The next day we drove to the local village at Ranomafana. We started off at the local women’s weaving co-operative. We were greeted by a little girl who shook our hands and said ‘Salaama’, the universal greeting. Her mother demonstrated the weaving technique, and later Jane bought a scarf from the co-op’s shop. This kind of enterprise is good for the local economy, and ensures a fair distribution of tourism money. Back at the hotel we departed after lunch on the relatively short journey to Sahambavy, and the Hotel du Lac. The last 13 km were along a road of which the kindest description would be ‘unmade’ – a really bone-shaking journey. That night a ferocious thunderstorm started at 9pm, and was still banging away at 2am. Next morning I sought out our tour manager and asked to see a doctor as I’d been passing blood, so Jane and I got on the bus for another bone-shaking trip to Fianarantsoa, and the clinic of Dr Marianne Solange. She prescribed Smecta (an absorbent clay) and Flagyl, which is used to treat amoebic dysentery and other protozoan diseases, although I was far from convinced that’s what we had (and still have).
In the afternoon we visited a tea plantation, and were given a tour of the factory. We couldn’t go out to the fields, because the heavens opened again. That evening the hotel owner had made a special meal for us ‘invalids’, which was very kind of her.
In the morning we left for our drive to Ranohira, and the Isalo Massif. We visited a school at Sahambavy. The pupils knew we were going to come bringing gifts of pens, paper, notebooks and a football. Guess which present made them most excited? I was astonished to see on the blackboard that they were learning inequalities, in Primary 1! En route (the journey was over 300km) we stopped off at a paper-making factory. They put flowers into the frames for decorative purposes, but Jane bought some plain paper to paint on. They use the bark of the ‘vao’ tree, which looked like a legume to me.
In the Anja reserve we saw our first ring-tail lemurs. They were clearly habituated to human presence, and they paid no attention to us, apart from the babies, who stared at us with interest. We drove on through magnificent scenery – granite batholiths and wide valleys, until we came in sight of the Isalo sandstone massif. Our hotel was actually in the National Park grounds, but was so carefully landscaped into low bungalow complexes built of local sandstone, that it blended in beautifully. It was very hot here, and the vegetation was typically xerophytic. The sandstone was hard, compositionally almost a gravel conglomerate, and looked to have been laid down in a riverine system.
Next day we set off for an excursion into the forest, but I was sick again, and our tour guide Mana had to help me back to the bus. Meanwhile Jane had walked as far as the campsite before stopping in the shade with another member of the group, while the rest of the group trekked off in search of some river pools. As Jane and John were sitting quietly a troop of red-fronted brown lemurs came out of the trees very close to them, followed soon after by another troop of ring-tails. When the rest of the group rejoined them, they had seen nothing.
Next day we set off for Tulear. The roadside vegetation changed to extreme xerophytes in the spiny forest, with baobabs, alluaudias, euphorbias, pachypodiums, aloes, and many more exotics. The soil type changed too, with calcareous boulders covering the ground. We saw roadside ‘moonshine’ operations, where sugar cane spirit is distilled. At our lunch stop we transferred to four 4WD vehicles for the drive over the unmade road to Ifaty, our final destination.
We had seen poverty from the start of the trip, but it seemed to increase and to become more horrendous the further south we travelled. In Tana the houses in the centre seemed substantial, French colonial villas jumbled together randomly. In most of the central highlands the houses were substantial brick buildings. Brick-making was something we saw constantly by the roadside, with the red, lateritic clays being shaped, dried and kilned. The villages were neat, with the houses all aligned on a Northeast-Southwest axis for religious reasons. The Northeast points to Indonesia, the origin of many of the original settlers. The next zone was constructed of small mud-brick houses, then wattle-and-daub, then wattle only near to Isalo. Finally, on the stretch between Tulear and Ifaty, the huts were simply constructed of sticks, straw and thatch. The people, whether weeding in the rice paddies, pushing carts loaded with charcoal, smelting aluminium cans, washing clothes, panning for sapphires or herding zebu cattle, are hard-working in the extreme, but they have nothing. It makes me feel uncomfortable, considering the differences in living standards between us, and not knowing any answers.
As we left, we heard that the 2009 coup leader had been summoned to a meeting of the African Council in South Africa, and had been told to allow the democratically elected President to return without fear of arrest. We shall see.