My time at Honko was incredible, and it was so sad to say goodbye to all the wonderful people I met during my time as a volunteer. But after I was waved off by my friends in Ambondrolava, I still had two and a half weeks left to see a little more of Madagascar before my flight home. So from Tulear I jumped on a taxi-brousse headed towards Fianarantsoa to begin the final part of my Madagascar Adventure. After a typically lengthy-but-lively taxi-brousse journey (why anyone would want to fly when you can journey with the locals, while listening to the latest Malagasy pop with a chicken under your feet, is beyond me), I arrived at the station in Fianar and took a taxi to the sweet Hotel Arinofy. It was a short walk back to the taxi-brousse station early the next morning, where I got into another car headed to Ranomafana National Park.
Ranomafana National Park is amazing. It’s only two to three hours from Fianar, so I arrived before lunch time and was able to arrange for a guide to take me into the park that afternoon. The tropical rainforest ecosystem is vastly different from anything I had seen in Madagascar up until that point as the climate in Tuelar is semi-arid. The vegetation in Ranomafana is lush and gorgeous, and provided welcome shade from the afternoon sun. I walked with my guide for about 3 hours spotting birds and insects, as well as a Gold-collared Bright Snake and some adorable Greater Bamboo Lemurs: two more species endemic to Madagascar. The next day I went into the park again and saw more fascinating wildlife including a Leaf-tailed Gecko, Red-bellied Lemurs and Golden Bamboo Lemurs which were discovered in Ranomafana. After an afternoon of relaxation, my guide took me on a night walk and I saw several chameleons and frogs, and the nocturnal Brown Mouse Lemur. I saw so much in the day and a half I spent in Ranomafana, but only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. I really cannot overstate how incredible this National Park is.
The next day I taxi-broussed towards Manakara. A quick tip here: I bought the ticket for my journey to Manakara while in Fianar, at the same time as buying my ticket to Ranomafana. This is because there isn’t a taxi-brousse station in Ranomafana so getting a ride can be even more unpredictable than usual. I bought my ticket in Fianar, exchanged numbers with the taxi-brousse driver and arranged to be picked up from my hostel in Ranomafana a couple of days later. The scenery along the road to Manakara is stunning. I arrived at my hotel in the afternoon and had a few hours to explore the town, though unfortunately this is all I saw of Manakara. This is because the reason I had travelled to the coast was not really to spend time in Manakara (though I’m told it’s lovely) it was to experience the journey away from it, back to Fianar, by train. There are only two trains per week going from Manakara to Fianar; you can’t count on them running every time, certainly not on time. And one of the journeys on this particular week was due to depart at 6:45 am the following day. So, due to a combination of my limited time and total lack of planning, I rose early the next morning to catch the train.
I have never experienced a train journey like the one from Manakara to Fianar via the FCE (Fianarantsoa – Côte Est) railway. The journey was long: the train departed at 7:30 am and I arrived in Fianar at 2:30 am the following morning. You need patience and a strong bladder if you are to attempt this journey. But it’s fun! The landscapes you will journey through are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and you will stop at every bustling station along the way. The lines were built in the 1930s and the train will probably break down several times during the journey, but even when this occurs apparently in the middle-of-nowhere, Malagasy folk will flock to the carriages trying to sell you fried snacks and fruits, hats and baskets. The people were definitely my favourite thing about the journey. The train filled up as we get closer to Fianar – I had treated myself to a first class seat and by the end, in true Malagasy style, I was squeezed onto it with a couple of other people. But any discomfort I felt must have been nothing compared to that of the locals who were standing for hours, uncomplaining as ever. I will remember this journey, and the incredible patience of Malagasy people the next time I want to whine about not getting a seat during a 30 minute journey in England. If you want a true Malagasy experience – I recommend the FCE railway.
For the final part of my trip in Madagascar, I wanted to relax at the beach. So from Fianar, I journeyed to Tamatave (with a stopover in Tana) and then took a boat to Ile Sainte Marie. This is a gorgeous island off Madagascar’s East coast. It’s pretty touristy, but still pleasantly quiet. It’s possible to do activities such as whale watching off the island, but having spent most of my Madagascar funds I opted not to. I spent the majority of my final few days in the country on an even smaller island off the tip of Sainte Marie: Ile aux Nattes. This really is a tropical paradise, and the most peaceful place I have ever been. I stayed in a lovely bungalow at Chez Sika overlooking white sands and a bright turquoise sea. The paths along the beach and around the village in the interior offered just enough opportunity for exploration, whilst letting me concentrate most of my time on laying in the sun (I did get sunburned, as is inevitable when working on your ‘tan’ to show off to all your friends back home in a few days time). A few days of rest prepared me for the long and reluctant journey back to Tana and, finally, home.
In Madagascar, two and a half weeks of travel goes very fast; at 590 000 km2 the island really is vast, and incredibly slow to get around. This is particularly true if, like me, your budget restricts you to taxi-brousse-or-train-only travel. But, hey, the journey is half the fun isn’t it? (A sentiment I feel is especially true in Madagascar, and always true on a taxi-brousse.) And unfortunately, you have to allow for cancelled flights / broken down taxi-brousses / unspecified train journey durations, so you do need to leave yourself plenty of time to get back to Tana to catch your flight home. If you are lucky enough to have time to spend exploring the beautiful island, make the most of it by ensuring that you have an idea of key things you want to do before you leave and some idea of how to do them. There are so many incredible places to see and things to experience in Madagascar; I loved the way I spent my two and a half weeks after leaving Honko, but there is much more of the island I didn’t get to see. So go, explore, enjoy because this is a country like no other and wherever you decide to venture, you are guaranteed to have experiences that you will never forget.