Maki Magic

Trip Start Nov 01, 2012
Trip End Jul 31, 2013

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Where I stayed
La Varangue Betsileo Ambalavao
Read my review - 4/5 stars
What I did
Anja National Park

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

We were a little bit worried about our Taxi Brousse turning up and leaving on time as Ben and Jane had been abandoned the day before by theirs. It hadn't stopped to pick them up even though they’d confirmed their status only hours before it was due. Ours was allegedly coming from Ilakaka, some 30km down the road, so we had fingers crossed the same thing wouldn’t happen to us.

Wonders will never cease. As we entered the village at 7.15am the tout was there to meet us and the van was there. Not only that, we had our promised seats next to the driver. We even left the curb at exactly 7.30am despite the fact that the van wasn’t full. Anyone who’s ever travelled in public transport in a developing country will know already how that turned out!!! Of course we spent the next 40minutes driving around town trying to fill the vacant seats. At around 8.15am, the driver gave up and finally headed in the right direction. We were about 80% there and I guess he figured that was as good as it got.

An hour down the road we stopped in front of a large family group with a mountain of luggage including about 12 massive grain sacks. Here was the bonanza the driver had been waiting for. It took at least 30 minutes to load the stuff onto the roof, the guys straining under the load of at least 40kgs each, maybe more. Bear in mind that the roof was already stacked high before they started so by the time they finished the centre of gravity was way above the roof of the car. The remaining seats were finally full and then some.

Thankfully the driver wasn’t from the Kamikaze family and slowed our pace down to something sensible. The roads were pretty shabby and it wouldn’t have taken much to tip us over or blow a tyre. He probably didn’t fancy trying to jack up the van with the amount of weight he had on.

When we arrived in Ihosy, about half way, we then spent another hour unloading the grain at a couple of depots. Just as we thought it was time to head off again, my passenger door was hefted open and we were told to change vehicles. Hmmm that wasn’t in the original agreement! Two separate vehicles appeared to be in a struggle over having us onboard. Tim’s pack went on one roof and mine on the other. I very sternly told them to put them both on one, made it very clear that we wouldn’t be paying any more money and ascertained we still had the front seats before jumping on board. As the "winner" gave the “loser” a heap of stick, we then realised we were the only bloody passengers in that van!!! Bugger, another 2 hours and numerous laps around town before we finally headed in the right direction....exactly 20m before pulling into the petrol station. Fuel in we managed another 50m before we stopped for the driver to run around town for change. Then another 100m for a 10 minute stop for...your guess is as good as mine!

Finally it seemed we were on our way as we exited the outskirts of town. The driver then proceeded to break the land speed record all the way till 50km before our destination. That is a very exciting experience when you’re sitting in the front seat and I had both my teeth and my fists clenched (not to mention my bum cheeks!!) and I would have had my eyes closed most of the way except that the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. The stop, just 50km before Ambalavao was for lunch again (see the previous journey). I know the driver has to eat but it seemed to me that the stops were strategically planned to get up the noses of passengers. Surely they could have eaten in Ambalavao about 40 minutes down the road.

Finally in Ambavalao, we peeled ourselves out of the van at the station, popped on our packs to find our way to the Betsileo Hotel. Despite asking several people directions, we still managed to walk 30 minutes the wrong way. It was only when we found a young lass that spoke English did we turn around and head back into town. There we were tracked down by a guide who pointed us right but didn’t stick around as soon as he found out we weren’t heading to Andrigitra National Park. My ankle just wasn’t going to handle it and the hour and a bit we’d spent walking around before finding our accommodation didn’t help one bit.

We settled into our room just as the sky turned dark and the heavens opened. Nice timing on our part as the rain turned into walnut sized hail. It was the first rain we’d seen since we’d landed in Madagascar and we sincerely hoped it to be the last. By the time the sun set the air was decidedly chilly. We threw on another couple of layers and went downstairs for a pre dinner drink. Despite the fact we were the only tourists at the hotel they still opened the restaurant and dished up a very nice zebu dinner.

We had a bit of a sleep in, wandered down for breakfast and then headed to the Taxi Brousse Station. It was 1000 MAD (50c) to get back out to Anja, a community run private reserve with lots of Ring Tailed Lemurs. The first van available was already packed to the rafters and still loading so we were quickly redirected to another van. A young lad guided us into the front seats and it was “only” an hour before we were full and the van set off. First stop, of course, was the petrol station at the other end of town before we returned to the station to stack in another 10 people. We were starting to wonder if the Malagasy people could be the World Champions at Twister.

On the way out of town we stopped to pick up various bits of cargo including 2 crates of beer, several large sacks of grain and two flagons of rum. Seemingly sorted we travelled 100m further and stopped to put air in the tyres. I’m sure there is some logic in not doing all this before passengers are on board but once again, for the life of me, I cannot fathom it out!! Once we left town, it was a mere 15 minutes before we were at the park entrance. To think, it had taken us a total of 2 and a half hours since we left the hotel.

Being a community run reserve, I guess it’s up to them what they charge and thankfully it was cheaper than the Madagascar National Park charges. It was only 10000 MAD each plus 36000 MAD for the guide for a 3 hour hike (this, incidentally, turned out to be the same guy who’d given us the front seats in the Taxi-B) plus an animal spotter. Both turned out to be great guys and we had a ball.

The park was amazing. There were Maki everywhere. A total of 400 live in about 37 hectares so you can’t help but have a close encounter. We spent at least 30 minutes at the start of the hike before they apparently went off for a siesta. During the hike the guys found us several chameleons, including a female (bright green one), a snake, a big Madagascan skink, loads of birds, butterflies and the cutest teeny, tiny frogs. There was a little bit of rock hopping required to scramble up to a viewpoint amongst huge granite monoliths (The Three Sisters) for a breathtaking view across the rice paddies but nothing too strenuous. The colours of the rocks, contrasted against the green of the fields was almost too beautiful to capture in a picture and we sat and soaked it all in for over 30 minutes. It was then a scramble down to see even more Maki jumping around in the trees.

We spent a truly remarkable 3 hours and this place was my favourite park so far. Anja is community run as opposed to MNP. It’s well organised, has excellent guides and is very reasonably priced. There are bungalows on-site if you want to stay overnight but it’s so close to Ambalavao that it makes an easy day tip.

We hailed a taxi b heading back into town (the same one that took us out there - on its way back) and jumped off a bit early to do a bit of exploration. Ambalavao itself is a ramshackle place with the main street lined with typical Madagascan houses. The people are extremely laid back and the Taxi Brousse station was definitely the most pleasant in all of our experiences in Madagascar (and I’m writing that in hindsight). A lot of people we met skip it but I’d encourage everyone to make it a stop if they have the time.
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