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.

Mikumi National Park

Mikumi Lion 1
Mikumi National Park is a grassland plateau studded with trees and surrounded by mountains. There are vast herds of impala and wildebeest (and lots of tsetse flies). Having seen lionesses the previous evening, we were keen to see more lions but did not expect to find a male lion sitting on the road very soon after we entered the park. There were Cape Buffalo, water buck, jackals, more hippos, crocodiles and mongooses. Maribou storks were feeding among the impalas and we also saw a number of ground hornbills and heard their curious calls. Bright red bishop birds flitted among the bushes and trees. After leaving the park and heading back to the hotel along the road that bisects it, we wondered why a van was parked by the side of the road. James glanced at it as we passed and shouted ‘lion cubs!’. There were four, about 3-4 months old with no mother in sight, playing on the grass verge. In the late afternoon we did another circuit and spotted a large number of birds. I will be checking my list against the Tanzania Bird Atlas in case I can add a location for any birds that they are monitoring. Spent the evening packing up for our return to Dar the next morning.
Mikumi Crocodile 2

Mikumi lion cubs 7

Udzungwa to Mikumi

Ruaha Baboon14
The drive back to Mikumi took only two hours as there was far less traffic than on the outward journey and Elwyin had got used to dodging the potholes. We fed the remaining sandwiches from yesterday’s lunch to the local baboons who were very appreciative. We checked into the Genesis Motel again and after a short rest went out for our first foray into Mikumi National Park. It is a grassland plateau surrounded by mountains and studded with trees. Impala and wildebeest abound and are often in much larger herds than we saw at Ruaha. We also spotted Cape Buffalo, water buck and troops of baboons. Maribou Storks were among the impalas, feeding on grasshoppers disturbed by their grazing in the long grass. There were crocodiles and hippos in the pool and groups of ground hornbills with their curious calls. We had turned round and were heading towards the exit and leave the park when we suddenly spotted a pair of lionesses in a tree close to the park headquarters. They were alert and listening to the staff trying to dissuade an elephant from entering the area. They eventually had to fire a shot in the air. We took some photographs and then headed back to the hotel for dinner, hoping to see more lions the next day.
Mikumi lionesses in tree 2

Udzungwa

We could not pick up our guide at the Park HQ until 8am and there was then a 10 kilometre drive to the trailhead for the Sanje Falls. So it was around 9am when we started to walk and getting pretty hot and humid. The trail was steep uphill in zigzags and before I had gone too far, felt quite light-headed. This was a bit surprising, as I have done plenty of trekking in hot and humid conditions. Everyone said I looked quite grey so I plodded slowly to the first picnic table and rested while the others went on to the pool at the foot and right up to the top of the falls. Although swimming is allowed, they decided the water was too cold. I sat and had a great view of the falls and two Egyptian Vultures who flew past me. The others came back down for lunch with me and we then descended and drove back to the hotel for a siesta. It soon became apparent that I had a viral infection so other than packing for the next days journey, I rested.

Udzungwa Sanje Waterfall