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A trip to Madagascar, 2009

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A trip to Madagascar, 2009, testo e foto by Juza. Pubblicato il 15 Giugno 2011; 1 risposte, 6758 visite.

Baobab Avenue at sunset.

In summer 2009 I decided to visit Cuba with a friend, Emanuele Castronovo. After one month without much planning, we thought about visiting Brazil (Amazon rainforest), but at the end we decided that Nepal would have been better. We planned to begin our trip in September, but in late August we had not decided yet where to go: six days before the planned departure Emanuele asked me "What about Madagascar?" and I said "Yes". This is how one of my most unfortunate, yet interesting, trips begun...

Since we did not know anything about the country and we had very little time, we contacted a local travel agency suggested by a friend (hmmm..) of Emanuele. The agency gave us a car with driver for about 550 €/person, or 1100 total. This is one of the crazy things of Madagascar...you can not rent just a car, you must rent a car with driver. We have been told it is for safety, tourists may not be able to drive the Jeeps on the dirty roads of Madagascar...I really doubt so, considering that the few Madagascan who have a car drive like crazy ;-)

With 1000 € we bought the fly from Italy, and we kept about 500 € for hotels, food and souvenirs. So on September 6 we arrived in Antananarivo, after 26 hours spent in airports and planes. Our first thought about Madagascar was "wow, look how dry it is!" ...we expected forest, abundant vegetation, instead the landscape seen from the plane was dry. We met our driver in the airport and after three hours of car we reached our hotel in Antsirabe.

On the way to Morondava: meeting Gabriele

The second day of our trip reveals us an unpleasing truth: we are going to spend a lot of time in the car...A LOT! Reaching Morondava takes 10 hours. The roads are not much better than the road in the wilderness of Tanzania, and 10 hours in the Jeep are a pain. I was not in my best shape after the 26 hours of transfer from Italy, and now I have headache and sore throat. We arrive in Morondava in late evening and we make a quick trip in the local market...here I realize that Madagascar is truly Africa. Before this trip, I imagined Madagascar as something like a big Costa Rica - a country that is not rich, but not as desperately poor as Tanzania or other African countries. Instead, Madagascar is much more like Tanzania...outside the few large cities, people live in a kind of "middle-age" world - poor houses made of wood and metal sheet, little or no technology, 40 years old cars and poor hygienic conditions. In the market there is a mix of smells, meat and fishes are left on dirty counters, with thousand of flies enjoying the free meal.

After sunset we reach our hotel. It is 15 €/night hotel, so it is way too expensive for locals: there are only other foreign tourists there. Our room is pretty nice, comparable to a 2-stars hotel here in Italy...far from Luxury, but much better than what you may imagine for a 15€ room. Our driver bring us to a restaurant for dinner. And here begins one of the most interesting experiences of our trip: the restaurant is called "La Capannina", and it is clearly an Italian restaurant, so we ask to the waiter if he speaks Italian.. "no, just a bit messieurs" he says, but after a couple of minutes a guy arrives at hour table, asking to have dinner with us. He is Gabriele, the owner of the restaurant, and one of my best memories from this trip. He lives in Madagascar from 1996, when he married a woman from Morondava; they divorced, but he decided to stay in Madagascar and to go on with the restaurant. Gabriele reminds me Yanez, the friend of Sandokan, the two brave pirates of Malaysia in Emilio Salgari's tales. He is a 50 years old guy with short graying hair and with the tan typical of white people who have been here in Madagascar for long time.

Talking with Gabriele-Yanez is like reading old adventure books about Africa and the Indian Ocean...he tell us about the beauty and the difficulties of "his" country. "The last year has been difficult...few tourist and...you see" he says "there is no money. The roads are dirty and cars are too expensive for locals. People live from breeding and agriculture, they have barely the money to support their family...school is mandatory until 14 years, but many children go to work at much younger age." He tells us that "Here a family may have 15, 20 sons...well, actually a man can have three times as much! And many of these children are not even registered to the registry office. When - if - they go to school, sometimes nobody know their age, so in the school registry they may figure as 'born about 1998'...but not all families can afford sending their children to school."

