove of trees, much to the delight of passersby.  After more than six hours of hiking, sleep comes easily on the shores of Lac Andraikiba that night.

12 June 2001

Time for a real-time, torture travel trip.  We have decided to forego the luxury of a stop-over in nowhere-ville Miandrivazo, rather opting for the Morondona Direct taxi-brousse. The prospect of sixteen hours on a cramped mini-bus leaves a lot to be desired and having to spend five hours at a dust bowl of a taxi rank kicks the day off on a bit of a low note. 

The bus seems to have been full two hours ago, but still we wait. C’est la vie – Africa has her own time.  By 3 pm the collective patience is wearing rather low after seven hours of severe un in the scabby dustbowl of a taxi rank.  Our brousse finally sputters to life around 4 o’clock, belching out acrid fumes and a cloud of dust to finally announce our long-awaited departure.  But yet again, it is not to be – passengers stream into the taxi and it is soon obvious that we will never survive the sixteen 9possibly even twenty) hour journey along what must rate as some of Africa’s most tortuous roads.

And thus the process starts all over again.  Fierce and sustained haggling ensues and we eventually reclaim our money and packs to enter into negotiations with another operator.  Two slightly lost-looking Danish girls join us and between the six of us we hire an old but solid Peugeot 404 wagon to take us to Miandrivazo.  Despite the rag-tag interior and powerful exhaust fumes wafting through the interior, this is luxury/first class travel by general African standards and we chug comfortably into Miandrivazo just after 8 pm.  Our descent off the highlands brings with it a marked rise in temperature and we spend a hot and humid night on the banks of the Tsimbihina river.

13 June 2001

Despite a huge Eclipse Party at Le Cite de la Tsimbihina (our backpacker’s lodge for the night) I manage to sneak in an excellent night’s sleep.  Two hundred and eighty kilometers of truck-chomping potholes, held together by crumbling stretches of tarmac, lies between Miandrivazo and Morondava.  Estimates of time needed to complete the journey vacillate wildly, with locals bandying about figures ranging from nine hours to fifteen hours.  We wander to the taxi-brousse rank at 8 o’clock, only to hear that the first departure would be after midday, maybe today, maybe tomorrow.

With our prospects looking rather bleak, Uge and I wander down to where the massive expanse of the rather murky Tsimbihina River swirls past, red-brown with the silt of Madagascar’s precious topsoil.  Dug-out pirogue craft ply this stretch of the river, ferrying local people to and fro between villages and the large Miandrivazo markets.  The town is also a departure point for tourist pirogue cruises down-river to the coastal centre of Belo sur Tsiribihina.  With limited time in Mad, it is impossible for us to succumb to the lure of navigating the massive river, but this does not in any way discourage the many touts cruising the tourist (vazaha) joints.  Quote prices vary from about FF2,500 (fully catered by licenced operators) to just more than MF600,000 (about R700) for a shoe-string budget trip with a pirogue captain of dubious repute.

At around 9 am, just when we seem to be destined for a repeat of yesterday’s interminable wait, Cathy meets a saintly old gentle by the name of Vunzi.  He had been chartered by tourists going on the Tsiribihina cruise and now has to deliver their luxury 4×4 to Morondava.  And when destiny smiles on you in Africa, you need to grab hold of the opportunity as best you can.  Thus our nightmare trip becomes a comfortably bumpy journey smoothed by independent suspension, air-conditioning and a courteous and excellent driver.

The dense riverine forests around Miandrivazo thin increasingly and soon we are passing through hilly savanna country.  Date palms appear and within an hour completely dominate the landscape, stretching away across the low hills in endless swaying groves.  About an hour and a half from Morondava the first baobabs appear – short, squat and fat sometimes, at other times looming giants blasting off from verdant rice paddies like surreal beings from a weird botanical planet.  Vunzi stops at a towering, upside down and bloated giant with stubby branches scrabbling against the sunset to allow me to take photos.  Young Sakalava herd boys, driving their cattle along the narrow, tree-lined dirt road, kick up a billowing cloud of crimson-red/orange dust bleeding in tumbling streaks along the setting sun, echoing their greetings of Salama! into the dust.  This is Africa at its most basic and its most beautiful.

14 June 2001

Morondava, a sprawling and untamed town with a pagan frontier feel, hunkers down against the warm Indian ocean along Madagascar’s south-western coast.  This specific region is the stronghold of the Sakalava people, generally rural subsistence agriculturalists and fishermen.  Their distinct tall spears, African looks and lean tribesmen in colourful togas display an obvious link to an ancestral heritage shared with Africa’s east coast.  They seem to have a less trusting attitude towards foreign vazaha, but Morondava is by no means an aggressive place.

