Week 1 in Madagascar

Perhaps the animated movie Madagascar inspired more people globally to consider visiting the island at some point in time. The island is depicted as a lush, green place dreamed up by one of the movie’s creative writers. Creative it sure is to some extent. When we travelled to the island we found that the island is no longer as green as one may believe from seeing the movie and if you’re traveling with children, be prepared that one will not find animals like happy movie characters Alex the Lion or Marty the zebra. What we did find instead are mosquitos.

It is advised that visitors consult a health expert to ensure they are properly prepared for the trip, as the island is not only home to beautiful scenery, it is also home to many third-world diseases. Hence, as well-prepared travellers we took our daily malaria pills and drenched ourselves in mosquito repellent, but this could not prevent a mosquito from staying the night with us during a camping trip by the Tsiribihina river. But I’m jumping ahead now. Before we got there, we came a long way.

In October 2018 we flew from Amsterdam to Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo – or simply “Tana” as nicknamed by the locals. With no direct flights we had a first lay-over in Paris, followed by a stop in Nairobi, to arrive in Madagascar around 4.30 in the morning about a full day later. Exiting the small airport, a taxi driver picked us up to drive us to our hotel in the middle of the city. We found ourselves surprised to see so many people out and about, walking long distances with market produce in bags or on wheelbarrows this early in the day. An additional surprise was the capital itself. We had been prepared for a poor country, so we had anticipated the slums on the outer edges of the city, yet not so much to discover that even the richer buildings in the city centre reminded us more of South American favellas than of any city-like structure from back home. When going out on the streets later in the day we found out how similarly poor the city is to such favellas. A homeless man who we saw on the streets on day one, we saw being carried away lifelessly on day two. As a tourist you cannot enter streets without being approached by people begging for money, food or even the t-shirt that you might be wearing. Tourists are also warned to not take out cameras or phones whilst on the streets, or to walk outside after dark, as one is more likely to become victim of robbery or mugging.

Knowing this, you might assume that visitors will choose to not carry much cash with them, and admittedly, that sounds senseful. Yet, there are only few cities on the islands that have ATMs, so when going around the island, travellers will find themselves having to carry cash for multiple days. On that topic, we were somewhat surprised by the costs of activities. National park entrance fees are easily between 55,000 and 65,000 Malagasy Ariary (approximately $15) per person. On top of one’s own fees, a tourist pays the fee for their park guide. Similarly, the options to rent your own car are limited, and trust me – or otherwise the Top Gear crew in the Madagascar Special of The Grand Tour – most people would not feel comfortable driving around the country themselves on unpaved/not-existent roads with bad to no navigation (when available mostly in Malagasy) and having to discuss road tax with local village representatives whilst considering if you want to be part of a small convoy when traveling through areas known to occasionally be bothered by local, organised crime. Hence, most tourists end up booking tours with a driver. We paid 2.4 million Ariary for our first tour, which included a driver, a local “English-speaking” tour guide and a river tour. This is already a substantial amount, but especially if you consider that ATMs mostly only spit out bills in up to 10,000, or in the best case 20,000 Ariary, and you wish to take out cash for hotels, food and tips on the way that week. We split money everywhere we could, but before you know it, wallets and pockets are full, which led to stuffing of a bra and pretending to carry a baby bump, in fact being a money bump! 

Having arranged our tour, taking out the required money we soon spent our last night in our hotel in Tana, to start exploring the wider island. A long drive through the city soon saw a turning landscape and changing roads. The landscape turned from a city landscape into a rural one, with paved roads going to gravel roads, eventually going to non-paved roads. From the very start we knew this country was different from what we had seen before. Neither of us had been to such an underdeveloped country before, despite us having visited a combined number of 45 countries before this trip, across multiple continents, having lived on multiple continents and even having family in an African country. People in this country looked like pictures from history books: women with bare upper bodies washing laundry in dry rivers, other women working by the sides of the road to manually break large stones into smaller stones using a single hamer-like tool. Travelling to Madagascar is not just traveling to a different country, in way it is like travelling back in time.

