At long last, we are somewhere (Johannesburg, South Africa) with fast enough Internet that we can catch you up on our recent adventures in Madagscar!
OK, if you ever go to Madagascar (and I think you should!), you may want to do a little more advance planning than Andy and I did. For instance, you might want to:
1) Get a guidebook just on Madagascar, instead of relying on the 15 crappy pages Lonely Planet Africa devotes to the country...
2) Actually read about Madagascar in advance, so that you know you need at least 3 weeks in the country, or that you'll need to take internal flights (or both!) if you want to go anywhere remote...
3) Fly in on Air Madagascar, which then entitles you to 50% off all internal flights, instead of flying in on, say, South African Airways, which likes to force you to check your carry-on legal bags and then loses them...
But luckily, with a bit of improvising, we managed to overcome all these issues en route and had an amazing time in the land of the lemur. We saw plenty of wildlife at every national park we visited. The national park guides were terrific and spoke good English. The landscapes are breathtaking, and the sunsets the most amazing I've seen anywhere. People (other than taxi and taxi-brousse drivers!) are very kind, and food is delicious and extraordinarily cheap. In fact, most things are quite cheap once you get there. It was definitely one of my favorite countries so far, and if you can cobble together the money to actually get yourself there, I highly recommend that you go!
We've decided to separate our blog posts about Madagascar into general, wildlife, and food. I'll start off our pictorial odyssey with the general pics.
Before we get to Madagascar, though, one last picture from Gabon. Our last day there was the one-year anniversary of the country's long-time president Bongo's (yes, that's his real name) death. There were billboards over Libreville commemorating this, but our favorites were the ones that teenage girls were wearing around like backpacks. We asked one girl if we could take her picture, and she rounded up her nearby friends, too! I especially like the dove perched casually on Bongo's shoulder in this shot...
OK, on to Madagascar! We flew from Libreville, via Johannesburg, to the capital of Antananarivo, commonly shortened to Tana. S South African Airways lost Andy's checked bag (and, seemingly, the bags of about half the passengers on our flight!). Luckily, it arrived the next day and all was well.
This forced us to spend one extra night in Tana, but that wasn't really such a hardship, since Tana is pretty awesome! It is set in the country's central plateau region on a series of hills, and is very pedestrian-friendly and picturesque, with little cobblestone streets and staircases everywhere. Here is a view down one of the biggest staircases, which leads to the main market and serves as a stepwise market of its own.
The hills of Tana are apparently ready for their close-up.
There is a lake right in the middle of the city, with this war memorial out in the middle of it. It cost some crazy amount to go out and see the monument, so we just looked from the shore.
Taxis in Tana are old Citroens and Renaults that look like they're out of an old black-and-white movie. We rode in several (after heated price negotiations in French...).
After we got Andy's bag back, we headed south by bush taxi, or taxi-brousse (basically a crappy, smelly old minivan crammed four adults and a few kids to a row) for eight hours to Fianarantsoa, where a Frenchwoman we met in the car kindly put us up in her house there for the night. Merci, Annie! (We also made friends with another Frenchwoman named Sophie who let us steal her Lonely Planet Madagascar for a while, leading us to discover whole new regions of Madagascar that we wanted to visit that weren't even mentioned in our book. Merci, Sophie!)
The next morning, we were off to the nearby national park at Ranomafana, and an hour after arrival we were off on our first rainforest hike. Andy will cover the lemurs and other cool wildlife we saw there, so I am stuck showing you this giant tree fern. (Or maybe it's just an epiphyte?)
It wasn't so sunny in Ranomafana, but that just makes the forest look more dramatic, doesn't it?
And fungi, of course!
Wow, this fungus is crazy!
Goodness, Andy likes to take mushroom pictures.
OK, on to Isalo National Park, which took another painful eight hours or so in an even more crowded taxi-brousse. But luckily, in that TB we made another French friend, Chloe, with whom we ended up exploring the park (and who let us take photos of her guidebook pages to supplement our own info--very helpful!). Chloe also led us to my favorite hotel in Madagascar, Chez Alice, where we got a terrific bungalow with bathroom and great views of the surrounding landscape for $13. Here is sunrise from the grounds of Chez Alice:
Isalo is known for its cool rock formations rising from the savannah. Here are the three of us on our hike the following day.
We visited two canyons. The first is called Monkey Canyon and we did see some cool ring-tailed lemurs there, which Andy will blog about. But the canyon on its own was pretty cool as well.
It had some lush and crazy vegetation.
This shot may be from Monkey Canyon or from Rat Canyon, which we visited later. Sadly, we saw no Madagascar jumping rats there (apparently they used to be quite common there, hence the name).
Fungus in the canyon!
This pic is from Ranohira, the town right next to Isalo. In case you can't tell, that's half a dead cow on the cart.
One of the coolest things about Madagascar is its clouds. There are so many different types, and they often look like caricatures of clouds, like you'd see in a cartoon or a video game or something.
After Isalo, we went to Ifaty, a beach town on Madagascars southwest coast. We went there for the scuba diving, but have no pictures from that. (And thank goodness--turns out that someone had a wee panic attack and had to make an emergency ascent just minutes after going down. Oops! I managed to get my act together and do the second dive with no problems, but apparently that was the less-good one--Andy said he saw a lot more cool fish on the first. But did he get to have a private chat with the Malagasy boatman, Sammy, trying to explain to him in French the American concept of Uncle Sam? I think not...)
