Travels in Madagascar: Antananarivo to Andringitra
In the break between my third and fourth schemes with Azafady, I finally got the chance to do a little bit of travelling around Madagascar. Together with Emily and Tom (also Azafady volunteers!) I spent 9 days working my way from Antananarivo to Fort Dauphin, taking in scenic towns, a couple of national parks, and more than a few G & Ts.
Lacking for time, we flew from Fort Dauphin up to Antananarivo, but if we had another week I would have liked to visit Tulear on the west coast of Madagascar, and work my way up from the west coast instead. Another classic tourist route, it boasts a lot of baobabs, several more national parks, and the famous tsingy.
The day after arriving in ‘Tana was a long one, as we had a lot of distance to cover, attempting to head all the way down to Trano Gasy on the outskirts of Andringitra National Park in just one day. However, the drive south along the RN7 is well worth doing. The road is smooth and well maintained (something I haven’t seen much of in the last 9 months!), and passes through some stunning scenery. There are rolling hills separated by lush green paddies, often terraced up the sides or broken by solitary trees. Small mountain ranges bite into the horizon, whilst the colour of the bare earth here and there burns orange. With the road winding round the hills, many sharp bends, inclines and dips, the whole experience seems almost like touring in Southern Europe, perhaps Crete or Portugal. Our driver added to the excitement by taking each stretch as fast as he could, occasionally tooting the horn whilst hurtling round a blind corner, but apparently totally unafraid of plummeting to a fiery end.
We stopped in Antsirabe, third-largest city of Madagascar, home to 180,000 people and around 6,000 pousse-pousses. Easily believable – they were everywhere! We didn’t have time for the recommended tour of the city by pousse-pousse, but did have a little wander through the centre, past the giant Catholic cathedral. Driving on, the road quality began to decline (we were a few hours away from Tana after all), but the view remained amazing. The style of the houses in this region is notably different to the South – rather than low wooden houses, most villages consist of 2-3 storey mud/clay brick homes. Coloured the same beautiful shade as the earth, they are tall and narrow, with thatched, straw-like roofs, and small wooden shuttered windows.
Next stop in Ambositra, home of the artisans and skilled wood carvers, a sprawling town in a rice valley. Unfortunately for us it was a Sunday, so the town was quieter than usual, and the crafts on show a little limited. We enjoyed haggling over a few items though, and each came away with something – a beautiful mancala set for me, a chess set for Tom, and baobab ornaments for Emily. Back on the road, progress really slowed down as we worked our way from pothole to pothole, passing through Fiarantsoa at dusk, and driving on to Ambalavao in the dark. At Ambalavao our driver finally admitted he hadn’t heard of the place we were heading to, and asked a few people in the street where it was. Once he learned it was a further two hours away along a minor dirt road, he refused to continue, dropped us at a nearby hotel, and said that was that, could he have his money now?
Luckily we were able to sort out alternative transport to continue the next day, and spent the night in the Residence Betsileo in Ambalavao, a pleasant enough hotel, albeit somewhat deserted that night. Ambalavao itself looks like something out of the Wild West – dusty streets, wooden fronted buildings, glaring sun, and even similar hats – the regional woven hats look somewhat like stetsons. It’s also home to one of the largest zebu markets in the country, with giant corrals right out of a John Wayne movie (though the beasts inside have humps).
The drive on to Andringitra was stunning, through more beautiful burnt-orange villages, isolated homesteads on windswept hills, and a rugged landscape of wild grasses, few trees and rambling hills. A few times we had to stop the car to repair the bridge ahead, taking a few timbers from the boot and putting them in to fill the gaps! Driving up one hill, we rounded a bend and were confronted with a wall of people and bright colours – a bush market! Occupying all the space between buildings in the village, it was heaving with people and stalls selling woven goods, chickens, vegetables, rice, clothes and various oddments.
Around midday we finally reached Trano Gasy, a beautiful series of bungalows nestled on a low hill, set in a flowing valley before the Andringitra mountain range. 62 kilometres of granite in the shape of a giant crescent, the massif features Pic Imarivolanitra (formerly Boby), the second highest mountain in Madagascar at 8,720 feet high (about twice the height of Ben Nevis, a hill back home). It was this that we had come to see, though the park is also home to an impressive variety of animal and plant species, including 13 of my beloved lemurs. The park encompasses wide swathes of forest, several waterfalls, and grassland as well as the mountains, and is sometimes described as the most scenic in all Madagascar.
Although we didn’t get the chance to stay in the bungalows at Trano Gasy (immediately heading straight into the park), I’d still thoroughly recommend it. The transfers were efficient, the guides friendly, and the food amazing. We stayed overnight at a basic campsite inside the park – spaces for a few tents and a stone longhouse, with a cooking fire. Imagine our surprise then, when we were provided with an amazing three course meal including some of the best food I’ve eaten since coming to Madagascar!
The next day we got up at 3 AM, had a cup of tea, then set off to ascend the mountain. We’d been told it would take 3 hours to ascend, 2 hours back down, and then after a little break we’d walk another 7 hours to our stop for the night on the other side of the park. Knowing it would be intense, Tom decided to skip the mountain and save some energy for the walk out instead, whist Emily and I set off in the darkness. The plan was to climb up in the dark, catch the sunrise, then be back in time for breakfast. Needless to say it was a little ambitious…
Led by our guide Napoleon, we set off just after 03:30, walking along through the park to the foot of the peak. About an hour later we began the ascent proper, and it was tough going – even though some of the route had rough stairs cut into the rock, it was still very steep, as well as pitch black and cold. As we moved upwards the night slowly became dawn, lightening through shades of grey and slowly revealing the slopes of the mountain we were climbing. Though the sunrise was around 5:30, it was a while before it broke through the thick bank of cloud from last night’s rain. Breaching the first wall of the mountain, we came upon a hidden plateau with a series of smaller hills and marshes before the final summit, about an hour’s walk away. We knew we were too late for the sunrise as the first pinky-orange light hit the peak, the sun striving above the cloud bank at last. We finally reached the top around half seven, just less than four hours after we’d set off.
The view was amazing, with nothing but a few lesser peaks poking out of the clouds in all directions. Napoleon pointed in the direction of Fort Dauphin, Fiarantsoa, Tulear, Ambalavao, Ranomafana and other places, though all were submerged in a sea of soft white clouds, looking almost like whipped cream (OK, I was hungry). After a short break and a lot of photos, we started heading back down at an impressive pace, our guide bouncing from rock to rock and actually running at times. We also encountered the only bit of wildlife we saw during our time in the park: a beautiful furcifer lateralis, commonly known as the Carpet Chameleon.
Finally back at camp by 11, two hours late and utterly exhausted, we had to admit defeat – there was no way we could handle 7 more hours of walking that day. Tom however was eager and ready to go, and set off immediately. Though I didn’t see it myself, he said the walk through the Tsaranoro valley was amazing, and very beautiful if similarly exhausting. Emily and I took the easy route – walking two hours back the way we’d come, then taking cars the long way round to Camp Catta, a rustic ecolodge on the far side where we spent the night.
Catch part two here