(1st – 2nd June)
With all the paperwork hopefully stored away in my rucksack we set off at 8 am to Birmingham Airport in a taxi driven by one of the parents of a child (Rebecca Pearson) I used to teach. It made for an interesting journey catching up on family news, thankfully she was a pleasant child and seems to have done well in later life.
We were concerned that the chaos experienced by travelers at the airport on the previous day would cause us problems, but we needn’t have worried, check-in opened on time and we were third in the queue. We sailed through Security and Passport Control and were soon settled in one of the lounges in readiness for our gate to be called. The flight left a little late, due to a lack of baggage handlers, but that was made up on the 7.5-hour flight to Dubai. Emirates has a good reputation and they didn’t let themselves down, with plenty of regular food and drinks and an excellent entertainment system at hand.
Early morning arrival in Dubai ensured that there weren’t too many fellow passengers around so finding our next gate which involved a lengthy bus ride through this mammoth airport went fine. The next leg was to Mauritius and we struck lucky at the departure gate when we met an elderly lady who was also transiting onto Madagascar. She was an Australian and a charity worker in Antananarivo. Like her, we didn’t have a boarding pass for the last leg of our journey, but she persuaded a helpful staff member to print them out for us, thus removing a minor worry when we landed,
This again was an emirates flight, a new A340/800 with a double deck. Very smart and more legroom, so in this section, we managed to get some sleep, in between the copious meals. Masks must be worn at all times on flights, except when eating, though unlike the first leg quite a few of the passengers from the Indian sub-continent chose to ignore this regular guidance by the crew.
We landed at 9 am on what promised to be a gorgeous day for the islanders and their guests. Having holidayed here on this stunningly beautiful island before we recognised its mountainous features as we approached on our flight path and there can’t be many airports where if you have to wait 5 hours for your next connection, the views from the lounge windows keep your interest.
As we were flying on, we left those heading to baggage reclaim and joined a short but slow queue to have our documentation checked: proof of RT/PCR Test, proof of vaccination, baggage tickets, passports, AND a green form, which we didn’t have!!! Neither did several other travelers which is why the queue was so slow, but it took just a few minutes to fill them in, and then we were off through security.
After checking out the location of our next departure gate, we had a brief chat with our new Australian friend before settling into one of the airport’s restaurants for a much-needed drink. Sue was satisfied with the water but I spotted an intriguing local cask beer that looked very refreshing and I spoiled myself with that. Sue wasn’t impressed with its price. A short flight of 1.55 hrs to Antananaviro followed, though I enjoyed the rather eclectic meal on board, Sue was not so impressed, but still managed to consume it in rapid time.
Antananaviro is located towards the center of the island and the clear sky gave an excellent view of the topography of the island. The remote, mountainous, green-shrouded surface scrolled smoothly below, cut only by winding water courses and the occasional red, dirt road to seemingly nowhere. For much of our approach to the airport, there was very little sign of habitation, though life was down there, evidenced by many wisps of smoke from slash and burn farming, rising lazily into the air adding to their portion of global warming.
We navigated the rigmarole of Madagascan entry conditions with nervous ease, showing wads of paperwork and collecting even more on our transit through the airport. With the visa paid for and the lateral flow test successfully passed and paid for, we found ourselves the first of our party to exit the building. With names ticked off on our guides list, we found the money exchange office and cashed in some dollars. There are 19 in our party, 9 of which arrived on our flight. As the last couple arrived through Arrivals we made our way to the minibus and began the journey into the city.
It took an hour to reach the Chalet De Roses, making our way through increasingly difficult traffic as we neared our destination. Antananarivo has a reputation for horrendous traffic and this was rush hour!! However, crawling along barely tarmacked roads gave everyone a great opportunity to get to know each other and we seemed to hit it off well.
After checking in and after exploring our room we met up with all but two of our fellow travelers for a quick briefing and a get to know each other. The missing two will be arriving overnight. Sue retired early to bed while I joined a small group in the bar to sample the delights of the local brews.
It was a quiet night though around 2 am I heard what I thought was a woman sobbing in the street down below our window, on investigation I could see nothing and after 20 minutes she stopped.
Showered and dressed we were in breakfast with a few others at the party for 8 am. We found ordering the individual food items quite confusing (no French) and what eventually arrived was disappointing. Partly fed, we met the rest of the group on the coach at 9.30 am and set off on our journey to the leafy city of Antsirabe, stopping off in the leafy city of Ambatolampy to visit an aluminum pot factory. The journey from the airport left us in no doubt that this was an extremely poor 3rd world nation that has struggled through recent adversity and is in desperate need of tourist dollars. The journey today concreted that notion. The average daily wage is $2.50 and there is high unemployment with the majority of work being agricultural. People trying to scratch a living off the land or in any fashion possible were in plain sight as our bus rattled its way along a highway that is unfit for modern road vehicles. Donkey, bullock, and cart were more fitting modes of transport, and we met them often, slowing and perilously deviating to avoid them. In one incident we ran into the end of a ladder precariously hanging behind one ramshackle van! The ruts on these roads are joined by short stretches of aging tarmacadam.
Meandering through endless ravines, bedecked with tiers of paddy fields and a variety of vegetables we eventually reached the busy town of Ambatolampy. It has a single-track rail line running through it and next to this in the center of the rather scruffy conurbation is the aluminum factory. It isn’t much of a factory, better described as a medium-sized courtyard surrounded by small buildings which appear to be the entrances to hell, but in fact are where metal is melted, poured, moulded, filed, and buffed. It was fascinating. No health and safety here, the breakneck speed at which these young boys worked required no margin for error. We all had a deep respect for the humble cooking pot after our visit and many in the party bought one or two of the more touristy items that were also moulded by these skilled Malagasy workers.
Lunch was taken at a pleasant roadside restaurant just a couple of minutes’ drive away and preceded a 3.5-hour juddering journey to Antisarabe ‘the city of water’ and our accommodation for the night the Couleur Cafe. As we were making a very early start in the morning we stopped briefly at a supermarket to purchase snacks for tomorrow’s 8-10 hr journey. We were roomed in elegant individual chalets, very comfortable and totally out of keeping with the surrounding town. We had a very early evening meal and an early night to bed.