Tag Archives: Ranomafana

Striking gold at Ranomafana

Wednesday 12 June 2024 – Our accommodation in Ranomafana was the Thermal Hotel. It’s called that because it is beside a geothermal hot springs pool; indeed, the pool used to be part of the hotel complex.

Yesterday, having ascended into the clouds and fog, we then descended to the village and the hotel in the rain, fervently hoping (in my case, at least) that today’s walk in the park would be a, erm, walk in the park, rather than a bedraggled squelch in the mud.  We were lucky; the day dawned sunny, and so we could take some photos of the hotel.

It’s an appallingly middle-class British thing to have difficulties with place names in The Foreign; I normally take pride in getting the name right and the pronunciation approximately so. But I’m having a lot of trouble with some names over here and so I’ve had to resort to mnemonics to help me.  Take, for example, Analamazaotra; I kept thinking of it as Anamalazaotra.  To get the l and the m in the right order, I resorted to the 1958 song “Rama Lama Ding Dong”. I was six when this first hit the charts, which of course I don’t remember. There was a 1978 version by Rocky Sharpe and the Replays, but the one that made the impression on me was the Muppets version, which is spot on my cultural level. I have also struggled with the order of the n and the m in Ranomafana, and so I’ve had “Son of my Father” as my mnemonic and front of mind during my say here. Bloody Chicory Tip! I now discover that the man who should take the blame for this song is Giorgio Moroder.

But I digress….

The morning was taken up by a walk, or more properly a hike, in the Ranamofana National Park.  Our guide for the day was engagingly called Dauphin and did a very good job during the day, taking the trouble to find out what our expectations and preferences were, and stopping to talk to both of us rather than calling back over his shoulder as we walked along.  He also had a “spotter”, who was introduced to us as Tila; his job was to crash around in the forest under- and overgrowth to try to find us interesting wildlife. I immediately christened him “Tila the Hunt”.

The entrance to Ranomafana National Park is in a community reserve; to get to the national park forest, you have to descend about 100 steps to a bridge, which is the border to the National Park.  From the bridge, you then have to walk up another load of steps.

One wonders why they couldn’t have pitched the bridge a bit higher.

On the way down, Dauphin pointed out something to us

which looked like an ant-  or termite nest.  Actually, on closer examination

it turned out to be a very dense cluster of fruits.

Having entered the National Park, the morning proceeded like all forest walks – much wandering about with the guide showing us stuff which wasn’t wildlife whilst hoping that we would soon stumble upon something with a pulse.  So, we saw a massive, 40-plus-year-old birds nest fern

which was, as these things do, growing epiphytically on another tree; and we saw some bamboo which looked eerily like a man-made structure over the path,

having been blown to buggery and deposited there by a cyclone in years past.  We also passed a real man-made structure,

which was the original building of the Valbio Centre that we’d heard about from Tom, the distinguished academic up in Masoala.  The forest has taken this construction back, but the centre is alive and well – see later. We also saw some wild coffee cherries which were blue, an unusual colour to find in nature.

The unripe blue cherries are yellow; and there are also red wild coffee cherries in the forest, as we found later.

So, remarkably, it was less than an hour before the cry went up that someone had spotted a lemur. So we rushed over to where it was. Looking at it through my very expensive camera and even more expensive lens, it was just a silhouette,

However, when I could get at my beloved DxO Photolab, we saw that

we had struck gold! (By the way, Dauphin told us at the time what we were looking at).

This was a Golden Bamboo Lemur!

Why the excitment? I hear you cry. This is the species that was first discovered in 1986 by Patricia Wright, founder of the Valbio Centre, and clearly a formidable lady, because she used the discovery to drive through the preservation order that was the basis for the creation of the very national park in which we stood. This required the removal of people who were actually living in the forest, because people aren’t allowed to live in a preserved space; so providing the incentives to make the move worth their while required national government involvement. Many of these people remain involved with the centre as spotters, guides or other helpers, so Patricia’s determination has paid off in more ways than just one.

Anyway, there it was – the holy grail of today’s search. And we still had about three more hours of wandering about to go.  Apart from this small group of Golden Bamboo Lemurs,

It would be a while before we saw another lemur species, but in the interim Dauphin found a puzzle for us – a branch that was apparently devoid of animal life

but, if one looked carefully, revealed

a leaf-tailed gecko.  To make it easier to see it, I’ve over-processed the photo,

but in real life it was genuinely difficult to see, which shows that its camouflage was of the very highest quality.

