Arrival on Tuesday 25 July 2017
After the most beautiful plane journey, flying over the crystal clear waters of Mauritius and Ile de Reunion, I arrived exhausted in Antananarivo. After getting through immigration in the airport, I was greeted by the friendly King of ‘Cycle Madagascar’, Klaus. To get to our hotel, we took a taxi, which I was extremely excited to discover was a Citroën 2 cv, of which I soon discovered that there are thousands in the capital city.
The next morning we spent finding a mobile SIM with TELMA, the highly advertised local phone service provider. This involved a lengthy walk, followed by a brief process of filling in a form, when at some point, for no apparent reason, the TELMA girl, pulls out her phone, takes a photo of me, and then continues filling out the form. The process is quick and efficient, and in some ways the phone service is more advanced than back home, such as the option of easy payments through the phone that has been available in Madagascar for many years. Klaus does not hesitate to set me several tasks to do on my first morning, such as booking hotels and paying invoices, which help give me a feel for the rhythm of the way things are done in this new foreign country.
Klaus kindly offered for me to stay in his home for my first few days, which also doubles up as the ‘Cycle Madagascar’ office, where all the organisation for the company is done by the talented and competent team. Even though everyone speaks French, I am told to speak only in English, to improve the level of language in the office, but as English is not commonly taught in Madagascar, this sometimes can lead to confusing conversations!
On my first night I was invited to experience the local, Malagasy nightlife, which was a Karaoke bar underneath the local hotel. It was comforting to notice that everyone was welcome here, which is a huge part of Malagasy culture. People of all ages ate, sang and drank together, which created a warm welcoming atmosphere to get me settled in to the local community. Although invited to sing, my shyness got the better of me, and I decided to save Madagascar from hearing my beautiful voice on this occasion. I also experienced my first brief power cut, which is not too rare in Madagascar, especially in the more rural regions. I am told that the electricity companies are nationalised, and therefore, often the government is not interested in updating and modernising the technology of the electricity grid, leading to more and more power cuts, as the electricity demand increases.
Ranomafana on friday 28 july 2017
No time was wasted before I was sent off on my first tour, a 9 day pirogue traditional boat trip with a team of 16 year old schoolchildren from Reading. I accompanied Castelina my head guide, who originally grew up in the countryside on a farm, taking two hours every day to walk to school, but after studying tourism, now lives in Antsirabe working as an experienced freelance guide, often leading the pirogue river tour. After preparing the bus with everything we need for the tour, we set off on the 5 hour journey to Ranomafana, a town named after the Malagasy words for ‘Hot water’ due to the hot springs found there. There are not many roads in Madagascar, and the quality of these roads is quite poor, which is why a simple journey of 200km can take this long. Although long, this journey is beautiful, with several snapshots into Malagasy life and culture found along the way. Along the side of the road, locals were selling eucalyptus leaves, eucalyptus honey, geranium oil (sold for its unique fragrance), and even some were simply selling broken up rocks. From the bus we could also see the endless rice fields that retreat into the mountains with a step-like formation, which helps control the irrigation of the water. It is currently not rainy season so these allotments are filled with beans, potatoes, and onions, but in rainy season, these fields can provide two harvests of rice a year, which I have discovered after eating rice three times a day, is a staple food in Madagascar.
In Ranomafana, before meeting up with the tour group, we were lucky enough to spend a few hours being led around the national park by a local guide. The guide’s name was Théo, a local who was born in the forest, wearing only pieces of bark (salaka) to cover his privates, but aged five, him and his tribe were kicked out of the rainforest in the name of protecting the natural habitat. His tribe had to completely change their culture and lifestyle, and now, if they are not lucky enough to be employed as guides, commonly live by the side of the road, selling broken up rocks to hotel companies. He told us of his previous life as a lemur poacher, which he now wholeheartedly regrets, now with foresight dedicating his life to educating people about the importance of conservation, and the fragility of the species in the area. He also told us of his claim to fame: Théo was the guide for David Attenborough, when he was filming his documentary on Madagascar and he still wears the ‘Gilet’ that David gave to him on this trip. He told us of how David had literally cried on his shoulder upon seeing how much the rainforest had diminished in the fifty years that had passed since his last visit. This deforestation is often due to foreign Chinese companies being granted permission from the government to mine for gold and other precious stones, gather rosewood and build hotels. Théo pointed out the hypocrisy of this and hinted at corruption, that whilst claiming to protect and conserve the wildlife in the park by removing his indigenous people, the government goes against this by approving projects involving shocking abuses of land. He continued to talk with increased passion and emotion how when the forest was much thicker, there existed a lemur that weighed over 180kg and was bigger than a gorilla, but tragically became extinct in the past two centuries.
The Ranomafana national park was founded in 1991 by Patricia White, a biologist who upon discovering the greater lemur demanded a national park to be created in pursuit of its conservation and protection from poachers and deforestation. With a size of 43000 hectares, in this park there are:
13 species of lemur, 7 diurnal, and 6 nocturnal. 100000 species of insect. 14 species of chameleon which are easier to see at night because of their camouflage during the day. 36 species of snakes. 250 species of frogs out of a total of 500 in Madagascar, of which 15% live in the trees, first misrecognised as birds. 1300 species of orchids. Unfortunately it is only during the wet season that you will see most of the frogs, snakes and insects, as during the winter these animals hibernate.
We were very lucky on our tour round the park, and managed to spot almost everything we expected to see. Walking across a picturesque bridge over rushing water, we spotted dozens of finger sized green geckos basking in the sunshine, admiring the view. The bridge was guarded by a colourfully menacing looking spider: ‘The Golden Worb Web spider’ that spins a golden web that shines brightly in the sun. On the other side of the bridge, we saw our second and final reptile, the leaf tailed gecko, which with the size of a little fingertip and extremely well disguised as a brown dead leaf, I still do not understand how the guide spotted it. Walking through the forest our ‘bird nerd’ Théo called birds along the way, and a few replied. First we heard the strangely familiar sound of a brush warbler, a bird that sounds like something we would find in a garden in England. The second that replied was much more exciting, a male coucou roller that was telling his wife to come back home to the nest. We even managed to catch sight of a Madagascar paradise fly catcher trying to find his lunch, as he darted around searching for his small prey.
As well as these amazing creatures, a few mammals came to say hello too, which were of course several rare species of lemur. We managed to get up close to the only two greater bamboo lemurs left in this specific national park, and the sad news is that their family will not be continued here. Several attempts at breeding these lemurs with others from other forests has proven unsuccessful, with the lemurs introduced not surviving the sudden change in habitat, and dying. We spotted a shy golden lemur in the treetops, its beautiful coat catching the sun, and just below him, a lesser lemur with eyes bigger than his mouth eating some bamboo. A ring-tailed mongoose also showed his face as he darted up a nearby tree.
The guiding was engaging, interesting and emotional, the best I’ve ever experienced, and if you’re ever in need of an English/ French speaking guide in Ranomafana, I would wholly recommend sending him (He really likes birds).
C.H - Cycle Madagascar™ © firstname.lastname@example.org July 29