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Published: January 4th 2012
I knew that Madagascar was a big island – usually classified as the fourth largest in the world.* However, I have been constantly amazed on this trip at just what an amazing variety of landscapes and ecosystems are found on this natural Noah’s Ark. While the length of some our taxi-brousse “adventures” have been equivalent to flying from North America to, say, India (shout out to Werner for pointing this out), the time it takes to travel often belies the short geographic distances covered. And the change that can be observed in these short distances is sometimes nothing short of startling.
After a couple days in the cool humidity of Ranomafana National Park, surrounded by dripping, lush rainforest full of lemurs and leeches, we continued on, heading southwards. At first this took us back into the by now familiar rice fields of the highlands, but shortly after leaving Fianar (the second biggest city in Madagascar) the landscape gives way to grassy plains punctuated by enormous grey boulders and, off on the horizon, great shields of granite mountain. Following the RN7, the “highway” that all but bisects the length of Madagascar, passing the town of Ihosy, the mountains and boulders disappear
and are replaced by the barren expanse of the Horombe Plateau. Human settlement gets thinner and thinner; there are almost no trees. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that less than 24 hours earlier I had been slipping along muddy rainforest paths, worrying about little bloodsuckers.
We stopped in the little village of Ranohira, gateway to our next national park: Isalo. The edge of yet another landscape.
Dolphin, our guide – yes, his name was Dolphin! – picked us up bright and early at our wacky, Afro-kitsch hotel, Hotel Berny (the restaurant was adorned with a stuffed crocodile and masks with glowing red eyes; the bathroom in our room included zebu horn towel hangers and a liberal use of chains as decorative accents).
To Abby’s chagrin, our hike started with a climb (although she did acknowledge that we were starting off in the relative cool of the morning). Isalo, unlike the flat grasslands that surround it, is an area of sandstone hills and canyons reminiscent of the American South-West, but occupied by a very Malagasy mix of weird and wonderful plant and animal life. I loved the bulbous, almost Seuss-ian, elephant foot
plant, for one.
In the big open spaces, or on the exposed rock faces, the overall look of Isalo is one of dry, semi-desert. However, hidden in its many canyons are patches of almost tropical vegetation and gorgeous natural pools fed by picturesque waterfalls – all so lovely they seemed unnatural, like movie-set versions of hidden tropical paradises. We actually got to swim twice in such pools, first in the appropriately named Piscine Naturelle and lastly at the Piscine Noir (only “noir” due to the dark depths of the water – which was otherwise crystal clear!). These were great refreshers after long stretches of hot, dusty hikes.
In some ways, it was almost easier to appreciate the beauty of Isalo compared to Ranomafana due to its openness. Within Ranomafana, you can only see so far, the dense forest looming over you; but in Isalo, all is visible and the multi-hued sandstone is truly photogenic.
I had thought our lemur sighting days were pretty much over post-Ranomafana, but I was wrong. Around lunchtime on our first day in the park, we stumbled into a family of red-fronted browns merrily eating in the trees and playing on the ground.
One of the cheekier ones even joined us at lunch, climbing right onto the table and stealing a slice of pineapple. We didn’t mind sharing; we loved that we were within snuggling distance of such an adorable creature!
Dolphin greeted us the second morning, and took us out to see two of the most famous features of Isalo National Park, the Canyon of Makis (monkeys) and the Canyon of Rats (misnamed, as the first explorers mistook the poor little mouse lemur for a rodent!).
As it had rained hard the night before, the trail out to the canyons was a bit muddy, not helped by the fact that it wound through rice paddies. But the sloppy trek proved more than worth it once we entered the narrow mouth of the Canyon of Makis. Like the natural pools we dipped into the day before, this fissure in the otherwise dry sandstone landscape seemed more tropical than semi-desert. It was so perfectly postcard beautiful that it looked almost fake (again, like a movie set). A tumble of water-worn boulders, wispy waterfalls, clear pools, bright green ferns, the sounds of birds echoing off the canyon walls….
second canyon – essentially right next “door” – was almost impassable due to the high, muddy torrent of its river. Somehow, the heavy rains of the night before had flooded the Canyon of Rats but not the Canyon of Makis. We only got to step into the mouth of the canyon before having to head back across the rice fields…
Leaving Ranohira proved something of an adventure – a not so pleasant one at first. We discovered that our onward taxi-brousse ticket to Toliara was a fake; there would be no taxi-brousse stopping to pick us up specifically (and we were out 30,000 ariary each). As Ranohira is a small village, there was no guarantee that another taxi-brousse would a) stop and b) have room for us. We weren’t sure what to do; we even contemplated hiring another car, as we had done in Antsirabe….but that would have been expensive.
Just as we were about ready to give up, however, a local guy waved down a taxi-brousse that, surprise, surprise, had empty seats. I even had room for my knees! We weren’t going to have to either spend another night in Ranohira or fork over a
small fortune to get to our next destination.
We bid farewell to the semi-desert and headed to yet another Malagasy-scape: the sticky, sultry coast around Toliara….
*After Greenland, Papua-New Guinea, and Borneo.
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