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

28-Jan-2006 Madagascar - To Ranomafana

Many of the restaurants and hotels we've been to have had walls, windows, and/or doors covered with stickers from all sorts of places and companies. The Bouganville is no exception; there were some notable ones.


Ambalavao is cooler than the prior places, the bed was new enough that it was flat, and Scott was feeling better, so he actually slept pretty well. Roswitha, of course, slept fine. We did get a few mosquito bites, however. After breakfast, we stopped in at the Saovita winery for a tour and a taste. (Mmmm, second breakfast.) The first thing we saw, after the women delabeling and cleaning old wine bottles, was that they had many large concrete vats. Their process was roughly described to us: they press the grapes for six days in a mechanical press; the juice is put into the vats, along with sugar and some chemical, but no yeast, for six months (red wine gets some of the skins left in); they fill bottles. The woman telling us this asked if we wanted a taste, which of course we did. She took a (not very clean) drinking glass and leaned into one o the concrete vats and dipped out a sample of red wine, and handed us the glass. The best thing that can be said is that it did not taste like concrete. She then dipped the same glass (which we had each used) into the white wine. It had a slight bit of character. Neither had any hint of oak. We did not buy any. And we disinfected our lips in the parking lot with a shot of Dubai vodka.

Swiss wine process

Entrance - like Napa, but red

Recycling bottles

Bottle washing. Ugh.

Concrete vats

Wines currently on offer

Dipping the drinking glass (again) for a sample

Unassuming, but lousy

Tastes of ragweed and water

We wanted to visit a tea plantation, but as it was Saturday, they were closed. We declined offers to visit another winery.

The drive took us into hilly country which was filled with deep valleys lined with terraced farms and terracotta-colored villages. Rice country. Whenever we stopped to shoot photos, kids came from out of the woodwork to bonbon us. As the day progressed, it was looking increasingly like we were driving towards rain. Fianaransoa is the main city of this region; we stopped there for some very slow internet, to see the cathedrals on the hills, and for gas.

Snake in the road

Let's stop & shoot pictures!

Vineyards & rice

Rice terraces

Small village

Family group

Not wide enough for a zebu to plow

Century plants were blooming all over


Working the fields

The Virgin blessing a town


Nice church for a cow town


Red brick house

Crumbling houses

More rice

Taking a soil souvenir

All manual labor

"Bon-bon! Bon-bon!"

Nice church for a poor town

Taxi brousse, practically empty

We stopped for a bit of sightseeing and internet in Fianarantsoa, which is the largest city in the region, and capital city of the province.


Carrying raffia into town

Church at the top of the hill, plus taxi brousse stop

Impossible to enjoy the church in peace




Carts like these are all over

One of the few places in Madagascar where passenger trains still run

Lala turned off of national route 7 onto RN5, which runs to the coast. The road soon turned into a potholed dirt road; "25 km of this," he said. So, we were once again road bashing, but this time on a major (yet dirt) road, and in scattered rain showers. We encountered numerous taxi brousses (the main mode of public transport - sort of like overfilled minibuses with luggage heaped on top), other cars, trucks, and even double semi tractor trailers, each dodging water filled mud holes and stoned ruts. We were exhausted riding, and he must have been even more tired driving it. People along the road were offering eels (in bamboo baskets) and crawdads (in woven baskets) for sale. The road soon entered thick forest, and we started to hear all sorts of sounds, like cicada buzzing and bird calls. There was one frog that had a repetitious call which sounded exactly like one of those kids' toys, the plastic hammer with a bellows that emits a sharp squeak when it is hit against something. The forest sounded like there were hundreds of kids just hammering away.

RN5 - a pot-holed dirt road

A bridge on this major road

Doesn't look good

Major commercial traffic

Want to buy...


A steep river valley welcomed us to Ranomafana; we stopped at the first of three hotel choices, the Hotel Domaine Nature, which has bungalows over the river. It looked a bit buggy and rustic, although nice; we decided to check out the other two places. We had lunch (zebu curry and a cheese sandwich) at the Manju Hotel, but found the rooms too stuffy. Lala was steering us away from the third one which is popular with tour groups, and we did find it too sterile. So, back to the Domaine Nature, where we checked in and started to bug-proof it as much as possible, which included thumbtacking the sheer curtains to the window frames, putting out the mosquito nets, and starting a coil burning. There was not much breeze in the humid heat. We were relaxing when Roswitha discovered that the toilet tank was leaking all over the floor. They made a repair attempt, and, as a last resort, they asked us to move to another room, which, although similar, was a bit more rustic and moldy.

Zebu curry, cheese sandwich

Just when Scott was getting the comfortable, the toilet leaked

The bungalow is in the middle of the rainforest, and we heard the river roaring below us. Trees in front of us are full of chameleons and geckos, many of which posed for us. There was also a thorn spider, which has a bizarre convoluted head.


Thorn or crab spider

Geckoes in the flowers!

Geckoes in the room! (If they can get in, so can the bugs.)

