Strange, Wonderful, Maddening Madagascar Part 2

There are many destinations where it is not too difficult to hide the fact that one is from out of town. Unless you wear a particularly garish Hawaiian shirt, for example, or point the latest digital Sony videocamera at everything in sight, it might be possible for most of us to blend into the populace of many European cities, or even some African cities such as Johannesburg or Cape Town. No such luck in Madagascar. Even in the airport at Tana, where Kathleen and I were having a cup of very good coffee one afternoon, I had the distinct feeling of having ‘tourist’ written all over my forehead. A magazine seller was hawking French magazines to several other people at tables near ours. “Paris Match, monsieur? Le Monde?’ As he turned towards us, without missing a beat, I noticed that he had replaced the fairly dated French magazines with much older American ones… “Time Magazine, Newsweek?… Be prepared to firmly, yet politely decline the repeated entreaties of any number of hawkers and assorted chancers to browbeat you into parting with a small amount of your money. It takes a while to get used to the currency – 25,000.00 Malagasy Francs initially seems like an awful lot, until you realize that it is less than US$4.00. Changing only a couple hundred US dollars or so, saddles you with a pile of FMG25,000.00 bills that look positively extravagant, especially in a country where the heavily used bills are obviously the smallest denominations, some of which are incredibly grubby. Some of the FMG1000.00 and FMG500.00 bills which we were given in change looked and felt as if they had been around since the time when paper money was first invented.

In Fort Dauphin, we had a ‘Lonely Planet’ experience. Excellent as the Lonely Planet guidebooks are – and the one on Madagascar certainly is extremely detailed and should be on the ‘must read’ list of any would-be visitor – they date quickly. Having read a glowing report about the Panorama Restaurant (‘our favorite restaurant in town, probably the best south of Antsirabe’) and having several hours to kill in Fort Dauphin, we decided to walk the half mile or so from the Hotel Dauphin to the Panorama Restaurant. What could have been a nice stroll was marred by the unwelcome attention of a local vagrant, who did not understand the meaning of ‘non’. By the time we stepped into the Panorama Restaurant, we were very relieved to be able to leave him behind. Until we started looking around us. It immediately became painfully obvious that we were the only two patrons in the place. It might have been superb three years ago, but by late July 2000 it was a real dive, with a ‘gone to seed’, dilapidated feel. Faced with running the gauntlet of vagrants and beggars, we stayed put. The waitress clearly knew what had brought us to the place, as she was quick to point out that the Lonely Planet-recommended ‘tasty tuna steak’ was not available. ‘Pas d’atun’. We ordered langoustine and freshwater bream instead. I could have sworn the Panorama sent out for the food, it took that long to prepare… When it finally came, my ‘poisson de l’eau douce’ was passably okay, Kathleen’s langoustines overcooked but palatable. Best food south of Antsirabe? No way. I wonder if some of the other Fort-Dauphin villagers jokingly refer to Panorama patrons as ‘lonely planets’, meaning ‘tourists who foolishly believe everything they read in a book’.

Some of the many colorful baskets for sale at the Artisans Market near Tana, on the way to Ivato Airport.

From Fort Dauphin, an uneventful flight took us back to Tana, where we were met by our new guide Lalaina, a most capable and extremely pleasant young man. We had to run by his office to pick up some sleeping bags, so we were treated to our second drive from Ivato Airport into ‘lovely Tana’. What an experience. Few things can prepare one adequately for the dusty, spare look of poverty which typifies much of Tana. Parts of the road from the airport reminded me of Oljoro Road in Arusha, the only other place I had been to that exhibited the same kind of mind-boggling amalgam of pedestrians, young and old, dodging all forms of transportation ranging from pushcarts to bicycles to Range Rovers to the ubiquitous taxis and mini-buses, with dogs, zebu cattle and donkeys thrown into the mix just to make it exciting. If anything, the array of streetside shops and stands in Tana was even more amazing than in Arusha. There were primitive butcheries, with chunks of raw meat spread out on a counter or strung up on hooks, dozens of colorful fruit and vegetable stalls, almost as many rice, grain and dried bean merchants, auto parts, bikes and pieces of bikes, and junk stands defying any description. On every block, someone was cooking kabobs on a charcoal-fired brazier, or deep-frying some local version of donuts, which I was tempted to try once or twice. Maybe next time.

From Tana we headed east to Perinet, on a good but rather narrow, winding road, designed and built by the Chinese. I have never been fond of night driving, and this trip reminded me why. I was not thrilled to hear that it was the main route for many heavy trucks coming into Tana from Tamatave, the main east coast port city. In fact, we encountered a long row of these trucks, many of which were petroleum tankers, on the outskirts of Tana, waiting to enter the city from midnight onwards. Except for inexplicably using the left-hand lane around corners (in Madagascar people drive on the right), our driver Theodore was very proficient and got us to Perinet in good time.

