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Madagascar - 2018 (Journeys)

MADAGASCAR - 2018 

My Nikon D500 and I finally made it to Madagascar, the third World biggest Island and the World's poorest. One could say that its Malaysian-Indonesian Borneo-Polynesian-African ethnic mix makes Madagascar the place where Asia-meets-Africa. A unique experience awaits its visitors. 

MORA TRAVEL AGENCY in Madagascar organized my dream visit to Madagascar. ANJA, in the Agency, immediately understood what photography is all about. I had shared with her my secret passion: tribes, tribal life, tribal everything and Baobabs, lots of them please!. And there I was, mapping all shapes of Baobabs and…meeting the Hidden Tribe of Madagascar:  the Mikeas!!!

TRAILFINDERS organized a flight to Ivato Airport, Antananarivo, Madagascar with Ethiopian Airlines. A late afternoon flight out of Dublin (Ireland) was by far the cheapest. Dublin-via Addis Ababa,  all for just 650euros return.  VISAS for both Ethiopia and Madagascar can be obtained online or at the airport without any problems.

MONEY best changed at the airport on arrival. Have a bag large enough to accommodate the millions in paper-money! 

PS Inside Antananarivo Airport they will not accept Malagasy currency once you pass security. 

PS Visiting Madagascar without the assistance of a good local Agency not advisable! 

ANTANANARIVO (Tana) is a big city. Very busy, lots of traffic, lots of overloaded taxi-brouss (local buses), lots of people barefoot walking, pulling, pushing, carrying. Manual Brick-making very common,  ducks/geese, brooms can be seen lined up on the busy roads along with people’s wet clothes drying on the roadside. Markets are not safe especially in the evening and neither are the city streets in general. Best go with a guide. The old style Lokanga Hotel offers an amazing panoramic view over Tana. If possible stay at Bois Vert Hotel, close to the airports and located in a beautiful park, offers a unique experience. 

EASTERN COAST-MANAMBATO-LAKE RASOABE-LAKE AMPITABE

From Antananarivo we drove East to Mananbato through mountains, on the main road from/to  Tana, the RN2.  The road is twisty, steep, full of ramps, pot-holes, heavy commercial traffic. The beautiful landscape, lush vegetation, nice villages, colourful mountain people, makes up for it.

PS If Google Map does not show a road to Rasoabe Lake where a boat is meant to get you through the Pangalanes Channel, up the river and to a retreat on the spectacular Lake Ampitabe, don’t panic! There is NO road, but we tested a bumpy, dusty, rocky path for you….and Yes it does take you to the lake. The boat run to the Palmarium Hotel takes about an hour. 

The lake is beautiful, dotted with fishing villages. The Hotel Palmarium is sheer paradise. Forget about the world out there, pretend you never heard of Wi-fi, internet, phones. Just enjoy the white sand, the tropical trees, the spectacular landscape, the warm waters of the Laguna.  A on/off phone signal can be got in the Restaurant, but why bother!  By the way Lights OFF at 10 p.m. 

The Hotel Palmarium has its own private Wildlife Reserve on a nearby island where you can see most species of Lemurs. A boat will take you to the Palmarium Sanctuary where there is a very good restaurant. The Lemurs are very friendly and they all answer to the name of “Meiky”!. You can also go for a night walk. Paradise on earth. 

NORTHWEST-MORONDAVA-BAOBAB ALLEE  I took a short flight from Tana (Antananarivo) to the busy small town of Morondava. Beautiful sea, boats, sails, fish, markets, colour, and a more African atmosphere. Baobab Allee is simply amazing. Beautiful tall trees. Much taller than expected. Lots of them. A sunset shot is all one can manage. In Morondava is where we stocked up in drinking water for the people living in the deep south where water is scarce if not inexistent.

PS I was very worried about my 10kg camera ruck-sack as “only 5 kg are allowed in the cabin”. My check-in bag was just 15kg so they didn’t bother charging for the extra carry-on kgs.

