Manja to Tulear
Day 8 10/ 16 The “No communication day”
Today we had breakfast earlier than normal. Everybody was more than ready to get out of the famous Kanto hotel. During Breakfast I had to make a trip to the colorful kitchen to request more bread. The kitchen was full of people preparing lunch and I noticed they were using charcoal to cook. We later learned that this is very common in Madagascar and that more than 90% of the population cooks with charcoal. By 7 am we had departed the Kanto Hotel.
While waiting to load the vehicles, Mike wandered in front of our car and noted an amazing amount of super glue packets on the ground – the remnants of the previous evening’s repair session by the drivers. This should have been a red flag that we shouldn’t be too confident about any “fix.
As we should have anticipated, our car started acting up early and continued to do so throughout the day. We made at least 4 stops to deal with our overheating problems. Eventually a water container was partially filled and placed on the car roof. A hose ran from this container to the radiator. This worked OK for a bit but at some point the hose came loose and hot water started spewing out close to where we were sitting. This was not fun. Eventually the hose was reattached and did not fail again this day. There were frequent short stops, mostly associated with either fixing our car, or getting extra water for the engine.
A few of the day’s stops were long enough to explore the surrounding area. At first the vegetation was a mix of grasses and short trees. In this area we saw more water and rice paddies. Also here there were more people going about their daily activities. Later as we continued on, the vegetation started to look much drier. There is a reason for this – the coastal areas of Madagascar are sunnier and less rainy than those inland. Baobabs and spiny forest started to appear and although short, we made some stops in those areas to look at the plants.
We drove on and we finally came to an area of “spiny forest”. Didierea madagascariensis was mostly green at this location.
Prior to our late lunch we arrived at a short river crossing so it was time to get on the ferry again.
This mode of ferry is probably reasonable for this part of Madagascar, and it is apparently common in parts of Africa. For the low traffic on these roads it seems to work. Note that were traveling at the end of the dry season, when these rivers where at their smallest discharge. We don’t know what happens in the rainy season when these rivers are much faster flowing. Presumably the trip is longer. In some places permanent bridges have been built but we suspect many are destroyed by tropical cyclone-induced floods every few years. Thus the continued use of these ferries.
Typically we would stop for lunch between 11:30 am and 1 pm. Lunches would be next to the road under some tree if we had any trees otherwise just near the road. Today we had a different lunch. Our guide TV had recommended a restaurant to our tour operator, but something got lost in translation and they did not communicate well enough for the tour operator to have a better idea about how far this restaurant actually was. After 1 pm the tour operator asked TV how far was the restaurant and TV replied that we should arrive around 4 pm. The discourse that followed would have been funny were it not for the fact that we were quite hungry at the time and to hear that we had to wait another 3 hours(!) for lunch was not amusing.
Unfortunately, the late lunch had an impact on our possible stops that day. We went through some interesting terrain where we are sure many tour members would have liked to stop, but we kept going. We kept going because the tour operator knew we had a long ways to go before we got to the lunch place and he knew we needed some time towards the end of the day for an interesting stop at a Baobab grove he had visited the year before. We arrived at the restaurant, with our table beautifully laid out next to the beach and with a nice ocean view – at 4 pm, almost 10 hours after breakfast! Tour members in the other two cars had no idea why we kept going and did not stop in some of the nice areas we had passed by.
As we sat down to lunch confrontation was inevitable and one of the tour members started to shout at the tour operator, complaining about the total lack of communication. The tour operator tried to calm him down and he also tried to get everyone to start eating and be done reasonably fast. This was a pity because the fish we had for lunch was one of the best we had eaten in a long time.
Unbeknownst to most, except for the tour operator, we had one last stop (probably the best) for the day and the sun would be down soon. We headed back to the dirt road for the grand finale.
By 6:20 pm we arrived at a grove of very chunky and probably very old baobabs (Adansonia grandidieri). Although we had seen this species many times by now, the trees at this location were impressive due to their very fat and short appearance. The foreground was naturally a saline flat, making photography of the baobab group easier, but it also gave the impression that this site was a regular stop on the tourist circuit. In fact it was, though it wasn’t obvious at the time. See here for a novel view of this baobab group.
It was a mad rush to get out of the cars to try to snap a few photos before the light disappeared (the sun had already set). This stop should have been 30 minutes or more, especially since there were many baobabs behind the most obvious ones, but alas that was not to be. We were herded back into the cars so we could make it to our hotel and have dinner at the time that had been prearranged by the tour operator. He stressed that we should hurry or we may not get dinner. It was ironic to be rushing for dinner when we had just had lunch at 4 pm!
We drove on with the last light after sunset and as we passed a small hamlet of dirt huts next to the road I saw a lady sitting on the ground next to a fire cooking dinner. The light, the setting, the people and the single pot that held dinner for someone made a very impressive sight. It was dark enough so one could see the charcoal glowing in the dark. This scene had such a surreal feel to it that at that particular moment more than at any other time during the trip, I felt transported to a simpler and less technological time.