The going, by the way, was quite hard work.

Even the official trails were narrow and (as we’d been warned) very up-and down.

My trusty Garmin recorded my calories expended as three times as much as any previous excursion into a rainforest.

We did see a red-bellied lemur, but he was basically lazing about and not inclined to be ready for his close-up

and we wandered around for the next hour or so without seeing anything worth noting. It was Jane, though, who spotted the next creatures.  The guides, who were looking deep into the forest, had failed to notice something clinging to a tree literally beside the path we were walking along.

It was a family group of Red-fronted Brown Lemurs. Like the Common Brown jobbies we’d seen in the Analamazaotra National Park, these were curious and playful, although they didn’t come as close as those had.

After watching them play for a while, it seemed that that was that, and we kind of started for the exit. Dauphin did spot a couple of interesting things: a tiny wasps nest

(yes, it was tiny);

and another puzzle for us.

You have to look closely to see it, all curled and looking like a leaf, i.e. more good camouflage.

It’s commonly called a Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko, and, looking at its face, you can understand why. It seemed we were almost at the exit when there was a ripple of excitement and Dauphin bade us divert into the dense undergrowth, where we joined a bunch of other people who were looking at

a family group of Milne-Edwards’ Sifakas. They were reasonably active, but spent most of the time huddled together, grooming themselves and other family members, which made it very difficult to get decent pictures.  But I got a couple of halfway good images

and one decent one, purely by luck.

That really  was it for the visit, and we trooped back to the park entrance, with its gaggle of bloody nuisance entrepreneurial types. One of them was an artist who wanted us to visit his gallery there, but we were disinclined to do so at the time. We found out, though, that his works were also on display at the Valbio Centre, and we planned to visit there later, so we were able to put him off politely on the basis that we might see him later.

Accordingly, after lunch back at the hotel, we visited the centre,

and very interesting it was, too. Its mission is to protect Madagascar’s unique and biologically diverse ecosystems – and particularly the Ranomafana National Park – through conservation science and projects that directly benefit the local people. It’s an international research station which facilitates hands-on science to sustain the resources and people of Madagascar. It has equipment and facilities to support lab- and field-based research carried out by visiting students and researchers, as well as accommodation for them; it provides education to local school children and their teachers; it provides a level of front-line medical care and advice to the local communities on, for example, birth control.  Jane talked knowledgeably with a couple of the scientists we met about their projects; and a nice lad called Fabrice showed us around and talked about some of the things the centre is trying to do, such as to identify all of the insect species in the forest, which strikes me as being hugely ambitious; but they’ve already catalogued thousands and thousands.  Among other things, Fabrice showed us an example – the Comet Moth,

which is beautiful even in a display case and must be a lovely thing to see in real life.

We also met the artist, Alain, again in his niche at the Centre; he creates incredibly detailed and accurate representations of the local flora and fauna for use in educational projects, as well as purely artistic work of considerable talent.  And yes, we bought a little something!

Immediately after the visit to the centre, we went on a night walk, even though it wasn’t night yet.  We met Dauphin for the final time and walked slowly along the road at the perimeter of the National Park, looking for, well, things, you know?  It was actually quite good that we started early, while it was still light, because the first thing we saw was a Blue-Legged Chameleon.

Chameleons are more interesting by day, because their true colours appear; after dark, they become much paler and less interesting.

The most engaging thing we saw on the walk was a Rufous Mouse Lemur, which is very cute.

We weren’t the only ones trying to see it, though; there was one of those feeding frenzies that one finds on these walks.

We walked very slowly along, finding the odd occasional Big-nosed chameleon

though it takes skill to spot them because, while their noses may be big, they are tiny!

We did get one puzzle. There’s a chameleon in this picture. Can you spot it?

There it is, a Side-Stripe chameleon.

but that was about it.  The drivers for the various groups stood around, presumably trying not to laugh at us

and then it was time to return to the hotel for dinner.

So, that was Ranomafana; we hit what seems to be the normal strike rate for seeing things, which is about one and a half species per hour of walking about; but it was fantastic to see the Golden Bamboo Lemurs, and the Sifakas were an added bonus.

On the morrow, we continue our southward journey; some driving, some walking about in a forest, although it will be a dry forest, not a rain forest.  We’ve been very lucky with the weather today; who knows what it will be like tomorrow? Stay tuned to find out.



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.