Day 11: Tuesday 4 Oct
Rewind 36 hours and we are leaving Ranomafana National Park. We are heading to the small town of Ambalavao, a stopover on the way to Isalo National Park, but with a couple of things to see in itself - it is where traditional flower-pressed Antaimoro paper is made, and is also the site of the country's biggest zebu market of a couple of mornings per week. Since one of those mornings would coincide with my visit, I thought I might as well pay it a visit.
We stopped off in Fianar on the way, the only place where I would have access to an ATM before hitting Tulear on the southwest coast in 4 days time. I spent nearly an hour waiting to get some money out. There was a queue because the ATM kept on crashing after every couple of uses. It would then take 10-15 minutes to reboot itself (Windows XP!). When I got to the machine, I withdrew some money. ATMs have a limit on the amount of notes you can take out in in one transaction so I needed to use it twice. Unfortunately, after using it once, it crashed. I really couldn't be bothered waiting any longer, especially with beggars hassling me, so I'd just have to hope I could change some money at a hotel further along the road. The episode reminded me of something someone said the last time I was in Africa - I was on an overland truck trip and my tour guide said I should expect things not to work and long delays, and remember the phrase "This is Africa!".
The road into Ambalavao dropped down into a wide valley offering spectacular views of the valley floor all the way to the town. Potsy recommended the Tropik Hotel, a cheap 44kAr ($22) a night with a four-poster bed and balcony. After a lovely steak with mushroom sauce and chips for lunch, it was off to visit the Antaimoro paper open-air workshops, as recommended by my guidebook. The paper originated from Muslim immigrants who wrote verses from the Koran on it. It is a papyrus-type paper impregnated with dried flowers, now made into such things as bookmarks, wall hangings and books, and sold throughout the island. The guide at the place only spoke French so Potsy gave me a quick tour round the place. It appeared the paper was now only made for tourist trinkets and decoration in tourist hotels. The obligatory shop attached to the factory was full of a coachload of French middle-aged tourists spending their hard-earned. However, there wasn't anything in there I found particularly appealing.
With only a handful of other people staying at the hotel, dinner was a quiet affair, I had grilled chicken and vegetables, and then an early night.Day 12: Wednesday 5 Oct
The next morning, I paid a visit to Madagascar's biggest zebu market. Herdsman walked their cattle here from all over the country, for example, the journey to the capital Tana could take a month. Owning a herd of zebu was to a rural Malagasy person as much a status symbol as owning a large house or a flashy sports car was to someone in the Western world. Zebu were valued according to their attributes such as colour, size of horn, hump size, etc. I enquired as to the price of one large zebu and was quoted 500kAr ($250) - not cheap then! My guidebook stated to get to the market early as it started at 3am. We arrived at 8am but found that it wouldn't start to get packed until another couple of hours time. There were quite a lot of herds there already. The herdsman all had long sticks to keep their zebu in check if they wandered off or decided to get a bit frisky. The zebu had yellow tags in their ears which allowed them to be transported across regional boundaries. It was probably lucky I didn't arrive a couple of hours later since it was tricky enough when I was there watching where I stepped, if you get my meaning!
Afterwards, we drove the short distance to the Anja Reserve, a dry forest at the base of three granite mountains and known for its population of semi-tame Ring-tailed Lemurs. The Reserve is managed by and for the benefit of its local community. I was recommended a 2 hour walk which in addition to allowing viewing of the Ring-tailed Lemurs would take in a scenic viewpoint and sighting of some Betsileo tribal tombs. The Ring-tailed Lemurs are reasonably habituated to people and you can get close to them to observe their interesting daily routines. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me (and of course, the guides won't tell you this beforehand to try and get more money from you), getting to the viewpoint involved rock-climbing - clambering over boulders, up and down steep slopes, even using a rope at one point when the slope became too steep. Not being particularly keen on rock-climbing and not having a very good head for heights, I didn't really enjoy it and the views at the end, although pretty good, really weren't worth the effort. On the way, the guide pointed out some tombs of local Betsileo tribal people in the rock-faces.