We settle into the rhythmic rush of the surf breaking outside our dingy little room at the Hotel les Bouganvilliers with a reed-covered restaurant overlooking the shimmering ocean.  The primary mission of the day is to arrange flights to Toliara as the group has decided en masse to miss out two hectic days on the road.  With the influx of eclipse-chasing tourists, flights to Tulear and Morombe and also smaller airports like Manja, are booked to absolute capacity.  Perseverance eventually does pay off though and we manage to wheedle ourselves onto a flight connecting via Antananarivo to Tulear (Toliara) which leaves us with two full days in which to explore the Morondava region.  We celebrate our good luck with an excellent Zebu pouvre vert steak at Café Menaba, followed by a swim in the boisterous west coast waves.

Time is limited and we decide to therefore squeeze in a trip to the avenue of baobabs, one of Madagascar’s hallmark images.

For MF120,000 we commandeer a rickety old Renault and negotiate the potholed route north to the village of Belo sur Tsiribihina.  Despite it being dry season, the road is completely flooded in places, forcing us to surge through metre-deep pools of mud.  It has to happen sooner or later – a wave of water breaks over the carburetor and we sputter to a standstill with the sun baking down on us.  Luckily it proves to be a short-term problem and we jerk into the baobab avenue about half an hour before sunset.  It is a majestically surreal sight with 30 or 40 soaring Adansonia digitata etching their gnarled silhouettes against a sky bleeding amber down into a midnight-blue horizon/skyline.  A passing parade of Zebus and Sakalava herdsmen shuffle along the dirt track, kicking up red dust as we soak up the scenery – first world voyeurs peeping into the grim struggle of survival in a harsh and beautiful world.   

15 June 2001

A big day, pregnant with the promise of expansive adventures, lies ahead and we’re out into the Morondava streets by dawn.  All around the Malagasy people are shaking off the somnolence of night; kids are washing their lithe-brown bodies with splashes of water from plastic buckets, vendors are dragging heavily laden carts towards the market, women in bright lamba sarongs are sweeping outside their palm frond shacks and lethargic dogs are lazily seeking out the first patches of morning sun.  Our plan is to travel to the Kirindy Swiss forest for a three or four hour hike, so we set off for the taxi-brousse station.  The frenetic buzz of the local market sucks us in along the main road though we succumb to the smells, sights and sounds spilling from hundreds of stalls spreading like a maze along the road.  We snack on spicy bread balls and samoosas, washing it down with dark black coffee treacly with sugar to boost our energy levels for the day.

We reach the taxi-brousse station at 7 am sharp only to find that the bush bus only leaves once a minimum of 25 people have booked.  So we wait.  There seems to be a flurry of excitement around the brousse at 8:30, but upon closer inspection it proves to be a false alarm due to interest in an extremely fine cock.  When the interest in the chicken dies down, everyone lopes back into the shade to do battle with a squadron of flies intent on crawling up your nostrils.  A false start at 9 am sees us doubling back into town after 5 kays to fill up with fuel before finally belching/lurching away in an acrid cloud of smoke.

By the time we reach the outskirts of Morondava’s urban sprawl, the tide of passengers inside the brousse has swelled to nearly forty (not including the pig, assorted ducks, bags of flour, bales of cloth and previously mentioned coq majefique.  Around 11 am it becomes painfully clear that we have no chance of reaching Kirindy, doing a hike and organizing return transport to Morondava and it is while we’re considering our options that fate decides for us.  A 4×4 gets stuck in one of the muddy potholes, effectively blocking traffic.  Whilst another 4-wheel drive vehicle attempts to dislodge the incumbent stuckee, our driver surrenders to an overdose of adrenaline and thunders into the swamp with engine roaring and wheels spinning.  All to no avail – we sludge to a halt in a spray of mud and, with resigned looks on their faces, the passengers disembark to trudge into the distance.  We give up on the Kirindy plan and make our way back to Morondava.

Later on that afternoon, I decide to explore the fishing village and pirogue harbour to the south of Les Bouganvilliers.  It is about an hour and a half before sunset and square-sailed pirogues and dug-out canoes are swarming in from the ocean to glide into the safety of the river mouth.  Others beach on the sand and lean, young sailors hop onto terra firma to unload their silvery, glass-eyed cargo.  It is mostly tuna, reef sharks and bonefish, including some excellent specimens that could probably tip the scales at around 30 kg.  The sun sets while I’m walking back along the beach, casting a warm glow on our last night in Morondava. 

16 June 2001

We might be avoiding the rigours of the road today, but two internal flights via Tana to Toliara is sure to test our patience a bit.  Despite a slight disagreement about fare, we do strike a deal with a taxi driver for our morning flight out to Tana.  Our plane, a twin-engined Boeing 737 turns out to be above expectations and the 2 hour flight to Tana goes by without any mishaps.

