Tag Archives: Antananarivo

East to Andasibe

Thursday 6 June 2024 – The room that we had this time at the Hotel Relais des Plateaux was directly above the one we’d had on our first visit. It was very similar in size and organisation, however, the bed seemed a great deal less comfortable; but at least we had a chance for more sleep than on our first visit.

After breakfast, we met our driver from last night again. He had brought Kenny, our guide, with him, and I think we’re going to get on well with both of them. Kenny speaks excellent English and has a wealth of knowledge about local matters, including the correct way to spell our driver’s name, which is Haja (with a silent H).

As soon as we got under way, it was clear that it would not be long before our brains were full, as Kenny started explaining things. Some Madagascan history: it used to be split into several separate kingdoms which were perpetually at war with each other until the chap who ruled over what is now Antananarivo used 1,000 soldiers to establish some order and himself as overall ruler – thereby providing the name an (to) tanana (place, city) arivo (1000): the place of a thousand. Some politics: the island became independent from France in 1960; it has six regions, each split into multiple communities; it has a president, a prime minister, a house of representatives and a senate, along similar lines to the French model. He pointed out various plants and trees; told us about many of the places around us, whose names we haven’t a chance of remembering; some useful Malagasy words – excuse me, thank you, goodbye – which we also have no chance of remembering; and all in all it became clear that he is going to do a great job.

The first thing we had to do was to get through Antananarivo.  Given that Madagascar has a population approximately half of that of Great Britain, spread over two and a half times the land mass, and given that the population of Antananarivo is less than a third of that of London, you’d expect that to be an easy job.  You’d be wrong. The traffic was ludicrously heavy, and it took us the best part of an hour before we were free of the capital.  However, we learned a few things as we ground our way slowly along.

As well as the colourful and traditional buildings in many of the streets, there are quite a few funky modern buildings.

There are old cars being used as taxis (this is a Renault 4); heaven knows how they keep them going.

Unless you’re bang in the centre, there will always be rice paddies to be seen.

There’s a sort of “mobile phone taxi” service; if your mobile phone has run out of credit, you can pay for just a few minutes to make your calls.

The influence of France is still very clear.

The entrepreneurial spirit is strong, whether in formal market stalls

or chancing it in the traffic jams.

Madagascar imports fuel wholesale

and appears to operate an informal retail operation on the side.

The outskirts of Tana have many scenes of very colourful (and probably quite ramshackle) buildings,

and as you get further out of the city, the roads can turn feral.

I suspect that the road surface suffers badly because the road we were on, National Route 2, which leads eastwards to Andasibe, also continues on the the island’s main port, Toamasina; hence there’s a very significant amount of very heavy lorry traffic in both directions.

There is actually a railway connecting the two

along which freight is also run.

Kenny explained that some 80% of Malagasy people are farmers, tilling the fields both for subsistence and for selling.  Rice is the main crop, and the people consume it in huge quantities, but there’s still enough left over to export.  However, farming is not a full-time occupation year round, so many farmers have sidelines. One such is using the clay on their land to make bricks; ovens dotted our route, but we couldn’t get a satisfactory picture, sadly.  What we could get photos of, though was another major activity, which is quarrying granite.

This activity is responsible for some of the gashes in the landscape we could see on the flight down from Maroantsetra.  There are other gashes, too

and the impression we got from Kenny is that this is erosion which has deforestation as its root cause. It will be interesting to revisit those photos from our plane journeys, when we have time, to see how much more of the story this extra understanding reveals.

We also noted the dreaded eucalyptus trees, which so dominated parts of our travels in Spain: however here these seem to be non-commercial plantings representing another land owner’s side hustle, as they can be harvested quickly and the timber either used to make charcoal (much used in rural areas for fuel) or used for building work.

Going from the city of Antananarivo through the countryside to Andasibe also revealed a change in architectural styles.  For example, this house shows a typical Tana style,

brick built, with sloping roofing and balconies.  Our route took us out into the country, where clay and mud become a significant building material, based around timber frames and with thatched roofs

and then as we approached Andasibe, into rainforest country, wood becomes the principal building material.

