55 Music Concourse Dr.
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco CA
Regular Hours:


9:30 am – 5:00 pm


11:00 am – 5:00 pm
Members' Hours:


8:30 – 9:30 am


10:00 – 11:00 am

Please note: The Academy will be closing at 3:00 pm on 10/24 (final entry at 2:00 pm). We apologize for any inconvenience.

There are no notifications at this time.

Journey to Madagascar 2009 

October 23, 2009

To Tana and the End of the Trip

Seasoned travelers – Harry, Shirley, Jean, Mary Beth, Frank, Greg


We woke up on Friday morning at the Southern Cross Hotel in Ft. Dauphin to the sound of rain, not just a little rain but a deluge. It lasted about 20 minutes. Since the roof of the hotel is metal, it was like being inside a drum with the percussionist in full peradiddle.

Our room overlooked the hotel’s garden courtyard, a better view than the other direction that opened onto a graveyard for dead cars and trucks. Zoning is a concept awaiting full adoption in Madagascar. The rain came down so fast that the courtyard soon had an inch of standing water. Then the rain stopped and the water disappeared into the ground.

This was the first real rain we had experienced in this trip. We planned the visit for October because is it before the onset of the rainy season. Our reward has been sunny days for three weeks. It was good to see what a rainy day can be like. I thought of all the people we had seen who live in simple huts surrounded by dirt and dust. A deluge like the one this morning would turn their neighborhood into a sea of mud, which presumably would be a delight for the kids but a pain for everyone else.

Ironically, while the rain was teeming outside, the water system inside shut down. Nothing but a dribble came out of the faucet. The main water line had broken. The water went off and on for the next several hours while the main was being fixed. Taking a shower was a risk. After all, you could get all lathered up with no way to rinse. We learned later that one of the other travelers at the hotel had been caught in just that state of suds. She had gotten her hair all soapy and ready for the rinse and then, no water at all. Her husband had to organize some buckets of water so she could finish her shampoo, which will surely be one of the more memorable of her life.

Then the skies cleared, the water came back on, we had lunch, and then we were off for the airport to see if Air Mad would cooperate once again and get us to Tana. It did and we arrived back in the capital just a bit late, luggage and all.

After a celebratory dinner at a nearby restaurant, we declared the trip to be officially over. The Almedas left for a visit to one more botanical preserve and the Hageys and Farringtons began the process of repacking to get ready to go to the airport and fly to Paris over Saturday night.

It will take a long time to digest all that we saw and experienced in our three weeks here.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 10:37 am

October 22, 2009

Bouncing Back from Berenty

Start of the trip: the good dirt road; for a few miles it was like a superhighway

A bus for Malagasys; makes the #1 California look like a limo

Another lonely baobab tree

Spiny cactus: a non-native species

Three-cornered palm


The trip back from Berenty Reserve to Ft. Dauphin by minvan was on a Thursday, market day. We passed through a small town as we got closer to Ft. Dauphin. Its main street – only street for that matter – was the road we were on, and it was jammed with people selling, shopping, buying, talking, eating, running about, playing games, and generally doing what people do when they gather together. For the most part the fields were empty of workers; everyone was at the market, which happens once a week.

The trip took less time than the the trip up the day before, not because the road had improved miraculously overnight – it hadn’t – but because we made fewer stops along the way. The scenery was as great as it had been, but there was less activity to watch in the fields because the people were at the market.

The end of the Berenty visit marks the end of our exploration of the natural world in Madagascar. The time between now and Saturday night, when we fly back to Paris, will be taken up with a flight back to Tana and then the usual preparations before the long flight to Paris. We all are a bit tired and ready to go home. It will take me a while not to automatically wash my clothes in the sink each evening so they will be dry by morning. I have discovered that it is indeed possible to travel with no more than two of everything just so long as I don’t mind wearing nylon shirts and pants and washing clothes each evening. People here dry their clothes by draping them over the shrubbery, plants, trees etc. in the sun. I wonder what our neighbors in the city would think if we started to do the same!

On the other hand, I think it’s time to give up the nylon wardrobe for a spell. It’s a bit like living in plastic wrap.

I’ll post a later bog entry summing up some of my impressions of this remarkable island that is so far from so much of our familiar world, both geographically, economically, and culturally. This has been a truly memorable trip.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 10:06 am

Lemurs, More Lemurs, Fruit Bats, et Owl

This entry consists entirely of pictures of some of the animals we saw at the Berenty Reserve. I hope you like them.


Ring-tailed lemur


Mother and baby


Sitting lemur




Mother and baby


Red-fronted brown lemur



Mother and baby


Lemur “dancing” – actually hopping from tree to tree



Verreaux’s Sifaka (lemur)



Mother and baby


White-browed Owl in the day


Pied Crow


Blue Coua


Fruit bats (Flying Foxes) hanging around


Fruit bat flying


Radiated tortoise

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:50 am

October 21, 2009

To the Dancing Lemurs at Berenty Reserve

Preparing rice paddies for planting – the mob of muddy zebu way.