There are numerous companies running car tours like ours, and we'd periodically run into other travellers, or, more particularly, other drivers. Most of the stops and items of interest on any given route are the same, so people tend to stop at the same sites. There are a limited number of accommodations available, so we tended to see other small groups doing the same thing. We were travelling in the low season, so we cannot say if it always runs this way, but we mostly travelled without reservations. Although Patrick had said that he would make arrangements, it was really Lala working out each place. Where there were choices, he told us about them, although he certainly had his preferences. We came to realize that the real customer here was not us, but the driver. We'd likely only be through here once, but any given driver is probably there once a month or more. So, not surprisingly, there are benefits for the drivers. Patrick also said that driver costs (rooms and meals) are included in the price we pay for the tour. As long as we buy a meal in a place, the driver's meal is free. In most cases, the driver's room is free, although it is usually a shared room with other drivers, many of whom know each other anyway. It does have its downside; Lala told us about one place where one of his room mates smoked and snored terribly.

With nothing better to do (it is in the middle of nowhere, and was raining a lot), we decided to head to dinner in the hotel. As we were sitting there, other guests started to roll in from the evening viewing. They were wet but enthusiastic; they had seen lemurs. Roswitha had a nondescript fish soup, and I had pretty tasty zebu kabobs; we both had a Malarone chaser. Dessert was a fruit plate (pineapple, banana, cantaloupe) and pineapple caramel.

Fish soup, zebu kabob

Pineapples in stereo

We returned to our room only to discover that the bathroom sink was slowly leaking all over the floor.


29-Jan-2006 Madagascar - Ranomafana

There's a reason they call it a rainforest.

It rained all night, with a bit of boom and sizzle. As we headed out of the hotel, Lala and Mami, our guide for this leg, told us that a Cyclone (the local name for hurricanes) had hit on the coast 150 km east of us at Manarjary. No radio reaches Ranomafana, and no one had seen anything about it on TV. There does not seem to be a national weather service. No one had any idea what was going to happen next. We decided to go ahead and visit the park. Although it was Sunday, the lemurs only take the day off in howling weather.

As we started the walk, and after paying the entrance fee, Mami told us to tuck in our pants in case of leeches. They had not told us about it before we left the hotel, so, of course, we were not really prepared. We started down the trail, following another group with two German women. Mami told us about the park (its name means Hot Water due to the thermal baths nearby), and started to describe the plants and animals. The epiphytic bird nest fern is called that because lazy birds often nest in it, but lemurs are also known to sleep in it. There are numerous orchids. Frogs were everywhere, and we heard cicadas. Some were just like those we know in the US, but another type makes a sound like "r r r rrrrrrrRRRRRR-thunk!" I wanted to see a kid's hammer frog, but we never found one.



Not a kid's hammer frog

r r r rrrrrrrRRRRRR-thunk! cicada

The park also has several types of lemurs, including the large and small bamboo lemurs. The large bamboo lemur eats the shoots of the giant bamboo, which can grow up to 3 cm a day during the rainy season (uh, now). We certainly saw bamboo litter where shoots had recently been eaten. The smaller bamboo lemur eats the leaves of the giant and small bamboo. Off in the distance we heard grunts of the black and white ruffed lemur, and the cries of the large bamboo lemur. But we did not see any lemurs. What we saw a lot of were leeches.

Leeches. I hate leeches.

Forget the Hollywood image that you have of leeches. When it is dry, they are gone, hiding under the dead leaves on the floor, or underground. But when it rains, they become active. Like little fat pieces of black thread, they stand up and wave around, hunting for something to stick to, like a passing frog or shoe. They might also work their way up into trees, and wave off of leaves that hang, for example, across a trail. With amazing speed, they can latch onto something, and then they start moving until they find a place to adhere and, um, leech. We quickly discovered little fat pieces of thread working their way up our socks and pants, or falling into our shoes. As we walked through the rain and soaked foliage, we found them on our hats, shoulders, and necks. They are not too easy to flick of, since they are fast enough to latch on to the flicking finger. Instead, the thing to do is to pick up the slimy, sticky little bastards and rub them onto a piece of wood before they can dig in. We stopped off at Belle Vue (Beautiful View, where we had a fine view of the cloud that enveloped the forest) and peeled off an outer layer to remove whatever leeches had worked their way in. Roswitha had wrapped handkerchiefs around her ankles, and then clipped her cargo pants closed around them. Scott's pants had ankle closures, so he tucked these in under my socks. We both had leeches in our shoes, but those did not seem to be a big deal. Two other groups arrived, guides in tow, and did a similar cleaning. A Dutch guy stripped off his pants and took some off of his leg.

Belle Vue - nice view of the valley...

Stripping for leeches

See how they move?

Leech standing and looking for living flesh

The Dutch couple had seen some lemurs, so their guide told Mami where to go. We worked our way down to the point, but only saw some chewed shoots. Along the way, we looked at two frogs and a cicada, but decided to head to the car. Once we got back to it, it was time to take off all we could, including our shoes. It was then that Scott discovered that two leeches had penetrated his Costco socks and were happily fattening themselves on his blood. We flicked them off (don't use salt or a cigarette; that will make them puke up whatever bacteria they are carrying), and when we got back to the hotel room, he disinfected the sites with Dubai vodka and antibacterial cream.

