Madagascar 2: Dirt is just dirt

Tuesday 11 July 2017: Sylvia

I am somewhat conflicted staying in this place. Even more so than in many others I feel a burden of privilege. The locals live in small villages dotted around the area and earn approximately US$1 per day working in the fields or in the sisal factory. They live as subsistence farmers, the majority without electricity and none with running or clean water, growing crops along the riverside. The young boys look after the goats or zebu, herding them along the roads during the day. The young girls often carry water or other loads on their heads. Whilst they seem happy and the kids come running to smile, wave and say hello or bye-bye and get their photos taken as we drive through the villages I am acutely aware of the differences in our lives as I watch them fetching water from the river – the same place they bathe and do their laundry and wash their cows and …. I wonder what they must think of us as we sit on our kayaks and get pulled across the river by strong young men – these strange white people who can’t even walk across the river on their own.

We slept well last night in our comfortable  tent and after a light breakfast headed off with Alberto past the sisal factory (you can’t look inside anymore as they got too many complaints about the working conditions!!!) and through the sisal fields back to the river, where we crossed over to a different sacred forest – this time an ancient rather than current burial ground and a canopy or gallery forest rather than a spiny one.


The forest is really interesting, largely a mix of acacia and tamarind trees with several large banyan trees and vines. Our goal this morning was to find the two species of diurnal lemur endemic in this area, the famous ring-tailed lemur and veraux sifaka, otherwise known as the dancing lemur because they do not walk on the ground but kind of leap sideways.

We were not long in the forest when we came across our first group of ring-tailed lemurs. These not-shy animals live in groups of twenty-thirty and spend 40% of their time foraging on the ground. They are really beautiful with their striped tails and large eyes. We saw several groups during the morning including some munching happily on cactus leaves, which they break off and hold in their hands to eat.

We also saw several much smaller groups of veraux sifaka, including a couple on the ground who treated us with a fantastic display of their dancing. This is apparently quite unusual at this time of the year as they tend to prefer to stay up in the trees more until the middle of winter. They are striking white animals with black faces and hands.

In what seemed like no time it was time to leave the sacred forest – probably just as well as Roger struggled to remember not to point and didn’t really want to have to sacrifice a zebu as atonement. It was a short thirty minute drive back to camp, passing through villages of waving, smiling children, and passing herds of goats, zebu and even turkeys.


We enjoyed another delicious lunch (the food here is incredibly good – as is the service, a very pleasant change after Andisibe) outside under three towering acacia trees. We were joined by a well-travelled Columbian family and enjoyed sharing stories of our different travels.

As we rested during the afternoon we could hear the children laughing and splashing in the river nearby. At one point a large group of kids came past fishing for the tiny fish in the river using old mosquito nets. There are heaps of kids everywhere here – they marry young, often around 15/16 and will start having children straight away. Apparently many of the marriages are arranged. The divorce rate is high and polygamy is still practised in some areas of the country.

Later in the afternoon we headed back out with Alberto to visit a community spiny forest. I remain quite intrigued by this unique and unusual forest with its eleven species of octopus trees and various different species of euphorbia. I fear for its future though – we see a few large octopus trees that are apparently about 80 years old. They are about the right size for the locals to cut down to make planks to build their houses – unfortunately the houses only last 6-7 years before the termites get them – there is definitely something wrong with this equation.

We watched a family of veraux sifaka bed themselves down in a prickly octopus tree for the evening and as it got dark searched for the three species of nocturnal lemur found here – not so successful this time; we only spied a couple of sportive lemurs way in the distance, eyes shining brightly in the torchlight. The two species of mouse lemurs proved to be elusive.


Wednesday 12 July 2017: Roger

At 8am we are back in the Landrover heading out the rough track to the spiny forest we visited last night. Incidentally the only vehicles that work in this country are Landrovers or Toyotas . Theo told us at dinner on the first night that they brought some Nissans but after just eighteen months they were wrecked.

A bunch of kids were taking the family goats out for their daily feed. I jumped out to take a photo. The kids lined up to excitedly to get the picture taken. With excitement they looked at the back of the camera jabbering away and pointing at each other.

The track is lined with large cactus plants beyond which are paddocks, the cactus serving as an impregnable fence.

