Written by Hank Woolley.
Most of the time, paleontology and roadwork go hand-in-hand.
Here we are, on the shores of the Manadrano River (the precise name is a little unclear). Our campfire is blazing, and clear water with azolla on the edges flowing by. Quite an idyllic spot, particularly after the arduous three-day journey it took us to arrive at this point from our last camp (near the village of Mitsinjorano).
Day one entailed a 12-km drive taking us around some giant lavakas (erosional gullies), through swaths of burned grass (hence the sooty coating on everything and everyone), and over a few big stretches of road we had to improve. Picks and shovels emerged quickly, with everyone pitching in to move boulders and widen the narrow tracks of the ox-cart trail that we were taking motorized vehicles through for the first time ever (literally ever!).
We finally made camp after dark, having reached the top of the ridge on the pass that cuts through the forests of Analavelona. Our adventures continued that evening, as we took a night hike along and through the Andranofoty River in the midst of a beautiful remnant of forest. We spotted tree frogs, orb weavers, fish, and spectacular trees with trunks nearly two meters across. By the time we tried to find our camp again (without the aid of a GPS unit), we had to embark on a whole new expedition through tangilotra (itchy bean!), razor bamboo (just what it sounds like), grass that reach elephantine heights (3 meters or more!), and up a 45 degree slope – we eventually located a trail that took us back to camp, marked by a pair of our guide’s zebu at the base of the hill.
Day two was a new adventure… that didn’t begin until about noon. The morning was highlighted by tens of sightings of white Verreaux Sifakas in the forest below – even our local guide was enthralled by the novel view of jumping lemurs through the binoculars. Road scouting took a few hours, and then we had to begin the improvement job, through boulders of basalts and gray marine shales (luckily we’re at least going through rocks, with many more exposures of continental sediments to come!). Late afternoon brought us across a river with a very steep climb out. As darkness began to fall, camp was set in the patch of forest by the river, with a crowd of about 25 men from the village surrounding us, curious about everything from our gas cookstoves to the water filtration system we set up.
The morning of Day three involved the great decision to hire a bunch of guys from the nearest village to help fix the road – they made quick work of a number of steep and rocky sections, turning the former ox-cart trail into a rural Malagasy super-highway (well, almost). While road work was being done, the group of vazaha (foreigners) and Malagasy students hiked onward to scout out a campsite and take a first look at the outcrops along the river. Success on both fronts! The outcrops closest to camp along the river comprise black shales and sands with a multitude of snails, bivalves, ammonites, and even a couple of shark teeth. This area is looking promising for our planned work here, as many boulders in the river are decidedly terrestrial in origin.
For now, back to the campfire and roasting cassava roots, on one of the very chilly nights in Madagascar.