Gabriele goes on talking about Madagascan traditions. "For local people, when someone die, he is not immediately a 'dead'...he is something in the middle between life and death. He is buried, but after three years from his death, his family dig out the bones, and for one day they dance with the corpse. Many persons are invited to this 'celebration', and often they drink a lot and it may even happen that somebody gets seriously hurt while drunk in the collective rave. After the celebration, the bones are broken and they are buried again. Only now the dead has become truly death for them...now he has left forever the world of living persons, and he has become an ancestor". We are a bit perplexed, but he says "You must not think that it is morbid. It isn't. It is part of the local traditions".

Baobab Avenue and Milky Way...

1) Madagascar from the plane... 2) People washing clothes in a river near Tana 3) Driving along the roads of Tana 4) Colors of the houses 5) My friend Emanuele with children 6) View of Morondava 7) Rural landscape 8) Can I have... 9) Our jeep during a pause along the sandy road.

The safety pack: how (not to) visit Tsingy

We leave Morondava in early morning to take some photos of the spectacular Baobab Avenue, a road surrounded by giant baobabs. The view is awesome and the sunrise light is delightful! I take some good photos, and since we are going to be there again two days from now at sunset, I think how beautiful it would be to take a photo of the Baobabs at night, with the Milky Way into background...

After the photos, we go on towards Belo-Tsiribihina...another day spent in the car. Morondava is no so distant from Belo-Tsiribihina, but the roads are bad to say the least and it takes ten hours. This little city is not "on the way" - to go there we have to spend one whole day in the car, and then another day to come back to Morondava and to go on with the trip. The purpose of this very long deviation from the main road is to visit some unusual rock formations called Tsingy, we had never heard about them before, but in these days we still trusted the itinerary organized by the agency (our biggest error).

Along the road we see many fires: our driver tell us that fire is used to burn the vegetation and to make room for breeding. Considering the naturalistic value of Madagascar, it is sad to see infinite portions of the land burning, with black clouds rising to the sky... We stop the car near an immense fire, and me and Emanuele walk for a couple hundred meters towards the fire: the landscape looks like Moon, everything is grey or black, ash is falling like snow, and the burning trees make a loud, scaring noise, as the roar of an huge, evil beast. There are some burnt shells of some large snails that have not been fast enough to escape from fire.

We arrive at sunset in a small village somewhere north of Belo-Tsiribihina. Our hotel is about a dozens of kilometers from the city, away from civilization. The night is awesome...without light pollution, the sky is impressively clear, and we watch with awe the Milky way. We decide to try some night photos, and we walk in the wilderness for ten minutes, until we reach a place that is completely dark. With the 1DsIII and the Sigma 20mm f/1.8, it is a joy to take night photos - a 25" exposure at ISO 3200 reveals every detail of the Milky Way...marvelous. We spend an hour taking photos at the sky, and when we try to come back to our room, we get lost in the bush...we manage to come back on the right track after going back and forth for half an hour! But the results are well worth the effort. I had never seen before the Milky way with such clarity!

They day after we visit Tsingy. It is 9 in the morning and we have one hour drive to reach the place...after twenty minutes, we stop and the guide go to take two packs. "what is this?" we ask, and he replies "safety packs"...we don't understand but we just put them into our backpack. Two hours later, after one our walking in a dry forest infested by mosquitoes, we discover the unpleasing truth: the safety pack contains climbing gear...you don't have just to walk to reach the top of the Tsingy..you have to climb! Overall the climbing/walking lasts five ours, and it is a nightmare. I have tons of photo gear, but I don't take any decent photo, the light suck, the sun is harsh and it is darn hot...what a bright idea, climbing the Tsingy in the central, hottest hours of the day!

When we finally come back to the car, I am so tired I don't even have the strength to get angry. Emanuele is in a slightly better shape than me, but he is very tired as well. An unforgettable experience, no doubts about that ;-)

Delayed flight! One more day with Gabriele and Rasta Man

The day after begins in a somewhat funny way. My travel mate Emanuele has got sick as well (we are two zombie :-)), and while he has not the medicines he needs, I have some Bimixin...but the cap has got stuck and we are not able to open the can in any way, so we decide to break it. We place it on the floor and I crash it with my heavy Manfrotto tripod..it works, but while I watch Emanuele collecting the pills from the dirty floor and eating them, I am somewhat dubious about the result :-)

We arrive in Morondava at night: tomorrow we should have taken an internal flight to Tulear, but we are told that it as been cancelled, I guess due to the lack of passengers. There are not many tourists around... The flight will be one day later, so now we are blocked for one day in Morondava, with nothing to do. Well, at least we have a nice dinner with Gabriele, and he suggest us a pharmacy where we can buy some medicines.

