On the road (2) – Antsirabe to Ranomafana

Tuesday 11 June 2024 – The story so far: we had completed the first 170 km of a 420km journey; all we had to do now was the remaining 250km, and we had all day to do it. We would need it, because we were driving down the infamous Route Nationale 7.

First, though, we had important business to conduct – getting tea bags, as our stock of Twinings finest Earl Grey was dropping in alarming fashion.  So Kenny found us a Carrefour and – wonder of wonders – they had Twinings Earl Grey in stock! It was the international edition, which, as any connoisseur of tea will be able to tell you, is in pale yellow.

So, off we set and we drove all day, from 8am until 4.30pm – a sterling effort from Haja, our driver, because the road conditions were atrocious.  It was rare that a stretch of road lasted 100 metres before he had to slow down and slalom round this sort of thing,

or this sort of thing,

or, astonishingly, this sort of thing.

We did 210km along RN7 in 7 hours; the last 40 was along RN45, which was better – that took us just an hour.

On the way, we passed many scenes which seemed unusual to our European eyes, but which are probably quite normal to the locals.

Guys taking charcoal to market on their bikes

Ploughing with oxen (Zebu, in this case)

Pigs being taken – alive – either to market or to slaughter on top of a public taxi bus

Zebu cattle crossing the road

Roadside distilleries, used to create essential oils

A roadside tomb, used by entire families over generations

Given the status of the roads and the economy, one can imagine that there are often vehicle breakdowns and other emergencies on a road such as RN7.  The typical way that people indicate that there’s an incident under way is via a pile of leafy branches on the road.

We saw the one above at the site of a lorry which had overturned.  Ominously, it was a zebu transport lorry, with the cattle inside tied by tail and horns. I didn’t take a photo of the scene, as it seemed disrespectful; but we heard the next day that all the zebu survived, as did the driver and his passenger.  There was another incident, and I did take a photo of its aftermath, because it smacked a great deal more of carelessness.

A whole team of people were gradually winching this 4×4 up from where it had obviously gone over the edge.  Carelessness led to carlessness; it was good to see people pulling together (literally) to help.  RN7 is not a route to undertake lightly; it shows what a good job Haja has been doing.

As we moved southwards, the colour of the soil changed, from the deep red that had been familiar, to a paler, yellower shade.

In consequence, the colour of the bricks and plaster used in buildings also changed colour.

We also noticed some fine detail occasionally used in house construction,

and the use of thatching for the roof, local grass or straw being the raw material.

The route took us out of the Antananarivo region into one whose ethnic majority were the Betsileo people, who have a very distinctive style of dressing.

The mantle around the shoulders is called a lamba, and is traditionally woven locally; it’s worn in different styles by men and by women, and also different styles for different occasions.  Combined with other items of dress, such as the hat, this gives them a look very similar to that seen in Peru.

We paused a while in a busy town named Ambositra,

Pull-rickshaws prevail here – no bicycle ones

as Kenny wanted to show us some more local craftwork, particularly marquetry, for which the area is well-known.  We watched a demonstration by this chap

who was amazingly skillful on his home-made marquetry bench (I have video footage, of course, which I’ll try to add later).  His bench operates as a kind of fret saw, for which he actually creates his own blades from thin strips of metal into which he cuts teeth.

He showed us how different colours of wood changed colour if left to soak in a rice paddy;

white wood becomes blue, yellow becomes green, and brown becomes black.

He uses these different colours to create amazing scenes in marquetry.

And, oh, goodness me! There was a retail opportunity!  Who’d a thunk it?

Now we could see how the eagle he creates looks as a finished product.

Near his establishment are many other craft stalls

and beyond them the inevitable roadside retail opportunities.  Apparently, the local authorities, in an effort to tempt these roadside sellers away from the, let’s face it, dangerous, road, set up some nice spick and span stalls away from the main drag

and everyone ignored them, as businesses are far more likely to pull in punters if they’re by the road (businesses and punters both).

Around lunchtime, we stopped for a picnic lunch with a lovely view of a town called Ambatovory (with a substantial brickworks in the foreground).

It was market day.  How could we tell?

There was a more or less constant stream of people passing as we lunched who had clearly been to the market.

When we went through Ambatovory, it seemed that the entire town was nothing but market!

It was astonishingly busy, with the usual vibrancy, colour and noise.

From the view over the town, one can see that the landscape is gradually changing – we saw some wonderful views as we drove along.

To get this far, we had left the the central plateau that contains Antananarivo and Antsirabe. To get to Ranomafana, we had to ascend back into the clouds, and so the visibility was risibility itself. Perhaps we’ll see, on our way from Ranomafana in a couple of days, the spectacular views that we could only dimly make out through the mist into which we had risen.  You’ll have to wait to see, but in the interim, the morrow presents a whole day to explore the rainforest (both primary and secondary) in the Ranomafana National Park.  So we’ll get back to wildlife photos. I feel I can promise you that.


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