Saturday, July 29, 2017

Madagascar Reflections

How do we distill two months in the wonderful country of Madagascar into a short summary? We've been asked many times what the highlight was - a difficult question considering the variety of experiences we've had - 2500 km on the bicycles, lemurs in trees and sometimes on our shoulders, camping at unprepared places, out-of-the-way river boats, first-class eco-resorts, swims with sea turtles, ten thousand photos - to summarize that real quickly?

The cycling - can't say enough about how well structured and supported the trip was through TDA Global Cycling ( - not to repeat what's been in previous posts, but the TDA staff were great throughout, and they had a lot to contend with, and the local Malagasy support staff who drove the busses, lugged around our bags, looked after the water and food and set up lunches every day - they were the nicest, most pleasant, hard-working people you could imagine. This was not our first trip with TDA and it won't be our last.

Our travel before and after the cycling was equally well put together through Ortour, a local Madagascar tour operator ( Michel (with a typical Malagasy name that has too many syllables for us westerners to pronounce) provided a guide and a vehicle with driver for two weeks before and one week after the cycling as well as accommodation arrangements, park visits, internal flight bookings, and airport transfers. Ortour also arranged the support for TDA, so they looked after our bikes during the before and after time and brought them to the airport for our departure. Michel had no problem making some changes that we asked for while en route and we had timely prompt communication with him. Our guides and drivers were great - more about them later. Don't mind the plug for Michel and Ortour, but we were very happy -  if we go back to Madagascar, we'll do the arrangements through him.

In the interest of completeness, the other essential arrangement was the airline travel from Vancouver to Madagascar. We tried on our own - Air France has a Vancouver-Paris non-stop that connects with a Paris-Madagascar flight (which is longer that Vancouver-Paris), but all we could find for the trip back involved multiple airlines and rather obscure stop-over points. So we followed TDA's recommendation and went through Jennifer Patterson at Merit Travel in Toronto ( She found a good return - Air France to Paris and Toronto with a good interline connection with WestJet to Vancouver. And she was good in responding to bike issues and getting prepaid vouchers for them for the return flight which made things easier at the airport leaving Antananarivo.

So there's all the plugs for the people and organizations that made it all come together and easy (except for pedalling uphill in the heat). So what was the highlight... of course, the entire country, but out of all the great memories, our guide, Colegue, and driver, Tiana, who met us on our initial arrival  and looked after us for the first two weeks - they are the stand-out difference that between ordinary and extraordinary memories. Simply, Colegue and Tiana looked after us really well during the first two weeks - we almost felt like family by the end.

And we learned from Tiana that his son Deric was going to be one of the Malagasy support staff when we were biking. Everybody on the trip got special treatment from the Malagasies, but we were extra-specially looked after by Deric. When the bike trip stopped for rest days in Antananarivo, we went out for dinner with Tiana and Lea (his wife), Deric, his little sister, and his cousin - photo of the group is earlier in the blog.

When we returned to Antananarivo for our last day in Madagascar, we asked that Tiana be our driver if he was available. Indeed he was, and he and Deric met us at the airport and once again lugged our bags around. The surprise at that time was that Colegue was in Antananarivo at the same time and was able to join Tiana and Deric to meet us:

Tiana and Deric on the left, Collegue on the right

The following evening when it was time to head to the airport, Tiana and Deric picked us up at the hotel, then we picked up the bicycles at Ortour, at the same time seeing Michel and thanking him for the arrangements. Then to the airport where, to our surprise, Tiana's entire family was there to bid us farewell....
...and to give us a memory of Madagascar, this collage made by Deric's sister Harena, showing the kings and queens and precious stones of Madagascar. It now hangs proudly in our den.

Then the farewells, through security, and only thirty-six hours later, we'd be in our own home having been picked up by Jamie at the Vancouver airport.

Madagascar... a wonderful two months... gentle, friendly, hard-working people, but a country that now badly needs tourism as a source of hard currency. It's lemurs, chameleons, and other natural wonders are main attractions, but they are all threatened by deforestation and other loss of habitat... a delicate balance... without outside economic sustenance, the forests are the 'affordable' fuel and building material supply for the rural Malagasy population. Without the forests, the lemurs are doomed and so is tourism. And stable, responsible government and ethical business practices are also needed - some of that is an internal Madagascar issue, but poaching and world trade in endangered species come from the outside.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Time to head home - Canada Day in Madagscar

July 1 - here we are spending Canada's 150th birthday in Antananarivo before catching the Air France flight just after midnight tonight.

