Madagascar: Allée des Baobabs and Belo sur Mer

Leaving the hotel at 7am, we reached the Allée des Baobabs about an hour later. This is a road passing between rows of Adansonia grandideiri baobabs; some of which are said to be a thousand years old. It was quiet when we arrived

but when we were due to leave, many people were arriving.

There is a small information centre run by the local community and you can even buy a small sapling to grow your own baobab.

Continuing along the road we entered more fertile country with rice fields and banana trees but the landscape became drier as RN35 towards Morondavo on the coast. The cars were refuelled and supplies topped up and then we continued on our way. Only about 7% of the Madagascan population is Muslim and this town is the only one outside Tana that we had seen a mosque and a few women wearing hijabs. Leaving town on asphalt we soon turned onto a sandy minor road. After the first river crossing, we had to stop at the village and pay a fee to proceed. Goats were tucking into a trailer-load of greenery; very welcome in this dry landscape. A lower and much larger river, part of a large delta was crossed and cactus-like plants appeared in the landscape.

Alongside the road were people trying to sell us food. After several mostly dry river crossings we reached the salt pans of Belo sur Mer. We could see piles of salt on the causeway as we made our way along the sand tracks at low tide. This route would not be passable in the rainy season.

After settling into our hotel, we took a walk along the beach. The town sits at the edge of a small lagoon off the Mozambique channel and has a population of around 8,000. It is a regional ship-building centre and wooden boat building is carried on here in the same way as it has been for hundreds of years.

30% of the population work in the fishing industry and some were busy in the lagoon. There were a lot of shells on the beach but only a few very worn pieces of sea glass. The choice of food for our evening meal was limited as a delivery had not arrived but I did have a good chance to watch the sun go down over the sea.

Madagascar: across rivers to Kirindy Forest

We were on the road by 7.30am and soon down at the Manambolo River ferry terminal. Children were busy washing cars and a busker was wandering around playing his banjo.

After the crossing we continued and had a short break in the valley where workers were busy in the rice fields.

We returned to Belo Tsiribihina for lunch at the Mad Zebu once more and then down to the river to catch the ferry to the Réserve Forestière de Kirindy. The ferry takes 40 minutes to cross on what is essentially a raft on the top of two boats. The engines are fuelled via a pipe from a can tied to the top.

We saw fishermen setting up nets for the rainy season.

There was a 45-degree slope to drive up from the ferry and one of our cars was struggling but we all made it eventually.

We passed some more highly decorated tombs with the skull of a sacrificed zebu on the top. Nearby were the graves of poorer people. Photographs are allowed but it is fady to approach more closely than the roadside or to look inside.

Continuing along RN8 we soon reached the forest and the giant black sacred baobab tree outside our hotel.

Sacred baobabs are places of worship. It is believed that ancestors’ spirits live in the trees and forests to look after their descendants, relay messages from God and grant blessings. Hence it is important not to point fingers at it. Sometimes offerings will be placed at the foot of the tree.
After checking in we were driven to the forest reserve for a night safari. First, we met a fossa who came to the reserve to be fed. The fossa is a cat-like carnivore with retractable claws and cat-like teeth endemic to Madagascar. It is related to mongooses and civets. They are quite large; adults weighing up to 12kg and have very long tails which help to balance them when they are looking for prey in the trees. They eat almost anything from insects to lemurs and are the biggest hunters on the island.

Once it was dark, we commenced the night walk. It is forbidden to enter the forest at night, so the walk was taken along the edges at the side of the road, with a guide. It was very busy with numerous groups with the same agenda and as it was a main road, traffic was passing which was potentially dangerous. We were not allowed to use torches or flash photography so had to rely on a guide’s torch to illuminate any animals, birds or spiders in the trees. Some moved very quickly and the crowds made it difficult to get a good shot before the creature moved on. I did manage to get a reasonable picture of one lemur.

Afterwards we returned to the hotel for a late evening meal. A few people were going to get up a 3am to leave at 4am travel to the Avenue des Baobabs for sunrise as we were about 90 minutes away. Visiting at sunrise and sunset is very popular so after the crowded evening I was happy to visit later in the day after a reasonable sleep.

Madagascar: Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha

The National Park is a Unesco World Heritage- listed site with jagged limestone pinnacles known as tsingy. There are two options for visitors: The Grands and Petits Tsingys. The Grands Tsingys has vertiginous bridges and involves climbing and scrambling over rocks while in a harness clipped to the via ferrata and is around a 90 minute trip in a FWD from Bekopaka. Pulling yourself up rock walls and also crawling through caves is all supposed to be part of the fun. I am not one for huge drops or scrambling and crawling through caves so most of us opted for the Petits Tsingys. There are six routes ranging from 90 minutes to a six hour one with a 30m climb. We opted for the two hour hike and as it was close to Bekopaka which we left at 7.30am, we saw no other tourists until we were leaving. Some of the gaps the path squeezes through are tight

Tree roots hang down the cracks.

