Ashkeling 2005/6 trip - Madagascar     Last Updated: 12-Apr-06

22-Jan-2006 Réunion to Madagascar

The flight to Antananarivo (say that ten times, quickly), Madagascar, or Tana for short, was uneventful. I sat next to a Frenchman who works for an Emerald mining company; he's lived there for 8.5 years and loves it. He gave us a few recommendations. As we were flying into Tana, we saw a very odd cloud pattern, which might have been what they call Cyclones, basically monsoons - it's the season for them. Tana was reasonably cool; it is at about 1000 meters altitude. We were met at the airport by a driver who then pitched his company's touring services which we may use. We drove through the countryside to our very cute hotel, the Residence Lapasoa. Along the way we saw fields with rice, many people walking, storks (this is where they go for the northern Winter), and many old Renault 4 cars. This excited Roswitha because a Renault 4 was her first car.

Au Revoir á La Réunion

...and its fine food (which this was not)

A cyclone brewing?

A village

On the outskirts of Tana


Look! It's a Renault 4!
After making the room as mosquito-proof as we could (Madagascar has Malaria, and we don't want samples), we headed down to the restaurant in the hotel (named Ku Dé Ta), which seems to be very popular with the local expat crowd. Roswitha had Crevettes with roasted bananas, and I had Fillet de Zebu (the local cow with big horns, a big water-storing hump over their shoulders, and a large wattle to increase cooling surface area) au poivre, and we shared a Rôti Mango with orange liqueur for dessert. All of it was quite tasty.

Crevettes, Fillet de Zebu
23-Jan-2006 Madagascar - Antananarivo

It was time to get serious about booking a trip. We had spoken yesterday with Patrick, who runs the company that picked us up (Tanala Horizon Tours), and his proposed tour sounded attractive. (Although we normally prefer to do this stuff on our own, Madagascar is foreign enough - and we are illiterate enough - that we decided to hire a car and driver.) But, we wanted comparisons, so we set out after breakfast to check to see if we'd gotten internet replies (no), and to hit a few other agencies. The first one was in walking distance, except that it was not there. The next one was in the Grill la Rova, right near the queen's burned-out palace. Except that the grill was closed until April. We finally did find one open, and got descriptions and prices, which were pretty similar to what we'd gotten from Patrick, so we decided to go with him.

French breakfast in the Lapasoa

Feeling watched?

Almost the same color as Roswitha's

Headed to a non-existent travel outfit
While we were up at the burned-out palace, we looked around a bit. It is at the highest point of the city, so we took a taxi there. Madagascar has recently changed its currency from Francs to Ariary, but rather than dropping four or so zeros, they just divided it by five, so the bills seem huge. The largest is the 10,000 Ar note, which is worth about $5. You can imagine that paying for some things can result in a thick wad of bills. Anyway, we gave the taxi driver 10,000 for a 6,000 bill. He did not have change for such a large note, so he had to go out and scrounge up change. We did not know it at the time, but he gave us a 500 Franc note in place of a 500 Ariary note, effectively shortchanging us. It was only later when we tried to pay for something that we discovered that he had screwed us out of 20¢!

800,000 Ariary, about US$400
Sorry. Back to the palace. In the mid 1800s, there was a queen, Ranavalona I, who was a bit off her rocker. She likely murdered her husband the king, and reversed much of his openness to the outside world and tolerance of other religions, especially Christianity. She killed many Christians through various methods, including throwing them off a cliff (a church now stands below the palace where some of this was done), dismemberment, and ever more creative approaches, eventually killing off almost 1/3 of the people. She commissioned English and French architects to build ostentatious buildings, including the fine palace on the city's highest peak. After her death, her son and subsequent monarchs undid her regression. In 1995, the palace caught fire (some still suspect the ousted president), and it still has not completed repairs. As such, it was closed, so we just wandered around it. That did not stop some "guides" from trying to sell their services to us.

Rova palace sits on the highest hill

Closed for repairs

Repair is way behind schedule

It's pretty much gutted
We walked around the area surrounding the palace. Houses ranged from old and ornate (in some cases, badly decayed), to run-down sheds. Shops were scattered around, and there was a great view of the city below. We also ran into kids who started talking to us in French, and pretty soon asked us for bon-bons or bottles of water. As we wandered around, almost all kids shouted "bon-bons!" at us.

