Dancing with Stone Tsingys and Romanced by Baobabs
Our first half of the Madagascar journey by Riverboat Cruise on the Mania River was at its end. As a sendoff, we enjoyed one last lunch and some spirited farewell songs on board before our Trekkup group disembarked. We found ourselves in the small town of Belo Tsiribihina on the River – a crossroads for locals, tourists, scientists, and explorers of all types. From this locale, vehicles ferry across the River to other such towns to deliver supplies – and tourists.
Here, in this town, we ordered our lunch for the return trip two days later so they could accommodate our group more efficiently when we came back to the river crossing again. Then we were off in 4x4s on a dusty, and eventually, very muddy and rainy afternoon drive toward the Village de Bekopaka and our hotel (and shower) for the night. The drive was about three hours, but made a bit longer when we started slipping along a bit slower in the rainy conditions. We waited for vehicles to be loosened from the mud or for people to pop out of the cars and find a place to "squat" in the bushes.
To pass the time and celebrate the official announcement of Eid al Fitr (the Islamic holiday we were using as an excuse to travel), the two other travelers in my vehicle and I took mini shots of Madagascar Rum from the bottle cap. We celebrated with our driver when we reached our destination as well. I'm not sure why this memory is so poignant in my mind: Perhaps it was something we did that made the tedious drive something to savor rather than to wish was over – or perhaps, in that moment, I felt most alive and present in time – or perhaps it was the simple act of sharing between the four of us from as many different backgrounds (North America, Madagascar, Morocco, and Brasil) sharing our past travel stories, the rainstorm, the music, the holiday, and the rum.
Late in the evening, our 4x4s made a river crossing by ferry and we pulled up to the quaint and comfortable, l’Hôtel Orchidée du Bemaraha where we would stay for two nights. After cleaning up and eating dinner, it wasn't hard to fall asleep in a proper bed that night – except the pounding rain on the tin roof kept my heart above resting rate most of the night. Sleep-deprived wasn't the ideal way to start our next morning of hiking, but having known nothing of Madagascar's Tsingys before signing up for the trip, I looked forward to the next stop on the itinerary.
I found myself quite surprised and thrilled with our experience at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. Although gloves were on our packing list for the jagged rocks we would encounter, I don't think anyone in our group realized quite how rigorous our "walk in the Park" would be in, around, through, up, and down the limestone "forest" pinnacles. It was incredible, and challenging, and we were certainly rewarded with our views from the top of them all!
If only we knew the trip down was equally (or more challenging). We pushed through the obstacle course of a trail. During the entire day, the eight-year-old version of me was in rock scrambling heaven.
Another night at the same hotel lent us a small break in our driving time. The next morning, we were back in our vehicles to head across the river to meet some furry famous fellows and towering trees.
The variety of lemurs in Madagascar stands at more than 100 and growing as new breeds continue to develop and adapt to life in the forests of the country. We took two excursions walking through the Kirindy Mitea National Park - one at night and one during the day. This allowed us to discover nocturnal lemurs (and some other creepy crawly things) as well as see the day-dwelling varieties bouncing through the trees and licking the dew from the branches for hydration.
Our last afternoon and evening in Madagascar was spent admiring nature in the baobab trees and setting our eyes on sunset amidst the Avenue of the Baobabs. For me, this scene represented the country of Madagascar before I visited and enticed me to sign up for this week long adventure. Somehow, being present with these baobabs, some believed to be more than 1,000 years old, made me feel like I had arrived – and was firmly a part of an iconic travel experience that I had admired for so long.
Ancient, regal, and the iconic symbol of Madagascar, the baobab trees have glowed in the sunlight against the cerulean blue sky for ages – across the island-country's vast landscape in the Southern Hemisphere. Now protected, we still tried the juice made from baobab's fruit and enjoyed their lofty presence through our camera lenses.
"Bolstered on all sides by the resolute towers of baobabs and covered by veils of stars that somehow reach endlessly into the dark universe, yet still seem to bend delicately to kiss the treetops, and dance wildly in our eyes - we paused. With our necks arched backward and eyes so bright with wonder, we didn't even have to look at one another to sense the joy in each other's brilliant smiles as we drank in the galaxy. Devoid of everything but natural starlight, the Madagascar moment transcended time and remains just as meaningful and steadfast in my eyes as the roots of those thousand-year-old trees.
There is no need for a camera to preserve this memory of the mind. Curious lemurs, colorful chameleons, and the oddity of Tsingy stone forests aside, it was the stars and the baobabs that romanced me in Madagascar and reignited my wanderlust."
It was fitting that we spent our last evening in Madagascar was watching sunset over the baobabs – soaking in every drop of the sun's rays until it became dark and then celebrating our new friendships over dinner to sign off on the end to our adventure. We ate delicious crab, prawns the size of lobsters, and lobsters the size of small cats. And we laughed and enjoyed another evening walk back under the clear Malagasy star-filled skies.
On our last day, we used a spot of time between our domestic flight back to Antananarivo and our departure home to visit the La Digue market on the outskirts of the capital city. I was a poor negotiator, but managed a few t-shirts for my nephews and some vanilla beans. This quaint market was so well organized along the dirt roadway - with vibrant colors on an otherwise cloudy day, it begged for a few photos to be taken.
Our trip to Madagascar was made more beautiful by the people who we met along our way. From kids waving on the Mania River bank, to the hospitality in villages and at restaurants, to our amazing guides, drivers, and riverboat crew, we felt welcome by the Malagasy people to their African island country and invited to explore the geography, animals, and plants along our journey. And it wouldn't have been the same without anyone in our group. I'm glad to have made some new friends in the UAE as well.
From obscure and curious to welcoming and lovely, the country does not lack for interesting geography, flora, and fauna. I loved Madagascar: The sights, the culture, the raw beauty in nature, and peculiar critters we encountered. Our guides were brilliant, and our Dubai-based group was an incredible consortium of seasoned travellers who all came to Madagascar in a similar way – to open our minds and hearts to whatever experiences we would encounter:
Madagascar Vanilla Rum bottle cap shots along a dusty muddy road.
Rinsing off in a hidden waterfall.
Just being an observer of the world from a riverboat and laughing with (maybe at) each other.
Chasing down lemurs through the forest.
Ferrying across rivers in 4x4s on wooden rafts.
Chameleon-spotting in foliage as green as their scaly skin can manage to match.
Standing, simply astonished at the power of a tree.
Connecting with strangers who, in nine days (nearly uninterrupted by social media) became friends.
Believing that we have a Creator who cleverly integrates biology, geography, geology, astronomy, sociology, and other - ologies into one masterful Earth ecosystem and seemingly infinite universe that never stops revealing its treasures to the human senses. This, and all of the above, is worth protecting, if not for humanity's health and wellbeing, then for the pure art of it all.
This is travel at its most beautiful. Just Go!
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