Thursday, March 9, 2017

Farewell to Madagascar: Our Southern Sojourn

Channeling my inner Ansel Adams in the Tsaranoro Valley
Windhoek, February 19th

Seated in a warm, dry hotel room while rain comes down outside on this capital city, I am trying to cast my mind far away from mainland Africa, where we have been for the past two months, to the last leg of our Madagascar odyssey, our two-week swing through the south-central highlands of the country.  This section of the trip, although somewhat shorter than we had anticipated in terms of distance, still gave us plenty of scenery and wildlife to take away and provided a fitting conclusion to our trip.  It will also be good for me to start catching up on my much-delayed blog; after a burst of writing energy in early January, I haven’t written a word in over a month, so it’s time to get back at it.  Here goes.

Taxi rickshaw in the back streets of Ambalavao
Terri and I headed out from the squalour of Antananarivo very early on the morning of Tuesday, December 6th on the most luxurious bus we could find, the Sonaotra+.  The bus was clean and the seats were well spaced.  We had bought an extra seat just in case, and the space and legroom were luxurious after some of the taxis-brousses we had taken up in the north.  It couldn’t compare for luxury with a Chilean, Argentinian or Turkish bus, but it was a relief to our battered backsides.

Our destination was the large town of Fianaratsoa, and it was, by the standards of Madagascar travel, a quick, pleasant and comfortable trip.  We could even look out the windows at a rolling landscape of hills, irrigated valleys and straggling villages of red-brick houses.  I put on my headphones and listened to a big backlog of podcasts, stopping only at the mid-trip meal stop.  One of the sad things about travelling by bus, compared to travelling with your own vehicle or (even better) a bicycle, is that you race past landscapes and sights that you would love to stop and look at, unable to cast more than a cursory glance at them.  In the end you get dozy and stop paying attention, stultified by the swaying of the bus and the fact that you were up at 5 am, and this is the worst thing:  you travel halfway around the world to ignore the country passing past your window, dozing in a stupor.

The main street of Ambalavao
Fianarantsoa is a big, sprawling town built between a series of low hills.  We caught a taxi to the tiny, cheap and friendly Hotel Arinofy and were in bed early.  The long day of imprisonment in the bus and the fact that there was no power both sent us to sleep sooner than expected.  We woke up in the morning to the sight of brilliant red Madagascar fody birds frolicking in the garden, had breakfast and then trudged down the hill to the chaos of the taxi brousse stand.  We enquired about rides to Ambalavao, then went into town looking for a supermarket to buy supplies for our upcoming hike, while I ran off to a gas station to fill our MSR stove fuel bottle.  The supermarket was a bit dismal in its selection, but we scrounged together some potatoes, instant noodles, instant soup, canned tomatoes and a few other items before heading back to the taxi brousse stand with our booty.

The staple of life in central Madagascar
It was a lot less comfortable ride to Ambalavao (despite booking extra seats), but it was a fairly short trip, and within two hours we were tumbling off the bus at the main market square in Ambalavao.  The landscape had changed, growing distinctly dryer and more open, and Ambalavao had the distinct air of a Western cowboy town, with lots of wiry men in Stetson hats and carrying big walking sticks marching up and down the road.  Right in the square there was an office for JB Trekking, and we stopped in to find out about transport to the Parc National d’Andringitra, our next destination.

Another beautiful chameleon

We discovered that we could have saved ourselves the effort of buying food, as an all-inclusive 4-day hike, with food, cook and porters included, was about 120 euros per person, not significantly more than we would pay trying to negotiate a 4WD lift to and from the park.  We signed up and then spent the afternoon in the delightfully French atmosphere of the Relais d’Andringitra, run by an expat Frenchman who regaled us with tales of life in Ambalavao and fed us magnificently on magret de canard and zebu bourguignon.  We strolled around the streets later in the afternoon, drinking in the atmosphere of market day, with the local Betsileo farmers thronging the streets.  The houses along the main street were picturesque in a decaying colonial era sort of way, and it was pleasant to stretch our legs after two days of bus travel. It actually reminded me a bit of a spaghetti Western set, between the wooden balconies, the hand-painted signs and the cowboy hats, and I half-expected Clint Eastwood to come around the next corner instead of another tuk-tuk.

