Return to Tana

November 1, 2016

We were travelling today, back to Antananarivo for the end of our trip. Our flight to Tana had been changed from 4 pm to 1:10 pm—apparently this is typical behaviour for Air Madagascar—and so we had to be at breakfast at 6:45 am. After breakfast the boat came to pick us up, and luckily the tide was quite high so only a few feet of wading was required.

Farewell to Anakao

Farewell to Anakao

The boat journey to Toliara to about an hour or so, and our zebu carts came out to meet us. They all delivered us safely to the dock, where we were met by a bus which took us back to the Victory Hotel. There we changed into our walking shoes and repacked our bags, and then headed for the airport. We arrived at 11 am to check in, which was plenty of time because it wasn’t very busy—there was only one flight coming in and one flight going out today.

Zebu cart to go to the dock

Zebu cart to go to the dock

Our plane was a Boeing 737—you don’t see many of them these days—and there were no seat assignments so there was a lot of maneuvering by people who wanted to get on first. But somehow Paul managed to get an aisle seat in an emergency-exit row! The flight took about an hour to get to Tana; we were met by the bus from Au Bois Vert and soon we were back in the coolness of the forest surrounding the hotel.

Paul was still not feeling well so he drank a bottle of oral rehydration salts and took a Cipro tablet, then spent the remaining part of the afternoon relaxing. Dinner was at 7:30 pm, and tonight we had the pleasure of watching a musical group singing and dancing to traditional Malagasy music. After dinner we chatted for a short while but soon went back to our room for an early night.

November 2, 2016

You’d think that once we got back to Tana, we’d just fly home the next day. But no, Explore has this day as a contingency day in case the flight from Toliara gets messed up. Which is a definite possibility. But we were happy to have another day in Madagascar.

Private school in Antananarivo

Private school in Antananarivo

So after breakfast we boarded the bus to go to Ambohimanga, where the former kings and queens of Madagascar used to live. The name means “Blue Hill” or “Beautiful Hill” and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site now. The bus took us through Antananarivo along very busy crowded roads and through some very poor areas. After a while we reached the outskirts, where the houses became larger and more elaborate. In the inner city the houses were more like shacks, with no running water and poor sewer systems, and Hery told us that after a heavy rainstorm there would be raw sewage running in the streets.

Ambohimanga palace compound

Ambohimanga palace compound

At the palace we were met by our guide, who told us the history of the palace and its residents. The king’s palace was basically a traditional Malagasy hut, but of course a large version to befit a powerful man. And his throne was just a small stool. But after his reign the Europeans arrived and redefined luxury, so the adjacent queen’s palace was a small but traditional European royal residence. The kings and queens are long gone but even today some practitioners of the old religion come to the king’s palace to sacrifice a duck or a goose. It was a very interesting tour and a nice way to spend the morning.

Queen’s palace

Queen’s palace

View from Ambohimanga

View from Ambohimanga

For lunch we ate at the restaurant next to the site. The food served was a smorgasbord of local products: several cuts of zebu meat, chicken, fish, salads, and of course rice. All very tasty. We also had entertainment provided by a band and dancers. Despite the warm outside temperature the cooling breeze made it very pleasant, and Paul’s stomach was finally prepared to accept food again.

Band and dancers

Band and dancers

As we left we stopped at the gift shop and surprisingly there was a Madagascar Scops Owl sitting on a tree outside it, guarding a nest with at least one chick in it.

Madagascar Scops Owl

Madagascar Scops Owl

Then we returned to the bus to continue on to the Lemurs Park. The trip to the park took about an hour and a half and upon arrival we quickly got our guide and headed off on the trails. This park is on the outskirts of Antananarivo and it’s devoted to housing lemurs which have been rescued from being pets, and their goal is to raise awareness of the plight of lemurs and Madagascar wildlife in general.

Coquerel’s Sifaka

Coquerel’s Sifaka

As we walked along we could hear loud claps of thunder overhead, along with short sprinkles of rain periodically. The lemurs were fun to watch as they interacted with each other; they were all habituated to people so they basically ignored us. So much so that one of the lemurs leaped right between us, hitting Rosemary in the face with its tail on the way!

