Monday, 9 October 2017

Madagascar 3 - Anja National Park – Isalo National Park – Zombitze National Park

Part 3 - Anja National Park – Ranohira – Isalo NP – Zombitze NP

After breakfast, we left for 4 - Ranohira.  Rija, our guide, again entertained us with more interesting facts, this time about the tribes. There are 18 different tribes in Madagascar.  The Merina tribe is centred on the capital, Antananarivo.  To the south, we had been in the territory of the Betsileo tribe.  By now, we had left behind the Betsileo and we were firmly in the territory of the Bara tribe.  Here, the family tombs were different, the villages had smaller houses and the people looked different.  Customs are different in each tribe. It must be a nightmare learning about all the differences. Here is a map of the tribal areas and the map of our travels to remind you of where we went.

The areas of the 18 tribes of Madagascar

Map of our travels. Part 3 covers from 3 to 4 and what we did at 4-Ranohira (Isalo NP)

With 18 different tribes there are also 18 different languages in Madagascar!  The language of the Merina tribe has been adopted as the national language of “Malagasy” but not everyone speaks it.  Rija occasionally had difficulties understanding completely some of the people in different tribal areas.

The long journey to Ranohira was broken by a visit to the Anja reserve, a small park where several families of ring-tailed lemurs could be seen in the wild. We stopped en route to buy a packed lunch, which we enjoyed in the picnic area, before entering the park itself with the local guide, Daniel.

As we finished our lunch a pair of yellow-billed kites flew over, very low. Here is one of them.

Yellow-billed kite

We then made our way into the park and eventually arrived in the territory of one of the families of ring-tailed lemurs.  These are the classic lemurs that everybody knows about, because of their distinctive tail. They were very obliging, allowing us close views, but always keeping just at arm’s length.  We spent some time enjoying these photogenic animals and taking lots of photographs.

Ring-tailed lemur. This is the one most people know.

Ring-tailed lemur with suckling baby - Aah!  So cute!
Whilst there, I heard the sound of some birds in the distance. One of the assistant guides came with me and we discovered a group of Madagascar bee-eaters, also known as olive bee-eaters.  After taking a few quick shots, I ran back to tell Nic about them.

Olive Bee-eaters (aka Madagascar Bee-eaters).

We also found some grey-headed lovebirds nearby.

Grey-headed Lovebird

We continued to our journey. At one point, we arrived at the approach to Ambalavao, which looked something like the Great Rift Valley of Africa.

Approaching Ambalavao. Has something of the Great Rift Valley about it, no?

Lynne and me near Ambalavao.

Ambalavao is host to the largest zebu market in the country. Zebu is the cattle they have there. They are recognisable by the camel-like hump on their shoulders. All beef, milk, etc is from zebu, which are more numerous than people. The population of Madagascar is about 25 million. We passed Ambalavao on market day. Herders from miles around were taking their purchases back along the road to their villages.

Herders driving their zebu purchases back home. Near Ambalavao.

The terrain changed as we crossed a vast plateau. The land was flatter and composed of rather sparse grassland.  We stopped at a Bara village to have a look around. 

In a Bara village. Novel cactus fencing!

Bara village. Houses are small,
but most will have a solar charger for mobiles!

This cinder iron was actually in use as we visited!
Further on the way, we stopped at a petrol station. A circumcision parade passed us. 

Circumcision parade. They dance as they march (see next video).

The idea is to tire out the boy, about 5-6 years old, until late into the night so that he is exhausted the following morning when they take him to the doctor. Rija says "it's very quick". The poor lad here does not realise what is about to happen! If you think that’s strange, the grandfather then eats the foreskin that has been snipped!  Here's the video,  (No. Of the parade, silly!):


As dusk approached, we stopped to take some photos of the sunset. 

A photo of the sunset. L to R - Steph, Mike, Chris, Sian, Al, Lynne (foreground) and Nic.
Meanwhile, I found a new bird nearby, a Madagascar Lark:

Madagascar Lark

After another half hour or so we finally arrived in Ranohira, at the Orchidee Hotel. Ranohira is very close to the entrance to the Isalo National Park. We enjoyed dinner before retiring to our relatively luxurious room. There was even a swimming pool, but we did not use it.

The following morning, as we went to breakfast, I heard some birds of prey calling nearby. I found a pair of kestrels in a tree just outside the hotel. The young kestrel was begging to be fed and the adult obliged.

