There’s so much to say about Madagascar. Here are some short comments about small events and the intricacies of the Red Island.
Early in my trip I met one of the Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots from Germany, Jakob. He told me that I could go flying with him sometime when he had an open seat. Loving everything aviation, that sounded great to me. David dropped me off at the MAF hanger early one morning. I watched as the local workers loaded the plane with UNICEF vaccines as we waited for the early morning fog to clear. Once the outlook was clear, Jakob and I boarded the plane and headed off.
It was a beautiful day to fly (5 years later I would get a pilot license of my own). The sky was clear and the visibility was infinity. We cruised west over the central highlands gazing down on the endless strings of rice terraces and the red dyed rivers, bleeding the island into the sea. Our first stop was Nosy Varika, which isn’t actually a nosy (island) but a small down on the east coast of M/car. After circling the town and making a low pass over the runway (to scare off the cows), we made a 180 and landed on the long grass strip. Instantly upon parking, we were surrounded by at least 75 people, all amazed to see the plane in town. Despite all the people, no one wanted to help unload the plane, so Jakob and I unloaded it ourselves as the crowd watch.
Having half the planed unloaded, we packed up again and flew off to our next destination, Marolambo. This is a small village in the mountains, about halfway between Tana and Nosy Varika. We circled the town as we lined up for the airstrip, admiring the convergence of two rivers and the rapids and waterfalls that surrounded. Joking with me, Jakob asked me to tell him when I was able to spot the airstrip. Even as we lined up on final, I was still not able to find it. It turns out, the runway was little more than slightly smoothed and cleared portion of a hillside, that during the dry season, blended in with the brown, bordering brush. I could hardly believe we could land a plane there.
Here we unloaded the last of the supplies, with the help of the locals who were much more eager to unload than in Nosy Varika. They even brought us some bananas for a snack on the home. After unloading we hopped back in and flew into Tana. On this trip, I was also able to vividly see the pollution surrounding Tana. As we approached the city, we could easily see a brown layer of smog hovering over the city. Once landed, I hung around the hanger until David came back to pick me up.
Sunday Evening Fellowship
Sunday Evening Fellowship was a weekly gathering of the missionaries and other ex-pat Christians in Tana. This is where I got to know people like Jakob above, and Nate and Scott with whom I took the Christmas trip. The missionaries would gather at someone’s house on a rotating basis, and just fellowship and hang out while having a short Bible study. It was a nice break from the often tediousness of living in a developing country, and a chance to speak English at a normal pace.
Bus rides between towns on a taxi-brousse are long. Really long. Long enough that you need one, two, or three meals to survive them. A taxi-brousse, however, is no place for packing a picnic in an igloo to sustain yourself for the 20 hour trip (not that I had an igloo cooler or even a lunchbox). So, strategically placed along all the major bus routes are Hotely, loosely translated as: fast-food-restaurants-on-the-side-of-the-highway-that-serve-leftover-rice-and-overcooked-loaka-to-the-poor-people-packed-into-taxi-brousse. Hotely’s are of such disrepute, that some of my Malagasy friends would not eat there when taking the bus. I never gave it a lot of thought (purposefully) and ate whenever my bus would stop at one. I would typically order chicken and white beans which always tasted good and was less overcooked than other dishes. When eating Malagasy style, you get one bowl of rice, one bowl of stuff-to-put-on-top-of-rice (loaka), a spoon and a fork (no knives). You eat your loaka, gradually mixing in the rice until the loaka is done. Never would you eat rice plain. Supposedly, whatever rice is leftover in your bowl, gets thrown back in the pot at the Hotely. Needless to say, I always prayed a fervent prayer of blessing before eating at a Hotely.
Sanitation is non-existent in M/car. It is not uncommon to see someone squatted on a sidewalk, or relieving themselves on the side of a building. Contrary to most cities in the world, in M/car it’s often cleaner to walk in the gutter than on the sidewalk, as the sidewalk is far more likely to have been defecated on. No matter what, always watch your step when walking.
All school children must wear uniforms. In M/car, this means smocks. Every school has their designated color/pattern of smock, designating their school. When walking through town, you often see gaggles of little kids all dressed in the same pink, green, blue smocks. Little kids whose parents dress them have their smocks buttoned up to the top. Cool teenagers wear their smocks baggy and unbuttoned. Even far out in the country, such as at Andringitra, the school children wear their smocks.
City Buses and Taxis
Most of the time I traveled around town, I took a bus or walked. There is no government-run bus system, so proprietors run their own buses. Each bus has a number and a route they travel. Typically, two or three bus numbers will run each route, with dozens of routes circling the city. There are, of course, no bus maps or information to tell you which bus goes where, just a young man on the back of the bus yelling out neighborhood names. Andravoahangy! Antanimena! Ampefiloha! Analakely! Learning to navigate the city is often a trial and error process. More than once I had to jump off a bus after realizing it turned the opposite way from where I wanted to go. The buses are not large and seat five to a row with at least seven rows, it often stifling heat and an even more stifling scent.
