By Martine Botha, Blue Ventures volunteer, Madagascar
After our first humid night in Antananarivo, we arrived for breakfast at the Hotel Raphia to meet the rest of our fellow BV volunteers and to feast on a standard Madagascan breakfast of stale bread and jam. Nervously exchanging small talk we boarded our transport for the next four days; two minibuses, with our luggage piled high on the roof. We were set. The countryside whiled away through the lenses of our cameras – the hectic pace of Malagasy life and the rapidly changing countryside meant there was always something bizarre to capture. Cruising into our lunch stop at Antirabe we indulged in pizza which seemed dramatically out-of-context, just like some of the clothing the locals wear around town. Then back in the van with our knees under our chins, singing to Dave (our driver) love song dedications. Towards the end of the trip we stopped at a local woodcarving shop – the number one tourist hotspot. The goods just have to say baobab or lemur and are guaranteed to get snapped up by some excited tourist (including the BV crew!). By 8pm we were safely in Flanarantsoa, dining on Zebu steaks and Fanta. Although the accommodation wasn’t exactly The Ritz, the toilet flushed and there was a 60% chance that there would be pressure coming out of the shower. Paradise!
Wandering around the market in the early morning is a sight not for the faint hearted; butchered meat, mattress stuffing and second hand soft toys are just some of the many ‘delights’ that can be purchased at leisure. The locals are friendly though and don’t push their wares on you unless you are actually interested. Bundled back into the Mazda we stopped at a national park for a quick encounter with nature. It was then that the crew had their first encounter with Madagascar’s endemic lemurs. Remarkably agile and super inquisitive, we got some great close ups of the Ring-Tailed Lemur, Lemur catta, or as we aptly named them ‘King Julian’. The walk afterward was fantastic; clambering over and under rocks and learning more about the local bird and plant-life. We arrived in the late afternoon at Isalo National Park and with our huts nestled amongst the frangipanis (Plumeria genus) it hit us that we were all a very long way from home.
Day Three! The day that many of us had long anticipated had finally arrived. By 9am we were sun-screened up, breakfasted and had both feet solidly planted at the start of our Isalo adventure. Five minutes in even the non-asthmatics were begging for ventalin, as we no longer had the minibus to shelter us from the elements. The park is beautiful and the large cliff faces hide the tombs of Madagascar’s mountain tribes. Just when we were feeling particularly hot and bothered, we descended into what seemed like an oasis. It didn’t take us long to rip of our clothes and jump into the cool waters, rinsing our hair under the waterfall and jumping from the rocks. A few more hours walking through the park we arrived at our picnic spot. We were treated to kebabs and an assortment of salads – all met with great enthusiasm after a long walk through the heat. A highlight for many was trying to keep the food from being guzzled by some particularly cheeky Brown lemurs, Eulemur fulvus. One lemur looked particularly smug when it ate our all our sugar! After lunch, whilst some preferred to stay and watch a snake eat a chameleon, the more eager hiked up river to another watering hole. By the time dinner was served everyone was exhausted but a local band kept the mood upbeat,and after a few beers the girls boogied into the night, whilst the boys snuck out to bed.
We packed up our gear and piled into our minibuses for one last time. All still exhausted from the day before, we napped through the morning and arrived for lunch at an unexpectedly luxurious botanical garden. Our guide was extremely informative and laughed whilst telling us about the poisonous plants that are nicknamed ‘mother-in-law’. Madagascar’s botanical life is very interesting and each plant has either a practical or medicinal use. Back in the car and two more hours of Leanne Rimes later, we arrived looking very dishevelled to meet our expedition manager and the other departing BV volunteers. After beautifying ourselves at the aptly named Hotel Victory, we went out for dinner at a local restaurant – eagerly swapping stories and gleaning as much information about the upcoming expedition. As Kate, Volunteer & Expedition Coordinator, reminded me, this was not going to be a glorified beach holiday.