Planting rice

Working in the rice paddy

Harvested rice on the way to threshing


On Tuesday we boarded our minivan and headed north to the Berenty Reserve, a private facility about 70 km north of Ft. Dauphin. It is a protected forest zone full of friendly lemurs and other creatures. The lemurs in particular have so accustomed to being around people so it is possible to see them close-up.

The trip was spectacular in scenic terms. You might want to check out the pictures in Photo Album 6: “Ft. Dauphin to Berenty.”

The scenery may have been stunning, but the road was dreadful. Even to call it a road is an exaggeration. The trip took nearly four hours, and most of the time was spent bouncing from side to side, up and down, in and out of ruts, and all at an average speed of perhaps 15 mph. But there was a compensation. Life in its infinite variety unfolded on each side of the road as we drove past. People were working in the rice paddies, washing themselves and their clothes in the rivers and streams, walking to market with all sorts of loads on their heads (the women mostly), making charcoal, selling charcoal, getting to know each other in all sorts of ways, an so forth. The trip was never boring even if it was bone rattling.

Temperate forest


We went from the coastal region at Ft. Dauphin with its 3 miles of good road that ended just after the airport turnoff, into a tropical zone dominated by planted fields, much of the land devoted to rice, then on to cross a small mountain range the gave onto a transitional forest and then to a spiny forest region, dry and hot and desert-like in is botanical variety. The local villages changed as the climate changed. Water went from plentiful to scarce. House construction went from bricks to sticks. The landscape went from lush to thorny and brittle. All this happened in distance from San Jose to San Francisco, more or less. If I had had the time, I would love to have walked. I probably would have reached Berenty in roughly the same time, come to think of it.

We were really lucky on the trip north. The day was beautifully sunny, the fields were full of activity from preparing the rice paddies, to planting rice, and finally to harvesting it. The trip was remarkable for its variety of images and scenes.

Of course, there was no sign of wealth anywhere. The people along the route are genuinely poor: no electricity, small huts for homes, and work done by hand with the simplest of tools. Food appeared to be in reasonably good supply and the people well fed, but life here is hard and we saw no one who was overweight. Slimming diets would find few takers here.

Zebu driver in training


We reached Berenty in time to check into our small bungalows and have lunch, which was pretty good considering everything. We were hungry of course and that made a difference too. The Berenty Reserve provides full accommodations including the bungalows, a restaurant, guides for nature walks, and transportation to and from Ft. Dauphin. We were told that it’s really a monopoly run by one family. To be frank, the facilities need investment. You even might call some of them a bit shabby, and he food won’t win any prizes. It appears that the family has a good deal going and, in the absence of competition, keeps it going without much improvement.

The rest of the day was spent looking for and at lemurs. I made a vow not to take any more pictures and ended the day having taken some 300 new shots. Hooray for digital photography.

We took a break after lunch while the day was very hot – in the 90’s – and set out for our first lemur walk around 4 pm. The critters were everywhere. They have been so protected from predators (our species included) in the reserve that they have lost their fear of people. They will scamper about, leap from limb to limb, and sit happily on a branch while nibbling on tamarind leaves, all the while peering back at the people who are peering at them and snapping pictures. The so-called “dancing” that the lemurs do is really a sideways scamper to get from tree to tree in areas where the trees far enough apart to make leaps risky or impossible.

We also took a “night” walk through the forest starting at 6:30 pm, before dinner, so we could see the nocturnal mouse lemur (the size of a mouse, hence the name). We also spied sleeping daytime lemurs, sleeping birds, a sleeping chameleon (it had turned whitish instead of the usual green so it was harder to see at night), and a couple of very active owls doing their thing.

I’ll post a group of lemur pictures tomorrow. I think you will enjoy them.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 9:46 am

October 19, 2009

Back to Tana and then to Ft. Dauphin

Market in Ft. Dauphin


On Monday we flew back to Tana to regroup, recharge the luggage from the mother ship, have a good dinner, enjoy lots of hot water, and then head out for Ft. Dauphin for our final exploration trip, this time to the Berenty Reserve north of Ft. Dauphin.

By now, we have spent so much time in the countryside that the capital city of Tana looks like the big time – a real city. Of course, it hasn’t changed from the night we arrived from Paris and drove through its chaos of people, animals, shops, traffic and so forth all spilling onto the streets. We have changed, not Tana.

We had a good dinner at the Colbert and then enjoyed a good night’s sleep before setting off on Tuesday to fly to Ft. Dauphin.