DEEP WEST-KIRINDY Is a dry forest. Plenty of wildlife and a favourite with bird-watchers. The night walk is full of surprises. You may even meet a “fosa” on its way to hunt. The small Restaurant has a small menu, and the spaghetti on offer was as exotic as I could go. Kirindy Lodge, has small chalets, cold shower. lights off at 10 pm. 

DEEP WEST-BEKOPAKA-TSINGY Here is where the adventure started. To reach the Stone Forest in the Unesco protected Bemaraha National Park, the drive takes 8 hours on dirt, dusty road and ferries across two rivers. Lunch was in a very poor village along the River Tsiribihina. It is there that I met a 5 y.o. boy to whom I gave my water, my baguette, my coke, and may change. I watched him share every bit of it with his other three young pals. They share what they have and what they don’t have!!! Some lesson in poverty! 

At about 2 pm all the cars from the ferry joined in a convoy and the army arrived to escort us for over a 100 km and through 15 km of a red zone where bandits were active. The road is very dusty, uneven, and all we could see where abandoned villages. Those poor people are forced to either flee the area or spend nights hiding in the forest leaving the army to protect their village.

TSINGY The area is beautiful. The Stone Forest radiates heat. Rocks as sharp as a razor blade. The 1 and a half hr climb, not an easy ride. Bending and crawling through extremely narrow gaps while hooked on ropes is not for me. I chickened out. The 35 degrees at 8 a.m.didn’t help. But, lots of people manage it. If a photo is what you want be aware that by 8 a.m. the sun is so high that shooting is not an option. Beautiful Soleil de Tsingy Hotel made up for it all. Lights off at 10 p.m.

BEKOPAKA-MORONDAVA The return trip required another convoy and the army escort. The meeting point was in the nearby village. The activity was amazing. Locals carrying meat, fruit, water. Children excited gathered around the many Vazahas (white people) and around the soldiers. Back in Morondava I managed a sunset in Baobab Alley. Cap Kimony Hotel in Morondava excellent. Switch off 10 p.m.

ANTISIRABE-AMBALAVAO-SOUTH The drive was through cotton fields, tobacco fields, paddy fields. Savanna-like valleys, rich agricultural areas. I saw bikes! The streets in Antisirabe were full of cyclo-pousse, a Tuc-tuc pulled by bikes, wide boulevards, palm trees. Hotel des Thermes, is an old French Hotel that has seen better days.

Ambalavao is my favourite town. Brightly coloured colonial buildings, people wrapped in their red/yellow/green lamba (wrap) and hats, lots of hats.  Caravans of beautifully groomed Zebus being led to the market and paraded among buyers, farmers, men, women, children. It was only Magical. The hilled red landscape, the little mud houses, and the villagers made it a unique experience. Betsileo Country Lodge small but good.Light off at 10 p.m.

By now I had Madagascar sussed out: It’s all about HATS! Soft, hard, wide, flat, round, small, flowers, ribbons, colour, plain.  Every ethnic group has its very own unique Hat!!!! Show me your hat and I’ll tell you who you are. Hats, what a passion!

RANOHIRA-ISALO-FURTHER SOUTH Heading further south we crossed more affluent villages, savannas, mountain ranges, plateaux, canyons, rock formations. Spectacular. In Ranohira I visited a gold mine where people were digging for a few euros a day, watched gold hunters at work in the shallow river, and followed the lucky ones rushing to sell their hard-earned gems to the  Sri Lankan and Chinese who control the trade.

A sunset photo of the famous “rock window” is a must.    no hanging around after sunset though. At sun-set security takes over Hotels and petrol all night.

Relais de la Reine Hotel amazing, switch off time 11 p.m., that’s what you get in a 5*.

TULEAR-IFATY-ANDRAVONA After a painful, rocky, hazardous 4 hr drive to cover a bare 35 km, the most beautiful Laguna appeared. White sand, white dunes, white stone, fishing villages, turtle sanctuary, ancient Tea-Pot Baobabs, and then the Spiny Forest and the Hidden tribe of Madagascar…the Mikea people!

