There are few, if any, countries in the world more exotic sounding than Madagascar. The truth is it may be the most exotic country on Earth. It is touted by the Malagasy people as the 8th continent as it separated from Africa 100 million years ago (give or take a few million years). Not much is known to most Westerners about Madagascar aside from the fact that it’s that big island off the coast of Africa with the funny name you see on the map and it was a recent animated movie. Madagascar is the last country actually in Africa I am visiting this trip and after a solid month on the continent, I am reminded of a quote from Ernest Hemingway, “I cannot remember a morning in Africa when I woke up and I was not happy”. Truer words have never been spoken.
Africa is a different animal than anywhere else on Earth. It is unpredictable, frenetic, captivating, soulful, impoverished, enlightening, sad, intriguing and all of these descriptive terms all come back to that fact that Africa gets in your blood. As much as it can frustrate the hell out of you and you constantly say TIA or Africa time, it moves you to come back time and time again. This was my eighth trip to the continent and in total I’ve spent about 6 months of my life on the “dark continent” and I can’t get enough. So to quote another well known person (aka the Governator), “I’ll be back”.
As you fly into Madagascar from Johannesburg, you take a very scenic route if you sit on the left side of the plane. The plane heads out into the Indian Ocean and then goes due north along the Mozambique coast which is stunning on the beach and from the air. Then you jut out across the heart of Madagascar from the south. The island is very big and very hilly. The south is covered in beautiful rolling green hills and a large muddy river slicing through the landscape.
As you approach the capital, Antananarivo (yes that’s 6 syllables pronounced An-Tan-An-Uh-Reev-Oh or just Tana as the locals call it) you think you’re landing on a Mediterranean island because of the gorgeous cultivated hills around the capital. The houses look Mediterranean as well in the countryside. As you go through immigration you get all excited and then you remember that this is still Africa.
After sifting through the tons of taxi touts and people selling worthless crap I finally negotiated a sweet deal into town to the Sakamanga Hotel. Sakamanga is the top traveler hotel in town and that’s where pretty much all white (Western) people stay and go to dinner in town. Almost every African city has a place like this but Sakamanga was a cut above the rest of them with an excellent restaurant, gorgeous courtyard and nice rooms with good water pressure for the shower.
The city of Tana itself is basically divided into two parts Haute-Ville (upper town) and Basse-Ville (lower town). Basse-Ville is where Africa happens. It is where the traffic and air pollution is so bad that you can’t breathe without covering you mouth at times. It is where the incessant hawkers, touts and beggars will not leave you alone to catch your breath. It is where the crumbling buildings look like they’re going to collapse at any second and where the poverty is so stark, it makes you sad.
Haute-Ville is not the complete opposite but very close. It is very pleasant with winding steep roads that seriously look like you’re in the Greek Islands or somewhere in Tuscany at times. There are steep stone stairs everywhere you look and the people up here don’t bother you. They let you enjoy the town and take pictures and just enjoy the city as opposed to the madness below.
From the main site atop the town called the Rova (below), which is the royal palace that burned down in 1995 and is still being restored, there is a great walk down to Lac Anosy. It is the artificial lake smack dab in the middle of the city built by the French during colonization. It only takes about an hour or so and is very pleasant.
Along the way, I met a French guy names Arnaud who was doing the same walk and we started chatting and eventually arrived at the lake and kept chatting. It was his first time Africa as he is living in Comoros teaching. He was in shock about the poverty and how annoying the beggars and hawkers were. It kind of made me realize that I am not sure if Tana was worse than most African cities or if I had simply become immune to noticing because of how much time and poverty I have seen on the continent. After his shock at the situation it made me notice it more and get annoyed with constant harassment when we were just trying to chill out and have a beer. The three horses beer of Madagascar is excellent by the way.
Afterwards, I headed back to walk around the hotel before dinner. My taxi was this beat to hell old Renault as most of them are but then something funny happened. The car stopped which is totally normal because they all should’ve been trashed 20 years ago but then he opened his glove box. In it there was a soda bottle with a white tube coming out of it and I was confused as he took it and ran across the street to the gas station. He comes back with a bottle full of gas. I watched in amazement as he somehow had converted the gas tank to his glove box as I guess the real one didn’t work or who the hell knows.
It was pretty funny and a microcosm of driving and drivers in Africa. They are the most resourceful people I have ever seen and they all know how to fix stuff on cars. Whether the door falls off, they all know how to use tape and string to keep it on for as long as they need it. When the car breaks down, they all know how to fix whatever it is under the hood, change a tire, push start or whatever. I swear they could fix anything with whatever they have available to them and believe me it is not a tool box full of nice Dewalt tools or anything. It is uncanny. Considering I can barely work the DVD player, it always amazes and impresses me!
As I was coming back right around sunset, I noticed something I had never noticed in Africa before. Literally, as the sun went below the horizon and dusk settled in, there emerged 2 to 3 prostitutes on every corner like clockwork. It was really weird and I had never seen that before. Luckily, they didn’t harass me or anything but it got me thinking. Who is buying them? There are no tourists here and this island is very poor. It’s was quite sad to see the economic state of affairs and what it leads to. Again, I think I am just immune to this type of thing but in Tana it struck a chord with me for some reason.
After dinner, I headed to bed early to get up to head to see some of the native animals to Madagascar in a town called Ivato. There is a place called the Croq Farm that keeps animals so you can see the native wildlife without having to travel great distances from Tana. I was short on time so this was perfect for me. Aside from a ton of crocodiles, that were kept like they are in the Everglades in Florida, and some of the cutest little frogs you can imagine, they had lemurs.
Lemurs are the cute little furry animals that sort of resemble monkeys and mice or something like that. There are many different kinds and at the Croq Farm they had very small and adorable little guys. Each time I took their picture they would close their eyes but they have big red eyes and are very striking. Other animals they had were all types of white monkeys, turtles and lizards along with the Fosa which was apparently the villain in the animated Madagascar movie. They were pretty cute in person although I gather they’re mean as hell!
I was glad I got to go there before flying out because as the flights worked out with my schedule I only had a day and a half here so it made me feel better as there is so much more I’d like to do here. There are several wildlife parks to visit and the amazing beaches of Nosy Be. I was going to go there originally but since I am going to every tropical island down here, I figured I’d have plenty of beach time. The truth is you really need a month or so to do Madagascar true justice because it is very big and vast with a ton of things to do. I imagine that I will return here someday and will certainly head straight for the North of the island.
I am currently in Moroni, Comoros and it has been a battle thus far. I will explain when I write that post if and when I ever get out of here but keep your fingers crossed as I am supposed to be on the flight in the morning. Otherwise all my flights may be screwed up and I am going to be majorly pissed!