Flying domestically in Madagascar is actually quite convenient. Yes, the check in process is rather chaotic, security is not exactly meticulous, and there is always a bit of uncertainty about the timing of the flight and its exact route that day. No assigned seats means that the boarding process tends to be a scramble that activates the competitive gene in many of the passengers. Priority boarding is for those with good elbows. Nevertheless, no flight is really too long. After all, Madagascar is not all that big. It’s likely that your flight will stop at some other city before getting to your destination. Some of the stops are surprises.

On the positive side, the Air Madagascar staff have been uniformly pleasant. More food is served than on typical USAir flights, which is not saying a lot. The staff turn around the planes very quickly, and our baggage has emerged quickly each time we have flown. So, good marks to Air Mad, more or less.

Driving has its own adventures. Other than the state of the roads, which can be excellent or dreadful, there is the occasional “security check” by local police who often appear to set up check points at the outskirts of a town or city. The driver has to hand over a sheaf of registration forms (presumably that’s what they are) and then engage in a lengthy conversation with the policeman. The nature of the conversation is a mystery to us since it is not carried out in English.

We have never really had a problem at a checkpoint, but it did appear on one occasion that the tinted windows in our minivan violated some regulation or other and required the payment of an “instant fine.” The fine was paid, the police were mollified, the driver was happy, and the journey continued. I wonder if I could negotiate an “instant fine” should I ever be stopped in the US for some violation or other. On second thought, I don’t think I’ll explore that option.

Ft. Dauphin taxis


To complete our story, on Tuesday we went back to the Tana airport and set off by Air Mad for Ft. Dauphin. The 737 took off on time and landed early in Ft. Dauphin airport, which is a bit on the cozy and welcoming side for an airport. We then drove to our hotel, the Croix du Sud, had a pleasant evening, and prepared to leave the next day for Berenty Nature Reserve, the “land of the lemurs.” All that separated us from Berenty was a trip of 70 km over a road that defies description. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 9:42 am

October 18, 2009

From Sandstone Megaliths to the Seaside

Sunset over the Mozambique Strait – looking west toward Africa. Home is a long way from here.


We got an early start this morning after eating breakfast fast at 6:45 am. We left directly from the dining room to return to Isalo National Park for a second hike, this one to a natural swimming pool. The goal was to start hiking before the sun got too high and the temperature too hot. We met our guide, who looked to be in his 20’s but turned out to be 38, at one of the park entrances. Then it was “clutch the seat and grip anything you can grip” time for another trip down a dusty and impossibly rutted road. It was a game of dodging around a continuous series of deep ruts that just barely had enough flat space here and there for the wheels of the van. The trip from the hotel to the parking lot took about 30 minutes, and we set off on the trail at 8 am.

This hike was 3 km each way and a bit steep here and there, but the views were magnificent. It began with a climb of 80 meters (about 240 feet by my reckoning) up a mostly winding path with tall rock steps. We then had a flat stretch for quite a ways until we did a final scramble up a big rock outcropping to a lookout spot with an astounding view. All around us were the mountains and the valley below. We were dwarfed by the landscape. This was not one of those “handrails and safety warnings are everywhere” kinds of parks. It would have been easy to tumble over an edge and disappear, so we were careful with our footing.

Along the way we noted a pyramidal pile of small rocks tucked in a niche in the face of a cliff. Our guide explained that it was a “temporary grave.” People in this region bury their dead in two stages. First the body of the deceased is placed in a simple coffin and covered with a pile of rocks. After several years, the family comes back, removes the rocks, and recovers the bones, which are then tucked into a different rock niche on the face of one of the cliffs. The second burial is much more dangerous for the living, since one or more relatives has to dangle on a rope down the face of a cliff and place the bones into their final resting place.

Then the family members have a big party with food, drink, and music. It’s quite a way to go.

Our destination for the hike was a natural swimming pool, the “Piscine Naturelle.” The trail had begun in dusty and dry grassland, then climbed up and over big rock formations, then descended to a ravine with a creek running through it and a “gallery forest” of trees paralleling the creek. In one spot the creek tumbled down a short cascade into an idyllic pool. It was a perfect setting. Some of us plunged in. The rest just sat and enjoyed a magical place and moment in time – and a break from the trekking.

We discovered that the hike back was just as long as the hike in, but it went much faster since we were not stopping quite so frequently for pictures and gaping at the landscape. It wasn’t quite “been there done that” but still it was the return trip and we were getting eager for lunch.