Anyway, sunsets in Ifaty are nice.
And with every drink you buy, you get one free cat!
The other cool thing to see in Ifaty is the spiny forest. These huge plants are covered with, well, spines! Madagascar has some crazily awesome plant life.
Mixed in with the spiny plants are big baobab trees. Here are a fat one and a skinny one together.
Baobabs + spiny plants = happy Andy.
So, our original plan (well, ever since borrowing a few people's guidebooks!) was to take a taxi-brousse from Toliara (the city near Ifaty) up the west coast to Morondava, the city near the Tsingys national park, which we'd decided we had to visit. The road here is apparently so bad that it would take 2 days to go 250 kilometers. But we were steeled and ready to do it.
Unfortunately, after the louses had gleefully taken our money and "made a reservation" for us, the taxi-brousse company decided not to run the route on the day we needed to go because they didn't have enough passengers. And, of course, no one seemed to be able to find enough money to give us a refund. A lot of shouting in French ensued. Finally, after about 30 minutes of BS, we got our money back and jumped in a cab to the airport, where we knew there was a flight that day to Morondava (there are only a couple a week).
Unfortunately, that flight was full. BUT, the friendly folks at Air Madagascar put us on standby, and we ended up with seats on the plane! It was way more expensive than the taxi-brousse would have been, but it was really nice to arrive in Morondava in two hours instead of after two days.
Here is my old-school, handwritten air ticket and boarding pass.
In southern Madagascar, we noticed a lot of women whose faces were painted yellow. We figured this had some sort of religious significance, but Sammy the boatman informed me that it's just a form of sunblock, made from the paste of a local tree!
Morondava is a nice little town that also has a beach and spectacular sunsets. Om...
In Morondava, we hired a 4x4 with driver to take us to see the tsingys, some crazy rock formations that were just eight hours away by terrible roads (notice a pattern here?). The trip took three days (one day there, one day at the park, one day back). We ran around Morondava like maniacs the day before we left, looking for other tourists who might want to share our car (and the cost of it), but we never found any. Apparently, high season doesn't hit until July.
Luckily, we were able to negotiate a decent deal with a local, instead of booking through an expensive hotel, and ended up with an awesome driver, John, who even hiked with us at the tsingys. En route somewhere, we saw this huge yucca-like plant.
What's a tsingy? It's a crazy limestone rock formation formed by eons of erosion. The national park has two sections, the grand tsingys and the petite ones. We started our hike in this "canyon" in the grand section.
Rather than try to find something interesting to say about each of these pictures, I'll just let the magnificence of the tsingys wash over you silently as you scroll down.
(I think this is where we make the transition to the petite tsingys. I know, they look the same, but when you're there, trust me, they are a lot smaller.)
Fun cactus-like plants common in the tsingys.
Zebu-carts are a very popular way to get around, or at least move your stuff around, in rural Madagascar. Zebu are the type of cow ubiquitous on the island.
These girls in Bekopaka, the village we stayed in near the tsingys, were initially scared to have their picture taken, but Andy charmed them, and they were psyched in the end to see themselves on the little screen.
Here's a typical Malagasy house, made of mud with a roof made of strong leaves.
On the way back from the tsingys, we visited some well-known baobab trees. Here is the giagantic, sacred baobab...
And here is Andy (lower right) getting amorous with the "amorous baobab."
Finally, we spent sunset at the "way of the baobabs," a famous avenue lined with impressive baobab trees.
Zebu cart, profiled in the sunset...
A great shot Andy got of ladies carrying loads on their heads home as the sun set.
This was Andy's favorite tourist at the way of the baobabs because he looked kinda like a comical French cartoon character.
Our next stop was Antsirabe, another plateau town on the way back to the capital. Just 12 hours on a dirt road by taxi-brousse, arriving at 3AM! Sigh.
Antsirabe is the pousse-pousse capital of Madagascar, with about five of these rickshaws available for any one person. Many pousse-pousse drivers(?) don't even wear shoes--in fact, many Malagasy don't wear shoes, even in the chilly highlands.
There is a big lake in the middle of Antsirabe, too. People like to do their laundry there and then spread it out to dry in the sun.
Taking a pousse-pousse halfway across town costs about 75 cents. Well, that's the best price we could get as tourists, at least. We're pretty sure the locals pay about 5 cents for the same ride.
Andy's favorite sign in Antsirabe. We haven't visited this website yet, but we assume they sell bat poop!
My favorite sign came later, outside of Andasibe National Park, our last stop in Madagascar. It's a creative translation of a French sign further up the road. At first I thought "acheminement" was a poor spelling of "achievement," but then I realized it's the same word on the French sign and means "putting into the road." Apparently, Google translator didn't know that word, and just left it in French for this sign...
Our hotel at Andasibe came with two extra beds--a single bed and this. Hotel, are you trying to tell us something? We were also amused that it came with its own mosquito net.
On our final night back in the capital, we got a hotel room with a balcony overlooking the city. Sweet!
And extra-sweet when the fireworks started! This was the third 50th anniversary of independence celebration we have been to in Africa (apparently France let all of her colonies go the same year).
It seems strange to write about Madagascar and not mention its animals or its food, but I've done my best. Hopefully I have whet your appetite for even more fun posts to come.