Welcome to Madagascar chappies!
My name is Di Keddie and I’m your tour manager for the next two weeks…
Normally I travel with the group from London, but today I waited and picked everyone up at Tana as I’m out here doing back to back tours. Now notice point number one, I called the Malagasy capital Tana and not Antananarivo! It makes for an easier life when you can shorten names out here as most places are a tongue twister to pronounce.
Even after all this time working out here I still trip over place names on a regular basis, its an occupational hazard.
The trip to the hotel from the airport is a riot of cars, taxi-brusses (the mini buses which ply as local transport), zebu carts and people… all trying to use the road at the same time, so it certainly makes for a very interesting and sometimes exciting transfer. The Carlton Hotel is an oasis of peace, close to the bustling city centre and our home for the first night and for two nights later in the tour.
Dinner is a wonderful Pan-Asian buffet much appreciated by us all, as it gives us a chance to sample different food without feeling guilty about wasting anything not to our tastes. Also with it being a buffet, passengers can take as much or as little time as they like before heading off to the welcoming delights of the very comfortable beds, an absolute boon after the long flight from the UK. See you in the morning…
Today we were up early (I’ll not be a popular tour manager!) to fly south to Tulear. The wonderful Carlton spoil us by opening the restaurant up nearly two hours early to provide us with a hearty buffet breakfast to set us on our way.
The group check-in for our domestic flight is done at Malagasy speed (you’ve heard of Caribbean time I take it?) and then it’s on through security to the departure lounge. One good thing here is that the strict liquid security measures have not quite reached these shores and we can take our water through with us (though I’d still pack perfumes and creams in your hold luggage just to be on the safe side).
We fly with Air Madagascar as they are the only option available for domestic flights and have changed the tour around so that we do the domestic flight at the start and any possible delays with them will not then affect our international flights home (their timetable is also on Malagasy time… enough said I think!).
However our flight is on time today and we fly into Tulear on the south west coast of the island to be met with a slightly steamy temperature of 36 degrees… just a wee change from what the passengers were having three days ago in the snow-affected parts of the UK.
Tulear is one of the main port cities of Madagascar and is a strange mix of shanty towns and crumbling old French colonial buildings. It has a population of just over 100,000 and it feels like they’re all on the roads today whether in taxi-brusse, car, bike or rickshaw… or I should say pousse-pousse, as this is what rickshaws are called locally.
We have transferred into jeeps as Etienne, our fabulous driver, is driving Priscilla (our pink bus with the identity problem… of this, I’ll explain more another day) south from Tana and will pick us up after our two nights at Ifaty.
We have a convoy of five jeeps and once we’ve driven through the town it’s time for a wee adventure as the road changes from Tarmac to sand and our four-wheel-drive vehicles certainly come into their own.
The landscape has changed from the highlands and is now much drier with cacti and spiky plants in abundance; however it is the rainy season here and after three days of constant rain, the area is looking a lot greener with a lot of temporary ‘lakes’ around… I can certainly see a difference in the two weeks since I was last here.
After an hour and a quarter we arrive at the wonderful Dunes D’Ifaty to be greeted by the charming owner and a wonderful cocktail… although I do know which one the passengers were happier to see!
This hotel is a collection of charming bungalows set in grounds hugging the coast with a reception that has to be seen to be believed! A massive tree forms part of the support for the roof structure, an extremely clever and thoughtful piece of architecture.
For the rest of the day it’s time to relax and acclimatise to the heat and the humidity that is ever present here in the south west. Lying by the pool or walking along the beach are two of the popular relaxation techniques used by the group – see, there is to be a good reason for getting up early and getting the travel out of the way in the first part of the day… so maybe I’m not too evil a tour manager after all!
I didn’t force them… honestly! It’s another early start today as we head into the spiny forest for an optional excursion so it means a 5.30am wake up call… well technically it’s a knock up as there are no phones in the bungalows and the gardeners are dispatched to wake everyone up.
A quick cuppa and we’re off in the jeep for a five minute transfer to the reserve to meet Zsama, our local guide. Baobabs, dwarf lemurs, ground rollers, cacti, euphorbia, sub dessert bird species… I won’t go on but that’s some of what we spotted… oops not forgetting the spider tortoise, the centipede, the hissing cockroaches (who were involved in a romantic liaison at the time so were not at all happy to be disturbed and well lived up to their name!).
After two hours it was time to get out of the heat and return to the hotel for a well deserved breakfast.
After a lazy morning, passengers congregate at the snack bar for lunch and pizzas seem to be the order of the day apart from two ladies who have decided that a treat of a Malagasy lobster is called for! If they could have eaten the shells, I’m sure they would have.
The rest of the day is quiet apart from an extra wee organised walk around the property’s garden in the evening… not much wildlife tonight but a nice stroll and a chance for the group to chat to each other.
Time to move on again, so it’s back in the jeeps for the free massage back to Tulear where we meet up with Etienne and Priscilla, the shiniest pink bus in the south (Etienne has a fetish for cleaning… we’re thinking of taking him to the UK and setting him up in a housework business!).
We have posh picnics here in Mada! Our itinerary states we have a picnic under a mango tree… so OK, it’s a flame tree and we’re on comfy chairs with a table… but we’re al fresco and the atmosphere is great so that’s all we need!
