Monday, July 6, 2015

The Road to Kirindy With Baobabs Along the Way.

At the Avenue of the Baobabs.

Today was a really long travel day. Distance wise, we only had to travel about 300 kilometers but the road was so bad that it took a long time to get to our final destination, our lodge inside Kirindy Metea National Park.


George had me up before the sun rose.  We had worked it out with the reception desk, last night, to have breakfast ready for us at 6a.  That meant George was up by 5a.  For him, that's nothing as he's up before that for his regular work day.  For ole retired me, that's just much too early for a wake up call.


At 6a, I walked over to the reception desk.  It was a short walk over but it was really cold outside - I could see my breath in the light of the lamp that was on outside the reception room.

A young man was behind the counter, prepping our breakfast which was nothing more than some bread and jam and coffee for George and tea for me.  We were suppose to have our breakfast in the reception room but the place smelled of something varnish which I could not stand.  So, I asked if we could have breakfast in our room instead.  The young man obliged so I went back to our room to wait for him and our food.


A short while later, there was a knock at the door.  The young man was standing on the other side, tray of food and two thermos containers in hand.  We set up a makeshift table and I tore into some of the bread which was dry and hard as cement.  The tea was okay.  Poor George.  Nothing was to his liking so he just skipped the meal altogether.

At 6:30, Jean Claude and Binu showed up.  Though the sun had risen, it was still cold outside.  Luckily, we'll be in a car so I wasn't worried about not having something warm on.




George and I are traveling extremely light so it only takes a few seconds for us to load our luggage into the back of the SUV.  In no time, we were ready to hit the road.


It was still early morning but people were already out and about, walking along both sides of the road.   Taxi brousses will filling up as well.

Every vehicle is crammed pack with either goods or people or both!

Traffic was light and in no time, we had left city limits behind.  We were back to fields and rice paddies.


Once again, we passed by small village after small village.  The distinctive two story style of the mud brick buildings in this part of the country were now a familiar sight.  Recalling the wood plank structures that passed for homes for the Malagasy who live on the east coast of the country, these buildings were so much more substantial though many still lacked electricity and I presume, running water as well.



Just when you start to drift off into a daydream, you can be assured something will be there to wake you up.  In this case, it was George who had spotted a road sign indicating a rock formation.  So, Binu pulled over and we all got out to look at it.  Okay, I will be the first to admit it.....whatever a rock or cloud formation is suppose to look like, I can never make it out.  This one is suppose to be a sleeping man with his arms crossed over his chest.   His head is on left and feet on the right.  If you can't make it out either, you can blame it on a bad photo.  At least you have something to blame; I had nothing to go on.


So, since I couldn't make out the rock, I turned my attention to some men who were heading to the field.  I waved at them and they waved back at me.  It's so simple to connect with people.



By the time we reached that unusual rock formation, we had long left the fields behind. All around us were mountains and grassland.  It was very arid here - so different from the rainforest on the east coast.



Trying to pass a taxi brousse.

The other thing that was so obvious here was the color of the earth - brilliant terra cotta orange, made even more orange by the light of the morning sun.  Since houses are essentially constructed of mud bricks made from the same dirt, everything blends together here.




At one point, as we were driving across a bridge, Jean Claude pointed out that the people, gathered on the riverbank below, were panning for gold.  We asked him to stop so we could take a closer look.  I was curious; I didn't realize there was gold in Madagascar.

We walked over to the bridge and gazed down below.  Men and women were busy at work, each seemingly doing a different task.  


With the backdrop of the rhythmic sound of thumping wooden poles pounded against rock, Jean Claude explained to us that the villagers go up nearby hillsides and bring rocks down to the river bank.  Here, the rocks are pulverized to dust which is then passed through a sieve.  If there is gold, it will remain in the sieve.  This is really hard work!  I guess it beats working in the field??



As I watched what was going on below, two girls were watching.  I decided to turn my camera on to them.  I showed them the photos I had taken of them.  As expected, that made them erupt into a giggling fit.  Had I stood around longer, I am certain I would have had to take more photos of not only them, but the other curious kids who were making their way towards us.  Unfortunately, we had a roadtrip to continue on so I slid off towards our car.



