In mid-November we visited friends in Inverness whom we had not seen for a while. One day they took us for a trip around some of the sites on the River Findhorn in Moray. It is one of the longest rivers in Scotland at 100km. We began at Dulsie Bridge which was erected in 1755 by Major William Caulfield as part of General Wade’s military road strategy designed to assist in suppressing the local population. It survived the Muckle Spate flood of 1829 which swept away mills, farmhouses and several other bridges.
Further downstream, Randolph’s Leap is the narrowest part of the gorge.
In the 14th century Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray lived on one side of the river at Darnaway. Sir Alexander Cummings and his six sons lived on the opposite side. Problems arose when the Cummings who had held the lucrative post of ranger of the Forest of Darnaway fell out of favour with Randolph and King Robert the Bruce and were told to keep away from Darnaway. The eldest Cummings son, Alistair, gathered a thousand men to attack Randolph but they were ambushed and retreated back to the river where Alastair and three others jumped over to the other side so it really should have been called Alastair’s Leap. There are several walks around the river and forest here of varying lengths. We did one of the shorter ones as it was quite wet.
Continuing down the riverside we came to Logie Steading which has been converted into a visitors’ centre with a café, art gallery, a bookshop and several small businesses including Logie Whisky and Wine. The road continues through Forres and on to Findhorn on the Moray coast at the mouth of the river.
We had passed through earlier in the year as part of the Round Britain drive but I have always loved the Moray coast since working in Inverness so was very happy to return. The Findhorn Foundation eco-village has been here since 1962 but is a separate entity to the rest of the village. We walked along the beach and dunes at the edge of the forest
and round to the harbour
before returning to Inverness. Wild camping is allowed on the beach for a small fee so I suspect we will be back.
Last month while visiting relatives in Northern Ireland we had the chance to explore a part of the coast that I was not familiar with. Magilligan Point sits at the mouth of the Foyle Estuary. In summer the Lough Foyle ferry crosses over to Greencastle on the Inishowen Peninsula. There is a Martello Tower which was constructed between 1812 and 1817. By the time it was completed, Napoleon had been exiled to St Helena. It is apparently open at times but closed when we visited and the opening hours information has disappeared from the visit Northern Ireland website.
There are seven miles of beach divided into three: Magilligan Beach, Benone Strand and Downhill Beach below the cliff. The entire foreland is 20 miles long, described as ‘Ireland’s Largest Coastal Accumulation’ with some of the best-preserved dunes in the country. Part of it is a National Nature Reserve with resident wildlife and winter visits by migrating birds including further north. Since the Martello Tower was constructed there has been some form of military use over the years. There is an army training camp here with a firing range and the red flag was flying when we visited so part of the shore was not accessible. There is also a large prison on the peninsula near the cadet training centre on the point road.
From the strand you can see Mussenden Temple at the top of the cliffs at Downhill. It is in the care of the National Trust.
Only one brave soul was in the cold water on the day we visited.
It began to get darker and wetter, so we began to head back. In summer you could enjoy the bar and restaurant at the ferry and other cafes and hostelries in Castle Rock and Bellarena. We will probably revisit in a different season as when we have completed our circuit of the mainland coast of Britain, we will de driving around Ireland.
Before leaving Ranomafana we had a walk in the rainforest but it was very busy with several tour groups, so it was difficult to see much of the wildlife. We did see a few lemurs and brief glimpses of some birds. Deforestation has led to a reduction in some lemur populations in addition to hunting. The Brown Lemur population has reduced by a quarter since 1995. The Aye-Aye is fady to some of the locals and is therefore killed on sight.
After lunch we re-traced our route back to RN7 and Ambositra. Many of the towns we passed through had lots of people returning from the local market. Village people sell their crops there, buy essentials and socialise with friends and relatives. Young people meet up with their friends. The valleys were full if rice paddies and crops with many roadside stalls selling bananas, pineapples, honey, charcoal and even rum in re-used plastic bottles.
Ambositra had a lot of art and craft shops selling wood carvings, paintings, raffia work, jewellery and marquetry. We spent the night in Ambalavo and the follow morning began the drive back to Tana. The road crosses the Peace Bridge which was constructed in 2003.
It replaced the older Fatihita Bridge which was blown up in 2002 during political conflicts. I read somewhere that there have been many people have taken their own lives by jumping from the bridge.
All too soon were back in the middle of Tana which was very busy. Due to the heat we had the car windows open, so our guide warned us not to hold phones near the window or make bags easy to grab. At Tana airport there are only two departure gates but they were very efficient and we left the red island on time.
RN 7 headed east through grassland, dry savannah with red earth before rising into the highlands. At Andiolava we crossed a river where laundry was underway. Before we reached Ihosy, mountains began to appear on our left.
