After leaving Isalo the dryness of this southern plateau savanna becomes more and more evident. From Isalo to the coast we only pass through one pocket of forest (Zombitse and Vohibasa National Park) which looked interesting, but unfortunately we need to keep going as there is so much to see. The other notable location on this route is a "wild-west" mining town called Ilakaka - the madness of mining for sapphires has seen this little village grow into a crazy town of some 60,000 people (from 40 people in the early 1990's !!!) Just driving along the RN7, which passes through the centre of the town, sees people selling and sorting sapphires everywhere.
By mid-morning we have started seeing baobabs, a magnificent sight among the increasingly dry grasslands. We are entering the southern region of Madagascar, known for its "Spiny Forest", an ecosystem unique to this area. In order to best understand the variety of plants that form these forests we visit "Arboretum d'Antsokay". This amazing facility was created by a Swiss man named Herman Petignat in 1980, whose son still runs the operation. The collection of plants is huge and the guides showed us many of the plants and trees that are found in the spiny forests and how they all survive. It is one of the most amazing ecosystems in the world. We enjoyed the hour or so we spent walking through the arboretum, and then their little restaurant served up a great lunch.
After lunch we drive through the regional city of Tulear, a coastal city surrounded by dry forests, and the dryness is evident in the streets of the city too. The markets are spread along a few streets and are very busy and interesting. For tourists there is one little handicrafts street, but you are not hounded by touts anywhere .... just friendly Malagasy people. We drive north of Tulear along a good bitumen road. To the right are farming lands, which were spiny forests just a few years ago, but the crops see so little rainfall it is a difficult existence. To our left is the Mozambique Channel, beautiful waters and stretches of sandy beaches along a coral fringed lagoon. We are to spend a few days here, enjoying the water and seeing more of the natural history of the forests.
The RN7 has shown us such a cross-section of the nation, the culture and the natural history of this island. Where next ?
After Yucca, Avoha, Zebu and Maki we settle back for a pleasant afternoon's journey down the RN7. The road is well made and we quickly move from the wetter areas of the eastern highlands into the dry southern plateau. There are no padi fields in this stage of our trip, but we pass lots of "Bara" zebu-herders walking their animals in the grasslands that the highway runs through.
To the west we see more and more steep sided hills as the general landscape becomes very rocky. We are entering an amazing National Park named "Isalo", a landscape of sandstone formations, deep canyons, vast grasslands and unexpectedly small streams hidden away and surrounded by palms - true oasis. Like many in the area, our lodge is primarily built of sandstone and it blends into the small hills that surround it, making an oasis for humans in this arid area. After a good night's rest we set off for a hike into the Isalo plateau. There are numerous routes so this morning we are starting with an easy one which runs up a valley where soon we find little forests, running streams and lemurs !! In such a dry and barren landscape it is such a surprise to see them. We are fortunate to see both the red-fronted lemur and the ring-tailed lemur. Apparently 7 species of lemur make their homes in the area. The stream is popular for a swim, and further up the valley is a pool and waterfall. We have a wonderful lunch by the water, surrounded by greenery and lemurs.
Later in the afternoon its back to our lodge for another good night's rest and then we are off to different part of the Park (there is a lot to see here). Today we hike up to the plateau, a little steep, but not impossible for anyone in our group, On the way we pass traditional "Bara" graves ... another surprising feature of the the Park. The view from the top is spectacular, and as we explore the table-top landscape not only do the views exceed our expectations, but small plants clinging to rock faces add dashes of colour to the scene. Definitely worth the walk.
There is no way to describe the canyons and peaks of Isalo ...... no one photo can capture the diversity.
Tomorrow, to the coast and water !
We depart from Fianarantsoa down the RN7 passing stunning terraced rice-paddies, many families making bricks, and a village where everyone makes a fibre "Yucca" into ropes and twines. It seems every 10 minutes a different stop, and charming people happy to show us how they make a living. Today will be a long day, as we have 3 special stops before travelling south to Isalo National Park.