Feed me, Mummy!  Yes, that mouse will do nicely!
Kestrels outside our hotel in Ranohira

After breakfast, we were off to the park. Right at the entrance I heard the call of an unknown bird and the guide took me to see it; a Madagascar Hoopoe. Our guides were Naina and Andry.

Isalo National Park was dramatic.  The approach was through some steep cliffs where Kestrels lived. The whole terrain is predominantly dry and hot, even in the rainy season.

Approach to Isalo National Park

We climbed steeply onto the internal plateau. Here's what it looks like:


The guide pointed out some wildlife to us, including some weird creatures that look like white fluff. Look carefully or you'll miss them.


. . .then, some stick insects . . .  

Find the stick insect

. . . a scorpion . . . 

Scorpion. Our guide turned over stones until this little creature came with the stone!
. . . .and some birds.  

Common Newtonia
Namaqua Dove - a nice male

Isalo is regarded as sacred by the local tribe, the Bara, who like to be buried there. We came across some permanent tombs and also some abandoned temporary coffins with nobody in - at least we hope none. 

This colourful metal coffin is empty. It originally contained the body of a small person. The bones have been re-buried permanently. The coffin is about 90cm long.

This is a permanent burial place.

We crossed the plateau to a high point above the canyon. While not as impressive as a certain canyon in America, the view was certainly dramatic. We took photographs on the highest point.  This video of the main canyon is from my phone:


All of us above the main canyon. L to R - Mike, Sian, Lynne, Al, Steph, Norma, Chris, me, Nic (behind) and Rija, our guide
We descended into the canyon and crossed over to a water-hole. This was an oasis, allowing us to cool off, paddle in the water and recover our energy ready for the next stage, which was quite a trek up the length of the canyon itself.  A couple of our party even stripped off and swam in the cooling water!

The oasis in Isalo - a place to cool off.

In the waterhole, we found the locally endemic Benson's Rock Thrush. They were very confiding and came very close.

Benson's Rock Thrush - male, looks friendly

Benson's Rock Thrush - female, looks rather severe.

After a rest, we started our trek along the length of the canyon.  The guide soon led us to a nearby bush, which held a rainbow locust. This large insect was impressive enough while it was perched in the bush.  When he made it fly, it revealed a bright crimson wing case, which amazed us all.

Rainbow Locust

OK, OK! I know you want to see another hand, so here is one!

Rainbow locust with hand.

By this time, it was approaching mid-day and the sun was very hot.  Well, we thought it was hot, although the guide observed drily that it was “only about 32-33°C"! In this hot dry place, special plants grew, such as Elephant's foot and an Aloe something. Sorry, I'm not too good on plants! 

Elephant's foot, or false baobab.

Aloe species - not Aloe Vera

It was a relief to reach the end of the canyon and go down into the valley again to a campsite in a shady stand of trees where we were to have lunch. This area was home to a number of birds, including Madagascar turtle dove, Madagascar buttonquail, Fody, Madagascar Hoopoe and Benson's Rock Thrush.

Madagascar Turtle Dove

Madagascar Buttonquail

Madagascar Hoopoe

Some of the others went on a further walk after lunch to some other pools. Lynne and I decided to relax in camp while they did it!  On their return, we walked the final 1.5Km to the car park where our bus was waiting for us. We had certainly earned our dinner that evening.

The following morning, we left Ranohira and the Bara tribe on the last leg of our journey southwest to 5 -Tulear. Tulear is spelt "Toliara" on the map above. Rija explained that the road we were now travelling on was built a few years ago by the Chinese for reasons which remain obscure.

The journey was full of interest and activity.  Firstly, we passed through Ilakaka, a sapphire town, which had grown up in the last 15 or 20 years after the discovery of sapphires in the area.  What had been a small village has now become a medium sized town, with people from all over the country, who come to mine sapphires.  The mining conditions are, apparently, far from safe. Some workers die when the shafts they are working in collapse, through lack of support. We did not stop at Ilakaka, but drove on, through some fairly bleak terrain of termite hills and desert. We did notice a very impressive family tomb in this area though.

Not a country villa, but a large family tomb.

Later, we reached the National Park of Zombitse. Our guides were Tiavo, Gold and Feline.