We saw several parrots who flew past too quick to photograph them in contrast to the galahs perched on the rocks in The Pinnacles National Park in Western Australia that we visited last year. We also heard a Madagascan Cuckoo. There are 11 species of lemur in the park but the only one we saw was a nocturnal one who peeped at as from his perch in a tree.

We spotted a millipede on the path and a few lizards.

There are a few viewpoints that you can walk up for a wider perspective.

A gorge can be visited but this was going to be in an open boat and it was now midday and very hot. We opted for a quiet afternoon back at the hotel with a dip in the pool to cool off and relaxing on the verandah of our bungalow. Mid-way through the afternoon it began to rain but at least we felt rested for the following day which would be much longer.

Madagascar: The Tsiribihina River

We had a 90-minute journey to the river and our boat; the first 20km on asphalt and the remainder on a dirt track. The usual departure point was out of action because the river was too low. Instead of a 1km walk to the pier, there was a longer 4X4 drive with payments to each person whose land we had crossed. Once our luggage had arrived by tractor and trailer, we set off; zigzagging through the low water. Nearby we passed a group of people with someone dressed all in white on the riverbank. We were told that this was a spirit cleaning ceremony which occurs every October. Someone who is identified as being possessed by a is cleansed in the river in a ceremony to appease the spirits. I asked how someone is identified as being possessed and was told that they may say unusual things and appear as if they are ‘in a trance’. I did wonder whether some of these people may actually have a psychosis or other mental disorder and I don’t know how this is understood in traditional communities.

Savannah gave way to forest and then we were in deeper water as rocky strata appeared. There were some small communities on the riverbank with a few wooden and straw huts and canoes moored nearby. Eventually we arrived at the sandbank near the Cascade Anosinampela. Some of us walked up to the waterfall for a cool-off and then returned to await tent erection. Our guide was advised that camping on the other bank would be better, so we moved over there and got the tents up just before sunset.

The following morning, we returned to the other bank because Red-Fronted Lemurs had been spotted in the trees.

Underway, we passed into a limestone gorge.

A little further on we stopped at a small village on the riverbank: Begidro. It was market day and school holidays so was quite busy.

The farmers here grow tobacco as well as the usual crops so somewhat surprisingly there is a large state-run tobacco warehouse.

Most people live in huts with a corrugated iron roof with a few being able to afford bricks or even concrete. We spotted to Liverpool FC shirts on the streets

and a fairly recent Mo Salah one. We visited the local state-run school which caters for ages 6-15. Apparently, NGOs only support private schools.

Back on the water we stopped for lunch near the first baobabs we had seen. There are seven species in Madagascar. Six are endemic and the other is the African baobab found on the African continent.

We eventually entered Tsirbihina Gorge, more baobabs and our destination for the night on the sandbank. We watched the sun go down over the water.

A campfire had been planned with musical entertainment being provided by some of the locals. We had singers, drummers and dancers followed by a guy with a ukelele.

The following morning, we woke early thanks to the cockerel. He belonged to one of the crew and was carried with us on the boat. We were told that he was a prize fighter and that cock fighting is not only legal but very popular in Madagascar. After saying goodbye to the boat crew, we discovered that our 4X4s were marooned on the other side of the river awaiting a ferry. Tuk Tuks were hired to take us into Belo Tsiribihina for lunch at the Mad Zebu Restaurant. This is popular with tourists. While our meal was being prepared, we walked around town passing the Kings Palace (surrounded by wood) but photography was not allowed. After lunch we met up with the cars and had to wait for the convoy to form. Since there had been robberies from vehicles on the road, police convoys are the only permitted means of getting up towards our destination. We continued through savannah with baobabs, forded a small river and then a dried up one. Eventually all the vehicles in the convoy had caught up and we could cross the Manambolo River by ferry and find our hotel in Bekopa.

Madagascar: the highlands

We had to return to the outskirts of Tana before we could take the road south to Antisaribe. A brief stop in Moramanga allowed one of our group to buy some sunglasses and the drivers to stock up on oil. The town was very busy with rickshaws. Further on, the road crosses the Mangoro River and passes a hydro-electric power station. There were road-side sellers

and whole families (including children) breaking rocks into gravel and small pieces to be used in making concrete. Closer to Tana there are rice paddies in the valleys between the hills the road winds up and down around. Occasionally large lumps of granite peep out of the vegetation on the hillside. The Tana bypass was built by the Japanese and one road is known as the Boulevard de Tokyo. This is one of the bridges:

Switching our minibuses to 4x4s, we headed south on RN7. It was very slow progress uphill in a long line of traffic through the suburbs, behind a couple of HGVs and past a broken down one. The road surface was in good condition and ran alongside a valley. Sugarcane and later rabbits were being sold at stalls. By lunchtime we had reached Ambatolamy which had a busy market.