As is often the case, the hike back seemed easier than coming in, but by then (10:00 am), the heat radiated off the rocks and did its best to cook us. We made it back in just an hour, returned to the hotel for a very welcome shower (three cheers for indoor plumbing), and then enjoyed a great lunch. Several of us tried the zebu kebab with rice and tomato salsa (diced tomatoes, onions, and little bits of fresh ginger). As usual, we ordered several plates of pommes frites to nibble on plus water and Coke and a large bottle of beer. Our supplementary diet of Coke and french fries might seem odd to some readers, considering that all of us on this trip are certified “foodies,” but it satisfies two important junk food groups: sugar water for fast energy (no weight gain risk with all the hiking we are doing) and fries which simply satisfy everyone’s inner craving for french fries. Alone it’s not a balanced diet, to be sure, but it sure is satisfying. Fortunately we supplement it with lots of fresh fruit (mangos and pineapple being my favorites), great bread and rolls, superb zebu beef, local fish, and great vegetables.

After lunch we left for Tulear in our familiar minibus driving along RN7, which may well be the best road in Madagascar. It’s the continuation of the route we took from Ranomafana to Isalo. Again, the road was the focus here and there of clusters of homes, not made of brick in this area but of twiggy sticks for the most part. We also passed through several towns that have sprouted up in the last decade for the miners who are digging for sapphires and other semi-precious stones in this area. Needless to say, the people who do the digging see little of the wealth created, and the overall impression of the people and their lives in this area is that of poverty. What does this bode for the future political stability of Madagascar?

Overall the trip took 3 1/2 hours and went through some of the most desolate, poor country we have seen. Ambitse National Park, the second largest of the 18 national parks in Madagascar, stretched out from the road for part of the trip. Ambitse Park preserves a particular kind of scrubby, deciduous forest that once covered all the land in this area. The stars of the forest are the distinctive baobob trees, which have enormously fat trunks for storing water during dry spells but no branches at all until the very top. It’s as if the tree grows very tall before it remembers it’s a tree and has to grow a few leaves and so forth. They all sprout out at the top from thick branches that echo the shape of the trunk. All together it’s like a thick pole stuck in the ground with a crown of branches and leaves at the top.

This drive actually was a great way to imagine the past of Madagascar, a land that once was almost completely covered by forests of many different types depending on topography, soil, water supply, and temperature. Most of our drive to Tulear was through an area that had once been forested, but now it is grassland punctuated by distantly-spaced baobab trees stuck into the landscape like so many fat pins. People made this happen. The local people felled the forests for wood and then burned what remained to liberate land for cultivation. Multiple burnings over many years ultimately destroy any seeds that might be lurking about ready to start the forest again, so even if the people went away, the forest would not rejuvenate in any short time.

It’s easy to criticize local people in an area like this one for the way in which they have profoundly altered the natural state of the land, but they are very poor, after all, and they simply are trying to survive. When you have a supermarket down the street and the income to shop there, it’s easy to prescribe how others should live. When you have virtually nothing, survival is a much bigger challenge and philosophy takes a back seat if any seat at all. Dealing with the challenge of preserving the natural world requires that we find ways to help the people who live off that world to survive in other ways. Given the large number of children we have seen everywhere in this country, the pressure on the land and the natural world for their survival in the future will only grow more intense, not less.

Back to the baobob tree for a moment: the lonely baobobs now standing like exclamation points across the landscape with arms raised up as if in supplication, or protest, were once part of the forest ecosystem that surrounded them. The baobobs were left in place by the people as they leveled the rest of the forest because these trees are very useful to them. The baobobs produce fruit and bark that can be stripped and will then grow back without damaging the tree.


Another obvious question is whether the baobobs will send out seeds and gradually multiply. The answer, alas, is no. The babobos need the full forest ecosystem to flower, pollinate, and send forth seeds. As a result, each punctuation point in the landscape will eventually died, not having created a new generation. The cycle of life will have been interrupted. It’s a sorry tale, and one that illustrates a reality that is true in the natural world everywhere: everything living depends on everything else. The natural world is one enormous interconnected system, not designed, but the product of the astounding and unstoppable power of life.

After another hour of driving, we began to see signs that we were nearing our destination, Tulear, a port city on the west coast facing Africa. Its climate is delightfully mild with soft breezes off the ocean. The city is situated on the Mozambique Channel which is 250 miles across and separates Madagascar from Mozambique on mainland Africa. The Hyppocampo Hotel (hippocampo being a type of seahorse) is a modern building that was formerly a private home and is located right on the water. It has about 16 rooms facing the sea, a pool and a lovely garden area with a mix of tropical plants, and a whimsical and mismatched scattering of green lawn furniture with ornate scrolling, chaises with white cushions, black cafe tables and chairs, and an occasional curved carved wooden bench. Altogether an eclectic and soothing spot.