Jumble of houses

Church of the martyrs, where
Christians were thrown from cliffs

A meat market

This one specializes in organ meats

The lake below

Rambling stairs

Houses built from rich, red earth

Everyone wants to be a tourguide

Views everywhere

Interesting details

Some have fallen
The royal museum sits on the next peak over; it is an impressive baroque building which has an unimpressive and tired display of royal leftovers (many others were destroyed in the fire), although a few items are interesting. The guy who took our entry fee then decided that he should be our guide; he took us around back to see model houses of five regions of Madagascar, and gave pretty good explanations. He then wanted to take us to other buildings in the area (including the architect's house and the martyrs' church), but we did not want him to tag along that far. So, I gave him a tip, not knowing that I was trying to give him the 500 Franc note (5¢) the taxi driver had passed. He looked at me, insulted (I had no idea why), but was satisfied with the 2000 Ariary note ($1) I gave him instead. It was not until I tried to pay later that I discovered what it was.

Greek-style structure

The museum is on the next peak north of the Rova

National Museum, originally the Prime Minister's Palace (built 1892)

Inside the museum

La trone

Ranavalona I and her victim husband, King Radama I

Models of houses from around the country

Inside an earthen Tana house

Carvings on windows & fire pit

Column detail
The tour we plan to take is often called the Grande Sur (big south), which follows one of the few paved highways from Antananarivo in the mountains through various towns and national parks (Lemurs! Chameleons! Boas!) to the southwest coastal town of Toliara. Except that we are doing it the other way, flying down there and driving back. The total drive will be 7 days, plus two days in Ifaty, just north of Toliara while we wait for the driver to arrive. We bought the tickets in the city center.

Grande Sur route (red dots are where we stayed each night)
We lunched at the Tropic Snack (Chinese chicken soup, fried rice, and a cheese and egg sandwich). After a bit of internet at the Post Office, we wandered a bit (with touts pestering us to buy: Sunglasses! TV Antennas! Rubber Stamps! Embroidery! Post cards! Sun visors!), and relaxed at bit until dinner.

Lunch at a snack bar

Chinese chicken soup, fried rice, cheese & egg sandwich

Checking in

A church over the city center
We wanted to go to La Savuer Malagasy, but the folks at the hotel did not recognize it as a formal name, so they reserved for Malagasy food at Le Gourmandise Malagasy, just around the corner. We had chicken cooked with coconut and duck confit with (barely noticeable) ginger, plus a biscuit roll with crème de menthe for dessert. I'm not sure how this was Malagasy food, but it was just OK. Mostly, we were entertained by the guitar player, who strummed renditions of the traditional Malagasy classics "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," "Yesterday," and "My Way."

Coconut chicken, duck confit with ginger

Ms. Salt & Mr. Pepper check out dessert

24-Jan-2006 Madagascar - Fly to Ifaty

During breakfast, a cleaning lady was cleaning up the restaurant. She had a half coconut shell on the floor, and she kept kicking it around to keep it with her as she swept and wiped down the seats. What could it be for? Was it a marker of where she was? Or a dust pan? Was it some sort of mystic talisman? Was it a pet? Suddenly, she put one foot on it, and started doing a rhythmic dance as she scrubbed the floor with it - it was a dry mop!

Our flight was not scheduled until 2 PM, so we wandered down to the lake to see the flower market. A group of Pompiers (firemen) were clearing trees on the side of the hill, and one of them was interested to know who we were and where we were going, so we chatted a bit. The west side of the lake seems to be where the mechanics hang out, so there was lots of banging and welding. Next to them are the barber stalls; most called out to us to cut our hair, and then laughed. We continued on around the lake and saw various impromptu vendors selling a handful of items that often made no sense together. A woman with several children was selling kids' nutritional biscuits - it makes sense: she either had a surplus or could use them if she could not sell them. Lots of people were just hanging out, and were happy to be entertained by two velazy carrying big cameras. The flower market was not there, but there were several cranes in the water to distract us. So, we headed back to the hotel, stopping at Le Sud restaurant for a zebu steak with green pepper sauce (again) and a green salad - probably our last chance for one since washing in the countryside is risky. Both were tasty, and the restaurant was neatly designed as a desert theme.

Down by the lake

Museum and Rova from down below

French WWI Monument in the center of lake Anosy

Barber row

Need a haircut?

Nap time

But not for everyone

Snowy egrets in the lake


One arriving, one leaving


After a short ride to the airport through stork-infested rice paddies, and a confusing and longer-than-expected wait to board our MadAir flight ("mora-mora" means slowly-slowly, or more accurately, patience), plus no X-ray machine or metal detector before getting on board, we flew to Toliara by way of Port Dauphin.

