After saying goodbye to all who attended the International Palm Society’s annual board meeting, it was time to get on a plane and fly back to Antananarivo and start my journey south. Ten days in the rainforest and it was time for a drastic change of scenery. My destination? Mount Ibity—just outside the second largest city, Antsirabe. The 167km trip down famous National Route 7 from Antananarivo to Antsirabe takes about three hours. You end up seeing a lot in those three hours. A large portion of the road runs along a river where rice paddies dominate the terrain. It reminded me of my many trips through SE Asia.
I would end up losing 14 pounds over the month I spent trekking through Madagascar. I don’t think I ate a single food that was processed my entire trip. Most foods come right out of the ground. You can find vegetable stands like this all over Madagascar.
The rate of deforestation in Madagascar is alarming. Anyone who has read my prior blog posts about this trip will see that as an underlying theme. With no gas to cook, one of many issues leading to deforestation is how to feed a population that has grown from 5 million in 1960 to almost 21 million by 2010. With the forest removed for wood to make fires and charcoal, the planting of fast-growing imports takes their place. This is a renewable pine forest where the bark is stripped away in cycles to ensure the trees don’t die. These pines have been limbed-up for wood as well.
During your visit to Madagascar you will find many people playing this game that looks a lot like Bocce Ball. It is a French game called Pétanque. As it turns out, the strongest players in the world now come from Madagascar and Thailand.
“I brake for palms” should have been a bumper sticker on the 4wd I rented for my almost-three-week trip down RN7. During the drive we saw a few old Dypsis decipiens in the town of Ambatolampy, but nothing beat this colossal one just outside of Antsirabe.
You know you have reached Antsirabe when you see this below.
Those are “Pousse-pousse” and Antsirabe is the Pousse-pousse capital of Madagascar.
While Antsirabe has a few draws that bring in the tourists, for me it is the close proximity to one of the aloe Meccas of Madagascar: Mount Ibity. My first glimpse of Mount Ibity through a standard October smokey haze didn’t make its 7,500-foot peak look too imposing. My legs told another story upon my return.
Mount Ibity is one of the more geologically and botanically interesting locations in Madagascar. Well known among gemologists and botanist alike, the mountain hosts some plants found nowhere else in the world. As someone that has only recently become keen on succulents, Mount Ibity was a must-stop location for me during the planning phase of my trip. Sadly, as the sign below might hint, Mount Ibity is not a truly protected national reserve. Although much effort is being made to enforce it as such.
You are never far from a fire in Madagascar. This one was used to eventually make charcoal which would then be sold on the side of the road or in markets.
A French-owned cement factory that will be used for scale later in my post. Notice the recently charred foreground?
Once you reach the more protected area of Mount Ibity, it doesn’t take long to spot your first succulents. Pachypodium brevicaule is a common sight on Mount Ibity and is unique in the genus in that it is a dwarf species.
The Ibity massif has a high level of diversity when it comes to Aloes and was one of the major draws for me. Last I read, there were 12 aloe species in the area, with four endemic to the massif itself. The first aloe I would see turns out to be one of the nicer aloes of Madagascar. Aloe laeta’s finely toothed margins and beautiful color range have made it highly sought after by collectors. It can only be found in habitat on this mountain.
Aloe laeta with Kalanchoe tomentosa behind it.
Aloe laeta could be found growing anywhere it could establish a foothold. From the picture below, you can see how high we have already climbed towards the top of Mount Ibity.
Not much further up the trail you’ll find Aloe trachyticola. The Mount Ibity form of this aloe is always solitary. An under-lying theme of most of the aloes I will display in this post is that they are under stress from lack of water. My climb up Mount Ibity occurred on October 17th, which was the end of the dry season.
An aloe with a lot of similarities to Aloe trachyticola was Aloe capitata var quartziticola (shown below).
These Aloe ibitiensis are really showing stress.
Aloe ibitiensis with a large Kalanchoe integrifolia behind it.
Many of the Kalanchoe integrifolia you’ll find growing on Mount Ibity take on an almost bonsai style growth.
Another fairly common Kalanchoe on Mount Ibity is Kalanchoe synsepala.
The common name for Kalanchoe synsepala is the “Walking Kalanchoe.” Below you can see why it received that name. It will send large stems into the air that eventually fall over and root new plants into the ground.