The town is host to an aluminium smelting and recycling facility. Aluminium from car parts and other items is melted down and made into marmites (cooking pots) and other useful items. They can make up to 50 pots per day. It is the only place in Madagascar that the earth and charcoal are suitable for making handmade moulds. The work was very dusty but none of the men wore masks.

Pétanque was being played in the town centre. RN7 continues through the crowded main street and uphill out of town. Zebu-drawn carts are a frequently seen means of transport. Many brick houses are being built in the highlands to replace the single-storey clay and thatch homes we had seen on the plains. There are very few large cemeteries in Madagascar. Instead, most people are buried in tombs on the edge of tribal land. The larger, well-decorated tombs are those of well-off people who must sacrifice a zebu to be buried there. This is expensive and has led to thefts of zebu. Less well-off people just have a concrete mound paupers grave. It is fady (taboo) to point at a person or tomb.

Every time we stopped at the roadside; children appeared to beg. Potholes reappeared after Ilempona; being a Route National is no guarantee of a good surface. Like many other African countries, Madagascar is a graveyard for old trucks from Europe and we saw many familiar names on the roads here. We continued to Antsirabe where we spent a night. The town grew up around thermal springs discovered by Norwegian missionaries in the late 19th century. The spa is still in use and owned by a Norwegian. It is the third largest town in the country. The station was quite close to our hotel but there is now only one freight train per day.

There is a large boulevard with a memorial to the 18 tribes in the country. The Hôtel des Thermes has a slightly faded glamour inside.

We looked inside the Catholic Cathedral and some of the small workshops around town. One in particular: Chez Mamy Miniatures makes small bikes, cars and taxis from recycled cans, wires and IV tubing. The Atelier Cornes du Zebu produces goods made from zebu horn. We took a pousse-pousse (rickshaw) back to the hotel and then left town heading west on RN34. We passed the Star Brewery whose beer we had been drinking and then through a fertile valley before heading uphill and over a pass. In one river the locals were panning for gold in gravel rejected by the nearby gold mine.

At various times today the surrounding landscapes were reminiscent of other dry places in the southwest USA or the Canary Isles.

Multiple potholes appeared in the road before descending to the plain and Miandrivazo, our destination.

Madagascar: Antananarivo to the rainforest

The UK had TV programmes about Madagascar in the months before we left which could have left the impression that it is a green island with much wildlife. The latter is certainly true but flying over it reveals the Red Island with clear evidence of the deforestation that has happened since the first settlers arrived and the silted-up rivers in the dry season. We landed in sunshine and were taken to our hotel to meet up with our group. The island has been separated from Gondwanaland for millions of years and over 90% of the wildlife are endemic and not found anywhere else. It is the fourth largest island in world but also the fifth poorest nation. We left Antananarivo on a Sunday morning via RN 2 which was still busy with a lot of trucks as it is the main route to the port of Toamasina. There is also a railway line (narrow gauge and dating from the 1930s) which is only for freight. The most common form of transport for passengers is the taxi-brousse; a minibus with luggage piled on the roof.
Just outside the city centre brick making and laundry were being carried out by the River Ikopa: scenes which would be re-visited all over the highlands.

Occasionally, it looked as if all the fabrics in a home including curtains and carpets were being washed. Our guide told us that when someone has died, all the fabrics in the home are washed to remove the evil spirits/death. This tradition is less frequently practised now. We had a distant view of Tana with the Queen’s Palace and the first church on the hill.

Further on near Moramanga was this sign:

The Malagasy Uprising was a nationalist rebellion against French colonial rule in Madagascar and lasted from March 1947 to February 1949. Political efforts to achieve independence for Madagascar had failed and spurred on radicalised elements of the Malagasy population, including the leaders of some militant nationalist secret societies. On the evening of 29 March 1947, coordinated surprise attacks were launched by Malagasy nationalists, armed mainly with spears, against military bases and French-owned plantations in the eastern part of the island concentrated around Moramanga and Manakara. In May 1947 the the French began to counter the nationalists. They increased the number of troops on the island to 18,000, mostly by transferring soldiers from French colonies elsewhere in Africa. The French military forces carried out mass execution, torture, war rape, torching of entire villages, collective punishment and other atrocities such as throwing live Malagasy prisoners out of an airplane (death flights). The mausoleum is on the site where more than 120 nationalists were executed. Before we reached Andasibe, we stopped at Peyrieras Reserve which cares for amphibians and reptiles. They have Nile Crocodiles and a number of lizards and geckos I am in the process of identifying.

