After checking into a hotel for the night in Toliara, we made our way to the bus station to try to arrange our trip to Isalo and back to Tana. The bus station was insane, as are all bus stations in M/car. We needed to (1) get a bus from Toliara to Ranohira, the city closest to Isalo; and (2) get a bus to pick us up on New Years Day a few days later. This is difficult for a couple reasons. First of all, we weren’t entirely sure that we could actually get someone to pick us up 4 days later. We were taking a chance on them just stealing our money. Secondly, on New Years Day, all the drivers will be sleeping off a night of drinking, so we would have to find the only bus driver in M/car not getting wasted on New Years Eve.
We proceeded down the row of buses and began talking with the bus companies. We explained our situation (in my broken French/Malagasy mix) and quickly booked a bus to Ranohira for the next day. Then we started looking for a bus to pick us up New Year’s Day. It was then that we found out that there would be no bus drivers that day. With no bus, we had to quickly change our plans. There had been a man following us around this whole time saying that he had a car to take us to Ranohira. We had been ignoring him because it sounded fishy, and it would cost 450,000, ~$45. Realizing that we would now need to leave Ranohira a day earlier than planned, we decided leaving right away would be better than waiting until tomorrow. We found the car, negotiated them down to ~$20, then ran back and cancelled our bus trip to Ranohira. We also quickly found a bus that would pick us up on New Years Eve and booked three seats on that.
The car was leaving immediately, so we went back to the hotel, got our stuff, cancelled the room, quickly said goodbye to Tomasina, stopped at a store for some supplies, and got back to the car before they left. We hopped in the car, picked up the front seat passenger and left town. It turns out the driver and passenger were cousins heading back to Tana, just looking for some extra money for their trip. Worked out for us.
The trip was quick and smooth, partly because our driver seemed to be friends with all the police. We had an interesting event along the way. We pulled over on the side of the highway near a small village not near any major town. After a few moments a woman came out from the jungle. The driver gave her three glass bottles and 25,000 franc (~$2.50) and the woman handed him a baby lemur! Lemur trafficking is highly illegal, and it was amazing that the woman would do it for so little. The rest of the trip, the lemur was kept at the legs of the passenger, a gift for his niece.
The trip was a nice few hours, we were all grateful to be riding in a car. The driver knew of a decent hotel in Ranohira and dropped us off there. We booked a bungalow, then went to the visitor center to arrange a guide. The tourist services at Isalo were pretty nice. There were many certified guides and camping gear was also available for rent. We arranged a guide, porters to cook and set up camp, and camping equipment. We would take a three day trip at a total cost of about $25 each.
We went back to our hotel just before thunderstorms hit. We sat in our room looking out as one thunderstorm after another rolled past. Being out in the grasslands, I imagined that this was what the settlers in the west must have seen as they came across the Oregon trail. We could watch the storms come and go and the driving rain in between. As the sun set, the whole sky glowed red in the mist and low clouds of the storms. It was one of the most amazing sights I have seen, and sadly one my camera could not capture.
The next morning we started out on our three day trip. We packed our clothes and went into town to get some bread and tea for breakfast from a roadside stand. Our guide met us there and we started hiking through the grasslands along the face of the hills.
The park consisted of a massive area of sandstone formations that rose out from an otherwise barren landscape. The eastern edge of the park formed a wall of stone, like the massive ruins of an ancient fortress. Small canyons broke up the wall, gates through which we could cross into the wilderness of the interior.
We walked north, parallel to this wall across rolling hills and small rivers. We came across small villages along they way, and watched as farmers prepared their rice fields for planting by running cattle around in the mud. We also saw the makeshift distilleries where toaka-gasy is made, an alcohol so primitive and strong it kills hundreds each year. We stopped at a grove of mango trees where we would camp for the night. We set down our stuff and once the porters arrived, we set out to explore a couple canyons.
The two canyons we hiked to were the Canyon des Makis, and the Canyon des Rats. Makis was heavily forested and we walked under the canopy and through the jungle. While in Canyon des Makis we were fortunate to see some ring-tailed lemurs lounging in the trees, grooming each other.
