Madagascar is a strange and amazing island. It feels like a very distant place, yet it’s only a four-hour flight from Johannesburg. At no other place in the world you find so many different and spectacular regions and landscapes. They range from dense rain forests, rice fields and bizarre mountain ranges in the east to Baobab avenues and endless beaches in the west. Some Essa members found that reason enough to take a closer look and went on an exiting trip.
People had warned us that we would need to bring time and patience with us on the planned trip to Madagascar. Little did we know that we would need it before setting foot onto the 4th biggest island of the world! (Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo – in case you were wondering.)
On arrival at the airport we were informed of an indefinite flight delay which gave us an opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the airport’s facilities. After a departure delay of 4 hours, we finally reached Antananarivo Airport at 21:30 local time where we were submitted to a time consuming immigration procedure. Every passport was handled by 8 people (one person each reading the immigration form, copying it, comparing the copy to the passport, stamping the immigration form, stamping the passport, handing it over, handing the form over, filing the form …) But none of that had a negative effect on our mood. We were keen to get this trip started and, on arrival at our guesthouse, celebrated with what would become a staple part of our nutrition for the weeks to come: Three Horse Beer (better known as THB).
After a very short night (little sleep was also something of a regular occurrence during the trip) we departed at dawn on our 550km journey to the south. We passed towns and villages resembling a mixture of Indonesia and mediaeval Europe (at least the way we imagine it). Every couple of kilometres, mostly at the entrance and exit of villages, we were stopped by grim looking, heavily armed officials in an array of uniforms.
Our driver was in hurry and his driving style caused pedestrians, chickens, zebus and other living creatures to scatter in all directions.
12 hours later and taking in the Malagasy landscape through car windows only we all came down with cabin fever. Some more, some less… And some even decided to run to our destination rather than spend any more time in the car (speak to Mal and Piers if you want details).
Camp Catta, our domicile for the next night, is located next to the majestic Tsaranoro with its 800 meter cliff. This large range of mountains border the Andrigita National Park on one side and made for a memorable setting with amazing sights for our intrepid explores’ delight next morning.
Trekking in the Andrigita Nature Reserve
Next morning, we started our hike bright and early with a comfortable walk through the Asaranoro valley passing paddy fields, Zebu herds and traditional villages. Wherever we appeared villagers gathered to gape at these stranger travellers loaded with heavy back packs and accompanied by an army of porters with even heavier backpacks.
The porters carried our tents and food and helped us find our way on the steep incline up the Dondy mount in the direction of the Tsaranoro valley.
After an 8 hours hike we set up camp in the back yard of a local farmer, whose family vacated their dining room-cum-bedroom for us to dine in. Our porters were then transformed into cooks and musicians. We found THB stocks in one of the tiny villages we passed, having turned our noses up when being offered a sip of the local rum, and partied into the night
Day 2 of our hike was not physically very challenging; we had to cover a relatively short distance and the hike took us to the beautiful and impressive Zomandao waterfalls. From there, we continued up to the plateau. We also found time for a walk in the rain forest, a swim in the clear and freezing river, and a long nap after lunch.
We set camp at an altitude of approx 2000m. After sunset fog moved in and with it came the cold. Temperatures were significantly below zero and we appeared for dinner wearing all the clothing we could find - including gloves, hats, and scarves. That evening we could not wait for the local rum punch to be served! Each and every day we were very spoiled with sumptuous breakfasts, picnic lunches, and 3 course dinners.
The night was very cold and we woke up in tents which were completely frozen on the outside. Fortunately, as the sun rose and after we had our first cup of coffee of the day we were warm enough to undertake the ascent of Pic Boby - at 2658m the second highest mountain of Madagascar. The weather forecast had not been great for the week and, that morning, we considered ourselves extremely lucky to see clear blue sky and the sun. A glance down the valley however showed us that the reason for this wasn’t the absence of clouds but rather the fact that we were above them!
The granite rocks which blocked our view of the peak looked very impressive from below and we were wondering how we would conquer those.
To our surprise, we found that the whole trail was ‘paved’ with stones so we climbed ‘stairs’ for most of the way. Someone mentioned there were 3000 of them. We managed the ascent without much technical difficulty and took in the view of the surrounding landscape for a while before getting back to camp.
Before shouldering our backpacks we noticed two chickens picking happily in the grass and in response to our enquiry as to how they managed to get to such a remote location, we were told that they were part of our luggage and would be used to feed us later that night. “Don’t make friends with the chickens” became a much used remark for the rest of the day.
The afternoon hike took us through vegetation which is unique in the world.
We underestimated the time we would need to reach our destination and were surprised by darkness during a strenuous descent into the next valley. Finding our way downwards over loose rocks, equipped only with our headlights, it took us about an hour to find our campsite. While we were stumbling around in the dark we heard something squealing – this must have been the transformation of chickens from live fowls to food.
That evening we all were quite worn out and had to minister to sprained ankles, overexerted knees, sore throats, etc. and soon crawled into our tents for a well deserved night’s sleep. This was, however, interrupted several times by a mean wind which tried to either lift our humble dwellings (with inhabitants) away with it or pressed the tent dome down onto our noses.
During the fourth morning of our trek we were quite exhausted and were looking forward to warm showers and comfortable beds at Camp Catta. We still had a 4 hour walk though which led us through a village holding a big market day. Busy traffic to and fro made the country paths seem like mountain highways. Once again we contributed to the entertainment and the villagers came together to take a closer look at the back pack carrying strangers.
Back at camp, we were reunited with Sharron who, not see any fun in hiking up and down the mountain, had stayed behind. We celebrated our return to civilisation with an extensive lunch and Sharron entertained us with details of her adventures in Catta while we were away.
