Madagascar Part I

Saturday 8 July 2017: Roger

Landing in Johannesburg around 8am we waited for nearly an hour to get through security and passport control in spite of just being in transit. Just after 10am we boarded the small AVRO RJ85 four-engined jet for a comfortable flight to Antananarivo.

Madagascar was apparently first inhabited around two thousand years ago by people from Indonesia then partially colonised by the British in 1810. In the 1880’s it was handed to the French, who had to fight the then king, eventually fully taking over in 1896. In 1960 independence was gained from France. The population at independence was 5 million; it’s now 26 million. As our guide Njaka put it, there is not much entertainment here!

Our guide and a driver picked us up at the airport in a Toyota Landcruiser for the 150km, 4-hour drive to Andasibie. The first hour was through and around Antananarivo. On each side of the road are rice fields; in places these are also used to harvest bricks from. Thousand of grey mud-bricks lay in the fields drying in the sun. Like I had previously seen in parts of Africa they then lay a fire and build a kiln of bricks around it. The fire burns for around five days at the end of which they have baked orange bricks ready for sale.

We passed through the shanty town where innovation is at its best; cars are being repaired on the roadside held up by rocks. There is just about everything one could buy in a large Walmart spread out along the side of the road. Fit looking men pull handcarts along the road, some at a steady trot. The heavier ones have a couple of extra blokes at the back pushing.

The roads are congested. In one area dozens of large trucks are parked up waiting for 8pm when they are allowed to enter the city centre to deliver their goods.

Most houses in the city have neither reticulated  water nor power supply. Today must be washing day as clothes are strewn everywhere, some hung but most having being washed in the brown water of the creeks are laid on the ground to dry. A lady sits, face painted in with a yellow tree bark (aparently this is to attract men) selling food.

We climb out of the city, eventually arriving at the top of a pass. The road winds its way seven kms down the a steep road. A large truck in front of us has flames coming from the brakes on the rear wheel; it takes several minutes of flashing lights and honking horn for him to get the hint and stop.

As we head further west houses tend to be made from timber rather than brick. Even as it gets dark lots of people are walking and pulling carts on the roads. Convoys of large trucks often make it hard to negotiate the relatively narrow road.

Turning off the main road we eventually come to a granite-paved track which leads to our hotel. We can’t get to our room for some time as they have misplaced the key.

Sunday 8 July 2017: Sylvia

The place we are staying is an interesting blend – the rooms are huge and quite nicely laid out but there is only a bath with a hand-held shower. The breakfast this morning was very basic with toast of a consistency somewhat akin to polystyrene!

After breakfast we met our guide and headed the short, bumpy drive to the Andasibe National Park for some traditional African waiting around while they organised tickets. We also met there our local guide, Desire, who is very friendly, knowledgeable and patient.

We spotted a short-horned (elephant-eared) chameleon on a tree nearby and a smaller version a few trees away.

We then headed off for a walk through the 40 hectares of this 861 hectare park that is open to tourists. The pathway was wide and paved with granite stones, which was quite helpful as the ground is very muddy. This is definitely rain forest – it rains 270+ days/year here and over 1.7m/year.

Not far down the path we spotted a small family of brown lemurs feeding in a tree. These lemurs are common across all of Madagascar. The two we have come specifically to this park to see are the Diadem Sifaka and the Indri-indri, the largest of all lemur.

We were not to be disappointed. Not too much further on we came across a family of diadem sifakas. These are the second largest of the lemurs here and a beautiful golden colour. I particularly enjoyed watching them jump through the trees. At certain times of the year they will come down to the ground and do a sideways sort of dance but we were satisfied watching them in the trees.

We had bought a new super-zoom lens for the camera and Roger seemed to enjoy trying it out – getting some great close-up shots.

We had heard a family of Indri-indri calling as we left the park headquarters. They make a fantastically haunting call. We soon came across the first of two families of them – again feeding in the branches high in a tree. Indri-indri have no tails, weigh up to about 12kg and can live to between 70 and 80 years. They seem to lead a fairly peaceful existence with their only predators being birds of prey and fossa (cat-fox like nocturnal animals). They eat mainly leaves and leap from tree to tree with remarkable speed and grace.

In the second family we came across, the mother was carrying a young baby – probably about 2 weeks old. All we could see was its little black face peeking out between the mothers stomach and leg.

This apparently is a fairly rare sighting, as was the pair of collared nightjars Desire spotted snuggled together in some leaves up a small bank. Even with him pointing them out to us it took several minutes before we were able to see them.

We headed back to “Fawlty Towers” for a break for lunch to discover once again that our room key was missing. Once that was found the safe couldn’t be opened but eventually we got it all sorted.

After lunch we headed to Lemur Island. This is an island that is part of a large hotel, complete with helicopter landing pad and rather overgrown golf course. The hotel is part of a larger estate, owned by a French man and incorporating a graphite mine; it is self contained with its own hydro-electric power and water supply. The island is home now to a number of lemurs that had been kept as pets. This is now illegal in Madagascar and the hotel has set up the island as a sanctuary for them – babies are rehabilitated to the wild. The lemurs on the island (brown, bamboo and ruffed) are all very tame and jumped on our shoulders and even heads. At one point Roger and I had three lemurs on each of us and were trying to take photos of each other as the lemurs jumped between us.

