Tag Archives: Toliara

North! to Alaska Anjajavy* (part 1) – The Spiny Forest

Monday June 17 2024 – We had to get under way pretty sharpish today in order to get our flight up to Tana and squeeze in a visit to the Spiny Forest, so the alarm was set for 0430, just to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten that We Were Travelling. In the UK, we have a saying, “the early bird gets the worm”. In our case, the early Jane got the warm. My somewhat jaundiced impression of the Bakuba Lodge was not improved by the lack of hot water in the shower by the time I got there. However, the service for breakfast was, as the evening before, absolutely impeccable, and I didn’t want to interrupt Jane’s love-in with Bruno as she praised the architecture and décor by suggesting that he fix the plumbing (and the lighting, and the dangerous step down in the room that might trap an unwary person en route to the loo in the middle of the night, and the idea of having an open plan loo in the room, and the lack of places to plug in one’s essential charging devices).  However, I will emphasise that food was terrific, and the service utterly faultless.


We were due a visit to what I understood to be the Spiny Forest. Reading Wikipedia, though, I discover that the Toliara area hosts several spiny thickets which might be considered to be the Spiny Forest. The thicket that we were due to visit was about 25km outside Toliara, which gave us a chance to see once again the colour and variety of the traffic through this substantial town. Mainly tricycle rickshaws. My God, there are thousands of the buggers!

and they don’t only carry people; this one was laden with sugar cane  , for example.

There are also oxcarts,

any number of people carrying stuff to market,

and (I nod here to the late, great John Peel), Desperate Bicycles,

not to mention Desperate Minibuses

and Unexpected Items In The Road.

Despite all these challenges, we made it through to Reniala Reserve, a small, 0.5km² private reserve, where we would spend an hour or so on a guided walk along its trails.

To start with, it seemed merely a rehash of the plants we’d seen the day before at the Antsokay Arboretum. But, gradually some extra background and new information began to shine through.  For example, many of the baobabs were pockmarked with holes.

These date from the time before this area became a private reserve, when the locals would cut holes in the bark to use as foot- and handholds in order to climb the trees to pick the fruits, which are edible.

The tree above is quite old – a few hundred years only – and is quite substantial,

but the grand-daddy of them all is a Baobab that is 1200 years old!

One wonders what stories the face (bottom left of the tree, having its eye poked out by Jane) could tell….

Other Baobabs came in all sorts of strange shapes and sizes.

This one fell early in its development, but continued to grow (the right-hand end does look like a rhino, doesn’t it?). And this one

is very young, and just looks like a normal tree; the strange shapes only develop once very mature.

The thicket we were being guided around was, indeed, pretty spiny

but the main attraction was the Baobabs

Our guide was good enough to point out some creatures as well, to keep me happy.

Malagasy Brush Warbler

Green-capped Coua

Crested Coua

Three-eyed Lizard

But the best of all was saved until the last. At every wildlife opportunity, Jane has been keen on seeing a Tenrec, a hedgehog-like creature endemic to Madagascar. At every opportunity, guides had patiently explained that these creatures have gone into hibernation. But at Reniala, one of the staff actually managed to find and uncover one so that we could see it.

It was carefully replaced and covered up afterwards so that it could go back to its hibernation.

On our drive to and from the Reniala Reserve, we followed the coast, and so could see the Mangroves that are so important to the local ecology.

If you look around the base of the mangroves, you can see what look like sticks poking out of the ground; these are actually roots of the tree simultaneously providing nourishment and enabling the mangrove to spread.  We’ve been familiar with washing parties, but we passed a formal construction to make washing easier,

similar to the lavadoiros we’d seen in northern Spain on our peregrinations there.

But eventually it was time to go to the airport to catch our flight back to Tana, which meant we had to say goodbye to Kenny and Haja, who had done such a great job of looking after – and educating – us on the 1250km drive down from Tana via Andasibe to the south west coast. Despite an occasionally uncomfortable ride on the often crappy road surface, we’d had a lot of fun, and learned a huge amount about Madagascar and the Malagasy people; the 10 days we’d had with them had hugely enriched our time here.