Two hours at Tana airport without too much to do, so basically wander around and try to stay out of the way of eclipse-hunting herds.  Our departure to Toliara is delayed for half an hour, meaning that we meet up with Henry, Ndo, Tiemen and Henk, our friends joining us from Holland.  The huge and blond Dutchies, with Henk peaking at 6ft 7 inches dwarf everyone else at the arrivals hall and I think our little reunion jolts the airport security into a state of stand-by.  We split as soon as our flight is called, arranging to meet at Ifaty.

The most exciting part of our connection to Toliara is retrieving our baggage at the airport.  All the bags are dumped in a central area controlled by four increasingly stressed porters, surrounded by a seething crowd waving baggage tickets and shouting for their bags.  We eventually make our escape, barging our way through the throngs to a rickety taxi bound for the beach.

17 June 2001

Wake up at dawn for a run along the beach from the bamboo club, an upmarket and overly European resort where we ended up last night.  Our trip took nearly three hours (for a distance of less than 40 km) partly due to an incredibly sandy road.  Most of the blame should be given to our driver who managed to lose us in the spiny desert at least 3 or 4 times.

The Dutchies arrive in a lime-green Renault 4 in a tangle of knees, elbows and orange and agree that the rather surly attitude, inflated prices and noisy quad bikes are not really our scene.  We manage to find the perfect place, booking into Chez Suzie’s, situated centrally in the laid-back little village of Ifaty.  Madame Suzie herself is a petite and immaculately turned out Malagache lady and runs her place with a firm but amiable decorum.  The small, reed-bedecked bungalows are spotless and the neat ablutions, courtyard and garden convince us that this is the pick of the bunch of hotels dotting the balmy beaches stretching from Ifaty.

Lunch at Mora-Mora takes a long time in arriving, but I suppose when you name your restaurant “Hang Loose” it precludes snappy service.  A few Rhum Coco cocktails and a long soak in the balmy water of the Mozambique channel make for a lazy afternoon which eventually stretch into an evening filled with more beers than I care to remember and a host of tall stories that seemed trés amusént at the time. We sneak off to bed to the sounds of the sleepy little village with bats and nightjars flitting against the shimmering swathe drawn by the Milky Way against the dark night sky.

18 June 2001

The whole assembly have decided to venture out onto the distant reefs in search of tropical fish and other marine creatures.  With this in mind we have booked passage on two sturdy pirogues and, with snorkeling gear in attendance, meet up with our captains on the beach.  Huge breakers unfurl their feathery white plumes along the ping skyline, telegraphing a low, rumbling thunder to where we board our square-sailed little craft on the beach.  Soon we’re skimming across the clear, blue bay, our muslin sail ruffling against the breeze and our captain nonchalantly balancing across the water on one of the pirogue’s narrow beams.

The extensive coral reef system, although bleached by constantly high water temperatures a few years ago, boast an incredible variety of technicoloured sea creatures.  Impossibly thin pipefish, parrotfish in bright Gauguin colours and sparkling angelfish drift on the currents like swarms of underwater butterflies.  Soft sea anemones and impossibly bright clownfish dot this underwater wonderworld where schools of brilliant darters scatter and converge around your bubble stream.  A skate slowly flaps past Ugene, a gigantic and ancient aquatic bat from the murky blue netherworld beneath the Mozambique straits passes by.

Around midday we slide back on an on-shore breeze, leisurely and effortlessly cruising before the wind.  Back on land we escape the beach tourist traps, rather strolling through the village in search of a place free of other vazahas.  We eventually settle on a slightly dilapidated little spot where our patron, Thomaz, fashions a feat out of a basket of fresh fish, a huge pot of rice and some Haricot beans.  A few more beers and everybody comfortably oozes into an extended beach siesta in the shade of some swaying palms.

We again spend the night at one of the laid-back village taverns, eating baguette loaves and spicy brochettes off the fire.  The chili sauce is of volcanic intensity, the beers are nicely chilled; the conversation senselessly unintellectual – just another laid-back evening in Madagascar.  Koki, the tame lemur, sneaks into our room when we return and sits with eyes like orange moons to witness the strange human ceremony of brushing one’s teeth.  I wake up once or twice during the night to hear him bounding in joyous abandon across our thatched roof.

19 June 2001

Dawn is still a dusky magenta line along the horizon when I wander down to the beach for my early morning jog.  A lone pirogue rides the breeze out on the bay, catching the first amber rays of the rising sun on its fluttering sail while above it, against the endless swathe of sky, a flock of giant egrets confetti on the high winds.  I follow the curve of the bay north, feeling my feet crunching into the wet sand spilling against the tidal line, watching as the Veso fishing villages slowly come to life.  Kids swathed in colourful lambas against the morning chill, wander down to the shoreline to wash, while fishermen fiddle with their pirogues and nets, readying them for an assault on the shiny inhabitants of Ifaty’s bay.