Radiated Tortoise

Radiated Tortoise

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at a mall to shop for Madagascar chocolate. The mall was bright and modern and wouldn’t have been out of place in Britain or North America, but here it seemed kind of strange. And the supermarket didn’t really have much chocolate. From there the traffic was terrible; we didn’t get back to the hotel until after 7 pm so dinner was late at 8 pm.

November 3, 2016

The tour finishes today and we’re going back to London. But our flights don’t leave until the afternoon so this morning we went on a visit to a local vanilla producer. It was only a short walk up the road to her house, which was behind a locked gate.

First of all she gave us a short presentation on the production of vanilla. Vanilla is a type of orchid which takes three years to produce its seed pods. In Madagascar it has to be hand-pollinated by human workers because the bees who normally do that only live in Mexico. The best vanilla comes from the north-east, where she gets most of her beans. Not only are the roads really bad in that area, but the plantation is twelve hours walk from the nearest road! But despite that, vanilla rustling is still a problem.

Madagascar Red Fody

Madagascar Red Fody

We didn’t know what Agriculture Canada would think of vanilla pods so we bought some powdered vanilla and some more chocolate bars. Back at the hotel we finished packing and left for the airport at 1 pm. Our flight was at 5 pm but most of the others had a 3:20 departure on Kenya Airways. We didn’t have any problems going through immigration and security and police check, but a lot of people were called down to the baggage area to account for “contraband” in their luggage. And we heard of some who paid a bribe to deal with the problem.

End of the tour

End of the tour

The Kenya Airways flight had been delayed yesterday and the day before, and it was delayed today as well. So our Turkish Airlines flight left before theirs and headed off to Mauritius. Then Istanbul, then London, where we arrived early the next day. And it rained the rest of the day there. London in November, what can you expect?

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Anakao

October 30, 2016

We were doing something different today, a boat trip to Anakao for a two-night stay at the beach. We were supposed to cut our baggage down to “an overnight bag”, which was easy for us because we didn’t have much baggage in the first place. And sandals were the preferred footwear because we would have to wade from the boat to the beach.

So breakfast at 8 am, followed by a quick bus ride to the Safari Veza boat launch. The tide was quite far out so in order to get to the boat we were taken out there by zebu carts, three or four people to a cart. A very interesting ride with Rachel, Wendy, and the two of us all in one cart. Our driver was told “muramura”, which means “slowly”, and our two zebus seemed to have a mind of their own, but we did get to the boat. Although most of the other carts passed ours on the way!

How to get to the boat

How to get to the boat

Our boat was a speedboat which could carry about 20 passengers, and the trip took over an hour to reach the fishing village of Anakao. During the trip we passed a lot of small boats with square sails, as seen all around this part of the Indian Ocean, and there were also canoe-like boats from which men were diving, perhaps for lobsters or shellfish. And at the other end we did have to wade to the beach, but the water was warm and not even knee-deep.

Fishing catamaran

Fishing catamaran

Arriving at Anakao

Arriving at Anakao

Our hotel, Safari Veza, was located next-door to the village but had its own private beach above the water-line. The bungalows were very lovely, with a shower and toilet area apart from the sink. There was no running water, so instead we had three buckets of water to use. And instead of glass windows there were wooden shutters which we could lock from inside while away, otherwise we left them open. In the evening we could pull fabric curtains across them for privacy.

Our bungalow at Safari Veza

Our bungalow at Safari Veza

Shortly after we arrived we had lunch, very nice omelette sandwiches on cassava bread, and then had the rest of the day to ourselves. To start with we used up half our water allocation to do laundry; there was a lot of dust in our clothes from all the driving, but they dried very quickly after we hung them up in the warm breeze.

View from our front door

View from our front door

The view was very spectacular looking across to the low island of Nosy Ve. We could watch the fishing boats going by but other than them there was very little activity on this part of the ocean. In the late afternoon we went for a walk along the beach, looking at shell fragments, watching the crabs, and wading in the warm water.

Sunset from Anakao

Sunset from Anakao

Dinner tonight was at 7:30 pm, starting with a prawn salad which unfortunately had beetroot in it. Who would have guessed? So Hery got a new salad for Rosemary, sans beetroot. The main course was tuna with roasted vegetables. The tuna was really tasty and was very fresh, having been caught today. And finally dessert was a chocolate roll.