As we continue our climb higher up the mountain and gain access to the panoramic views of the surrounding area, you’ll notice how very little has been left untouched or unused by the Malagasies outside Mount Ibity. How did a quartzite mountain like Mount Ibity survive this massive destruction? My guess is that its rocky terrain made it too difficult to cultivate, and the almost impassible upper parts of the mountain made it less valuable for zebu herders that still drive their cattle onto the mountain.
As we reach the top of the first section of our trek we were given a preview of where we would be headed next. The peak that is our goal is to the far right and a grassy, rather flat divide to the left. If you look closely you can see the trail off to the left.
About halfway up the mountain we reached a somewhat flat, meadowy area. It was a big change in scenery from the rocky terrain found below and where we would be heading. I was rather surprised to find Pteridium aquiline (Eagle fern) growing here. It has been called the “inflammable fern,” so I guess it makes sense.
This old gravesite appeared out of nowhere and felt out of place.
Not far from the gravesite I snapped a photo of this interesting tree using a rock for stability.
It is in this part of Mount Ibity you will find Aloe macroclada. Under stress from lack of water, the beautiful colors really show up on this common Malagasy aloe.
It is also in this divide that we found Dypsis decipiens growing in habitat. Sporadic, and leading lonely lives, Dypsis decipiens breaks up the open expanse.
Dypsis decipiens is a robust, stately palm and an absolute treat to see growing in its natural habitat. Thanks to its appearance and cold tolerance, Dypsis decipiens is one of the more sought after palms in cultivation. Imperial palms like this in the wild would turn out to be some of the nicest of all palms I saw while traveling through Madagascar.
This flowering Dypsis decipiens pictured below was found growing at just over 6,000 feet elevation.
The trunk shows wounds from surviving regular fires that frequent the mountain.
We had a hard time finding many juveniles, in part due to all the fires and zebu grazing, but we did find proof of some rejuvenation taking place. When you consider how slow growing these palms are in cultivation, imagine how old this little palm is.
The summit was getting closer with each step and we had been moving at a pretty good pace. The total trek to the summit would include 2,200 feet in elevation gain. Even our guides needed a break every once in a while. These two guys did the entire 9-mile out-and-back in old flip-flops. They didn’t bring any water either! I drank 100 ounces of water by the time I got back to the truck. It is impressive how tough of a people the guides of Madagascar are.
Another of the aloes I was looking forward to seeing in habitat was one that was described by friend Tom McCoy. I have always appreciated plants more when they are harder to reach in habitat. Aloe pachydactylos was found close to the summit of Mount Ibity and always growing in a quartzite substrate. Aloe pachydactylos gets its name for the wider, stubbier leaves which can be triangular in some plants.
Orchids are abundant at the higher elevations on Mount Ibity. When not in flower, they are hard to identify. I believe the first is a Bulbophyllum Sp. and the second photo is of an Angraecum Sp.
What aloe is found at the highest elevation on Mount Ibity? Aloe laeta. Most were found growing with a Bulbophyllum orchid species this high up the mountain.
This Aloe laeta was found on the summit at close to 7,500 feet.
As expected, the view from the top of Mount Ibity was spectacular. Remember that cement plant I posted a photo of earlier in this post? There it is off in the distance in the picture below.
It wasn’t only the plants that were interesting on Mount Ibity. Many rocks showed some remarkable color thanks to the lichens growing on them.
We enjoyed a good hour relaxing on the summit and eating lunch before making our way back down. The trekking circuit is an out-and-back but it does have an alternative return route. Close to the gravesite shown earlier you can choose to walk a different path which takes you through a small village. It was on this trail that our guides would finally get their water.
Slash and burn agriculture at its finest.
There are a few small permanent streams that flow into the valley. It is in those areas you will find rice patties.
This rice patty will be filled with water and zebu will be used to trample the soil so the next round of crops can be planted.
This is the typical architecture found around this part of Madagascar.
Just before we arrived at the car we decided to play a little basketball.
I was kidding, of course. That 9-mile trek was exhausting. Plus we still had a 2.5-hour drive to get to the town of Ambositra, where we would prepare for the next hike planned for the following morning. No rest for the weary. This was a once in a lifetime trip to Madagascar after all.