A week of sightseeing in Northern Madagascar is not for the faint hearted. The most interesting places are connected by roads that need a skilled driver of a 4 x 4 vehicle to negotiate. When an unexpected cyclone strikes, they turn into chocolate mousse, as we soon found out.
We followed an itinerary set out by a very competent tour operator who suggested we visit some strange and wonderful sights, especially the rock formations called tsingies plus the luscious forests full of creatures that are unique to Madagascar. Then she recommended a few days on the nearby islands in the Nosy Be area to enjoy the pristine beaches and marine life.
Tourists need to be warned about the grueling process of traveling on smashed up roads at a crawling pace. Often you visit places that are so remote you need to bring your own food and of course, water. The local flights also need to be confirmed. Even Air Madagascar is nicknamed "Air Maybe". On departure Airlink took over the flight and deemed our return ticket invalid, one hour before check in. We were stranded for 24 hours and also missed our connecting flight back to Cape Town. So we were treated to another day at their expense, but we refused to pay their stiff penalty for the "cancellation" of the flight. (They also call this place "Mada.")
The boat rides and ferries are pretty efficient although one needs to be protected from the swarms of locals who try to sell you stuff and adolescents who snatch your luggage and quibble for porter's fees. When yo travel as we did one day from one hotel via three local taxi trips and two boat rides to your next destination it gets a bit frantic. Ask your driver to handle the porters and hang onto bags that contain your priceless wi-fi gadgets.
Antananarivo is the gateway to Madagascar
We arrived at Antananarivo airport, the capital city in the heart of Madagascar. We were grateful to be chaperoned out of the seething mass of jousters who were grabbing at our luggage. A small little Renault taxi loaded up 12 passengers. It had no suspension and the undercarriage was nearly touching the road. How the heck were they going to drive along the dreaded roads? We bounced along a narrow lane, gouged out of red clay to our hotel for an overnight stay and were the only guests. Food was brought to our room in dribs and drabs. The toilet sang all night. We were glad to leave for our onward and upward flight to Antsiranana, the gateway to the north region. Until 1974 it was called Diego Suarez, after the Portuguese Mariner who discovered the bay. It is formed like a beautiful four leaved clover with a tiny island called the Sugar Loaf (Nosi Lonja) in the first bay.
We explored the town and were shown some important looking official buildings around the so-called town square, but they were in need of some serious maintenance. Raissa our guide showed us the most important object, according to the local people that graced the foot of a monument to a bygone hero. It. It was a large shady tree with bright yellow flowers. She explained that it was the Zebu tree, a sacred place where people came to make a wish. If of a serious nature, such as granting a couple to have a baby, a sacrifice had to be made to honor the Zebu. We were not sure about what a Zebu was until she pointed to the skull of an ox that had been nailed to a tree. Zebu, the local cattle that have a large hump on their backs. They were introduced to the island and are semi-sacred beasts that are only killed as sacrifices so a chunk of Zebu meat is highly prized. They do not provide commercial dairy products as I was disappointed to discover. (l am already suffering from cheese deprivation.)
We were left to spend the afternoon at the Grand Hotel, our overnight accommodation. It is the largest building by far. A towering edifice of mirrored glass, a bling princess among the tatty buildings that lined the rest of what looked like a main street. We wandered down it, hoping to find a place that could serve some lunch or at least show a few signs of life on a lonely Sunday afternoon. Further along the street we heard music - aha! A band practicing in a local cafe'. We joined a few lone gentlemen at the tables and asked for a menu. But we realized that most of the dishes served here were on two legs, local lassies doing a roaring takeaway trade with aging male "vazahas" (tourists). However, we were served the local Three Horse beer (THB) and had a very good lunch.
A wet muddy ride around the bay and the Amber forest
Another washout, this time in a forest with avenues of tall monkey puzzle and pine trees that had been planted over 40 years ago as part of a botanical experiment. It was indeed puzzling to walk to a waterfall while experiencing a continuous overhead waterfall that left us soaked to the skin. No more waterfalls, no matter how sacred they are. No more tree ferns or rare cycads. The animals had sought shelter and it was time for us to do likewise.
We were shown to our bungalow, atop a verdant hill overlooking some more luscious, dripping wet vegetation. We spent a comfortable night with the help of solar-powered lights, power points and a very efficient geyser that provided a super hot shower. The food was beautifully prepared and we were treated to a profusion of pineapples and pawpaw, rice, vegetables and omelets.