The boys were definitely curious about George who was too busy taking photos to pay
them any mind.

It was a pretty boring ride, across pretty uninspiring landscape.  It was late morning and I was sitting on the sunny side of the car.  I was feeling warm which made me a bit sleepy.  I had to drop the window down every now and again to keep from nodding off.


Around 11:30, we arrived into another village.   Don't ask me the name of the place.  Binu pulled over and parked the car.  Looking out the window, I could see we were just outside a restaurant.  It was a bit early for lunch but considering that George had not eaten breakfast and I barely had any, we were ready for food.



Inside was a very simple, local restaurant - definitely a place that's more frequented by the people living here than by tourists.  The place was empty.  We sat down at a table.  There was no menu.  Jean Claude exchanged a few words with a young woman and then translated the options for us.  Very simple.  Chicken, guinea fowl, duck, wild duck, zebu, and fish i.e., locally caught tilapia which you could get either fried or steamed.  I opted for the guinea fowl and George got the steamed fish.  As we waited for our food, I made my way outside to take a few photos.


There was a lot of tilapia for sale.  Oddly, they are slashed.  I asked Jean Claude about this and he said it's to make it easier for the buyer to cook.  Okay.



On my way back to our table, a few friendly faces smiled and waved at me.  I decided to check them out.


Behind a counter were several young girls. Of course, they spoke no English and well, I know exactly the same amount of Malagasy.  But that's not hindrance to communication.  With my right index finger, I pointed to my chest and said, "Julee".  I then pointed to each girl and they said their names.  Unfortunately, I only remember Lala's as it was the only *easy* name to remember.  She's the women wearing the pink tank top in the photo below.  At first, there were four girls and in no time, a few more joined in, along with a baby and a young man.  It was quite a group!  Of course, every photo I took, I showed them for the giggles.


As poor as these folks are, there's a genuine happiness to their smiles.  I love that.


Our food soon came.  Malagasy eat a huge, enormous plate of rice with a small bit of meat to accompany it.  The rice here is a broken, short grain variety - a bit starchy and they cook it a bit dry.  To help soften up the rice, there's always a bowl of what they call vegetable soup.  I tasted a bit of it and to me, all it was was a few green leaves of something or other boiled in pot of water - pretty tasteless.  Perhaps it's because we were eating with guys but there were no veggies.  George washed down his meal with a beer and I had a Coke.  Jean Claude and Binu shared a pitcher of rice water - basically a bit of rice boiled in water.  They eat very simply here.


My guinea fowl was a stewed drumstick and a of breast meat.  The meat was tough but the flavor was nice. I was happy just having the gravy over the rice....which there was so much of that I shared it with the guys.  I pretty much gave them the guinea fowl too.


As we were eating. two other tourists arrived.  They were trying to figure out what to order but the language barrier was making it really difficult.  George chimed in and spoke to them in German which they understood.  Perhaps, they would have understood English as well since most Europeans who speak German can also speak English. In any event, George gave them the same run down that Jean Claude had given us.  As George spoke with them, I snapped a photo.  I guess the menu didn't really appeal to them as they left without, ordering anything.  I would have told them to just get the rice and the fried tilapia which is what Jean Claude and Binu had ordered and it actually looked pretty good.


Our road trip continued after lunch.  More of the boring landscape.  Are we there yet?  That question kept popping into my head.  Not a good sign.

Seriously.  Is this view not enough to put you to sleep?

I felt like we had barely left the first village when we arrived into the second one.  We had to *crawl* our way in as the road was packed with vehicles (two legged, four legged, motorized....you name it) and people.  It was market day.  Jean Claude was in need of a torch aka flashlight so we made a quick stop for him to buy one.


I got a bit of a chuckle when I realized that before the car had even come to a standstill, Jean Claude had shouted out to the vendor.  I'm guessing he was asking if the guy sold flashlights....which he obviously did because by the time Jean Claude got out of the car, the man already had a box in hand.  Watch the video to see how it all unfolded.


While Jean Claude checked out the different flashlight options, I looked at the power adapters. If there were any that looked of decent quality, I would have bought - far cheaper to get them here than on Amazon!