On a separate island was a diadem sifaka – we were not able to land but sat in our canoe as it was coaxed ever closer to us with pieces of banana. None of this was exactly a wildlife experience but it was fun and a great way to see the lemurs up close.

We decided to take a break in the sun after the lemurs and ordered a couple of gin and tonics but unfortunately no gin here! So Roger ordered a glass of wine that came filled to the brim but looked, smelled and apparently tasted more like diesel! It must have been bad as I’ve never known him to leave a glass untouched before. Bazil and Manuel are definitely in charge here.

In the evening we met Desire again for a night walk, spot-lighting for nocturnal animals. We saw the largest (parson’s) and smallest (nose-horned) chameleons from the rain forest and also the largest nocturnal (woolly) and smallest (mouse) lemurs as well as a couple of other chameleons and a yellow-toed tree frog.

With a 5am departure tomorrow morning it was then time to call it a day. The hotel may not have been up to standard but the experience away from the hotel and the guiding of Desire were outstanding.

Monday 10 July 2017: Roger

As we headed down the stone drive way at 5am the valley was covered in fog. As daylight broke we were heading back up the valley towards the winding road. In places a narrow guage rail line runs alongside the road, built in the 1920s with compensation paid to France by the Germans for WWI. It is still in use but only for freight. Partially wiped out in places by a recient cyclone it is now running again.

As we pass through towns lots of people are out and about. Entering the capital the place is chaotic with mainly Mercedes mini buses ferrying people around, competing with bullock-carts, hand-carts, old Citroen taxis and cars for space on the road. Mercedes has done a great sales job here as they also seem to dominate the truck market. The streets are lined with stalls; the brick makers and rice growers are at work in the fields. Hundreds of men stand on the side of the road.

Arriving at the back gate to the airport we are lead to a Cessna 210. With its new 300 horsepower turbo engine and new coat of paint it is to fly us to Mandrare River, down the south end of Madagascar. Martin, the South African pilot soon appears and after waiting for the fog to clear we are airborne.

As we get airborne we can see that Antananarivo (Tana) is a city built around rice paddies. Every bit of flat land is a rice field ,at present some flooded, some dry. Martin tells me that in the wet season it’s like one big lake. As we fly south there are thousands of valleys all terraced into rice fields. It seems that every gully with a spring has been terraced to allow water to flow evenly over the ground. Many are really remote with no sign of roads. Villages have large sheds.

Cruising at 140 knots with a tail wind giving us 180 knots, we covered the 380 nautical miles in two and a half hours. As we approached the dirt airstrip we could see mile upon mile of, what looked like pineapple plants. These turned out to be sisal plants. There are around thirty thousand hectares of then in the area. Used for making large ropes for tying up cargo and other large ships and also for rugs. The outside fronds are cut by hand from each plant, bundled and then carted by tractor to the local factory. The ground is prepared by tractor and the plants planted by hand. This employs around a thousand locals at a rate of 2400 riaria per day, about USD1.

We did few circuits of the strip before touching down to be met by Theo the camp manager. A short drive in a Landrover had us at the camp. Theo’s wife Zizi was there to meet us and after a tour of the facilities we stowed our kit in our tent and headed of for our first activity.

A 15 min drive up a rough sandy/dirt road, passing through the local village got us to the start point. A couple of kayak are used to take us across the shallow river. On the other side are sandy river flats where the locals are planting their sweet potato crops. Thousands of these cuttings are placed in the sand and in four months produce a 30 to 50 mm tuda.


After crossing the flats we enter the sacred spiny Forrest. Alberto our guide gives a run down on the rules: “no pointing, no toileting and no removing anything.” Nearly every plant in here has a spike on it. We stick to the path as Alfred gives us a run down on the burial customs of the locals. The wealthy have a tomb surrounded by a concrete or stone wall; for the not so wealthy a shallow hole is dug and rocks piled on top. Between 3 and 20 zebu (the local cow) are sacrificed as part of the ceremony depending on one’s status. At USD300 each, dying can be expensive. The leftover meat is salted and given to those attending to take home.

We spot a couple of nocturnal sportive lemur hiding in a tree.

A couple of happy looking woman stroll through the forest on their way home from the river, heavy loads on there heads and babies on their backs.

The sun is setting as we are dragged back across the river where drinks and nibbles are laid out for us so we can sit and watch while the locals wrap up there day at the river.


2 thoughts on “Madagascar Part I

  1. Molly and Murray says:

    This is just such a glorious story. I’ve always wanted to go to Madagascar as it’s full of animals and plants that are unique to the island.
    Superb idea to go there…all those lovely lemurs, looking so huggable!
    Your photos are brilliant- that new camera is doing you proud.
    I’d a thoroughly good time reading your adventures and laughed about the hotel…part of the charm surely…you wouldn’t want the Ritz in such an island as this!!!
    Shall settle down with a drink in front of your blistering sunset.

  2. Michael Malsz says:

    Great story! Good photos.

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