Rice terraces on the way to Andringitra
Thursday Dec. 8 found us up early and piling into a decently maintained 4x4 pickup truck with our guide Tovo, lots of food and equipment and a live chicken, its legs tied together.  The chicken was going to be dinner on the second night, and Terri immediately took a shine to the little fellow, feeding him bread, bits of flour and water to ease his last 36 hours on earth.  We stopped in to see the zebu market, a huge bustling open area on the outskirts of town full of cowboys and big zebu, some of them escaping from their owners from time to time and causing much shouting and chasing and corralling.  From that point on it was a 3-hour slog over a truly awful road, comparable to the Daraina track still burned into our nightmares.  At least the scenery was very pretty, with distant mountains closing in on the road as we climbed past emerald rice terraces towards the forested higher peaks.  By 10:30 we were at the national park office, where interminable paperwork was filled out and we looked at the surprisingly good displays at the visitor’s centre.  We were the only visitors to pass through the gate that day, which is surprising because Andringitra is one of the very best national parks in Madagascar, with great scenery, fantastic hiking and good infrastructure.

Looking up at the King's Waterfall and the jumble of peaks behind
Eventually we piled back into the truck along with a couple of porters that our guide had engaged.  We climbed up an ever-deteriorating track until we could drive no further (the next bridge was a gutted mas of burnt timbers), then got out, distributed the gear and food (and the unfortunate chicken) among the two porters, picked up our park guide Fleury and set off uphill, relieved to be walking at last.  We climbed steadily through lovely forest (a rarity in these parts; only the protection of the national park has saved a small area of native bush), with occasional stops to pant in the cloying humidity.  The forest was full of chameleons, lizards, crickets and noisy but unseen birds.
Nice reflection of the high peaks of Andringitra
After three kilometres of steady climbing past two impressive waterfalls (the King’s and the Queen’s Waterfalls), we finally found ourselves on flattish open moorland on a long plateau at the foot of the high peaks.  The next 3 km were easy and pleasant and full of birds that were easy to see.  The orchids for which the area is famous weren’t in season, but the rugged granite peaks and undulated heath made up for their absence.  We made camp beside a burbling river (a location known as Camp Three), ate a great beef stew, fed the chicken again and were in bed early in the big tent provided by the trekking company.
Pretty mountain peaks seen from near Camp Three

Terri, Fleury and Tovo on the way to Camp Three

Granite shining bright in the morning sunshine
We slept well, and were up early the next morning for our summit push.  A recent change in park regulations meant that we couldn’t leave at 3 am for sunrise on the summit, so we settled for a 5:15 wakeup and a 5:45 departure.  Our guide from JB Trekking was feeling unwell, so we had Fleury, our National Park guide, as our only companion.  It was a very scenic climb, first along the plateau, then steeply uphill across steep granite faces scored with streams and waterfalls, across a second, higher plateau and finally, at 8:45, up to Pic Boby, at 2658 metres the second-highest peak in the country.  (The highest peak is inaccessible by casual hikers, so this is the trekking summit of Madagascar.)
The jumbled, eroded granite outcrops on the final push up Pic Boby

We had perfect bluebird weather and endless views across the jumble of shattered granite peaks (some of which actually look higher than Boby itself) south to the start of the southern desert and north to the forested peaks of Parc National de Ranomafana.  It felt good to be standing (almost) on top of Madagascar and to be walking almost free (with the exception of Fleury) through a wonderful landscape.  We returned to camp in a jubilant mood, swam in the stream, had a quick early lunch and set off across the lower plateau towards our next camp by 12:20.

Made it!  Two tired but exultant trekkers at the summit
The view from the top
The landscape of that afternoon’s hike was wonderful, a mixture of open grassland, exposed granite (the “Lunar Landscape” for which Andringitra is known) and a descent through more dense forest.  Accompanying us most of the way were views of the immense vertical granite walls of the Tsaranoro Valley, into which we were descending.  It was a long day, and we were a bit footsore by the time we got to Camp Yetaranomby, on the boundary of the national park after a 1000-metre descent from the summit.

Our serpentine visitor and his unfortunate dinner guest
The campsite had another great swimming hole and Terri and I bathed, feeling the cool water refresh our dusty skin and tired legs.  While we were in the water, the chicken met his demise and appeared in our dinner.  He was more skin and bones than meat, and it seemed almost criminal to kill a chicken for so little nutritional benefit to us, but we were both hungry and were able to salve our consciences.  Ten minutes after dinner I realized I had left my sunglasses at the table and when I returned to our outdoor dining area, my headlamp picked out the slightly gruesome sight of a boa constrictor halfway through the process of swallowing an unfortunate rat whole.  I called Terri and we watched the rest of the meal; it took almost half an hour for the snake to finish ingesting its prey, and watching the convulsive bursts of peristalsis was fascinating, if grim. 