Next door to the *whatever household thingy you need, you can buy here" vendor, was a woman selling fritters of some sort.  I was curious so with Jean Claude's help and 200 ariary from George, I got a couple.  They turned out to be batter with scallions and they were pretty tasty nuggets of fried food deliciousness.  I could have eaten a dozen of these instead of the guinea fowl and rice I had for lunch.


I simply adore her smile.  She has a very sweet look about here.

Jean Claude managed to find and buy a flashlight so back on the road we went.  Are we there yet?


It was back to fields of green and rice paddies.  We had left the mountains behind and were driving across a large valley.


I've decided that while they also grow rice on the east coast, it doesn't compare to the volume that's grown in the central part of the country.  We are in Madagascar's rice bowl!

According to Jean Claude, three crops of rice are grown each year.  A crop must have just been recently harvested because we passed by countless villages where huge plastic tarps were laid out with rice, presumably to dry for storage.



Are we there yet?  I was getting antsy.  I think my butt cheeks were getting sore from sitting so long as well.  Just as you think you're about to lapse into a coma, a view comes into sight that revives you.  For me, it was a small grove of baobab trees.  Yes, baobabs!  Rarely have I gotten so excited about seeing trees.  I think the last time this happened to me was when I was a kid and saw my first giant sequoia tree.  I remember we could drive our VW Beetle through the trunk!


We had finally entered baobab territory and as we drove along, they kept popping into view.


From their shape, Jean Claude could tell that the trees were of different varieties.  There are nine species of baobabs.  Unbelievably, six are endemic to Madagascar.  Of the remaining three species, three are native to the African mainland and Arabian peninsula and one to Australia.  After he told us that, I did start paying attention to the shape of the trees and began to notice differences.

Thess baobabs have limbs that branch out similar to a deciduous tree.

These baobabs have a trunk that tapers below the branches.

This species has a trunk that is the same width from bottom to top. 
With the men passing by, you can see just how big the tree is!

Jean Claude had told us we would be stopping at the famed Avenue of the Baobabs.  I was thrilled at that thought.  Of course, as we drove past one stand of baobabs after another, I kept wondering when we would finally get to the Avenue of the Baobabs.   Soon, we arrived at a spot where a few other cars were parked and a few souvenir vendors had set up their stands alongside the road.  I knew we had arrived.  I eagerly got out of the car. Before me was the Avenue of the Baobabs.  I recognized it from the countless photographs I had seen of the place when I was doing my trip planning.


Jean Claude gave us time to wander about and take photos.  I wasted no time snapping away!

These huge trees are absolutely magnificent!  Incredibly, they are up to 800 years in age!


The grove of trees is not located in any sort of specially designated area e.g. a preserve so village life goes on around them.



Two young boys and their zebu drawn cart passed me by.



Adjacent to the trees was a large pond filled with blooming lilies.  I noticed a man, waist deep in the water, picking something or other and kids playing nearby.  I had to capture that image.



Ducks were happily going about their business as well.




George and I had gone our separate ways once we got out of the car but eventually we met back up with each other.  He was in his element photographing the trees.



Of course, I had George pose for the obligatory photo.  I took several and my favorite one opens this blog post.  He also captured one of me.


My meeting up with George was a fleeting moment.  We once again parted ways and the next time I saw him, we were both walking back to the car.  He had just purchased two small carvings of a baobab tree - his first Madagascar souvenirs!

Back in the car, we drove along the Avenue and at the end of it, made a quick stop at a roadside stand.  There, a young woman was standing behind a pile of large grapefruit sized, brown, fuzz covered balls.  They were the fruit of the baobab.  I was curious to try one out so we bought one.  The shell is hard, like a coconut shell.

To open the fruit, Jean Claude borrowed a baobab carving from the woman and used it to tap around the shell....similar to what you do to crack open a coconut shell.


Eventually the shell cracked in half.  Inside were dry seeds covered with very cottony, dry flesh.  I bit into one and it tasted like nothing much because it was so dry.  According to Jean Claude, Malagasy mix the flesh with water to make juice. That would definitely make it more palatable.  As you can imagine, one taste was enough for us.  We gave the rest of the fruit back to the woman.


One bite was enough for George as well.   He's looking very professorial in this picture.

