Day 16 10/24 A day for “explorations”
At this point of our tour we started noticing that a negative aspect of being back on a main paved road was the abundance of slow trucks, which often spewed copious amounts of diesel soot. This became more of a problem as we got closer to Tana. The road also became more winding and the driver went too fast for me not to get nauseous. Diesel fumes, the constant glare and the windy roads were a sure recipe for migraine headaches, but my preventative measures (a cocktail of Dramamine and migraine pills) made a difference. Unfortunately this situation remained all the way to Tana requiring daily doses of medication to make it through the day.
In the absence of many productive stops to look for plants I started paying more attention to the towns and people we saw as we drove north. It was on this part of the trip that I took many pictures of people and places, albeit from our moving car. The many butcher shops in less than attractive settings and their assortment of meats caught my eye. Common along the road or in the towns were the small shops with minimal inventories. Life in Madagascar appeared to be happening next to the road and sellers and buyers were a permanent fixture of the cultural landscape. Throughout the tour I had noticed the high level of manual labor being performed by many Malagasy. This too became very evident on this part of the tour as we were traveling through a more heavily populated area. This included people in rock quarries chipping rocks by hand with simple hammers, and kids or adults pushing or pulling heavy loads – sometimes in very precarious arrangements. Another common sight were the “laundry days”, as I named them. Laundry done by groups of children and women, rarely men, appeared to be a communal activity. Clothes drying on bushes or on anything people could find for this purpose also provided an interesting cultural landscape.
Today, the 16th day of our tour, we left the hotel after breakfast to start our “explorations”. Given what I knew from hearing the exchange between our tour guide and TV last night I was tempted to stay at the hotel, but this option appeared even less appealing than going off to “explore” so I took my chances and went with the group. We also noticed that there was a fair amount of smoke in the air and it was very hazy.
By 11:30 am our group (including myself) had already gone on one fairly lengthy walk. In order to get to the rocky area we had to drive on some busy and badly potholed roads.
Then at the site we had to hike through burned fields before getting to the better area for views and some succulents. Unfortunately the granite outcrop we finally reached had also been recently burned. nevertheless there were some succulents such as Euphorbia milli, Kalanchoe sp., Xerophyta sp. and a Cynanchum sp. growing in the depressions or cracks. Pachypodiums were seen through binocular a fair distance away. There were not really too many new plants to justify this walk, especially considering the time and effort involved getting to the plants. I should mention that no one wanted to follow TV’s original plan of going north since we would be doing that tomorrow anyways. Thus this was another new place he found for us to explore. As expected neither him nor the tour operator had visited this site.
Then we headed back on the same bad road we came up on.
After this first hike TV announced that we were going to do “another mountain walk” in a different location. Having gone on the first hike, I decided to stay in the car while the rest of the group moved on to explore this new outcrop. Using my binoculars I could see the group from the car and after a short time I noticed that most members were standing next to a large rock face were there were some Pachypodium densiflorum. A few members waited in the sun lower down and one tour member had made it to a more inaccessible area at the top that appeared to have better diversity of succulents.
I could see with binoculars that the rocks at the top probably provided a nice habitat to explore, but in my opinion this area would have been inaccessible for me and it turned out it was also inaccessible for most of the group. After about 40 minutes most everybody was back to the cars.
After lunch we went to another site for more explorations. In spite of the walk through burned cultivated fields and the ever-present kids, this site turned out to be the best one of the day. This granite outcrop although somewhat steep, had a good assortment of succulents even near the base of the rocks, where fire had damaged some of the plants. At this site we saw orchids, Cynanchum, Xerophyta, Aloes, Kalanchoe, Rhipsalis, and Pachypodium densiflorum. Also of note was the abundance of lichens on the rocks and even on the plants. Grass was also an important component of the vegetation and it was common to see succulents like Aloes or Pachypodium densiflorum growing with the grasses. Days later we would learn from another tour member that Rudy, one of the drivers, had found this location for us!
An image showing the three locations that we explored this day can be seen here.
By 4 pm we were back at our hotel. By popular demand we again had pizza for dinner that evening.
Day 17 10/25 The best for last and not enough time to enjoy it
This was mainly a driving day and our destination for the night was a hotel in Antsirabe, our last hotel before arriving back in Tana on the 26th. The paved road had a fair amount of traffic including the usual slow trucks and diesel-belching vehicles. Smoke from fires in the surrounding area was also heavy in the air. To add to the pollution in some areas there were charcoal ovens next to the road. After a brief stop to buy part of our lunch we were on our way.
By 8:50 that morning everyone but our tour operator and me had gone off on a morning hike. The area did not look that promising in my opinion and that is why I stayed behind. This walk lasted about 1 hour and 20 minutes. The walk was mostly through cultivated pine and eucalyptus forest and at the end the group got to an outcrop area that had been mostly burned over. Some of the succulent plants there were Kalanchoe, Aloes and a Rhipsalis. The specimens were in poor condition.
