Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Eighth Continent

Believe it or not, but some people don't know where Madagascar is. Most people don't know that it is truly special and nobody actually knows how special it is. There are isolated areas where no scientist has ever made it and they think that there are plenty of undiscovered species. Madagascar broke away from the corner of East Africa some 160 million years ago and, that I really like, some 80 million years ago, the eastern part of Madagascar broke off to become the future... India. Isolated, the island took its own evolutionary course and subsequently 70% of its plants and 90% of its animals are endemic. Madagascar alone accounts for 5% of the number of species known to man. There are 71 species of lemurs, some mammals similar to monkeys yet different, still distant cousins of ours. Humans only arrived 2000 years ago and did their usual share of damage, but there is still a lot left. They came from different corners of the Indian Ocean and melted into a unique culture. The language has the closest relative on the island of Borneo. For all the above reasons, Madagascar is often considered the eighth continent, a world in itself that doesn't resemble anything else on Earth. Ioan wanted to come here, probably inspired by the animated movie, but he did a decent share of studying and preparing this segment. We were all on board and made this an important part of our trip.

It is not easy. With little competition, the airfares are exorbitant and the connections are few and far between. Air Madagascar is a respectable airline, but their website sucks, it was no use for me, just to see that they have no discounts. Alternatives include South African Airlines, Kenya Airways and Air Mauritius, but surprisingly it is easier to get here from Paris than from other parts of Africa. After looking for many months, I found the right website and the only flight to make this accessible. At $735 per person, the 3-hour return flight from Johannesburg was a good deal, considering the options.
Madagascar has it's own messy history - we will have a chance to learn about that later. In the last three years it has been in a political impasse, the fighting made the international organizations to withhold the aid that was essential for the functioning of the government. The political uncertainty dramatically decreased the numbers of international tourists and increased the levels of poverty. It is a shame because Madagascar could be a rich country. "Our politicians are stupid" said the first guide we had. Welcome to my world! I assured him that I have been to many countries and all politicians are like that, but I have to give him credit, the Malagasy ones seem to be even worse than usual. He is sad that other governments told their citizens not to travel here, the lack of tourists had seriously hurt people. We knew about their political problems and we chose to ignore government warnings, I decided not to seek any news about the current situation. I just got the latest electronic edition of Lonely Planet's guidebook and we got on the plane.

As chance would have it, our flight from Johannesburg to Antananarivo had a stop over in Nosy Be! Even if we didn't save any money we decided to jump off the plane there and find our way somehow to the capital for the return flight. This is a huge country, with 500 km on the West-East axis and 1600 km North-South. It's coast is 5000 km long. More importantly it has a big variety of ecosystems, with desert or jungle or impassable mountains, a very poor infrastructure, with the main roads full of potholes the "size of an elephant!"

We knew that we could only reach a couple of the areas and starting in the North West was a good offer. The flight from Johannesburg left an hour late. On the plane we had a good dinner, like in the old times. Ileana got a red Martini and I got a glass of red wine! We arrived after 10 pm in the tiniest airport that we ever saw. Of course one of the soldiers yelled at me for taking pictures, but after that everything went smoothly. Three signatures and stamps on each passport and we got the (free!) visas. A few other tourists stayed here but a good number would get back on the plane for the second leg of the flight. Hervais was waiting with another driver, sent by our hotel. While most tourists got into big size vans, we split in the two Renault 4s. Later I explained to Maria, that all my childhood I wanted to ride in one of these cars, but I never expected it to be quite like this. The ride in the dark to the hotel was memorable and indescribable. The poor road, the car with no dashboard lights or instruments, the driver starting without a key, by twisting some wires underneath the wheel. The slowdown to almost a halt every time there would be a little hill and he had to change the gears. The trees of the jungle in the pitch dark of the night. Amazing.

