Lunch at Dunes d’Ifaty in Mangily. We hadn’t planned on spending the night here but we’re glad we did. My Niçoise salad was great and after this first course Mark had lobster!

As we move down into the deep south of Madagascar we are reminded that this is the seventh-poorest country on earth; the poverty now really smacks you in the face. The huts, the fields, the clothes – all just substantially more obviously barely scraping by.

The fields, the housing, the people were all notably poorer here than further north

The last place we particularly wanted to go in the south was Islao National Park. From there we wanted to go to the west-central part of the country for a little beach time and another national park. Given the condition of Madagascar’s roads, though, you can’t just turn north and drive; you have to fly back to Antananarivo (or drive back, but that wasn’t very appealing) and then fly out the next day. So the plan was to spend four nights at Islao and the next drive four hours to Toliara for a flight back to the capital; as the flight wasn’t scheduled until after 3:00 PM that would work just fine.

That is, until our guide explained that while the schedule said a 3:00 PM departure, in fact they would contact us the night before to tell us the real time and that it was likely to be early in the morning. So we cut short our Islao stay by one night and drove out to Toliara for the night.

A pretty nice beach here in Mangily. For what it’s worth technically that’s the Mozambique Channel, with Mozambique maybe 250 miles out.

In the scheme of things all that worked out great. We ended up – at our guide’s suggestion – at a simple, beautiful seaside place maybe 45 minutes up the coast from Toliara. We had a pleasant little villa with a nice porch facing the ocean and a couple of great meals. Mark had a lobster lunch and I had a couple hours reading on the beach so we were both pretty happy. And then we got the call that indeed, the flight was going to leave at 8:00 AM, not 3:00 PM. That seems a strange way to run an airline but it worked for us.

So the next morning we had to get up at 5:00 AM for the drive back to Toliara; they want you at the airport plenty early. The airport meant farewell to Bio, our driver; he was taking two days to drive back to the capital. This was the first time we’d hired a driver for an extended tour like this and it worked really well. Bio was just about perfect: he drove well, chatted some but not too much, and stopped to show us places that were genuinely interesting. Can’t ask for more than that.

One thing about driving in Madagascar that I really liked; the dog that didn’t bark. It took me a few days to realize that unlike many lower-income countries where we’ve traveled the locals here aren’t addicted to their horns. We’ve been places – Cambodia in particular comes to mind – where the blaring of horns is just overwhelming. Here, not so much at all. The roads are shared with zebu and pedestrians and rickshaws and all sorts of animal-pulled vehicles so there’s no shortage of encounters at varying speeds. When someone needed to alert others, though, it was a gentle little tap on the horn, not a screeching noise. Made for a pleasant multi-day drive.

A not uncommon site on Madagascar’s roads

As for the commute to Antananarivo, this was a little domestic flight so security was modest: a guard looked inside my carry-on bag and just waived me through, no scanning or anything else. Eventually that non-stop flight we’d booked took off … and stopped. At a city well out of the way of our route to Antananarivo. When we finally got to the capital we couldn’t believe how long it took to get our luggage. And then how l-o-n-g it took to drive to our hotel; the traffic in Antananarivo – that day at least – was pretty horrible.

The view of Antananarivo from our balcony

This, too, was just a one-night stop but we enjoyed it. We stayed at a little place way up the hill near the Queen’s Palace that we’d toured on our first stop in the city so we had an amazing view of the city. While out searching for an ATM – lots of places in Madagascar don’t take credit cards and the ATMs only disperse about $125 at a time (in $3 bills), so searching out ATMs is a constant here – I even chanced by an Italian restaurant that we went to for dinner that was a treat; it was good on its own terms but particularly good for a change of pace.

From here we fly out west for a week – a little beach time and then out to Tsingy National Park.

Bio stopped to show us how the locals bathe, do their laundry, and just play around as we drove south

Sunset from our villa

Another view of that sunset

A little shop in Antananarivo

Colorful doors there, too

Lunch in Antananarivo overlooking the city

Looking out our window at the hotel’s lush gardens. I’m pretty sure this was the view out the bathroom window!

