Whether singly or in clusters the baobabs stand with a splendor and a dignity that make them a sacred object in Madagascar. Like mountain peaks each could easily be named and revered. Some are a thousand years old. Bicycling amongst the pot-bellied behemoths I felt a combinatiin of bewilderment and awe. They are an incredulous site. As with the Grand Canyon, photos can't in any way convey their power and majesty. They certainly justified all the effort to get to them, not only the long flight but the arduous 420-mile bike ride, the last miles on a rough dirt road.
Though they are scattered for miles down on the coastal plain, their most prominent congregation, eleven miles from the coastal city of Morondava, has been proclaimed the Allée des Baobabs, a two-mile stretch on a dirt road. Although there is no entry fee, just 2000 Ariary to park if one comes in s motorized vehicle, it is a designated preserve. Wherever they may be, whether in the middle of rice paddies or along a road, the trees are in no danger. Unlike the redwoods, they have never been under threat from the ax, as their wood is soft and fibrous, designed to retain moisture. They do shed their leaves, and when they do they resemble their nickname "roots of the sky."
Halfway through the preserve is a visitor center comprised of two palm frond buildings, a nursery and some souvenir stands. There are specifications of the nine species, six of which are only found in Madagascar. A map displays their limited geographical distribution. Besides the west coast of Madagascar there is a small pocket in northern Austrlalia with the two other species scattered around Africa.
I hung out with the baobabs all morning, lingering in the shade by the visitor center, luxuriating in their otherworldly charm while giving my legs their first rest after six strenuous days of semi-mountainous terrain and lately, equatorial heat. As one of the prime attractions of the country, I thought I might encounter my first tourists since leaving the airport. I have been the lone white corpuscle circulating in these parts. I have yet to encounter another pale face since bidding Juerg farewell in Antananarivo a week ago. And that didn't come to an end among the baobabs. Not another visitor, European or otherwise, passed down the Allée during my four hours there.
Those who live along the road manifested the unfortunate symptoms of having been exposed to tourists. Women and children rushed up to me as I approached shouting out "Photo." They didn't have their hands out, but the implications were clear. The stands selling wooden carved baobabs for as little as two dollars were a more benign and acceptable residue. One would like nice flanked by a mini-Eiffel Tower and mini-Statue of Liberty on anyone's mantel, though the most common reaction might be, "What's that?"
No one bothered me while I sat and read though some may have been eyeing me from a distance. I am an oddity and a creature apart and do attract attention. My white skin, white hair, beard, glasses, watch and shoes are virtually unique to me in these parts. Some wear flip flops or sandals of some sort, but the majority of those I encounter outside of the larger towns are barefoot, sometimes by preference, as it's not unusual to see some walking barefoot with their footwear in hand. All my gear sets me even more apart. A disconcerting number of my items cost more than the majority of Malagasy earn in a year--my bike of course, but my panniers as well and my water filter and iPad and Goretex jacket and my new generator hub and charger.
I had resisted the expense of that hub and charger for years. A decent bike could be bought for the same price. I was content to rely on finding electrical outlets to charge my iPad rather than being self-charging and independent. I knew I was putting too much mental energy into finding electrical outlets, timing my rest stops in France around open cathedrals, and patronizing fast food restaurants in the US when a library wasn't available. Finding an electrical outlet to keep my iPad charged had become a preoccupation and a challenge. I had such an electrical outlet-consciousness that when I noticed one on the screen while watching a movie my heart would leap with delight.
I knew electricity would be hard to come by here. Many villages have none. Some hotels rely on generators that they run for just a few hours. The shacks that serve as cafes rarely have electricity and if they do there would be no likelihood of outlets in their limited seating areas. I would have been laughed at if I had shown my electrical socket to the non-English and non-French speakers that predominate and pantomimed plugging it in. So far my generator hub has been keeping me charged. It has been my saviour, and as I knew if I ever acquired one, I would be asking myself, "What took you so long?" It is a monumental luxury to be generating my own electricity and also a slight salve to my conscience, allowing me to somewhat offset my flying carbon footprint.
It's lone drawback is that it has a solid axle that extends out further than a quick release. It didn't slide into the side of my bike box after I detached it from the frame, as the front wheel normally does after removing the quick release skewer. Even with padding it poked through my bike box. It's expense was blunted a bit by Joe of Quick Release having come into a used one. There was no determining how much wear was on it, but I did have the rare misfortune of breaking a front wheel spoke. When I heard a snapping sound come from my front wheel a few miles after my foray on the dirt road, I assumed it might have been heat related, with the temperature in the nineties and something settling in the hub. I didn't bother to stop to investigate until several hours later on a long, steep descent when I heard a clicking sound coming from my front wheel. I feared I might have picked up a thorn or piece of wire. I certainly didn't want a high-speed front flat.
When I spun the front wheel, it stopped quite firmly half-way round. I did have a broken spoke. I had spares for my rear wheel, but since only once in tens of thousands of miles had I broken a front spoke, and that the fault of mishandling by an airline, I hadn't bothered to add a shorter front spoke to my reserves for this trip. One of my freewheel-side spokes might have worked, but then I realized the spoke hadn't actually broken, but rather the nipple. I had plenty of spares of those, so I was saved. The marvel was that I had pedaled over thirty miles with my front wheel strongly rubbing on my right brake and hadn't detected the extra effort I was expending. That was a good sign for the minor friction the generator hub creates.
Luckily I had a shady spot along the road for the operation. Battling the heat and drinking enough has become my biggest concern. I'm carrying nearly two gallons of water, including two liter-and-a-half bottles strapped to the tops of my front panniers. I've had to resort to rivers and rain buckets for water, just like the locals, as I never know when I'll next be able to find water. They boil water before drinking, while I use my filter, spending up to half an hour a day pumping water. I do occasionally buy water when it's available. I can fully appreciate it's crystal clear purity. My Katadyn filter makes the water safe to drink, but it doesn't necessarily make it tasty. I'm running out of the tube of tablets Joe bequeathed me. Hopefully I'll be able to find some Tang-like mix when I return to Antsirabe and its supermarket in a couple of days.