Back at chez Suzie, I join the rest of the guys for a breakfast resplendent with fruits, breads, jams and coffee sweet with condensed milk.  I decide to spend the morning catching up on my journal, while the others head out on a fishing trip with our crew of the day before.  They return at lunch with two microscopic fish (both by Ugene) which means that South Africa are leading Holland by Two to Nil.

Later on during the afternoon we walk from Chez Suzie to the Reniala Arboretum and Sentier Botanique.  About 2 kms from the village, this small botanical reserve offers visitors an hour-long guided tour through a wonderfully weird floral kingdom.  Pachypodiums euphorbias, baobabs and didiereacea plants seem to contort and bloat themselves in a competition to be the most surreal.  The end product borders on a landscape out of a Tim Burton movie or Dali painting; spiky didieracea trollii snaking their way past double-trunked love Baobabs; podgy pachypodium dwarf-trees shouldering for space in the shade of their bigger baobab brothers and a variety of spiky, spiny, vicious and mean-thorned dese4rt plants in attendance.

Our young Malagache guides also point out a variety of birds, including the Madagascar bulbul, crested hoopoe, Madagascar fody and crested coua.  The highlight however is when we discover a juvenile nightjar crouching in an open and sandy patch, showing complete faith in its camouflaged plumage despite the presence of the lumbering homo sapiens contingent.  The sun sets against the baobab skyline in a huge amber orb as we make our way back to Chez Suzie.

20 June 2001

A fond farewell in erratic French to Suzie sees onto the dawn taxi-brousse back to Toliara.  Isalo National Park proves totally impossible to get into and I change my plans to move further south to St Augustine’s Bay.  We stop off in town to stock up on provisions and change money and then head off to Hotel Melody. Set on the mangrove floodplains of the west coast, the area offers a peaceful escape from the more touristy Ifaty.

We settle into our seaview lodgings and, after feasting on fresh capitainé fish and chips, set off on a walk into the spiky and arid hills straddling the coast.  Exploring the spiky desert remains an exciting journey and despite its proximity to Ifaty, we see a whole host of new birds and plants  a close-up sighting of a running coua and the elephant’s foot pachypodium especially stands out.

21 June 2001

The day of the eclipse dawns with conditions sunny and very warm.  Despite our indifference to this solar event, there is a definite sense of anticipation and I’m very keen to get my hands on une paire de lynettes to view the spectacle of the moon sliding across the sun.  One problem however is that most of the Malagasy locals in the area do not seem to share in the excitement.  In fact, they seem to view the event with trepidation bordering on fearful superstition and, with the odd exception, shops are boarded up, the markets are empty and the local villages seem completely deserted.  Even the fishermen refuse to venture out onto the bay to the extent that not one square sail dots the placid swathe of blue beyond the mangrove borders.

We had planned on renting a dhow to take us to Sarodrano Caves, approximately 9 km along the coast, but even protracted negotiations prove futile.  Pirogue captains shake their heads vehemently, casting a wary eye towards the morning sun while making excuses ranging from winds and tides to having to do soup deliveries to an ageing aunt. The end result is that the four of us set off on foot, determined to reach Sarodrano, a fresh-water cave system which may or may not be a spiritual site for the local Veso.  It is a hard walk and the sun burns down – by 11 am the temperature is hustling in the high thirties and it is great to finally reach the entrance site.

The main pool of the cave sparkles in the sunlight like an oasis – a glistening and milky-blue pool set in the severe spiny, arid ridges like a mirage in the desert.  A huge slab of the roof must have caved in decades ago, exposing the lucid water and a myriad of glinting shiny fish to the sun.  On a central rock a gnarled tree battles for domination, roots snaking across the rocks like huge spiders lurking in wait.

It is off with packs and on with snorkels in a matter of seconds and we slip into Sarodrano’s cool waters, following silvery fish into the far corners of the cave.  It is here where the largest ones lurk, dim shadows finning through the gloom like so many silent ghosts. I surrender myself to the cool tendril-stroke of the cave’s current, hanging quietly on the surface while watching the fairyland below.  I identify five or six specimens of ish in the pool (which measures in the region of 40 m long by 15 m wide and with a depth varying between a metre to maybe around 8metres.  Apparently the cave system which connects to the other side of the mountain near St Augustine Bay, was once a pirate hideout, but it holds as much treasure today with its placid/mysterious waters, splendid setting and magnificent natural beauty.

Back at Hotel melody (after a total of nearly 5 hours walking) we meet up with the Dutchies again and have a few beers while waiting for the eclipse.  We see the moon gradually covering the harsh Madagascar sun (courtesy of a pair of a pair of Lunettes supplied by Tiemen) eventually reaching its peak at 4.28 pm.  We see 98% and even though I am sad to miss the corona, it is probably a worthwhile trade-off against the hordes of expected around Isalo and along the rest of the central band.

