Madagascar: Mikea to Ilakaka

On the way out of Mikea we stopped at the sand dunes which had views back over the village and the sea.

Continuing down the coast, the road passed through several small villages. Many only had one zebu rather than a herd. Larger communities had herds of both goats and zebus. It was Sunday so many people were going to church in their Sunday best. A larger rural commune had a post office and police station and just outside the village, a large open-air church service was underway.

Not long afterwards we were back on asphalt and RN9. The villages we passed through looked considerably better off than those of the previous few days; better quality housing than the wood, bamboo and straw thatched ones we had been among. We arrived at a bay with a mangrove swamp and boardwalk which was an opportunity to stretch our legs. There are eight species of mangrove in Madagascar, three of which were at this location.

Pools further along the road were coloured green, pink and orange presumably due to algae. After crossing the dry Fiherenana River, we arrived in Toliara, a port city where we had lunch. There was a delay in leaving as the garage was waiting for a fuel delivery so that the cars could fill up. We had a walk around town

where the vegetable and meat markets were closed because it was Sunday but this shop was open – you can have a chair only in purple!

Outside the lycée, the results of the recent Baccalauréat were posted on the walls.

Leaving town, we headed inland with hills ahead and passing some tombs.

 

There were stalls along the road with what looked like plastic bottles of water for sale but were told that it was sugar cane rum. Our destination was Ilakaka but we passed through a number of towns containing gem stores. It was one of the first few places to have discovered sapphires. Many of the mines now are illegal and even located in nature reserves. Trees are uprooted, streams diverted and many workers hope to get out of poverty this way; often juggling jobs in agriculture with illegal mining. Other demands are for crystals such as quartz, amethyst and others due to beliefs that crystals conduct healing energy described in the New York Times in 2017 as ‘the great crystal boom’. Mining can be dangerous due to landslides and the fine dust can lead to silicosis. Child labour is also a problem and mining is threatening the small amount of rainforest that is left. We found it a bit of a shock to be in a busy hotel with a large queue at breakfast for coffee but it was located next to the most visited national park in Madagascar.

Madagascar:Belo sur Mer to Morombe and Mikea

There was time for a short beach walk in Belo sur Mer before we left. The fishing boats had already departed and Pied Crows were scouring the beach for something to eat. Travelling back over the dunes and the salt flats was reminiscent of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This was followed by a slow ascent through desert-like landscape before reaching the greener highlands again. We crossed the River Lampaolo which was dry and passed through several villages with crops and irrigation channels. Some people were walking back from the market carrying bags of rice on their heads. Madagascar is the largest consumer of rice per head of population in the world. They grow a lot and rice fields are present in most of the fertile valleys we have passed through but they also have to import it. In Western and Northern Madagascar many women paint their faces with a mask derived from grinding a branch of the masonjoany tree. It is said to act as a sunblock, a moisturiser and to remove blemishes. It is removed at night. Just before we reached our last and biggest river crossing, we saw bushes with white seeds and were told that this was wild cotton.

I also noticed that several termite mounds had had their top removed and learnt that the locals used the termites to feed their hens. The following morning, we were on R9 by 7am amongst a rock-strewn landscape. Further on baobabs and red soil appeared.

Our first stop was at a local school that the local tour company supports. Gifts were presented and we met some of the staff and pupils.

On the blackboard was an anatomy lesson.

R9 descends down to rivers and fields of crops but cacti and more desert appeared before we crossed a tributary and then arrived at theRiver. It is the biggest river in Madagascar. The ferry’s engine was broken so the boat was being pulled across the river which was shallow due to it being the dry season. This would not have been possible in the rainy season.

The other side of the river was sandy. A tributary had been dammed upstream and on the riverbank was another dam with a road on top. Other work suggested that a bridge across the river was under construction by a Chinese company.

We were now on the N35 and passed a line of baobabs longer than the Allée.

After a cactus forest we arrived at Morombe on the coast, our destination for the night. I had a wander along the beach spotting a phone-charging sign on a village hut. It looked incongruous but mobile signals are very good in Madagascar.

There was plenty of time to watch the sun go down over the sea.

The following morning was bright and sunny. Down at the sea, was the same boat with a patchwork sail.

Back on the dirt road we passed through the Spiny Forest where the Octopus Tree Didierea madagascariensis grows to 12-15 feet high with branches always pointing south. It grows on coastal red sands north and south of Tulear. The locals use it for firewood.

The road then ran alongside a mangrove swamp between it and the sea. Further on were date palms, a few villages and several taxi-brousses. Our next stop was at one of the largest baobabs, said to be around 1000 years old.

Lunch was at a small town Andavadoaka at the Olo Bé Lodge. It had only recently opened and was owned by a man born in Mauritius and brought up in Australia. He was a mining engineer and had come to Madagascar to prospect for minerals while running the hotel as a hobby. There were sea views from the restaurant.

The remainder of the journey to Mikea was on deeply rutted sandy tracks. The next day we had time to wander along the beach while some people went snorkelling off the reef. Crabs scuttled down holes as we approached and a few seabirds were feeding by the water but flew off too quickly for photographs.

In the afternoon we visited the nearby forest through cacti, succulents and mini baobabs. We met a man and two of his children from a hunter-gatherer tribe who have little contact with the modern world. His wife and other children were away collecting water. He showed us how he made fire. They spend only a few days in each area before moving on.

We walked the short distance back to our hotel to get ready for the next day’s departure.

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.