We had drinks outside on the patio overlooking the pool. Rosie, the manager, brought us tomato and mozzarella cheese toasts (mini bruschettas). We ordered dinner about 6:45 and then waited and waited. Rosie sensed the state of her guests and brought several more plates of toasts. At 8:30, it was going to be “five more minutes’ so we moved to the adjacent table which was set for dinner. Finally about 8:45, the first course of crab, which several of us ordered, arrived. It didn’t bode well. It appeared to have seen much better days and taking a risk on crab is not a good idea. The main course of grilled cigale (a local large crustacean from the sea) was excellent. The cingale are somewhat like a mini lobster in shape with tail flesh that tasted like lobster. They were served two to a plate with lime wedges and the usual choices of rice, mixed veggies, or pommes frites. Those who opted for dessert had either the pineapple flambe or several scoops of vanilla ice cream, a third major food group after Coke and french fries. It had been a long day with a morning hike in the hot sun and a long afternoon drive, so by the end of dinner, most of us were starting to drift.

For the record, Tulear is about the farthest you can travel (except for a small island or two) from San Francisco and still be on land. If were possible to drill a hole from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco straight through the middle of the earth, the drill would pop out somewhere in the sea to the west of the Hippocampo Hotel. In case you are getting any ideas, flying is a lot easier, but the idea is interesting to think about.

Tomorrow we will visit a botanical garden and then fly back to Tana for one night. Time to recharge our clothes from the mother ship. From now until the end of the week (the end of the trip), we do “one night stands,” a different hotel each evening.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:34 pm

October 16, 2009

From the Rainforest to Arizona in One Day

Isalo National Park


We set off from Setam Lodge in Ranomafana National Park at 8 AM for another major journey by minibus all the way to Isalo National Park which was toward the southwest on the way to the seacoast facing Africa. Our road trip would end around 5 PM when we finally turned into our lodging for that night and the next, the Relais de la Reine. The Relais is an exceptionally comfortable new inn consisting of comfortable bungalows set into a dramatic sandstone mesa. It reminded me of Sedona, Arizona, in particular the Enchantment Resort, for those of you who may know it. The principal construction material is local stone and the stonework is executed with great skill and a keen eye to achieving an artistic pattern. It’s stonework at its most skilled and would all but unaffordable at stonemason wages in the US. It only is possible here because the laborers are paid not paid very much. I’m not endorsing low wages. I’m simply stating the facts of the situation.

The journey would take us from the rainforest of Ranomafana, across part of the central plateau with its terraced fields, into the land of the inselbergs (enormous rock megaliths set in an otherwise flat and treeless landscape), then to the plains of Madagascar – prairie-like land so flat and devoid of trees that it looks like Kansas, and finally to a spectacularly beautiful region of sandstone outcroppings somewhat like the desert region in the US southwest. The big difference is that in Madagascar every region comes with a tropical character thrown in for no extra charge.

No question that the trip was long and tiring, but it was also spectacular – a sequence of dramatically contrasting landscapes compressed into a very short time. Picture setting out after breakfast from an Adirondack Mountain lodge in Upstate New York and traveling west and south, finally reaching Sedona, Arizona, ten hours later at sunset. It’s so much change in such a short time that it seems either surreal or a product only Disney would create. But it’s neither. It’s Madagascar.

It’s a good thing this country is a long way from everywhere else. Its location has saved it from being overrun by tourists. The people who live here could use the income tourists would bring, to be sure, but it is wonderful to have the opportunity to experience this fascinating island before it is on everyone’s must-do list.

During the entire car trip, I sat in the front seat of the minibus alongside the driver. I was in a sort of photographer’s hyperspace. There were so many opportunities to compose good pictures that I thought I must be inhaling what Clinton claimed he didn’t at Oxford.

Along the way, we stopped at the second largest city in Madagascar, Fianarantsoa, to pick up some cookies, money from the ATM, and other supplies. Then we speeded on to Ambalavo, a small community known for the artisan workshop that produces handmade paper into which flower designs made of real flower parts are laminated and then dried and preserved. It actually was a charming shop with a small restaurant attached, perfect for a lunch stop.

After lunch we continued on into a flat and arid zone with virtually no trees or vegetation to detract from the rock outcroppings. Along the way our guide, Vy, decided that we should stop at a very small village along the road, one of a dozen buildings at the most, all clustered around a shallow dug well. It was mid afternoon and the temperature was hot. The villagers were sitting in the shade of one of the larger huts. We greeted them, shared some of our cookie packets, and then had a tour of the village. As I have noted about other Malagasys, the people we met were friendly and welcoming. Despite the condition of the huts in which they lived – no running water, dirt floors, and no electricity – they were dressed very attractively in bright colors.

We saw a number of the small homes that were about as primitive as anything we could imagine. One in particular looked as if it had been deliberately destroyed. Its walls were rubble and its thatched roof sat a-kilter on the ground like the top of some giant fallen cake. Our guide explained to us that this house had belonged to a villager who had died recently. The custom is to destroy the house of a person after he or she has died.

