Monday, October 21, 2019

Madagascar Day 9 & 10 - Andasibe and Traveling

Today was mostly going to be a travel day.  It's actually a 2 day drive to go from Andasibe to Ranomafana National Park which was our next destination.

Our itinerary had us making a quick stop at Mitsinjo Reserve before hitting the road but Bruno said that we wouldn't see much there so we went to V.O.I.M.M.A instead which ended up working out just fine since we had some good sightings.

Juvenile Parson's Chameleon molting:
Juvenile Parson's Chameleon

Another Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko.  It was hard to not be amazed by these guys every time we saw one:
Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko

By far the highlight was our best (and last) look at an Eastern Lesser Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur griseus).  There was a small troop of them but only one came out into the relative open for a photo:
Eastern Lesser Bamboo Lemur

With that, our time in Andasibe was done.  I think 3 nights was the perfect amount of time and allowed us to visit all 3 of the main parks.  I wish they had better night walk options but of course that is an issue in all of Madagascar.

We left Andasibe at 9:15 AM and we didn't get to our hotel for the night (Maison Tanimanga) in Antsirabe until 6 PM.  We did have about a half hour break outside of Tana for a stop at another Gastro Pizza for lunch.  Other than that, time was spent driving in traffic, exhaust, and today smoke had filled the air so leaving the car really didn't get us any fresh air either.  It was not a great way to spend 9 hours.

Rather than go on about the crappy drive I want to spend a few words on our guide Bruno and driver Dida.  We had Bruno from day 1 all the way to the end of the trip when we left for Masoala.  Bruno had accompanied us for our leg in the north whereas Dida had not.

It took a day or so for us to warm up to Bruno and him to us but once we did we had a great time with him.  He is a fun, energetic guide and knows his wildlife.  He knew Peggy was the birder in the group and did everything he could to get her the sightings she was after.  He would let the local guides lead us but he was always on the lookout for things himself and was a good spotter.

Once Bruno found out that Karen always wanted bananas he would stop and get some for her and announce "Banana Gram".  Here are a few more "Bruno-isms" that we really enjoyed:

"See you tomorrow" - when whatever wildlife we were looking at would fly, leap, or even crawl away

"No Problem" - his answer to just about all of our requests.  He was really flexible.

"Uh-oh" - his way of telling us something wasn't going to work

By far our favorite was when he was talking about one of the lodges where we didn't stay:

"It's not very bad, but it's not very GOOD either"

Bruno would sing and dance once in a while and never met a conversation he didn't like.  Yup, he was a talker.  Mainly, he was a talker in the car to Dida which he later told us was to be sure Dida stayed awake and alert on the long drives which made sense.

However, Dida wasn't that much of a talker and had a great "UhhhHHH..." response to Bruno during these conversations.  At first, this was a bit of an inside joke for Karen and I, but then we learned that Bill and Peggy had the same inside joke.  So, from then on, every time it happened the four of us couldn't help but smile which did make the drives more tolerable.  Here's a little taste:

We learned that this was the first time Bruno had worked with Cactus Tours as a guide and hopefully it won't be the last.  He and all the Cactus Tours people are very much recommended for anyone thinking of going to Madagascar.

Dida was only our driver from the Andasibe portion (minus the day at Mantadia NP) until he too left us before we headed to Masoala.  Driving in Madagascar is not easy and he did a great job.  We never felt in any danger despite all the obstacles that we encountered on the roads.  He was always on time and always got us where we needed to go.  He even got out and opened doors for us most the time which shouldn't have been needed but the van we all shared had doors that were really hard to open from the inside.

Now, back to the end of the days travel.  Maison Tanimanga was just fine for a one night stay.  The food was actually some of the best we had the whole trip. The owner was French and didn't speak English so it was a bit hard to communicate.  Also, both rooms were quirky.  Bill and Peggy had no shower and only a clawfoot tub with a hand nozzle while our shower was so small that my arms dangled outside of it during the shower.  Plus, we felt sorry for the guests underneath our room since our floor creaked horribly.  We tip toed as much as we could but it still could not have been pleasant for them.