22 June 2001

We’re moving north again, kicking off with an early start to the Roliara early morning mayhem.  With no specific time of departure for the brousse, we opt to squeeze into a petite and battered Renault 4, jarring our way through the changing landscape.  Past the Toliara plains the first giant baobabs again make their appearance and the thorny desert growth gradually give way to a softer and altogether more gentle savanna.  Soft and rounded hills appear, rising towards grassy summits topped with spreading trees.  Cassava give way first to stands of cotton fields and, as we approach Sakaraha, patches of indigenous forest.  It is in Sakaraha that we stop to catch the taxi-brousse linking through to the dry transition forest of Zombitse.  One of the top WWF priorities in Madagascar, the woodland is home to a variety of lemur species and the minute Appertis Greenbull, a passerine (perching) bird endemic to the forest and found nowhere else.

Fate bestows upon us another impossible taxi-brousse. Boarding to departure has us trapped inside the baking minibus oven for more than an hour before we progress into a series of false starts.  All in all, the 25 km journey takes up all of 3 hours before we are cordially dumped at an unsignposted dirt track.  We do however manage to locate the camping area and a parks official and pitch out tents under the spreading branches and snaking lianas in a forest clearing.  One problem though – there is no water; so Ugene and I set off for the nearest village (2 km away, according to the local guide).  Closer to  5 km later we reach the little collection of mud huts, only to find that they have no water either.  The end result is that we arrange for water from Sakaraha, setting off empty-handed on the return leg of a fruitless 10 km trudge.

Our forest walk that afternoon is more satisfying, but bird sightings are few and far between.  Most exciting is our encounter with the non-descript Appertis Greenbull – all a-twitter in the undergrowth it seems a heap more excited about the encounter than we do though.  Other sightings include the giant coua, Madagascar quail, yellow-billed kite and crested ibis.  After a meager soup and bread supper we don our head torches to explore the forest by night.  This proves to be a much more exciting experience as we wend our way deeper and deeper through dense tunnels with our beams of light dancing jerkily through the undergrowth.  Lemur whoops and the clicking whirr of nightjars mix magically with the squeaks and clicks of bats and insects, a constant aural soundtrack of deep-forest surround sound.  Rustling leaves and swaying branches in the layered canopy betray the constant proximity of nocturnal lemurs, the primitive primates for which Madagascar fauna is famous.  Huge yellow eyes stare down at us like liquid pools of fire when our beams manage to trap ringtail brown or sifaka lemurs in the light for a few seconds before they dematerialize into the foliage landscape above us.  Back at the campsite I slip into a deep and peaceful sleep, lulled by the swishing of leaves on the light breeze.

23 June 2001

Bugger the taxi-brousse… or sentiments to that extent anyway.  Instead of repeating the Sakaraha experience we decide to chance our hitchhiking technique on the Route Nationale bisecting Zombitse and bound for far-off Fianarantsoa.  We select our hitchhiking position with strategic intent, stacking our backpacks near the crest of a long uphill along which vehicles will have to slow down while ascending.  More importantly, from our vantage point we are able to scan the oncoming traffic for potential lifts, allowing us to spring into action at precisely the right moment.  A few dubious flag-downs, including a meat lorry and a taxi-brousse brimming over with twenty-odd occupants, are apologetically sent on their way before we hit the jackpot;  Ugene flags down a 4×4 vehicle bound for Tana on its return leg from a Tulear drop-off.  It’s empty and after a bit of haggling we settle on a fare of 65,000 fmg per person and sit back to enjoy the journey in well-deserved luxury.

Along the plains preceding Isalo we pass through Ilakaka, a board-fronted mining town in the same mold as Sakaraha.  Sapphires and other gems are mined in the region and gemstone dealers cruise the streets like strutting magpies, touting their glittering semi-precious stones.  The countryside, devastated by tavy (or slash and burn arming techniques) has been reduced to a featureless grassland stretching away as far as the eye can see.  The only other plant to have survived is the fire-resistant Bisarkia palm and thousands of these dot the plains as you rise onto the Horombe plateau near Ranohira.  This rather pleasant village with its tree-lined streets is the gateway to the trekking paradise encompassed by Isalo National Park and beyond the grasslands the runiforme (or carved) sandstone massifs dominate the horizons.  The park’s desolate landscape and imposing rock formations offer an exceptional hiking and walking environment encompassing everything from a short walk to the Piscine Naturelle (a natural rock swimming pool) or a day walk into the canyon of the Monkeys to a scenic five-day trek.