As we passed through small towns on this trip, we could see that many of the small shops had signs hanging outside that said “Orange: Recharges.” The explanation is simple. Most of the families in these towns do not have electricity in their homes, but they do have cellphones. They go to the shops with the signs to get their minutes topped up and their batteries recharged. It’s such a significant development. The society is jumping generations of communications development in western countries. There may be no electrical infrastructure and most families may have no electricity in their homes, yet they have individual cellphones that link them in telecommunications terms with their families and neighbors, and in theory with the world.

Tomorrow is Sunday and we will be up early for a hike leaving at 7:30 AM. Then we clean up, have lunch, and hit the road for a several hour trip to the coast and our hotel in Tulear. I am hoping that the hotel we are going to will have high speed internet service so I can send our accumulated blogs and pictures off into cyberspace. Otherwise we have to wait to our return to Tana by air on Monday.

Our trip is coming to an end. We have about a week left. What an adventure it has been so far!

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:32 pm

October 15, 2009

Ranomafana National Park

Have a banana? Seen a Golden Bamboo Lemur anywhere around here?


Our mission today was to explore Ranomafana National Park which surrounds Setam Lodge where we are staying. To say we would explore the park is a first class exaggeration since the park covers about 100,000 acres and is anything but flat. It would take a very long time, perhaps forever, to fully explore it.

With spirits high, and feet covered with double socks to ward off leeches, we set off for what would turn out to be the most rugged walking of all of our rain forest visits – about four hours of tramping up and down, on trail and off, all in search of elusive lemurs, birds, spiders, plants, and anything else that is living. To name some really top hits, we saw the golden bamboo lemur, the great bamboo lemur, and the elusive lesser cuckoo. How’s that for a morning stroll?!

We also encountered several other groups of living creatures of the human sort, including a large flock of Spaniards several of whom looked dressed more for an afternoon at the Prado than a struggle up and down and through Ranomafana in search of the elusive golden bamboo lemur. Perhaps they took a wrong turn in Madrid.

This morning we had delayed breakfast until 7AM in light of our long drive yesterday. Only afterwards did we set off for the park. The late start was a good idea. By the time we stopped for lunch at the Belle Vista lookout spot, we all were eager for some calories even if they came in the form of a few slices of chicken on a baguette and not much else. If you are in the middle of the forest and hungry, you don’t ask for the menu.

We succeeded in spotting a number of rare birds and several lemurs, including the rare golden bamboo lemur and the great bamboo lemur. It was the discovery of the golden bamboo lemur that catalyzed the designation of the Ranomafana area as a national park in about 1992, so a lot is riding on this lemur’s happiness and proliferation. The one we saw today looked happy, I am pleased to report.

After lunch and a bit more tramping around, we returned to the lodge for Cokes, which being sugar water come in handy when a quick boost of energy is what the system needs. The guys then went off to explore the local village and another waterfall. We checked out the waterfall first. Not one of the greats but worth a stop. Then as we were about to have a walk around the village, which I was looking forward to for its photo opportunities, the skies let loose with a fully rainforest certified cloudburst. So much for exploring the village. The village disappeared.

We gave up exploring and went back to the lodge to do housekeeping chores, which included getting cleaned up after the morning’s tramping about. We then discovered that the storm had knocked out the power, which fortunately came back in a couple of hours. As I have mentioned before, I like electrons. They may be small, but they sure pack a punch. The return of electrons after a storm is always cause for rejoicing. As I type, a fully electrified evening is settling on the kingdom. Dinner is in 25 minutes. Life is fine.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:31 pm

October 14, 2009

Tana to Ranomafana: Along the Central Highway

Madagascar’s future: a smart kid

Madagascar’s present: Wheat on the way to threshing, all by hand the old fashioned way.

Terraced rice paddies along the central road


Normally if I were told that I were about to take an eight hour road trip on two lane roads via minibus and minivan, I would not be enthusiastic. The thought of eight hours in a car, even driving along one of America’s superhighways, beautiful engineering that they are, is no cause for excitement.

Then there is Madagascar, surprising Madagascar. The trip we all just completed from Tana to Ranomafana was an eight hour journey over a road that is a long way from an American superhighway. In this country, however, it is one of the best roads because it is paved and in good condition most of the way. Traffic, excepting cattle, zebu-drawn carts, bicyclists, people, chickens, and miscellaneous school children, was minimal. But the life that was going on beside the road, for its entire length, was rich and memorable. In short, the trip was spectacular. It was anything but boring. I would do it again anytime.

We were driving down the central high plateau that runs south from Tana and is one of Madagascar’s richest agricultural zones. The road we were on is an artery of life and one that defines the patterns of living along it. For most of the distance, small houses and buildings line the road on both sides, more in areas that would be considered towns and fewer in between the towns. Extending outward from the road and buildings to the plateau’s bounding hills is a mosaic of agricultural fields in various stages of cultivation with a variety of crops including wheat, vegetables, and rice. Newly planted rice fields are particularly beautiful with their intense chartreuse color, but even the fields that have just been plowed and will soon be prepared for planting are beautiful, with their arrays of large clods of earth waiting to be broken down the smoothed.