After finishing bike riding in Antsiranana, or Diego Suarez as it used to be called, we had three more days in the north of Madagascar, the first spending the morning on our own in Diego to wander some areas we hadn't done before....
Two houses down the road from the provincial governor's residence is the derelict
Marine Hotel, dating back to the early 1900s, once a showpiece building, but seriously
damaged by a cyclone in 1984. Part of the fa├žade on the left is shored up with a makeshift
wooden scaffold. You can walk around inside, but be careful, there are unmarked drops
where once were stairways. Not sure that such a site would pass safety standards in
Canada. Not only is it still standing here, but it is an attraction in its own right and
there is a plaque outside explaining its history.
Right beside the Marine Hotel is the Music Pavilion in a park with fountains
 (no longer functional). Once upon a time this must have been a lovely place
for the people of Diego to enjoy music and look out to the approaches to the
...but sadly it has fallen into disrepair. Its former beauty is still to be seen, but now
there is only a small set of swings under this tree for kids to play on. Otherwise,
garbage is all around.  
But we found a nice mural of a ringtailed lemur beside a square overlooking
the harbour
...then going to the three bays to the east of Diego...
the beautiful colours of the Indian Ocean
This whole area has incredibly strong winds, generally in excess of 60 km/hr,
even quite early in the morning, so these bays are extremely inviting for kite surfing.
We felt quite sand-blasted on one side from our two-hour walk along these bays.
lots of these crabs, size around 4 to 6 inches, scurrying around on the beach.
This is a French gun emplacement from WW2, installed by the Vichy government
to protect the harbour. Diego Suarez' harbour is described as one of the world's
loveliest harbours, second to Rio de Janeiro, well protected naturally. As we
understand it, there was Allied concern that the Vichy government would allow
German or Japanese naval forces to use the harbour. That would have disrupted
British support convoys. Britain and South Africa invaded and occupied
Madagascar to preclude that.
Remains of all four guns are still in place
A bottle tree and bougainvillea along the walk
Rainbow over Diego the following morning
The following day to the red tsinghy to the southeast - the darker tsinghy from a few days ago was limestone that had been eroded by acid rains from volcanic eruptions many many years ago. The red tsinghy are the much softer sandstone and these result from erosion by rainfall now, so they are a living thing in the sense that new tsinghies develop in the cliffs that get eroded away and their colour starts quite yellow but gets whiter due to exposure to sunlight change, and after a few years, rain ultimately erodes them to nothing.
Tortuous 17-km drive from the highway (the one with huge potholes that we
biked on the last riding day) to get to the tsinghy 
On Thursday we were at the Amber Mountain national park southwest of Diego with primary forest and remnants of old volcanoes. And probably our last lemur sighting, certainly in the wild.
From our hotel room, sunrise over Diego and its harbour
primary forest in Amber Mountain park
Lake in old volcano crater - it's green in winter, amber in fall, and clear
during the summer rainy season.
Two of the country's tiniest chameleons and a stick insect
the Amber Mountain Rock Thrush that is endemic to this region
A crowned lemur above our head eating an orange - the last lemur we have
seen on this trip
Yesterday was a flight back to Antananarivo in the morning, so some time to wander around the lake on which is the war memorial, coming back to the hotel by a different route along a the ridge line behind the lake in the first photo. As well as streets, there are a lot of pedestrian stairways - Ursula's fitbit said we climbed 44 storeys in our walk through this area.
The lakeside is popular with the residents, here a number of them playing on
the outdoor fussball tables. Beside this were several boccia games with lots
of people playing and looking on. Sadly, as much as the area is well used, it is
not well maintained, garbage everywhere as well as evidence of zebu and goats
wandering the area
Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960. In some respects, it almost looks like time froze at that point, evidenced by the 60s vintage French cars - Renault 4s and Citroen 2-CVs - that are all over especially as taxis.

this one contributing to the noxious fumes that we had to inhale all
too often when diesel trucks were on the road
As we've said before, non-mechanized transport remains the norm here. We frequently saw large loads on carts being pulled by one or two people in town - here a load of wheelbarrows, but we seen enormous loads of furniture and everything else imagineable.
Time to check out of the hotel and go for lunch - will try to post this in the course of the day. This will be the last post from here, but after we get home, I'll put up one final postscript to this amazing adventure.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The final day into Antsiranana

25 June - We had all received the bicycle jerseys for the trip last night, so before starting today was the group photo with all of us appropriately uniformed.
Just over 100 km today - hot, windy, quite a bit of climbing especially in the morning which in itself probably wouldn't have been all that bad except that on this final day, the road conditions really seriously deteriorated.

