We started our big overland tour with a trip to Tana’s flower market, amid rumours of revolution, coup and counter-coup. The democratically elected and very popular President had been overthrown in 2009 by a radio station owner supported by the military, French business interests, and corrupt politicians. Now he was going to attempt to return from exile in South Africa, supported by the African Council. We heard that a huge welcome was planned for him at the airport, so it was as well that we were heading south. The flower market was, as you would expect, very colourful, but it also had a large selection of succulents and xerophytes –
Euphorbia stenoclada, Alluaudia procera, Adeniums and Pachpodiums
We discovered where a lot of our charity shop second-hand clothes end up. They are shipped in bulk to Madagascar and similar countries, and are very popular.
We bought water for the trip at a supermarket with an armed guard on the gate, and set off for a beautiful drive through the main road in the central highlands, passing streams, red earth gullies, and extensive fields of rice. We stopped to buy fresh pineapples for a roadside stall, and they were delicious. Raffia baskets were on sale, and we saw lots of Agave sisalina growing by the road.
Our next stop was at an aluminium recycling operation. Scrap aluminium is melted down in charcoal-fired kilns, and the metal is then poured into moulds for salt cellars, sugar bowls, spoons and souvenirs. That was the place where the poverty of the people first really hit home to us, and yet the people here are not as poor as those further south.
Our overnight stop was in Antsirabe, and before checking in, in a violent rainstorm, we visited a factory to see the process of turning zebu horn into ornaments for the tourist trade. We bought some presents for friends. Antsirabe is in the volcanic region, with hot springs and thermal baths. Plums are in season, so we had plum juice at breakfast, and there were plums on the table. I had already began to feel ill, so I fasted.
Our first stop was at a mineral dealer’s place, where we were each given a piece of celestite. They had some radiated tortoises wandering about. Then we started the long drive to Ranomafana, in the rain forest, punctuated by photo stops, bird stops (hammerkop, kingfishers, herons) and sick stops for one of our friends. I had stoppered myself with Loperamide before the drive, but Jane was beginning to feel the same symptoms. Lunch was at a craft centre at Ambositra. We arrived at Setam Lodge in the darkness. Just before the destination our bus driver Etienne had to negotiate the ‘axle-breaker’, where the road surface had been completely washed out. Jane was really ill by then, and missed dinner.
Next morning Jane was no better, and decided to forgo the rainforest walk. I was going to go, but I was violently sick, and called off too. We slept for a couple of hours, and then the two of us set off for a walk on our own, looking at the waterfalls, the vegetation and the butterflies. It was very beautiful. When the ‘troops’ arrived back they said it had been really strenuous, so we were glad we hadn’t attempted it.
The hotel was beautiful; a series of bungalows rising in terraces above the restaurant. In the evening, in a thunderstorm, we set off for our evening walk, and we were delighted when our tracker spotted a Mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus). We were able to get really close to it, and it completely ignored us, feeding on tree sap.
We heard that the President’s plane had been denied landing, and had returned to South Africa.