The soil in this region has a high content of clay and iron oxide, which determines much of the architecture of the houses, the color of the soil and buildings, and the effort required to farm it. Clay is chief component of bricks used for building houses, and the technology of transforming clay into bricks in traditional kilns is very old indeed. Traditional brick-making furnaces can be seen by the side of the road with Tana still in sight. The furnaces are simple and the technology is ancient.


First, raw bricks are formed by shaping a wet mixture of clay and other ingredients using hand-filled molds. The raw bricks are then left to dry in the sun. When enough bricks have been formed, they are stacked carefully into a big cube, leaving space between each brick to allow air to flow throughout the cube. Small ovens are left in the base of the cube where the fuel, rice husks for example, will be burned. When all is ready, the fuel is ignited and the resulting hot gases that flow through the crevices fire the bricks to hardness. Those on the outside generally come out gray in color because they do not get hot enough to fully oxidize their iron content, but those on the inside turn rust-red.

In a region where there are bricks and few trees, the choices for construction are obvious. The houses along the central road are virtually all made from bricks produced nearby. Some have been covered in stucco, but most are in the natural state and thus a warm rust-red. The landscape is reminiscent of the hill towns in Tuscany and Umbria, even if in Madagascar there aren’t many good Italian restaurants along the way. It’s no place to find fettucini with white truffles, fresh porcini or a deeply flavorful ragu, and that’s just the first course. But I digress, perhaps because it’s nearly dinner time here.

The central road is itself almost a living presence, in part because it is the locus of so much life, which spills onto it from either side. Life is underway full speed right up to the edges of the road, so it’s not exceptional at all to find people wandering into it and across it as if it were a sidewalk, or chickens cluck-clucking as they dart back and forth, perhaps pondering the old question of why to cross the road. Kids are everywhere. People of all ages walk along with loads on their heads, from small reed baskets all the way to enormous bundles of sticks, charcoal, or wheat. Every now and then a zebu herder is urging a pair of zebu cattle to pull a primitive cart loaded with whatever along. The road is even a route for cattle drives, small on the Texas scale to be sure, but still impressive if you are in a van surrounded by horned zebu looking confused about what to do next.

One reason the cattle are driven along the road is that there really isn’t anywhere else to drive them. Virtually every square foot of land on either side, other than that occupied by houses and out buildings, consists of fields for crops, and these fields extend into the distance on either side of the road. Most are relatively small terraced plots, some of which will be flooded in the rainy season to grow rice. Rice was just being planted as we traveled through this area. The terraced plots extended all the way to the mountains that bounded the plateau and then climbed up the mountains until they became too steep for terracing.

I cannot recall seeing even one piece of powered farm equipment during the entire trip. Virtually all of the fields are farmed by hand labor with the help of cattle to pull primitive plows. The largest implement I saw was a simple spade smaller than many people would use on their flower gardens. This is agriculture as it existed more than a century ago in America when most of the workers were farmers. Farming of this sort may seem a romantic notion to some, but it’s very hard and never ending work.
For a visitor driving along the road, the tableau is visually stunning. The rich mosaic of the fields, the crops in their stages of development, the workers toiling away in each plot, women washing clothes in streams between plots, the life of the towns, the children playing or going to or from school, all are so colorful and full of life. Riding along is like being caught up in a living organism in which everything and everybody is interconnected in some way. Yes, the roads carry cars and trucks, but they might as well be highways for spaceships given the disconnect between life inside the vehicles and outside.

Overall, my impression of this part of Madagascar is that it is much more prosperous than the communities we saw in the north. People along the central road live in real albeit small brick houses, not shacks on stilts. Some even have electric power. It appears that people have plenty to eat, which is not surprising considering the bounty of crops around them. The people I saw were working hard and not lying about. Virtually everyone was in motion doing something, from the youngest person to the oldest.

As in the other areas of Madagascar we have visited, there were a lot of kids seen along the way. Streams of kids were going to or from school and wearing distinctive if simple school uniforms. Madagascar has no problem with the fertility of its people, that’s for sure.

Our initial destination on the trip was Antisirabe, which is the main urban agricultural and industrial center of Madagascar. It also is the site of thermal springs which, along with the pleasant climate, attracted Norwegians of all nationalities to come there in large numbers at the turn of the century to “take the waters.” They also built a large hotel, now in the hands of the government, and life for them and others in the heydey of social Antsirabe must have been most pleasant indeed.

Our scheduled called for us to meet a van carrying a group of visitors going north to Tana from Ranomafana in the parking lot of the hotel. The drill was for groups to exchange vehicles and drivers and go on their opposite ways. Believe it or not, it all worked. We drove into the parking lot in our mini bus and about 15 minutes later a somewhat smaller vehicle arrived from the south. People and luggage exchanged places and we all went our separate ways.

