Madagascar 3

(7th June)

It wasn’t quite such an early start today, we left the hotel at 8 am on our way to one of the largest cities on the island, Fianarantsoa. It was described as a 4.5-hour drive, yet we didn’t arrive at the hotel until 6 pm.

We began the journey with a tour of Antsirabe, stopping first at the old French train station before walking down the central avenue leading to the Grand Hotel. We tarried awhile in front of a pair of monuments dedicated to the original tribes of the area. The Grand Hotel is functioning as a hotel but from the front has seen better days and like the rest of the country needs some TLC.  Boarding our coach we had a short drive to the city Spa and pools. Here, we were to see all the healing processes offered, but as foreigners, Covid-19 restrictions limited us just a brief visit to the swimming pools.

Setting off on the journey proper, it wasn’t long before had the first of several bush toilet breaks, this gave those who didn’t wish to partake, the opportunity to stretch their legs and take photos of the scenery.

The first scheduled stop was a fruitless look for carnivorous plants alongside a mountain stream, though a thorough search was made, none were found and we moved on.

More successful was a visit to a small woodworking establishment, where we were treated to a demonstration of wood carving and fretwork techniques. I found it quite interesting and afterwards we had the opportunity to purchase some of the items made in a small shop, which Sue took advantage of. It was just a few hundred metres from here that we had lunch in a local hotel owned by the gentleman who started the woodworking venture we had just visited.

Our next memorable stop was to photograph egrets and herons in a stand of trees in the centre of a village. They squabbled loudly and fought ferociously to seize a perfect perch for their ungainly frames. It was getting dark and there was drizzle in the air so we didn’t stay long, but long enough to gather a large group of bemused locals around us who seemed fascinated as to why we would be interested in something so normal.

We now settled down for a long stretch of lurching and bouncing along a winding and unfit-for-purpose Madagascan road, to reach our destination, the Zomatel Hotel. Though the authorities seem to accept that their network of roads requires no maintenance, every so often we have come across small children with shovels throwing soil and rocks into the many potholes that I have described as a road. Up until now, these children have been on holiday from school, but today they should have been in school, as evidenced by the number of children in uniform we have been passing. They appear to be between the ages of 5 and 8 yrs, they all wave and shout pointing to their little mounds, encouraging our driver to run over them to compress the surface. Are they bunking off school and this is a fun activity or are they being paid to do this?

As expected we arrived at the hotel in the dark, but what Sue and I hadn’t expected was that we were allocated a penthouse suite; lounge, kitchen, bedroom & bathroom with great views over the city. It is shame we are here for just one night! We ate our evening meal in the hotel restaurant before retiring for an early night in readiness for another early start in the morning.

(8th June)

We left the hotel at 7 am for a city tour. Fianarantsoa appears to be much like all the other large settlements we have whizzed through, narrow streets, closely packed with darkened shops and street vendors on either side. What living accommodation there was packed in between was poorly built and ill-maintained, but the majority of this country’s inhabitants have other more serious daily considerations other than a fresh lick of paint and a tidy street.

Disembarking from our coach in the old part of the city we climbed upwards through busy cobbled streets to take in the first of six churches in this part of the town. Our guide informed us that the majority of the buildings around were built in the early 1800s, certainly not as old as those we are used to in Europe, but looking rather decrepit in comparison. We ventured into one to discover that the inside was rather plain, yet inspiring for the lack of any decoration. Children crowded the streets on their way to school, the air full of the chatter of excited voices as we squeezed our way along narrow alleyways, there was no doubt we Europeans were a novelty and the focus of attention. Lots of smiles, waves, and ‘Salama’.
Returning to the coach we followed the original road uphill to where the Queen’s Palace once stood (now long gone) and from the top, we took in the views over the city. It was still early but the city had been awake for hours when the sun comes up people here begin work, it is the setting of the sun that sets their finishing time. Memory cards full of the panoramic scene in front of us we boarded the bus and set off on a 4.5-hour drive to the south.
Today we were heading to Ranohira situated in the Isalo mountains. En route, we passed by the holy rock formation known as Bishop’s Hat and its equally strange Kneeling Queen.
The focus of today was to see the Katta Lemurs in Anja Park and we arrived there around midday. We had a gaggle of guides to help us track down these docile and beautiful creatures, though as soon as the coach parked up we could hear their calls from the trees around. One of the guides latched onto my amateurish attempts to photograph these leaping ring-tailed bundles and took over my camera for the duration of our two-hour trek. I was grateful for the help and it allowed me to observe these wonderful, placid mammals without the hindrance of seeing the world through an out-of-focus 2×2-inch frame.
The trail we followed took us through dense forest, bemused Lemurs seemingly peering down on us from every branch. As we reached the rocky slopes of the mountain we split into two groups, Sue choosing one and I the other. My group took the more challenging route which meandered through tight gulleys and along a boulder field. We came across an owl asleep above the entrance to a cave that we passed through and there were insects galore to amuse any happy snapper. Many of the caves we passed through are the sleeping quarters of the Lemurs but in one we came across an ancient tomb, the final resting place of two different mammals.
I met Sue back at the start and she regaled on the number and variety of creatures that her group encountered over a packed lunch. All in our party exclaimed that this (so far) has been the highlight of our trip, such a privilege to see and be so close to these beautiful animals. Ahead lay another 5 hours to our next accommodation, the Hotel Relais de la Reine.
After stopping briefly to purchase tickets for the following day’s activity we arrived at our rather splendid hotel located within the Isalo National Park. The hotel and its gardens are set within some very striking and beautiful sandstone rock formations. An ideal place to chill out or explore the area I thought. Yet again we were to have an early start the following morning, so after our evening meal in the hotel restaurant, we retired to our room and set away in a quiet part of the garden.