Dietary restrictions, food allergies and the local cuisine
As a vegetarian it is hard to explain that I do not eat Zebu, chickens, fish or any of my other "friends". Another problem, lest you are also wheat/gluten intolerant is to explain to them it means no bread, pasta, cake or biscuits. They don't always compensate with alternatives. But there is always plenty of rice available as the locals usually eat it three times a day.
This island has a population of over 4 million people but half of them are under 14 years of age. They regard having lots of children and lots of cattle as signs of wealth and prosperity. There are 2 million cattle on the island and two million children without much hope of getting jobs, let alone a decent education. But they eat rice, three times a day. (Unfortunately it is polished rice, robbed of nutrients and is cooked without salt.) Madagascan's eat the most rice of any nation in the world - even more than the Chinese. This may explain why there are no obese people to be seen. Rice is gluten-free! Low income villagers eat a simple diet low in wheat, sugar, trans-fats and rich animal fats albeit sparse in leafy greens and other vegetables.
The red Tsingy adventure
The weather cleared up the next day. The wet clay road to the Tsingy Rouge was another challenge for our long-suffering driver. We had to drive over a mountain and down to the plain below. At times we got out and walked over areas where more than half the road had disappeared into a ravine. The red earth tsingys are formed out of laterite (minerals rich in iron that make them red) formations caused mainly by water erosion within a canyon. At the bottom there was a small stream, but obviously during a deluge it was capable of gouging out the softer material such as sand and clay and leaving the harder clumps to form what resembles stalactites or turrets. These formations are called hoodos in places such as Bryce Canyon in the Western region of the USA we visited. But Here we experienced the magical formations at a more intimate level, being guided along the river bed where we could enjoy them in more detail.
Ankarana National Park and the chameleons and lemurs
On the way to our next stop at the Ankarana lodge in the middle of nowhere we enjoyed a few stretches of tarred road albeit a combination of potholes and corrugations. To our delight the tour guide and her driver found all the major species of chameleons during the days we spent together. They often had to stop so we could get out and chase them off the road. I now have a glorious picture gallery of these polychromatic beasties ranging in sizes as big as my foot to just the top of my pinkie. The lemurs also made a good showing at the forest where Jim was taken on a visit to the bat caves. I decided to wait, being allergic to mould and because we only had one torch. So Jim saw the bats and I was treated to a whole troop of lemurs who came to the parking lot in search of food. I had some banana peels and they ate them with relish and posed for the camera as if they did it every day. They probably do.
After that Nono came to fetch me. He was quivering with excitement. "Big-a-snake." In the middle of the forest pathway a large snake was making its way towards the park bench. It was over one and a half meters long and it performed a few winding loops plus a warning hiss for the camera. What a scoop! I was pleased to hear that snakes on this island are not venomous. (At least they say they are back fanged.)
The grey Tsingies of Ankarana
The following day was bright and sunny, without a cloud and we enjoyed a 10 kilometer hike around the Ankarana National park to see the limestone Tsingie region. We trekked through some cool forests that Raaisa said were deciduous and in mid summer the area became unbearably hot and humid. Today was no exception and making our way across the barren expanse of eroded limestone in the heat was pretty debilitating. She was not sure if the "old vazahas" (what they call tourists) could cross the suspension bridge but we managed to do so, especially because there was a shady bench on the other side.
Thousands of years ago, Madagascar being part of the Gondwanaland series, experienced a lot of geomorphological upheaval. The eroded limestone in this area was once down on the bed of the ocean. During fierce volcanic activity it was pushed up to ground level along with a lot of lava, or what we now see as black basalt rock. Over time the wind and rain pounded at the limestone and it washed away parts of it to form the sharp ridges or what the natives call tsingys. Basically the word means "rocks that are too sharp to stand on."
The Ankarana Lodge was a gateway to paradise, or how I imagined it to be because the back of the chalet opened out to a huge forest of trees with cathedral-like proportions. I slunk into the deck chair on the undulating concrete slab and stared at the greenery with a sense of awe and appreciation. Spending two nights here was going to be good. They even provided electricity 24/7 and had a huge swimming pool as part of the dining area. The staff went out of their way to attend to their guests. We took nothing for granted anymore, especially not the roads!