Arriving at the start point there is a shack housing a large family. Several kms from the river, from which water has to be carried, the grubby kids and a few turkeys gather around to have their pictures taken.

Heading into the spiny non sacred forest we spot a dancing (veraux sifaka) lemur with a baby in her lap high up in a spiky octopus tree.

Others are feeding in nearby trees leaping several meters from meal to meal, landing feet first, their tough feet oblivious to the sharp spines.

This forest is definitely not pretty but interesting with its eleven varieties of octopus and other spiky trees. Apart from a couple of rare, poisonous spiders there are no dangerous animals in Madagascar; even the snakes (mainly constrictors) won’t kill you.

A little further down the track two lemurs that we saw last night have been joined by a third still sleeping on the same branch.

Next stop was the main village on the river bank. We dismounted checking out the local solar power plant and the market area. People come here on Thursdays and Saturdays to sell their produce.

We stop in at a local family home walled off by a palisade fence. The main house is being attacked by termites. Interestingly these houses or huts are made from octopus trees which at felling time are eighty years old. They need to be replaced every seven years, probably part of the reason for the massive deforestation that has taken place in the country over the past two thousand years. This small compound contains in the big hut grandparents and parents, in the smaller huts the children and their children.

Each family has four or five children here as a form of both labour and superannuation as the children have to take care of elderly parents. A hint maybe to my daughters “Victoria and Kirstie”. The kids gather around eagerly to have their picture taken. One young boy about 10 is wearing a long baggy t-shirt which he is holding away from his body. Tt turns out the poor little bugger has just been circumcised; a tradition here for ten year olds.

The village of about a thousand people has a primary and high school. There is a mayor’s office and aid station. Lots of people are gathered around the mayor’s office. A group of aid workers sit on the side of the road giving out money to mums with kids. They used to give out milk powder and baby food but the mums used to sell it to get money so now they just give money.

A visit to another not so fortunate family reveals tatami type mats on the floor, black with dirt. They sit proudly on the porch as I take their picture.

At the centre of town is the main shopping area with produce and second hand clothing for sale. A girl pumps water at the village well as dozens of people wander about buying their daily provisions. Lots of people gather to get their pictures taken smiling and pointing with excitement as they see themselves on the camera screen. The road through the village is concrete and there is street lighting; one building has a satellite dish and the odd house electric lights.

The woman here all have great postures, many one sees away from the village have a baby strapped to their back and a large load on their head moving as though they are unladen.

There are many little stalls at the front of houses where people prepare and sell food and other produce.

Later in the afternoon we took a drive out to a bunch of Baobab trees. The little mobile bar had been set up for us to enjoy a G&T while we watched the sun go down.


After the sun had set we hear the beat of a drum and three spear wielding warriors appear from the the dark, followed by a bunch of women. The entertained us with some custom dances.


Drinks over, we headed back to Mandrare River Camp for dinner with a great  family from Colombia. Theo and Zizi also joined us. Marcela, her husband-to-be-one-day Max, her son Thomas and brother Mauricio are passing through on their way to Kenya. We had a great time with them over both lunches and dinners.

Thursday 13 July 2017: Sylvia

We had a leisurely start this morning leaving camp at 9am to head back to the airstrip where Martin had the plane ready for our departure. We flew first 30 minutes south to Fort Dauphin to refuel, flying over large patches of planted land and small villages. As we neared For Dauphin and the coast many small fishing villages had set lines laid out and people dragging nets in the shallow water. Apparently there are plenty of fish in this area.

After refuelling we headed north for the two-and-a-half hour flight back to Tana. Another drive through this chaotic and colourful city and we arrived at our hotel for the night, Maison Gallieni. Perched high on the hill, it is a magnificent old brick building that once used to be the bank, and boasts incredible views over the city. It also houses the embassy of Monaco. It is a very small boutique hotel with beautiful rooms and friendly service. We were the only guests for the night and they served us dinner in a stunning dining room filled with many interesting artefacts and pieces of art. In stark contrast to the beautiful hotel, outside our window scores of young women did their laundry by hand, with water they carted themselves to the local “laundry bench”, while we spent most of the afternoon inside catching up on our emails.

