It was always overcast and often raining during our days in Ranomafana, and when we set off southeast, we were mainly going through drizzle. That was not so much of a problem, for at least the rain kept things cool and we could cycle all day without having to stop at mid-day when the sun would be at its most oppressive.
The road, which remains fully paved all the way to the coast, initially proceeds through a much greener part of the country than we had seen so far. Although deforestation is visible here and there, the jungle landscape of Ranomafana extends for a long time after the national park itself.
The houses in the lowlands here are very different from the stately red earthen homes in the highlands, as they are very small, built out of bamboo and palms and set on stilts a hand’s breadth above the ground. The people have changed too as we have entered the home of another ethnic group: women had elaborate braids and both sexes occasionally wear hats that look like the tubeteika of Central Asia.
We passed a big market in the village of Kianjavato, spread out along the RN45 and bringing traffic to a crawl. Many Malagasy we have passed are dressed in old clothes that are falling apart, but the market offered mainly new clothes from China.
We stopped for the night in Irondro, the bustling series of eateries and small shops that has grown around the intersection where the road splits into the RN25 east towards Mananjary and (our route) the RN12 southeast towards Manakara. The owner of the hotely where we had a late lunch/early dinner had the affable air that distinguishes restaurant proprietors who have clearly dealt with many tourists before. Indeed, we saw a couple of backpackers walking around outside, and two European (CoE and not EU, I think) election observers came in to have lunch too.
As there was no formal guesthouse in the village, we asked at the hotely for une chambre. The proprietor led us now the street to a series of wooden huts, one room of which was let to us for the night. It had evidently once belonged to a teenage male, as the walls were adorned with posters of such Western pop stars as Britney Spears, Toni Braxton and Avril Lavigne in lurid poses. The mattress and mosquito net were considerably more dodgy than usual, in spite of a woman putting on fresh sheets, so we cleared the chairs and table out of the way and put up our tent on the floor to act as a mosquito net. We slept much more comfortably on the hard floor than on the excessively soft and filthy mattress, and the room was well worth the 8,000 ariary (approximately 2.67€) that we were asked to pay.
The next day, mostly clear and utterly without rain, initially felt like a return to the highlands. The road south from Irondro went for over 50 kilometres through rolling hills (with difficult uphills) with evidence of massive deforestation around us. This must have all been rainforest at some point, but now only palm and banana trees are left. Unlike in the highlands, the terrain hasn’t been turned into rice paddies, so presumably the trees were cut down to make charcoal or to sell abroad. It was sad. A lack of trees also meant a lack of shade, so it got very hot. Happily, the second half of the day brought us into a more verdant strip of road. 30 km or so from Manakara, the RN12 road starts to run alongside the Fianarantsoa–Coté Est railway, which we hope to use to get back up to the highlands after we leave here.
Manakara seems a prosperous town, though not quite at the level of Antsirabe. I expected to see a few Westerners here, and indeed there are many, but they are almost all old French men. The owner of the hotel we are staying in (Les Flamboyants) appears to be the French honorary consul here, and he was joined today at the restaurant by a few of his hoary compatriots, the whole ensemble looking like something from an era of their country long past (cigarettes in hand, too, something of a shock after we have almost never seen people smoking in this country).
For the first time since we arrived in Madagascar, it feels like we are in the tropics for real. It is not appreciably hotter near sea level than in the highlands (if anything, it is cooler in the places with a lot of trees), but the humidity is much higher. There is a mural here in Manakara encouraging people not to leave stagnant water outside their homes so mosquitos won’t breed, and to go to the doctor if one feels symptoms of malaria.