And so the day of our camping adventure tonight had arrived. I packed my sleeping bag and an extra set of clothes in case it got cold at night. Christophe had arranged that we could leave all our luggage in one room in the hotel in Ambatofinandranaha where we would return after our night under canvas.
We were greeted at breakfast by Jean Baptiste, a Malagasy botanist who lives in this town with the unpronounceable name (Ambatofinandranaha). John and Christophe went to see him and his garden yesterday afternoon while I stayed in the hotel to back up the images to date prior to our camping adventure – no internet of course. Jean has been acknowledged in a number of books including the Aloe of Madagascar by father and son team Castillon. He knows his Aloes and has discovered a number of new Malagasy Aloes.
Jean was with us as a guide, essential on the poor tracks. For years he had explored the area on foot. Not such a bad idea as it took us some 8 hours to cover the 40 km! This included some road side stops to photograph plants, scenery and road conditions. It also included a stop to rebuild a bridge, something that we had to repeat the next day, on the way back!
This had better be special! It was!!!
There had been some rain a few days earlier and there were still puddles on the track. This was the start of the rainy season that could turn the track into an impassable mud pool. Fingers crossed for a dry 48 hours, otherwise we might not get home in time for our flight home. We drove over the mostly gently rolling hills past small forests, rice paddies and burnt fields, always seeing two to three house settlements somewhere in the landscape. The population of the island is increasing at an alarming rate!
Madagascar has lost more than 33% of its forests since the 1970s and has attained the highest soil erosion rates in the world of 20,000-40,000 tonnes/km²/year. These statistics are difficult to visualise – not until you drive through the country do the figures take on meaning, as you drive past reasonably burned fields and see the large areas that are now rice paddies as the growing population tries to feed itself.
The Itremo Massif is part of a conservation project where Kew is one of the partners of a 273 km² protected area in the central highlands in Madagascar. Quoting the Kew website for the project: ‘Initial botanical surveys have revealed over 560 species of plants, of which around 10% are only known from the Itremo Massif. Highlights include 3 species of lemur, 9 species of chameleon and a critically endangered frog.’ Check out the video included on the site that gives a good overview of this.
Sadly, collecting of some of the species for the C&S Hobby is quoted as a major threat to the species concerned. Some of the pachycauls that we saw and photographed must be of a significant age and it will take many more years for these to be replaced by nature.
The poor quality of the track leading to Itremo is of such poor quality that it should discourage Eco tourists to travel here, although the price of plants offered for sale in Europe could make commercial collection of plants by the truck load an attractive proposition. In other countries the tell tale signs of holes left in the desert ground tell the story. Fortunately we did not see any such signs on our trip.
We made slow but steady progress until we came to a nice looking river valley
Unfortunately we needed to cross the river to continue our journey. Fortunately there was a bridge, unfortunately it did have a significant number of planks missing. What to do? Jean Baptiste suggested that supply trucks pass along this road and often carry some planks to overcome such events, so suggested a wait. I managed to cross the bridge on foot and after about 500 m came across a second, longer bridge, again with half the planks missing. It should be possible to take planks from this bridge to the first bridge, fix it, cross it and then strip down #1 to fix bridge #2. The plan was communicated to the twenty or so members of the community of all ages who started the task of moving wood immediately, leaving a small team of negotiators to agree the price of the work. 10,000 ariary, about £2.50, for both bridges and an assurance that our team of bridge builders would still be available the following day to reverse the task and allow us over again for the same price.
Their were signs at the second bridge suggested that this was not an entirely unusual experience for the community as a dozen ladies had set up a small cafeteria serving coffee, roasted nuts and fruits. Good to know for the return journey.
We passed a hillside with lots of tall Aloes. As the bridge incident had taken quite some time, Christophe allowed us to take some pictures from the car but promised that we’d have a longer stop on the way back, tomorrow. Not long after we entered the village that was home to the Reserve’s admin office.
We reported to the admin office but there was no one home – it was Sunday. We promised to stop by the next day and promised to pay our fees then. There was even a hotel, Hotel Clement. We went into the restaurant for a nice cool Coca Cola, but although there was a fridge, there was no electricity, so it was luke warm. A crowd of people had gathered. They all seemed to know Jean who chatted with most of the adults.
We drove on and eventually turned a corner and were confronted be a flat grass covered area full of white flowers. These were
We took a lot of pictures until we noticed that these plants grew in quartz sand and pebbles and that hidden between the grass were hundreds of small plants with yellow flowers: Euphorbia quartziticola, the target plant that we had made this hard drive for! Christophe told us that our planned campsite was near by, se we drove on and were pleased that this area too was covered in the Crinum sp. and on quartz sand / gravel. And sure enough, the ground was covered in yellow flowers!
John and I were sent away to let Nadia and Christophe set up the tents. I followed Jean who was collecting wood for tonight’s campfire. Where are the Eulychnia when you need them? Oh yes, in Chile. He pointed out a small area with shrubs and told me to look for Pachypodium brevicaule. Easy to find! There must have been some twenty plants, partly buried, unlike the plants earlier on the trip found on Mt Ibite that were mostly growing fully exposed above ground.
When I got back to our camp, the tents were up.
The ground was hard as I remembered from other camping sessions and there was a distinct lack of 5 litre bottles of Chilean Cabinet Sauvignon. Nadia had brought along a small bottle of rum, so at least we toasted her dinner in style!