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Madagascar: John Banks' diary


Day One: 28C, overcast and humid. Antananarivo airport something out of eastern bloc Europe - grass growing in the runways, dead aeroplanes around the airfield. Very dark terminal - concrete floor, rusting iron roof, very little light. Entry forms attached to small promotional booklet. Countryside looks very hard. Shacks everywhere. Numerous beggars with children outside.

Day Two: 30C, cloudy, hot, humid. Early breakfast of bread and scones. Walk thru Tana markets. Friendly people. Beggars everywhere. Butchers' shops selling beef, pork and chicken, much of it covered in flies. Masses of people. Three hour drive into the hills thru many villages built on the side of the roads. Very hilly countryside. It's the rainy season so a lot of huge pot holes filled with water. Visited chameleon reserve. Extraordinarily beautiful creatures. Arrived at a hotel in a village like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Staying in small chalets. They say the bags are safe.

Day Three: Omelette for breakfast. Drive to national park, ordered ham roll lunch then hiked 90 minutes with guide into rainforest to see a group of Indra lemurs. Spectacular sights, amazing animals. Back to village for lunch. Along the mud road, clothesline full of sheets and towels from the hotel. Long grass, rubbish bags all around, dilapidated buildings - this is third world. After lunch, return to Tana to get the camera repaired or replaced. Nearly four hours of extremely dangerous driving - brow-of-hills passing on long blind bends. Roads are narrow and ageing trucks roar past within inches of us. Cows, dogs, chickens and kids on the grass verges. Rubbish dumped everywhere. Roads choked with people and diesel fumes.

Day Four: Early breakfast. Watching BBC TV. Camera working and arranged to buy another. Four hour drive from Antananarivo to Antsirabe - about 200km of winding narrow roads full of packed Toyota taxi vans full of people - heaped with bags and bikes on the roof. The diesel fumes in our vehicle are almost unbearable. Came close to being sick. Countryside beautiful. Rivers at the bottom of the fertile valleys thick brown/red in colour. Won't be eating any chicken here. We saw them being transported alive, jammed in baskets and stacked high on the roofs of the trucks. Staying in a huge, wooden Edwardian hotel called Hotel des Thermes. Set in magnificent, well-tended grounds in the centre of this industrial town. People and carts, zebu (cattle) and carts, chickens, shacks and more people selling stuff.

Day Five: Left around 9am. Collect six carts and drivers for a visit to the local markets. Many well-dressed families on their way to church. I just can't shake off the traders - these salesmen won't take "no". Called into a house that had a business turning zebu horns into artefacts. Brought $30 worth of goods and had a chance to look around. Ten living in two bedrooms. At the back door, they were cooking up some zebu lip soup and what looked like a casserole. No electrical lighting - although they did have a generator for the electric sander to polish the zebu products. Got into a "bush taxi" - a Toyota Hilux with six rows of seats, loaded up with 18, including four kids. Windows closed, extremely stuffy, many flies. French woman in the front insisted on smoking. It was awful. Five hour drive through hills and valleys to a village of 15,000 on the edge of a fast-flowing river near a national park at Fianarantsoa.

Day Six: Early breakfast and off to the national park to see, guess what, some more lemurs. Short drive from base camp and then a 60 minute forest walk uphill to see about four varieties of lemur. Magnificent bush and well-formed tracks, rising above the river which looked slightly clean. The wet heat was overpowering. The tracker was running too and, from the main walk, yelling for us to crash thru the undergrowth to see the animals. Many of the lemurs had young clutching on their backs. A few of the team bitten by leeches. Quiet afternoon at base camp, about 35C inside the huts, too hot to sleep. Very nice family meal at a local's house. Zebu, chicken innards and a lot of rice with Fanta. Very nice family - pleased to see us. The local rum is something - 60% proof and tastes like kerosene. Early start tomorrow, only a two hour drive to the next "1 star" Hilton.

Day Seven: Leave the village at 7.30am to drive back to Fianarantsoa, a quite depressing service centre with a bad feeling about it. Went to the local post office to clear emails and read the Herald. Off to stay in a village resort - the sort of place the French would have liked in the 1950s. Excellent restaurant and menu. A most interesting visit to a tea plantation and factory owned by a rich man from Mauritius.