Kenny actually had one final task, which was to sweet talk the check-in staff to allow me to take my camera bag as hand luggage (it was well over twice the theoretical weight limit for such things). This task successfully completed, we bade him goodbye as we headed for our aeroplane,

a De Havilland Canada, since you ask.  It actually took off half an hour early and landed a whole hour before its scheduled arrival time. But the people at Tamana, the agency who’d been looking after us throughout our time here, were on the ball, and there was a driver waiting us to take us to our overnight hotel, the by-now-familiar Relais des Plateaux, where we had a comfortable night, but an uncomfortably early start the next day to be whisked to the final segment of our stay here in Madagascar.  To find out what that involved, you’ll have to keep in touch with these pages and I’ll tell you all about it, some other time.


* Any regular reader of these pages will remember the first time I used this reference, which was when we actually did go North! To Alaska.

Coasting into Toliara – end of the RN7

Sunday 16 June 2024 – Today is the day we completed our journey to the south-western coast of Madagascar by reaching Toliara – from Antananarivo, over 900km of sometimes absolutely ghastly road surface, but expertly – and safely – driven by Haja over the course of 6 days.

Shortly after leaving Roy’s Garden (Le Jardin du Roy – gerrit?) we went through a town called Ilakaka, which is the main town in the sapphire mining area of Madagascar (not being a jewellery kind of guy, I had no idea that Madagascar was well-known for its high-quality sapphire).  It’s a busy place,

and one immediately understands the importance of the sapphire mining here.

These, by the way, are not selling finished stones, they are mainly buying what people bring in. Thousands of Malagasy are involved in what is turning into a “sapphire rush”, like the north American gold rushes; deposits of sapphire-bearing soil and gravel are being mined, often without due respect for the environment – or indeed health and safety – by hand.

The excavated material is then searched for raw sapphire – exiting the town, we crossed a bridge over a river which is clearly a prime spot for panning for sapphires.

The entire industry is based on manual labour – no heavy machinery of any description is used, as far as I know. Kenny was of the opinion that the miners are being exploited by the traders (often Indian and Pakistani) who understand the value of the gems far better than the miners do.

The nearby town of Sakaraha specialises in cutting the raw sapphire to produce saleable gems.

A side note, here: in one of our conversations with a large group of European – Belgian, Dutch and German – tourists, we learned that their minibus stopped in the area, presumably at one of the establishments that sells sapphire as well as buying it. They weren’t impressed, they would much rather have got on with their journey.  It made us glad that we had the flexibility of being just the two of us with Kenny and Haja, Kenny having picked up by this stage our vibes that we weren’t much taken with retail opportunities.)

Although we started out in sunshine, there was mist in the valleys

and there were several “table top” hills in the surrounding countryside.

I guess that the tops were of softer sedimentary stone, worn down by erosion.

We passed several roadside tombs on our journey.

Some were well-established and some were newer.  One stood out in particular,

a boat-shaped tomb of someone who was clearly very rich.  The tombs illustrate the importance of Zebu to the ethnic groups who inhabit the area. Zebu are used as a sort of bank: if wealthy, buy Zebu; if in need of funds, sell Zebu. When someone dies and is buried in a tomb, Zebu play a part in the process. For a wealthy person, several Zebu might be killed and their skulls used to “decorate” the tomb, showing that it was of a wealthy person or family; for a poorer family, just one Zebu might be sacrificed.

It’s the sort of thing that sparks a debate about poverty in what is officially one of the poorest countries in the world. Looking at the lives of rural people through western eyes, one is tempted to think of them as poor, but this is perhaps a cultural illusion. Money and possessions might be in short supply, but life as a farmer provides food for the table and the market, and a rhythm of life that doesn’t require a significant income stream; and there’s no tax to pay. Raw materials for building come from the land and the capacity of the Malagasy to repurpose things is astonishingly inventive and effective. Where they need them, people have their mobile phones and their portable solar panels to power them; they may not have bank accounts but the mobile telephone companies enable a sophisticated instant money transfer system which, together with mobile phone charging, is available at any number of roadside stalls.

They seem to our eyes to be happy.  In income terms, yes, they’re poor by our standards, but I don’t believe that they live below the poverty line.

City folk, though – that’s a different matter; they have to pay tax, pay for food, for their electricity and so on; perhaps they’re not as well off as rural folk?


