Visiting king Julien and his lemurs: Madagascar!
It has been a while since our big trip around Africa and Asia, but I still remember visiting this beautiful island like it was yesterday. In preparation of our 6 month journey, we gathered at our kitchen bar with the World Atlas I still had from primary school. We would pick 10 countries to visit. Each having a right to ‘veto’ – which we didn’t need. We ended up with a compromise quite quickly: 2 months in Africa – 2 months in India and surroundings – 2 months in South-East Asia. We would book the intercontinental flights ahead not to end up spending 6 months in Africa (self-knowledge is the beginning of all wisdom), regretting afterwards that we never got the see the rest.
As a starting point the first idea that popped up was Mozambique. (Still highly on my list I must admit.) Was it because of the World Cup in neighbouring South Africa, or because of the lack of tourist attention or the underdevelopment at that time; tickets would have cost us a fortune. We took another look at our map and Madagascar immediately caught my eye. How could it not: It’s huge! I didn’t know anyone who had visited the island before, but I did see the movies and the thought of spotting some lemurs made me as excited as a little girl.
Always trying to score cheap flights online, we did decide to book a few flights through an agency this time – for when something would happen. (I ended up working at that company after our return.) We went and booked us some flights to Antananarivo – aka “Tana” – departing from Paris.
Packed and ready, my friends waved us goodbye at the Antwerp train station and off we were on our big adventure. The adventure that started at the check in counter in Paris, when the airline staff wouldn’t let us check in without a return flight to Europe. What the hell? We had a ticket from Tana to Nairobi several weeks later, but that didn’t count. Neither did the ticket from Bangkok to Brussels at the end. Crap. There was no other solution than booking a flight asap. So we booked a flight to Reunion, which counts as France, and were ready to go. In hindsight, I’m not even sure if they actually checked it upon arrival, but hey.
It took a few hours back and forth the internet bars (nope, we didn’t have smartphones on this trip, I didn’t even have a phone) and local agencies to cancel the flights to Reunion, so it only ended up costing us a $20 administration fee pp and not the full ticket fares.
Madagascar was completely and not at all what I expected. To start with, the country didn’t have a legal president at the time. They had Andry Rajoelina, a professional DJ (yes: Disc Jockey). He was inaugurated at the capitals football stadium, after conducting long violent protests against the former elected president. While visiting the capital, people would warn us to avoid visiting the dangerous South and vice versa. Apart from some petty theft upon arrival (damage estimated at a mere €5), we didn’t encounter any danger and I never felt unsafe.
More than anything, it was a poor country. I remember as a kid, my mom would tell me that once I was done eating my chicken drumsticks, there would still be a whole meal left. Well, in Madagascar I had to literally experience that she was telling the truth. Even worse. The biggest child would divide the nibbled bones over several smaller children and later they would all share the leftovers of my rice.
In contrast to the heartbreaking moments, was the immense beauty and diversity of the island. Ripped from the mainland 110 million years ago, the island hosts a unique fauna and flora. The climate varies so extremely from one point to another, that you can find yourself in the middle of a rainforest one day, and puffing on a white sanded beach the next (depending on how you travel).
On our first evening we met Gabi. He was a Catalan traveling alone. He had hung around in Tana for a few days hoping for fellow travellers to arrive and split a ride. That would be us. We realised soon that sharing a driver would be the easiest way to go explore and ended up leaving the next day with Gabi and Pema. Adjusting our plans along the way (mostly due to poor roads and unpredictable weather), Pema took the 3 of us to Atsirabe – Ambositra – Fianarantsoa – Ranomafana – Manakara – Ambalavao – Anja Reserve after which we split at Park d’Isalo. Only to catch up with Gabi (and the 3 other tourists that were visiting Madagascar) down South a few days later.
Together we visited local families (composed of 5 adults and a dozen children) as well as pig- and zebu-markets.
It is hard to give pointers on what to do while you’re in Madagascar, since the island will sweep you away. What follows are the experiences that stuck with me the most…
- Eat at a Hotely. Zebu. There’s usually no other choice. Ask for the seasonal fruit. Although that will most likely be banana’s and pineapples and sometimes oranges.
- Navigate the river at Manakara and meet the locals. Have lunch with the village fishermen.
- Take the train from Manakara to Fiana. Or the other way around – depending which day it is. It is exhausting, but wonderful. Buy something to eat at every of the many many stops. There are stops where they only sell banana’s, but others where they have all kinds of (fried) stuff.
- If you’re in for a nice hike, try to see if MoMo still has his hostel (conveniently called ‘Chez Momo‘ and book a guide through him. It is an amazing experience where it’s just you (and your cook and guide and carrier and the chicken that will become your next meal) surrounded by vast natural landscapes. While the rest of the world was watching how Spain defeated the Netherlands – winning the World Cup – we were watching the most beautiful sunset and enjoying our private campfire.
- If you’re not in for that hike, try to see if MoMo still has his hostel and stay there anyway. Go for the small stroll maybe, to the ‘piscine naturelle’.
- At least once travel by Taxi Brousse. It won’t pick you up on time, it will take you much longer than needed to get to your destination (don’t be surprised when it suddenly runs out of gas) and you’ll be uncomfortably packed between the other passengers. But just do it. Try not to have diarrhea on that day though.
- Travel by Pousse Pousse. For little pocket-money some carriers will wait for you wherever you go, at any time, day or night.
- If visiting Tulear: Hotel Central is a great place to stay and definitely go to ‘Le Jardin‘ for pizza. It’s a nice change from all the zebu. They also sell delicious pastries. Check out the bathroom.
- Stay ‘Chez Alex‘ in a private bungalow on the beach at Ifaty. There’s no electricity at night, so bring your (head) torch while exploring the local nightlife (try not to loathe too obviously by the disgusting display of sex tourism).
- While in Ifaty, check if ‘Chez Cécile‘ is still operating for an unforgettable lunch on the beach.
- Find a local guy who owns a ‘pirogue‘ – ours was called Joel. Let him catch you a lobster which his wife will grill for you at night. Or let him take you on the ocean to watch the whales or (if the boat doesn’t seem steady enough for the whales) to go snorkeling.