Pleasant countryside to ride through, especially after lunch when there was a fairly steady gentle descent... bird worth putting in a photo of...
...and one town that we went through and despite it being a Sunday, had a busy market and streets lined with Madagascar flags, tomorrow being their national day...

We haven't mentioned police checkpoints before - here is the last one we passed before reaching Antsiranana. They didn't all have barriers, but we must have passed six to ten such checkpoints every day. The support crew had advised the checkpoints that a string of cyclists would be passing and with only one exception we were waved through with smiles and 'salamas'. The exception was on day one at a particular checkpoint that the support vehicle could not reach due to road condition.
There was an incentive to getting into Antsiranana in good time since the bikes have to be cleaned, seats and handlebars removed etc to get them packed into the bike boxes so that the truck can leave tonight to head back to Antananarivo and get there soon enough for people catching flights on the night of June 27 - bear in mind that they have 1200 km to drive on roads that at places had unmarked holes - we saw a couple of culverts that were half caved in so half the road had an unmarked two meter deep hole in it - night driving doesn't work up here - oh yes, and we are speaking about the major highway from the capital to the north, the only 'paved' road that comes up here.

Anyway, us slowpokes were pleased that after lunch, we were not at the back of the pack - maybe we'd even NOT be the last ones to arrive at camp. Nice thought, but with just 15 km to go, a flat tire on Ursula's rear wheel delayed us enough that true to normal form, we were the last ones to finish. Finally we got to the last bit of orange flagging tape, tied to a post below the Madagascar colours...
...marking the turn down Antsiranana's main street to the rather fancy hotel...
Then the end-of-trip formalities, the thank yous, slide show, farewells especially to the absolutely wonderful Malagasy support crew who had truly done so much to made the trip easy for us, similarly farewells and thanks to the TDA crew who were also nothing short of superb, encouraging, and supportive throughout. And medals for everbody. Then and a great dinner.
26 June - this morning, a number of us had breakfast together at 0700 - late by the standards of the past six weeks, and indeed the people on the morning flight back to Tana had already departed to the airport. We have four more days here before going back to Tana. Met our new guide this morning and got checked into tonight's hotel (but not before a refreshing swim at last night's hotel).
tonight's hotel - Hotel Colbert - on the main street just 250 metres from where we
were last night. Note that the street is absolutely empty - nobody there.
We then wandered around Antsiranana - the town was totally spooky - looked like it was abandoned - no businesses open, nobody on the streets - NOBODY. Today is Madagascar's national holiday celebrating independence from France in 1960. The main celebration was last night. The lady at the new hotel said that many people probably went to the beach (19 km outside town), but it still seemed unnaturally quiet. By late afternoon, though, people were in the streets. We doubt that most of them were at the beach, most likely recovering from too much partying last night plus we think there had to be some other formal things happening elsewhere than in the old town centre where we are.
Provincial Building for national holiday
 The town has many old building that are in various states of repair - hard to know if this one is derelict, abandoned, or under slow construction.
 Right next door is this one that is in significantly better state...
Returning later towards the main street, Avenue Colbert, is another forlorn looking place, the street surface in disrepair, and the sixties-vintage French car outside...
We walked to the corner at the left of the photo above, behind the Renault, and looked left to this scene up Avenue Colbert...
The fact that the town seemed so deserted probably accentuates the contrasting images, and we've become aware that outside appearances here do not necessarily have the same relationship that we are used to with respect to inside cleanliness and functionality. There was an apartment building near the water that viewed from one side looked like an old abandoned 4-story warehouse. From the other side, there were apartments with freshly painted clean looking balconies right beside other balconies that appeared derelict.

We were out tonight for dinner with some of our fellow riders who are still here. But they all leave tomorrow early, so it will be at breakfast tomorrow that we feel the vacuum that is left at the end of these trips when, after several weeks of such closeness with people, suddenly none of them are here any more; we're on our own; the 'reality' of the past several weeks is changing back to 'normal' life, but not too quickly... although the biking is over, we still have a few days here before returning to Tana for the flights home.