Our first port in Madagascar was the northern port of Antsiranana, formerly know as Diego Suarez. Madagascar (formerly known as the Malagasy Republic) was a French colony and achieved independence in 1960. The island country in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of southeast Africa, consists of the island of Madagascar (the fourth largest island in the world — only Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo are larger) and a number of smaller islands surrounding it.
Our granddaughter Eloise will be completely disillusioned as no matter how hard we looked, we could not find any “Penguins of Madagascar.” Interestingly, nearly 90% of the flora and fauna on the island are indigenous. Best known for the over 100 subspecies of lemurs, Madagascar is thought to be the place of origin of all chameleons.
Our explorations for the day took us through the port and shopping area of Antsiranana — mostly small shanty stalls and a few low wooden buildings, selling mostly food and housewares to the locals — and then south for nearly three hours in a four-wheel drive vehicle. The 2-lane “highway”, formally known as RN6 (Route National 6), or “National SIx”, is referred to by all the locals as “National SICK”. The nickname is well deserved, as while it was once-upon-a-time a paved asphalt road, it now looks like black and red Swiss cheese, with the iron-laden soil of the potholes (small, medium, large, and gigantic) showing through everywhere. And after a heavy rain (which we experienced!), the potholes are full of water (and sometimes the road itself is flooded). It was always a relief a couple of times to find a few hundred yards of relatively smooth pavement. There was debate among the 14 of us (in 7 vehicles) when we stopped for lunch at a local cafe at near the entrance to the national park as to whether or not this was the worst road we had ever traveled 75 miles over.
While Ankarana National Park is best known for its expansive network of caves, our plan to hike to some of them was thwarted by the lack of a bridge to cross a flooded small river that would have required us to walk through water up to our waist. So our guides went for plan B, which was a fairly steep 1.5-hour hike up through the forest and up and across the top of the mountain over the karst limestone pinnacles known locally as tsingys (in the Malagasy language). (Karst is a “landscape underlain by limestone that has been eroded by dissolution, producing ridges, towers, fissures, sinkholes and other characteristic landforms.”) The tsingys are a challenge to hike up and over (they can be razor sharp), but when surfacing at the top of the mountain, the view is breathtaking and quite unusual. None of us had ever seen such spectacular nature-carved rocks.
Our guide then took the two of us across the tsingys another 15 minutes further — hiking on flat limestone slabs that had been placed, and sometimes spiked in place with iron spikes — to a spectacular overlook that afforded views of the forested valley and other tsingy formations on nearby ridges.
After the hike back down to the parking lot near the park entrance, we enjoyed the local corn-based refreshment known as “THB.” Then during the drive back to town and the port, we encountered some spectacular rain squalls that filled up more potholes and made for some adventurous driving. A shower and clean clothes felt great, and then we relaxed with friends on board the ship over a delicious Continental-cuisine dinner — a world away from the lemurs and tsingys we had spent the day with.