October 31, 2016

We’d left some of our shutters open last night so that outside air could circulate through the bungalow. As a result we woke up when it got light outside, sometime before 6 am. Paul got up early to go birding, out towards the back of the property. Surprisingly the commonest bird was the Littoral Rock Thrush, of which we had seen one in her nest next to the bar yesterday afternoon. Meanwhile Rosemary was kept awake by birds walking on the roof, so she got up and sat outside on the porch, enjoying the view and the quiet.

Sakalava Weaver

Sakalava Weaver

Breakfast was at 8 am this morning. Some of the others were going out to the island offshore, Nosy Ve, to snorkel around the reef, but we didn’t want to snorkel and we didn’t want to sit on the island for several hours. So after breakfast we walked the short distance along the beach to the small open-air market. One of the stalls had cut-work curtains which had Malagasy designs on them, and Rosemary bought a long curtain with a baobab and two tortoises and also a shawl which had lemurs cut out on one edge. After some bargaining they settled on 95,000 ariary for both pieces, which amounted to only about $40 CDN. She gave us them and we walked back to the bungalow to get the money to pay for them.

Cut-work fabric seller

Cut-work fabric seller

Once done with that we then walked along the beach past the village. It was still early in the morning so the villagers were going about their business. Fishing was the main activity but we also saw a freight catamaran picking up sacks of produce from the village to be sold elsewhere. The children were having a great time playing in the water, most of them just splashing around. But a couple of the boys had replicas of the boats used by the adults and they were sailing them, practicing with the waves and winds.

Delivery of reeds for roofing

Delivery of reeds for roofing

Sacks of produce being transported

Sacks of produce being transported

We had been told horror stories of people who went to the beach and were swarmed by kids demanding “cadeau”. But there was none of that. A couple of people came to offer us goods or services, but when we said no they didn’t persist. And the kids were too busy playing.

Girls skipping on the beach

Girls skipping on the beach

After lunch we went back to the bungalow to stay out of the sun. Paul felt a bit sick, maybe from dehydration or heat stroke, so we rested for the remainder of the afternoon.
Dinner was not until 7:30 pm, but at 6:30 pm we had a concert. There were two guys singing, one playing the guitar and the other one a drum. It was a nice way to finish off this part of our holiday. Dinner was also good but neither of us ate all of the food.

Sunset over Indian Ocean

Sunset over Indian Ocean

Our bed had a complete frame of mosquito netting over it, and last night Rosemary had noticed a big spider on top of it, on her side. But we poked it with a stick and jiggled it and it didn’t move, so we decided it was dead. We just left it there because it was too hard to climb up and remove it.

So, tonight the spider was gone. Hmm, we thought, maybe the staff took it away when they made the bed? But no, there it was running along the top of the frame! This clearly couldn’t be allowed to continue. So Paul had to knock it down onto the floor and whack it with a sandal.

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To the West Coast

October 29, 2016

Breakfast was later today, because we didn’t have a long journey. We left at 9:30 am—much more civilized—and headed south-west. We travelled on a recently repaved stretch of Route 7 with no potholes!

Our courtyard at Hotel Relais de la Reine

Our courtyard at Hotel Relais de la Reine

No potholes!

No potholes!

Soon we came to an area of the country noted for sapphire mining, starting in the town of Ilakaka. There were a lot of buildings labelled “Bijouterie” (i.e. jewel shop) and a lot of clearly foreign investment. There were a lot of people panning for sapphires in the rivers and the whole area looked more prosperous than many of the other places we’d been.

Sapphire mining at Ilakaka

Sapphire mining at Ilakaka

We stopped briefly to buy water and then continued until we arrived at Zombitse National Park. We had a walk scheduled here to search for more lemurs. Our guide was named Lucien and he led us along the forest trails, stopping to see a very large Oustalet’s Chameleon. And before long he went off down a side path and then came back to show us the Zombitse Sportive Lemurs.

Zombitse Sportive Lemur

Zombitse Sportive Lemur

There were two of them, and since this species is nocturnal they were sleeping in tree cavities. One of them was larger than the other, and probably that was because they were a mother and a recently-born baby. Otherwise you rarely find two roosting together because they are solitary animals. We photographed them for quite a while before moving on. Then after a short distance we came across a group of Verreaux’s Sifakas who were feeding on leaves. Luckily for us they were at a reasonable height above the ground so we didn’t have to crane our necks too much. And yes, they had a cute baby sifaka.