Canyon des Rats was much less forested and filled with giant boulders. We crawled up, over and around these boulders, as far as we could go when we came to a bright, open pool. We swam in the cool water and climbed up the canyon walls to jump in. We ate a snack of egg and tomato sandwiches, and pineapple so sweet it burned our mouths. Nowhere have I found pineapple that tasted so good. After our ‘lunch’ we all napped on the sand and relaxed the rest of the afternoon.
Late that afternoon we hiked back to camp where we found a fantastic meal being prepared for us by the porters. We had a tea and ramen appetizer, followed by the standard rice and chicken loaka. As far as cuisine goes in M/car, you have two food groups: rice and loaka (loosely translated as: stuff you put on rice). Rice is most important; you have not eaten until you have had rice. Our meal was finished off with some bananas flambee. Needless to say, we slept full and happy that night.
Breakfast the following morning was again bread and tea, before we began our hike back up the Canyon des Makis. Once through the jungle and into the canyon we hiked for about a mile and a half over, around, and under every rock and boulder. Deep into the canyon, we finally got over the last of the boulders and began walking along the small stream that flowed through the canyon.
This part of the canyon was very narrow, with sheer cliffs going up hundreds of feet on both sides. More often than not, there was no room to walk along the creek, so we just took off our shoes and walked through the water and mud up the canyon.
Remember, Scott had only brought sandals on this trip, and badly sunburned his feet on our long walk to Ifaty. While in Toliara, before driving to Isalo, he had bought some wool socks to wear with his sandals. Scott, now dressed in his socks and sandals, walked ahead of me tromping through the creek, not even bothering to take off his socks. The image is burned into my mind, and is so funny, that I could barely write about it in my journal later, without choking in laughter.
We eventually were able to hike out the side of the canyon, and onto the high prairie of the interior. It was then that our guide informed us that he had never taken this route before, but thought it would be a good time to try it since we looked like a strong group. We hiked across a few more small canyons before eventually coming to a trail. We hiked until we came to our second campsite.
This campsite was very well built. It had a flushing toilet, running water, flat tent sites and stone picnic tables. We chatted with some other campers then headed for a swim. The first pool we came to was called “Namaza.” It was a deep, dark pool, surrounded by high, dark rock walls, with a beautiful waterfall flowing into it from above. We swam, and jumped from the rocks, the cold water soothing our sore muscles and joints from the last two days. Each day we hiked about 9 miles. We then swam in Piscine Noire; a slightly muddy pool, with a warm waterfall; and Piscine Bleu; a small, crystal clear pool.
We finished off the day with large plates of spaghetti and again, bananas flambee for desert. We woke up the final morning of our hike and immediately started off with a long staircase, back up to another long prairie. On this day, we stopped at one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, the “Piscine Naturelle.”
The landscape we were hiking through seemed so barren, just grass and rock. It appeared in hospitable. Yet out of the wilderness, hidden in small canyons, were these amazing oases. This pool had a small water fall on one side, a rock wall on another, a small beach, and the exit creek with beautiful tropical plants on the other. It was such a surreal place. The seclusion of a place like this preserved their natural beauty and made it a cool place to visit.
After spending a good time swimming and jumping off the rocks, we hiked the rest of the way back to Ranohira and our hotel, stopping at a high overlook along the way. The experience was great; we found a good guide and porters that made amazing meals. Each oasis that we came to was more amazing than the next. Exploring the entire park would have taken months, but I was glad we could explore even a small section.
The next day we pulled ourselves out of bed and waited along the side of the highway for our prearranged bus that we hoped was coming. After a two hour wait, we found our bus and hopped on. Our bus was so loaded down, that it couldn’t make it through the largest pot holes on its own, so every once in a while we would all pile out of the van and push the bus through the mud. After a couple hours we were all dying of laughter. We laughed so much on that trip.
This may have been my best trip in Madagascar, though I loved everywhere I went. Being with Nate and Scott was a lot of fun and the places we visited were just amazing.