Mikea Lodge, a dream. The whole place is a dream!!! 

Switch off as usual, but the moon takes over. 

In Tulear, I managed a quick visit to the Botanic Garden and in the Dunes of Ifaty Hotel, I waved goodbye to beautiful Madagascar. 

It was a long trip, 3 weeks, but a beautiful one. All made possible thanks to MORA Travel,  ANJA’s hard work, and to our great driver: that made it all so special,  Nantenaina!!

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

(Elections 2018)-200 political parties, 36 candidates and the most popular party, lead by a religious leader, is called “Apocalist”. It says it all!

There are very few good roads, hardly any to tell the truth. 

Buses are called: Taxi Brouss, Tuc-Tuc are called Cyclo-pousse, unless are pulled by hand, white visitors are called Vazah, Antananarivo is shortened to Tana, Madagascar to Mada, Wi-Fi is pronounced WEe-FEe. Mora means  “easy” go easy.

Electricity is in short supply. Powe supply Timetable is: 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., 6 p.m. to 10.30 p.m.

No phones or intercom in the hotel’s bedrooms. If you need to contact Reception…you walk.

Every Hotel, lodge, has security men patrolling the grounds at night.

In some tribes, twin babies are separated and only one is kept by the parents.

In some tribes, keeping children from a former marriage under the same roof with a new wife brings bad luck…they are therefore abandoned.

Long dead family members might be exhumed at the time of a family wedding to bring good luck to the newlyweds. The belief is that a dead person, being so close to God is able to take better care of the newlywed.

Some other tribes exhume every seven years to re-dress the bodies.

Some tribe hide their dead in caves to stop their bones being stolen for medicinal or black-magic purposes.

Toddlers, children can be seen carrying, digging, working from the day they can walk. 

Scores of people, young and old,  walk, sit, eat, shop altogether. Toddlers, babies, children and youngsters sit still in a row for hours.

The Chinese have arrived. They rent out mines from the locals, employing nobody on the ground, and bring their own people: prisoners, convicts!! If they survive 15 years of hard labour in Mada they are then set free!

MY TIPS

Do not plan a go-it-alone adventure trip. 

Go with a good Agency. Mora Travel was excellent. 

You need a good 4x4, a good driver.

Do not go out at night. 

Always go in a group or with your driver.

Armed gangs of criminals are very active. They are armed, and the locals know where they hide.

Tana is a photographer’s paradise but you need somebody with you and to be kept safe.

Fly, Internal flights are cheap and well run. You save yourself a lot of driving.

Have all your injections up to date.

Malaria, I came across very few mosquitoes, but the smelly waterways in some parts of Tana gave me concern.

Milk is in short supply. Coke is made locally and is not as sugary. 

THB (Three Horse Beer) is excellent.

Zebu meet is very tender and its flavour is not as strong as that of beef.

Food is very good. Mostly cooked on charcoal. Electricity is a luxury.

Don’t change too much money as it is all very very cheap.

THE BITS I DIDN’T LIKE     

Lack of facilities at the  Airport in Antananarivo. Just one little stall for coffee and rubbish.

Only dollars or euros accepted at the Airport.

EveryThing is physically transported by men, women, children.

No technology anywhere, even the stones used to resurface roads are smashed by hand.

People in the South don’t beg for food or money but for water!

No way of contacting Reception from your bedroom.

THE BITS I LIKED

The Hats of course!!!

The colour of the sea, the beaches, the sky, the colours. A cross between Caribbean and Polynesia

The lack of noise. Traffic is quiet, which doesn’t come as a surprise as there are no cars, no machines, not even shoes!

HOW TO GET THERE

AIR FRANCE was the obvious choice, it gets into Antananarivo in the afternoon. 

KENYA AIRLINES from London is also very convenient.

ETHIOPIAN AIRLINES from Dublin, via Addis Abeba, Antananarivo.

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