September 11 is a quiet day spent relaxing and resting. We begin to get better, and at night we meet again Gabriele: it will be the most memorable night of the entire trip. Gabriele greets us with a loud "Porc putain..." - he is angry with a waiter because he does not like the music "changez la musique..." This is not unusual - we have seen this scene at every dinner, so for us it has become a "classic", and even during the trip we laughed when thinking about it :-)

There are not many Italian tourists, and we are considered as friends by Gabriele. As usual, he come to have dinner with us, he begin to talk about his country. He has been recently to the ritual sacrifice of a Zebu and he described us the ceremony. "The poor Zebu was bound to four poles with ropes, so he could not escape. While a man kept is head steady, another guy cut his throat" he says "..but you should not think that the Zebu killed for food are killed in a better way. They just cut their throat and let them die...it may take even half an hour...this is why the meat is so hard". We have no difficulties to believe what he says...a couple of days ago Emanuele had eaten a Zebu steak that was hard as wood (and it had the same taste, too..)

After the dinner, Gabriele invites us to go with him at the "Oasis". The Oasis is a bar owned by a friendly guy called "Jean Le Rasta", it is easy to imagine what kind of bar it is... Bob Marley and reggae music are quite popular here, and Jean is a Rasta guy who has created a Rasta style bar...images of Bob Marley are everywhere, people wear t-shirts with the colors of Jamaica and long dreadlocks. Surrounded by people smiling and singing we forget for a moment the difficulties and the bad experiences of previous days...

In many African countries, if you take a photo of someone he will immediately ask you money. In Madagascar, in spite of the poverty, they will greet you with a smile :-)

1) A large cloud of smoke from one of the many fires we saw along the way 2) Little dancers 3) The "love baobab", on the way to Tsingy 4) My dirty Canon 1DsIII 5) The Tsingy formation in the harsh midday light 6) A ray of sun in the morning 7) A little boy working in the fields 8) Emanuele with a child 9) View from the window of the plane.

Friendly People

The majority of cars here in Madagascar looks so old and used that you may wonder how is it possible that they still work. In early morning, we take a taxi to the airport; it is a Peugeot from 70s and the driver push the car along the road for some meters then he jumps in to start the motor... But even the other cars in the road are not in better conditions - some stone age trucks leave behind a thick cloud of black smoke.

The airport of Morondava is very small and informal. There are not safety controls and there is not much technology, the plane timetable is written by hand on a blackboard. We wait a couple of hours and then we fly to Tulear with a small, old plane; the view from the plane is awesome, but the windows are so dirty that it is impossible to take good photos.

From Tulear, we reach Ifaty with two hours of Jeep. The landscape is almost desert. Ifaty is a small village on the sea, here we have a bungalow at few meters from the beach. The bungalow is nice and big; the only problem - very common in Madagascar - is that electric power is available only for a couple of hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., so charging the batteries of the mobile and camera sometimes may be a bit cumbersome. We stay two days in Ifaty; not many photo opportunities other than some good night photos with a bright Milky Way, but overall they are two relaxing days. The beach is nice, even though it is not as spectacular as some beaches I have seen in Malaysia. While walking on the beach, I am often approached by people who try to sell me something - food, shells, souvenirs, trips, "massages" and marijuana...everything is for sale here. I end up buying a dozen of necklaces: for about 2000 Aryary (0.50 Eur) you can buy a simple necklace and you will make one person happy :-)

I spend some time talking with Brigitte, a girl who sells the shells she find on the beach for few thousands Aryary, as many other persons on the beach of Itafy. She is 20 years old and she is pregnant, waiting for her second child. As the majority of persons in Madagascar, she speak some French but she is not too good with English; nevertheless, we manage to talk a bit. As the majority of people in Madagascar, Brigitte is friendly, relaxed...this is a thing that has surprised us - in spite of the poverty, the people of Madagascar does not ask you money for photos, they won't try obsessively to sell you something like it happened in Tanzania, when sometimes we had to close ourselves into the jeep to escape from aggressive vendors.

