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Journey to Madagascar 2009 

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

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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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