Our accommodation for the night was a bungalow at Hotel Feon ‘nyala (‘call of the forest’), a pleasant enough place consisting of about 24 bungalows, all with great views over the natural forest – and hot showers. We had not had anything to eat since lunch at the ‘famous’ Panorama, so we were famished. It turns out that we had selected a good place to be hungry, enjoying one of the best meals of the trip. I had the excellent chicken curry and Kathleen chose chicken with fresh ginger, both served with mounds of rice as is customary in Madagascar. Fresh crepes with local preserves and some very good coffee with sweetened condensed milk completed a memorable dinner. The sleeping bags which had necessitated the detour into Tana earlier than evening, were put to good use as the A-frame room was quite chilly on this late July night at some 900 meters above sea level.

A Verreaux’s Sifaka at Berenty Private Reserve. These handsome lemurs are known for their impressive acrobatics and ability to ‘dance’ across open spaces.

At 7a.m. the next morning we departed for Perinet Reserve with Lalaina and our local forest guide, who turned out to be excellent. He was very knowledgeable about the lemurs, the plantlife and the birds. He led the way along the trails, turning this way and that, deeper and deeper into the rather damp rainforest. We had read enough about leeches to nervously check our extremities every now and then, but other than that all we had to do was play ‘follow the leader’. Initially, the forest was rather quiet, but as time passed we started finding the occasional bird party, and after perhaps 20 minutes or so, our first lemurs. These were brown lemurs, high up in a tree, not what we were looking for. Shortly afterwards, we found our quarry: a family of very relaxed black and white Indris, foraging and moving around in the lower reaches of the trees. Peering at them through our binoculars, we could see why they are described as looking like cuddly teddy bears. The experience was unfortunately marred by a group of extremely noisy and talkative spectators. Muttering a few choice expletives, we moved into a different area of the forest, continuing our ‘lemur safari’. Our next find was a grey bamboo lemur, which looked more like a weasel or a squirrel, clambering about quite high up in the trees. Later on, we heard the haunting contact call of the Indris and we had another excellent sighting of a female Indri with its 2-month old baby. Isolating them in the telescope, we watched the baby, which was all black with large green eyes, move around on its mother’s belly.

The birding at Perinet was fantastic. We were treated to great views of Hookbilled Vanga in the ‘scope, found the superb Blue Vanga, more Souimanga sunbird, Madagascar Cuckooshrike, Green Sunbird, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher, Ward’s Flycatcher, Madagascar Little Grebe and several other waterbirds. The bird of the day and of the forest was definitely the unique Nuthatch Vanga, climbing up a tree-trunk in nuthatch-like fashion. Unlike true nuthatches, these birds do not climb downwards.

The dining room and lounge at Vakona Lodge, near Perinet.

For lunch, we drove to the nearby Vakona Lodge, which impressed us a well run establishment in a great location, with well-equipped chalets, a very inviting pool, and a nice restaurant. I tried zebu steak here for the first time and found it to be quite tasty. Vakona Lodge offers a wide selection of chalets including twins, doubles, and family rooms. Activities include horseback riding and hiking, in addition to excursions to Perinet and Mantadia forests. The Vakona Lodge looks like the kind of place where our clients would be very happy to stay and we will definitely try it ourselves on our next visit to Madagascar.

Our last night in Madagascar was spent in Tana at the Hotel Pallisandre, which we rate quite highly – very friendly staff and nice rooms. My only problem was the French computer keyboard (I checked some e-mail from there). Mon dieu! How the French could possibly make the period (full-stop) an ‘upper case shift’ character, or put a ‘q’ where we have an ‘a’ is beyond me! Meals at the Pallisandre were first class. On one occasion we had a type of fish which I had never encountered before – Capitaine. A week or so later, in Kenya, I found out that Nile Perch was being harvested in great quantities from Lake Victoria and sold as ‘Capitaine’ in Europe, making its way to Madagascar from there, I would think. In any event, it tasted great. We highly recommend the restaurant’s Creme Brulee.

Will I be going back to Madagascar? Without a doubt. I simply have to explore more of this utterly fascinating island and its wonderful people and wildlife. The next time, I will spend a few days more so that I can start to relax and enjoy a country that just cannot be rushed, and I will be sure to include one of the beach areas such as Ifaty or Morondava. What would I say to people thinking about visiting Madagascar? Do it soon, before the charcoalers burn down the entire place and before the prices reach the level of African safari destinations. But before you pack your bags, call the Alliance Francaise and sign up for some French classes, or order a Berlitz course. Having a bit of French – beyond just oui and merci – will make your time in Madagascar immeasurably more enjoyable. Had I not been able to understand the language, I might have missed some real jewels, such as the comment by the Malagasy taxi driver who drove us from the airport to Tana on our arrival. Summing up the Madagascar experience very succinctly, he said, ‘My country is rich, but the people are poor’.