Our first main stop is the town Ambalavao. A very pretty little town from the moment you enter it. After a few twists and turns we arrive at the Antaimoro Paper factory. Here paper is made by hand from wild mulberry trees called "Avoha" (in Malagasy). The bark is stripped, washed, boiled and the resultant gooey mass is pummeled by hand until it is like porridge. This is spread on racks, then washed and washed to clean it and spread to an extremely thin layer. The sheets are cut into sections, with dried flowers being arranged on some of them, and then the rack sits in the sun until you have a thin paper-like sheet. Amazing work by a team of ladies ..... and as the process is continuous we are able to watch each of these steps. The work is exquisite and a little shop sells some of the final "paper" products (it is distributed across the nation, but a better range and prices were seen here compared with some of the local markets in the big cities where we also saw it for sale). A great start, but we have come to Ambalavao today because today is a special "market" day.
Just a few kilometres down the road we come across a hillside covered with animals and people. Every week thousands of cattle are brought to this market, which is argued to be the biggest in whole of Madagascar. Starting early in the day it is chaotic, but we are here mid-morning and the numbers are thinning - this does allow us to walk through the herds without being trampled and to see the auctioning and bartering of the cattle taking place. No matter where you go in Madagascar, there are "Zebu", with their hump on their back. Although found in South Asia, they are such an important part of Madagascar. Everywhere we eat, Zebu is on the menu..... and the steaks aren't too bad at all. And just when you thought wandering through Zebu actions was crazy, we go 500 metres away to the accompanying "weekly market" (which is a big deal throughout all towns and cities in Madagascar - don't miss them). This food and general produce market is one of the biggest and busiest we see in the whole of the nation, and is great fun to walk through. We are the only westerners here (we are called "Vazaha" - which sounds strange to us, but just means we are not from Madagascar ...... we get called Vazaha everywhere we go!!). What an amazing morning ..... but yet, more to come !!
A little further down the RN7 we arrive at a stunning rock outcrop and a "community" reserve known as "Anja". After a short and relatively easy walk we start to see "Maki" (Ring-tail Lemurs), not one or two but they seem everywhere. We have deliberately timed our visit to Madagascar to be here when the newborn abound, and young are everywhere. The community has created this reserve and the Government made it a Protected Area - a great piece of work by the Malagasy locals to ensure conservation of their ring-tailed friends, and a well run tourist facility. Walking among the lemurs is fun and they are very comfortable with humans. The local guides are well educated and share with us this experience. Anja - what a fabulous place. They have also built a restaurant on site, so after our walk with the Maki, a quick meal and then off down the road to Isalo ....
After leaving Ranomafana National Park, it is not long before we are back on the RN7 Highway and heading south to the fourth largest city in Madagascar, Fianarantsoa. Like most Madagascan cities, the older quarter of the city lies in the hills, and the newer parts in the valley below This city was only created by the Merina tribe in the 1800's as an administrative centre, so a relatively "new" city. What makes it so important is that it has become both the academic and religious capital of Madagascar. The city seems dotted with Protestant, Lutheran and Catholic Cathedrals (the Catholic one is pictured above). Fianarantsoa also has its own University. The name of the city means "good education" in Malagasy.
After visiting a panoramic lookout, we venture into the "Haute-Ville" or the high town. The sun is begining to set and the colourful ochres and blues used on so many of the buildings really stand out. The local residents are busy buying their last provisions from the little stalls, or lining up at the water fountains to collect water for the evening. It is a very different city life, but the people we meet are smiling and jolly and this little part of Madagascar has a special appeal - a "local-village" feel, in the middle of a huge city.
Fianarantsoa is also important as it is the centre of Madagascar's premier wine growing region. As the French were involved in establishing the vineyards (and apparently quite a few French are still local wine-makers) the quality of the local wine is much better than we had expected. If we had time we could have visited the vineyards to the west of the city.
Railways !!!! Officially Madagascar has two little railways still in operation. One runs from Tana to the east coast city of Toamasina, though now it seems to only carry goods. The other starts here in Fianarantsoa and descends through steep mountains and jungles to the coastal town of Manakara. It is supposed to operate twice a week........ while we had thoughts about taking this journey that won't be happening. The track is under repair !!! So the only functioning passenger train in Madagascar is not functioning. We had been warned in advance that you may not know until the morning of departure whether you will travel .... and this is the case, but we are starting to understand Madagascar is like that - so just enjoy it. And we are.
Tonight we enjoy our stay in the big-city before off down the national highway tomorrow morning to discover more of the culture and to witness some strange events.