Approximately two hours north of Ranohira lies Ihosy (pronounced Ihoosh), the capital of the Bara tribe. This is cattle-rustling country and the young men loping through the blood red dust are required to prove their manhood by stealing some Zebu before being allowed to take a bride.  The powdery dust of L’isle Rouge hangs in clouds along our trail as we blaze our way into the highlands rising up beyond Ihosy and, as the climate becomes less dry, the first rice paddies again appear.  The architecture follows suit and the houses and buildings rise higher and prouder with their terra cotta tiled roofs and elaborately carved wooden balconies.  One has a feeling of departing from Africa into a place where Mexico mixes into Polynesia, captivating in an artful and early beauty.

The highlands are the domain of the Merina and related Betsileo tribes and many of the people portray Malaysian and Indonesian characteristics.  This, combined with the terraced hillsides and romantic villages make the Ambalavao area my favourite region in Madagascar. The dramatic landscape is breathtaking with the huge granite domes of inselbergs mushrooming skywards from the surrounding grasslands.  Clear streams and rivers beckon from the valleys and clumps of primary forest cling to the edges of looming bald peaks.  It is wild and civilized, dramatic and calm, friendly and intimidating all at the same time; exhibiting an allure that transcends the Africa that I thought I knew so intimately.

24 June 2001

I find the town of Ambalavao to be beautiful beyond mere words.  Narrow cobbled streets, tall Draguignan houses, carved balustrades, colourful powder blue shutters contrasting with red earthen walls, a chaotic Zebu market and ancient bougainvillea trees bursting into a pyrotechnic display of blooms.  Shyly smiling children, Bara elders cloaked in lambas and street vendors selling everything from a basket of turkeys to small bundles of limes through the alleyways, imbuing the town with a fervent buzz of energy.  But duck into one of the gloomy doorways and you will discover a brand new world; old-style general dealers with shelves crowded from floor to ceiling; dental surgeries with instruments dating back to the Spanish Inquisition; Malay restaurants where earnest young couples merge into shadowy corners and mead houses where you can sample the potent fermented sugar cane juice (betsabetsa) or just sit on the dusty floor with your beer while a huge cauldron bubbles away in the corner.  In one of the drinking dives we venture into we sit on low benches drinking beer in the flickering candlelight, looking into a family’s bedroom-cum-kitchen-cum-house – in a scene straight from medieval times to girls, probably five or six, stoke a smoky fire to cook a steaming pot of rice, every so often flashing a shy smile at these strange vazahas from an unknown and far-away world.

But it is not just Ambalavao town that pushes the right buttons – the surrounding countryside features a natural splendour that is grandiose even by African standards.  Madagascar’s third highest mountain (Pic Boby at 2658 m) dominates the ranges in the Andringitra National Park just south of Ambalavao, while lesser granite inselbergs sprout in profusion towards the Varavarana ny Atsimo or “Door to the South”.  A particularly impressive clump of rocky domes explode skywards along the RN7 approximately 14 km south of Ambalavao, and this has been developed by local communities as a tourist site.

We visit the small tourist park, known as Lanja site Touristique, keen to explore the dramatic forest and rock landscape and, despite our best attempts are forced/coerced into hiring a guide.  This is not necessarily a bad thing though, as the route through the primary forest clinging precariously to the lower slopes proves to be difficult.  We follow in the footsteps of our loping guide, first along a stream bed then through dense forest tunnels, a scramble through a tumble of huge rocks, squeezing through dark and narrow crevices and clambering along tree trunks.  The forest is dense and moist, very different to Zombitse, and is home to a colony of more than 75 ring-tailed lemurs.  These primitive little primates seem quite habituated to humans and are a constant source of amusement as they leap from tree to tree and scramble adroitly along vertical cliff faces.  With their gecko-like digits and long limbs it literally looks as if they have suction cups on their fingers as they take on the death-defying sheer walls of rock.

Even though we are nowhere near as adept as the lemurs, we nonetheless decide to venture onto the granite slopes soaring skywards above the forest.  It is hard work as we slug it out with gravity, stepping up and up along the smooth granite domes at angles of probably around 30 degrees.  As you leave the forest behind the vegetation changes to become a mixture of alpine-montane, grassland and succulent, with gat little pachypodiums hunkering down in crevasses in close proximity to razor-sharp sedge grass.  Once or twice we happen upon Bara tombs set deep into rock enclaves, the entrances closed up with square stone blocks.  My French is not good enough to fully understand our guide’s explanation but I do get the drift that the mountain is a ceremonial site with important religious significance.

We follow a more difficult route back down, traversing along a ravine and ducking our way through a tangle of vegetation, past huge spider webs and clambering over massive slabs of rock. Birds are abundant and we see hamerkop, yellow-bellied sunbird asity and crested drongo.  We also have a close encounter with a small snake, but the guide motions that it is not poisonous at all, so not to worry.

We follow the RN7 on our walk back to Ambalavao, passing through several mural villages, much to the delight of local kids who follow us through the streets, screaming “vahaza!” in high pitched voices, and mongrel hounds who slink along in our footsteps.  Where we cross along bridges over the wide rivers, you look out across throngs of glistening brown bodies scrubbing themselves along the beds of swaying reeds.

