UNESCO World Heritage Site

On top of the world, or at least that’s how it felt atop Piton de la Fournaise

From Madagascar we made a quick trip to the European Union. Who knew you could go from southeastern Africa to the EU so quickly?

Réunion, you see, just a little east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is an “overseas region” of France so it’s really a part of France. The official language is French, they use the euro, and, driving around, it feels as though you’re in France. On arrival at the airport outside Saint-Denis, the capital and major city, we drove to a shopping mall to get SIM cards for our phones. We were just blown away by how different it was from Madagascar. The latter, of course, is one of the poorest countries on earth while there we were in Saint-Denis with big grocery stores, fully stocked with anything you might need. Plenty of shopping to be done, nice cars, people nicely dressed. The difference was almost unbelievable and certainly unexpected.

Our beach resort felt a lot more like Europe than Africa

SIM cards purchased and installed we headed around to the western coast of the island to our resort a little south of Saint Gilles. As we settled into our five-night stay at the LUX* (that’s the name, asterisk and all) resort one of the first things we noticed was that while Réunion felt more France than Africa, the restaurants also don’t have prices like Madagascar. Sticker shock! Not that it was all terribly expensive but definitely EU prices, not Madagascar prices.

What is there to do in Réunion? From our perspective there were two things about the island that stood out. One, Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace) is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, with the most recent eruption just last year. A major tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can hike up to the rim of the volcano if there is no risk of eruption.

Near the start of the hike you can see a little vegetation but it is gone not long at all after starting

So off we went. One of the remarkable parts of the hike was the drive up there; climbing up the mountain from the coast was just stunningly beautiful; I don’t know if the cows we saw grazing away appreciated the views they had but they sure should have. The hike itself wasn’t so beautiful, to be honest. The hike consisted of a long stretch across the empty, lava-crusted caldera, and then a long climb up, up, and further up to the rim of the volcano. No greenery or living creature to this amateur eye. Once we finally made it to the top I was figuring we’d see bubbling lava or at least smoke or something, but no, just a big open dry pit. The views from way up there were nice, but it’s not something one absolutely needs to do in life.

Mark at the top of the volcano. In the U.S., of course, they would have big chain fences or stone walls around the perimeter but here it’s just a painted white line suggesting it’s not safe to go beyond. Of course, lots of people did go beyond.

We didn’t learn the other important thing about Réunion – that it has a remarkable concentration of sharks in the water – until near the end of our stay. Possibly something useful to have known earlier, particularly when you’re staying at a beach resort and spending lots of time in the water. In just five years, between 2011 and 2015, there were 17 shark attacks recorded on the island’s beaches, seven of them fatal. That’s a lot! As a result swimming is banned on over half the beaches in Réunion. Fortunately, though, we were staying on the most popular and safest beach in the country so they didn’t bother us.

Funny story: we learned about the sharks from Ted and Todd, a couple we’d met back in Madagascar; they were at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park the same time we were and then drove back to Morondava and flew to Tana the same days as we did. They were the ones who told us about the attacks on the road out to the Park and thus explained the caravans we traveled in. Just as we were ready to start the hike on Piton de la Fournaise who do we run into but Ted and Todd again so we did the hike with them, during which they were amazed that we talked about swimming at our resort. They were staying on the other side of the island from us, explained there was no swimming anywhere around their place, and told us all about the sharks.

Here I am with Ted and Todd on our hike. Mark took a couple pictures but Ted always had his eyes closed.

We may need to spend more time with Ted and Todd if we want to stay safe.

Other than our one excursion to hike the volcano most of our time was spent hanging around the beach and searching out food. The meals at LUX* were pretty expensive so we sought out local places pretty successfully, including one Italian place that we kept going back to. And that was it. From here we fly a little further east to the island of Mauritius for more beach time. Life is rough.

An evening beach scene

We stayed right next to Hermitage Beach, the most popular (and shark-free) beach on the island. These are casuarina trees, beneath which the locals relax, play games, and have their barbecues.

Strange flora on the island

And long beautiful beaches

The vastness of the lava fields was impressive

As you climb the mountain there’s lots and lots of pretty much nothing up there

Selfie time!

Love the view from up here

This is near the very end of the hike (which would make it also the very start…). The greenery is interesting, but so are the clouds. They recommend that you start the hike early because clouds start rolling in pretty heavily around noon. Sure enough, by the time we got down the cloud layers were pretty heavy on the mountain. We saw lots of people just starting their hikes at this time and we could tell they would see nothing once they started climbing.

Mark crossing a bridge in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

From Morondava our goal was Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, a six- to seven-hour drive north. This UNESCO World Heritage site is made up of an almost surreal landscape of limestone karsts (essentially limestone plateaus) that have been eroded into caverns and fissures creating dramatic “forests” of sharp limestone needles. Utterly unlike anything we’ve seen before. On top of the unique geological formations the park has an unusually large number of endemic species of both plants and animals, some existing nowhere on earth but in these karsts.

