Blog from MBP Varecia monitoring team, Gregor
National Holiday also called Independence Day in Madagascar is the 24th of June. This year that day fell on a Tuesday which sounds not especially exiting, but with the Malagasy habit of “bridge days” which means because the holiday is a Tuesday, we take off Monday, too. Another Malagasy tradition is to have a huge party on Independence Day, thus nobody shows up for work the day after this national holiday, thereby creating a period of 5 days without work and thus a perfect opportunity for traveling and seeing a bit more of the country out side of the research station in Kianjavato, KAFS.
Two places not too far away from KAFS and from each other are Andringitra National Park and Isalo National Park, which should be an easy 5-day-trip spending 1-2 days in each of the parks and allow time for getting there and away. Fellow Varecia monitoring volunteer, Melanie, and I actually started the trip on Friday afternoon to get to Fianarantsoa, from where we could catch an early Saturday morning Taxi-Brousse to Ambalavao, the turn-off point from the highway into the mountains towards Andringitra. We arrived in Ambalavao around 9 a.m. after an hours ride from Fianar and had only 45 km left to the National Park, which should not be more than 2 hours or so by normal Taxi-Brousse standards. So far goes the theory, but then reality kicked in.
To start with there was no transport to Andringitra in the morning, but supposedly a bit later, but not from the Taxi-Brousse station. So we had to walk over to a Bus drivers house on the other end of town, where there might be a vehicle leaving around lunch time. So we went there, did our provisional shopping on the way and then sat in the back alley behind the drivers house and waited. Slowly other people started to gather in the same place, so our hopes grew, but lunchtime came and went and there was still no car in sight. Until finally at 2 p.m an old Peugeot that someone converted into a Pickup-truck showed up pretending to be the taxi-brousse. By then a huge crowd had gathered (around 40 people plus luggage including the shopping for Independence Day) that all wanted to get in. And so did we. Now the good thing is nobody was left behind, the bad thing is we had only space for maybe 10 people under normal circumstances, so loading (it only worked on the third try) took another 2 hours. And finally we were on the road. This was the so far most overloaded ride I have experienced in Madagascar (and I guess anywhere outside Cuba) with around 30 people plus some luggage in the back of the pickup, the rest of the luggage on top of the roof and the rest of the passengers spread out over the roof of the cab, on top of the luggage on top of the roof or just hanging on on the outside/back of the truck.
We made it about 15 minutes down the dirt road, when the first bridge appeared and it didn’t look like it could handle more than a donkey cart, so half of the people had to get off the truck and walk over the bridge and get load back onto the truck on the other side. It still looked impossible for the bridge to carry the weight, but fortunately it did. And this procedure was repeated about every 15 minutes whenever there was a river crossing or a particularly bad bit of road or just a steep hill. So the 30 km to the last stop Sendrisoa took us more than 4 hours. We arrived in the dark around 8 pm and were still 16km away from the National Park. Luckily there was the school teacher of the National Park village school in on the truck and she would walk there the next morning. And even better: her family lived in Sendrisoa and had a room in their house that they sometimes rent out, so we actually had a place to stay indoors instead of camping on the roadside! It was really nice, well not the room, but the people and the atmosphere and we paid less than 4 euros for 2 people for the night plus dinner plus breakfast the next morning :o) Unfortunately I also got a couple fleas for free. Those stayed with me for a couple of days, because I could never get them out of my sleeping bag… so I spent also the next two nights with scratching myself instead of sleeping… Not so for Melanie who never had a single bite…So after breakfast we started walking towards Namoly where the National Park office was located. The 16km took us about 4 hours walking with our big backpacks (including tent, mattresses, sleeping bags and provisions for a couple of days). So we were rather tired when we arrived in Namoly and said goodbye to Monja the teacher.
We had already given up on seeing Isalo, but when we heared there was no transport back to Ambalavao during the national holiday we got a bit concerned that we would even make it back to KAFS by Wednesday, but nothing could be done about that now, so we hired our obligatory guide (another annoying habit if you are used to r
unning around National Parks on your own), but well it makes local communities profit from National Parks and that again might help conservation a bit… Well so when we had our guide we walked another 7km to the actual entrance of the NP and then we started walking up the hill to “base camp” for another maybe 3hours. By then we were definitely ready for camp. The shower was “refreshing” and dinner was “interesting” (including crickets which we have seen swarming around during the day).
The night was uneventful except for my fleas so next morning at 3.30 I stopped scratching myself, we packed our stuff had breakfast and started walking at 5 o’clock. It was a nice walk up the hill first still in the dark, but during the hike the sun came up and we reached the top of Pic Boby (2658m) a while later. From up there we had a very nice view in all directions, but the best thing was on the way down when we saw a group of ringtail lemurs jumping around the rocks. I heard different things about this mountain, I don’t know which of them are true, but it is supposed to be the second highest mountain in Madagascar, but also the highest in the southern half of Mada and the highest accessible peak in the country, maybe all of them are true, maybe not, I’ll probably never find out and it doesn’t really matter…
Anyway so after that we went back down a different (and longer!) route (I really don’t remember why we did that) and arrived in the afternoon back down in Namoly. The detour brought our walking distance for the last two days up to 50km! And we still had to get back to Ambalavao, but this time we were lucky: in Namoly we met a group of French people who were really nice, so we camped in the field where they were camping already and shared dinner with them and got a ride with them all the way to Ambalavao the next morning! I am pretty sure our backs, feet and legs would not have liked another hike out.