There are no tigers, but the eyes of the grey brown mouse lemur and the sportive lemur are surely burning bright in your guide's torchlight. Then they scuttle away into the darkness. One can only walk in the forest in private reserves like Berenty these days (one of the reasons we chose to come).
Our walk was in the spiny forest, and was suitably spooky as we followed the dusty trail, amongst towering spiny Alluaudias, stark white in torchlight against an inky sky. In the dry season there is only a little foliage, all the better to see the many chameleons, hanging from the branches like so much strange fruit.
After a 45 minute stroll, an owl bid us farewell as we headed back to the lodge for an evening meal.
Elsewhere I have vented my spleen at the parlous state of the Fort Dauphin - Berenty road. What I didn't mention is that it is an extremely interesting drive, both from a landscape and cultural perspective, as you advance inland from the coastal fringe into the spiny forest.
One of the most interesting sites en route was the cattle market at Ankaraneno, which happened to be on the day we passed through (a Thursday). As with many developing world cultures, wealth tends to be kept on the hoof rather than in bank vaults, and cattle play an integral part in people's lives. As a result, the cattle market is a vibrant, bustling affair and a major social event: also, as the village is only located 25km inland from Fort Dauphin (along the least unacceptable section of the road), you have not yet been shaken into an apathetic stupour!
The only problem with combining this market with your trip to Berenty is that if you're in the reserve's own vehicle (which I think most visitors are?) they are not keen to let you stop for more than a few minutes, as they want to get to the reserve as quickly as possible (they also know only too well what the road ahead has in store!). To be fair to them, the vehicles are intended as a shuttle service - rather than a sightseeing tour - so I can understand their point, but it can be a little frustrating when you come across such an interesting event and can't stop to give it the time and attention it deserves. If you are not visiting Berenty and are into people (and zebu) watching, I would say that this market is well worth a dedicated trip from Fort Dauphin.
I must declare that I can see why the local people are so enthusiastic about zebus - they come with such a fascinating range of markings and, better still, they taste absolutely delicious!
I dearly wish that we had been able to spend more time in Fort Dauphin - we only passed through for a couple of hours en route for Berenty, and the little that we saw of the scenery was stunning. In our two visits to Madagascar, it is the only truly rocky coastline that we've seen, and in fact, if you'd asked me to identify the location from the photos above, I'd have suggested it was somewhere in the Western Cape of South Africa.
After the suffocating torpor of Toliara (where we'd flown in from), there was also a very welcome sea breeze blowing in, and it had the breezy air of a coastline that warranted closer inspection: in hindsight, if we'd know this, we'd have skipped the very underwhelming Anakao and flown straight to Fort Dauphin.
However, don't expect any bargains in Fort Dauphin, as it is currently experiencing an economic boom due to Rio Tinto's massive QMM mineral sands project on the edge of town. This project has created literally thousands of jobs, and has placed considerable pressure on everything from housing to availability of air flights between Fort Dauphin (which nobody seems to call by its new name of Taolagnaro), pushing prices upwards.
The QMM project will mine ancient dunes along the coastline to recover ilmenite and rutile (the little black specks you often see in beach sand), which are subsequently used to produce titanium dioxide - used in sunscreens and as a pigment. The process is not quite as invasive as it sounds, since much of the indigenous vegetation on the dunes that will be mined has already been irreparably damaged by human activity. As a biodiversity offset for the land they will disturb, Rio have also established three nature reserves (the largest being Mandena) where pristine dune ecosystems are being preserved and will be used for education and ecotourist purposes.
Of all the interesting things that we saw along the Berenty road, by far and away the one that intrigued me most was the aggregate extraction. Maybe it's because I am originally a geologist, and more likely because I have had periperal involvement in research around the sustainability of 'sand harvesting' (the euphemism most often applied to this practice in areas where the extraction rate exceeds the rate at which the resource is replenished from upstream in major flow events, rendering aggregate extraction unsustainable).