After a long drive and a night in the city Antsirabe where we stocked up on water bottles, we went on to the place where we would start our 2.5 day river tour: Miandrivazo. We drove into a small, simple village, where villagers were eager to see our car drive in and before we knew it people were walking around with our bags, having them on wheelbarrows and guiding us to the river where a small, wooden boat was prepared. Our bags were used to form our seats with old cushions that folded perfectly into the boat. The boat itself had space for us two, our guide and the two strong men paddling the boat down the river for us. After the preparations were done, we were good to take off and start our peaceful journey down the quiet river. We had to step out at some point to let the men in charge carry the boat over a dry bank of the river at some point in the morning, but then sat our bottoms down for the rest of the day, going from a place where the river reached big and wide all around us, with more boat activity, mostly from fishermen, to a point where the river started to meander away. From burning hot sun, to an afternoon where slowly shade came to set in and we soon made our stop at a beachlike inlet that would be our camping spot for the night. There were a few more tourist who had arrived on their own tiny boats, no more than 8 in total, but we were all expected. A local women took us to a place on the beach where we could see lemurs, whilst the paddlers got some well-earned rest and our guide prepared the fresh fish she bought on the way to make a candle lit dinner by our tent. Candles where protected from the evening breeze by an empty water bottle that was cut open at the bottom and tuned upside-down in the sand. Before going to bed we found a quiet place that would do as a toilet, only to find after that a snake had been maneuvering over the beach only a few meters away from that spot seconds later. However, the guides and paddlers had fun with it, one picked it up and threw it to the others to tease them and entertain each other. That was our call to say goodnight to all who were still around the campfire and call it a night!

As we awoke the next morning from the sun warming up our little tent, we found a little bug on the blue nylon canvas. Instantly killing the insect, not realizing damage had yet been done, we started a lovely new day on the river.

Our guides had us presented with a lovely, peaceful landscape surrounding the river, colourful birds flying at the river banks and with luck one might spot a lemur in surrounding trees. Closer to villages we would find Malagasy men and women coming to the river to wash themselves, groups of women walking in and out of the river with baskets of laundry to wash, men on fishing boats to get fish out of their nets and selling the catch of the day to our guide, or naked, laughing children swimming to us yelling: “Vahaza, vahaza!”. Vahaza being the Malagasy word for both ‘white’ and ‘not-from-Madagascar’ or ‘foreigner’ makes it the perfect word to describe us pale German/Dutch visitors of their country. Any white visitor of the country will get familiar with the word sooner than later, as there are so little tourists on the island that non-native white people happen to be a rarity: a true attraction to the many children who live there. They were excited to swim along with our wooden paddle boat for little bits, making silly faces, splashing water and finally, waving us goodbye again.

Equally interesting river activity occurred at the very next campsite on our river tour, where in the morning we woke up finding a crocodile on the opposite shore of the river: the same river that children swim in, women bath in and men use their hands in to peddle their fishing boats forward. Concerned about these people we asked our tour guide if people are ever attacked or eaten by the river crocodiles. Trying to wipe any worries of my face her reply in broken English was: “Crocodile don’t like white meat.

We enjoyed the final part of our river tour, seeing a flock of great white birds fly over the river that we sailed on… Yet, admittedly we were now getting sore bottoms and feeling happy to get out of the hot, burning sun. You have to understand that the boat that you’re on is a narrow wooden boat that hosts 1 or 2 visitors, our English-speaking tour guide and two men rowing the boat down the river. One remains in the boat practically the whole day: no toilet breaks or stretching legs and cooking is done on a burning pot at the guide’s feet in the boat. For a large part of the day, one has to protect one-self not merely by sunscreen and drinking water, but also by covering up with hats or thin materials over the legs. It’s a beautiful and adventurous tour, but also one that’s perhaps not laid out for everyone.

Having rowed down the stream of the river, we were brought on land and now by car headed a little further west to Belo Tsiribihina, from where we went up north, in the direction of Tsingy. Back on the road again, we were quickly reminded of the lack of infrastructure on land. Nevertheless, people are inventive, and where there is a lack of roads and bridges, sand paths and man-made ferries would do. The drivers may have never passed any formal drivers test, but informally fitting all cars onto the wooden float for the river-crossing can sure be considered a test. Lucky for us, our driver passed and we got across the rivers safe and dry.

After several hours of driving, and somewhere on the way having joined a small convoy with about 4 other tourist cars, we arrived at the final river crossing before we came to our next village. Zebu (humped cattle) by the river and a massive mango tree greeted us. The small village felt welcoming. Children looked at the arriving cars with some interest as we went ashore, but shortly after continued using fallen mangoes to aim for fresher, ripe mangoes higher up the tree. We put up our tents before the night fell and sat ourselves down on a ‘restaurant’ porch. Zebu with rice and legumes – or just rice and legume for the vegetarians was a welcome dish after our river days where we had enjoyed mostly fresh fish that the Tsiribihina fishermen had on offer. Additionally, a THB was available whist watching the sun go down: Three Horse Beer: the one thing you can get in ‘establishments’ across the island. In the evening we got together with our guide to decide if we wanted to see both the lower and upper Tsingy the following day, or only the upper Tsingy. Tsingy is a nature reserve and UNESCO heritage site characterized by needle-shaped limestone formations. The word “Tsingy” is derived from a local word meaning “the place where one cannot walk barefoot”, although our national park guide the following day told us how he used to play hide and seek between the formations as a child. He led us through both the upper and lower Tsingy, which were astonishingly beautiful. Careful not to cut oneself, you arrive at a unique view when climbing higher up in the formations, seeing the limestone spike out of the lush green forest deck, whist in the lower cave-like areas one can spot more lemurs. You have to travel far to see this sight, but it is worth it without a doubt.