When tired of the bus, a taxi is the next best option. There are two rates for taxis (and everything else) in M/car, the local rate and the foreigner rate. After a few months, you learn the local rate for things and negotiate for that rate. Negotiating a taxi involves four steps: (1) Picking a taxi driver. All taxis hang out in a bunch, so as soon as a foreigner approaches the bunch, all the drivers rush in. Quickly picking a driver is key to avoiding a riot. It’s also important to pick a driver, and not one of the random guys hanging around trying to drum up business for the drivers. (2) Telling them where you are going, for instance, Amboditsiry. At which time the driver stares blankly and gathers the other drivers together to ask where to go. (3) Negotiating a price, which is always inflated, and negotiation length varied with my energy level. Sometimes, if I was with a local, I would have them walk ahead of me and negotiate a price, then I would come up from behind and jump in the taxi, much to the dismay of the driver. (4) Stop at the nearest gas station. All taxis are perpetually out of gas. This is partly due to their lack of money, and need for an advance on the cab fare before taking you to your destination, and partly due to the fact that the gas tank is an empty 1.5 liter water bottle kept at the feet of the driver, with a small tube running to the engine. With the water bottle filled, you are free to go to you destination, often picking up additional passengers on the way.
In Tana, city law dictated that all taxi’s be painted a dull tan color with no additional decorations. Outside of Tana, Taxis were free to paint and add decorations as they saw fit. Which usually meant as many decorations as possible. Stickers on the windows, lights on the roof, multi-color paint jobs, anything. All in the hope of picking up more passengers. In Tana, the number of passengers was also limited to the number of seats (about 4 passengers). In other cities, particularly on Nosy Be, passenger count was unlimited. I believe the most people I ever rode with in a taxi was 11: four men including the driver, two women, a mom and her four kids. The taxis in M/car are not big, typically a decades old Renault 4L or Citroen 2CV. These cars are barely drive-able and held together with bailing wire and will power.
Taxi-brousse are the bush taxis that take locals and frugal foreigners between cities. This was my main form of travel when in M/car and I had little money and an adventurous spirit. A bush taxi in M/car is about the size of a common mini-van in the U.S., perhaps a little longer, that has been converted into an 18-passenger van (read: no personal space or leg room). All the bags are stacked in multiple layers on top of the bus.
There are bus stations in each large city in M/car, with the largest cities having multiple stations depending on the direction you are traveling. Smaller villages will have a designated spot on the road where you can hang out and wait for a bus with an open seat to pass by. Arriving at a bus station is much like picking a taxi. Each bus company has a rickety wooden booth set up, all in a line, with buses parked in back. As soon as a foreign gets near the station, a mad rush of men engulf you. They are all yelling and grabbing at you and your bag, surrounding you in confusion. To add to the chaos, none of these men technically work for any of the bus companies, but receive some kind of finder’s fee from the bus company for directing passengers to their booth.
You can make reservations and buy tickets ahead of time, which I did when traveling from Tana, as it assured that I could get a seat with the maximum leg room. But, you could also just show up and book a ticket on the next bus leaving. Doing this is a bit tricky, because all the bus companies say that their bus is about to leave, but really, the bus doesn’t leave until it is completely full, regardless of what time they said it would leave. So you have to accurately discern which bus is actually full in the midst of a crowd of yelling Malagasy.
No matter what, the buses always take their time leaving. You’re guaranteed to be waiting at the bus station for at least a few hours. My rides on the taxi-brousse ranged anywhere from 4 to 20 hours. 10,15,20 hours on a packed 18 person mini van is more than enough time to sap every bit of sanity out of you.
A Perpetual State of Decay
M/car is in a perpetual state of decay. The moment a building, road, port, railroad, boat is initially completed, that is the last maintenance that is done. Each building looks like it did when it was built, but with the paint chipped and faded and worn. The plaster failing in places. Each car is improvised just enough to keep it running. The roads wear away until the asphalt is no longer visible. The reason for this is mainly economics. Maintenance is expensive. So the bear minimum is done to keep things operational. Part of it is culture. Maintenance is not an emphasized cultural norm. Part of it is probably religion. The traditional ancestor worship stresses keeping things the same as they are.
Sadly, the environment of M/car is also slowly decaying. Most of the forest are gone, and the summer rains erode more of the island, and its rich farmland, each year. From above, the rivers look like they are bleeding the island into the sea. Since the coup in 2009, it has only gotten worse, as what little environmental protection that existed is now gone. Without forests, there is no water table. Without soil, there is no farmland.