Aggregate needs to be sourced wherever cement, concrete or mortar is required for construction purposes. In the developing world, this is most commonly from a river bed, which removes the need for expensive crushing. In areas which experience fairly consistent river flow, aggregate needs to be dredged from the river bed: however, in areas such as this, where there are marked differences in seasonal flow, the sand can be recovered by hand or mechanical means.
What impressed me most was the sophistication of the materials handling system. The number of stockpiles - each for a different particle size or shape - was astonishing: each presumably customised to a particular use. What was even more amazing was to watch sand being shipped in on shallow draught boats - presumably to provide a product unavailable locally?
If only some of the mining companies that I have worked with over the years had had such effective quality management systems! It's only a shame that such wonderful aggregate has not been put to use in fixing the infernal road!
In every village along the Fort Dauphin - Berenty road, you will come across a number of charcoal sellers: this is to be expected, as grid power has yet to reach most of the remote areas of the country (and even those areas which have been electrified experience often frequent supply outages).
This presents one of the great moral challenges for visitors who consider themselves environmentally responsible - and come to places like Madagascar to marvel at the extraordinary and unique fauna and flora. The charcoal (and firewood) being sold is generated from the surrounding forests, many of which form part of fragile and threatened ecosystems. Close to centres of population, the 'sustainable' sources of firewood and charcoal (fallen trees and branches) have long since been exhausted, and thus wood is gathered by felling living trees, usually with no corresponding programme of reforestation (and, even if this happens, very seldom with indigenous species).
There is no easy answer: people need a fuel source for cooking and heating, and in the absence of any alternative, firewood and charcoal are the only options. However, when you consider the quantity of charcoal on sale and mentally convert it to the amount of wood that would need to be harvested to generate the fuel sources that are on sale, it reinforces the pressure that people are placing on the natural resource base. When you consider that many of the areas in which wood is being collected are either within or adjacent to vulnerable habitats, it throws into stark relief the immense threat that population pressure poses to Madagascar's biodiversity.
Perhaps the only positive note that I can add to this rather depressing note is that the packaging is generally recyclable - virtually all the charcoal we saw being sold was packed into old rice bags!
Conventional medicine in most parts of Africa - and particularly in the more remote regions - takes second place to traditional medicine, and Madagascar is no exception. People place greater trust in what they know, and what has served their ancestors for generations, and traditional medicine is generally more readily available, and often more affordable than 'western' drugs.
This photo is of a traditional medicine stall in a village not far from Berenty. We were assured by our guide that some of the bark on sale had properties similar to Viagra: all we can say is judging by the number of children running around, it must be jolly effective!
One of the most rewarding aspects of Malagasy culture is the distinct contrast between the culture of the various regions - I often think that the homogenisation of culture in 'first world' nations lessens the 'regionality', which is not necessarily a good thing.
The tombs of, and memorials to, the dead are of enormous importance in Madagascar because the ancestors exert such a profound influence on the living. Along the road to Berenty, these memorials have an intriguing shape, and in certain lights, these can resemble clusters of missiles pointing skyward!
Most of these memorials feature some sort of illustration of the person's life: often a portrait, or perhaps an illustration of his or her life. They are usually meticulously upkept, and in the blindingly bright light of Berenty, the whitewash can be dazzling even from a distance.
As we were travelling this road, we happened across a bus returning a body to the deceased's home village for burial - presumably the occupants were travelling down for the funeral. The body appeared to be wrapped in cloths and was loaded onto the luggage rack on the roof, along with the baggage of the passengers. It was a very hot day, and the sign indicated that the bus originated from Toamasina, more that half a (very large) island away: goodness knows what state the body was in. It seemed disrespectful to photograph something so personal, but it did reinforce for me the significance of the rituals around death and the dead, and the immense resources that are required to fulfil the requirements of religions that place such importance on the ancestors.