Maison Tanimanga

World's smallest shower

There was also a lot of city noise during the night so we didn't sleep great.  But, for one night it's fine especially when you consider that both the dinner and breakfast we had were very good.

The next day was another full travel day.  I knew going in that we would have these two full travel days but boy they took their toll on us.  Traveling in Madagascar is just brutal and two days in a row is not very enjoyable.

Anyway, after a nice breakfast we headed out at 8 AM and we wouldn't arrive at our hotel in Ranomafana until 5 PM.  But, at least we had some longer breaks and diversions today.

The first one was at a gemstone place that was interesting until I saw they had 5 critically endangered Radiated Tortoises that they would haul out for the tourists to take pictures.  I looked at their "cages" and they weren't much bigger than they were so they must lead a crappy existence.  While we didn't feel overly pressured to buy anything we of course did.  Based on other people's trip reports you can read online, this is a common place to visit for anyone doing the traditional RN7 road trip like we were.

The next stop was at a wood working place that was more interesting. They make everything by hand including the tools.  We watched the master woodworker do some inlay work and it was pretty remarkable.  We had no qualms about buying a wood chameleon from their gift shop which we have enjoyed daily since returning from our trip.

Lunch was spent at an OK restaurant that had real bathrooms and ended up having some live entertainment which was different.

Since I didn't take many pictures over this 2 day drive, this is probably a good time to talk about some observations we made during our trip.  Anyone thinking of going to Madagascar should really temper their expectations.  I thought I had done that but I was wrong.  Things appear much worse than I expected.

First off, 95% of the population is dirt poor.  Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world even ranking below Haiti if you can believe that.  We were amazed that people in the north lived in tiny one room shacks made from sticks.  Around Tana the houses got bigger and were made out of brick but outside any of the major towns people lived in appalling conditions.

95% of the population also seems to live along the roads.  The roads were always crowded with literally masses of people, traffic, and animals at all times of day.  The video at the end of the report shows some examples.  I don't know how Dida managed to maneuver through everything without getting hit or hitting something.

The burning of the forests appears out of control. Making and then selling charcoal is the best way for people to feed their families according to Bruno so most people do it especially since most people cannot afford electricity.  We saw so much burning and charcoal for sale that I can't imagine their unprotected forests lasting my lifetime.  This means big problems for the Malagasy and even bigger problems for their wildlife.

Here are a few pictures I took from our plane ride returning from Masoala back to Tana. They were the last pictures I took on the trip but I don't want to end this report with them so I thought I would include them here.  The plane ride was about 90 minutes.  At one point I counted smoke from over 50 fires in view at the same time and it would have been impossible to count all the scorched areas I saw.

Not much hope for the future

Fires everywhere

I already mentioned that we saw numerous people going to the bathroom along the road and we also had a young boy squat and take care of business not far from us in a park in Ifaty (which was inundated with trash).

While everyone we met was nice to us, the staff at all the lodges were really stoic. This is the complete opposite of our last trip to Kenya where everyone greeted us with smiles and thanked us for coming.  We got none of that in Madagascar.  We never saw any staff members smile or laugh or even thank us for coming.  This occurred at even the "upscale" lodges.  It just must not be part of their culture.

The worst thing for me was the blatant exploitation of their wildlife.  Besides the poor mouse lemur in Andasibe, we also saw kids with chameleons trying to get money out of tourists, a ring-tailed lemur chained up outside the National Park office at Isalo (that day is still to come), the feeding of wildlife at some parks (Ankarana, Isalo, and Nosy Mangabe) and just an overall tone of disrespect when it came to how they treated the wildlife that we were watching.  Whether it was the incessant indri calling trying to get them to call back, the over herding of ground birds (even ones with chicks) or even the corralling of a snake with sticks at Anja (also to come).  That lack of respect was present a lot and it impacted our enjoyment of the trip.

