Isalo National Park 20/01/16

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Another fantastic day. A breakfast of fruit, freshly baked bread, mango juice and coffee. Our guide for the day, Floris, met us in town at about 8am and we set off for a days’ walk through Madagascar’s 2nd largest park. We were told how lucky we were as it had been raining a few days before and now the sky was Sapphire blue without a hint of cloud.

We did not see any other trampers for miles for the first few hours and the vastness and stillness of the place was intoxicating and spiritually rejuvenating. Outside of the rainy season it gets quite busy and the guides have a hard time keeping their groups under control especially when some individuals swop groups so that numbers remain consistent but individuals vary. This creates chaos for them at the end of the tour when they have to wait for other groups to catch up so they can reshuffle and take their clients back to the correct hotel. Our group of three + Floris meant we got to have long and informative conversations about our surroundings. He speaks the local language as well as fluent English, Italian and French and kept us highly entertained with a wicked and wily sense of humour. As an aside, he informed us that all locals got to see the Madagascar movie ( in French) for free..so they know all the characters and catch phrases.

The locals bury their dead in tombs up in the sandstone massifs and then seal the entrance with boulders. Between 4 and 7 years later, they exhume the bones and re-dress them with fresh silk and take them down to the village to celebrate. A feast is held, a zebu is slaughtered and local rum flows freely. The next morning, the remains are taken back to the mountains but this time they are buried higher, without a coffin and for the final time. It is believed that the ancestors interceded with God on their behalf. We saw some tombs precariously high up on cliffs and wondered how they managed to get the bones up there. Apparently, when you have enough rum in your system, you can do anything. Children up,to the age of one, are not considered ‘ fully human’ yet and they are buried in an ordinary grave without public mourning. We saw an old metal child’s coffin ( no longer in use) up in the mountains. The coffin was decorated with Malagasy coins.

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We saw the pink Periwinkle flower which is apparently used to help cure leukaemia , the hugely interesting Elephant’s foot plant that store water in their bulbous trunks, the Isalo tree – yellow powder from the bark is used to help close baby fontenelles, and a toxic shrub that the evil queen crushed up into food. She then invited Christians to the palace for a feast, killing them off in a matter of hours..nice lady that she was.

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There were varieties on lizards sunning themselves on the rocks, we spied some huge camouflaged chameleons against the tree bark as well as a tiny brown baby (thanks to our guide’s eagle eyes) and a huge female stick insect. We then descended down into a slight valley and came across a beautiful little waterfall and a stream with sandy banks. The water was not high enough for a swim but we were promised a deep mountain pool after lunch. Leaving the oasis, we crossed the searingly hot semi-desert area known as ‘Death Valley ‘. Our throats were parched as we conserved as much water as possible and our packs were wet against our perspiring backs. Fire resistant trees with corky bark, scrub, clumps of grass and termite mounds made up the features between the huge sandstone massifs surrounding the valley.

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The sound of bird and lemur calls drew us into the next oasis where the campsite is located. Here, local cooks prepared delicious lunches for the various tour groups. We had our own little table under thatch set with a tablecloth, condiments and cutlery. We were served a delicious vegetable stir fry and wolfed it down hungrily only to realise that it was only the first course. More vegetables and roast potatoes followed and a big zebu kebab for the meat-eater in the group. This was finished off with chunks of fresh, juicy pineapple. While we sat and ate, ring- tailed lemurs jumped around in the bushes and trees around us, wasps built nests in the thatch canopy above our heads, huge marbled chameleons rotated their bulging eyes an impressive 360 degrees ( not in the same direction at the same time) , a river gushed fresh mountain water a few meters away and a baby boa constrictor moseyed by. How could it get any better than this?! It did!

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After lunch, Floris took us for a walk up the river to an absolutely gorgeous, deep mountain pool below a cascading waterfall. There were a couple of other tour groups there already enjoying the fresh, clean water and sunning themselves on the surrounding boulders or sitting in shady overhangs. The guides all discreetly sat together or swam in another pool away from our view and let us enjoy ourselves at our own leisure. A shorter but hot walk took us back to Mami waiting in the car. We arrived back at our hotel with enough time to take another swim and bask in the sun at their fresh water pool . I’m sitting poolside with the sun slowly sliding behind the rocks behind me and lizards scampering to find the last hot spots on the sandstone boulders. A huge mango tree is directly in front of me with fruit ( always my favourite) ripening high in the branches.

Madagascar is surprising, diverse and wonderful. I’m not sure if it is the African in me that makes me feel so at peace here or if it is because I am so far away from the usual stresses of the modern world. I know there are piles of work and emails waiting for me and many bills to pay back home in New Zealand, but the magic of this place melts all that stuff out of your psyche and inserts in it’s place a sense of profound contentment and connectivity with the land and it’s people.

Dinner is at 7pm. We will probably take a sunset walk amongst the huge sandstone boulders that dot the landscape around the hotel and watch as they turn from gold to rose in the last rays of the day.