Verreaux’s Sifaka

Verreaux’s Sifaka

Farther along we came to a big baobab tree, which was a hint of what was to come. Madagascar has six species of baobab, unlike mainland Africa which has only one, and we would see a variety of baobabs this afternoon.

Twin baobab trees

Twin baobab trees

Baobab grove with Pied Crow

Baobab grove with Pied Crow

We got to the end of the walk after an hour or so, and all of a sudden a Giant Coua appeared in the bush! Our guide had been trying to call one up for the whole walk but it only showed up at the very last minute. We had our picnic lunch at the table by the road before carrying on towards the coast.

Giant Coua disappearing into the bush

Giant Coua disappearing into the bush

The villages up on the plateau had been poor, but the villages down here in the spiny scrub were really poor, and it was very noticeable. The houses in the villages were made of sticks, the fences were made of sticks, and the lives of the people seemed to revolve about getting water. We saw the government truck which comes weekly to bring water to the area, but it looked like it was broken down. When we stopped for a break we talked to some young men who were riding their bicycles 10 kilometers in 40-degree heat to fill jerry cans with water to bring back to their village. Their bicycles had no gears and no brakes either!

Water boys

Water boys

Water brought by zebu cart

Water brought by zebu cart

As the bus went downhill into Toliara the air started to cool down and soon we could see the Indian Ocean in the distance. We finally reached the Victory Hotel, where we would be staying for one night; it was on the main road into the city in the middle of a rather industrial area. It did have a lovely swimming pool, but we decided to have showers instead.

We settled into our room, which was quite nice, and we found that Chambre 20, right next door, had fast and reliable wi-fi. So we took the opportunity to apply all of the app updates which were waiting! Dinner was at 7:30 pm and since there was pizza on the menu we ordered that, just one pizza for the two of us. That felt better than all the large meals we’d been eating on this trip.

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Isalo

October 27, 2016

We were up very early to have breakfast before heading back up the twisty road to the main Route 7, on the way to Isalo National Park. Our trip was supposed to take 11 hours but fortunately we didn’t just sit in the bus all day. First stop was mid-morning, at the paper-making workshop in Ambalavao.

School bus in Ambalavao

School bus in Ambalavao

Here we found out about making hand-made paper from the avoha tree. The first step is to boil the bark for several hours to soften it up before sorting the fibres. The soft ones are used to make paper while the harder and stiffer ones are used to make baskets. Water is then added to make a slurry which is spread evenly over a mesh, after which the paper is dried in the sun. Some of it is decorated with the petals of local flowers and sold as decorative cards, which were very beautiful. We bought a book with about 30 pages to use as an album for some of Rosemary’s photos.

Boiling avoha bark

Boiling avoha bark

Decorating cards with flower petals

Decorating cards with flower petals

About noon we stopped at the Anja Community Reserve to watch troops of ring-tailed lemurs. The reserve is operated by people from the community who have protected the forest where the lemurs live; we spent quite a while watching them and they weren’t at all shy. (Of course we saw chameleons and stick insects and so on as well.) Before we left we had a picnic lunch at the entrance to the reserve.

Anja Reserve

Anja Reserve

Oustalet’s Chameleon

Oustalet’s Chameleon

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

After lunch we travelled across a dry plateau and the road became straight and free of potholes, so we really zoomed along. However most of us fell asleep. There weren’t many villages in this area and sometimes there were no buildings in sight. But this was zebu-grazing country so from time to time we passed herds of them along with their herdsman.

Herdsman watching the herd

Herdsman watching the herd

Before arriving at Ranohira we made another stop, beside the road so we could watch the sunset. The view from here was similar to the views from our prairies towards the Rocky Mountains. Paul wandered over to a dry pond where clicking sounds could be heard, and found a small group of Harlequin Quail. We wouldn’t have seen those as the bus zoomed by!

Birding at a dry pond

Birding at a dry pond

Harlequin Quail

Harlequin Quail

Once the sun had set it took another half an hour to reach Ranohira and then another 20 minutes to reach our destination, the Hotel Relais de la Reine. This hotel is rated Top Choice by Lonely Planet in this area and it was indeed very lovely. The staff even came into our room to deploy the mosquito nets around our beds in the evening.

