Madagascar Part 7 of 8: Toliara – Isalo National Park.
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After breakfast on the terrace, I bid farewell to Bakuba Lodge and set forth for one of Madagascar’s prime natural sights – Isalo National Park. As with many of my drives so far in Madagascar, the landscape quickly changed and undulating mountains soon became vast open savannahs. I was almost expecting wilderbeest and zebras to be roaming wild as one sees in East Africa, but one thing I noticed so far in Madagascar is that there are no real big animals – the largest predator, the fossa (which I saw in Kirindy) is barely larger than a cat. We passed a number of villages and once again one could see how difficult life is in these parts with children and adults wheeling wooden carts with empty jerry cans to the nearest well to fetch water. My driver told me that the water wasn’t even that clean but Malagasy people have developed strong stomachs. Local people were drying cassava on the road side and I could see women pounding rice outside their homes. Although I had now been over one week in Madagascar, on many occasions the very visible signs of extreme poverty made me realise just how fortunate I am. I had read that over 90% of the population earn less than $2 per day, which must make Madagascar one of the poorest countries on earth. What was quite surprising though is that I didn’t come across a single beggar in all this time and it made me realise that the Malagasy people are hardy resilient people who deal with the situation they’re confronted with.

 

Our first stop was at the Zombitse-Vahobasia National Park which happened to be on the side of the main road and could easily have been missed. As is required throughout Madagascar, a pair of young local guides accompanied us into the park. They were both quite young, the guy must have been in his late teens and the girl a few years younger. She acted as the spotter and would run ahead to look for any interesting wildlife and then call us when she’d found something. Given how warm it was outside, the forest itself was quite shaded forest so it provided some cover from the sun. Suddenly the girl ushered us forward quickly as she’d spotted a hubbard sportive lemur, normally noctural, sitting in the hollow of a tree. We continued on and she revealed more of the forest’s wildlife, including some sifakas (white lemurs), a chameleon walking in the most bizarre manner I have ever seen, and birds including the impressive looking Madagascar Hoopoe, crested drongo, a large parrot and small sunbirds to name a few. The park is supposed to contain over 80 species of birds and I was told the best time to see them is in the early morning and between the months of September to November. I spent just over an hour in the park which was thoroughly enjoyable and a worthwhile stop breaking up the journey.

 

We continued on for a little while and suddenly out of nowhere I could see a frenzy of activity some distance ahead of us. Looming on the horizon was the small town of Ilakaka, a place which had become a ‘boom town’ when sapphires were discovered here. Since then it seems the foreign businessmen who control the industry here have teams of workers sifting for these gems in the murky brown river. On either side of the road were small shops selling various items required for mining sapphires, as well as a showroom which appeared to be closed. The town continued for a short distance and then faded into the background as I looked on through the rear view mirror. It all seemed quite surreal and it felt like I had just dreamt this up.

 

We now started to enter canyon country as huge boulders appeared. The scenery was truly breathtaking and again very different to what I’d witnessed to date. We rolled into the Relais de la Reine, a charming hotel nestled next to the rocks where I was going to be staying for two nights. As chance would have it, one of my friends in the UK recently got married and had gone to Mauritius for his honeymoon and had come to Madagascar for a short break. Our schedules happened to coincidentally overlap and I saw him in the lobby when I entered the hotel! We hadn’t managed meeting up for years in London, and here we were in what could be justifiably called the middle of nowhere! There was a very nice walking trail right amongst the boulders and forest next to the hotel so while his wife was having some treatments we decided to have a bit of a catch up on a short walk. We had barely started walking when we encountered a bush snake as well as two brightly coloured lubber grasshoppers clinging to some reeds. They were the most peculiar insects I’d seen and as like most things here, endemic to Madagascar. There were some terrific vantage points and then we made our way back to the hotel just as the sun was about to set. We continued our conversation over a couple of beers and then

 

Tomorrow was going to be a full day hike in Isalo National Park, so after another delicious meal I decided to call it a night.

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