Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Last Days in Madagascar: Isalo

The morning of our last full day of adventure in Madagascar dawned clear and sunny. We were very ready to savor what we could already tell was going to be a beautiful day.

As usual, our driver/guide Dorique retained a local guide for us, named Peter, who was great at spying out all sorts of things in what seemed like a barren landscape.
As we hiked into the park, he pointed out a spot high up on a cliffside, where stones had been stacked. He told us it was a temporary grave for a local family groups, who would place the remains of their dead there for a period of time until they were able to save up enough money to hold a funeral for the deceased loved one, which would be an enormous party that everyone would be invited to.  When they were ready, they would retrieve the remaining bones from the temporary burial ground and deposit them in the permanent resting place for their family group. He said because there were several local areas like this in Isalo National Park, it was important for us to be respectful in their presence, and to never point our index finger, which is considered taboo.  Instead you can either point your knuckle, or gesture with your whole hand. It was surprisingly difficult to remember at first, since the landscape was so compelling and we had questions about many things, but eventually we got better at it.
This is a corner of an old—now unused—coffin that had once been used as a temporary repository for a body before the bones were moved to the family tomb.  Malagasy coins are used as a decorative and good luck charm in the construction.  The smallest paper denomination is 1000 Ariary, worth about a dollar, and coins are not used in practical transactions, but are mostly collected for uses like this.
The bark of some trees was a thick, cork-like insulator, which protects the trunk from wildfires in the plains grasses.
We had been told that we would visit four waterfalls throughout the day, but the first one was a stunner. Partly because of the heat of the day, the cool clear water shaded by palm trees seemed like an oasis.  Lana realized that from now on, when someone asked her to think of her “happy place” that this would be it.
As far as Lana was concerned, we could have ended the day right there if someone had thought to bring along a cooler of cold beer. We didn’t want to leave, but we had several more waterfall pools to see, as well the hope of seeing the Verreaux’s sifaka, which was supposed to call this area home.
So we walked on, using a knuckle here and there to point out something interesting. Despite the fact that Peter told us exactly where to look to find the walking stick bug on the plant below, he eventually had to point it out to us (with his knuckle, of course).
It’s dead center in this picture, if you can’t pick it out.  We also saw some other spectacular bugs, like the grasshopper below.
And this cute little scorpion, which Peter unearthed from under a rock. So cute, but so painful. Not that we found out. We admired it from afar.
And of course, some spiders (or at least their webs).  Dragonflies are so erratic in flight and so rarely stop to rest that it’s nearly impossible to photograph them.  But David managed this stunner at one of the waterfall pools.
We saw a lot of interesting birds in Madagascar, but this was one of the best days we had photographing them.
And finally, after missing the Verreaux’s Sifaka when we got stuck in the mud in Bekopaka, we got a second chance to see them in Isalo. They can be cagey, and initially we saw one of them from far away, leaping through the trees. We thought that might end up being our only glimpse, but as we headed on to our last of the waterfall pools we walked right past a pair of them. David was bringing up the rear, and pointed them out to Lana and Peter by saying, “There’s one” (his index finger was already depressing the camera shutter release), so he didn’t point at all, rudely or not).
We watched them for a while, creeping so close that at one point one of them jumped across Lana to get from one tree to another. It was one of the most compelling experiences of our time in Madagascar, just sitting on a rock, hanging out with the sifakas.
Even though it was a drag, eventually we had to leave to go see this beautiful waterfall pool.
On the way back we saw a few ringtail lemurs marking their territory near a picnic grounds.  Lemur yoga, of a sort--downward facing lemur.
Rest assured, this guy was as happy to see us as we were to see him, but he managed to contain himself.
And this little red-bellied lemur, well. He is the last lemur we saw in Madagascar. And we love this photo, because it embodies the sweet goofiness of one of the lemur’s expressions.
On our way back to Isalo Ranch Lana promised herself a nice cold beer. She’s good at promises.
It felt like a very fitting end to our amazing three weeks in Madagascar.  We’d seen chameleons, lemurs—everything we’d come to see, and so much more that we never dreamed of.  There may be many things from our year that we forget, but that day of hiking in Isalo won’t be among them. We came to the end of our journey in Madagascar feeling so fortunate and grateful for the strange and charming things it showed us—from tiny chameleons so small that you can hardly focus a camera on them, to crystal clear waterfalls just perfect for cooling off.  From lemurs licking the salt off your cheek, to the shy smiles on the children’s faces when we waved hello at them.

Madagascar is beautiful, but it isn’t paradise.  While we were at Isalo we saw some of the locusts that arrived as a result of a cyclone that hit the Mozambique channel just before we arrived.  The shortage of clean water, good roads, and access to education means that a majority of the people in the country spend more time obtaining water than learning how to read. And sadly, there’s been a recent outbreak of the bubonic plague there as well.  Since returning home we’ve talked about the places we went that need the most help, whether as foreign aid money or volunteers to get things done, and Madagascar and Cambodia are the two that seemed the most desperate for help. If you’re interested in donating to Madagascar relief efforts, there aren’t a ton of resources that I’ve been able to verify are legitimate. But, you can go to the United Nations World Food Program, which is helping to get food to those who need it most.

We went to bed early and slept pretty soundly after our long hot day of hiking, but we had to wake up at 4:30 for what would be a very long travel day. It involved a several hour drive down to the nearest airport in Tulear, where we flew back to Tana, grabbed our bags, and re-checked them through to Cairo. Our flight path took us first to Johannesburg, however, and we wouldn’t arrive in Cairo until 5:45 am the next day. Despite the fact that we were leaving one of the most special places we’d experienced on our trip thus far, we couldn’t wait to see all those amazing wonders of the ancient world, and to meet our traveling companions for the next part of our trip through Egypt and Jordan with G Adventures.