Isalo to Fianarantsoa
Day 14 10/22 A day for car papers
Today was mostly a driving day with few planned stops. We left the hotel around 8 am but had our first substantial stop of the day around 11 am. There were some delays leaving the town and numerous police check points. Police check points and paper problems were a repeated occurrence with our vehicle once we headed north from Tulear. The owner of the rental company had provided a different car (can’t bring myself to call it new, although it was in better shape than the previous one), but did not provide all the paperwork required by the police. Our driver was rather upset and he mentioned more than once that he hated the police because they just wanted money. In fact he spent a good deal of time that morning negotiating the amount he would pay the police in order to be able to continue on. To be fair to the police, if you really have not paid the insurance and that is the law, then technically we can’t call this harassment. The problem is that in Madagascar, as is the case in many countries, people get away with breaking the law by paying bribes to the police. So at every police check point all cars had to show the right papers and our car always had problems and caused delays.
10.1 Papers please.
Our main stop for the day was at a rocky granite exposure near the road. You can read about the flora of these environments here. It was not difficult to hike on these granitic rocks and there were nice views at the top and interesting succulents along the way. We saw Adenia olaboensis, some Aloes, and another succulent (possibly a Crassula) that we did not identify. Plants in the genus Xerophyta were present in many of the granite environments. This genus belongs to the family Veloziaceae which includes other genera found in similar habitats, primarily in South America (see Figure 4 in the link above). Also at this site we saw a most colorful locust (Phymateus saxosus). These locust feed on toxic plants like Asclepias, hence the name.
There were a few short stops for scenic shots before lunch. Along the way we also encountered small villages with quaint houses.
Impressive granite domes or inselbergs were seen from the road. Shortly after leaving the Isalo area the underlying rocks changed from sandstone to granite – which underlies most of eastern Madagascar. Many succulents are found in these rocky environments. A good summary of tropical inselberg environments can be seen tropical inselbergs.
After lunch we had another short exploratory scramble up some rocks next to the road. It was too difficult for me to try this one although we could see that there were some nice succulents up there. From the road we could see Pachypodium densiflorums, Cynanchums, Kalanchoes and an Opuntia!! Yes invasive Opuntias can be a problem here too.
- You can read more about the genus Rhipsalis here.
While waiting for the group that scrambled up the rocks we had the opportunity to enjoy the landscapes as well as the locals who inevitably came by. Here too were the ever-present rice paddies.
By 2:30 pm we arrived at our hotel Aux Bougainville’s in Ambalavao. Our tour operator informed us that there was a good place with nice rocks and plants nearby but he had forgotten the exact location. It was only a bit surprising to find out that he did not appear to have reliable notes to remind himself of worthwhile stops given that he had taken people there the year before.
The hotel was basic but adequate but there were no grounds to explore and no swimming pool either. There was relatively fast Internet and an interesting craft shop with souvenirs made locally.
Dinner was not spectacular, but it was filling.
Day 15 10/23 The “one good stop” day
We left our hotel in Ambalavao after breakfast and headed south, backtracking a bit to visit the place our tour operator could not find yesterday. This first stop of the day was at a nice granitic dome area, a good succulent plant habitat that was not difficult to explore.
- 10.32 The “one good stop” this day. We stopped along the paved road (Route 7) and walked the red trail (a dirt track where people with cattle would walk) to reach the hill. Blue pins are GPS photo locations from one of the cameras. The red walk was about 500m (1600 ft) long. The hill was about 12 km SSW of our hotel in Ambalavao – other nearby hills also seemed to have good habitat but this one was easily accessible.
We spent about 90 minutes exploring this land of rocks and depressions/vernal pools filled with plants, some of which were succulents. Here is an excellent summary of Madagascar inselberg vegetation. This was a good habitat for Cynanchum, Xerophyta, Euphorbias, Kalanchoe, some orchids, other succulents and Pachypodium densiflorum. From the higher parts of the granite outcrop the views were impressive, although here too we could see Eucalyptus and rice paddies below.
An hour and a half to enjoy this granite habitat was not quite enough time, but we started heading down.
After leaving this beautiful area we headed for Fianarantsoa and our hotel for the next two nights. Along the way we saw a variety of towns as well as the, by now, common rice paddies.
We did a bit more exploration but the habitats were not very good. On one of the stops we parked near a small village and it did not take long before we had quite an audience of children of varying ages and a few adults. Some members of the tour went up a hill looking for succulents while some remain near the cars. While waiting for everybody to return to the cars some tour members gather near the cars. As usual the children just stared at us, which I have never been able to understand given that there surely most be other cars with people circulating in the area. Of course it may be that there are very few tourists visiting this area. They appeared so curious yet they did not say much, I spoke to them in French, but did not get much of a response. Then I heard the happy music our driver was listening to and I started to dance to see if I could get them to look less serious. It worked, the kids and I laughed together.
Children are often seen almost everywhere you go in Madagascar. During our tour children would wave at our cars and if given a chance they would ask for bonbons. I learned from our driver bonbon was candy and not chocolate as I knew is the case in Latin America. In some places kids asked some of our tour members for their rings or earrings and sometimes they wanted the empty water bottles. On one occasion our driver scolded some kids and told them they should be in school instead of wasting their lives begging for stuff.
Widespread begging, to a certain degree, is related to the widespread poverty that you see as your travel through Madagascar. Locals see tourists like us and they assume (probably correctly if we compare their situations to ours) that we are rich. Thus asking for things from the tourists may seem like a natural thing to do. It was a common to see little children carrying loads of bricks to build charcoal ovens or carrying, pulling or pushing other loads. Seeing poverty and poor people was not a new experience, but seeing it everywhere on a daily basis regardless of our location was. A comment made by one of the tour members near the end of the trip sums it up well. He said: “I knew this country was poor but I did not know it was this poor”.
