Zebu Nests

The zebu is a hump-backed cow, with droopy dewlaps, and floppy ears, somebody I can relate to the older I get!

The flight from Mandrare to Fort Dauphin was uneventful. We were the only two passengers on a larger version of the single-engine out of Tana. I did not complain. The drive from Fort Dauphin to Manafiafy (ma-na-fee-ah-fee) Beach and Rainforest Lodge, on the southwestern coast of Madagascar, was something else. It all started on paved roads courtesy of the mining conglomerate Rio Tinto and rapidly deteriorated to lop-sided, treacherous, tedious, sandy roads compromising car axels, tires, hips and spines, every inch of the way. We came close to tipping over sideways several times. Our driver plowed forward accustomed to the rough road, while we hung on, fascinated, in a disbelieving way. It took three hours to drive 20 miles!

Potholes do not adequately describe the trenches and craters our vehicle drove through or around. Our guide referred to them as zebu nests.  The zebu is a hump-backed cow, with droopy dewlaps, and floppy ears, somebody I can relate to the older I get! They are essential to the economy of Madagascar and considered as valuable as the minerals Rio Tinto pulls from the land. To the local tribes, zebu mean wealth. They are prized, sacrificed, eaten, and fought over. Everybody that is anybody owns a zebu, or two, or ten, a hundred—the more, the better.

We passed villages and cemeteries with tall, gravestones and elaborate crypts, zebu totems honoring ancestors. The Malagasy people believe in respecting and pacifying the dead. Keep those who have gone before happy, so as not to jeopardize the lives of the living. A unique ritual, Famadihana, turning of the bones, is losing popularity due to the expense and the Christian influence on the island. For those still celebrating, it is a two-day affair, approximately every seven years when the bodies are exhumed, re-wrapped in silk, and paraded. Dancing, drinking, eating, it’s a family reunion drawing relatives from near and far to the graveside.

Several discreet “tire checks,” pee breaks, and the rudimentary but necessary rebuilding of a “ramp” without which we could not cross the river, we arrived at Manafiafy Lodge. Situated in a rainforest sprinkled with unique wooden sculptures from an artist-in-residence, we were shown to our oversized, round villa with a massive king-sized bed.

Temporarily housed in yet another interpretation of classy, African architecture, we listened to the hard pounding of the Indian Ocean surf, feet from our deck.

Madagascar’s camps are no different than those on the continent. When the sun sinks toward the horizon guides, and guests get busy. Not long and we were off to hike in a rainforest rich with pint-sized life forms, nothing dangerous, but interesting.  I don’t recall when I became so fascinated with creepy crawlies. I think I was intrigued as a youngster.

I remember making a “soup” I called Mulligan Stew over a fire in an outdoor fire pit of a friend’s backyard, far from the eyes of adults. I had no clue Mulligan Stew was a concoction created by hobos in camps in the early 1900’s.

Surely the hobo version tasted better than my mix of caterpillars, grasshoppers, sticks, leaves, water, probably a ladybug or two. Besides feeling guilty about what I’d done, I can still smell the stench of burning insects–a stinky deserved revenge. As I got older and started thinking “like a girl” I adopted the silly screams and nonsense of being afraid of insects and reptiles. Geez, how many bugs did I miss feigning fear? Now I find them as intriguing as the mammals and birds we’ve encountered all over Africa.

Ready for a chance to sit down and let someone else move me around, we were quick to accompany Cynthia, Darryl, and Susan on a boat ride through the mangrove forest the next morning.

We left the noisy ocean behind and entered, as Charlie Gardner, conservationist describes mangroves: “a halfway house between the land and sea.” Gliding through still waters, reflecting thousands of plants and trees I felt like I was part of a BBC nature documentary.

Instead of hiking, I watched effortlessly. Before me was a green splendor, reflections in the quiet water as arresting as any I’ve seen.

Even the Nile crocodile, warming its’ knotty skin while lying on the shore looked content.


Lunch near the water followed our boat trip and then we were off for a few hours of downtime before an afternoon trek to see the flying foxes or fruit bats. I opted to spend the afternoon writing inspired by and enjoying the lingering serenity from the morning outing. When traveling, I have a sense of having to keep going, not miss a thing, after all, I’ve paid for this—right? Even though I knew we would soon be seeing the great fruit bat migration in Zambia, even though the words were flowing silky smooth as I wrote; I laced up my boots and joined Dennis on the late afternoon forest hike.

Back onto the horrible road through the villages, the children waving and smiling asking for treats. I could tell by the long, hard stares of adults they had long ago outgrown the excitement of seeing strangers.

The needs of the Malagasy people are enormous. 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. I wish I had it in me to volunteer, try to make a difference, but I can’t. I could not manage now or even when I was younger the flies and mosquitos, wood-fired cooking, washing clothes in the river, body odor, lack of hygiene, carrying water, and frequent outbreaks of plague. It’s all too hard and life-threatening. Madagascar has a high rate of stunting. Half of all children are so poorly nourished they do not grow properly. The air quality is bad enough inside the huts and out, many suffer from deadly respiratory illnesses. If the environmental issues don’t bring a person down the attitude of men toward women would have me on the next Land Rover, bouncing my way back to Port Dauphine and onto a plane for San Francisco.

Storm clouds heaved above darkening the afternoon sky. Though heavy with moisture, they would not rain on this parade. Land Rovers parked, we took off on foot. The sandy trail turned into a thicket of vines and trees in various stages of growth. Thick, muggy air coated my skin like an unwelcome coat. We walked a long time. I would have turned back in a heartbeat, but our guide was determined to find fruit-bats who were equally determined not to be found.

We heard the bats before we saw them. I didn’t have the equipment, binoculars or telephoto lens to see the details of the few circling between the distant trees. I put my camera away and was thrilled when we started back. For me, the highlight of the trek was the Sanzinia (tree) boa constrictor wound up on itself snoozing on the forest floor.

They hunt in the trees, but nest on the ground, especially as they age. Good thing our guide was paying attention. It would have been easy to disturb, maybe injure the green, mottled beauty with a misplaced step. One final stop to photograph a cluster of pitcher plants and we were on our way back to the lodge.

Not only did I want this excursion to end, but I also needed for this trip to be over. Cape Town was beckoning me from afar. Our flat at the Water Club with its’ marina location and long views of the ocean, is where I wanted to be.

Depleted of physical and emotional energy, I knew I needed to spend time in prayer and meditation, getting “sorted” as Capetonians are fond of saying. I wanted the comfort of a familiar bed, to stash my backpack in the closet, brush-off my hiking boots, and not look at them for a while. I didn’t want to have to work so hard to have a good time. Dennis was showing signs of wear and tear, and we agreed to leave the afternoon before our scheduled morning departure and overnight in Ft. Dauphine rather than rock-and-roll along the road before sun-up.

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