We leave the RN7 and very soon enter the Ranomafana National Park. Immediately there is a change from farmlands into thick rainforests, fast-flowing streams, steep hills and deep valleys. We are reminded that this was the type of vegetation that once covered this area of Madagascar, before poor farming practices denuded much of the land. The differences are profound. The humidity rises and the sounds of the jungle surround us. It is now that we start to understand the requirement that you be reasonably fit if you wish to trek in the National Parks. While not terribly strenuous, we are constantly walking up and down slopes in search of the highly mobile lemurs found here. This is a fairly dry time of the year .... we all agree it would be hard work in the rainy seasons.
Ranomafana is huge (over 400 square kilometres) and being part of the eastern escarpment it receives good rainfall. It can be raining at almost anytime of the year. The Park was created in 1991 and is home to two of the rarest lemurs, the Golden Bamboo and the Greater Bamboo. After some hours of searching we find the Golden Bamboo, which is quietly concealed in the branches. It is worth all the walking to spend time with this quiet animal, one of the rarest on earth.
After what has turned out to be a tiring, but very rewarding walk we check-in to our hotel in the town of Ranomafana, home to hot water springs (which is where the name "Ranomafana" comes from). Some of us go off to the local thermal baths to relax. But there is more to come. After dinner it is off down the road that runs through the park to undertake a night walk !!! At least this time it is along a flat road. By dim torchlight our guides show us an amazing array of nocturnal animals, including "mouse lemurs", which are so small. The guides have amazing vision.... able to find frogs hidden in roadside pools of water. One of the most surprising finds is a tiny chameleon (the "Nose-horned" shown below). How they spotted it I really don't know.
Tomorrow morning we will continue discovering more of Ranomafana, before visiting the charming city of Fianarantsoa.
As we travel south down the RN7 we are surrounded by padi fields, dotted with small villages .... very different from anything you see across the Mozambique Channel in neighbouring mainland Africa. Soon we arrive at Ambositra, a regional town which is the centre of a tradition of wood-working artisans from the Zafimaniry group (part of the Betsileo tribe that is found throughout this area on Madagascar). The forests of the region are long gone from the slash and burn farming technique that has devastated much of the nation. The tradition of these artisans was to build wooden houses without a single nail or screw. Such is the nature of this heritage that UNESCO have formally recognised the skills of this group. Today, many of of the artisans are found in small workshops around the town where they are still practicing their skills and making wooden products. The levels of skill are amazing and their products quite exquisite. We don't see anything like this elsewhere in our tours of Madagascar.
After visiting the artisan's factories we are able to enjoy traditional folk-dancing from this area, while taking a break for lunch.
It's back on the good bitumen road and through the padi's we travel. What we aren't expecting (but this is Madagascar, and it is full of surprises !!) is a "still" along the side of the road where folk are busily distilling Geranium. It looks very primitive, and the output from the still is being poured into plastic drink bottles and small personal flasks - which are are invited to buy. "Geranium Rose Essential Oil" ...... a great product from Madagascar, with a intense bouquet !
..... next we venture into one of the most famous National Parks in the whole country.
Having departed from Antsirabe we are passing through farmlands of terraces and rice paddies, which surround small villages that appear to have been influenced by the French. Many of the villages have their own church, with a steeple rising above the two storey red brick homes.
In the paddies women are hand planting each stem, while men and "zebu" (the local cattle of Madagascar) turn the soil in adjoining fields. Everyone is actively involved. In some of the areas at least two crops of rice a year are planted and harvested. Back-breaking work, but clearly a cash crop which ensures an income in a nation where 80% of the population lives on less than US$2.00 per day. Even the shortest journey into Madagascar shows that while the people are happy, they still are very poor by global standards.
Today is a lucky day for us as we discover a nearby festival ..... the "Famadihana" (translated as the "turning of the bones"). This is a tradition in some areas where the family crypts are opened and the bodies of ancestors are taken out and re-wrapped in fresh cloth. It's an unusual practice for a westerner to understand, and to see the event you have to be lucky as it only takes place during the dry winter months and then, irregularly (even 2-7 years). It is mainly practiced by the "Merina" tribe and is a huge celebration with a band playing raucous music, people dancing, lots of drinking, singing and eating. We are discovering many examples of cultural practices in Madagascar that we have never heard of. The Famadihana is a very important community event and promotes a strong link with ancestors/after-life and the family/community.