A November 2015 article that appeared in The Guardian summarized the problem well:
“Madagascar rarely features on anyone’s list of urgent global causes. Its quiet desperation falls into that forgotten category of poor-but not-quite-poor-enough, perpetually hovering just above the red zone that triggers a glut of aid, NGOs and cameras. It cannot claim the f-word for famine, only severe food insecurity and, as an island of little strategic importance on the world stage, it remains better known for its lemurs. The government remains fundamentally unstable and financially broke; the economy was ranked the worst on the planet by Forbes magazine in 2011. The outside world is familiar with Madagascar from animated films and nature documentaries but knows little of its population or their poverty. As the fourth biggest island in the world, it lies 300 miles off the coast of mainland Africa and does not threaten its borders with refugees”.
Of course the lack of family planning is rarely discussed and considering that as of 2014, the total fertility rate is 4.28 in Madagascar compared to the world average of 2.43, access to family planning is probably the number one item that should be implemented to start the process of reversing this tremendous poverty problem in Madagascar. This is, of course, not only needed in Madagascar, but in many other parts of the world with similar problems. Giving money or aid would not solve the problem in the long run, with more food and no family planning I believe people would just have more kids and when the money and help run out the crisis would be even worse.
We spent most of our time in the countryside; the larger towns and Tana had seemingly fewer people in desperate conditions and the state of buildings and roads was vastly better than in the countryside. Such contrasts between the countryside and the city are seen in every country, even in the US, but not always to the extreme levels seen in Madagascar.
I feel very strongly that any prospective traveler to Madagascar should be aware of this situation. In spite of everything I read before the trip and even though the word “poor” appeared more than once in different books, I was unprepared for the level of poverty I started noticing almost from the moment we landed. I have visited many countries and we have spent most of our time in rural areas and prior to our trip to Madagascar I thought I had seen poverty both in cities and in rural areas. Yet nothing I experienced during our previous travels prepared me for the Madagascar experience. Perhaps this is not a big deal for some people, but for me it was. I could not remain unmoved when seeing so many children in tattered clothes, no shoes or carrying heavy loads and working in the field etc. Children where everywhere, so avoiding these conflicted feelings of mine was not possible.
It was difficult not to experience feelings of guilt when seeing this situation during our time in Madagascar. There I was looking for succulent plants when kids nearby were most likely malnourished and probably not getting much of an education. Unfortunately, because of these continuous “reality reminders” and recurring problems with the tour, I was not really able to fully enjoy this trip.
After lunch at an abandoned winery, there was some last minute attempt by the tour operator to find another suitable succulent plant habitat, but with no success. We took the road that goes to Ranomafana National Park and came close to the park but turned around. A pity since it was here that we started to see remnants of a fog forest, albeit disturbed. Tree ferns appeared and taller trees, some of which were most likely native, also became apparent.
After turning around we went right into the city and its bustling streets full of people pushing or pulling something or just walking, vehicles, small shops etc. At this point we learned that the big rush to get back to the city was to allow our driver to get to the insurance office and pay for the insurance. Otherwise he would continue to have problems with the police. Most members of the tour also took the opportunity to visit an ATM.
Our arrival at the hotel was somewhat anticlimactic. The hotel was on a somewhat unappealing and run down street. Considering that we would stay here two nights, I imagined we would be visiting some great locations tomorrow and of course I had read the good reviews about the great pizza served at the hotel restaurant. As we got out of our vehicles we were literally assaulted by begging children. They were very persistent and at some point one kid had to be forcefully shoved out-of-the-way since he was blocking the entrance to the hotel. It wasn’t the first time we had seen beggars, although we could say that this was the first time we have been surrounded by beggars at the entrance to a hotel.
The hotel looked a bit better inside than it did from the outside. It had an interior courtyard filled with plants and a very high wall to isolate you from the world on the other side. The pizzas were very good, in fact our group had pizza the two nights we were there. There were a few power outages and some of the rooms suffered longer outages than ours. A fan was a welcome addition to the otherwise spartan furniture and our bathroom was not in the greatest shape, but it was adequate. Internet was intermittent. It should be said that Fianarantsoa does have other “better” hotels, most likely a bit more expensive than ours.
Staying two nights in a less than ideal part of town was not really a big deal if there had been a good reason for doing this. Early during dinner, as TV was getting ready to join us, I became aware of an exchange between him and our tour operator. Our tour operator told him he could not eat dinner at this time because he need to get out there and talk to somebody and find places to visit tomorrow so that “these people” (that was us the tour participants) could be kept occupied. It was unbelievable that we would be booked two nights in this hotel when there was no plan for the next day. Our tour operator did not know what we were going to do tomorrow, but he knew he could not give us the day off as he had with the tour the previous year. Thus tomorrow we would explore places never before visited by either TV or our tour operator. We love exploring, but given that this was a guided tour (costing us (together) close to $550 per day), we were hoping for planned stops at locations with good habitats worthy of exploration.
TV finally came back and informed the group about a plan for tomorrow. According to him we would drive about 70 km north of town (same direction we had to go to reach Tana the next day) and he said we would stop and check out some rocks near the road. He had no idea what plants were there since he had never visited that area. He got this information by talking to someone (not sure whom).
Given the lack of national parks or reserves between Fianarantsoa and Tana, our chances of visiting some really good places to see succulents were diminishing rapidly. At this point we finally concluded that the final days of this tours would most likely consist of impromptu explorations. We feared these explorations would most likely happen in substandard habitats, probably near cultivated fields or rice paddies and eucalyptus or pine groves. Of course we would probably be doing this under the watchful eye of the myriad local kids and people that always appeared out of the blue.
Continue to days 16-18