Nosy Be is a little island on the side of the big island of Madagascar. It is a superb tropical destination with five star resorts, white sand beaches and azure calm shallow waters. It is used by rich Europeans for vacations (they get here by charter flights) and has some reputation for sex tourism (strictly outlawed and mostly a thing of the past). We set up for the first few nights in the main local village, the only place with affordable accommodations. Few people travel like us, most others come straight to their resorts. We had Internet and the first day, Sunday, we caught up on correspondence and uploaded a couple blog posts. We only went out for lunch - I had "Langue de zébu en sauce piquant". It was just like my mother made it. Fantastique.

Monday we took a day trip to the Lokobe Natural Reserve. Almost an hour in the two Renaults, then almost an hour of paddling in a local pirogue and we got to the small village of Lokobe. Ninety adults and almost as many children. No road, no electricity, but they have a couple accommodations and some solar power. Our guide, born in the village, was the first one that started touring the forest. It is now an ecological reserve. After the two hour visit we had an unbelievable lunch of salads, rice, several kinds of fish and lobster, made with a sauce similar to the one I tasted in Galapagos. We later figured out that our guide transported the cook, an older lady, and the server, a younger one with a tiny baby, just for us, to prepare our lunch and serve it. He stated that it was just a typical Malagasy lunch, only the avocado and the green leaf salad were special. After that we had an hour long lecture, he explained to us what we saw, plus bits and pieces of history and politics and we had time for questions. He started by singing the national anthem and wrapped things up with another song. At some point he learned that we are traveling for 15 month and the first reaction was: "and the school, what about the school?" "You are the school for today!" He got it and he smiled. No further questions.

My first lemur 

Tuesday was the national holiday, starting with a three hour parade in the center of the village. Hell-ville (named after the French admiral de Hell) has about 22000 people and the center plaza, close to our hotel, was crowded and busy.

Activities were planned for the rest of the day, perfect reason for us to get away. We went to Andilana, the best beach in Nosy-be, and we agreed somewhat surprised, the best beach we ever saw. By far. Last year, I thought I found the perfect beach in Galapagos, I didn't know better. There was an Italian resort with loud Italian radio a few hundred meters away, behind a little hill, it didn't bother us, there were (possibly) some other people living in our huge house and certainly a mouse or similar animal. We had a huge loft without ceiling and only partial windows. Two mornings, two nights and two perfect sunsets, not like the ones in Bali. Some pictures might help.

Thursday we came back in the south of the island to work on our plans for the following weeks.

View from our room in Hell ville

Looking in the same direction, just a few degrees west

Friday we visited the ylang-ylang distillery and the Lemuraria, a little zoo/reserve/botanical garden. They keep the animals in cages for a day, a couple of weeks, months or permanently, like the crocodiles. One of the boa constrictors is released every day at 5 pm and next day they will catch another one in the forest and put it in the glass box for display for tourists! Ylang-ylang is a plant imported from Philippines in 1903, now covering all of the island. Five hundred kilograms of flowers (and 300 liters of water) are distilled three times per week to make 12 liters of oil, exported to France to make perfume. Eighty women work from 3 am to 10 am collecting flowers, which they bring in bags and discharge on the floor of the factory. Twenty men "work" in the factory, operating the machinery or counting the bags brought by women.

They refused to allow us to take their picture. they work!!!
It is not unusual for one of the flower collectors to step on a boa early in the morning, saving the hunt for the snake of the day. We saw plenty of lemurs, got acquainted with some various species and primed for the real search out in the national parks.

A tortoise celebrates its 200 birthday today!

Our guide was a marine biologist, retrained after his research station was closed. He also had a CD of reggae music. I refused to take his disk asking him to send me his tracks by email. His email disappeared from my iPhone. If you ever find Emmanuel at the Ylang Ylang distillery, please ask him to contact me.

Saturday we got up early, went to the port, caught a boat and left for the main island.

1 comment:

  1. Breath-taking! Thank you for the generosity of your posts. It's so wonderful to read of your experiences. The beach pics are exquisite!


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