Sunset over Isalo mountains

Sunset over Isalo mountains

Dinner was very fancy, with a choice of starters, mains, and desserts. Rosemary had tomato and cumin soup, which was tasty, but neither of us were very fond of the swordfish. The hotel’s special dessert was Queen’s Cake; the base was a sweet potato cake topped with a gelatinous tropical fruit concoction. But Rosemary wasn’t very impressed by it. By the time we finished dinner it was 10 pm, so bedtime was later than usual.

October 28, 2016

Today we were going to go walking in Isalo National Park; we were up before the alarm went off and got our walking stuff organized before breakfast. Breakfast was really good, with a large plate of fresh fruit, toasted buns, and tea or coffee. We then headed out to the bus and back to Ranohira, where Hery had to do paperwork for the park. While he was doing that we went and bought water, as we had been warned that today would be hot. We also picked up our guide, Fleury, and our cook and helpers.

Swimming pool at Hotel Relais de la Reine

Swimming pool at Hotel Relais de la Reine

Queen Victoria Rock

Queen Victoria Rock

Our day was organized into two parts: first a walk through interesting scenery to a swimming hole and a picnic site for lunch, and second a walk across open country to a scenic gorge and a forest. So after a half-hour trip to the trailhead over an extremely rugged road, we started out on the first part.

Shop in Ranohira

Shop in Ranohira

We climbed 70 meters of steps up a narrow gully until we reached the plateau. Our guide was very good, telling us about the local traditions. The people of the area claim to be descended from the Maasai of Kenya, but on the way to Madagascar they became Muslims. And once in Madagascar they adopted the two-funeral tradition. But instead of tombs, they put the body in a crack in the rocks and cover it with stones. We could see several of those piles of stones nearby. While observing them our guide mentioned that hoopoes were nesting nearby, and as he was talking both of them appeared. So that took care of seeing hoopoes!

Grave site

Grave site

Hoopoe

Hoopoe

We carried on through the scenic rocks with views over more pretty scenery, with our guide pointing out chameleons, lizards, and birds. The day was hot, about 34°C, but luckily for us the wind was cool so walking was pleasant. We reached the natural pool about noon, but not many of us bothered to swim in it. And then a large group of Brazilians arrived and took over the pool, so we departed soon thereafter. Today’s picnic lunch was rice with vegetables and zebu meatballs, a very tasty meal.

Isalo park trail view

Isalo park trail view

Spiky-tailed iguana

Spiky-tailed iguana

Natural swimming pool

Natural swimming pool

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the optional walk, which initially went across a rather barren area. There were so few trees that we couldn’t even hear cuckoos calling any more. But it was now very hot, so it was nice to reach the path which went down into the gorge. At the bottom of the gorge was a forest which had a campground and plenty of wildlife. We stayed here for quite a while watching the Red-fronted Brown Lemurs along with a number of interesting birds. There was Benson’s Rock Thrush and Madagascar Buttonquail and Madagascar Turtle Dove. And besides that there was a spectacular black swallowtail butterfly with white spots which we kept mistaking for a bird.

Benson’s Rock Thrush

Benson’s Rock Thrush

Madagascar Buttonquail

Madagascar Buttonquail

It wasn’t that far back to the bus and back at the hotel we both had showers before heading over for dinner, which was good tonight.

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Ranomafana

October 25, 2016

After our overnight stay in Ambositra and our visit to the wood craft workshop, we continued on a long drive to Ranomafana. As on previous days the scenery included rice paddies, hilly landscapes, and rural villages. But today there was more smoke from burning forests than before; these fires were set by peasants to produce more grassland for zebus to graze, unfortunately.

Burned-over grassland

Burned-over grassland

We broke up the morning by stopping for a walk through the weekly market at Camp Robin. This was a very large market with hundreds of stalls, selling everything under the sun, and lots of people wearing their best clothing. This was clearly where everybody in the neighbourhood came for supplies, but Hery told us that traditionally the weekly market was where young people from different parts of the district could meet and get to know each other. We spent about half an hour there wandering around and looking at the stalls and the people.

Mat and basket stall

Mat and basket stall

Fabric stall

Fabric stall

Pot stall

Pot stall

For lunch we stopped at a small forest reserve in the middle of this landscape, named Ialatsara Forest Camp. Their lunch was pretty good and afterwards we went on a walk behind the farm to find the Red-bellied Brown Lemur. They were easy to see as the trees weren’t very tall, and also our guides gave them pieces of banana to bring them closer. On the way back to the bus we found a bush with three types of chameleon: Blue-legged, Short-horned, and Parson’s. This seemed a bit coincidental and the guides admitted they had planted them there for us to see. After we were gone they would take them back to where they had brought them from.