Ihosy is the capital of the Bara tribe and most of the people are zebu shepherds. There was chaos at the petrol station where supplies were running low. It was thought that the government might have been late in paying for it. A large truck driven by Sri Lankans who were in Madagascar to buy sapphires took a lot. Our drivers managed to fill up as there was no guarantee there would be any more fuel further ahead on our journey. Hills were all around us on the savannah and we passed through a number of small communities. In some, children were back at school. Two mountains pointed out to us were Ifandana (1405m) which means ‘no surrender’ and acquired its name during tribal conflicts when unification was attempted. Some refused to surrender and jumped off the mountain. Many did not survive. The other was Pic Handa porta del Sud is higher (9549m) and our driver said it resembled a bishop’s mitre. In Ambalavo we visited a paper factory. We were shown the tree whose bark is used; the process involved and the small shop which sells paper good and other items made by local artisans.
There was also a silk making workshop.
Our hotel was in the Betsilio highlands. They are the third largest tribe and specialise in rice cultivation. Unlike the single storey Bara houses, most of the homes are brick built. The surrounding hills are called the Three Sisters and we watched the sun go down behind them.
The following day we visited the Parc Écotouristique d’Anja. Previously the villagers trapped lemurs to sell as pets but since 1999 the reserve which has a small portion of original forest has been run by the villages who hope to expand it.
Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups of 10-30 headed by a dominant female. They can live to 20 years and have one baby each year. Occasionally twins are born. When they are about to die, they leave their range and into the ground.
We also saw a magpie, pygmy kingfisher and several chameleons. Back in town we visited the zebu market which was very busy. Each animal is worth about £200 here, more in Tana and further north.
Afterwards we were back on RN7 to Fianarantosa, a university town where we stopped for lunch. On the way out we passed a disused railway line and many taxi-brousses heading into town. After passing through a number of towns, we left RN7 for N25 which runs up the side of a valley up into the forest and then back down to rice fields in the valleys. We passed several forest fires. Some are natural, ignited by lightning but many are started by farmers burning trees to find land to grow crops on. Our destination was Ranomafana National Park. It was created in 1991 to protect two species of lemur: the golden bamboo lemur and the greater bamboo lemur only discovered in 1986. It has Andriamamovoka Cascade
and other lemurs such as ruffous and pygmy mouse. We did a short night walk along the edge of the park to try and catch glimpses of the nocturnal animals but this was very busy. Back at the hotel there were some interesting spiders to see before it was time to sleep.
Departure time was 7.15am on the day we spent exploring Isalo National Park. First, we had to stop at the next village along the N7 to pick up our guide as it is not possible to enter the park without one. The park was created in 1962 and consists of an eroded Jurassic sandstone massif with gorges and river tributaries sited among grassland. We parked and began our short hike up one of the gorges. There were several groups setting out as it is a very popular park and reminded me of how busy Snowdonia and the Lake District get. There were quite a few ring-tailed lemurs among the rocks.
Cairns are dotted around the park, built by the Bara people who add a stone to make a wish/request of their Creator via their ancestors who act as intermediaries. They are the dominant tribe in the area, are descended from the Bantu people in southern Africa and are mostly crop and zebu farmers.
We were also shown a silkworm on a plant.
There is a botanic garden within the park. There are 400 plant species and some of the endemic plants are Aloe, Euphorbia, Pachypodes, Kalanchoe. The Tapia is the most common tree and lemurs eat its fruit. There are also some plants which we were told were miniature baobab but I later learnt they are in fact a different species.
Earlier this year on the fringes of the park reforestation projects were underway. From the summit there are 360-degree views of the park.
Then we walked downhill to the river. En route we passed the coffin of a rich person which was highly decorated. The tribe place the dead in natural caves and later collect the bones and carry them in a parade, family members dance with them in matching clothing and hold a reburial after wrapping he body in fresh silks along with sacrifices and feasting.
The Piscine Naturelle was popular and a few members of our group had a swim but it was a little too busy for me.
There was a walk over to a campsite where we were to have lunch with a 300-step descent which I was a little concerned my inflamed would knee survive. Before we began, we were sitting in the shade, we were joined by an 87-year old Italian woman who had walked up with two sticks and her friend and who put my concerns into perspective. During the walk I was chatting to the park guide. He said that polygamy was still common in the south. If a first wife did not produce a son, others would be sought. He told me that his brother had seven wives. He also told me that some taxi-brousses which would carry coffins back to the tribal area, would also act as drug transport. One coffin had been found to be full of cocaine. I told him that ice-cream vans also sell illicit drugs in housing estates in many of the cities in the UK. After the descent we reached the campsite where we had lunch. This is also a place that ring-tailed lemurs visit regularly.
We also saw some insects and a chameleon, a bee-eater and Madagascan hoopoe. In the evening a few of us went down the road to la Fenêtre d’Isalo:, a window in the rocks which faces west.
En route we stopped at a rock entitled ‘La Reine d’Isalo. Dinosaur remains have been found nearby and are located in the local museum.
It was sharp elbows and selfie territory at the sunset but worth putting up with.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.