Day 13: the weekend at last

Evening all! I think I need to start blogging more often, it’s been at least a week since my last update and too much has happened to put in one post. So I may break this one into a few instalments.

I’ll start off with last weekend. After a hard week’s work (environmental modelling can be painful work!), we ventured further south than the Sarodrano day-trip of the previous weekend, to a town called Sainte Augustine. It is the furthest south the coastal road goes before it is met by a monster of a river estuary:

Approaching an “end of the world”

Sainte Augustine, Madagascar

The trip over was immense fun. Zo and I rode at the back of the jeep for much of the way, to the backdrop of the ocean to our right and the open desert and hills to our left. Cliffs would appear out of nowhere, not great for vertigo sufferers such as myself but a hell of a ride! Climbing to the hilltop from where the above photo was taken, we passed a boy riding up on his bicycle. Anyone who can do that every day can surely tackle the Tour de France. Zo and I clambered back to the seats and along came the boy with his bike at the back. Great being a Good Samaritan!

We approached the town of Sainte Augustine, Zo once again proving his worth by occasionally leaping off the jeep in search of much-needed directions. We were after a very specific hotel (not that there were any in sight anyway). Lonely Planet provides an exclusive list of just nine hotels in Madagascar they refer to as the ends of the world:

Isolation, natural beauty, the sea, and a distant horizon, forming a distant place where the world appears to stop, and the spirit deepens.

Longamamy is one of them. Perched along the banks of the Onilahy River estuary, we were given a pair of bungalows for 18,000Ar (a fiver) each. Complete with candles, a rock to “lock” the front door and of course mosquito coils. And the French owner (he’s been here for 28 years now) was overjoyed at seeing his hotel feature as a highlight in Lonely Planet!

At his Lonely Planet shout out: “Oui oui, this is errrrrrrrrrr very nice to see!”

The sign says “no pooing on the beach”. So they poo’d on the sign!

A quick beach walk by sunset turned into a bit of a team show for the camera, but it wasn’t long before the label end of the world really gained meaning. To the south of us was nothing but the Antarctic, and around us no one but a lone fisherman cleaning his pirogue for tomorrow’s open ocean outing.

Moves for the camera

An End of the World…

Lonely Planet also recommends the fish supper here. Fresh from the day’s catch, the menu was crab, shrimp, or prawns, with rice and beans. Oddly enough, when the Malagasy serve beans on rice, it literally comes as a plate of baked beans on rice. And it tastes really really good! (maybe it’s just a tasty reminder of home?). The seafood was equally appetising, and made going to straight to sleep (it was only 8.30pm) easy, despite the crickets in acapella mode.

Day 15 to come…

Blog word-count: 2,500
Disso word-count: 0 (one month until deadline!)

Day 2 – Good morning Madagascar!

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So it’s actually happening. I’ve made it to Madagascar. You guys weren’t the only doubters, three months ago this trip was nothing but a pipedream for me (and yet another £10 bet with Hinesh – pay up lad!)

My journey so far has been relatively painless. I did confuse currency denominations to then tip the airport trolley guy what is probably the equivalent of his family’s weekly wage (I was to realise this when paying FAR less for an entire restaurant supper later in the day).

I’ve taken two flights to get to where I am now, the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo – or Tana for short. One thing you quickly realise about the Malagasy language is the Sri Lankan-esque names that people and towns have adopted. To give you a couple of examples: Ambohimahamasina, or Fianarantsoa.

Fianarantsoa is potentially the next and final stopover en route to reaching my ultimate destination, Toliara in the Southwest of Mada.

Google Maps reckons it would take just under 12 hours to cover just under 1000km. Google Maps clearly hasn’t been to Madagascar. Here’s an excerpt on the taxi-brousse bus journey, from the newly published Lonely Planet Mada guide (which I recommend to anyone planning on coming):

Beware: these amusement park rides are packed beyond capacity. Passengers bounce around and are frequently ill. There are a limited number of breaks, and provisions are sparse along the way. You will need a scarf and pullover for the dust and wind. All things considered, we have never seen a rougher form of public transport.

This is saying something, coming from Lonely Planet! Now, being me, I jumped at this opportunity. It looks like a cracking adventure through Mada’s remote wilderness, for supposedly anything up to 50 hours. And all for £20 rather than £150 for the 1 hour flight! A clear no brainer, right? Hmm. Ultimately common sense has prevailed, with gentle encouragement in the form of two hefty bags (combining to weigh more than me) and a common British cold that just won’t go away. However, there is a downside. All Air Madagascar planes have been blacklisted and barred from European airspace. In other words, I’d somehow be safer on the aforementioned “amusement park ride”. Some excitement at least. So I’m off to the airline office tomorrow morning to book the first flight down, where the work I have so eagerly been anticipating will finally begin.

The experience so far? As expected really. Tana is ok. Dusty, polluted, busy. Lots of comparisons to India. Spinetingling animal screams during the middle of the night etc. Bizarrely the Malagasy people look slightly Indian too – go back far enough and the Malagasys can trace their roots to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. Which I suppose physically averages out to India (or not)… And of course there is the heavy French influence due to Madagascar’s French-colonial past. This all reflects in the evolution of Malagasy cuisine, a real international fusion. Tana reminds me of Southern Vietnam and Laos in a sense – French-style patisserie cafes line the streets in places serving very tasty puds. And I’m not even a dessert person.

Anyway, that’s enough for my first post. Three snaps to finish off: 1 and 2) snaps from the plane as we approach Tana. And 3) the delicious pud after a somewhat carniverous dinner at, er, La Carnivore

Looks edited, and it very slightly is – only to make up for the greyness the translucent plane window gave the image. This is really is quite close to what I saw early this morning…

I had to capture the distinct redness of the land peeping through the clouds. For a stunning pic of what widespread deforestation is doing to the environment: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=4388

PS – I miraculously didn’t sleepwalk on the flights! Which can only mean no stress whatsoever – this is hardly surprising. Of course there’s always the blacklisted flight on Thursday…