25 June 2001

The weather has turned and there is a chilly highland bite to the breeze.  Outside it is overcast and a soft rain sifts down as we negotiate a taxi to Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s second largest town.  Often referred to as Fianar, the name means “place of learning”.  It suits this densely populate university town with its many academical institutions and church spires spilling down steep slopes and along high ridges.  The guidebooks warn that Fianar is quite unfriendly to tourists, but I find the opposite to generally be true as I wander through the upper suburbs of Hauteville.  With its narrow, cobbled Rues and tiered chateaus it is reminiscent of a rural French village, down to the clichéd scene of a priest, complete with black beret, carrying a basket of baguettes.

That afternoon Tiemen, Ndo, Henry and myself venture into the dilapidated streets of downtown Basseville to shop before setting off for Ranomafana National Park.  I buy a Betsileo blanket, a Tsara Be T-shirt and an excellent bottle of Saint Claude dark rum (my second of the trip, I have to confess).  The Malagasy rum is brilliant quality and is usually flavoured with vanilla pods giving it a very distinctive taste and aroma.

At nightfall the whole of Fianar seems to take to the streets. Tomorrow is National Day celebrations and fireworks are exploding all over town.  The sky is filled with the star-burst explosion of rockets and hordes of kids crowd the streets carrying colourful candle lanterns of every shape and size imaginable.  It is a riot of colour, as if a swarm of slow-moving fireflies have been let loose in the dark alleyways, drifting and converging around us in a luminous spectacle of light.  Henry succumbs to the spirit of abandon in the dodgy Chinese restaurant that we stumble into, ordering fruit bat as his main course.  It arrives on his plate in a gruesome tangle of black wings, long fingerlike bones and white globs of meat.  It tastes better than it looks, with a flavour somewhere between chicken and crocodile, but I can’t see it featuring on a menu near you in the foreseeable future.

We draw a bit of cracker crossfire on the way home but manage to make it back to our rooms for a rum nightcap.

26 June 2006

Fianarantsoa seems to be still reeling from the night before when Republic Day eventually dawns.  Here and there stragglers still reel through the streets either trying to get home after the revelry or maybe in search of some more excitement.  Just down the street from Tsara guesthouse, preparations seem to be underway for a mammoth official celebration – red, green and white bands of material swathe buildings, an out of tune orchestra pumps up the volume and any number of military and gendarmerie personnel swagger around importantly. By 9 pm the crowds have swelled to a few thousand and we are seriously doubting our chances of making it to Ranomafana.  Seemingly the full fleet of taxis have been booked for the procession, leaving us to bargain with the dregs of the profession.

By 11 am it is patently obvious that we will have to resort to hiring a vehicle for the eight of us in order to the three hour journey to Ranomafana National Park.  Most sober of the lot is a Captain Ahab look-alike with a light stagger to his step and a red, rheumy glint in his eyes.  Bartering commences and we eventually settle on a price of 450,000 fmg for him to take us to the park in his old Peugeot bakkie.  Halfway through the trip the rain starts coming down and as we progress deeper into the rainforest, it gets wetter and muddier.  The forest itself is stunning though with an impenetrable and green cloak of vegetation stretching along the steep, undulating slopes.  Roaring rivers tumble through the dark green valleys, foaming white over gushing waterfalls and through narrow and rocky gorges.  It epitomizes every rainforest fantasy one might have – dense forest, towering hardwood trees, lianas coiling down from the canopy and veils of mist drifting across the forested mountains.  We stop one or twice to take photos feeling the red mud squelch underfoot and staring into the emerald distance, wondering what weirdness awaits in its gloomy bosom.

By the time we reach the park gate it is pissing down so hard that we opt for Ranomafana village and more substantial shelter than a small and wet tent.  The rainforest gods smile kindly on us and we find lodgings in the home of a kind man named Florian.  The rooms are cheap but excellent and the fare at the local Malagache restaurant is exceptional.  Happiness is a full tummy and a dry bed.

26 June 2001

Woke up a few times during the course of the night to hear the rain coming down incessantly, every time sending up a prayer of thanks for not being in our minute little one man tent.  When we venture out into Ranomafana (meaning hot water and named thus because of the thermal springs) dawn is a grey and wet affair.  We wolf down an enormous meal of fruit and bread and then head to the park gate in order to find a guide.  It is the same old thing all over again – we make a price, the guide shoots it down; he makes a counter-price; e walk away in disgust until finally we all settle on a price/amount that seems fair to all concerned.  We’re probably still being ripped off a bit, but the show must go on.

