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Journey to Madagascar 2009 

October 11, 2009

Green Chameleons, Hoopoe Birds and Tip Toeing

The hotel in Diego Suarez turned out to be a very comfortable place to spend the night, with a hitch or two. Shortly after we arrived I noted that the rooms had double windows in a climate that is comfortably in the mid 70s most of the year and never gets cold. Curious.

We found out why that evening – a Saturday. It turns out that the local discotheque is the other wing of the hotel. It must be very popular because it was hopping last night. So long as the windows were closed, the only effect was a very low frequency rhythm line that went until 4 AM on the dot. It wasn’t really all that disturbing if the windows were closed, but anyone who kept them open would have had a long evening of disco thrown in for no extra charge.

This morning we got up around 5 AM to have a quick breakfast and then get on the road to drive 3 hours to reach the Ankarana Reserve National Park. It’s about 70 miles away, but the roads are not all that good so it takes some time to get there. The road would be smooth for a stretch and then dissolve into serial potholes or disappear altogether. We were in two 4-wheel drive SUV’s and the road was interesting enough given the potholes, washouts, wandering people, chickens, occasional zebu (beef) on the hoof, kids, bicycles, women carrying large baskets on their heads, and oxcarts, there was no chance that either driver would nod off. I also saw one lonely duck padding with webbed feet along on the side. He (she) brought to mind the penguins at the Academy.

After about an hour, our driver came to a sudden stop on the left side of the road. He had spotted a green chameleon on the fence and wanted to show it to us. He held it in his hand while we all gathered round and devoted untold numbers of multi megapixel shots to the green chameleon star who responded with a slightly bored air as if it happens every day. The driver has sharp eyes.


For much of the trip, the road was lined not by chameleons but by people and their homes which to be candid were more like shacks. The people and their lives spilled onto the road which functions as the rough equivalent of a long main street. In between clusters of shacks comprising a town there would be fields, rice paddies, and general brush, and then another long town stretching along the road.

I noted in an earlier posting that the people in Maroantsetra looked as if they were well fed and happy. They did but I may have cranked up my “power of positive thinking” a bit to much. Most of the people today looked as if they were just plain poor.


Roadside Housing

The difference between the two impressions may come in part from the fact that we interacted with the people in Maroantsetra on foot, walking among them. Today we were driving quite fast, the with frequent bleats of the horn to scatter people or chickens or oxen. It wasn’t personal at all. Still, the people who lived along the road would wave and we would wave back. Kids were the most reliable wavers, often using the two handed, really enthusiastic version.

Local Market

As in Maroantsetra, no one looked really hungry and there was a lot of food for sale along the road, mangos and tomatoes in particular. The region around Diego is mango central for Madagascar, and the fruit will be in season through December which corresponds to spring here.

Seeing all the people today I wondered about medical care in Madagascar, so I quizzed our drivers and guides. It turns out that there is on average only one doctor for every 150,000 people in this country and no medical center that could be considered comprehensive in western terms. From what Vy said, it sounds as if the medical center in Tana is the equivalent of a GP or internist clinic. As with the US, the doctors cluster in the cities. If you get really sick and can afford it, you travel to Reunion (French infrastructure), Mauritius (British), South Africa or even Paris. If you can’t afford it, and most people can’t, then it’s tough luck. Local people consult “healers” whose prescriptions are limited to natural plants which an be effective, of course, but are no substitute for real medical care.

Upscale Housing

Not having access to good medical care is certainly one definition of poverty and by that standard a large fraction of the Malagasy population is poor. Regrettably, some 29 million Americans do not have medical care coverage either. Yes, they can “go to the emergency room” and that is a infinitely more care than normal Malagasys have available, but it’s not the same as having regular health maintenance care and the opportunity to consult a doctor without financial fear when you are just sick and not in crisis. I think the situation is scandalous for a country of the wealth and ideals of the US.

For the record, I personally have experienced the “socialized” medical systems in the UK, Scandinavia, and Germany. I have been impressed by the quality of care I received from them. I hear high praise about their medical systems from my friends who live in those countries. They do not fear bankruptcy if they get really sick. It’s about time we could say the same for the US. The fact that there are more Americans outside the health care system than there are Malagasys (population 20 million) without health care does not speak well for home.

