Saturday, October 18, 2014

Madagascar: Driving South on the N7

Last week, we left Andasibe and its resident lemurs behind and embarked on a journey south first via car (as always, along with our intrepid driver Lala) and later via train and on foot.  We wound our way through the hauts plateux along the N7, one of the main highways here in Madagascar, and then took a short detour east through the rainforest corridor and on to the coast. 

Even when we are not out and about exploring, traveling through the ever-changing landscape of the Malagasy countryside is illuminating.  Although the N7 is a national highway, it runs directly through a string of small villages and is full of different vehicles, ranging from cargo trucks to zebu-drawn carts.

Rather than the lemur-filled jungle that many people imagine when they think of Madagascar, the country’s ubiquitous rice paddies are a constant backdrop, often accompanied by the sight and/or smell of slash and burn farming – as far as we can tell, land for subsistence farming is constantly being cleared for cultivation by the ever-increasing population.

Despite being a key corridor for the transport of people and goods to the capital, driving along the N7 is often more of an adventure than you might expect.  Large potholes can swallow portions of the tarred road, which is so narrow that a large truck easily takes up both lanes.  In the meantime, taxi brousses laden with people and goods make their way between various villages while pedestrians on the way to the market carry goods precariously perched atop their heads. 

Each village that we passed through seemed to be known for the production of one item in particular, with stands set up by the side of the road selling honey, musical instruments, statues of the Virgin Mary, ginger, or green mangoes. (Terence, we considered buying you a statue to go with the candles, but decided it wouldn’t fit in our backpacks.)  We were also fascinated by visits to local craftsmen turning local products like zebu horn, wood, and even recycled metals, into unique works of art.  In our opinion, the town boasting the best specialty product was Berenjy, the Malagasy village responsible for the nation’s entire foie gras production, as well as most of its supply of duck.  Ignoring the quacks emanating from a few canards milling around the courtyard of the restaurant, we thoroughly enjoyed an authentic French meal of foie and magret.  Giorgio is convinced that Stephanie’s single bite of both dishes cured her food poisoning, constantly repeating “feather of the duck!” which Stephanie later realized was his Malagasy version of “hair of the dog.”

Following a short overnight in Antsirabe, a chaotic city of vendors and pousse pousse (essentially, a Malagasy rickshaw), we departed the central high plains for the rainforest, where we settled in for two days to explore another national park.  In Ranomafana, we spent hours trekking up and down the jungle-clad mountains. The park is home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, including several troops of gregarious bamboo lemurs, which we had not previously encountered in the wild.  At various intervals, rivers and waterfalls cut across our path, creating scenic obstacles as we followed the lemurs through the treetops.    

Continuing southeast from Ranomafana, the rainforest gradually gave way to the tropics, full of banana trees and rice paddies.  Eventually, we arrived in the seaside town of Manakara, where we spent a relaxing afternoon walking along the quiet, palm-lined beach.

The next morning, we left the car (and Lala) behind for a more unique form of transport – a vintage train.


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