Tuesday, November 1, 2011
We got up at 4:50 in the morning, but were thankfully able to get back to sleep, at least for a little bit. The room smelled even worse than the night before, and if we came anywhere close to the patio door, the smoke smell was overpowering. The smoke outside was abundantly evident, in that nothing else was remotely evident. It looked almost like the fog we have in May and June in San Diego. We skipped breakfast, hoping to get an early start so that we could get some money.
We were advised to bring $200 spending cash the three weeks, which in hindsight was absurdly low. Thankfully we brought a fair amount more than that, but even that amount, when accounting for tips to guides, drivers, porters, drinks (even just cokes and waters) was barely going to cut it. Franck seemed surprised that the place we tried yesterday had no money, but he took us to a couple of other places he thought would work. We actually tried out a couple ATM machines, but no luck. These cards worked for us in La Paz (Bolivia), Kigali (Rwanda), and Nairobi (Kenya), so we were very surprised and disappointed that apparently we'd be worrying about money for the rest of the trip. For a city the size of Antananarivo, the inability to get cash out of a cash machine is embarrassing.
After giving up on the money issue, we headed out east towards Route 7, the road we'd be more or less following for the next several days. There was less traffic than we were expecting; not many people on the road or out and about at 7:30 in the morning. There were some people out jogging (not sure how well that works when jogging through smoke) and out working in the rice fields. As we headed out of Antananarivo there were rice fields everywhere, with people out turning over the soil for what we presume will be the new crop. We were following a river, and people had obviously diverted the river water to flood their fields. Because we were following a river, the road wasn't very straight, but at least it was paved and no one was on it. We were going up and down, but nothing to steep, and our elevation was staying between 3000 and 4000 feet.
Unlike the drive out of Morondava, where there was a lot of empty area with villages every so often, here it was the opposite. The whole area seemed to be populated, even if not very dense, and it was rare for us to be in any area where we couldn't see someone on the street or out in the fields to either side. At some point before we got to Antsirabe, we went from being in a valley to being more of on a plateu - i.e., there stopped being hills on either side of us. The land was still being used almost exclusively for farming, however.
In Antsirabe, there was a fair amount of infrastructure, including the first stop sign we had seen anywhere in the country. Even in Tana, there were just large roundabouts or intersections where people did whatever. Antsirabe didn't seem nearly as crowded, and was a welcome alternative to Tana. We got out for a bit so we (and Franck) could stretch our legs. We walked up and down the main street, and saw a couple huge cacti (or at least something related). There were also several large Jacarandas. It's kind of odd, and kind of sad, that Madagascar has all of these amazing and incredible plants, but instead of using them for landscaping, they use plants from elsewhere. We've seen hundreds of Jacarandas, and only a single Royal Poinciana and not a single Colvillea. Also, we've seen more Canary Island Date palms used than any Malagasy palms.
We set out again, south towards Ambositra. Somewhere along the line we lost the nearby river, and the area seemed much drier than further north. The hillsides were barren, although that could have been simply because the people set them on fire. There were a couple impressive granite massifs as we got closer to Ambositra. What we didn't see any of were palm trees. For theoretically being a palm haven, we hadn't seen any besides the non-native ones planted as street trees. There is a species named for Ambositra (Dypsis Ambositrae), but we saw nothing as we approached the city.
We had lunch in Ambositra, at an outdoor table at the L'Artisan hotel. As with the restaurant in Belo Tsiribihina a couple days before, it was obvious that this is where everyone stops going between Tana and the parks to the south (or vice versa). Several large groups were leaving just as we got there, and several small groups showed up after us. Lunch was nice - Justin even got a liter of Cola. It was a little warm outside, but it felt better when the sun went behind the clouds. Some of the clouds were very dark, to the point we thought it might actually rain.
After lunch, we went to take some pictures of the area, and something was falling out of the sky, but it wasn't rain. Crystal finally realized it was ash. While Antsirabe appeared to be somewhat free of fires, Ambositra obviously was not. There was smoke everywhere, and even in Tana the smoke wasn't so thick that ash was falling on us. On the drive out of Ambositra we saw at least a half dozen fires burning on the hillside. We saw the same Eucalyptus-like trees we had seen on the way to Andasibe, and asked Franck what they were. They are in fact Eucalyptus, which aren't native in the slightest. We asked why they were planted - he said they were planted to harvest charcoal. So, in case you're scoring at home, the Malagasy burn down the native forest so that they can plant Eucalyptus, which they burn down to make charcoal, which they then burn for whatever. Great, just fucking great. Frank stated matter of factly that this is a major problem in Madagascar - no joke.
It did start to rain a little outside Ambositra - hopefully it would rain hard enough to put the fires out. We came across a huge group of Zebu, probably a couple hundred. The Zebu didn't seem to mind the rain as much as their handlers did. Around Camp Robin (no idea where the name came from), the rain eventually turned to a full-on thunderstorm, with dark gray clouds everywhere, lightning and thunder. Thankfully there was hardly anyone on the road, and the potholes (which also started after Camp Robin) weren't that bad.
We turned off Route 7 after awhile and headed down a dirt road towards Ranomafana. It was still raining, but not very much. There was an odd mist right near the ground, however, which got both Franck and Justin's attention. It was hail on the ground, sublimating. So for as far as we could see, there was a mist about 3' high at the ground level, which gave a surreal appearance, especially with the sky still being dark and menacing. We thought it would be cooler in Ranomafana than on the West Coast, but we weren't expecting hail. The local kids seemed ecstatic, several of them carrying around buckets of ice. At some point the dirt round randomly became paved again, and shortly thereafter we came across a large waterfall, Andriamamovoka. It was pouring out a large amount of water - we weren't sure whether the thunderstorm had materially affected the flow. While we were looking at the waterfall, Franck spotted a frog in one of the plants near the car.
After entering the national park area, the charred ground and Eucalyptus gave way to the native forest, which was full of different trees and ferns. It's appalling how stark the contrast is. We came to Madagascar to see all of its treasures before they're gone. We worry that we may have come too late.