This Park was home to a couple of species of lemur, a very rare endemic bird, as well as some impressive baobab trees. 

Appert's Tetraka - a rare bird endemic to the Zombitse region
A Long-billed Tetraka in Zombitse
A large Baobab tree - Zombitse

A large double Baobab tree - Zombitse
 I've kept the cuddly lemurs till last!

Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux's Sifaka

Hubbard's sportive lemur, aka Zombitse sportive lemur. This is actually a nocturnal species.

This was quite a short visit, and we then pressed on towards Tulear.  We were running low on cash at this point. Credit and debit cards are useless in most of Madagascar, so we needed to go to the bank. The first bank we went to looked at my £20 notes and declared that they were not new enough, so they wouldn't change them!   We went to a different bank, where they did agree to change them. The clerk told us to wait. We waited about 15 minutes before we were called to the counter, and then, perhaps, another 10 - 15 minutes while they dealt with the formalities of changing the money.  I have a sneaking suspicion that, even then, we had somehow jumped the queue of local people, which seemed to remain the same all the while we were there.

While I was in the bank, Lynne had gone to the local supermarket with Steph. They had bought a bottle of local gin and some tonic for us to drink during our stay at the beach.

Back at our hotel, the Victory, we decided to have a swim before dinner. This was quite refreshing. In fact, the water was quite cool, but it was the first swim that we had had. Our stay in Tulear was brief.  The next day we were going to Anakau, for a beach holiday.  Now, Anakau is quite a short distance along the coast as the crow flies, but almost impossible to reach by road. 

How would we get there?  Don't miss the final thrilling instalment!

If you missed any previous instalments, here they are:

Monday, 2 October 2017

Madagascar 2 - Antsirabe - Ranomafana National Park

Madagascar 2 - Antsirabe - Ranomafana National Park - Chameleon centre

Part 1 - Antananarivo - Andasibe - Perinet National Park - Antsirabe

The next day we started back towards Antananarivo, the start of a journey which effectively lasted 2 days until we reached Ranomafana.  On the first day, the journey was punctuated by a stop at a centre housing a good collection of chameleons, geckos, frogs and butterflies. We were able to get really close to them.  They were in large enclosures, and chameleons are quite slow moving in any event. I'm afraid I haven't identified them yet.

Chameleon - unidentified as yet

Chameleon - unidentified as yet

Chameleon - unidentified as yet

Chameleon - unidentified as yet

Chameleon - unidentified as yet
We also saw some amazing geckos, which also managed to camouflage themselves against their background so as to be almost invisible.

Leaf-tailed Gecko - about 25cm long

Leaf-tailed Gecko - about 25cm long

Leaf-tailed Gecko - the eyes have it!

Where's Wally?? - the gecko is there somewhere.
Millepede making for a hand - not mine!
One of the nice things about having a guide with us, was that on the long journeys Rija would, periodically, entertain and instruct us about the local tribes, customs, history and activities. There are 18 tribes in Madagascar, each with their own language.  The language of the tribe around the capital was officially adopted as the Malagasy language, but there are still some places where communication between Rija and the locals was not straightforward.  The majority of the population still lives and works in the countryside.  More people in the city go to schools, but overall literacy is probably about 60%.  Most people understand some French.  This was handy, as I could get by with my basic French.

We also got off the bus occasionally and walked around the villages. In this way we could see, close up, some aspects of their daily lives.

Typical village street market

Market in a larger village/town
Getting around in Madagascar

With no railway and the hilly terrain, the only way to get around is by road. Walking is most common. Zebu carts are everywhere.

The ubiquitous zebu cart

For long distances, there is the car, taxi or sometimes Italian-made tuk-tuks (motorised rickshaws).  Then there is the taxi-bus. These overloaded buses ply the country, some long journeys taking several days.  They didn't look too comfortable; hot and overcrowded. Here is a typical one:

Typical taxi-bus
We ended the first day's journey in Antsirabe, staying overnight at a nice, red-brick hotel called Les Chambres du Voyager. We only really had time for dinner before going to bed, but I asked one of the staff whether there were any birds around in the garden, which had a large pond with a small accessible island.  He said the best time was from 05:30 to 06:30.  Three of us agreed to get up to see what was about at that time.