In addition to the amazing views, meeting our park guide was another experience in itself. Our ‘English-speaking’ guide who had accompanied us so far was able to translate the required bits and pieces, but the national park guide was fluent and therefore capable to tell us more about his life on Madagascar and Tsingy. The most interesting story about Tsingy related to him being impatient as a child, being frustrated with the slowness of chameleons that he would find and catch. His grandparents however, thought him to appreciate the creature that “had not always been slow” by means of the following story. About 2000 years ago Jesus had walked in Tsingy, carefully not to cut himself on the limestones. Yet, a chameleon ran by him in a rush, resulting in Jesus tripping and falling on the hard stones. His father was not pleased by this and so God punished the chameleon by making it slow, to never tumble anyone again. The chameleon now struggled to find food and asked God for help, for it could no longer catch bug to feed on. God replied that he would give the chameleon the ability to change its colors so prey would not be able to see it. The chameleon went out to try catch its prey again, but still it failed. When it moved the prey would recognise movement and get away. One more time the chameleon asked God for help. God – by now getting fed up with the requests – agreed to one last thing: giving the chameleon its long tongue to catch insects. And that is how chameleons came to being according to our Tsingy national park guide.

He had more interesting stories too. He grew up in the Tsingy area, remote enough from anything else to know what a chair was when growing up. This explained one of the many superstitions held by locals, to not pat clothes indoors, as in unpaved huts patting clothes would bring up dust right where someone else may be eating a meal. He first found out about the concept of birthdays when he hadn’t bought anything for his girlfriend’s birthday when they first got together. She was not a happy woman. But our friend wanted to make her happy and so he had to learn a lot to keep up with his love from the capital. Lucky to learn more about life in the city and being able to study there to learn to speak English, he was now back in Tsingy, where he hopes one day to marry his girlfriend over the Tsingy hanging bridge.

It is hard to top the impressive Tsingy nature reserve, but our next stop would offer fierce competition. After 2 nights we packed our tent and left for the town of Morondava, which was to be the final destination of our first days on this great island. Morondawa is located near the Avenue of the Baobabs, one of Madagascar’s major tourist attractions and indeed another unique and beautiful place.

I bet by now you – like me at the time – completely forgot about that mosquito in our tent from a few days ago, didn’t you? Well, it was about to become time for me to be reminded of it. Once we were back on the road, I started feeling a bit unwell. General hygiene is not amazing over the entire island*, so it was not all too surprising that it could have some effect on one’s health after a couple of days. Trying to rest a little was nearly impossible since Madagascar here too, still lacked paved roads. If anything, the bouncy road only contributed more to the already prevailing headache. Ideally, I would have stepped into a bed, but instead we stepped out of the car at the Avenue of the Baobabs to see the sundown. Something you don’t want to miss! It is perhaps the iconic image that many people have in mind when visiting Madagascar and we were happy that we did too.

Almost as happy as I was finally getting into that hotel bed an hour later. Unable to set any step further than that, that is where I stayed for multiple days. Luckily we had booked ourselves a good hotel where we could put me under a cold shower and cool me with wet towels to cool me down when having scary high temperatures. Feeling unable to go to a hospital (remember the unpaved roads you’d have to cross?) this seemed like the best place to sit out the sickness. In our best French we had asked the hotel reception to arrange for a doctor’s visit. Good thing we knew the words for “sick” (malade), “hot” (chaud) and “hurting” (faire mal) and had fingers to point out where my body ached. Having googled symptoms and remembering our mosquito visitor from a few days earlier, we asked the doctor if it could be dengue. According to the man there was no dengue on Madagascar, contrary to what several research suggests (e.g. this research article about dengue mapping), and contrary to what our GP from back home emailed us, as the symptoms were very much typical dengue symptoms. Luckily, our Malagasy doctor had prescribed some medication, we were in a village with a pharmacy and our GP from back home emailed us which of the prescribed medication to take or not. After a week of sweating, aching and sleeping, we finally were able to get back to planning our next vacation days beyond the hotel room that had served as sick room until then.

Find out more about part 2 of our trip in the next blog!

*to name some examples: 1. When asking for a toilet on a day drive’s stop at a holy Boabab tree, the guide checked with a local from the village and came back explaining that the village toilet was “behind those bushes”. Yup: a large area between bushes covered in human feces. 2. No surprise that we’ve come across plague warning signs in some locations, explaining how to avoid and recognise symptoms of the plague (for those thinking that was eradicated, the disease is an endemic disease in Madagascar with cases of bubonic plague being reported nearly every year – source: WHO).

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