Christmas is a fun time of year in Madagascar. Decorations begin to show up in the markets, people are in a lighter mood, the weather, being opposite to the U.S., is warm, and most uniquely, photo booths show up all over the downtown area. Surprisingly, I actually found a video of this and the rest of downtown around Christmas:
When I refer to the “downtown” area I’m thinking about Analakely. Analakely is the area of town through which the double sided Independence Avenue runs. Independence Ave is actually kinda beautiful in its own way. There’s parking and gardens down the middle and stores and restaurants along both sides. It was capped off with a beautiful old train station, Gare Soarano on the northwest end of the street. However, it was dirty, run-down, and the associated train didn’t actually run. In fact, at that time only one short train line still ran in the country, from Fianar to Manankara, and I never got the chance to ride it, but I hear it’s beautiful.
I spent a lot of time hanging out in Analakely with friends and walking around. It was also the place to find the best ice cream. Either at Hotel du France, or my favorite, Honey. It was all hand made ice cream in several delicious flavors. Such a nice treat.
For the Christmas holidays, I had a long vacation from teaching. Earlier in the year, I had met Nate, another young American my age, and Scott, an American taking a break from Air Force Academy. They were planning on taking a trip south, so I would be joining them on their adventure. The plan was to bus down to Ilakaka, visit some missionaries in nearby Besakoa, then vacation in Ifaty and Isalo.
A few days before the trip I went down to the bus station to buy tickets for the trip. One thing about living in M/car, is that everything took much longer than it should. Getting bus tickets that day took about 3 hours, traveling on the city bus across town, walking to the bus station, getting the tickets, then taking the bus home. Never could you just “run an errand.” Everything took a long time. When talking to Lauralee, she brought up a good point, that a majority of a missionary life seemed to be spent on just existing. However, the existence was pretty nice, and the adventures in between: remarkable.
The good side effect of this was simplifying your life. I went to Madagascar with one suitcase and a small box. I always felt like I had a lot of time for reading, writing and relaxing. Upon returning home, it took awhile to get used to the multitude of choices available in the stores.
A couple days before Chirstmas, we left for our trip. The three of us met down at the bus station, along with the son of some missionaries that would be making the trip down with us. Catching a bus at the bus station meant showing up about the time that the bus was to leave, then wait 2-4 hours until the bus actually left. Our bus left about 3 hours late, then headed south toward Antsirabe and Fianarantsoa. We drove all night and well into the next day. Once past Fianar, the landscape changed dramatically from the highlands. Wide flat grasslands were everywhere. There was little sign of life or agriculture in this area. Not only much less populated than the areas around Tana, but because of the flat land, the area was without the towering rice terraces common to most areas I had seen.
After a dinner stop, a flat tire, and 16 1/2 hours, we arrived at Ilakaka in southwestern M/car. Ilakaka is the center of the gemstone industry in Madagascar. M/car is rich in minable minerals. If you can find it in the ground, you can find it in M/car. Unfortunately, the people of government have found little way to profit off the minerals for the benefit of their country and their people. Therefore, the profits of was does get mined/drilled generally leaves the country.
The most precious stones found in M/car are dark blue sapphires. They are everywhere around Ilakaka along with emeralds, rubies, and other stones. Because of the money that can be made from the stones, people have come from all around in hopes of finding gemstones for themselves. Instead of farming or working any other trade, everyone in the area now digs for gemstones. There seemed to be little formalized mining operation, but rather people freely dug wells all over the countryside, at great risk to themselves. Small villages of hastily constructed shacks dotted the landscape.
After getting dropped off in Ilakaka and while waiting to meet the missionaries we stopped in one of the many gemstone shops. They showed us large raw rubies and emeralds that unfortunately, we did not have the money or knowledge to buy.
When the missionaries arrived, the four of us packed into their car and we drove out to the village of Besakoa. In addition to the older missionary couple, two single girls and one young couple were also living in the area. They lived in the same houses as the locals and generally lived life like the locals.
We stayed in an empty house in the village where the two girls, Sonya and Tomasina, lived. That day we walked across a shallow river to the village where the couple lived. While Sonya and Tomasina seemed to be struggling with the idea of living in a village for two years, the couple was taking advantage of the opportunity. They had been taken in by the village chief as his own, the husband was working in the fields with the other men, and the other villagers walked into their house just like any other house. We hung out talking with them a while, visited the village chief, then walked back across the river in the moonlight.