By 7 pm we arrived at our hotel for the night. Here we walked on sandy trails to get to our rooms. Naturally the best always comes last and that was certainly true of our sleeping arrangements for the night. We were informed that we would be sharing our room with 2 female members of our tour. Not to worry though – since there were two separate rooms, yet the little detail of only one bathroom was overlooked. So, after an even rougher day on the road than the previous day, we had one bathroom for 4 people. Not to mention the lack of AC, or fans, or screens on the windows, and a somewhat warmer-than-ideal room.
Dinner was good and did not take forever – like it did in some restaurants. Then it was off to bed to rest and get ready for another day, perhaps tomorrow (I told myself) I will not have to share a bathroom, the road will improve, and the car will behave. Sweet dreams.
Day 9 10/17 Deep sand, forest people and the end is near
We were up early to walk on the beach and to see the hotel grounds. The hotel, like most of our hotels on this route, was next to the ocean. The views were nice, as was the vegetation around the hotel (Mike’s comments here: like most beach environments, the vegetation is actually impoverished, due to salt spray from the ocean. Also, the very well-drained sandy soil limits the plants that can grow. Euphorbia stenoclada seemed like the dominant here).
After breakfast we were back on the road at 7:30 am.
It soon appeared that today the road would live up to our worst expectations. It went from a sandy dirt road to very deep sand and this combined with our handicapped car promised to provide some unplanned stops along the way. Our car continued to have overheating problems and we also got stuck in deep sand fairly early in the day. Tow ropes were required to get us out.
Our driver had told me earlier in the day that today’s stretch of road would be the worst so far. That sounded rather scary considering the road so far had not been a walk in the park. It did not take long to see what he was talking about, the good news (according to him) was that if we could make it today, the rest of the trip would be on good roads.
It did not take too long before one of the cars got stuck. This allowed everybody the chance to look around and check out the vegetation.
As we continued on we drove through nice examples of dry forest. Baobabs and Didierea madagascariensis were some of the more obvious succulents. We made a few stops to look at the vegetation and other stops were due to car problems. It might be said that in the dry or spiny forest environment it was often difficult to walk easily through the vegetation looking for plants. The vegetation is dense enough to make exploration slow, unlike drier or rocky areas where vegetation might be more sparse.
Then by 9:57 am more car problems developed. This wasn’t your usual problem – our car had been running in the red zone for a while and the hose at the bottom of the radiator blew out due to the steam pressure in the cooling system. The front of our car was enveloped in a steam cloud and we came to a quick stop.
Of course, this “stop” allowed for more exploration along the side of the road. We saw Didiereas and Baobabs and at this stop we also photographed a chameleon and a three-eyed lizard. After checking out the surrounding vegetation, I walked back towards the cars. Nearby, I saw our driver with a group of people that looked like locals. They were very quiet and just sat there staring at everything going on with us and the cars. We were told they were the Mikea, or people of the forest. These people are nomads and live off the land. They lack towns or permanent villages.
At this stop we spotted a couple of nice flowers.
By 11:38 am we were back on the road and we stopped to take a look at a nice specimen of Pachypodium geayi, Didierea madagascariensis and some terrestrial orchids. This was my first viewing of a large Pachypodium since I missed the ones at the Tsingy. I was pleased with the plants, which were large and appeared healthy. We are aware of a different species of Pachypodium (Pachypodium mikea) that looks similar to P. geayi. As usual classifications or reclassifications happen all the time and it is difficult to keep up with all the changes. Thus for now we will say that the Pachypodiums we saw in this part of the trip was P. geayi. You can read more about the genus Pachypodium here.
We had lunch on the road and we continued on. Eventually the ocean appeared as we kept driving along the sand dunes next to the coast. We made short stops to check out the vegetation.
By 2:11 pm we were still driving on sand dunes along the coast and the sand on the road got very deep and the lead car got stuck. The landscape was very pretty with the beautiful ocean on one side and with some interesting plants on the dunes. Two fishermen came by and kindly helped to dig our car out of the sand. Some tour members also helped push the car.
At 2:50 pm we made a short stop to see the plants along the road. Here was Uncarina abreviata and a nice hibiscus was flowering. The seed pods of the Uncarina were impressive and very sharp.
By 3:52 pm we were about 35 km from our hotel, Hotel de la Plague Manguily. In this area we stopped next to to the road to photograph Alluaudia comosa. The plants were heavily coated in lichens. Also at this stop we saw Euphorbia stenoclada, Didierea madagascariensis and a Delonix sp. Here you can read an interesting article about the evolution of thorns in the Didiereoidea.
“We made it” shouted our driver while making the victory sign at about 5:25 pm. He seemed very happy. It turned out that we had just joined a much better dirt road a few kilometers before the hotel. We were done with the deep sand and the bad roads of the past 4 days. Our driver also mentioned that there would be a replacement vehicle waiting for us at the hotel today. We arrived at the hotel at 5:35pm – ending another rough 10-hour drive, with probably the deepest sand of the trip.
Our hotel, like most hotels along this route, was next to the ocean. The bungalows were spacious but were far from the parking lot. After enjoying a beautiful sunset we had dinner at the hotel restaurant.
Continue to days 10-11 “Tulear”