I rose early, dressed, and by 05:30 I was in the garden, where I met Sian and Nic. What fools! It was still dark for goodness sake!  There were indeed many birds that started to appear at first light, including common jery, Madagascar Fody, a Madagascar Malachite kingfisher and Madagascar white-eye. A hamerkop flew overhead, and there were a few other birds which it was too dark to identify.
Common Jery

Madagascar Fody

Madagascar White-eye
After breakfast we set off towards Ranomafana.  Thoughtfully, Exodus had again arranged to break the journey with a stop in Ambositra, the centre of Madagascar’s woodcarving industry. Most of the wood carving is done in an area in the mountains a little way from our route, so we went to an artisan paper making factory instead. There we also did some shopping!

Artisan paper making.
The wet sections are set to dry in the sun
After lunch, we pressed on. The countryside is full of family tombs of different sizes. Typically, the body is buried or entombed temporarily to allow the body to decay. After about ten years, the body is exhumed and the bones are reburied permanently in a ceremony known as "the turning of the bones". Some of the family tombs look like small cottages and are in lovely positions. Here is a typical one:

A family tomb by the roadside
This is the beautiful valley that it overlooks:
Rice paddies on the terraces above the river

Finally we made our way to Ranomafana, arriving at our hotel, Le Grenat, in the late afternoon.  As we would be staying at this hotel for two nights, we decided to have all our dirty clothes washed.  They all came back nicely laundered at a very reasonable price.

The next day we visited the Ranomafana National Park.  Again, we had local guides, called Diamondra and Tsilavo. This visit was a great adventure into the rainforest, home to the Golden bamboo lemurs, a species critically endangered outside the North. The park was formed by the government after these lemurs were discovered there in 1986 by an American anthropologist, Dr Patricia Wright.  We had to make our way through quite dense undergrowth to where the lemurs were feeding. 

Golden Bamboo Lemur at Ranomafana National Park

Golden Bamboo Lemur at Ranomafana National Park

The guides could see that I was interested in birds. I asked whether there might be a chance of seeing a Madagascar pygmy kingfisher.  Later on in the visit, they took us to a place where there was indeed a pygmy kingfisher. Fantastic!  We had now seen both the kingfisher species of Madagascar.

Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher - a forest species that doesn't eat fish!

As we were leaving the National Park, I saw a Madagascar bulbul very close and in a nice position.  It's a very common bird, but I decided to take a careful photo of one.  I often neglect the most common birds in favour of the rarer ones. When I get home, I then realise that I don't have a decent photo of some of the common birds.

Madagascar Bulbul

For lunch, Rija had booked us into a local restaurant.  We were on the terrace, in the shade and overlooking a valley. Perfect!  In fact, we saw very few birds during lunch.  Bird activity is low in the middle of the day.  However, walking back to the hotel we saw a couple of kestrels.  The Madagascar kestrel comes in two morphs; dark and pale.  The dark morph is similar to our common kestrel. The pale morph is a very handsome bird indeed.

Madagascar Kestrel - dark morph

Madagascar Kestrel - pale morph
After lunch, some of us decided to wander around the village and then look for the spa fed swimming pool which was somewhere over the other side. We went to the local post office and bought some stamps for postcards, had a wander up the main street, and then ambled towards the swimming pool, asking directions in French.

On the way, I took some photos of some mascarene martins.

Mascarene Martin
To get to the swimming pool we had to cross the river. The original bridge, a substantial steel structure, had been swept away at some point by higher-than-normal monsoon floods. This bridge had been replaced by a new one, partially suspended from the superstructure of the old one by some simple twisted steel wire. 
New from old. New bridge suspended from old structure.
We found the swimming pool, but didn't go in. Lynne wanted to paddle in the warm water of the hot springs nearby.

Happiness! - Lynne paddling in hot spa water

We wandered slowly back to the hotel, passing a magnificent traveller's palm tree.
Ravenala or Traveller's tree at Ranomafana

At Le Grenat, we had a gin and tonic before dinner.  Chris reported that there was a large moth on the wall outside his room. We went to investigate. We found the largest and most impressive moth I have ever seen. I learned online that the comet moth only lives for a few days.

Comet moth - huge! and lives for only a few days!

Rija gave us another briefing about our next long drive the following day, to Ranohira. We would stay for 2 nights there, our base for our visit to Isalo National Park.

Part 1 - Antananarivo - Andasibe - Perinet National Park - Antsirabe

Part 3 soon