Day Eight: Early rise - 4.20am. Drive 40 minutes to town and queue for two hours for train ticket. Train leaves late and completely stops at the first station because of a derailment further up the track. Train in front of us unloads carriages full of green bananas on to the platform. Our train journey comes to an end. Next stop - cashing some US dollars ($100 = 200,000 ariaris). Zebu market - 300 to 400 animals, very skinny, without water in a huge holding pen. 35C heat - unbearable. The animals look stressed. Another hour to another market. Even hotter - 40C - then four hours in the truck. Felt really ill. No aircon, windows down, searing heat and warm water. It makes me feel okay about my cars at home. Glad to arrive at the Isalo National Park.

Day Nine: Stay in best place so far. Clean rooms and clean restaurant. Leave around 8am for one hour drive to the Savannah National Park. Hour and a half walk in mountain area. Beautiful desert-tussock grass and sandstone rocks. Very hot morning. Arrive at another national park for overnight camp stay. Many brown and ring-tailed lemurs around the primitive campsite. In the afternoon, an hour and a half walk into a cascade pool in the mountains.

Day Ten: Poor night's sleep. Rubber mattress damp and thin. Howling and fighting wild dogs around the campsite didn't help. The walk out with the 11 bag-carriers and guides is impressive. They sing and walk while carrying the whole campsite gear on their heads and shoulders - very friendly bunch. We were going to tramp one hour both ways to another waterfall but the heat was unbearable - at 9am, more than 30C. So we set off to the next stop - almost six hours of the worst roads in the third world. The last hour and a half was a coastal drive about 60km up the beach in sand ruts and almost 40C of blistering heat. Not much joviality in the truck when we arrive at Ifaty. Beautiful white sandy beaches. Motel right on the water. First thing - cold shower and wash out some clothes that dry in half an hour. Can't stop thinking about the zebus working in this crippling heat. Saw a few today collapsed on the side of the road from heat exhaustion.

Day Eleven: Very beautiful sunrise at 4.45am. Extraordinarily hot during the night. Opened side windows - a little better - and the mosquito net seemed to hold in the heat. Big morning of filming at the tortoise sanctuary. These creatures were being eaten out of existence. Now public reservations are saving them. They can live to 150. Filmed in a bilbao forest - interesting trees that can live for more than 350 years. Amazing plant life. Seen many different sizes and colours of chameleons.

Day Twelve: Early rise at 4.30am. Met the sail boat on the beach at 5.30 and travelled out to the reef to see the fishing boats working. Most of them net fishing with two boats and a couple of divers in the water to see the nets don't get caught. The traditional fishing boats are quite remarkable in design, build and speed. Back for breakfast at 9am and time to wash out some clothes. The sea wind is quite strong by 10am with a lot of sand blowing under the door to the hut. Turns into a serious sandstorm. Wind blowing from the sea at about 70kmh causing bucket-loads of sand to come thru the window that needs to be left open because of the extreme heat. Sand is over the table, bed, bags, everything. Never experienced anything like this. Down at the local village, it must be diabolical. Cold water is the only thing ticking me over today.

Day Thirteen: Flew from Toliara - visited market and bought a chess board for my doctor who fixed the bleeding behind my left knee. If it wasn't for him and my orthopaedic surgeon, this trip would not have been possible. Arrive in Taolanaro, the southern-most city. Climb into a mini-van with nine others and proceed thru some typical villages to the hotel in Fort Dauphin. Tomorrow we take the three hour, 84km drive on the "worst" roads in Madagascar to the Berenty Reserve where there's lot of lemurs, including the small rat lemur and the colourful dancing lemur. Another great day in the third world.

Day Fourteen: Four hour drive to the reserve. Roads really bad. Without maintenance, the trip will take 10 hours in five years. The landscape is incredible - lush green bush and fertile plains. Barren mountainous rock hills and then desert full of cacti and spiky varieties of plant life and 40C-plus of searing heat under bright blue skies. The Berenty Reserve itself is 70-years-old and well-developed and maintained. The meals are excellent and the huts clean and tidy. Glad we're here for two days. Out on a night bush walk looking for the mouse lemur - about the size of a big rat with a little lemur head. Hard to see and move very quickly.

Day Fifteen: Final day of filming. Up early to catch the dancing lemur. Very pretty pictures, then some pieces to camera and, later in the evening, some shots in the hut. Earlier, a late afternoon walk in the spiny forest. Great view over the Berenty Reserve. Tomorrow back to Fort Dauphin and then Mauritius, Dubai, Sydney, home. Enjoyable journey, great experience.


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