6. On the Road to Isalo National Park

After leaving the spiny forest, we had a couple of long drives ahead of us before reaching Ranomafana National Park on the eastern coast of Madagascar. Along the way, our guide Mark had several interesting stops planned to break the trip into manageable stretches.

On the ninth day of our trip, we left Ifaty to drive north and east on the only road up the center of the island toward Ranomafana. Our first day on the road proved to be the longest leg, 585 miles to Isalo National Park, where we spent the night. On later birding trips, I found out a drive of this length was not unusual in the many countries where rare birds lived and Madagascar was a prime example.

Pachypodia

Light traffic on the paved, two-lane road allowed us time to observe the oncoming vehicles on their way south, every vehicle jammed with passengers and cargo. Trucks hauled bags of charcoal, grain sacks, boxes, fuel, and people, while pickups and smaller vehicles carried cargo and passengers, with some people hanging off the sides. Our bus was possibly the lightest vehicle on the road and passed the others easily, sometimes on a curve, and always exciting. When our small bus approached trucks that swerved side to side with no centerline to guide them, I tried to reassure myself that I had survived similar hazards in Tanzania and Malawi. I was afraid to look over the driver’s shoulder at the speedometer, but I did fasten my seat belt hoping it would actually hold me tight if we went off the road!

 

Madagascar Partridges

We stopped occasionally to stretch and eat, but even so, it was a long day on the bus. Fortunately, we had air conditioning for the hottest mid-day hours. Finally, we turned east off the main road and picked up a local guide in Ranohira, a requirement for the visit to nearby Isalo National Park. This park is known for its deep canyons, dramatic sandstone formations, and gorgeous stretches of grassy savannahs. For us birders, it was a chance to see the Madagascar Partridge, which is only found in subtropical areas of Madagascar.

Isalo National Park

In the later afternoon, we welcomed the short climb up one of the sculpted buttes to reach the spot where the partridges might appear at dusk. The chance to stretch my muscles and breathe deeply felt divine after a day of sitting on the bus. We enjoyed the view on the ridge looking down on a grassy, flat, valley floor. The sun played on the dramatic sandstone formations that surrounded us and the shadows shifted on grey and beige rocky outcrops that popped into view. The day cooled as the sun reached for the horizon and we rested our tired eyes by studying the strange vegetation nearby. I loved the pachypodia, also called elephant’s foot, a desert plant that resembles a fat gourd with several thick stems growing out of the top, each crowned with a sweet yellow flower. Aloe and other dusty green succulents squirted out of the crevices.

Portland contingent with newspaper

The five of us from Portland posed for a photo holding our hometown newspaper, The Oregonian. We planned to submit the photo to the newspaper’s travel section when we returned to Portland. In the end, we didn’t follow through, and I regret I didn’t take at least one photo of all of us without the paper. However, I can still recall how serene I felt amidst peaceful wildlife surrounded by bizarre plants.

While we waited for the birds, a few of us sat on the exposed sandstone and soaked up the rocks’ warmth, quietly trading stories of other desert visits. At one point, Mark called softly to us, “Don’t move, but look under that overhanging rock. Madagascar partridges, one of our target birds for this location.”

Madagascar Partridges (Mark Smith)

The low light highlighted the round little birds and we could see the brown back, white-striped grey belly, and the dark head. Across a dip in the rock and under a giant overhang, five of the fat Madagascar partridges walked back and forth as if looking for something; seeds, or a hole for shelter, or maybe a trail that evaded them. Finally, they fluffed their feathers and settled on the warm rock shelf as dark shadows crawled across the flat desert.

 

My First Lamba, Something to Shop For!

We stayed in new cabins that had been built for park visitors in an open area away from the rocks. As usual we retired early, but just before climbing into bed I went outside. Far from the cabin lights, I first checked the ground with my flashlight looking for insects. Then I planted my feet and tipped my head back to enjoy the stars, a favorite desert activity. I knew it was best to stargaze lying on my back, but I didn’t know what might be waiting for me around my feet.

The night sky felt thick over my head, studded with thousands of pricks of light. The Milky Way flowed across the black dome and I picked out groups of stars that might have been constellations that I did not know. Gratitude flowed over me as I gazed at the boundless universe on a perfectly clear night, far from civilization.

After a comfortable night’s sleep, once again we joined the northbound traffic on the main road. Two hours later we pulled off the road and walked a short distance into the scrubby brush of another new environment, this one with less rock and more desert, and home to several more birds.