Standing amongst the tsingy

One thing that these pictures can’t (or at least don’t) display is how almost stunningly sharp the rocks were. As we spent three days tramping around the park with Francia, our local guide, much of the time was spent either walking through forests or through caverns. When we were actually climbing on the “tsingies”, though, you had to be genuinely careful where you placed your hands; it wasn’t quite knife-edge sharp but the tops were extremely hard and genuinely sharp. Let’s put it this way: if ever you were to slip and fall while you were in the tsingies you would be in a world of hurt. At least one definition of tsingy is “where one cannot walk barefoot.” To say the least!

Which made one of the sights we experienced particularly interesting: a group of lemurs hopping across an expanse of tsingies. (Tribe of lemurs? Family? OK, I looked it up and on one site they’re called a troop of lemurs while two other sites call them a conspiracy of lemurs. I’m going with conspiracy.) Francia seemed genuinely impressed; she indicated you rarely see lemurs on the tsingies themselves.

A conspiracy of lemurs crossing the tsingy. I pitied their poor feet!

Both getting to the park and then getting back to Morondava was quite the experience. As I indicated, it was something like a seven-hour drive up there, nearly all of it on gravel roads and much of it on roads in really rough condition. For a long stretch – a few hours – we seemed to be traveling in a caravan with maybe a dozen cards packed together kicking up an astounding amount of dirt. We had the windows open and after a while you couldn’t believe how dirty we were, just crusted in dust.

At one point, then, our car managed to break down, a broken fan belt or something. I figured that explained the caravan, as every single car in the group – even those in front of us – stopped to help. It took maybe 20 minutes to get us going again, with every driver there to help. My guess was that no one wanted to break down alone which explained the caravan. Wrong.

The collected drivers trying to fix our car. I was distinctly glad we weren’t traveling alone.

Just before leaving our lodge for the drive back people we’d met over our four-night stay explained that just the week before thieves had ambushed a driver taking German tourists up to the park. Apparently beat him pretty badly and robbed the tourists. So now drivers were traveling in a caravan. And as we learned on the return drive, with armed guards in the first and last cars. We happened to be selected as the last car so we traveled for a couple hours with an armed soldier riding shotgun. Literally. In the meantime as word got out about the robbery tourism was quickly drying up in the region which is a genuine tragedy for the people who make a living off the tourists.

As we traveled through some of the poorest, most remote villages you might ever imagine, lots of women had their faces covered like this. According to our driver it was their way to keep from getting too much sun.

And then eventually, after in this case maybe an eight-hour drive, we made it back to Morondava. For the return trip our driver had upgraded the car to one with AC so we could keep the windows closed; made a big difference. And this time back in Morondava I was feeling fine so I could enjoy our brief stop before a late afternoon flight to Antananarivo – visiting with friends we’d made in the park (a Bollywood director and his Bollywood actress wife!), a long walk on the enormous beach, lunch at a nice Italian restaurant. Genuinely pleasant. After another night in Tana we fly north to a beach resort which seems like a nice way to end our three-week trip through Madagascar.

We have lots of pictures of us hiking in the park

Some of the cliffs were pretty steep

See?

On one of the hikes we had the kind of gear that allows you to clip onto safety cables. Just in case, you know.

Lots of time hiking up here

Back to them lemurs

Resting on what was kind of a natural throne

Can’t have too many pictures of climbing around the park

I think this is the last one

On the third day of our park exploration we took a boat maybe an hour upstream to get to our hike. Riding on that remote, peaceful river like that was bliss.

A group of Americans we got to know a little at the lodge, traveling upriver the same day

Francia, our guide

A local fisherman

Our boat, waiting patiently while we were hiking

We sometimes take a little break mid-hike to read but we still typically do the hikes a lot faster than the routes are supposed to take

The hike from the river up to the section of the park with the tsingies was steep and intense but the views were great

On each of our three days we would hike in the morning and then get back to the lodge for lunch. We were always the only ones there for lunch and then we’d head to the pool to relax. Felt very civilized.

Hours and hours of this, though sometimes the road conditions were a LOT worse

How the locals travel

Certainly one of the highlights of the road trip to and from the park was our stop in Belo Tsirbihina, a tiny no-account town. Except for the oddly named Mad Zebu restaurant. Here you are as close to the middle of nowhere as you can imagine and the most stunningly beautiful and delicious food you’ve ever imagined. Roughly halfway between Morondava and the park, so perfectly positioned for lunch both in and out. Amazing.

A street scene right outside the Mad Zebu in Belo Tsirbihina

More of Belo Tsirbihina

And more local travelers on our long road back to Morondava

Another highlight of the road trip up and back was the two ferries we took in both directions. Nothing fancy about these boats….

River traffic

Enjoying one of the long ferry boat rides

And of course there are always cute kid moments

You never give kids money, but sometimes you can give them pens. This little kid was cute and shy, but when I offered him this pen – from a St. Regis hotel! – he seemed pretty happy.

The route back to Morondava took us back through Avenue of the Baobabs, this time as sunset was approaching

Lots of people were going to hang out here until the sun actually set but we were ready to be done with this long day of driving so we enjoyed the fading light and then got back in the car to finish the drive

The sun setting at our lodge in Morondava

Our flight out of Morondava was supposed to be in the morning, but I still had time to walk down to the beach and enjoy the local scene. Then it was back to the room to pack, when we were informed the flight was going to be delayed four or five hours. That turned out perfect; we had time to go back to our favorite Italian restaurant for lunch before heading to our flight back to Tana.

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