We started, once again, to see a change in the landscape.  We began to see Baobab trees, at first in the distance

and then closer to,

like this one, which still had fruit on it.  There were some older trees in the landscape as well;

this one is very old, and regarded by the local as a “sacred tree”. We also saw a major change in the landscape.

which heralded our Activity For The Day; a visit to the Zombitse National Park. It’s quite substantial, at over 360km² and falls within a region classified as Madagascar succulent woodlands, known for many endemic species, and on the transition between the dry deciduous woodlands we have already visited and the spiny forest that is on the plan before we return to Antananarivo.

We had a shortish walk around the park, and saw some creatures we’d seen before, such as the Oustalet’s Chameleon and the Verreaux’s Sifaka; some we’d sort of seen before, such as this Sportive Lemur

who was a Zombitse Sportive Lemur (as opposed to the Masoala variant we’d seen in, erm, Masoala) and, being nocturnal, looked less than delighted to be woken up. We saw a beautifully coloured Day Gecko

and got up close and personal with a couple of huge Baobab trees.

These were several hundred years old.  I don’t know if they’d been creating little Baobab trees between them, but they were very impressive trees….

….or not, actually. In fact, Baobabs are not trees, but succulents (like cacti); it looks like bark on the outside, but inside is fibrous and squishy – and no good for building things, making things or burning, which is why so many Baobabs have survived; had they actually been useful, I suspect the landscape would have been bereft of them.

We passed through a town, Andoharotsy, where there is quite a flourishing trade in creating and selling rum, made from local sugar cane.

Barrels of fermented sugar syrup awaiting distilling

Wood to fuel the still

Yellow containers for the final product

Given the random nature of the creation of the raw materials and the quality and length of distillation, one can imagine that there is a huge variation in how the final product turns out. I can imagine it’s rather like poitin in Ireland – something to be treated with extreme caution.

At this point the RN7, which had been reasonably well-behaved for the last segment of our journey, turned mischievous again.  How can you tell the road surface is bad?

Because traffic is likely coming your way on your side of the road. Correct timing of slalom turns becomes more than just a matter of passenger comfort.

The next town, Andranovory, has (surprise!) a very busy market

and the local specialisation is in carpentry, especially making furniture.

The architecture also has a local flavour, with small houses, quite often of wattle-and-daub construction,

and an extended thatch roof, supported by pillars, OK officer I’ll come clean, sticks, which provide an extra shaded area.

The landscape changed again, this time to a limestone base

and we began to see an intimation of the “spiny forest” that we planned to visit the next day.

By this stage, it was lunchtime, and Kenny proposed a lunch stop at  L’Auberge de la Table, which gave us a nice, somewhat up-market lunch, and also enabled us to buy tickets to a connected establishment, the Arboretum at Antsokay, a place which, presumably, anteaters would enjoy visiting. We were expecting to take just a few minutes to wander round looking at, well, trees, I suppose, but – no, there was a guided tour, which would take an hour and, yes, there was a guide.  Who’d a thunk it, eh?  Our initial cynicism, though was allayed when our guide turned out to be both charming and knowledgeable. Jane is interested in things arboretumological, and so she and the guide (whose name, to my shame, I have forgotten), got on famously, while he found us not only some interesting plants for mainly Jane’s interest,

but also some creatures to include mine as well.

Apologies for the poor quality of the final two pictures; I only had the phone with me.

It was actually a pleasant visit, and our guide would have kept on chatting to us, but another group of punters came through the door and so (probably to Kenny’s relief) we took our leave, and headed to our hotel, the Bakuba Lodge, an establishment designed and created, with great style and panache, by a Belgian, Bruno Decorte.

Jane thought its appearance had a lot in common with “La Pedrera”, Casa Milà, in Barcelona.  I thought it was more like the somewhat confected architecture we saw in Finca Rosa Blanca (Costa Rica), or Binibecquer Vell, in Menorca. Whatever, we had a great dinner, with very good service, and a nice sunset view,

so the day ended well.

One would have thought that, having made the epic journey from Antananarivo to Toliara down the notorious RN7, we would at least spend a couple of days exploring the area and relishing the completion of such an expedition, but no, tomorrow we head back to Tana. But at least we have an  encounter en route with a spiny forest in the plan, so the day will not be spent simply travelling. Why don’t you come back to these pages to find out what a spiny forest looks like, eh?