Red-bellied Brown Lemur

Red-bellied Brown Lemur

Short-horned Chameleon

Short-horned Chameleon

Then it was onwards to Ranomafana again and most of us fell asleep for a while. But then we turned off Route 7 onto Route 25 and drove along the twisty, sometimes pot-holey road for an hour before we reached the Centrest Sejour Hotel, where we would be staying for two nights. But we weren’t finished yet—we had a night walk scheduled almost right away. We got our room assignments, chose our evening meal, and managed to do a quick bit of laundry before we were back in the bus.

Ranomafana sunset

Ranomafana sunset

It took about 20 minutes to drive back up the road to the park. We met our guide, Theo (who is recommended by Lonely Planet and who worked for David Attenborough when he made his latest film), and then arrived at a busy parking area. We all got out and almost immediately they found a Brown Mouse Lemur. It was very tiny and bounced around very quickly but we did manage to get good looks at it several times.

Our guide Theo

Our guide Theo

This night walk was easier than the last, because we stayed on the road. We did have to watch out for traffic and make sure we didn’t step in the zebu dung which was on the road, but otherwise it was easy going. We saw a green grass frog and some chameleons, including the O’Shaughnessy’s which is one of the largest, and someone spotted a Greater Dwarf Lemur in a tree right over the road. That was an unusual sighting for the area, they said.

Greater Dwarf Lemur

Greater Dwarf Lemur

We didn’t get back for dinner until nearly 8 pm and we were very tired and hungry. The meals were quite good here; vegetable soup, followed by chicken skewers with beans and carrots, and banana flambé for dessert. As we ate we could see lightning and the power went off briefly a couple of times, and as we returned to the room there were a few raindrops on the path. And within minutes it was pouring with rain. We were told later that this was the first rain after the dry period, and that people had been looking forward to it for a long time.

October 26, 2016

After an early breakfast (6:45 am) we got in the bus for the drive up the hill to the park, picking up Theo and his assistant Rodin on the way. Ranomafana National Park is very hilly, so our trail first took us down to the bridge over the river and then back up again. In order to find wildlife we followed the main trails for a while and then branched off on side trails, and it wasn’t long before we came across a group of Golden Bamboo Lemurs. Like most of the other lemurs, these ones were feeding high up in the canopy.

Crossing the Namorona River

Crossing the Namorona River

Golden Bamboo Lemur

Golden Bamboo Lemur

One by one we checked off the different species: Hill’s Ruffed Lemur, Red-fronted Brown Lemur, Greater Bamboo Lemur. The latter is very rare—in Ranomafana there are only two left, a father and daughter, but outside the park there are a few more. In between seeing the lemurs we saw a leaf-tailed gecko, several species of chameleon, a small yellow frog, a snake, and even a little scorpion and a leech. We finished up at a viewpoint overlooking the river valley, and from there it was just a short walk back to the park entrance.

Leaf-tailed Gecko

Leaf-tailed Gecko

Madagascar Magpie Robin

Madagascar Magpie Robin

After lunch there was the option of going on an additional walk, and initially we thought we’d go on that, but when the time drew nearer we decided to go and explore the village of Ranomafana instead. Our hotel was just up the hill from the village so it didn’t take long to get there.

Madagascar plated lizard

Madagascar plated lizard

In the centre of the village was a group of men playing pétanque on a dirt court, so we stayed and watched for quite a while before continuing on. (Madagascar won the pétanque world championship last year.) We could see that there was something happening on the big open field nearby, so we went over that way. But near the field we found a women’s weaving cooperative, so we stopped there to have a look. In a large room there were eight looms, and on each loom a woman was weaving a scarf of various colours. Outside on a rack there were scarves for sale: cotton, cotton/silk, and silk. Rosemary bought a striped silk scarf which had been dyed with all natural dyes.