Then it’s load up time and off we go heading on our adventure north. Today’s drive is through a landscape of spiny bushes that change into Savannah-like plains, which really are so green this year it’s almost like being up in the cooler highlands!
We arrive at Jardin Du Roy 15 minutes ahead of schedule to be met by welcoming smiles and glasses of hibiscus juice. Check in is quick, dinner orders are taken and the lovely Olivia shows the group to their rooms.
Mike, our local guide and I are marking the bags for the porters to deliver when all of a sudden it proves it really is rainy season here and we get a touch wet… have heard the wet look is in on the Paris catwalks this year! Good job really!
We manage to keep the bags dry by getting the boys to deliver them one at a time and holding a brolly at the same time… at one point there is a line of five brollies disappearing off into the distance towards the bungalows!
Dinner is wonderful as usual and then my arm is twisted to join a few of the passengers to have a nightcap in the bar… we spend it trying to spot the art that is woven into the stonework of the wonderful buildings here and it’s a lovely way to end the day.
It’s lemur time this morning so we head off to the Isalo National Park in the hope of spotting one or two! Now this is where my comment about Priscilla having an identity crisis comes in. She is a maxi bus of 22 seats but tries to go where only fearless four-wheel-drive jeeps go and this is one of those mornings!
The road to the park sort of runs out and turns into a muddy path which goes through a stream (which also doubles as the local laundry) and has no real tracks, just a lot of big ruts through which she soldiers on.
After we arrive at the parking area we then head off on an easy 35-minute trek to a camping area in a canyon, to be met with the wonderful sight of the ringtail lemurs that are such a famous mascot of Madagascar.
Then just to top it off we spot a Sifaka climbing down a tree to join us on the ground and pose dramatically for passenger cameras… I think he’s a tad unhappy at the lemurs getting all the press after the Madagascar movies!
Lunch is a bit late but nobody minds as the lemurs were the main attraction of the day so it’s a happy crew who sit down to enjoy carpaccio, duck, and other tasty morsels. Nobody is keen to do the walk to the piscine naturelles so we do a guided walk in the rock formations surrounding the hotel, a very popular move with some fabulous photographic opportunities!
Tomorrow is a longer day on the bus but always one of my personal favourites because of the landscape changes along the way! So it’s good night from us all here and we’ll speak to you tomorrow!
It’s Ranohira to Sambahvy today, a long but absolutely wonderful day on the bus. We leave early and cross the plateau that is a wild, open and empty space… apart from the little man on a bike who decides that he has right of way on both sides of the road… perhaps too much of the moonshine for him!
We then drop down into the valley that houses Ihosy, our petrol and sweetie stop (they have a nice selection of munchies there, a fact much appreciated by the passengers)… and of course it’s a ‘happy room’ stop too! We pass on through the town to a landscape of hills and mountains interspersed with little villages of the Barra tribespeople… they’re the ones who are polygamous so I make sure I have all my single ladies back on board the bus with me!
We stop at Ambalavao where we visit the paper making factory, a very interesting process introduced by Arab traders and adopted by the people of this town. We also have lunch here so it’s a nice leisurely stop before boarding Priscilla once more and heading north to the town of Fianarantsoa, which translates from the local dialect to the “place of better education or study”.
It’s a hodge podge of schools, universities and colleges interspersed with crumbling old colonial buildings; UNESCO needs to get here quick or we’ll lose a lot of wonderful old buildings that cling with great determination to the hills on which the town is built.
15 minutes after we are at the junction which takes us from Route Nationale no.7 to Sambahvy and the quaint Hotel du Lac… it’s only 15km but seeing as the road sort of runs out again Priscilla has to change out of her bus attire and change to her four-wheel-drive persona!
We get there in time for everyone to have a walk around the beautiful gardens and for me to get an update on the cat.1 cyclone hitting the north east of the island… well it is that time of year, you know!
It’s a 60th birthday today so I have to be super-spy and sneak around trying to get all the group to sign the card, we’ve already organised a cake for dinner this evening and have a small present tucked away for the passenger also… birthdays need to be celebrated wherever in the world you are!
We leave the hotel and set off to Ambositra via the twisting turning trail of RN 7… we are accompanied by the rain the cyclone has brought but it magically clears at the viewpoint where we can see all the way down the valley to the entrance to the Ranomafana National Park… the cameras are in full flow!
It’s a long drive but again the scenery is ever changing and spectacular… though to be honest we are all disappointed at the amount of slash ‘n’ burn we see; the charcoal makers do really seem to be going to town today and it’s so sad to see!
However we don’t dwell on it as its a Malagasy speciality for lunch today… a combination of rice, stock, zebu, pork, spinach, chickpeas and turkey… not including the soup and the courgette fritters to start!
How we are all able to walk from the restaurant to the bus I really don’t know, I did have to ask chef at night to cut back on the portions for dinner as we really could not manage to eat all that much! The birds are a bit scarce today as the cyclone seems to have scared them off, pied crows and kingfishers are spotted but that’s all.
We arrive in the spa town of Antsirabe just as the sun breaks through the dark clouds… I’m not being poetic really, it just means we can get the bags unloaded and delivered relatively dry! That’s a real boon to a tour manager… wet, soggy clothes do not make for a happy group! Though this group are great and understand that it’s part and parcel of being out here in the rainy season.
For those with a sweet tooth, this has been a really good day!
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