My display model :-)

Speaking of the woman who was selling the baobab fruit, it was hard not to notice that she was wearing some sort of a facial mask.  According to Jean Claude, the mask is typically worn by Malagasy women who make it out of some sort of tree matter that is mixed with water.  Women apply the mixture to their face as it's suppose to keep the skin healthy and to ward off mosquitoes.  Interesting.


Before we drove off, I took one last photo of the trees.  Lucky for us, we'll be back tomorrow to watch the sunset over these amazing trees!  Can't wait!


As our journey continued, we kept seeing baobabs.  We were definitely in the heart of baobab country and I did not tire of seeing them.  I know that once I leave this country, I won't ever see anything like this ever again....unless I am fortunate to be able to come back.  (Fingers crossed.)



Our final stop of the day was to take a quick look at a tree that villagers have designated as being a sacred tree.  



I don't know anything else about it because while Jean Claude was explaining things to George, I was busy taking photos of a group of rambunctious Malagasy munchkins.  By the time I was done with the kids, the guys were already back at the car.  One day, George can tell me about it....presuming he remembers.


Before I got back into the car, I noticed some fluffy things stuck on the ends of a few of the limbs of a baobab tree.  I asked Jean Claude about them and he said they were the flowers. 


I had my display model hold up one of the flowers so I could take a photo.


By now, it was late afternoon and we still had at least another hour to go before we would reach our lodge.  It was a really bumpy ride all the way as the dirt road was dotted with large ruts....the kind that can cause serious damage the underside of the car if you're not a careful driver.


We eventually pulled into the parking lot of the lodge. We made it and not a minute too soon!  I was ready to call it a day.

Welcome to Kirindy Lodge!

Jean Claude got us checked in and we followed one of the lodge's workers to our bungalow, situated in the forest.  It was very rustic accommodations.


Our bungalow....Number 3.

Our room was VERY basic but clean.  Two wooden cots, each with a mosquito net.  Very basic bathroom with  (leaky) sink, toilet and open shower.


There were enough electrical outlets though I was certain we would not have power through the night so as soon as we had settled in, we plugged in our devices to charge.

I stepped outside for a few minutes and one of the hotel workers came running by to say there were a couple of fossas on the grounds.  I relayed the information to George before rushing over to take a look at them.

Steps away from the parking lot appeared to be the lodge's garbage dump.  Two fossa were crouched near the pit.  We approached with caution as these are predators and will attack if they feel provoked.  Size wise, they're not all that big - guessing may about 20 lbs?   I took a few photos and then left.





Back in our room, we settled in for the night. We had ordered our dinner and went over to the restaurant at 7p to eat.   There were a handful of other tourists and the lodge was expecting to arrive - the place was fully booked for the night.  When we paid our bill, we also ordered our breakfast.  It would be another early wake up call.

After dinner, we met up with our local guide for a short night walk through the forest.  Since George hadn't gone on the night walk with me in Andasibe, I'm glad he decided to come on this one.  We set out with our flashlights in hand.  Although I had brought along my small Olympus point and shoot camera with me,  I actually didn't even bother trying to take photos so nothing to post up.  Thanks to our experienced guide, we spotted a few lemurs....read that as seeing some pairs of glowing eyes peering back at us.  Those eyes belonged to mouse lemurs, one of the nocturnal species that call Kirindy home.  We weren't out in the woods for long.  When we got back to the lodge, our guide spotted an owl which everyone huddled under the tree to see.  Before we headed back to our bungalow, we ordered our breakfast.

Back in the room, for George, it was a short, brisk cold shower and then into bed.  I had helped George pull down his mosquito net over the bed and before I knew it, he was tucked under the net, tucked beneath a thick wool blanket.  It was a cool night and he had closed the window next to his bed.

A colorful day gecko greeted me as I entered the bathroom!

For me, I did not relish the thought of a cold shower on a cold night so I opted to stay dry.  After all, I had done nothing all day but sit in a car so how dirty could I be?  I drew the mosquito net over my bed as well but left my window open. I love sleeping in the cold and I am looking forward to a good night's sleep. 

I'm glad we finally made it to the west coast.  Reflecting back, I realized we had been on the road for two days!   Tomorrow, we will be doing another nature walk - I hope we see more lemurs!

Goodnight from Kirindy!