Saturday, 8 November 2014

Tananarive - then and now

'Then' in the title refers to 1991 when I spent five weeks in and around Tana (or Antananarivo to give it its official name). 'Now' refers to the unscheduled stopover we recently had to make there for 24 hours on our way back from south-west Madagascar after Air Madagascar changed our flights. Although I'd spent the night near the airport when travelling to and/or from the Tsingy of Bemaraha and Nosy Be I'd never actually spent any time back in the city centre since 1991, so I was interested to see how it had changed.

there are paddy fields quite close to the city

Antananarivo is now a bustling city of 1.6 million inhabitants - that's 50% of the island's urban population (Madagascar's total population is currently 22 million).  Rather unsurprisingly the main difference since 1991 was the urbanisation and amount of traffic. The airport used to be located in a town separate from the capital, a shortish drive from the city, but it's now a case of bumper-to-bumper traffic and more or less continuous buildings, apart from a stretch where there are some rice fields (see photo above).

We spent the evening at the home of an old friend who lives in Tana (the first half of dinner was with candles due to the city's rolling power cuts!), then (re)visited the city the next morning. A defining feature of Antanarivo centre is the Avenue de l'Independence, a very broad thoroughfare that is lined with shops. The old train station (called Soarano, which means 'good water'), from where I took a train to Antsirabe in 1991, is at the north end, and has recently been refurbished but currently only handles freight trains. There's a nice café on one side, Café de la Gare.

Soarano train station

When I was staying in the city in 1991 my accommodation was located just off the Avenue, and I often used to walk along it to one of the salons de thé if there were no political demonstrations that day. 

looking down the Avenue to the station

The large Friday market, zoma (which means 'Friday' in Malagasy), used to take place all along the Avenue, until in 1994 for reasons of safety and hygiene it was moved to a much smaller covered market, Analakely.

Zoma in the Avenue de l'Indépendance in 1991

Antananarivo city hall, located on Avenue de l'Independence

Another defining feature of Tana is its hills; it currently spreads over 18 of them!

Looking down and across Lalana Ranavalonal, 2014

Looking down and across Lalana Ranavalonal, 1991

Analakely market is at the southern end of Independence Avenue.

Analakely market

Analakely market 

As mentioned above, Tana is located on several hills, and on one called Analamanga, at 1480m altitude, sits the Rova, or Queen's Palace (rova means 'fortified place'). Dating back to the 17th century, it was severely fire damaged by suspected arson on 6th November 1995, shortly before it was due to be inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and today only the stone shell remains, together with some outbuildings, statues and a chapel. 

photo from my visit to the Rova in 1991

King Ramada II's wooden palace and Andrianampoinimerina's original palace, which dated from 1845 and 1796 respectively, were unfortunately destroyed by the same fire, although a replica has been built of the latter. Today the palace is entered via a stone stairway leading to a large north-facing gate (built by the British architect James Cameron in 1845), topped by a bronze voromahery (eagle) imported from France by in 1840. The voromahery was the symbol of the Merina royal dynasty to which the monarchs belonged.

Rova entrance gate; note the phallic symbol to the left 
(a symbol of circumcision and thus nobility)

Beyond the gate lies a courtyard where a semi-official fee of 10,000 ariary is charged to access the site, from where there are good panoramic views of the city. You can choose to take a guided tour. 

Rova main building, called Manjakamiada
('A fine place to rule')

The structure of the main building was originally made of wood, which was changed to stone according to Queen Ranavalona II's orders in 1869.

The French moved the remains of Merina kings and queens from the Rova when they took over the city in 1845, an act that is still considered to be a profanation by the Malagasy. Today the remains are back, and since the fire they have been restored with bilateral government donations, state funds and grants from intergovernmental and private donors. The townspeople still visit the royal tombs to ask for blessings.

royal tombs of Queen Rasoherina (left) and Radama I (centre)

Beside the main building is a black wood hut, with a tiny, raised doorway - in fact a replica of the palace of King Andrianampoinimerina, founder of the Merina kingdom. The royal bed is situated in the sacred northwest corner of the hut. The simple furniture inside is aligned according to astrological rules. The king supposedly hid in the rafters when visitors arrived, signalling whether the guest was welcome by dropping pebbles onto his wife's head.

inside the replica of King Andrianampoinimerina's palace

Fiangonana ("Chapel") is a Protestant place of worship built in stone by William Pool for Queen Ranavalona II between 1869 and 1880. Italian-style, its construction used over 35,000 hand-chiselled stones and it had an estimated capacity of 450 persons. 

outside Fiangonana chapel

The building was designed with a private pew  and entrance for the royal family. At the time of its completion, its 34-metre tower was the only structure in Madagascar to be roofed in locally-sourced slate. The windows were decorated with stained glass, and a pipe organ was installed to provide music at services. The organ and stained glass were imported from England, while the pews, altar panels and queen's private pew were all ornately crafted from indigenous precious woods by local artisans. Partly damaged by the fire, it has since been restored.

inside Fiangonana chapel

From the Rova you can see Lake Anosy, an artificial heart-shaped lake located in the southern part of the city. On an island, connected to the shore by an isthmus, stands a large white angel on a plinth, a WWI memorial erected by the French in 1927.