The spectacular wall of Tsaranoro Peak
The next day we bid farewell to Fleury after breakfast as we left the national park.  He headed back over the mountains to park headquarters while we continued mostly downhill into the heat and rice cultivation of the Tsaranoro Valley.  The views were stunning, with Tsaranoro Peak giving us different colours and angles every few minutes.  When we dropped low enough to be in rice fields, young kids raced uphill to try to sell us trinkets and souvenirs and ask for money, candy and pencils.  They were quite persistent, but Terri managed to divert them into singing while I walked ahead to take pictures.  It saddened me a bit to see how the presence of tourists, as is so often the case, turns kids into beggars and salesmen, diverting them from school and working in the fields.
Terri near the bottom of the long descent into the Tsaranoro Valley

Terri being serenaded by village children in the Tsaranoro Valley
It was properly hot down at 1000 metres’ elevation and we trudged along the valley, wishing that the local farmers hadn’t cut down every single tree for firewood, leaving us in a shadeless oven of a landscape.  The colours of the young rice and the contours of the terraces were beautiful, but they were also reminders of the natural beauty and diversity that has been lost as Madagascar’s population has mushroomed over the past few decades.  We got to Camp Meva, a rather ramshackle camp owned by JB Trekking, at 11:30.  The heat was intense, and after a quick picnic lunch, Terri and I decided to walk uphill to the fancier digs at Camp Catta for a swim and to look for ring-tailed lemurs.  The “eco” swimming pool was delightfully cool but not terribly clean, but it was a great way to beat the heat. 

Eventually we hauled ourselves out of the green water and went off to look for the ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) that live in the area.  It didn’t take long, with the help of one of the Camp Catta employees, to locate a troop of lemurs right in the hotel grounds, and we spent a very happy hour following them around and photographing them.  They don’t have the ethereal beauty of the silky sifakas that we saw in Marojejy, but they are very cute, very active and love to cross open ground with a strange sideways skipping gait, so it weas a lot of fun to take pictures of them.  We watched them marking trees vigorously with scent using their paws, first rubbing their paws up and down their tails where their scent glands are located.  I felt (not for the first time in Madagascar) that I was in a BBC Nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough.  The mothers carrying babies on their backs were of course the cutest photo subjects.  We returned to Camp Meva buzzing with excitement from seeing the lemurs.

Ring-tailed mother and child
We slept well that night and awoke early, ready for a long, hot slog out to the road and a crowded taxi brousse, but a phone call while we were breakfasting told Tovo, our guide, that another trekking party from JB Trekking was on its way to Camp Meva in a 4x4 and the truck would give us a lift back to town once it had dropped off its trekkers.  We were doubly fortunate:  not only did it save us a rather grim walk along the main track, it also gave us more time at Meva where we got to watch a troop of ring-tailed lemurs walk right up to the main building, jump through the windows and start licking and chewing whitewash off the walls.  We had wondered why the walls looked so chipped and ragged, and now we knew:  it was the lemurs!

Ring-tailed lemurs licking the paint off the walls
Apparently the whitewash contains salt and minerals that they crave.  We watched them gnawing away at the walls for a good 45 minutes before they finally gave up and headed off towards the nearby village.  As they were crossing an open field, a domestic dog suddenly raced out in pursuit of them and they split up, two young males heading in one direction and a mother and infant in the other.  We saw the two males sitting high in a tree in the village as we passed in our luxurious truck, but saw no sign of the mother and child.  The two males were calling plaintively and looking around for their troopmates, and we hoped that the dog hadn’t caught and killed the pair.  As with most species of lemur, the ring-tailed lemurs are fairly rare, with a fragmented habitat and falling numbers, so the death of even a couple of them is significant.