Friday 14 July 2017: Roger

At 0615 we were picked up from the Maison Gallieni Hotel and driven across town to the office of the air charter company. Even at that time there were lots of people about. Apparently after 7am the city becomes gridlocked.

Around 8am we were driven the short distance to the airport where we boarded a Piper Aero 28, soon airborne and heading north 400 nautical miles to Antsiranana. The first part of the journey there are lots of rice fields terraced into the hills. An hour or so north we strike rolling country with no sign of tracks or roads.

In spite of there being no sign of life larger areas have been burnt off as though encouraging new grass growth for stock; some parts are still burning. We were unable to establish if they actually run stock out here. Another person said the burning happens because they have always done it. Most of the trees near inhabitated areas have been felled to make charcoal with which they cook.

In some areas up north an NGO has planted large areas of fast growing eucalyptus trees to supply fuel and try to save what few few indigenous trees that remain. With a mortality rate amongst children exceeding 12 percent (interestingly our last make-it-up-as-you-go guide told us it was under 1%) some electricity, water and sanitation would certainly not just save what trees are left but dramatically improve the health of the population.

Many large rivers run both east and west, most with small villages dotted along their banks servicing the rice fields.

There are no signs of roads or tracks – I presume they carry their crops to the east or west many miles to a track or road. There are only two actual roads in the north, one on each side of the island. Apparently the one on the east is not negotiable in places.

Three and a half hours later we come into land with the pilot muttering and cursing as he fights the rough air into a 30 plus knot head wind. We are picked up by our guide and a driver and head south down the main road. By the state of it I would be surprised if any money has been spent on it since the French left.

We often drive with one wheel off the road or on the other side to avoid the huge ruts and pot holes. The road is lined with small villages consisting of small shacks, many made of wood, others of rusting corrugated iron. They are surrounded by dirt and rubbish, the people look dirty and few look happy.

People sit by their roadside stalls selling whatever they can including plastic bottles are full of spices and herbs.

In places woman sit in the field threshing the rice by hand. It is harvested by hand and stacked in piles in the paddock to dry.

From planting to harvesting it takes two months. If there is a good water supply several crops can be harvested in a year. Zebu are used to cultivate the ground.

It’s hard to know what has happened here. It’s almost like time has stood still for the last two thousand years.  They live to exist; there is no want to to improve living standards. They don’t have power or running water, they still go and shit in the paddock, they are washing clothes in a muddy puddle.

Talking later to Herve who owns the lovely place we stayed, he explained that the people around here are really lazy and do just enough to survive. The men sit around most of the day chewing Katy, a kind of drug in a tree leaf it is supposed to make them strong and energised.

We traveled south for nearly an hour, eventually turning up a track made of red clay.  After 16kms of ruts and bumps we arrived at the Red Tsingy. This is a large washout that has exposed these Tsingy made up of a combination of laterite and other minerals.

We head back north passing again the villages. Bush taxis are the main form of public transport here. The cram everything they can in and on the vehicle.

We turn west and head up another rough, but sealed in places, road leading to the town of Joffreville, once an immaculate French military leave centre, now a run down shambles to blend in with the way the live around here. We arrive at The Litchi Tree hotel.

Run by Herve, who moved here from France 12 years ago and bought what was once the French commander’s house left to rack and ruin. He did a marvellous job of restoring it, even building his own furniture, and now with the help of Madiba, his eight year old adopted daughter runs by far the best accomodation we have experienced here.


Saturday 15 July: Sylvia

After a delicious breakfast served by our French host (the best pain au chocolat I’ve had outside of France) we were picked up for the short drive to Amber Mountain Forest Park. This is said to be primary forest but there are a large number of introduced species and in places the trees are planted in straight rows. It is stunning forest nonetheless.

We stopped along the way for our guide to point out some of the 1100 species of medicinal plants here. At one point she brought over a distinctive purple flower and tried in broken English to explain “mmmm it is kind of mmmm like a particular mmm organ of a woman”. From the glint in Roger’s eye I don’t think he needed the explanation. Apparently it is very good for all sorts of women’s problems and also for high blood pressure.

A short 400m walk took us down to a green lake, which is the main source of water for the people of Diego-Suarez.

We then started our very slow stroll through the forest, searching for chameleons and lemurs. We spotted a couple of groups of ruffed lemur eating wild lemons but the chameleons were remaining elusive.