View of Lake Anosy

panoramic view of part of Tana from the Rova

another view of Tana from the Rova

Next to the Rova is Andafiavaratra Palace, the residence of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony, who governed the island kingdom in the late 19th century. The building currently serves as a museum and houses an estimated 1466 objects of historical importance to the Kingdom of Madagascar that were rescued from the Rova fire.

Andafiavaratra Palace

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Sunday, 2 November 2014

South-west Madagascar

For our fifth trip to Madagascar we decided to concentrate on a region we'd never been to - the south-west. We flew to the region's capital Tulear, and while the provincial town itself is not very interesting for visitors (other than as a dusty transit point), nearby is the interesting Antsokay Arboretum.

male Madagascar Magpie Robin

Located 12km south-east of Tuléar, or Toliara to give it its proper Malagasy name, this botanical park is only 2 km north of the Tropic of Capricorn and 3km from the sea (Mozambique Canal). South-west Madagascar is an extremely dry ecosystem, and this is reflected in the Arboretum.

The name Antsokay comes from a nearby hamlet, where limestone is used to produce quicklime.

The Arboretum was created in 1980 by Swiss amateur botanist Hermann Petignat (1923-2000), and today covers 40 hectares.

nocturnal Madagascar nightjars (parent & youngster
sleeping on the ground during the day).

Madagascar Spiny-tailed iguana

It acts in three main areas: collection of native plants; carrying out research, mainly into the propagation of endangered plants to provide new plants for future reintroduction and habitat restoration programmes;  and education to raise public awareness.


Most of the plants in the collection are succulents from the Euphorbiaceae and Didiereaceae families. There are also a number of Pachypodiums which are trees with spines, enlarged trunks and few leaves; the name literally meats 'thick-footed'. The trunks are adapted to store water to survive seasonal drought.

Pachypodium geayi, one of the largest Pachypodiums

Crested Drongo nesting in a Pachypodium

Madagascar Hoopoe

Reddish-grey Mouse Lemurs 

Overall there are over 900 species of plants in the Arboretum, 90% of which are endemic to south-west Madagascar, and 80% have medicinal properties.

The Arboretum also has a small museum, a restaurant and even bungalows if you'd like to stay there.

Desert rose

It also hosts a collection of Radiated tortoises, which are native to southern Madagascar. Unfortunately these tortoises are endangered because of poaching and the destruction of their habitat by humans.

Radiata tortoise

Later the same day we also visited Saint Augustin (Anantson̈o in Malagasy), a town on a former floodplain near the mouth of the Onilahy river

part of modern-day Saint Augustin

It's interesting because it's the site of the very first English settlement in Madagascar in 1645, although there's nothing left of the settlement today. Of 140 original settlers only 12 survived!

boy playing in St Augustin

On the way back from Saint Augustin we stopped at Sarodrano natural pool, which is bi-level: jointly fed by tidal flow and freshwater springs. As a result it contains both fresh and saltwater fish at different depths.

Sarodrano natural pool

The next day it was time for us to pack our bags and take a four-hour drive inland to Isalo National Park. On the way we bought a bag of fresh tamarind being sold by children at the side of the road. The road (Route Nationale 7) is in a surprisingly good state of repair for Madagascar.

Route Nationale 7 on the way to Isalo

on the way to Isalo

We stayed near the Park at the wonderful Relais de la Reine Hotel.

part of the Relais de la Reine Hotel at sunset 

Isalo NP is known for its wide variety of terrain, including Jurassic-era sandstone formations, deep canyons, palm-lined oases and grassland. 

this rock formation is called the Queen of Isalo - you can see why

It covers an area of 82,000 hectares and is sometimes known as the "Malagasy Colorado" due to its resemblance with the American south-west.

A male ring-tailed lemur marking his territory in the Park

Nocturnal moths

The Park was created in 1962 and has been administered by Madagascar National Parks authority since 1997. The area is traditionally inhabited by the Bara people, a nomadic people subsisting on zebu farming. 

A total of 340 species of fauna are known to inhabit the area, including 82 species of birds, 33 species of reptiles, 15 species of frogs and 14 species of mammals, of which several species of lemur. There are also over 400 species of plant in the park, many of them endemic to the region. 

a chameleon
The first day we did a fairly easy 3km walk to a place called Cascades des Nymphes, literally 'Nymph waterfall'.

Nymph waterfall

The second day we took a much harder walk - about 20 km starting at a place called Canyon des Makis across the plateau to arrive at the beautiful Piscine Naturelle. 

small yellow-flowering Pachypodium rosulatum plants

local village and rice fields

view from the plateau 

dead snake

rare Phymateus Saxosus locust

close-up of the locust

Pisince Naturelle can be quite busy, but when we arrived, hot and dusty after a 5-hour walk, it was deserted!

this natural pool is called "Piscine Naturelle"

After three days and four nights in the Isalo region we headed back to the coast where we spent a week diving in the Ifaty region with Mangily Scuba, a dive centre run by American Anne Furr.

some Malagasy schoolchildren near the village of
Ambolimailaka, north of Ifaty

Our trip back to Reunion via Tananarive was mucked around with by Air Madagascar, and we ended up spending an unplanned 24 hours in the city - my first stay of any length there since 1991.

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