We continued our drive to Isalo NP and small town of Ranohira which was basically there to service people visiting the Park. The scenery was a parched landscape of yellow and brown grassy plains with mountains in the distance. Gnarled, leafless trees dotted the plains, while out-of-place clumps of green trees appeared on occasion. There were huge black scars across the land where the grass had been burned to promote new growth for the zebu to feed on. There was hardly any traffic, only the odd taxi-brousse or car. Villages became scarce but still a few people sat by or walked along the roadside in the blazing heat of the day. After passing through the unremarkable, small town of Ihosy, flanked by open landfills and surrounded by persistent child beggars during a snack stop, the mountains gave way to an endless sea of dull, yellow-brown grassy plains, the RN7 road cutting a long, straight path through it into the horizon.
Arriving in Ranohira, Potsy recommended the Motel d'Isalo, the priciest hotel of the trip so far at 63.5kAr a night for a stone bungalow with wooden roof, which contained a double bed and a single bed, cheap if more than one person, not so cheap if just one. Also, electricity was supplied by a generator which was only run during certain times of the day. As I'd later find out, no electricity would mean no water when the main hotel tank had been emptied. However, they did have plenty of toilet paper in the bathroom for a change so I would no longer have to ration and use each sheet at least four times. After hunting out as many mosquitoes as I could find in my room, I had the rest of the day free to do some blogging.
Potsy turned up at about 6pm with a guide for Isalo NP to discuss what hiking I wanted to do the next day. I was armed with some detailed information on each National Park and the various "tricks" the guides might use to get more money out of the tourists. My guide suggested a 5 hour hike for me priced at an absurd 108kAr ($54)! Part of this hike included a diversion to the Blue and Black Pools which according to my info was an unnecessary diversion. Removing this, the price went down dramatically to 40kAr for a 4 hour trek (Piscine Naturelle - Namaza Canyon - Cascade des Nymphs), which is what I was expecting. The Isalo NP permit office is situated a few km from the NP boundary and hence, the various start points of the different trails. The roads between the two are basically dirt tracks which required a 4WD to traverse. The guide then hit me with the cost of a return trip along this short length of track to get to and back from the trails - a whopping 40kAr! A bloody racket, and my guidebook stated that guides usually took a commission from this. When I told him it was a complete rip-off, he said I could arrange my own car and driver but it was probably too late for me to do it now, hence, why he'd probably come round to discuss my plans so late in the day. I had no choice but to agree and wasn't happy.
My evening meal at the hotel comprised a delicious 3 course supper of Chinese soup, beef bourguignon and fruit salad for 25kAr ($12.50). With nothing else to do afterwards, I retired early to my bungalow.Day 13: Thursday 6 Oct
As I'd stated previously, the dirt track to the start of the trailhead for my Isalo NP hike required a 4WD vehicle to traverse it. Or, you could use a car so dilapidated that driving it along this track wouldn't do any more damage than the car had already suffered. Turning up at the NP office, I found my guide had arranged the latter, no doubt a mate of his. It was about a 15 minute drive. At one point, the car had to drive through a stream, but fortunately, it did not leak. It had electric windows which worked when opening them but had to be pushed back up by hand. Still, it got me there.
Isalo National Park is different from the other National Parks I had visited which consisted of forests. This NP comprised a massive sandstone outcrop (massif), topped with an arid, grassy plateau and cut with canyons containing small streams where the vegetation became more green. There were 3 species of lemur in the NP along with numerous other wildlife, along with the fascinating flora of the different regions. As well as the fauna and flora, it was the hiking and scenery that people came for. The NP was also a sacred site for the local Bara people and there were numerous tombs dotted about the place.