Pétanque game

Pétanque game

Weaving cooperative

Weaving cooperative

On the field there were about 200 school children performing a dance there, except a few of the boys were slacking off, and meanwhile there were also some dirt bike riders who were practicing going around pylons. The music carried on for quite a while so we did some more exploring, looking for the hot springs. (“Ranomafana” means “hot water” in Malagasy.) We wandered around a bit until we remembered Hery saying we needed to cross the river on a rickety wooden bridge. Sure enough, we found the bridge and there was a swimming pool.

Children dancing

Children dancing

A bit farther down the road there were some small hotels and a police patrol station signed “Controle Economique” which was staffed by three gendarmes. But nothing much was going on so we headed back to the hotel, pausing to watch the pétanque game again.

Bridge leading to the swimming pool

Bridge leading to the swimming pool

Dinner tonight was tomato soup, followed by zebu, potatoes, and carrots. The best part was the dessert, which had a banana mixture on the bottom topped with some sort of ice cream. Tomorrow would be yet another long drive, so we headed up to our room quite early.

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Ambositra

October 24, 2016

Tonight we were staying at a charity in Ambositra whose aim was to do good works for the people of the countryside. We had left Antsirabe at 3:30 pm and arrived there, at the Voteta Bungalows, before dinner time. These bungalows were actually dorm rooms, men’s and women’s, and the toilets were the long-drop variety. But by staying here we were directly supporting the community development of health projects, agriculture, water supply, and the empowerment of women.

Women’s dorm at Voteta Bungalows

Women’s dorm at Voteta Bungalows

Our evening meal was a typical Malagasy meal starting with a vegetable soup, followed by zebu meat with green beans, carrots, and rice. Dessert was local pineapple and mango. After dinner we were treated to Malagasy folk music and dancing; the dancers and musicians were very energetic and performed for about an hour.

Folkloric dancing

Folkloric dancing

October 25, 2016

Today was going to be a long drive to Ranomafana so we were on the road quite early, before 8 am. One of the places supported by our charity was a workshop in Ambositra where people are trained in carpentry and creative woodworking, so we stopped there. We were given a demonstration of the wood-carving process and the marquetry work. The tools there were made of recycled materials including, for example, the jigsaw blade which was made from steel extracted from an old radial tire. But with tools like that the woodworker could still cut pieces of wood to a tolerance of 0.1 millimeters and fit them into a picture.

Wood-carver at work

Wood-carver at work

We had been warned that we couldn’t take ebony and rosewood out of the country, but here they used palisander wood, which worked better because they didn’t leave stains during the finishing process. That made things simpler for us.

Finished product of marquetry

Finished product of marquetry

We went into the shop, which was full of decorative wood items; we ignored the sculptures (ebony and rosewood) and concentrated on plaques and similar items. Oddly there were a lot of replicas of covers of Tin-Tin books, but we ended up buying some salad spoons made of zebu horn and a lovely marquetry piece depicting a hoopoe. Hopefully we’ll see a hoopoe before we leave Madagascar!

And then it was back into the bus to continue the long drive to Ranomafana.

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Antsirabe

October 23, 2016

We had a lot of travelling to do today, so breakfast was scheduled for 6:45 am. So when Rosemary woke up at 6:23 am and said “Weren’t we supposed to be up already?” we leaped out of bed. Dressing hurriedly and doing the final packing of our bags, we put them out on the porch to be collected by the porters. Breakfast was the usual French loaf with butter and jam plus a banana and a sweet fritter, and at 7:30 am we climbed aboard the bus to start the long drive to Antsirabe.

The first part of the drive took us back up Route 2 towards Antananarivo. But today was Sunday, so there were numerous people dressed in their best clothes heading to church. We also saw several recreational and semi-pro cyclists dressed in a variety of clothing styles and riding up the hill on a variety of bicycles. Some were doing quite well, even outdistancing the slow trucks on the hill. Hery told us that they were training for the Tour of Madagascar, which was scheduled for next month. Near the top of the hill we stopped for a break to stretch our legs.

Roadside banana vendors

Roadside banana vendors

Back at Tana we turned left onto Route 7, which we would follow for the rest of the day. We stopped at a petrol station, where we bought water and snacks, and then headed back out into the countryside. Here it was not as hilly and besides the rice fields there were also fields where vegetables were growing. We passed a lot of people washing clothes and carpets and the like and laying them on the hillside to dry in the sun. Hery explained to us that after the people in this area have a funeral, they then have a sort of cleansing ritual where they washed themselves and all of their possessions.

