Seeking Enlightenment After The End Of The Magical Madagascar Cycling Tour

It is my next to last day in Madagascar and the Magical Madagascar Cycling Tour has come to an end. I am still staying at the hotel next to where the tour ended, a small establishment with six or seven rooms overlooking the beach. It is an idyllic simple place, run by a charming Malagasy woman whose father was Vietnamese and who speaks a dozen or so languages. She has worked and travelled the world and now runs her own little place which includes a day care for her employee’s children.

In the morning, I open the door of my room and find the table on the porch overlooking the beach is already set up for breakfast. A little green gecko is checking the butter and the jam and then stands still beside the warm container of tea as if to warm up before exploring the rest of the table. Peaceful waves rhythmically flow and ebb over the golden sand.

Many of the riders on our tours, in particular the challenging expeditions where we are all often beyond our comfort zones, have mentioned that TDA prepares them well for their tours, but that they feel lost once they return home after the tour. After cycling over two thousand kilometres from south to north in Madagascar, I feel the same way. I have been exposed to so many new sights, sounds and ideas that they are rushing around in my head like thousands of loose electrons bumping into each other.

The way I deal with the issue of being a bit overwhelmed is to try to find a quiet corner somewhere and just allow my system to adjust and give my subconscious mind the time to rest and do its work. I find that a period of two or three days usually allows me to return to my regular life at home with little or no disruption.

The way I deal with the issue of being a bit overwhelmed is to try to find a quiet corner somewhere and just allow my system to adjust and give my subconscious mind the time to rest and do its work. Walking the streets of cities for hours on end will have the same effect. I find that a period of two or three days usually allows me to return to my regular life at home with little or no disruption.

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Yesterday, as part of this simple routine, Ruth and I went into Hell-Ville, the largest town on Nosy Be. There was not much to do and see in the town in spite of its portentous name but a half hour walk outside of the city limits there was a place we had decided to visit.

It is there, around the year 1800, that a tree, now considered sacred, was planted by Indian traders. Though our expectations were low, once we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to find a colossal ‘ficus religiosa‘, also known as a Banyan tree. Unfortunately, I do not travel with a drone so I can’t really show you how impressive the tree actually is. Think of an area of a football field taken over by one tree.

There are other sacred trees on the island. As part of the Sakalava culture, one of the main Malagasy tribes, these locales are places where communication between heaven and earth takes place. It is in spots like these where the spirits of the elders (Razana) reside.

Madagascar has plenty of its own amazing trees and some have been designated as sacred places, but this one unique tree is an import. However, it was designated sacred by Queen Sakalava Tsiomeko because it was here that she was made the queen of the island. Banyan trees are also venerated by Hindus and Buddhists and it was under the Bodhi tree where the one called Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, attained enlightenment.

Prayer flags, Bodhi tree, Lumbini, Nepal

Seeking some enlightenment of my own, it did not take much time for me to realize that in just six weeks I would be embarking on another challenging bike tour, the Trans Himalaya Cycling Tour, from Kashmir to Kathmandu. One of the places we will have a rest day is Lumbini in Nepal, the birth place of the Buddha. Frankly, I have no idea what all of this means except that when I am there, I will likely be thinking of a tree in Madagascar and pondering my own future spiritual path. Stay tuned…

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When You Gotta Go: Another Wildlife Encounter On The Magical Madagascar Cycling Tour

I like seeing wildlife. Over a life of outdoor living and adventures, I have inadvertently come across many potentially dangerous animals. Like the wolf that decided to check me over while I was napping in the forest while taking a break from mountain biking. When I opened my eyes the wolf and I closely looked at each for about thirty seconds and then he decided that I was not that interesting.

On my first visit to Banff National Park in Alberta Canada 45 years ago, I got off the bus in the bus station at 3 AM and figured there was no point in trying to find a place to sleep, especially being rather short on money. So I walked to a nearby city park and crawled into my sleeping bag only to be awakened an hour later by a black bear looking for something to eat. He looked at me for a while as I contemplated how to defend myself. Then the bear decided that nearby garbage can was more interesting than I was. I happily agreed.

A decade or so later, I decided to spend a night in Kalahari National Park in Botswana without a tent, which was against the written warning at the park entrance. I built a small fire and crawled into my sleeping bag only to wake up a little later surrounded by tarantulas, which I gathered were kind of deadly if they happened to bite you.

‘Hey this is my territory, buzz off’

On my first ever safari in Tanzania, after siting in vehicle for a couple of hours, I asked my guide if I could take a pee break. It was the dry season and the grass was a couple of feet high. The guide looked around and said ok. I jumped out of the Land Rover and, out of politeness to others in the vehicle, I walked a few metres into the grass and suddenly noticed right in front of me, at a distance of maybe three or four metres, a beautiful lion lifting its head and looking at me with bored interest, likely saying ‘Hey this is my territory, buzz off’. Being very polite, I started moving back very, very slowly.

