Sunday, October 23, 2011

Day one – Heathrow to Madagascar

I blame Julian. She may be Always Right, but in this instance it’s definitely All Her Fault.

Owing to over a year’s worth of shoulder pain and an impending operation, we knew we wouldn’t be able to do the tandem-tour of America we wanted, so we were at a loss as to where to go for our annual holiday. Tim and I aren’t really sitting-on-a-beach-people, so we wanted to go somewhere we could Do Things, but the limitations of a weak shoulder meant that we couldn’t think of what Things to Do.

“What about this?” said Julian on that fateful day. “It’s a six-day boat tour of the Nosy Be archipelago off the north-west coast of Madagascar. There are lemurs and stuff!”1

Thus it was that some months and a lot of rescheduling to find cheaper airline tickets later, we found ourselves on a flight to Antananarivo (“Tanarive” in the local dialect, and “Tana” to anyone who wants to stand a chance of pronouncing it after a rum or two), capital of Madagascar.

Madagascar, the perfumed isle! Home to the world’s vanilla and ylang-ylang production! We exited the plane and headed for the baggage reclaim area, pausing only to admire the “Sex Tourism is a CRIME” posters in four languages, and the strong smell of marijuana. We dutifully queued for the not-a-visa paperwork, which seemed to require everything which a visa does, and then some. Four rubber stamps, three forms and a signature later, and we were free to find our driver!

Now, a word of warning to anyone who is thinking of flying into Tana Airport: the porters are a bunch of rapacious bastards. They know damn well that you will be unlikely to have any small change on you (it is virtually impossible to get any Madagascar Ariary outside of Madagascar), and so they pounce on you in hordes, manhandle your baggage away from you, steer you to the government-sanctioned money-changing kiosk, and then take you to your car and demand a tip despite the fact that the smallest note you now have is about twenty times the average tipping rate. And then they pout and feign disappointment in the hope that you’ll give them more (we didn’t: we’d been warned about this trick). But if anyone is planning on going to Madagascar, I would be delighted to lend them some small change to help tip the porters: I believe I have some coins worth approximately £0.003, which is a pittance even by Malagasy standards.

Anyway, porters dealt with, we were met by our driver/guide for the first part of the trip. He was fluent in French, Italian, Malagasy (obviously), and was looking forward to driving us around so that he could practise the English he’d been learning for the past year or so. He introduced himself as “Zhon-Zo’k” or “Zjhee-Zjhee for short”. After a couple of days, once our ears had adjusted to the Malagasy accent, we worked out that he was probably called Jean-Jacques, JJ for short.

Jean-Jacques was short, chatty, cheery and had a love of telling tall stories and incredibly bad puns (the more elaborate the set-up, the better). He drove us through Tana and pointed out places of interest (“Here is the central lake, which we use both as a sewer and a reservoir. Don’t drink the tap water in the city.”) and Malagasy four-by-fours (his name for the zebu carts which were more reliable than the average car2 on the streets), and griped about the congestion and price of petrol. 

On the road from Tana

We left the chaos of Tana behind, and headed east through the rice-fields and brick-kilns towards the rainforest. After a couple of hours, we pulled up at the private reserve of Peyreras, which was a glorified petting zoo with a large collection of chameleons and reptiles which were legal to collect, and happy being handled. We were introduced to our guide, a young lad who smelled of stale alcohol (we learned later that mosquitoes are less likely to bite rum-drinkers) and who spoke a mixture of hippy-stoner surfer-dude, Latin nomenclature, and camera-geek.

“Hey man, you wan’ see leaf chameleon? Genus Brookesia. She cool. You got macro setting enabled? Cool.”

Sleepy chameleon!
Leaf-tailed gecko
We spent a fun time feeding the chameleons, and then an even more fun time seeing what happened to dead chameleons (aka “feeding the crocodiles”). Once we had spoffled all the geckos, lizards, chameleons, frogs, snakes and the fruit bat, it was back to the car and towards the rainforest.

The countryside changed as we wended our way further east. It became hillier, more wooded, and the earth and rocks were a vivid pink. Everywhere we went through the forest we saw signs of deforestation – either for charcoal burning (the current political/economic situation in Madagascar means that charcoal is vastly preferred as a cheaper fuel right now – the smog hanging over Tana was impressively awful), or for slash-and-burn farming. Our driver explained that everyone knows that deforestation is bad in the long-term for Madagascar, but if one is growing crops on a river plain with a risk of flooding, then burning a strip of forest (which will only provide you with fertile soil for two or three years at most) and using it as a back-up field/rice terrace can mean the difference between starving and eating. Unsurprisingly, most Malagasy consider the option of making sure they’ve got something to eat next harvest a higher priority than preserving the rainforest, which is understandable, if sad.

As we drove along, pedestrians walking along the road waved fruit and chickens for sale, or freshly-caught fish when we crossed rivers. We passed through Muramanga (lit: “the place of cheap mangoes”), but saw no sign of the plentiful mango trees which once gave the town its name. Jean-Jacques explained that they’d all been chopped down long ago to make charcoal and furniture – apparently the tribe who lived in this region were renowned for the wooden chairs which they made and sold! However, there were an awful lot of cyclists and cycle rickshaws there, and Jean-Jacques was fascinated to learn that we had cycle rickshaws in London too. The hierarchy on the roads was pretty simple: if you caught up anything moving slower than you (cyclists, zebu carts, lorries, taxi-brousses containing twenty people and a crate of chickens) and the road wasn’t clear to overtake, you tootled merrily on your horn, the slower road-user would swerve into the gutter, and the faster one would whoosh past with inches to spare whilst tootling a thank-you. I can’t say I would have enjoyed cycling or walking on the roads, but no-one seemed too unhappy about the status quo.

On arrival at the Vakona Lodge in Andasibe National Park we were quite tired from our journey, so we contented ourselves with investigating the local equines, had supper and went to bed.

1 I may be paraphrasing the usually impeccably eloquent Julian here, but this was the sentiment. And the word “SQUEE” may have been used on occasion.
2 It was noticeable that of all our time in Madagascar, we only encountered one car which didn’t have a cracked windscreen. The police have checkpoints everywhere, checking that the paperwork for the car (and the people) is up-to-date (and hoping for bribes, according to Jean-Jacques). Apparently the cars have to be checked for road-worthiness every three months, but judging by the number of cars we saw being pushed, the standards are pretty low. We were warned on this, which is why we hired a car and a driver – that way, if the car breaks down, at least you have a mechanic and someone who knows the Malagasy for “bump-start”.

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