The area around the camp is known for its Catta lemurs and we paid a short visit to the sacred forest where they live. They weren’t disturbed by our presence at all and continued their breakfast in the trees while we were shooting away with our cameras.
On the road again
Leaving the Andrigita Nature Reserve, with its unique flora and fauna, we climbed into our vehicle for another long drive through Fianarantsoa towards Antsirabe where we spent the night, and further to Miandrivazo from where we would commence our boat trip down the Tsiribhina river.
Upon arrival and a short stop over at a hotel and we went off to explore the town. The atmosphere was very different from the places we had visited before. While the south was rather dry, barren, and dominated by mountains, Antsirabe appears rather European and seemed quite commercial. Miandrivazo, by contrast, was much more tropical.
The local market was a very lively place, even after sunset. On Saturday night and, like many other places in the world, everybody was out and about in search of amusement and diversion. Children accompanied us every step of the way and their cries of ‘salut vazaha’ followed us through the night.
After exploring various market stalls and local produce we took up residence in a local pub. Almost empty at first it started filling up fast after our arrival became known. Once Sharron decided to offer drinks to all people present, the remaining chairs and standing spots filled quickly. Piers and Marilyn did some exploring on the other side of town and found the casino – a roulette wheel made out of a modified bicycle wheel!
Life on the water
Sunday morning we packed our things as watertight as possible and made our way down to the river. We were to travel approximately 160 kms on the river using pirogues - traditional boats made out of one trunk of wood. The trees from which the boats are made are endemic to Madagascar and the region. Today, pirogue builders are rare as more and more motorboats are used for transport. The traditional boats seemed quite fragile and during the first couple of minutes we were not sure if one wrong movement could cause us to capsize. After a while and without any unnerving incidents we started to relax and enjoy the trip.
In fact, the boats are stable enough for Piers to capture a very resistant chameleon that clung desperately onto the reeds and threatened to tip us and our entire luggage into the water! Luckily the boats were up to the task and we got a chance to examine a rather large chameleon very closely.
Some of us were looking forward to the opportunity to laze around with our books and view the passing landscape. Others nervously searched out for spare paddles to keep themselves busy.
There was no reason to fear boredom. The landscape changed regularly and we kept busy spotting birds, lemurs, getting stuck on stand banks, exploring the river banks, and swimming. Entertainment was provided too when Sharron sang ‘Frere Jaqcues” in chorus with village children we passed as we paddled by in the boat.
We set up camp on a broad river bank, swam some more, enjoyed a beautiful sunset and settled down to yet another three course dinner. Piers braved the darkness and went out exploring the surroundings and came back with stories of hundreds of night lemurs which occupied the forests around us. We all excitedly stumbled into the dark in order to look for them and did indeed manage to see the eyes of one of these remarkable creatures.
The following morning gave us a spectacular sunrise and, after breakfast, we were back in our boats for some more relaxing and bird spotting. During a break later in the day we discovered half eaten crocodile legs which left us wondering about our swimming exercises the night before. We were going to see some life exemplars later in the day as well.
The rest of the trip brought us to a waterfall and rock pools which we used for a welcome shower and bathing break. Evenings were spend with great food, spotting bats, watching shooting stars, and visits and dancing shows by children from nearby villages. The latter were joined by Erna who proved to be very talented in learning the art of local dancing.
After 3 days on the river, just when we were used to the most spectacular sunrises, we arose on our last morning in anticipation of the colours of just another sunrise. What a surprise we had when we zipped open our tents at 5:30 on our last morning: nothing but dense fog. We packed our things quickly and paddled off into a big grey nothing. It didn’t take long until we lost visual contact to one of our boats, paddled in the wrong direction once or twice, and could only be brought back on track by Piers and his infallible GPS.
By now we were once again at the point where we looked forward to our return to civilisation and spend the rest of the day paddling in competition with our boatmen in order to arrive as early as possible at Belo sur Tsiribihina where we would spend the night.
We arrived there on the eve of 26 July which is the day of national independence and a welcome occasion for festivals of all kinds. The town is home to some 20,000 people and all of them seemed to be out partying during that evening. The streets were packed and we joined the people who were entertaining themselves in local pubs, video shops, game stalls, and traditional fighting games in the central market place.
Baobabs galore and endless beaches
The next day would bring us to a nature reserve with a broad variety of medicinal plants and different species of baobabs. However, first had to cover a short distance by car to get reach our destination. Little did we know that we were going to do this on a non existing road, in a vehicle which had our luggage piled on the roof. Unfortunately the luggage worked itself loose and William became the saviour of our belongings by re-fastening the rack every couple of minutes.
Eventually we arrived in the national reserve and enjoyed a tranquil nature walk. At sunset we arrived at conceivably the best know site in Madagascar, the famous avenue of the baobabs where we spent some time to enjoy the beautiful scenery and sampled “baobab fruit”.
The remaining drive to our next overnight venue, Morondava, reminded us of home after a long period of rain. There were more pot holes in the road than there was tar, and we regularly had to leave the road in order to be able to drive at all. When we arrived in Morondava the town was in complete darkness thanks to electricity cut (so we felt even more at home) and we settled in our hotel rooms with candlelight – trying not to set fire to the mozzie nets.
The next morning gave us some time to explore the village, go for a walk on the beach or swim. Although it was winter, the weather was brilliant and it was certainly warm enough for a day on the beach. Morondava was very quiet and we had most of the sand and sea to ourselves.
The capital of Madagascar was our last stop and unfortunately we only had a couple off hours’ time to explore it. Tana is a very charming town with French colonial architecture, lots of old Citroen taxis and venerable churches and cathedrals.
All in all we had an amazing trip and had the impression of only getting a glimpse of this magnificent island. There is so much more to see. So we will certainly go back at some stage.
If you are interested to come along … watch this space.