- 10.152 This was the route of our hike up to the poor-quality granitic exposure. The blue pins document the passage through farmers fields, eucalyptus and pine forests, to the granite where most photos were taken. Photos were taken to say the hike was “worthwhile”. For exercise it was nice, for plants it wasn’t. If we’d had a few more days (or weeks) we might have found a few good sites.
After this walk, except for police checkpoints, bathroom stops, and lunch opposite craft stalls next to the road, it was mainly driving until we made our last and very late stop for the day.
Our last good stop of the trip to see succulent plants in habitat came very late in the day, so late in fact that there was not enough time to properly enjoy the site. It was about 3:25 pm when we turned on a side road that lead us to the mining area of Ibity. After an 18-minute drive the cars came to a stop and we met up with our tour operator who had gone ahead to make the arrangements and started the hike. We were then told to hurry and go up the hill. Not having any idea of what we were doing here I asked what was here and the tour operator shouted Pachypodium brevicaule. It would have been nice to know about this final stop before we got there. Perhaps everybody except us knew about this last stop? Lunch time could have been a good time to let people know what we would be doing and to stress the need to be quick about it since otherwise our hotel for this night may not hold the rooms previously reserved for us.
- 10.154 This Google Earth view shows our route from the cars (uppermost red pin on dirt road near top) to the Pachypodium brevicaule site (bottom pins) Many interesting plants including succulents were in this rocky habitat. Click on the picture to see a larger version of our route up the slope to the Pachypodium brevicaule area. Just follow the red pins. Also note the mine.
We rushed up as fast as we could, ignoring the 5000 feet elevation and the relatively steep hike (we had to climb 150m or 500 ft. in elevation above our vehicles). Going up to see the Pachypodiums required going through a hamlet and a few “minders” from the village came with us and watched us the entire time. I believe our tour operator had to pay a fee for us to be allowed us to go up and see the plants. This is most likely the reason why the habitat of the plants has been preserved.
Once we got up to the site it was apparent that this was a worthwhile stop. In addition to the Pachypodium we saw Cynanchum, Aloe, and several other genera of succulents we couldn’t immediately identify. The rocks were different – they were something like quartzite – undoubtedly the mine activity was related to something of value in this metamorphic zone (Mike’s comment).
We had not been at the top long when the tour operator started shouting we needed to head back. We asked for more time – 25 minutes was far too little for the effort and for what was here, but he said we risked not having a room for the night if we did not leave then. We had little option but to comply and headed back to the cars as fast as we could.
It had taken us a total of one hour and 15 minutes to get up to where the P. brevicaule were, to admire and photograph them, and to get back to our vehicles. Unfortunately most of that time had spent getting up to the site and returning. Today, of all days, we should have spent less time at lunch in order to guarantee a little bit more time at this, our best stop of the day, and probably one of the better stops in the last days of this tour. We could have also gained over an hour by not visiting the morning’s site with very degraded habitat.
It turned out we were not the last people to get back to the cars and those tour members who arrived last were scolded rather severely by our tour operator.
After returning to the cars it was off to the hotel in Antsirabe. It was a nice, modern looking hotel, although it was curious to be in a hotel like this and to have chickens next door. Dinner was unremarkable.
Day 18 10/26 Back to Tana, what a relief!
Today after breakfast it was off to Tana. After putting up with diesel fumes, curves, glare, people and cattle on the road for most of our driving time today, we made it to Tana about 1:40 pm. There were no stops except to eat lunch next to the road. A few difficult bathroom stops were also part of the fun today – very hard to get any privacy when trying to go to the bathroom near the road. Going through the city was not ideal due to the large number of people and the slow traffic. Then our hotel finally came into view and it was time to say goodbye to our drivers and to unload our luggage.
Our last group dinner was that night at the hotel.
Now it was time to get ready for our private tour of the wetter forest environments both north and also east of Tana. This would be a 5-day private tour with driver and an English-speaking guide. We were eager to see how this tour would turn out and what type of car and guide we would get. You can see pictures and read a description of our private tour in here and here. You can also see part II of our private tour in this log.
It was nice to be back in Tana, yet it was hard to ignore the feeling that perhaps we had made a mistake taking this tour. We saw many interesting plants and habitats during our 18-day tour. We also enjoyed seeing some interesting birds, lemurs, insects, lizards etc. that we encountered along the way. However, I could not help but feel that we had seen too few really enjoyable “good-quality” habitats with lots of succulent plants – this was, after all, a succulent plant tour. Too few considering the high level of discomfort, the long driving days, the levels of habitat destruction and disturbance we witnessed, and the lack of careful planning and good customer service.
More of our thoughts can be found in our Comments and Recommendations section.
Continue to our Private tour, days 1-3. Tana-Ambohitantely