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East of Africa: the Road to Tuléar
I sneak a glance at the side-view mirror to try and catch a reflection of my face; I'm trying hard to look at ease, but my tight grip on the door handle suggests otherwise. It certainly isn't the worst road I've been on in Africa, but it seems that our driver is intent on moving as fast as the laws of physics will allow; navigating hundreds of hairpin turns with haste so that we can get off the road by nightfall.
The road to Tuléar is a voyage that remains unexplored by most of the tourists that come to Madagascar; it takes two full days of driving (at top speed) with a midway night rest in Fianarantsoa. The route is a grueling stretch of reasonably well-maintained asphalt that spans almost 1000km from the highlands of Antananarivo to the plains of the island's Southwestern coast. It's a two-lane road that often converges into a single lane for bridge crossings, but traffic is so sparse that there's rarely an issue with oncoming traffic.
I scan the landscape for the simple mud huts that I was familiar with in Tanzania, but all the houses seem to be well constructed, two-story structures made of mud, brick, and wood. Their orange color matches the vibrance of the earth that they sit on, with most capped by neatly thatched roofs. They are by no means comfortable, spacious, or in many cases even wired for electricity; but so far there are no signs of shantytowns in the countryside. While Madagascar is still one of the poorest nations in the world, it seems that the standard of living in the rural areas is relatively higher than that of other places I've been to.
Every small town that we pass through has several staple elements: a large central catholic church complete (steeple and all), a diverse selection of roadside cafes, and painted signs with bold blue letters that spell out "CECAM" - apparently one of Madagascar's largest micro-finance lenders.
On the outskirts of each small town, young boys stand near the road with a small hand extended. Next to them are shovels and mounds of dirt, which they have been using to patch potholes in the road, and which they hope will earn them a few hundred ariary. We oblige; it's an impressive display of entrepreneurship for a service that is welcome and necessary.
The landscape continues to change; the golden plains and green hillsides turn into dry mesas. It's like driving through the entire range of California's landscape in a matter of hours; which makes it believable that Madagascar houses five percent of the world's plant and animal species. For the most part, the land appears untouched and unsettled, the most beautiful of which has been claimed by the national park system. When Ravalomanana was president, he promised to protect over 60,000 square kilometers of land; a step up from the 17,000 square kilometers that are currently protected.
One of the larger reserves that we pass is Isalo National Park; home to 82 species of birds, 33 species of reptiles, 15 species of frogs and 14 species of mammals. The most dramatic sight from the road is Ranohira Mountain; a rock formation that almost appears to be monolithic, but is actually part of a small range called the Isalo Massif.
There's enough time to briefly get out and take some pictures, but the driver emphasizes that we must get back on the road if we want to complete the last several hundred kilometers in the light; we have one last stop in a town called Ilakaka, where the sales team hopes to generate some lamp & panel sales.
I hop in the truck, thankful that the windy mountain curves have transformed into long stretches of road, and hopeful that we'll only have to listen through the Jerry Marcoss album two more times.
Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series here!