After Ifaty, we move to the north and we visit the Isalo National Park; a nice place both for landscapes and animals. We take some photos of Lemurs - even though the light is not ideal, we visit the lemur area around midday... If you decide to visit Madagascar for a photo trip, I recommend to insist with your guide to make the trips at sunrise or near sunset, otherwise you may miss the best light. Other than lemurs, we find some large stick insects: they have an impressive camouflaging and they stay still, so they are quite easy to photograph. I take some shots with the 180 Macro and 2x teleconverter, to separate the insect from background.

The next stop is Ambalavao, and here we have another nice experience of the friendliness of Madagascan people. We visit the market and we take hundreds of photos, without anybody harassing us. In spite of the poverty, people don't ask money for photos - actually, they are glad to be photographed and sometimes we are stopped by persons who ask us to be photographed! The market is a joy for the reportage photographer; colors, traditions, everything mix together to create an unique and fascinating atmosphere.

Child in the market of Ambalavao. People is always friendly, Madagascar is a paradise for reportage...

Into the forest for one day

September 16 we visit the forest of Ranomafana. As Gabriele told us, this is the only forest we are going to see, otherwise the majority of forests are in the north of Madagascar... The visit begins in early morning and we have two guides; the majority of parks in Madagascar can not be visited by yourself, a guide is mandatory. Even though usually I prefer to travel by myself, I must say that our guides in Ranomafana park were well prepared, they were expert and they managed to find animals that I'd have never seen by myself. As soon as we begin the visit, we found a marvelous Comet moth (Argema mittrei)...I am speechless, it is huge and colorful, it may be the occasion for a "once in a lifetime" macro but...after few minutes, it fly away! I managed to take just one photo and it is not sharp...bad luck! (well...one reason to come back :-))

Anyway, during the visit to the park we have other good photo opportunities. We find many species of lemurs (even though they are far from easy to photography, they are often hidden by vegetation), some frogs, and a fantastic leaf gecko...the forest of Madagascar offers a lot of photographic opportunities...I wish we had spend many more days in the forest, instead of only one in the entire trip...that's crazy, in particular if you consider that we clearly asked to the agency to visit good places for nature photography...but it is likely that they knew well only the south of the country, so they don't cared about our requests and they sent us on their classic tour in the south of the country, even though this area is not that great for nature photography.

From Ranomafana we reach Ambositra, for the last photographic day or our trip. Ambositra is a little city in the highlands, and it is one of the coldest places of Madagascar due to its altitude of 1500 meters a.s.l. We stay in a modern hotel (nice, but with Lilliputian rooms) and here we meet an Italian couple. They are here from six months and they are studying the local population - she is a researcher, while he was a 3D artist and he left the work to follow her during the long stay in Madagascar. When I think about them, or about Gabriele, I think that you must be really determined to do such a radical choice as living here for months or years...Madagascar is so different from our life in Europe! Poverty, little or no technology, bad food, poor hygienic conditions, no modern medical structures...even though I like Madagascan people, and I think there are good photo opportunities if you visit the right places, I'd never come living here.

We spend the next morning visiting some artisans with our new friends, and in late morning we are on the way back towards Antsirabe. Two days after we are in the airport of the capital: it is time for our flight back to Europe...

1) Ifaty beach 2) Visiting the home of a local artisan 3) The Italian guys we met in Ambositra 4) Artisan at work 5) Children in the market of Ambalavao 6) A girl looking at the market 7) A rasta man in a local market 8) Shop in Ranomafana 9) A photo taken in the Baobab Avenue.

Final considerations

I must say that in some days I thought about this trip as a complete failure...I can't believe we had been in Madagascar for two weeks and we have taken little or no nature photos! Two lessons learnt in the hard way: first, if you don't study the place you are going to visit, the result of the trip is a matter of luck; second, don't trust too much local agencies...in our case, the agency has done what was more comfortable and easy for them, without caring about our requests...

That said, now that I look at the photos and I think back about these days, I am more positive. Yes, not much nature photography, but I have got anyway some good photos - I am very happy for the two night photos with the Milky Way and some other landscapes, and it has been a good occasion to practice with reportage and people. Other than that, in spite of the difficulties, there are been a lot of nice experiences; my friend Emanuele is a great guy and he has been a great travel mate, and I am glad to have meet some truly cool persons as Gabriele...

I have left Madagascar with the thought of coming back here one day...for sure I'll study well the places to visit, I won't thrust an agency and I'll try to focus the next trip on nature photography, but I'll be back...I can't wait to explore the forests of the north! :-)

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inviato il 13 Settembre 2017 ore 11:18

lovely views great shots


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