We went through Moramanga, which is a substantial – and busy – town,

which is where we first came across cycle rickshaws as a mode of transport. You don’t see these in Tana because it’s too hilly.  In the UK, these are used only for ripping off carrying tourists, but  here they are a common mode of transport.  It’s ubiquitous, but not quite public transport.  This comes in the form of minibuses; different coloured minivans cover different destinations, but a common theme appears to be the bus conductor, who ushers people on and off and collects payment, quite often whilst hanging off the back of the bus.

What else did we see?  Piglets;

Traffic management for roadworks (known as “go go girls”, apparently);

the rather ritzy railway station at Andasibe, from the days when the railway carried passengers

and which is theoretically going to be used for passenger transport at some stage in the future, but which has done service as a hotel in the past, with lodgings opposite it;

and a slightly weird version of milk for your coffee, which we took at a slightly weird lunch stop at Pizzeria Diary, just outside Moramanga.  (Diary in Malagasy means something completely different from its English sense; I’ll try to find out what for you.)  We had tourist stuff (pizza for me, and tilapia & vegetables for Jane – whilst Haja and Kenny went off to a different part of the place (a staff canteen or something, we posit) and had pork, rice and beans, a traditional Malagasy meal which we would much have preferred to eat. After the meal we ordered coffee with milk, and this is what we got.

This was (sweetened) condensed milk; adding it to coffee made it sweet enough for me to drink, but it had a weird, gloopy consistency.

Quite soon after lunch we arrived at our accommodation for the next three nights, the very swish Mantadia Lodge. To get there, we went through Andasibe village and I hope we get a chance to wander round with a camera, because I think it’s really quite photogenic.

I suppose because we’d “wasted” most of the day getting to the lodge, Kenny had organised a night walk for us which was to happen before dinner (don’t forget that darkness falls with a crash here at about 6pm); this made dinner rather later than we would have liked, but actually I guess there was no other way to organise it, and it gave us a couple of hours off during the afternoon to draw breath.

The walk was at the VOIMMA Community Reserve, a wildlife reserve managed by the local community, just a ten minute drive away, and we were led by a guide called Abraham.  The route was through rainforest, but the conditions were dry, which made everything more pleasant for us.  There are prepared trails through the park, which gives it a more manicured feel than we experienced at Masoala, but there was a profusion of magnificent tree ferns, which we hope to go back and look at in more detail and daylight over the next couple of days.

We didn’t see any lemurs during the walk (barring the glint of a mouse lemur’s eyes at a considerable distance) but there were other creatures to admire.

Finally, Jane found another chameleon just outside our room at the lodge.

We eventually established that this is a male Elephant Ear Chameleon.

Dinner at the lodge completed the day, which, despite being spent almost entirely on the drive, was content-rich and quite satisfying.  The morrow’s plan is for a longer walk around the Mantadia National Park, which is primary rain forest and brings the prospect of some more varieties of wildlife.  Today was a lemur-less day; what will tomorrow bring?

Getting there

Friday May 31 2024 – In what is a strong candidate to be our most exotic trip yet, we are travelling to Madagascar to spend about three weeks exploring the place.  This will be our first time in Africa. Well, not quite; we visited South Africa a decade ago, but I don’t think that really counts as Proper Africa, whereas Madagascar definitely does, in my book.  I’m quite daunted at times by what awaits us, despite the reassurance that comes from knowing that the whole thing has been planned by an expert – Kate at Whisper and Wild has put together an itinerary which takes us all over the island to experience the widest variety of what it has to offer in the time available.

Lemurs, mainly.

Actually, I expect there will be a bewildering variety of wildlife for me to attempt to take photographs of, under the auspices of various guides who will be looking after us as we go along.  Given our experience in Costa Rica, I’m expecting to test their patience to the limit as they try to point out wildlife that they can see clearly but which I’m struggling to make out.

Preparation actually started quite some time ago. Because this is Exotic Foreign, as opposed to just Normal Foreign, we needed various jabs to protect us against the multitude of potential lurgies awaiting the unwary – typhoid, tetanus, polio and diphtheria. And there’s malaria, medication of course, which is optional, but which we decided would be a Good Thing.  I have no idea what it’s like to suffer malaria, but, at 71, I’m not sure I want to find out, particularly since an infection could well prejudice our next trip*.  Anyway, a major discovery as part of the preparation is that malaria tablets cost three quid a pop, and we each needed 32 of ’em. Not a huge cost in the overall scheme of things, but slightly unsettling when you’ve got used to free access to medication.