Ring-tailed lemurs at Camp Catta

We drove back to town with the owner of JB, his driver and our guide Tovo.  It was a quick, comfortable ride (the road on this side of the park is far less abysmal than on the other side) and quite soon we found ourselves back at the Relais d’Andringitra, tucking into more fine French cuisine and then taking a well-earned siesta.  That evening over dinner we made the acquaintance of Allegra, a fisheries biologist from Alaska, and had a pleasant evening comparing notes on where we had been in Madagascar.
Intense colours in the Tsaranoro Valley

Ring-tailed lemurs fleeing an oncoming dog
It was hard to tear ourselves away from this little oasis of good food, and the next morning found us lingering over breakfast and internet, trying to book accommodation for our upcoming sojourn in Swaziland and trying to upload photos.  Finally by 10:30 we tore ourselves away, found a taxi brousse back to Fianaratsoa and another one to Ranomafana, arriving late in the afternoon after one of the slowest taxi-brousse rides yet, albeit through spectacular scenery.  We found rooms in the Hotel Manja just in time for sunset beers and were in bed pretty early.

It was at this point that our onward progress ran into the sands of lassitude.  We had planned to spend a couple of days in Ranomafana, seeing the lemurs, before continuing north to do some community-based trekking.  Instead we woke up the next day thinking that we wanted to minimize the number of hours and the number of days that we spent on Madagascar public transport, and that Ranomafana seemed like a beautiful place to kick back for the remaining week of our trip before heading back to Antananarivo and our flight back to South Africa.  The trekking option was going to involve a lot more taxis-brousses into the back of beyond, and after six weeks of taxis-brousses this was a prospect too horrible to contemplate.  I don’t know if it’s my advanced age, or the years of travelling by bicycle, or the past six months of comfortable travel driving ourselves around Africa in our beloved Stanley, but the hours spent contorted inside a taxi-brousse, crawling past scenery without stopping (or, often, even being able to see it) really sapped my will to continue exploring.  Madagascar has so much that is worth seeing and experiencing, but unless you’re willing to shell out the big bucks to have someone drive you around, or unless you’re willing to pedal yourself around on a bicycle, it’s a bear to travel around by public transport. 

Wonderful chameleon in Ranomafana town
Having made up our mind to stay, we were in no hurry to race off to the park, especially given the unsettled weather.  We spent our first day wandering lazily along the town (strung untidily along the bottom of a river valley tumbling down off the central highlands).  It was a small hot spring spa in colonial times, and the French infrastructure still exists, albeit mostly in a state of overgrown decrepitude.  The old suspension bridge over the river lies in ruins, with a jerry-rigged temporary bridge meandering beside it.  Many old French buildings associated with the hot springs lie in dereliction behind the modern springs, a complex that was closed that day for cleaning.  We decided to visit the next day when the water would be at its cleanest.  Near the bridge, we spotted a huge, spectacularly-coloured chameleon climbing a tree, but before we could take pictures a disagreeable old woman grabbed the chameleon, said it was hers and demanded money for photos.  We walked off, Terri giving the lady a piece of her mind, and made our way back to the Manja.

The next day was devoted to a long visit to the hot springs.  We got there early and had the hot water swimming pool to ourselves for most of the morning.  It was almost too hot to swim lengths, and we had to climb out from time to time to cool off in the shade of the trees, but it was a pleasant place to read, to watch birds and to do yoga.
Ranomafana butterfly
While there, we struck up a conversation with a Swiss guy and a Malagasy woman, Cyril and Mushu, who wanted to share the expense of a guide to the park the next day.  We agreed to the idea, and the next morning Terri, the guide and I were crawling into a crowded passing taxi-brousse for the 10 km drive uphill to the main gate of Ranomafana National Park, where we met the other two travellers waiting for us outside their accommodation.  We paid for admission and the guide (pretty steep, at 65,000 MGA per person for admission, and MGA 75,000 split between us for the guide) then set off into the park, past the cheeky “community levy” desk which extorted a small fee from all visitors on top of the large fee we had just paid for the park ticket and guide.  Terri was not amused.
Golden bamboo lemurs in Ranomafana National Park
Ranomafana’s claim to fame is the presence of a couple of species of very rare lemurs, the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus) and the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus).  We were hopeful of encountering both of them, but had to content ourselves with the golden species.  We had several close encounters with these gentle creatures who are studied by scientists curious as to how they are able to get rid of the cyanide present in their diet of bamboo shoots.  They were tough to photograph, as we were always looking up through dark branches towards dark lemurs silhouetted against a bright sky, but in the end we got a couple of decent shots.  The same can’t be said about the other new species we spotted, the Milne-Edwards’ sifaka (Propithecus edwardsi) and the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata), which we saw in short bursts as they moved rapidly across the forest canopy.  We spotted a few chameleons and saw lots of beautiful forest, but it was a rather low-key finale to our Madagascar wildlife experience.  Our guide Angelin was also a bit of a loudmouth, so we weren’t broken-hearted to say goodbye to him.  We walked downhill back to town along the main road, an hour and a half of trudgery that made Terri’s injured leg pretty sore. 