Rice Paddies


Madagascar’s Red Soil

Back to the main topic: after about three hours we arrived at the Ankarana Reserve. We were met by our local guide who would keep us on track and make sure that no one got lost. He also was a great source of information on plants, animals, and the general landscape.

Ankarana is a deciduous forest. Since this is early spring, most of the trees had no leaves, which made seeing the landscape and the animals much easier. We had been warned that the weather would be dry and hot, as hot as 100F, so we were ready to drink lots of water along the way. However, we were very fortunate. It was a partly cloudy day with occasional spritzing showers. The temperature never really got hot and the sunlight stayed moderate. So walking along was much more comfortable than it might have been. We were lucky.


The Original Flying Buttresses

As we walked we spied a number of creatures, including various lemurs and birds. One of my favorites was the Hoopoe bird, one of which strutted his stuff in front of us for about a minute. We also encountered a really great gecko and a sleepy lemur.


Nocturnal Sportive lemur getting its sleep



Madagascar Magpie Robin

The most dramatic sight of the day was the rather bizarre limestone landscape known as the “Tsingy,” which we were told means “tip-toe” in Malagasy. Tip toe is exactly what you would do if you were a giant and tried to walk across the tsingy. The park has two main geologic features. The tsingy developed from limestone deposits that had been under the sea, were thrust up by the forces of plate tectonics and then eroded year after year. Time and weathering have transformed the limestone into features criss-crossed by very sharp points and edges.



Sharp Pointed Tsingy Amidst Lava Rock

Mixed in with the tsingy are black volcanic rock and boulders that were hurled up a long time ago by a now extinct volcano. In fact, we will visit the extinct volcano tomorrow. It forms a basin – Montagne d’Ambre (Amber Mountain) – which has a very distinctive microclimate and is a botanical paradise. In contrast to the limestone, weather has smoothed the volcanic rocks. Different chemical compositions produced different chemical erosion patterns.


Wild Vanilla Growing on Tsingy

After seeing the tsingy massed in the distance (see picture above) we then walked through another area of tsingy where we could stand within sharp columns that had formed in the limestone. Clambering over the tsingy was downright treacherous. It as no time to stumble and fall. Our guide took us through one area of tsingy, rock by unstable rock. Then we came out into the open – a smooth (more or less) red earth trail. He was about to head for round two of the tsingy clamber when we revolted and said it was enough. We were surrendering. Tip toeing indeed.


We made our way back to the SUV’s and lunch. All in all, we had done about three hours of walking, alternating between easy and more rugged, but it was well worth it and is a very memorable landscape.

The fact that limestone weathers easily, since it is calcium carbonate which dissolves in acidic rainwater, has given rise to many dramatic landscapes around the world as well as some remarkable caves with their stalactites and stalagmites. What differs is the shapes that result from the erosion. Tsingy is land of the sharp pointed structures. In contrast, the limestone landscape in Guilin, China, which we visited some years ago, has been weathered into surreal but tranquil looking dome structures. It too is a destination well-worth visiting.

Lunch was served in very simple restaurant that caters to people coming to visit Ankarana. The tables are on a platform on stilts with the kitchen at the end. The platform has a thatched roof to provide shade. A number of groups were eating lunch when we got there. If you don’t mind candor, I will note that one table had three paunchy white men roughly in their 50s – not Americans – and three very attractive, young Malagasy women who were perhaps 25 years old. It did not look like three happily married couples celebrating their tenth anniversaries with a trip to an exotic location. More likely, it was an example of sex tourism where your local guide never leaves your side and is more of a playmate than anything else. It’s common in countries like Thailand and the Tana airport has posters warning of the penalties for it, so it must be a business here as well. It is a terrible way to exploit a poor population eager to make money.


Back to Diego

After lunch, we drove back to Diego over the same road. This time, however, it rained part of the way, and the water transformed the dirt along the road into mud, and the shacks, which are on stilts, into rather a sorry state. Many people were drenched by the sudden rain. Yes, it’s what’s called poverty.

When we got back to the hotel the sun was out. We scattered and hit the showers and then took a break before dinner. It has been a great day in an infrequently visited corner of this fascinating country with all of its contrasts, both in the natural world and in human nature.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:16 pm

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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.

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