The itinerary has broken one of the rules which Jane and I like to observe whenever we can, which is to avoid the ghastliness of early morning flights.  Sadly, in order to get there in one day, we have to catch our first aeroplane at 0615 tomorrow morning; we fly first to Paris and then board an 11-hour hop to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. That being the case, an overnight stay at an airport hotel is called for, and we find ourselves in the Crowne Plaza, by Heathrow’s Terminal 4, which is somewhere we haven’t been to for well over a decade. It will be grim to have to wake up at 4am in order to stumble across to check in, but at least the hotel room is well-equipped.

It may not be Twinings Finest, but at 3.30am one’s taste buds are unlikely to be that discerning.

Saturday 1 June 2024 – I’ve never been at an airport at opening time before, so today was a first.  Terminal 4 at 0415 is not a busy place

and there was actually a queue waiting for security to open.

Everything went very smoothly – we didn’t even have to take phones and other hardware out of our bags, which is a blessing – and by 0430 we were able to take a seat by our gate.  There was a small ripple of excitement for some people at 0500,

and Jane went to get us some coffee once the initial queue had died down.

The last time I travelled to Paris, it seemed to me that the various terminal 2 buildings at Paris Charles de Gaulle were all quite small – terminals 2A to 2E were all of a size and not at all imposing (Terminal 2E was opened in 2003 and had 11 gates).  That said, my last visit to Paris was in 2010. How things have changed in the intervening years!  Now, Terminal 2E has a train connecting three stations, each with a group of gates.  We had to get from station K to station M (after first having to go through a considerably less smooth security operation than we saw at Heathrow) and then saw the extent of this section of the terminal.

Our flight was slightly delayed, so we had a short wait in the terminal – an opportunity for some more coffee – during which Jane got an update from the people who run the first segment of our trip, the Masoala Forest Lodge.

It was good news and bad news.

The good news was that they were actually expecting us and could provide details of the next day’s travel arrangements to get us from Antananarivo, (aka Tana) the Madagascan capital, to the north east of the island. The bad news was the travel arrangements themselves.  The size of Madagascar, and the undeveloped nature of that area, means that getting to the lodge involves a flight.  We had to check in for that flight at 7am. Our departure was eventually quite significantly delayed; last-minute baggage to be loaded, air traffic delay and a technical issue meant that our landing time was around midnight and we still had to clear immigration, get some local currency and transfer to our hotel.

I’m very glad that we had been at the front of the bus, as it meant that we were among the first off the plane and therefore towards the front of the various queues we had to go through.  The first queue was to buy a visa – €35 for us, a short stay 30-day visa. Then we had to queue at passport control, and it became clear that the queues for those behind us was beginning to become quite lengthy.

The queue for passport control

Behind us, the lengthening queue to buy a visa

We had an anxious wait for our bags, partly because at first we waited by the wrong carousel. In our defense, there were no signs to tell us what was coming out where.  In the end, Jane went off and found our bags on another carousel, to much relief all round.

A driver, Aina (?sp – rhymes with hyena), was waiting for us, and after I’d changed some money into local currency (Aryary) he escorted us out to his car. He cautioned us not to let anyone else touch our bags. The reason for this became clear as we left the terminal; there were legions of people hanging around, some in official-looking gilets, but also a few others, one of whom walked with us to Aina’s car. It became clear that he was after a handout even if he hadn’t done anything to help us.  I have a feeling that this won’t be the only time we come across this behaviour.

The hotel – Relais des Plateaux – is only a few minutes’ drive from the airport and (according to its website) is dead posh, but the timings meant that we weren’t in a position to appreciate any luxury; instead another severely curtailed night’s sleep beckoned.

The journey to the lodge looks to be Quite Interesting.  The flight is a charter flight rather than a scheduled one, so heaven knows what manner of aircraft we’ll be on. It’s followed by a boat ride of about an hour, during which we’re enjoined to let the crew stow our day packs to avoid them getting sea spray all over them. It might even be possible to see whales on the boat ride, who knows? Come back to these pages in due course to find out how the day went, won’t you?


* “Where’s that,” I hear you cry?  You’ll have to watch these pages to find out, won’t you?