Belle Vue had cleared up. Not.

Was a trail, now a river

Tiny frog

Swollen river

Thanks for letting me use your windbreaker, Lala.
I don't think that there are leeches in it.

Leeches got through - run your mouse over for more

We still could not get any weather information, so we decided to not stay the planned second night. We had intended to hit the thermal baths and then do a nocturnal visit back to the park, but neither made sense with an impending cyclone. So, we checked out, collected our washed-but-not-dried clothes, and road bashed our way out, and on to Ambositra. With the rain, the road was even worse than before.

Picking our way

Huge holes


Remember, this is the main road to the coast

Through towns

Sisal waiting for pickup

Nice house

We checked into the Hotel Mania. Since our clothes were still wet (the last place had no time to hang them out, and it was raining), we hung them all over the room, getting very creative with places to hang them. (Sadly, no photos of this.) With the clothes drying inside the room, we went for a stroll on the street, past the market and various shops. One guy in a stocking cap seemed to be following us as we went back and forth, so we kept our eye on him.

The outside door

Other side

Hotel Mania


Look at me! (Now can I have bon bons?)

Pousse-pousse repair

The guy at the lower left was following us

Another Mania resident

For dinner, we went to a Malagasy restaurant filled with all kinds of tchotchkes, including every Madagascar one you can imagine, but also French still life paintings and Disney characters. We had pork with white beans (very good), pork with green beans (so-so), and pork with manioc leaves (bitter, but interesting), rice, and chicken broth to spoon over it all. Plus a yogurt for the Malarone.

Malagasy dinner

Yogurt & Malarone


30-Jan-2006 Madagascar - Ambositra to Andasibe

Ambositra is Madagascar's Arts & Crafts center, and Lala knows someone who runs a factory. We got a demonstration of a manual jigsaw worker building pieces of a wood panel, a few other portions of the process, and then went into the shop, where we mostly did not like much. So, we walked down the street and picked up a few items, and then started the drive to Antsirabe.

Pieces of the picture

Manual jigsaw

Sawdust of different woods

This took us through an agricultural area with lots of rice as well as other products. Each area that we drove through has a local specialty, and we usually saw stands on the road where people were selling them. Often there would be individual stands, with a run of then selling the same thing, but sometimes there would be a cluster. As we drove, we saw stands with: bags of sisal, bags of charcoal (and we sometimes saw the fires where they made it), corn on the cob, boiled and grilled, peaches, pineapples, chouchoux, potatoes, grapefruit, rattan giraffes (although there are no giraffes in Madagascar), honey, crayfish, eels, fish, giant white mushrooms, statues of the Virgin Mary, firewood, hay, bricks, plums, carved wood models of semi tractor trailers, and carrots. And mangoes. And other things we've forgotten.

Carrying raffia

Haul up, ride down


Lots of raffia & sisal

Setting up the mango stand

RN7 is also good for drying grains

Carrying vegetables, also

Chickens on top

Apples and plums

Corn on the cob


Fishing in the rice

One village has its weekly market on Mondays; people walk there from several kilometers to sell, buy, gamble, and meet with friends. As we walked around, people said "Vazah!" (White), smiled, and tried to sell us whatever. When we said "Salamu" (hello) to them, we usually got a huge grin and a reply of "Salama!"

Market day

It's a broom! It's a bench!

Salted, dried fish

Fish & pasta

Wonderful baskets


Buy some lunch, vazah!

A busy place

And time for gossip

Antsirabe is a pleasant town with many pousse-pousses (rickshaws), and flat, wide streets (which is why the pousse-pousse is the vehicle of choice). It used to be a hot springs town, but those facilities have fallen into disrepair.

The old hot spring baths

Industrial vehicle

Heavy load

Nice faces


Lots of kids were riding

She seemed to have her whole stand on there

We took lunch in Antsirabe (pork with ginger, and chicken in lemon sauce - both were intense and excellent), while accumulating quite an audience of people wanting to sell us clothing, scale models of pousse-pousses, grapes, or just ask for handouts.

Tasty lunch

Time for Roswitha to take some charcoal

This pousse-pousse driver kept approaching us. Nice Coat.

The circus of touts and beggars which developed

School's out

We then drove through Tana, with a brief stop while Lala's wife met him to give him a change of clothes. From there, we headed east towards the national park of Andasibe and the Faon'ny Ala (Song of the Forest) Hotel, which sits right at the edge of the park. Our bungalow is an A-frame thatched roof which has no hope of keeping insects out, and this is definitely Malaria country. So we DEETed, put up the nets, and headed to dinner in the hotel. We split a vegetable soup (tasty) and a mixed kabob (zebu, chicken, and pork - also tasty). Yogurt washed down our Malaria pills. Back in the room we had a nightcap of pineapple juice with Dubai vodka to help us ignore the sound of mosquitoes (hopefully) outside our nets. Frogs serenaded us to sleep.

Faon'ny Ala bungalows

It's a bungalow! It's a clothes dryer!

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