And what a show it is.  This is true, primary rainforest, right from the quagmire of mulch underfoot to the velvety, moss-covered tree trunks, monstrous tree ferns, cascading Lianas and hundreds of epiphytes.  It is a shadowy and fecund world where trees and shrubs fight it out for their little place in the sun, shooting fiercely towards the canopy on spindly tall trunks.  Palms and brambles and creepers and hardwoods and orchids explode from the fertile mulch in a mad melee of fecundity, plunging you into a verdant abyss where the sun seldom shines.  Today there is no sign of the sun and the rain advances in sheets across the upper canopy; small drops tapping down and gathering speed and size as they roller-coaster down through the multiple layers of foliage, eventually splattering down into the mud like fat little berries falling from the sky.  All through the forest they plunge, rustling leaves in a never-ending and rushing hush of green noise.

We cross through swamps and over rushing brooks, eventually reaching Belle Vue viewpoint from where one can stare across miles of unbroken rainforest, with forest giants embedding their crowns in the trailing mists.  Our first lemur encounter is with a red-bellied male snacking on bright blue berries.  As with other lemurs, this one is extremely inquisitive and soon scrambles down into the lower branches in order to check up on the vazahas.  A lot of lemur research takes place in Ranomafana and, I think, hand in hand with this there seems to be a lott of feeding, with the animals therefore very used to humans.

We continue our walk, cresting along one of the highest ridges with a tangle of primal forest spilling down on either side.  As we dip into the valley, the rush of the Ranomafana River greets us where it tumbles more than 80 metres along a series of cascading falls.  It is a stunning sight with plumes of mist veiling the falls as they thunder down the sheer rock with rain forest all round.

A leech check uncovers nearly a dozen bloodsuckers feasting on Henk’s ankles.  The big man does not look too happy about this situation, but there is not much he can do but grin and bear it. The forest eventually thins out as we approach the village and we pass through banana plantations and rice paddies before reaching the thermal baths on the edge of the village.  Lunch is an extended affair with us tucking into traditional dishes at one of the local little restaurants. 

It is still pissing down when we leave on the night walk at 5 pm, but we intent on seeing the nocturnal side of the rainforest.  Again we’re not disappointed – as we reach the night viewing area, threre are two striped civet cats hanging around, waiting for scraps. 

Apparently feeding is part of the night viewing process in Ranomafana, but it does make for an unnatural viewing experience.  After the civets disappear, a red-bellied lemur drops in to check out the scene, amusing us with its astounding leaps.  The mouse lemur’s appearance is the highlight though.  Weighing in at a puny 40 grams, this little bundle of fluff whispers in for a taste of banana, its huge eyes reflecting like luminous pools in the torchlight.  As we wander back through the deep forest hush, we encounter several tropical geckos, their translucent bodies perching along thin twigs in wait of unwary insects.  A quick beer at a seedy/quirky village bar turns into an extended all nighter, with me, Tiemen and Henry plumbing new depths in inane conversation.  Despite more than three hours of foreplay, Tiemen finds himself lacking on the follow-through and stumbles home empty-handed while the target of his affections slips away into the night.

27 June 2001

With only a day or three of the holiday remaining, we need to make our way north towards Tana again.  It is no great shakes, but just getting from the park to the RN7 proves a seemingly insurmountable affair.  A bridge along the secondary road has collapsed and the taxi-brousses are reluctant to make the run; the one driver willing to do the deed has run out of fuel, the nearest fuel is 23 km away in the next village and nobody wants to fetch the petrol. So I wait, accompanied by my babelaas, while it rains over the rainforest.  By 11 am we decide to fuck it all, buy a lift in a truck transporting cinnamon and pile onto the bags to sit out the bumpy journey to Fianar.

But that’s not the end of the story – we get to the bridge that is down and, despite a fatalistic confidence by the guy in charge, decide that there is just no ways that they will finish the work by nightfall.  Basically 40 workers are in attendance but between them they have to share a dozen garden spades, four pick-axes, a three pound hammer and a handful of cigarette dog-ends.  Only option to make it to Ambositra before nightfall is hoofing it and bribing an official, it turns out.  With three hours of heavy slog looming to the RN7 I succumb to the laws of the jungle and wave a wad of notes at one of the road officials and bingo! … ten minutes later we’re squashed inside a roadworks vehicle bound for the main road.  While we wait at the village on the RN7, Henk enters into the world of celebrity stardom – it is as if the WWF has come to town and both adults and kids crowd closer to stare in awe at “le grand vazaha”.  By the time we leave, the crowds revere his 6 ft 7 frame and I’m sure we will one day return to find a statue built in his honour.

28 June 2001

Final day of hardcore shopping in the manic markets of Ambositra town and we wander through the narrow streets in search of Madagascan spoils.  With the shopping finally in the proverbial bag, we set off for Tana and a final night at Manoir Rouge in Ifato village.

29 June 2001

6 am flight to Joburg delayed but manage (by the skin of our teeth) to still catch our connecting flight to Cape Town …..