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Journey to Madagascar 2009 

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

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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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