I did note some grumbling on the part of the people from the south about having to continue in our less zippy bus. It didn’t take long to discover that the driver who had brought them north to our rendezvous and was now our driver apparently is dreaming of joining Mario Andretti’s race car team. I had the fortune of sitting in the front seat next to him. There were any number of moments when I vowed to take religion more seriously in the future if only we were delivered to our destination safely.

After leaving Antsirabe, we drove for another hour or so before stopping at a delightful inn for lunch, a really nice lunch. It came just in time, since we had started out at 7AM and our protein-free breakfast had worn off some time ago.
The rest of the trip went into the magical light of late afternoon. The redder and less intense light of the sun as it moved toward sunset made the landscape and the red brick houses seem to luminesce. The world on either side of the road glowed. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I could have spent hours – days – traveling along slowly and taking pictures. Unfortunately, we had to make progress and Mario A. was up to the challenge.

We did, in fact, get where we wanted to go, on time and safely too. Our destination was the Setam Lodge in Ranomafana National Park. It’s a cluster of bungalows arranged uphill from a central building with a dining room. On the whole, it is quite comfortable and it has 24 HOUR ELECTRIC POWER and HOT WATER. I really like electrons.

We tumbled out of the van, headed for our nests, cleaned up, and reported for dinner. It was a good dinner. Then to bed on the early side to be ready to hit the rainforest in the morning. The lemurs were beckoning and the leeches were eager to greet us too, or so our guide mentioned, perhaps to help us sleep soundly.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 4:28 pm

October 13, 2009

Two Days of Travel

Today we leave Montagne d’Ambre and head for Tana by plane with the Hotel Colbert – a.k.a. the “mother ship” as our destination. We have an overnight there, just enough time to eat dinner, upload the blogs, and repack the traveling bags (we all leave a big suitcase at the Colbert.) Then tomorrow we are off on an all-day drive to Ranomafana. We will be away from Tana for five days of traveling in the south.

This morning has been a time to wash clothes and catch up on details. Most of our crew are off for another morning of lemur looking. I stayed behind to do the housekeeping, both computer version and the more mundane wash. I think I had reached my quota of lemurs for the moment.

Last evening we had dinner at the lodge and then made our way to the bungalows using our flashlights. This is the kind of trip for which the flashlight was invented. As noted earlier, we have electricity only between 6 and 10 PM, so we were charging our batteries like crazy last evening. Then we hit the pillows and the power went off. AFter that, the world was enveloped in a new definition of a dark. They have stars here – the full set. Fortunately it wasn’t stormy, though the wind gusted and howled around the bungalow with such force that I half expected there would be a foot of snow on the ground in the morning. Instead, morning dawned with bright sun and warm air. It was good to have several blankets for the night, however.

The snug but windy bungalow

View from the bungalow at sunset


As I sat on the porch of our hut this morning, a local woman carrying a baby in a wrap on her back walked by. I noticed that the perimeter of the grounds of the Nature Lodge is bounded by a rusty barbed wire fence. It blends in with the vegetation, but it’s there. The woman looked at me as if I were from another world, which in fact I am. Her home most likely has only one room, no running water, and no electricity. Her day is bounded by the hours of daylight and darkness, which here near the equator reliably are 12 and 12. Our guide told us that country people typically get up around 4 AM and work in the fields much of the day. They return home in mid-afternoon so they can use the remaining hours of daylight for domestic chores and whatever. Darkness comes quickly around 6 PM.

School is available for the kids but is limited to what we would call primary school. Schools offering upper level grades exist in the cities but not in the countryside. I plan to quiz Vy a lot more about the education system in Madagascar simply because so much of the future of this country will be determined by the education available to its young people today.

Soon it will be time for lunch. The power will be switched on in the main building so I think I should be able to recharge my laptop. Electrons are precious. After lunch we head for the airport and another adventure with Air Madagascar.

Assuming this message reaches you, I want you to know that we will be “silent” in blog terms for about five days until we return from the south to the Hotel Colbert. Then we will upload, all at once, the blogs and pictures we will accumulate in the south. It’s communication by big gulp. There really isn’t any alternative since this sort of communication requires a high speed link and so far the only one we have had access to has been in Tana. If you dream of escaping the Internet, check out Madagascar.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:30 pm
Next Page »

The Chief Penguin


Greg Farrington

Greg Farrington, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, is visiting the island of Madagascar. He is joined by his wife, and Academy researchers, who are surveying and assessing this biodiversity hotspot.

Visit the Farringtons' personal blog, Madagascar Adventure, for in-depth details of this Academy expedition.

Blog Menu


Academy Blogroll