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Published: January 7th 2010
I have to return to Tana in order to get transport to the last national park of my Madagascar visit and, despite being only ~400km from Fianar on the best road in the country, an eight hour journey time by taxi-brousse
is considered exceptionally fast. The problem lies in the winding nature of R7, plus the fact that it's single-lane so slow-moving vehicles create hold-ups.
One highly civilised aspect of taxi-brousse
travel is that there are frequent loo breaks, often passenger-initiated. Our lunch stop gives me more French confusion - the waitress says they have no legumes
but then admits, when prompted, that they do have haricots blancs
My taxi from the taxi-brousse
station to the Hotel Niaouly is a 39 year old Renault 4, another awesome vehicle from the streets of 1970s Paris.
Tana has massively filled up since my arrival three weeks before and there is no availability at Niaouly and it's touch and go whether I'll even get in for my final nights in Madagascar several days hence. My back-up hotel has just one room left, up a narrow cramped stairwell that has "bruised cranium" written all over it. I'm too tired to be wandering
the streets of Tana after dark so I take it. One consolation is the excellent views over Lac Anosy. Another is a complimentary toilet roll with paper so thick as to be difficult to fold.
I then discover that Citibank has noticed some "strange activity" on my account and has decided to massively reduce my withdrawal limit until I contact them about this. International calls from Madagascar are stupidly expensive and the Internet connections not really good enough to support Skype, but I persevere with the Skype option and eventually reach some cheery soul at the Citibank help desk. The "strange activity" turns out to be that I've used my ATM card in Africa. The fact that I've been doing that for over eight months already has somehow evaded their fraud detection algorithms. I bite my tongue and eventually have the limit restored to a level where I can actually buy something with my withdrawals.
From Tana, I pay a visit to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park (blogged separately) before returning for my final days in Madagascar.
I've budgeted two days for shopping in Tana before I leave, carelessly forgetting that this predominantly Christian country is barely open for
Restaurant in Raphia Hotel
business on a Sunday. So I spend my Sunday morning at the zoo. I'm not a big zoo fan but this will be my only chance of seeing an aye-aye.
The aye-aye is an elusive species of nocturnal lemur with outsized ears and an elongated, almost skeletal, middle finger that it uses to pry insects out of holes in tree bark. Its appearance is most bizarre, and a far cry from the cuteness of the other lemur species. It can only be found wild in the north of the island, and was the focus of one of Gerald Durrell's expeditions here.
After spending the last month seeing animals in nature, the zoo - which is by no means a paragon anyway - is like a depressing prison. Lemurs plod disconsolately round their cages, the joy of leaping through the rainforest canopy a forgotten dream. Slightly better are the three lemur islands in a miniature lake, where at least the inhabitants aren't hemmed in by wire. I'm not sure whether it's a lack of swimming ability, or a level of toxicity hinted at by the lurid green of the lake's water, that keeps them there.
I head to
the Nocturnal House to see the aye-aye. Already, while wandering around the zoo, I've been approached twice by keepers and asked surreptitiously if I want to see the aye-aye. This has confused me until they add "Because it's sleeping". This suggests that, for a small pourboire
, they are prepared to prod it into activity. I wearily decline.
It's gloomy inside the Nocturnal House, but once my eyes become used to the subdued lighting it's obvious that seeing the aye-aye will require better eyesight than I possess. Its enclosure is the darkest of the lot, and reflections off the glass from the other lights make it very difficult to discern anything. I see a shape that appears to have two ears, nestled in the fork of a tree, but my attempts to take a long exposure photo are thwarted by camera shake. The aye-aye will have to wait for my next visit - hopefully to see it in the wild.
My final day in Tana sees me spend a frantic hour at the Artisanal Market. (Literally) a kilometre of craft shops selling by and large the same stuff, every single shopkeeper attempts to usher you into their establishment with
promises of "Good price, good price". Having already visited fixed-price shops at the national parks, which are marked up anyway, the opening quotes I'm given are consistently five times higher than these. However there are some enormously appealing souvenirs on offer, from the tin cans refashioned into miniature 2CVs, to the raffia chameleons, to the shimmering silk scarves - I sense an import/export opportunity.
Air Madagascar confirms that my 6:20AM flight to Joburg will require a 4AM check-in, so a minimal night's sleep precedes a gloomy taxi ride through the empty streets of Tana. There are few streetlights, and the 2CV's headlamps barely reach the cobbles in front of the car.
Of course the check-in doesn't even open until 5AM, due to some unspecified problem. Fellow passengers include the Angola women's basketball team, on their way home after finishing third in the 2009 Afrobasket competition - I'm surprised they even managed that, as they don't have any players taller than me (and I'm hardly a giant). I see a guy wearing a bib proclaiming ASS Securite, but he's not the cavity searcher, merely a guard for some company whose acronym has no amusement value in French.
As seen from my room in Hotel Raphia
sorry to be leaving Madagascar. Apart from the enthralling wildlife and the people I've met, not to mention the superb paper money (the Ar5,000 bank note in particular is a work of art), the dominance of Asian culture here has reminded me that if I have a love affair with any part of the globe, it's with Asia. Momentarily forgetting how extraordinarily lucky I've been to be able to spend such a chunk of my life purely on travel, I allow myself to feel depressed at the thought of two months in southern Africa, in countries as heavily touristed as the first one I visited on this trip. How deep will I need to dig to find inspiration there?
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