(9th June)
We should have departed the hotel at 7.30 am, but breakfast proved to be so substantial that it was 8 am before the coach rattled up the driveway to the main road towards the next adventure on our itinerary. Today was to hike to a clear natural water pool within a mountainous part of the park.
It was a 30-minute drive to the turn-off where we bounced and juddered along a rutted and dusty road towards a line of shimmering, towering cliffs we were to explore. Our route took us across a muddy river that I thought only serious 4X4 vehicles would be able to traverse, though getting stuck for a few moments with wheels spinning crazily, our driver managed to successfully convey his worried passengers to the far bank.
We had already picked up our guides for the day further down the road, so after parking up, we were soon stretching our limbs on some challenging slopes towards a series of canyons that would eventually take us to the top of the plateau and some magnificent views. In the first of the canyons, we came across a small cave where the local tribe buried their dead in a temporary grave. Several years later after the body had decomposed, they would remove the bones to a permanent site set high above the cliffs. This was so their ancestors would enjoy wonderful views in the afterlife and also keep an eye on their descendants.
It was a lovely day for hiking and though strenuous, all in our party made it successfully to the pool. The crystal clear water and surrounding landscape invited you to dip your toes (and more). Some in our party swam, Sue rolled up her shorties and paddled, and I satisfied myself by relaxing on a rock with binoculars, scanning for wildlife. In truth, in my earlier rush to catch the bus I had left my trunks in the room and was now paying the penalty.
Reluctantly leaving the cool of our watery idyll, we headed back along the trail awhile before branching off after a couple of kilometres to a rendezvous with a barbeque. A clearing in a wooded area had been prepared to furnish our group with food and drinks and we were soon sat devouring zebu skewers, chicken legs, and rice salad. Very soon the smell must have wafted on the breeze and attracted a troupe of Lemurs onto the roof of our gazebo and surrounding trees. These animals were brave and inquisitive, allowing us to approach closely and take a photograph before leaping away. We had been requested not to feed them and we didn’t.
With our meal devoured our group split into two groups. One to hike to a waterfall and the rest to visit a traditional Bara village. Sue and I had paid to visit the village.
We began by hiking for half an hour along a wooded path to a spot, where we boarded the rickiest and oldest of mini-vans possible. The seats were torn and lacked any stuffing and the fabric of the vehicle seemed to be held together by hope. A 20-minute squashed, and bone-shaking ride along a dirt track brought us to a highway, and another 20 minutes saw us turn off a comforting strip of tarmac into a field. Now we were following a cart track, overgrown with grass and strewn with rocks, most uncomfortable! Eventually, we could go no further and had to walk the last couple of 100m to a small village of mud huts. Unfortunately, over the last hour Sue had succumbed to illness and couldn’t manage the walk, so remained behind in the van.
We met the chief of the village who accompanied by the other residents walked us to their sacred tree. Here, through interpretation by our guide, he explained its importance in healing the sick of the village and the role of the wooden platform set behind it. It was this structure that with the help of a special woman resident, exorcised the demons from those possessed.
Our tour continued with visits to some of the huts and an explanation of their basic features inside. Lastly, we visited the first hut in the village. Here the strongest and bravest individual lives whose job is to guard the village zebu against being stolen. The chief showed us the rifle that he used to fend off attackers, shooting through holes strategically placed in the walls. Even today, the youths of the tribes are not considered to be men until they have successfully stolen zebu from another village. Some get killed for their efforts.
Returning to the van we bounced our way back to the highway and then the hotel in time to collect the rest of our group before driving to witness the sunset from the ‘window of Isalo’ (Sue remained behind and went to bed). This rock formation is a short distance away and is where the sun can be seen setting through a hole in the ridge. It turned out to be a pleasant way to finish the day, but the sunset did not meet the standard of the baobabs.
While Sue slept, I dined in the restaurant with the rest of the group. One other unfortunate member had also succumbed to illness and it happened to be her birthday. Bad luck!




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