Scott & the Tanala Horizon boys

View out the window

MadAir snack
bread, cheese, water

More of Madagascar
We were told to expect a taxi ride from the airport to Ifaty (a group of fishing villages 22 km up the coast) to cost about 25,000 Ar, assuming that the road was in good shape and did not require a 4x4. In the standard madness, a driver latched on to us and quoted (in French) 50K Ar. I countered (in terrible French) with 20K. He exclaimed something and ran off. He brought back a piece of paper which quoted 50K. I offered 20K. He dragged me over to a guy who spoke English who said that the driver was telling me that it was 50K, and that is what the paper said. I countered that anyone could make a piece of paper with any price, and that I could make one which said 15K. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. A discussion ensued among the drivers, and I became concerned that they might band together and no one would take us. Our guy dropped to 40K. Another driver said (in French) 40K is the standard price. I walked out to see if I could find someone else, but all were either bound to their mark or part of our spectacle. Roswitha arrived with the suitcase, and a few peeled off to try to engage her. One guy, who spoke English, said 40K, and I decided to accept him, seeing that I was going to gain no more ground. The first guy said, "First contact!" I countered that that was his rule, not mine, and walked out with our driver, who briefly disappeared back inside, no doubt to apologize to Mr. First Contact.

Our driver, Patrick (not to be confused with the tour agency guy), drove us into Toliara in his Renault 4, and pulled into a gas station. "You pay for gas," he said. I made it clear that this was part of his fee, and paid 20K for his tank and an extra can. We then headed off into a traffic jumble of pedestrians, pousse-pousse rickshaws with big bicycle wheels, zebu carts, bicycles, Renault 4s, trucks, taxi-brousses (sort of a regional bus service, always overloaded with people and luggage), and 4x4s. Much honking ensued. The traffic thinned out as we hit the dirt road. Or, more accurately, the dirt and stone road. Tourguide Patrick had said that they needed enough time after the rains to put dirt on the road to make it driveable, and we soon saw what he meant; a work crew was spreading red sand over the very rough road surface to make it smoother driving. It would last, no doubt, until the next big rain. Driver Patrick slalomed back and forth across the road trying to find the path which would rattle his car the least. He avoided zebu carts and honked at just about everything else. The road would smooth out for a while, and then become a string of craters. Some parts had been paved at some point in the past, although that now just added to the bounce. It was just like the dune bashing in the UAE, but without the expensive 4WD, but with the possibility of a permanent breakdown, and much cheaper. Every 2 km or so, a policeman jumped out of a hut and demanded paperwork. Patrick pretty much just yelled at them and drove on. After a bone-jarring 1.5 hours, we pulled into the Vovo Telo, our hotel on the beach in Ifaty. "Une cadeau," requested Patrick as I paid him his 40K.

After a bit of name confusion, we checked into our bungalow, but did not find it to our liking. They had a bigger one with a fan (it was hot) available (for 70K AR instead of 50K), so we moved into that one. We threw on our swimsuits and went into the flat, calm water (Ifaty is protected by a reef, so it is flat and almost walkable almost 3 km out), only to discover that it was almost as warm as the air, and not the least bit refreshing. So, we instead took a cold shower.

Ifaty sunset in front of the Vovo Telo
The hotel's restaurant is supposed to be good, so we ate there: cucumber salad (it can be peeled, see), a pizza Orientale (sausage, cheese, sauce), a lemon crepe and Mousse aux chocolat, and a Malarone chaser.

Happy hour, with taro chips

Cucumber salad, Pizza, something else

Lemon crepe and Mousse aux chocolat

We even saw a green flash
Our bungalow has a thatched roof and is nowhere near sealed against bugs and things. They supply a mosquito net over the bed and a mosquito coil to scent the air; both are very effective at summoning the mosquitoes, as well as flies and other such things. So, we put down the net, started the coil, doused ourselves with OFF!, and jumped in under the net. In the middle of the night, the overhead fan stopped, but the dogs continued to bark. That, combined with the very uncomfortable bed (read below) and the heat, kept Scott awake most of the night. Once Scott finally did drift off to something stable, he was awoken by the fan starting up around 6 am. Roswitha mostly slept well.

Thatched, porous bungalow

Note the zebu horn towel hangers

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