Madagascar - A Personal
How can I possibly describe Madagascar? First impressions at the airport was of a country filled with people who would literally beg the shirt off your back, and was followed by a journey through the capital city whose outskirts left us in shock at the squalour that those people lived in. Those impressions, thankfully, did not survive when we went out of the city and into the countryside. The people, though quite poor, were quite simply the most wonderfully gentle and genuinely friendly people I have ever met in my travels. Indeed, all the travel books we bought before we went to Madagascar warned us against even raising our voice at a Malagasy - their gentleness is such that what to us is a minor argument is to them a major row, and they do not know how to handle western-style assertiveness.
Oh the food! What I would not give for a Romazava right now. Followed by a crepe, and all washed down with a "Three Horses" Beer. Or two. Madagascar is poor enough that there are essentially no fertilisers or chemicals used - everything is, by necessity, organic. The beer was so pure that you could not get a hangover from it, and how we tried! But even just a plate of rice with some broth, as we had in the "Hotel California" on our way back from the eclipse site, is beautiful.
The country itself was very varied. Our first three days or so were spent winding our way down from the central highlands. Along the way, we stopped in Isalo National Park, where we saw Madagascar's answer to the Grand Canyon, swam in a natural pool, made friends with some lemurs and poked a stick at some snakes. Every evening, we gathered in the restaraunt on the campsite and had a feast and a drink into the small hours. Then the countryside started to get flatter and the road, thankfully, started to get straighter. And the heat started to rise as we lost altitude and neared the Mozambique Channel.
And this is where anticipation and a bit of anxiety started to creep in. We left the tarmac road in Toliara on the south-west coast, and found ourselves on a dirt track where, every couple of yards, there was a crater in the road that mandated a maximum 10mph or so speed. And we were going to a place which we were told was "quite basic". Which just goes to show that you should not believe everything you read.
The Bamboo Club in Ifaty on the south-west coast of Madagascar is, quite simply, heaven on earth. You can see the white of the waves crashing off the coral reef miles out to sea, with the accompanying muffled roar of those waves. The food is awesome, the weather beautiful, the sense of isolation from the world and it's cares means that you simply never ever want to leave. I found myself doing nothing but eating, drinking, hanging out, watching the magnificent sunsets and just letting the world fall off my shoulders.
The only really tough part of our time in Madagascar was the trip to and our stay in the eclipse camp in Morombe. We would have taken a flight in if there were enough available. We would have taken the shorter coastal route if our jeeps were not so overloaded with our baggage that they would not get stuck in the sand. So we had to take the inland route - about 300km of crater-avoiding madness. We finally arrived in Morombe at about 10pm on 20th June to find that all the restaraunts bar one had closed for the night, and that one restaraunt was quite unhealthy-looking and had just about run out of food anyway. So we dug into our camping supplies, such as they were, and bedded down for the night in our farmyard-turned-campsite.
The morning of 21st June 2001 was a bit cold in Morombe. There were a few clouds along the eastern horizon that made me nervous - could they be part of a weather system to our east that could travel westward and spoil our view of the eclipse? But they soon disappeared, leaving our second crystal-clear blue sky in our second attempt at seeing a total solar eclipse. So we set up our observation spot on the beach, at latitude 21d 44.750' S, longitude 43d 21.099' E, altitude <5m, and flew the same tricolour that accompanied us to Bulgaria to see the eclipse of August 1999. The beach was surprisingly empty, and most of the people seemed to be Europeans who had travelled with the same intentions as we had. One of those Europeans was an Irish guy who had made his way independently to Morombe and who approached us on seeing the tricolour!
I missed first contact at 3:12:02pm. Indeed, I was not all that interested in noting it. I was low on energy, after the exertions of getting to Morombe in the first place, and I wanted to save that energy for totality. So I just relaxed until the light had dropped to that smokey metallic grey that comes in the last few minutes before totality.
The onset of totality was heralded by what appeared to be a cone of darkness rising out of the sea in front of us up to the sun. There was a spectacular diamond ring, lasting maybe 7 or 8 seconds, before totality, as the last of the sun shone down the last lunar valley before it got covered completely. It was 4:25:52pm, and for the next 2 minutes and 17 seconds, we were in the shadow of the moon.
During totality, I can remember the sound of the waves crashing against the beach, just as they did before totality, and just as they did when it was over. It seemed to me that they too should stop and marvel at the awesome beauty suspended in the sky before us. I also remember the sky colour, and largely because I did not find it to be as beautiful as the colour I saw in Bulgaria. We were well to the south of the centre line - approx 54% of the way from the southern limit to the centre line - and we were also quite near the end of the eclipse track, which means that the moon's shadow was a relatively very long and narrow ellipse. From our point of view, the sun was slightly to the left of centre of a massive wedge of darkness that was the moon's shadow. To the right of this wedge and especially to the left, the sky was relatively quite bright, with the colours of twilight at the boundaries between the light and the dark near the horizon. I much preferred the largely uniform deep deep dark blue sky colour that I saw in Bulgaria.
But to counter this disappointment, if it could be called that, there were some spetacular prominences, especially one magnificent one at the 2 o'clock position. And, when totality was over, for maybe 10 seconds, there was a distinct difference in the sky colour. To the left (south), the sky was blue again, and to the right (north), it was quite dark and menacing-looking, as the tail end of the moon's elliptical shadow raced onwards. Finally, there was the sunset itself. The sun still had a tiny bite taken out of it by the moon as it slipped into the Mozambique Channel. I reckon everyone took far more pictures of the sunset than they did of totality itself!
We left Morombe the following day, and headed straight for the Bamboo club. The hours on the dirt track seemed shorter now. We stayed a few days in the Bamboo club, then re-traced our route back to the capital city, before heading onto a nature reserve in the eastern part of the country. The eclipse was over, but Madagascar still had us in it's spell.
On our last full day in Madagascar, most of us got up at the crack of dawn, so that we could head into a rainforest to see some wildlife. We saw a few birds, some chameleons and other reptiles (including a fascinating one that looked exactly like the bark of a tree - incredible camoflague). Then, in the middle of this forest, our guide left us there on our own as he went off to search for some famous lemur or other. So there we were, in the middle of a rainforest in the middle of Madagascar early in the morning, without any guide or anyone else within eyeshot. Not that we were afriad - but it seemed a bit odd to me at the time.
Then it happened. YOOOOOOOOOOOOUP yooooup YOOOOOOOOOOOOOUP yoooooup. The most ear-splitting chest-breaking loudest sound I have ever heard in the natural world. It was the Indri - the famous lemur our guide was trying to find - except IT had found US. We just looked at each other. Suddenly, we were mobbed by a hundred other pale-faced tourists who just appeared out of nowhere amongst the trees. Our guide was, thankfully, and not surprisingly, amongst them.
We followed the Indri for about another half an hour, and were treated to more of it's incredible calls. We could hear other Indri calling from miles away in the forest. We later noted that less people had experienced the Indri than have seen Solar Eclipses. What a wonderful way to start your last day in Madagascar.
That evening, we did our last bit of shopping in the biggest, brightest, most modern supermarket I have ever been in, and we spent our last night in a wonderfully comfortable hotel in the middle of the city. What a contrast to the morning! It was as if we had left one planet and landed on another, all within a few short hours. I have simply fallen in love with Madagascar, it's people, it's land, it's food and it's way of life.