Friday, October 31, 2014

Anakao: Vacation from Vacation

After trekking through so many national parks, we were ready for a break at the beach – even Steph, who generally considers the beach to be boring.

Of course, before catching the ferry to the southern seaside village of Anakao, we stopped to see a few lemurs at Zombitse National Park.  Although the park is known for its bird watching, we do not consider ourselves to be ornithologistes and opted for a shorter circuit of the park focusing on all the fauna.  Since we had arrived too late in the day for any serious bird watching (sleep is always more exciting than birds), we had the park mostly to ourselves.  The local troop of white sifakas entertained us from the treetops and we even stumbled across two different nocturnal sportive lemurs, mysteriously awake during the day.

Onward to the beach!  We hopped on a ferry in the coastal city of Tulear for the hour-long trip to the coastal village.  The clear blue and turquoise waters were dotted by the pirogues of local fishermen, each outfitted with its own distinct and colorful sail.

Our four days of relaxation on the white sand beach of our lodge provided the ideal vacation from our vacation, although we did take a break from watching the waves with pina coladas in hand for a few adventures.  We walked north along the beach to the village, where the local children ran after us, playing a game that we have named “touch the vazaha.”  (Vazaha means foreigner and the game is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.)  Of course, they really only wanted to touch the blonde vazaha.  This has never happened to us on another beach vacation -- imagine walking down the beach in Mexico with a troop of children in pursuit, shouting gringa, gringa!

Our trip to town was also notable for our failure to bargain with any of the local stores for cheap beer (we considered the price at our hotel to be exorbitant); a delicious lunch at an Italian restaurant with owners from near Domodossola; and finding a local dog that followed us back to our lodge and spent the rest of the vacation with us (Steph christened him François).

We also attempted to walk south along the sand to an island reachable on foot only at low tide, but gave up on the endeavor when we realized we were not even halfway there after an hour of trekking and the accompanying blisters.

On the way back, Steph stepped on (and presumably killed) a mysterious beach monster.  Particularly scary was the constant oozing of dark purple liquid that followed.  Much googling for “ink secreting animals + Madagascar” indicated it was an innocuous sea slug, so her concerns about the possibly poisonous ink turned out to be unfounded.   

Our trip to Nosy Ve was a more successful island-bound adventure.  We took one of the hotel's sailing pirogues out to a small island off the coast, where we snorkeled in the large coral reef and explored the strip of beach.  The reef off the coast in Anakao is one of the largest reefs in the world.  However, slash and burn farming further inland leads to river runoff that causes coral bleaching, so what is known as Madagascar’s great reef is sadly damaged in many locations.

On Sunday, we left the beach and mentally prepared ourselves for two more domestic flights via Air Madagascar – they always yield special stories.  The following day, we headed to Masoala National Park – a completely different type of beach on the completely opposite end of the island where the water collides with primary forest at the shoreline.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Isalo National Park: Madagascar or Colorado?

From Madagascar’s hauts plateaux and the mountains of Andringita, we entered the country’s vast southern plains last Saturday.  Our destination was Isalo National Park, which according to everything we had read, was Madagascar’s answer to Colorado (although one guidebook suggested the landscape more closely mirrored that of Arizona).  Our guide had been flipping through photos of Colorado and was quite adamant about the comparison as well.  Approaching the mesas and other rock formations rising out of the plains, we could easily imagine we were somewhere in the American southwest.

However, our explorations into the park clearly indicated that we were not, after all, anywhere near Colorado.  Unless Colorado is home to jungle-filled canyons with lemurs, that is.  It turns out that the canyons cutting into the rock face at various intervals are full of lush vegetation, including trees jutting out from the sheer canyon walls at varying heights.  Throughout the park, we also encountered a weird plant commonly referred to as the Elephant's Foot Plant, which resembles a mini-baobab.  Giorgio likes to refer to it as the bonsai baobab.

Early Sunday morning, we set off to explore one of Isalo's longer trails.  As we began to scale one of the mesas, several unusual noises greeted us.  Our guide, Felix, beckoned us to follow him quickly up the path, where we spotted a large troop of ring-tailed lemurs scampering across the rocks.  They were in quite the rush, calling to one another loudly as they traversed the rock face.

As we continued our hike amidst the towering rocks, Felix pointed out various formations that had taken the shape of animals, body parts, or even shoes (which were actually part of Malagasy tale involving a roaming giant).

Sighting the gregarious lemur troop was certainly a highlight, although we hadn’t planned our visit to Isalo around tracking lemurs and other animals.  (Regardless, check out this stick insect – can you see where the branch ends and the crazy bug begins?)

In addition to pointing out unusual fauna, Felix also showed us all sorts of endemic medicinal plants.  We were particularly intrigued by the beautiful pink flowers which he told us cure leukemia when made into a tea.  Incredibly skeptical, we later googled this assertion, only to discover that the rosy periwinkle flowers possess a compound used in certain leukemia drugs.

After reaching the top of the first mesa, the unique desert landscape became even more striking.  We hiked past most of the crowds and felt that we had the park to ourselves.

Several small (and large) oases were hidden in the harsh rock faces.  Peaceful piscines naturelles were concealed among the rocks and canyons, along with the occasional waterfall, like the gorgeous cascade des nymphes.

We had briefly checked the weather prior to setting out and were surprised that our iPhones predicted rain in the afternoon.  Our understanding was that rainy season wouldn’t start until November.  When we mentioned this unusual forecast to Felix, he flat out informed us that it was certainly incorrect – it would never rain in October.  That afternoon, as we entered one of the piscines naturelles (the black pool to be more specific) we felt a few drops of water.  Was it just from the waterfall a few meters away?  Soon the droplets multiplied and we were swimming in the rain.  Pointing this out to Felix, he scoffed once again and informed us that no, it does not rain in October.  After changing back into our now-wet clothes, it started pouring.  As we set off back down the trail and passed various hikers in ponchos, Felix grudgingly admitted that yes, maybe it was raining after all.  Perhaps it was global warming?

Monday, we opted for a shorter, albeit equally scenic, trek up two different canyons. After walking through the village and rice paddies at the base of the canyon, we entered Maki Canyon followed by the Canyon des Rats.  Sheer cliffs dropped 200 meters to the boulder-strewn rivers that had created the canyons.  Bright green vegetation covered large swaths of the impressive cliffs.

In addition to hiking through the unusual landscapes surrounding us, we were also lucky enough to soak up the environment at our hotel.

For our three-night stay, we landed in the midst of the rock formations.  As an added bonus, there were even horses grazing outside our room.  Of course, the best part was that the aptly-named Jardin du Roy was inordinately excited to discover it was our “honeymoon.”  (Note: We do not go around telling each and every hotel that we are on our honeymoon, because that would be ridiculous.  However, all of the vouchers from our travel agency have a note indicating we are on our voyage de noces.)  Each evening, we were seated at an embarrassingly tacky date table and plied with various flavors of rum arrangée.  Plus they gave us a keepsake rock in the shape of a heart.

Up next: Updates from the east and west coasts of Madagascar!