Tom and Lauralee two Land Rover Defenders, two door, turbo-diesel. They were awesome, exactly the kind of vehicle you would expect to drive in Africa. They felt invincible. So powerful they could so anywhere, over any terrain. The road to our compound was rough, especially during rainy season, and Land Rover was often needed just to get home. I loved driving the Defender.
In the fall, Nate, Scott and I took nine boys from the youth group to Ampefy, a small town on a lake west of Tana for a weekend camping trip. We loaded up on a Friday evening and drove out to Ampefy. After eating at a restaurant, we set up camp late that night on a small river running from the large Lake Itasy. The weekend was a good time for me to get to know Nate and Scott as well as some of the youth.
During the weekend, we swam a lot in the river (supposedly the lake has crocodiles, but that’s what said about every lake in M/car) and hiked around the lakes and rivers and villages. We ate most of our meals at the same restaurant and also spent some time there playing ping-pong and pool.
The highlight of our trip was on Saturday, when we drove a bit up down the river to the Chutes de Lili, a 60-foot, beautiful waterfall. The roar of the falls make them seem bigger than they are. We hiked around the falls and the river, led by a couple local kids who were self-designated as our guides. We swam in a few slow spots in the river and enjoyed the warm weather and water, before heading back to camp.
On Sunday afternoon we loaded everyone back into the bus and headed home.
I took a trip to Morondava, solely for the opportunity to see the Avenue of Baobabs. There are eight species of baobabs, six of which are endemic to Madagascar. One of these six is the most magnificent of them all, the Grandidier’s baobab, which grows proudly and prominently along a small dirt road just outside of Morondava, known locally as L’Allee des Baobabs.
As with all my adventure in M/car, mostly due to my lack of travel funds, getting to and from there was an ordeal to be endured. Going there was bearable. Pastor Tom and Pastor Richard were already planning a trip there to visit the church, and I was able to ride along, and therefore sleep in the back of a Land Rover, rather than fighting insomnia, upright, squeezed between two Malagasy bewildered as to why a vizaha would ride the taxi-brousse.
Morondava had once been a fairly busy port city, but as the road between Morondava and Tana slowly deteriorated, shippers were less likely to use the port. Eventually a series of cyclones destroyed what remained of the port, ending use of it for good. Since that time, no work had been done on the road. For a good 125km or so, the road was a washed-out, pot-holed mess, requiring 5 hours to cover. The majority of the length of the trip seemed to be in this middle section of road.
Morondava didn’t strike me as a town visited much by anyone. The only tourists would be those going from the airport to the baobabs, then continuing on to the Tsingy de Bemaraha, a location I was unfortunately unable to visit. There were few hotels and dusty streets, busy with activity only in the mornings and late evenings. The heat of this corner of M/car prevented anyone from being out during the day.
When I first got there, I tried to find a 4-wheeler or motorcycle to rent to take to the baobabs. My lack of funds made me settle on paying a taxi driver. I found one hanging around town and arranged for my trip early the next morning.
I got up before sunrise and met my driver and we headed out-of-town. The Avenue of Baobabs, and what makes it so picturesque, is the result of poor maintenance and disregard for the value of forests. The whole area was once covered in forests, the 10 foot thick and 100 foot high baobabs only the kings of a vast array of tropical trees. The forests are long gone, the baobabs remain only because of their spiritual significance, and the generation of tourist income. Agriculture and grazing continue to creep in on the few remaining trees, that are still unprotected in a country with a fractured government far from being focused on conservation.
The trees rise from an otherwise barren landscape, seemingly growing upside-down, with their roots reaching for the heavens. A dozen or so line the red-dirt road forming the famous “Avenue” but a few others can also been seen in the distance. Several people were traveling the road, carrying out their morning chores. Women walking together, a few zebu-drawn carts, and even a Chinese group setting up their model for a photo shoot with the trees.
My driver took me around the area, giving me time to take pictures and taking me to the “Lover’s Baobab,” two trees that had grown twisted around each other.
With little else to see in Morondava, and without transportation to Tsingy, I got back into town from my excursion, and went to the taxi-brousse station to arrange my trip back to Tana. I got my ticket for the late afternoon of that day. This trip would be the longest bus ride of my stay in M/car. After leaving in the late afternoon, I arrived in Tana, the next day, 21 hours later. While most buses had at least one back up driver, this bus had none, requiring one driver to make the trip on his own. Because of this, he took frequent and long breaks. This combined with the painfully slow, unimproved portion of road (which took 7 hrs to cover), made it an arduous trip. I was joined on the bus by a random Yugoslavian guy, who drank the whole time and never ate. It was uncomfortable, but it was my way to see the island.
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.