My first Lamba near Isalo

We were standing on the edge of a deep sandy road, binoculars ready for the next call, when a cart approached drawn by two jet-black zebus. The driver was a man wrapped in a dark red cloth imprinted with enormous yellow, blue, and green flowers. One glance and I loved this colorful wrap.

“Rivo, what do they call that fabulous colorful wrap that man has on?”

“It’s a lamba. Very popular here.”

“I want one!”

Rivo smiled at me indulgently, and did not reply.

I’ll find one, I vowed to myself.

The cart passed and the woman and girl also riding in the cart along with several bags of charcoal, wore more subdued clothing. They waved and stood up so they could watch us as the zebu plodded on.

 

Learning a Bird Song in Malagasy

The long bus ride went on and on. Rivo suggested, “Since you are all birders, would you like to learn a song about a bird? It’s one the children sing and it’s about a kestrel. It is quite simple.”

In our birding outings, we had seen several Madagascar Banded Kestrels sitting on sticks looking for lizards or other prey. Its relative, the American Kestrel, is a common raptor in North America. So, I loved the idea of learning a song about a familiar bird. Besides, I love to sing and always welcome the opportunity.

“It’s in Malagasy,” Rivo said. Even more fun, I thought.

He sang the song and I thought, The melody is simple, but the words! I wondered if I could ever figure them out. I have learned many songs through “oral tradition,” meaning there is no written music. What you hear is what you must learn—and in an unfamiliar language. For me, hearing what is said is a real challenge. I did my best to listen, but finally I had to ask Rivo to spell the words.

This is what I wrote with strikes added to help me find the syllables:

man/dihi/za rah/hi/tsi/ki/tsi/ka (2 times)

hi/a/na/ra/nay (2 times)

man/dihi/za rah/hi/tsi/ki/tsi/ka

hi/a/na/ra/nay raha/fa/ra/ra/no

man/dihi/za man/dihi/za

man/dihi/za rah/hi/tsi/ki/tsi/ka

 

Then I wrote what I was hearing, which didn’t look at all like what he spelled out: mandeeza ra-he-tzi-ki-tzi-ka hee/-a-na-ra-nai. I gave up, but I did finally learn some approximation of the song and loved having another language in my repertoire. More than a decade later, I can still sing this song although the occasions for doing so are rare.

While we struggled with this difficult song, our bus driver could hardly contain his choking laughter—our efforts sounded so funny to him.

I was reminded of my summer in Malawi years before. My Crossroads Africa group was constructing a building for the Young Pioneers who were being trained for leadership in the new nation. Their instructors, two Israelis, had them marching everywhere and singing as they went, which was a delightful background to our work. One day I heard a familiar tune, “Oh! Susanna,” but I could not recognize the words. As I strained to listen, I finally picked out the heavily-accented phrase, “I’m going to see Kamuzu with my banjo on my knee.” They were singing in English! “Kamuzu” was the name they called their new president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Since most of the trainees lived in rural areas and did not speak English well, if at all, their accents obscured the words. We were able to learn some of their songs, even though they were in the national language of Malawi, Chinyanja, which was later named Chichewa.

A few years after my Malawi summer, I met some college students visiting the United States from Malawi. In a friendly attempt to demonstrate my mastery of their language, I sang one of the songs I learned from the Young Pioneers. Their peals of laughter met my attempt, so, now, when I sing the song Rivo taught us in Madagascar, I imagine I sound just as mushy in my pronunciation as those Young Pioneers.

While eating lunch by the road that day, we heard one of the most uplifting birdcalls I have ever encountered. We had stopped on the eastern side of the highlands where increased rainfall nurtured thicker vegetation. Far over the forest canopy a pair of birds flew, looping, diving, and making a piercing, descending call that they repeated two or three times per swoop. They paused and then called again.

Cuckoo-rollers,” Mark noted.

The birds were just silhouettes against the sky, but their flight and joyful song grabbed everyone’s attention. That was another moment that I will never forget. Over the course of several days, I heard the same sharp call, and to this day I delight remembering that carefree flight.

After many years of birding, I now look back and know that joy is too strong an attribute for birds. They do what they do because it is in their genes—but I do not deny the joy I feel while watching them. Birds thrill me in so many ways. Sometimes a bird has flamboyant colors, or its song touches my heart, or perhaps I know I am observing a rarely seen bird. That’s why I go on birding trips—I treasure those uplifting moments that make me smile.