the wild wild west
The last stop on our tour was Isalo National Park, a 120km stretch of sandstone massif that held out the promise of idyllic waterfalls, cool swimming holes, and cloistered canyons. The park is also home to more than 80 bird species and three different kinds of lemurs, making it a popular tourist destination. In fact, according to Roland, Isalo receives more foreign visitors than any other park in Madagascar.
Even so, we found Isalo to be distinctly underwhelming. To make the canyons accessible, steps have been chiseled into the rocks and cement poured in between some of the stones to form walkways, robbing the park of much of its charm. Although the trails are clearly signposted – there were even distance markers every 50 meters – visitors to Isalo are required to have a guide. Ours was one of the few English-speaking guides available, but his English was barely intelligible and his tendency to light up a cigarette whenever we stopped somewhere for more than a few minutes further detracted from the visit. We did see lemurs at the campsite where we had lunch, but they were the same ring-tails we had seen the previous day in greater numbers in Tsaranoro. In short, Isalo was pretty and we enjoyed our dip in the icy waters of its swimming holes, but it was also far from unique and paled in comparisons to other canyons we’ve visited.
The area’s other big draw is the luxury hotels that have been erected to capitalize on the influx of foreign tourists. The one where we stayed – Le Jardin du Roy – more than lived up to its majestic name. The villas, nestled between the jagged rock outcrops of the Isalo massif, were painstakingly constructed out of small fragments of shale that fit together in a puzzle-perfect way with larger rocks. From the gourmet food to the spa, this was our first opportunity to pamper ourselves and we did not pass it up. Rather than return to the national park for another half-day of hiking, as planned on our itinerary, we decided to sleep in and enjoy the stark beauty of “the Colorado of Madagascar” poolside before departing for Tulear.
The allusion to the Wild West of the United States is more than just a passing reference to the stunning scenery of this area. A mere 10km after Isalo, we passed through a town that sprang up virtually overnight in the final months of 1998. Lavishly embellished mansions abutted ramshackle wooden huts clustered around a tiny river that snaked its way through the otherwise barren plains. Sapphires were discovered in the nearby hills, setting off a craze reminiscent of the Gold Rush era and instantaneously transforming this previously quiet corner of Fianarantsoa Province. While it is the Malagasy who mine and wash the stones, it is mostly foreigners who reap the benefits. The government lacks the resources to nationalize or even regulate the mining business. Most of the operations are owned by shady Thai and Sri Lankan businessmen while the only Malagasies who seem to benefit are the ones who provide security to the foreign investors.
Tulear, a beach town on Madagascar’s south-western shore, marks the end of the first leg of our journey. From here, we will fly back to Tana while Roland takes two or three days to retrace the route we’ve traveled.