The last few days passed in a lazy haze, with some blog post writing, some running and lots of watching the huge and amazingly coloured Parson’s chameleon who lived in the hedge outside the Manja Hotel restaurant.  We were sad when he finally disappeared on our last day.  We also had the good fortune to meet Jannico Kelk and Jasmine Vink, an Australian couple who are passionate herpetologists (“we love herping”, according to Jasmine).  I had seen some of Jasmine’s amazing photos on Instagram, and it was great to meet the two of them in person.  They had just come from Andasibe, and from India and Bangladesh before that, and they were looking forward to lots of night-time exploration.  Seeing their exquisite photos, I realized that although I’m quite pleased with the wildlife photos I’ve taken on this trip, there are many levels of proficiency above me to strive for in the future.  (You can see some of their photos here and here, if you’re curious.)  Terri and I also ventured out to the botanical gardens just outside of town, where we saw a number of rare Madagascar species, including one that has exactly one known tree in the wild (the one we were looking at).  It’s amazing, and rather sobering, to realize that there are so many species just being discovered, or still unknown to science, at the exact moment when so much of Madagascar’s unique forests are being cut down rapidly. 
The amazing Parson's chameleon in the garden of the Hotel Manja

Farmer bringing his crop to market in Ranomafana

And then, suddenly, it was December 18th and we were on our way back towards our flight.  That afternoon we sprang for a private transfer to Fianaratsoa (MGA 100,000 well spent, although the first guy whom we had reserved cancelled about 20 minutes before our scheduled departure, leaving us scrambling to find a replacement).  In Fianar, we stayed at the bizarre Soafia Hotel, a gigantic Chinese-themed complex that seemed half-deserted and half-derelict.  We had dinner that night in the restaurant, where we made up half of the evening’s clientele and where we were told that they had no water and no beer in stock.  Terri got cross with the waitress and finally they found some bottled water, but it was a strange experience.

December 19th found us on the “luxury” Sonaotra+ bus back to Tana.  Again we sprang for 3 seats to have more space, and again it was a long but reasonably comfortable drive across the endless hills and valleys of the central highlands, binge-listening to podcasts and admiring the emerald green of the rice fields.  It took absolutely forever to fight our way through traffic the last 10 km into central Tana, and more time to fight our way back to the Hotel Sole, our oasis away from the hideousness of Tana’s mean streets.

Mother and child ring-tailed lemurs
December 20th we lingered over breakfast, packed, wrote blog posts and sorted photos and napped, ready for the sleep-deprivation exercise of the coming night flight.  We dined as usual at the Taj Mahal, an Indian restaurant that had become our local hangout for its excellent cuisine and low prices.  At 10 pm we caught a taxi through the dark and somewhat menacing streets of the capital out to the airport and caught our 2:40 am flight to Nairobi, followed by our connection to Johannesburg the next morning. 

In total we spent six weeks in Madagascar, and we should probably have spent longer if we wanted to see all the amazing animals and plants and landscapes of this huge island.  However, as we had to admit to ourselves by the end, we were burned out by local transport and ready to get out of the country.  I loved being able to see so many species of lemur (23 in total), and the hiking in Marojejy and Andrangitra was a particular highlight.  Seeing the aye-aye and the other species in Daraina was a lot of fun, while swimming with whale sharks off Nosy Be was a wonderful experience.  If I went back to Madagascar, I would want to have my own transport:  a car, a motorcycle or a bicycle.  I would want to explore the remote northeast coast and get down to the south.  However, I think that we got a reasonable taste of the country’s diversity, and I didn’t fall in love with Madagascar enough to want to return immediately.  There are still a lot of countries left for me to visit in the world, and returning to Madagascar would be a diversion from that mission.  I also didn’t fall in love with the Malagasy people or the food, and I really loathed Antananarivo (not quite as much as Dhaka or Jakarta or Manila, but pretty close) and the fact that we had to pass through Tana so often didn’t fill me with great joy.  I was very glad that we visited Madagascar and that we had enough time to see so many highlights, but it might well end up being a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Definitely one of the cuter species of lemur!

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