We journey on to discover more of this very different country - next to Ambositra.
We have arrived at the nation's second largest city, Antsirabe. At 1500m, it sits on the high plateau that runs south from Tana. The name means "where there is a lot of salt" and refers to the lakes and thermal springs of the area. It is a surprisingly colourful city, with brightly painted rickshaws (hand pulled) and trishaws (bicycle propelled) lining the streets. The lakes and thermal baths make it a popular tourist destination for those who live in Tana. Like all cities and towns in Madagascar walking is the best way to discover it, so initially from the old station (no trains operate anymore) we wander the length of the "Grand Avenue", full of colonial buildings. We stop at the "Fahaleovantena" - a monument celebrating the 18 ethnic groups of the nation. We are told that even though people talk about the "18 tribes", this is discouraged, as it is "one Madagascar".
There is so much to learn about why Madagascar is so different from any other destination - by the end of the Avenue we have already learnt about the French period, and how Norwegian Missionaries were a fundamental part of the cities history. We pass through gates into the grounds of the historic "Hotel de Thermes", a particularly stunning building overlooking one of the cities thermal spa's.
While we thought we had already seen a market we are just about to experience one of the two markets that are core to this cities daily life - we are venturing into the smaller "Antsenakely" market, rather than the sprawling "Asabotsy" market. Antsenakely is a wonderful insight into the city ....... fresh fruit and vegetables, meats and poultry, with simple balance scales and friendly banter between the shoppers and the merchants.
Another day, another part of Madagascar ..... tomorrow it's further south down the RN7.........
After a cool night at 1300m (4000') the journey south commences on the busy RN7 highway that runs to 980kms to the SW coast. We quickly leave the bustle of Tana and are welcomed by hills and plateaus coverage with small villages, and in this area by terraces used for rice farming. Also noticeable are the red brick houses with corrugated iron roofs, most of which are two storeys high. We learn about the placement of windows and the special designs of houses across the nation, and a new word "fady" (the Malagasy word for taboos) starts to take meaning.
Although we are headed for Madagascar's second largest city, Antsirabe, stopping en-route is the only way to discover amazing things about Madagascar. We enter the town of Ambatolampy and take a walk through the typical street markets which are found throughout the nation, but what we see at the end of the street is very different. The town is famous for aluminium "artisans" ..... who take any old aluminium spare parts, melt them down in cauldrons in the open and then pour it into hand made moulds. Bare feet, no gloves and air that is full of particles. The outcome, pots and pans that sell across the country. And why here - well this area is the only place that the fine graffite-like sand that is needed for the casts is found.
While you can enter Madagascar via Nosy Be or Toamasina by air, most travellers start at the nation's capital, Antananarivo. On landing you can see a new terminal under construction, but for the moment a very old one caters for all domestic and international passengers. Recent changes mean we are processed relatively quickly, compared to even 2 years ago. A quick visit to pay for a visa, followed by an Immigration/Police check - the luggage carousels are swirling behind their counters and already all of the bags from the flight are awaiting their owners. Customs is painless, with random checks...... and then a smiling face that we will see throughout our stay, greets us. It's Tiana, who like most of the people whom we meet in the service sector in Madagascar are always keen to help, sometimes in conditions that are quite unexpected.
The traffic in Tana (the shortened name that most folk use) can be trying. We arrive in the middle of the afternoon and the journey to our hotel is slow/fast/slow !!! It takes a little over an hour, but we know that it can often take 2 hours or more, except in the middle of the night when its less than 30 minutes !
Travelling past padi-fields bursting with rice crops (or "vary" - the staple of the nation, and loved by the Madagascan people), then brick-makers working with make-shift kilns, through hustling rows of shops....... and then we climb into the hills that overlook the city to our hotel. Already we have seen some of the very poor of the nation, with nearby homes of the wealthier that offer stunning views over the city below. This is the land of contrasts, between a few have's, and many have-not's.
Our hotel has everything we need, including an indoor pool. Our restaurant tonight offers an array of traditional dishes and some very impressive french cuisine, at affordable prices. Soon arrival procedures, slow traffic and urban congestion are forgotten...... The initial impressions from our travelling companions is.... this is much more comfortable than we expected - but what will tomorrow bring........