Mass cleansing site

Mass cleansing site

He then went on to describe the funeral practices of other groups elsewhere in Madagascar. Many of those practices were less savoury than washing everything; many of them involved getting drunk. The most extreme one involved having the body laid out for several days, during which time the bodily fluids drain out, and then family members drink some of those fluids to get good luck from the spirit of the deceased. Definitely a disgusting idea!

Family doing laundry

Family doing laundry

Most of the people of Madagascar build brick tombs near their villages where the body of the deceased lies as the flesh disintegrates, and after some time the bones are removed and then buried. As we drove along the highway we could see many of those square buildings on high ground, although apparently people are hedging their bets because most of them have a Christian cross on top.

Malagasy tomb

Malagasy tomb

Continuing through the agricultural area, Hery pointed out a large grove of pine trees which were grown to have their sap tapped. The sap and resin is used by the Chinese for soap and other cleaning products. We also stopped at a group of craft stalls selling raffia goods, but decided not to buy anything.

Raffia craft stalls

Raffia craft stalls

For lunch we stopped in Ambatolampy at Au Rendezvous des Pecheurs. The town was rather ramshackle but the food in the restaurant was quite good. By now it was early afternoon and we still had a ways to go, and most of us nodded off. We arrived in Antsirabe about 5 pm and went directly to our hotel, Résidence Camélia. It looked like a nice place, however just at the moment the power was out. We were told that wasn’t uncommon, especially at the end of the dry season when the water for hydroelectric power is low. So we dashed in for showers while there was still light in the bathroom, and they were lovely and hot. (They have a tank on the roof which is heated by the sun.)

Old church in Ambatolampy

Old church in Ambatolampy

Mealtime was scheduled for 7:30 pm, and it finally arrived at 8 pm. Considering that there was no electricity, the staff did a great job in their candle-lit kitchen and the meal was very enjoyable. At 9:30 pm we returned to our room to finish our journals, illuminated by our headlamps.

October 24, 2016

Still no electricity this morning, but we were up early because there was a packed program today. After breakfast we got into the bus and it took us all up to Lac Tritriva, which was a lake inside a volcanic crater not far away.

Butcher shop

Butcher shop

This was our first experience with Madagascar volcanoes and also our first experience with Madagascar begging. Hery had warned us about a welcoming committee and sure enough, as we approached the gate the bus was swarmed with young people all vying for our attention in order to sell us items made of stone, including necklaces, polished rocks, and fossils of dubious origin. But they backed off because they knew we would be back soon, after our walk around the lake.

Our group at the lakeside

Our group at the lakeside

Our local guide Jean-Claude told us about the lake and its history before leading us up to the viewpoint and then down the trail to the water’s edge. We continued around the lake, a short walk and not too difficult. The lake was very pretty and green too, and there was a pair of Little Grebes there. The vendors were more difficult; Rosemary ended up buying a heart-shaped pendant and Paul bought two fossil ammonites. It remains to be seen whether the ammonites are real or fake but to be fair the vendors made no claims except that they were pretty.

Lac Tritriva

Lac Tritriva

Rural life in Madagascar

Rural life in Madagascar

Back at the hotel in Antsirabe, our next project was to go on a pousse-pousse ride around the city. The pousse-pousse is like a Chinese rickshaw and we saw them in many places in Madagascar, but Antsirabe is where they are the most common. Rosemary’s driver was named Prospero and Paul’s was named Rasta, wearing a woolly hat with the Jamaican flag’s colours. We travelled in a convoy and the city tour lasted about 40 minutes.

Pousse-pousse with driver

Pousse-pousse with driver

The tour took us by the Hotel des Termes, which is a very large hotel built in 1897 in the French colonial style. Right now it isn’t open but there’s supposed to be a plan to fix it up and reopen it, supported by UNICEF. Then we continued through a small market, past the old railway station (no trains running now) and then back to our hotel. There were more beggars here; they would walk or job beside us trying to sell us things or just asking for money.

Hotel des Termes

Hotel des Termes

Antsirabe street life

Antsirabe street life

We had lunch at the hotel and then hopped on the bus to make the trip to Ambositra, our next destination. But first we stopped at Western Union so that some of our group could change more money. This took much longer than expected, over an hour in fact. Apparently it was a highly bureaucratic process. So it wasn’t until about 3:30 pm that we got on the road.

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