We also passed two different waterfalls, the second a sacred one where the Malagasy come to ask favours of their ancestors, leaving rice, honey, alcohol and cash.

At the picnic area we finally found four different species of chameleon. One, the smallest chameleon in the world, lives covered in pine needles at the base of trees. Another was flattened against the bark and incredibly well camouflaged.

While we were eating lunch a curious mongoose came to check us out.

After lunch we headed back to Joffreville and spent some time wandering around the now dilapidated town. At one stage this used to be a favourite holiday spot for the French military as being on the hill it was cooler than Diego-Suarez, where they were based. After the French left in 1966 it has fallen into a state of disrepair. It is amazing that the Malagasy rather than move into the buildings and maintain them have let them go to ruin. Some are still in use by the Madagascar military but all in a very run-down state. Only the odd one or two has been maintained and is now in use as a hotel.

Young men sit around chewing the local drug of choice, katy, a green leaf grown locally, which is said to make them stronger.

In a small local market women sit selling rice, fruits, vegetables and various varieties of dried seafood. Chickens and ducks, many followed by their young wander around the town, often taking their lives in their hands as they run across the road in front of oncoming traffic. I think the “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes might have been invented here.


In one area is a large dilapidated multi-storey shell of a building that was apparently funded by the North Koreans and was once the teacher training institute but was damaged during a cyclone in the 90’s and was never repaired. One smaller building is still in use as a primary school but looks nearly as derelict.

It is hard to fathom that people here do not seem to want to improve their lives. Both here in the north and down south the guides commented on the locals lack of interest in education and in following suggestions from NGO’s to improve their fishing or farming methods. Somehow they seem content despite their lack of what we would consider to be basic necessities like power and running water. I am conscious of trying not to judge but struggle to understand.

We returned to the Litchi Tree and enjoyed a G&T (or in Roger’s case two) sitting out on the verandah with views over Diego-Suarez and the bay. With six guest rooms, this boutique hotel boasts an impressive bar and Herve cooks a mean meal. Eight years ago he adopted Madiba, a local baby, when she as an hour old. He now home-schools her and during the off season they travel to different parts of the world. She is a real delight and speaks excellent French and English. She seems to relish serving in the restaurant and showing us to our room, always with a beautiful smile. She and I played catch while Roger and Herve discussed the history of the country.

Later, after dinner, she showed us some of her very detailed drawings of the places they have visited. She is a charming and talented young girl and we couldn’t help reflecting on how different her life could have been.

On reflection I think our time in this area has been the opposite of our time in Andasibe. There the overall experience was outstanding but the hotel poor and here I would say the experience has been pretty average but the hotel outstanding. Mandrare River in the south seemed to get it pretty right on both counts.

Sunday 16 July 2017: Roger

Our guide and driver are waiting for us at seven in the trusty Toyota Landcruiser. Engine warning light still lit up as it has been for the past two days, we speed off down the road heading back to the airport. Chickens dive in all directions ,almost but not quite collected by the vehicles along the way. I am sure not even chickens know what their infatuation with the road is.

Alfa our pilot is waiting, soon airborne we head south, but much further west this time, revealing, in places, some quite rugged country.

There is the odd valley full of quite large villages surrounded by fields. This land must be like a sponge absorbing the water from the monsoon season and slowly releasing it over the dry season. Tracks, not roads, lead to these places.

In a country that is rated one of the poorest in the world, where 80% of the population have no power, water or proper sanitation but the prime minister has his own private jet and politicians become wealthy by being politicians, corruption is rife. Since independence in 1966 the population has grown from four to twenty three million. It makes one wonder what the future will hold. Will it be the same in a thousand years?

One thought on “Madagascar 2: Dirt is just dirt

  1. Paula says:

    Wow Sylvia and Rodger, how amazing, I have just finished reading and looking at all the photos and feel like I’ve been there too! I’ve been fascinated to know more about Madagascar, my (English) Uncle was there (for I’m not sure what) in WWII, so this was probably not the romantic version I had in my head, pretty confronting. Thanks for sharing, wonderful commentary, photos OMG the wildlife. Looking forward to seeing you back in NZ in the next couple of months 🙂

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