The next morning we drove about 3 hours with Sonya and Tomasina the rest of the way into Toliara. We got some supplies then found the bus (10-ton truck) heading north to Ifaty, where we planned to spend Christmas. We may have found the worst taxi-brousse in M/car. We first had to haggle with ticket sellers to get fair priced tickets at 15,000 franc (which, it turns out is only about $1.50).
The truck was already loaded with oil barrels and cement bags. When we got on the back of the truck it was already packed with people. We waited about an hour before leaving, stuffing on 20-30 more people. The truck had to be packed to at least twice capacity. When we started driving, the rear tires on one side of the bus kept getting loose, so we would have to stop and tighten down the lugs. After a couple stops, Scott and I got off the truck and just walked down the road, thinking we would wait for them to get done fixing the truck then hop back on as it passed by, once it got restarted (as it had been doing). With such a packed truck, it felt good to stretch our legs.
We had walked for about an hour before realizing the bus should’ve restarted by now. It turns out that the last time it stopped, the driver had decided it was too broken, and they would have to send for parts to fix it. So everyone on the truck was stranded until spare parts arrived. Not yet knowing this, Scott and I stopped and waited under a tree. About the time we stopped, Nate and the others passed by in the back of a pickup that they had hitched a ride on. The pickup didn’t stop but they managed to yell that they had our bags and would meet us in Ifaty.
So Scott and I kept walking. We tried a couple time to waive down a ride, but to no avail. We walked maybe another 2 hours, and it was hot. The sand there was bright white and we could feel the reflecting heat as well as the heat coming up through our shoes. A couple months earlier, Scott and I had been on a camping trip to Ampefy with Nate and some others. I had worn Chaco sandals that weekend and Scott thought it was cool that I could wear them walking through the water or on the land. Therefore, for this trip, he had decided to bring only sandals. During our several hour walk in the sun on the burning hot road, Scott’s fee got badly sunburned, which turned out to be an issue later when we went hiking in Isalo.
Eventually we were able to waive down a jeep, driven by an old Frenchy and his Malagasy girlfriend, exactly the type of couple we always joked about. But thankfully, they were nice and drove us the rest of the way to Ifaty. We wandered around and checked out a few of the hotels before running into Nate and eventually renting a couple small bungalows on the beach. We slept hard that night, despite the Christmas Eve party going on at the hotel bar.
Christmas morning we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel and, while we were eating breakfast, found a guy to take us snorkeling. When we got done with breakfast, we met back up with him and pulled a small outrigger sail boat down to the water. We all piled in and pushed off. It was great. I had really wanted to ride on one of the local sailboats and this was a great opportunity. We had a good wind so we made good progress out to the reef. It was such a beautiful day in a beautiful location. I could’t believe that I was doing this on Christmas morning.
The reef here seemed quite dead and bleached. The two other places I snorkeled in M/car were much different and much more colorful. Despite that, we still had a good time snorkeling and seeing the colorful fish and animals that were there. On the way back, we had a stronger wind, and I had to hike out on the outrigger to keep our small canoe in balance.
For the rest of that day and the next, we just hung out on the beach. It was so nice. We would just rotate between sitting on the beach, swimming, sitting in the shade, taking naps, talking to the people there or some vacationing Peace Corps workers, and eating. It was so relaxing. The water was bright turquoise and the sand incredibly white. We took one small break to visit a baobab arboretum nearby, but mostly just sat on the beach.
We only ate at the restaurant our hotel, as it didn’t seem like there were many choices for restaurants and the food was pretty good. However, the service was terrible. It would routinely take 2+ hours to get our food after ordering. The staff were also a bit inconsitent. We figured this out the first night, so for our meals we would show up and order, then either sit and play cards, or go back to the beach and return in a couple hours to eat.
After two and half days of relaxing in such a beautiful location, the first part of our trip came to an end. We arranged an expensive ride back to Toliara with a man and his son driving there in an air-conditioned Land Cruiser. We had intended to stay the night in Toliara, then catch a taxi brousse the next day to Isalo National Park, where we hoped to hike for a few days. We found a room for the night in Toliara, then went to the bus station to get tickets for the next day, thus beginning the second part of our adventure.