The Madagascar Version of Paradise

July 29, 2021

The Madagascar Version of Paradise

The two photographs from Madagascar in Earthforms, (pp. 72 & 73) are both of sandstone structures in the magnificent Parc d’Isalo on the southern part of the island. It had taken us two days to drive the 429 miles from the capital, Antaninarivo, to the park on the two-lane National 7 “highway.” We kept passing people on foot pushing or pulling heavy carts of produce on that hilly road, plus vans overloaded with people of all ages.

After one overnight stop, we finally arrived at our lodging in the evening, and the next morning we picked up  our guide, Fleuris, in the town and headed for the park entrance. There was very little signage, and once inside the park we had to drive about 7 km over what could barely be called a road, to the parking area at the pedestrian entrance. Along the way we passed a woman carrying bottles of zebu milk in a crate on her head. She lived in the village inside the park. I was astonished at the nearly impassable condition of the “road” leading into the park, which included driving through a stream. The 4×4 constantly tipped sharply from side to side, leaving our stomachs in the middle of the roadway. This went on for half an hour.

I learned that the fee for locals is 1000 ariary (about 26¢). and for national non-locals 12,000 ariary (about $3.15). There was no one to check our pre-bought tickets at the gate, but Fleuris, our guide, told us to hold onto them since they might be checked by roving officials in the park.

Once inside the park all complaints about the absurd access road melted away as I beheld the range of massive natural red sculptures before me. Our guide said they were sandstone, but I’d never seen sandstone rising out of the earth like that, nor sculpted with such fine edges. I suspected it was heavily iron-bearing rock, which typically assumed such shapes.

We wended our way up the path and around the frontal massifs, our arrival seemingly celebrated by the local butterflies, strongly colored, of medium size, and completely new to me, although one looked like fritillaries with their orange and black coloring. I set my sights on photographing a gorgeous, nearly iridescent blue one. Our guide espied a chameleon and gently picked it up. It suavely cooperated, as I switched to my macro lens and took its portrait.

As we got closer to the rock face, I became more and more excited at the details. The natural sculptures were as profoundly provocative to me as the best abstract pieces in New York’s Chelsea galleries.And perched about 15 feet up on one of the rock shelves, drawing nourishment from who knows what, was one of the most bizarre and endearing plants I’ve ever encountered, the Pachypodium. It looks like a large pot-bellied silver tea kettle that decided to sprout branches, or else an obese dwarf baobab tree. It immediately won my heart. Are there none in US botanical gardens?

We wandered among the pathways through the wondrous rock formations, then made our way down, down, down into a tropical environment to the famous Piscine naturelle, the natural swimming pool. I stripped down to my black boxers and plunged in. The water was probably around 60 degrees, pretty cold, but I managed to pose for a photo Fleuris took of me under the chilly waterfall. I changed into a dry pair of shorts and put my sweaty clothes back on, but the refreshed feeling stayed with me for another hour.

We spent that hour and about 50 minutes more trekking across the arid area in the valley between the two rows of massifs, then down into a thick woods to reach the “campsite.” Here lunch was being prepare for us, and we were promised views of lemurs. There were other touring groups at nearby stone tables, like ours. Soon we spotted a ringtail lemur—no, it was two, no three of them. Soon there were seven of them staying about 20 to 30 feet away from us. They were curious, self-possessed, and affectionate to each other. They seemed to have the agility and intelligence of monkeys, the faces of dogs, and the serenity and willfulness of cats, and they clearly took pride in their long tails.

I traipsed off to the bathroom, and when I emerged, Fleuris and Barbara, my traveling companion, were nearby, having sighted a family of brown lemurs. This group was bolder than the ringtails, and when were were not seated at the table, one came up to examine my backpack. Then Fleuris called us over to another area of the campsite, for he had seen a rare”dancing” lemur. I thought he meant that a lemur over there was doing a dance, but no; it was a beautiful white lemur perched about 25 feet up a tree. It had a black face and black markings and was by itself. Barbara was ecstatic. Animals, not rocks, were he thing. So her visit to Madagascar had paid off. I was pretty happy myself at the encounter.

After lunch Fleuris led us to a path that followed a stream on the floor of a canyon filled with palm trees and ferns. It was a continuation of the paradise motif we had encountered at the Piscine naturelle. And, surprisingly,

 steps were hewn out of the rocks wherever we had to climb. This seemed incongruous given the level of neglect evident in the access road, but I guessed the steps were carved in a different era. In any case, the walk was quite easy, though the path was frequently very narrow. In about 20 minutes we came to the Blue Pool, where the light made the sandy bottom appear blue. Five minutes later we arrived at the Black Pool, so called because it’s mostly in the shade. I put my wet jockeys back on and plunged in. It was at least 5 degrees colder than the Piscine naturelle, so I didn’t stay in long. There was a French family from the Parisian suburbs there too. So far we were the only two Americans we encountered in Madagascar.

We walked back to the campsite, seeing a paradise flycatcher along the way, as well as some impressive orb-spinning spiders. Then we walked the mile or so to the upper parking lot where our driver was waiting for us. Another torturous half-hour on a different, equally pitted access road, and we were out. We paid Fleuris and then dropped him off in the town.

Joel Simpson

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