There’s Jim on the edge of the canyon

Our primary destination in Southern Madagascar was Isalo National Park. We finally reached here after a week, including four good days of driving from Antananarivo. Here we witnessed what one comes to Madagascar for — beautiful scenery peppered with exotic flora and fauna that you just won’t see anywhere else in the world.

In the week we’ve been traveling South in Madagascar, we’ve passed through innumerable villages bursting with activity

On the right is Bio, our driver this past week. We don’t usually hire a driver over an extended period, but this worked out really well. Bio is a very good driver, is super pleasant and accommodating, and gave us a lot of confidence that nothing too crazy would happen as we explored these really remote areas. As we passed through the town of Ihosy he unexpectedly announced that his dad was passing through as well, so we stopped briefly to say hello!

Our lodge near Isalo was a lovely spot with dramatic boulders and horses at pasture

The landscape took a very different turn as we approached Isalo and reached a broad, warm plateau of scrub

We began our hike in the area where the plateau met the upper edges of deserty-looking canyons

Here is one of the unique — and poisonous — plants growing in the park here.

Speaking of poison, this sinister little fellow is a scorpion, and that white tip on the far right is the poisonous part

This is a closeup of some kind of indigenous caterpillar getting ready to build a cocoon and become a beautiful moth

I bet you can’t even distinguish the weird, long, stick-shaped insect hiding out in the center of this pic. Don’t know how our guide ever spotted him.

On the first day of hiking in Isalo National Park we found this stunning little oasis

Jim decides that water is just too tempting

Jim takes the plunge. I jumped in as well but only lasted about 60 seconds in this frigid water. But the northern Minnesotan stayed in plenty long enough for a good pic.

A native species of aloe with bright orange flowers

More weird insects

And surely you didn’t think we’d get through a hiking day without a lemur? Here we came across a new variety we haven’t seen. He might have been called a white lemur, but I wouldn’t swear by it.

Our first day of hiking was a long one, including a “picnic” lunch in the forest. We were not quite expecting the lavish spread they put on for us in a little clearing, with lemurs watching from all sides. This is just the salad we started with, and it had the most amazing dressing.Jim was very proud that little bottle of wine he’d snagged on the flight to Madagascar. It somehow felt appropriate to have wine on the hike in this former French colony.

And then they somehow whipped up these amazing zebu brochettes and a heaping plate of sautéed veggies

At lunch we were surrounded by ring-tailed lemurs, mostly chasing each other and running around in the trees. This guy checked us out pretty closely.

Here we are on the second hiking day, exploring the Canyon des Makis. At the bottom of narrow walls, 1,000 feet deep, is a little green paradise of rocks, flowing water, and lush exotic greenery.

Looking up through the deep canyon walls

There’s me making my way through the Canyon des Makis, followed by our guide

On the way out of the park we came across a very serious rum making operation

A ring-tailed lemur near Ambalavao. Cute, huh?

As we work our way south through Madagascar we spent two nights in Ranomafana National Park and then a quick one-night stop in Ambalavao. Ranomafana is a 160 square mile tropical rainforest, established as a national park in 1991 and as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. Due to Madagascar’s geographic isolation over tens of millions of years, the plants and animals here evolved independent of others and there are large numbers of species of both that are native here and nowhere else. And while I’m sure unique frogs and insects and birds and trees are interesting and important, it’s really all about seeing the lemurs.

Of course my first question was “Just what the heck is a lemur?” Not surprisingly I learned a fair bit about them here. First, they’re primates, related to monkeys and apes and humans, but primates that evolved completely separately from the rest of us over those millions of years of Madagascarian (I just made that word up; spell check doesn’t like it) isolation. The result is that they’re more cuddly and furry than most other primates, with big long tails that you just want to tug on. Today there are over 100 species identified on the island, most of them recognized only since the 1990s when research really picked up. Because of various pressures on their habitat, though, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers lemurs the most endangered of all mammals, with 90 percent of the species facing extinction within 20 years or so.