My motto at all times is that catching a glimpse of other forms of life is wonderful. I try not to bother them and in return I hope that they do not bother me – a sort of mutual respect. Over all, with one unfortunate exception in India with an irate elephant, this philosophy has worked – until last week. In a previous blog, Wonders of the Magical Madagascar Cycling Tour, I wrote about all kinds of wonderful flora and fauna on this island. On one of the nature walks I took here, the guide pointed out, believe it or not, a large ant nest like sack the size of a very elongated large watermelon, suspended from a tree. This type of tree nest apparently is an adaptation by the ants to avoid having their nest being swept away during flooding.

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A couple of days ago as I was cycling and the day grew hotter, I needed to relieve myself, to find some privacy and a spot to squat and do my thing. The area we were cycling in had been pretty much deforested but in the distance I saw a tree not very far from the road. It looked secluded enough and shaded enough that I could squat for hours (after all I am of a certain age) without being stared at from vehicles, passers by and fellow cyclists, both local and my co-travellers. I dismounted, walked to the tree, found a nice spot, dug a little hole and did my thing.

After I was done, I got up, my head touched a tree branch and the next thing I knew was that I was being stung all over my head, my back and my arms. The pain was almost paralyzing. As you might expect, my reactions were swift, my arms moving in all directions like the blades of a high tech drone. Unfortunately, unlike a drone, with my pants around my ankles and acutely aware that I did not want to step into the little pile I just created on the ground, I was not able to lift off. I will leave the rest to your imagination.

For the sake of the well being of other innocent travellers in this part of the world, especially for cyclists on long travel days, when you need to do what you need to do, check to see what is above your head. Those large Madagascar ants have one hell of a sting!

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The Wonders On The Magical Madagascar Cycling Expedition

Over my life, sometimes because I had no choice, sometimes because my job required it, often because my curiosity and interest took me there, I have travelled a lot. I believe I have visited, worked and spent more than a few days in about 100 countries. So if the 100th happens to be the country I am in right now, Madagascar, then it could not have been a more appropriate place to reach this milestone. The reason is simple. When it comes to the flora and fauna on this, the 4th largest island in the world, there is simply nothing comparable anywhere else in the world. Some of you may say, what about Galapagos Islands? I will respond simply by saying, come and see for yourself and then let me know if you do not agree.

Looking around and wondering what the heck the people around me were talking about, eventually I began to see its nose, eyes, head and, finally, its whole body.

Take for instance, since I am talking about travelling, the Traveller Tree, otherwise known as Ravenala. This beautiful, big, fan-like tree, which many people mistake to be part of the palm tree family, opens its’ ‘fan like’ crown from east to west. If a traveller is lost they can immediately orient themselves in the right direction. That is not the end of the wonders of this tree. A thirsty traveller can poke the tree at any point and a glassful of drinking water will gush out.

One hundred and thirty five million years ago Godwana, the prehistoric super continent, broke from Africa and South America, creating India which subsequently broke up 88 million years ago, spawning Madagascar. This ‘earth shattering’ development allowed plants and animals to develop in complete isolation, creating a rather amazing array of plants and animal species. As a result, 90% of the flora and fauna here are endemic to this island.

So even an old traveller, and not particularly observant individual, like myself can’t help but see the wonders everywhere. How can one miss the succulent Didierea madagascariensis, commonly known as the octopus tree, which grows to 100 meters high? On the other end of the spectrum there are wondrous medical plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle from which drugs that treat Hodgkin’s disease, leukaemia and other cancers are extracted. Even if you are not a great flower fan, you cannot help but be impressed when there are over 800 orchids species found here and, of course, there are the amazing six endemic species of baobabs, some even cuddle themselves in permanent embrace.

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Not to be outdone, the animal kingdom is full of its own marvels. First there are the 113 or so species of lemurs, primates that evolved separately on Madagascar. One can spend hours observing the dancing Sifaka leaping from tree to tree or, if you are patient enough, watch the bamboo-eating lemur feast on a species of bamboo that contains arsenic and would kill any other animal. This lemur eats dirt to neutralize the arsenic in their diet.

As a kid growing up in the countryside, frogs were always great entertainment but seeing the tiny golden species is definitely more fascinating. How about the insect called Giraffe Weevil? It has an intense red coloured body shell and a very long neck, which helps him compete with other males during the mating season. Talking about mating, how about the incomparable sexual prowess of the cat-like hunter, the Fossa, the villain of the famous DreamWorks animated movie, Madagascar. Incredibly, the head of production for that movie is a participant on our Magical Madagascar Cycling Tour!

On a nature walk a trained guide will point out the truly amazing variety of chameleons and geckos some of which literally flatten their bodies and disguise as branches on the trees. I can tell you one thing, from now on when someone mentions the word chameleon, I will remember the time in Madagascar when a guide pointed out a chameleon to me. Looking around and wondering what the heck the people around me were talking about, eventually I began to see its nose, eyes, head and, finally, its whole body.

The list of wonders of the natural world in Madagascar goes on and on. Unfortunately many, if not most, are under threat due to the pressure of this poor country’s population simply trying to survive. Many in the conservation and travel fields believe that ecological tourism can play a key role in saving these wonders, simply by coming here to see them and contributing to the local economy (watch this boat owner explain as well how our tourism dollars are so important). If that hypothesis is correct, the participants on the Magical Madagascar Cycling Tour have not only had a great adventure but have also contributed to preservation of the biological diversity of this wonderful world we live in.

 

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