The domestic animals were exploited and mistreated too.  Just about every person that passed us with a zebu was beating or whipping the zebu.  It was awful to see.  At one point, a zebu must have run away from some guys because they chased it and caught it and proceeded to run it back beating it's front legs with a large stick the whole way so that it almost tripped multiple times.

You would think with all the beating the Zebu would be "tender" but that certainly wasn't the case with most of the meat we had.

Those were some of the extreme lows of the trip.  But, there were extreme highs as well and I will try to give those more "page time" than all the venting I am doing of the lows.  I just want to be sure anyone thinking of going has the right expectations based on what we saw.

One good thing that came out of this is that going to Madagascar really made us appreciate what we have and what we all too often take for granted.  The "problems" we face in our country today certainly don't even come close to the problems faced by the Malagasy every day.

Anyway, back to the road trip.  Over all the RN7 was the best road of the trip.  But, it got worse the farther from Tana we drove so it got rough in places in the afternoon of this trip.  That didn't stop me from taking pictures from the car with a Sony point and shoot camera.  I can't say I have tried that before but when you are a photographer cooped up in the car for two days you get desperate.  Only about 5% of these pictures were keepers though.

Everywhere we went we saw people doing laundry in whatever water they could find.  But, of course they didn't have any clothesline to dry them on so they made do with what they had; the ground.  If they were lucky they would have a bush but most times the "clean" laundry was laid out in the dirt to dry.

Laundry Day

A taste of the brick making business that was huge along the RN7:
Brick making was everywhere

We saw lots of instances of people sitting around chiseling rocks. I couldn't figure out if they were making stone bricks, gravel or maybe both:
Making hand.

In Madagascar they have a saying that "Rice is life".  They eat rice at every meal. So, that means that most rivers have been converted into rice patties since the demand is so high.  There are rice patties everywhere which made for some nice scenery especially on the latter part of this drive:
More rice patties

Planting the rice:
Planting rice

Other than taking some pictures, and the one sided banter from the front seat, the only other entertainment we had during the drive was provided by Karen.  Besides one gas station just outside Tana, there were no proper bathroom breaks on any drive.  So, most of us just drank less and held it.  But, you can only do that for so long.

Before we made it to Ranomafana, Karen asks for a break to "check the tires".  She proceeded to come back and just as she was climbing back into the van she goes "uh oh, what's that smell and what's on my pants?"  That is about when the rest of us got hit by the stench cloud coming from her shoes which were pretty new.  It had quickly become apparent that Karen didn't pay close enough attention to the ground when she took her break and her shoe and pant leg had been "zebu'd".  So, the entertainment was watching her try to clean her pant leg and shoe off.  Thankfully, Peggy offered up some wet wipes which helped immensely.   I don't know what they feed the Zebu but maybe I don't want to know.  Maybe it's the zebus getting revenge for all the beating. Whatever the reason for their extra sticky and stinky poop, it took days and a lots of grass scraping and water to get her shoe completely clean.  That was some long lasting shit.

So, the moral of the story is that when you go pee pee near the small tree don't get zebu poo poo on your new shoe.

We arrived at the Thermal Hotel outside Ranomafana NP at around 5PM and it had just started to rain. So, our timing was good.  And, holy crap, I just went through all my pictures and realized that I didn't take any "B-roll" of the Thermal Hotel.  Darn it!  Well, you are just going to have to Google it for pictures if you want it.  The hotel looks nice, the grounds are nice and our room was decent.  But, it had quirks like most other places.

We ended up spending three nights here and it was, to quote Bruno, "Not very bad, but not very good either".

However, I do need to point out that the pork we had for our first dinner was outstanding.  Definitely, one of the best meals of the trip.  Too bad that was my last good meal at the Thermal Hotel.  Although, they made special chicken for Karen a couple nights that she said was fantastic.  I guess I should make up some dietary restrictions next time so I get the "good" meals too.

The rain continued all evening so there was no opportunity for a night walk.

Rather than end the report there, I will take a page out of the old Daily Show with Jon Stewart which sums up my opinion of traveling in Madagascar.  "And now, your moment of Zen..."

When  you interrupt a lemur meditating

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