Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Madagascar: North to the Tsingy!

After being introduced to Madagascar’s lemurs and other fauna at Kirindy, we continued north to our main west coast destination, the Tsingy of Bemaraha in the town of Bekopoaka.  More on the actual tsingy later, because first we had to get there.  The guidebook indicated that it would be an eight-hour drive on bad roads and our driver mentioned that maybe it would take six hours, give or take.  At any rate, off we went at 8 am along the sandy northbound road.  We should also note that this road is one of the country’s national highways, but if you thought it would be tarred, you would be sadly mistaken. 

Although the beginning of the drive was relatively straightforward, we soon encountered another Land Cruiser carrying a German couple stopped at the side of the road with a flat tire.  After much discussion between our driver and theirs, we all decided to carry on, regardless of the flat.  Not surprisingly, we came to a stop five minutes down the road when the previously slightly-flat tire was completely ruined and stood around watching the tire being changed.  Why our driver was the one in charge of changing the other car's tire remains a mystery.  Also, it’s not clear to us when/where the car would be fixed since no major towns were on our itinerary (speaking of which, we have no idea where our driver had been refilling the Land Cruiser with gas since we hadn't seen a petrol station since leaving Tana).

Continuing our drive north along the sandy track, the scenery quickly changed from the forested reserve of Kirindy to contain the occasional small village, various rice paddies and several recently-deforested swaths of land.  We had heard about the deforestation of Madagascar and here it was right in front of us.  In almost all of the villages, small children ran after the car and waved excitedly, but none of them appeared to be in school, which particularly bothered Stephanie.  Giorgio has half-heartedly suggested that maybe they are on some sort of spring break, but we also didn't see any schools, so that seems unlikely. 

After driving through one such village (as well as a seemingly random police checkpoint), we arrived at our first ferry crossing of the day.  A wide muddy river loomed in front of us, with all sorts of purposeful chaos loading a range of “boats” along the bank.  Our ferry was stationed alongside a small tug in the process of being loaded full of beer and a large stack of toilet paper waited to be loaded onto another boat.  For any of you imagining a car ferry like the one taking passengers to Balboa Island in Newport Beach, think again.  Our ferry consisted of wooden slats strapped to two rickety motorboats acting as pontoons.  Atop this contraption, there was room for three or four cars plus an assortment of goods and people looking to make the crossing.  Giorgio claims that ferries like this are common in parts of Peru, but the experience was certainly not like anything Stephanie had seen in the US. 

After watching one ferry load up, head out and fail to sink, it was our turn.  Following our Land Cruiser on foot, we clambered up the planks laid out for both passengers and vehicles.  We were not swift enough to obtain a coveted spot in the shade, but managed to position ourselves at the front of the vessel for a good view over one of the pontoons.  Puttering our way not just across the river, but also a kilometer downriver to the next town, we saw farmers paddling canoes full of produce, other tourists in private motorboats, and women and children washing clothes and themselves along the banks.

After disembarking on the sandy bank in Belo-sur-Tsiribinha, a lunch of fresh fish, zebu steaks and, most importantly, cold beer, was a lovely break.  Two days of warm beer due to the limited electricity at Kirindy had taken their toll.  (We are choosing not to contemplate how the lack of refrigeration affected the meat and dairy products we ate since we haven’t gotten sick... yet.)

We had read that the final 100 km from Belo-sur-Tsiribinha to the village of Bekopaka (home of the tsingy) was the worst stretch of “road,” taking four hours to complete.  However, as we left town we wondered if the guidebook had exaggerated or become out of date in the past two years – the road didn’t seem to be any worse than the prior sandy track.  After 45 minutes, the road suddenly devolved into a heavily rutted dirt path, requiring our driver to slow down to an average pace of less than 20 km/hr for the rest of the drive. 

Just as the afternoon heat was becoming unbearable and we were starting to wonder if we would ever reach Bekopaka, a sign appeared for the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park and we reached the river.  Both the park and our hotel were located on the northern side of another river, the Manambolo, necessitating the day’s second ferry crossing.  This vessel appeared sturdier than our prior river transport, but was somewhat smaller and lacked a motor.  Various teenagers were poling the ferry to and fro, all the while jamming to Malagasy music, which sounds unexpectedly similar to Brazilian samba.  Soon enough, we boarded the ferry along with another Land Cruiser and slowly made our way to the northern bank and our hotel.  Despite the difficulties encountered travelling overland to Bekopaka, our trip was nothing compared to the trek during rainy season, which begins in November. At the height of the rains, the route from Belo-sur-Tsiribinha becomes completely impassable, requiring the locals to walk the entire way.  Needless to say, the tourism industry in the region shuts down at that time of year. 

After the long, hot drive, complete with the requisite “African massage,” it was a welcome treat to arrive at our hotel and relax by the pool.  We aren’t quite sure how hot it is in Bekopaka, but it was certainly hotter than anywhere we’ve ever been on our travels thus far.  We didn’t relax for long, though, because our travel agent scheduled us on an unexpected camping trip, departing early the next morning!  Stay tuned for details…


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