The walk started with a climb to the top of the massif, where there were 360 degree views of the surrounding massif central plateau, plains and sandstone hills. The hills were eroded into weird shapes and the stratified sandstone a mix of reds, oranges, browns and greys, covered in green moss and lichens. There followed a descent to the palm-fringed Piscine Naturelle, an oasis in the arid central plateau. Fed by a small stream and waterfall, the water was a beautiful turquoise colour. Then there was a 4km walk over the grassy central massif plateau to the Namaza Canyon, followed by a steep descent to the lush green vegetation of the canyon floor, eventually reaching the Namaza campsite.
Here there were usually Red-fronted Brown Lemurs and Ring-tailed Lemurs to be found, although only the former were there today. It was not allowed to feed the lemurs but obviously people had done, because the lemurs hung about the campsite still expecting food and were quite habituated to people. A detour took us to the Cascade des Nymphs where I took a tumble down some stone steps covered with slippery wet sand and ended up with some cuts and bruises - fortunately, nothing was broken as I was nearly at the bottom. On the walk back to the Park boundary via the Namaza campsite (where I was patched up), we came across a couple of Verreaux's Sifaka Lemurs which was very lucky as they were not often seen, preferring to stay away from humans, and my guide had only ever seen two in the whole NP. The trek back to the NP boundary followed a stream through a leafy canyon and there were quite a few birds to be spotted along the way. It was then back to Park office in the dilapidated car and my hotel.
I really enjoyed Isalo NP, both in terms of the fauna and unusual flora I saw, and for the beautiful and varied scenery. It helped that the weather was cloudy all day with some light drizzle - doing the 4km walk over the open massif central plateau would have been tough in the blazing sun. The hotel turned out to be fine as well, despite my initial misgivings when finding the mosquitoes in my room, something unknown living in the roof space (as long as it stayed there), and the limited electricity.
When I take photos of wildlife, I always try and identify the species by its English name, although in Madagascar, many species only have a Latin name. Looking for the name of the scorpion I saw, my animal book stated that scorpions were effectively the only dangerous animals in Madagascar. Outside, they favoured hiding under stones or in crevices. Inside, they favoured boots or rucksack pockets! So, although the country was full of creatures which sucked your blood, bit you, or left you with unpleasant rashes, you'd be very unlikely to encounter anything which would kill you as long as you checked your boots and pockets in the morning (with gloves on). That was good then, I could sleep easier at night!
Day 14: Friday 7 Oct
We had a late 10am start today for the drive to the resort of Tulear on the southwest coast of Madagascar.
(excluding food, shopping and tips): $360 ($1 = ~2,000 Ar)
Day 11: Tropik Hotel 44kAr ($22), Petrol 96kAr ($48)
Day 12: Motel d'Isalo 63.5kAr ($32) x 2 nights = $64, Anja Park entry 7kAr , 2h trek 16kAr, total 23kAr ($11.50)
Day 13: Isalo NP permit 25kAr ($12.50), trek guide fee 40kAr ($20), 4WD use 40kAr ($20)
3 days car/driver fees €40 = $54 (€1 = $1.35), total $162
Lying alone on my bed after supper, cocooned in a mosquito net, protection against my bloodsucking nemesis, I hear an all-too familiar high-pitched whine in my ear. "F*ck it, one of the b*st*rds is inside my mosquito net" I exclaim, and spend the next 10 minutes hunting it out and splatting it. I am in a bungalow at Motel d'Isalo on the outskirts of Isalo National Park, the motel being recommended to me by my driver. Something large scurries over the wooden roof of the bungalow and a few seconds later, I hear a loud bang on the bathroom window as something tries to get in, I've left the light on in the bathroom so that any stray mosquitoes will be attracted there rather than the bedroom, but it also attracts other things. At 10pm, the motel's generator is shut off and the world goes dark. Something is still scurrying about on the roof. I shine my torch on the ceiling to make sure there are no gaps that will allow anything in. Only beer and earplugs will allow me to get any sleep tonight. So begins another night in paradise.