Later in our trip, we saw some of them in the wild. After a night in Andasibe, we hiked around four miles in the nearby National Park which preserves some of the 1% of the original forest that remains. In the rainforest it rained, heavily at times, leading to some of the park guides saying that this did not usually happen until November. October is usually dry and hot. We saw the five species of lemur in the park but I did not get photographs of them all.

The Indri is the largest and its call can be heard 2km away.

We also saw several species of birds, most of which flew around too quickly to photograph. One notable tree is the Travellers’ Palm which acquired its name due to the collection of water where each leaf meets the stem, providing a drink in hot weather.

In the afternoon we visited Vakona Reserve which comprises Lemur Island and a crocodile reserve. It is owned by a French national who came to work in the now defunct graphite mine. He then set up the reserves which provide rescue for lemurs sold as pets (hence they are habituated to humans) and has one lodge in operation and another being built.

We returned to our hotel as we had an early start the next morning.

A short time in Johannesburg

En route to Madagascar we decided to have a brief stopover in Johannesburg. It was one city in South Africa that I had never visited. In 1984 I spent my medical school elective in a rural hospital in northern KwaZulu, passing through Durban on the way and spending a few days in Cape Town visiting friends before returning home. In 1993, we spent longer in Cape Town visiting friends who were working there for a while and drove along the Garden Route via Franschhoek to Port Elizabeth. We arrived in sunshine and driving into the city was a similar experience to driving into many North American cities: Johannesburg was founded in 1886 after gold was discovered. Our hotel in Braamfontein had a view over the city from the 24th floor. The circular building is the council office and there is a statue of three miners looking towards where the gold was found.

We took a short walk downtown. There are various colleges nearby and one of the universities so there is a lot of student accommodation, fast food outlets and students wandering around. There was some street art.

We walked onto Nelson Mandela Bridge which was completed in 2003.

It overlooks the station where there were many carriages which looked abandoned.

Chatting to some of the locals we learned that the current weather is cooler than it should be and that they have had less rain than usual. We finished our day at the roof-top bar in our hotel watching the sun go down.

With only a day left in the city we decided to take a tour. It tuned out that we were the only people on it. Johannesburg is the biggest city in Africa and also the greenest as it has so many trees. Our tour took us up to Sandton which is the most expensive square mile in Africa with middle class housing, businesses, hotels and retail centres. What will be the tallest building in Africa is currently under construction and is almost finished. We then were driven through Rosemount to Houghton and Twelfth Avenue where Nelson Mandela’s house is. It is now occupied by his widow and children.

Outside are several squares of painted rocks with RIP and ‘Thank you’ messages from all over the world.

From Upper Houghton we had a view over the northern suburbs.

There was a mosque as in the 19th century the British brought workers from the Indian Subcontinent to work on the sugar cane farms. At one point I thought I was back when I saw a road sign to Carse O’Gowrie. Driving from downtown to Hillbrow we saw several abandoned buildings. Our guide told us that unemployment was 27% here and mostly among young people. The next stop was Constitutional Hill. It is the site of the Old Fort built in 1892 and which became a prison. The buildings were very similar to those at Fort George near Inverness which we had visited earlier in the year. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were prisoners here.

It ceased to be a prison in 1987 and now houses the Constitutional Court. The interior has sculptures and other artworks and there was also a photographic exhibition.
Outside is the Flame of Democracy which was lit on December 10 2011 when South Africa celebrated the 15th anniversary of the signing of the constitution.

The next stop was Soweto, originally established to house mine workers in hostels. Others moved there in 1904 to avoid a plague outbreak in Sophiatown. Our guide said that many visitors assume it is a shanty town whereas in fact there is a variety of housing including some affluent middle-class homes, commuter trains and buses and a large shopping mall. There are still some residual hand-built shacks with herds of goats and illegally tapped electricity. Soweto did not get electricity until 1986. We saw Nelson Mandela’s home where he lived from 1940. Desmond Tutu’s home is also here. We had lunch at a restaurant in Vilakazi Street which since the 1990as has grown to contain shops, restaurants and bars for tourists. We were serenaded by a Tswana tribe band. The Orlando Towers are cooling towers from a decommissioned power station. Covered in murals you can bungee and base jump from them.

Local taxis (minibuses) in Johannesburg are hailed by standing at the roadside and giving a hand signal. One finger raised means you want to go downtown. Near Newton we saw lots of buses with huge trailers. Our guide told us that many people from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique come to shop in Johannesburg. The Carlton Centre in Newton opened in 1974 and has been the tallest building in Africa but is about to be superseded by the one in Sandton. Our last stop was the very powerful Apartheid Museum. Photography is not allowed inside. Afterwards it was time to return to our hotel and prepare for an early departure the next morning. There is so much to see in and around the city and our visit was very much a taster.