The rare golden bamboo lemur

That would be a real tragedy because lemurs are really cute. Officially of course even ugly animals need to be protected but the cute ones deserve really special care. And lemurs are cute. We stayed at a reasonably nice lodge just inside the park boundaries and set off early our first morning for a long hike into the rainforest in search of lemurs. And we found them; the golden bamboo lemur, the black and white ruffled lemur, maybe the oddly named Milne-Edwards sifaka, and perhaps one or two more. These were truly animals in the wild; while they weren’t too upset by our presence we had to go way out in the rainforest to find them.

To be honest, we found the tour itself kind of annoying. The guide talked too much, kept repeating himself, typically went too slow, and was awfully difficult to understand. On the other hand we never would have found the lemurs on our own; it takes a real talent to find those little buggers hiding up in the trees. I loved watching the lemurs but my favorite part of the hike was when it was time to head back to the park headquarters: the guide said it would take 40 minutes or so but when Mark took the lead on the trail we got back in 15 minutes. That’s more my style!

The drive from Antsirabe to Ranomafana was long enough that we needed to stop along the way for lunch. Bio, our driver, said there was a good restaurant en route. I was modestly skeptical but when we got there we were damned impressed. It was a hotel called Artisan in the town of Ambositra and was totally worth the stop. Who knew there was such good food in these out-of-the-way places?

My soup and Mark’s shrimp cocktail at Artisan. What a place!

We decided to break up the long drive to our next destination – Isalo National Park – with a stop in Ambalavao, a couple hours further down the road from Ranomafana. We got there, had a surprisingly great lunch, and then headed out to the Anja Community Reserve for another, shorter lemur tour. This time the stars were the ring-tailed lemurs, and they were all over. Our guide was a funny little guy whose “shtick” was to say, with eyes big and wide “Oh, you’re so lucky!” when we’d find lemurs or a chameleon or something like that. By the third time or so I was on to him.

So yeah, more lemurs.

Beyond the cute animals there is a lot we’re loving about Madagascar. High on the list is the food – it’s just been crazy good and crazy cheap. I’m supposed to know that food in former French colonies is good but this is just blowing us away. And to our delight the road has been good – we understand that there is one good road in the country and it’s the one we’re on – and the scenery is gorgeous. The hotels have been better than I would have expected. Our hotel at Ambalavao was awfully basic, but given that the price was under $24 for the night you can’t really complain that much.

The road from the capital Antananarivo down south is in good shape but we share it with the cattle, called zebu here.

Another unique feature of Madagascar is that pretty much the whole country is a malarial zone. We haven’t been in any meaningful malarial zone in the five-plus years we’ve been on the road so we had to dig out those anti-malarial pills we stocked up on back when we started all this. We finally get to get rid of some of those damned things!

The black and white ruffed lemur

And his friend

I loved the way this guy as staring down at me. You could just see him thinking “Yeah, don’t try anything.”

Oh, and did I mention their long tails?

We never go anywhere without our Kindles so while our guide was trying to locate some lemurs for us Mark made the best of his time.

In Antsirabe and again as we passed through Ambositra for lunch you see all these pulled rickshaws or pousse-pousse as they’re known in French. The guys doing the pulling are typically running while on the job. It gives you a sense of the level of poverty around here.

And then there are the kids traveling down the highway in their very home-made carts

Very home-made carts

Speaking of the highway, we’ve seen a surprising number of bridges that look like this. We’re hoping to avoid being on one of those at the wrong moment.

On the road to Ranomafana

Have I noted that we like the food here? After our hike in Ranomafana National Park we came back to the lodge for lunch. Here we have a grilled tilapia with fresh green beans and a view to die for.

At a stop on the way Mark noticed this little kid with a nice little lizard on a stick

And with all his little friendies

Speaking of little animals our guides have been good to show us all the other strange little creatures that exist here and nowhere else

Mark on our hike in Anja Community Reserve

Our guide in Anja showing how this piece of plant he just plucked gives out a resin-sort of liquid that serves as a natural chewing gum

Colorful rocks in Anja

Just one more gorgeous view

Mark above the river at the entrance to Ranomafana

Oh, and for all the interest in lemurs I had to include one more picture of the massive poinsettias they have around here