Tour from Itampolo to Lavanono and trip in the national park of Cap Saint Marie

June 13, 2013 

The track conditions between Itampolo and Lavanono, which also includes the crossing of two large rivers not fully dry yet, put a strain on the ability of my driver and the car, but finally we reach our destination on time and ready for the exciting excursion the following day at Cap Saint Marie, the most southern point of Madagascar, which is home to several species of turtles including many Geochelone radiata (radiated tortoise) and several succulent plants endemic only to these small hills.

Track from Itampolo to Lavanono
The track from Itampolo to Lavanono, along the southern coast of Madagascar, is in poor condition and I have to cross two rivers, close to their estuary and therefore rather large. Generally, this track is passable only during the winter, when the rivers are dry.
River bed
My driver crosses the first river, which is completely dry, without any problems.
Zebu breeders
Instead the second river still has some puddles, so I have to try several times before finding the safest place to cross in a 4x4. Some farmers who regularly lead the herds of zebu to drink, give valuable information to my driver and walk with us the deviation request. No need to say, I do not meet other motorized vehicle for the past two days and that the only possible communications are via satellite phone, which I've always wisely taken with me throughout the journey.
Houses in Madagascar
In this remote area of southern Madagascar, not too far from the major towns, but infinitely distant due to the non-existent infrastructure, farmers and ranchers live in miserable huts of wood and mud. In this part of the money has almost no value ; people ask to the few passers-by who venture this far, bottles of mineral water and a few T-shirts, goods that they can not find anywhere here.
Prickly pears
The plants of Opuntia, commonly known as "prickly pear" are not endemic to Madagascar but, like all the Cactaceae, are native to the American continent. In the past, however, they were imported to breed them in the mild climate of southern Madagascar, in fact, these succulent plants are very useful both for their excellent fruit and because cladodes (ie the "leaves") can be used to feed and water the zebu in case of heavy famine or drought, after burn in a flame of the tiny spines that cover them. Cladodes, in fact, contain a mucilage which is the water supply of the plant itself, which zeb├╣ are able to assimilate by extracting the precious water.
Vegetation  in Madagascar Alluaudia
Alluaudia procera Madagascar
Didieracea On most of the way I continuously spot many Alluaudia, predominantly Alluaudia procera (pictured above), as well as Alluaudia ascendens (pictured below). The plants, mixed with large bushes of Opuntia, create a heavenly ambience which is very picturesque for lovers of succulents.
Sometimes Alluaudia are cut to build fences, with thorns that serve as a sort of barbed wire. Other times the fence is built planting Alluaudia and letting them grow.
Forest of didieracee
Sometimes Alluaudia create real mini forests with tree trunks and branches so dense, as to be impenetrable. Although Alluaudia are apparently plentiful, one must not forget that they only grow in this small region of Madagascar and are therefore strongly threatened by cutting them down and excessive grazing.
After more than nine hours spent on the dusty and bumpy tracks, I finally reach Lavanono, a village of huts and shacks at the edge of the world, where there is an incredibly small lodge run by a Frenchman, complete with a botanical garden which contains several endemic species.
Beach in Lavanono
Lavanono pictures. From Lavanono, the access to the sea is via a large beach which stretches for miles.

My accommodation with veranda at the top of a cliff. Really amazing considering where I am.
The downside is the shower as usual ... water bottles left ingeniously to warm all day in the sun and the basin, should lead us to understand how it works ... (Though I could take a shower while consuming only 2 bottles).
Cap Saint Marie lighthouse

Lavanono is the ideal starting point for the trip to Cap Saint Marie, the most southern point of Madagascar, beyond which there are only thousands of miles of ocean, before the ice of Antarctica. In correspondence of the head, there is a lighthouse still in operation which can be visited.
Solar energy battery Lamp of  the lighthouse
The lighthouse is powered by batteries that are recharged by a solar panel for a couple of square meters of surface. The headlight bulb is only 70 watts and thanks to the great lens mounted in front, it produce a visible light up to 37 miles away.
Radiated tortoise
But the real attraction of the national park of Cap Saint Marie, in the extreme south of Madagascar, is the population of radiated tortoise (Geochelone radiata) endemic to this region.
Geochelone Geochelone radiata
Photos of radiated tortoise. The nose of this pink Geochelone radiata indicates that the animal has just made a fine meal of ripe prickly pears . Even in this case, as often happens, the introduction of a new plant by man has modified the eating habits of the endemic animals .
Cap Saint Marie
Photo of Cap Saint Marie, the most southern point of Madagascar, beyond which there is only water until the ice of the South Pole.
Euphorbia capsaintemariensis
Photo of Euphorbia capsaintemariensis. This succulent is endemic to Cap Saint Marie and it is a very rare plant and in great danger of extinction because of the distribution is very limited. Described for the first time in 1970 by Rauh, the Euphorbia capsaintemariensis is a caudiciform (whose stem base is strongly enlarged suitable for the accumulation of water reserves) of color which is similar to the surrounding rocks and not easy to identify, even for its modest size.

More photos of Euphorbia capsaintemariensis: a macro the top of the leaf in comparison with the size of a USB cable (generally, among those few tourists who come this far, no one does it for the microscopic succulent plants... You can imagine the face that may have made the guardian of the national park when he saw me coming up with a USB cable and lie completely on the ground to photograph the little plant usually overlooked by everybody else).
A newborn Opuntia (prickly pear) .
Aloe millotii
Another "queen" is the Aloe millotii, one of the smallest Aloe in the world, included into CITES Appendix (protected by international laws against the trade in specimens collected in the wild) and classified as "threatened."
Pyxis arachnoides spider tortoise

Another turtle that lives in Cap Saint Marie and other restricted areas of southern Madagascar, is the curious spider tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides). Similarly to the box turtle, the spider turtle is able to close almost completely the access to the vulnerable parts that contain the head retracted, through a piece of the frame plate.
I still meet a radiated tortoises with some scuti damaged. In the photo on the right, one still healthy scuto
Vegetation in south  Madagascar
The vegetation of Cap Saint Marie is mostly low and just consist of bushes, which in turn offer protection from the wind and sun to other smaller species.
Tortoise footprints
Tortoise egg

In the picture on the right: everywhere there are many footprints Geochelone radiata. Above, an egg of a Geochelone radiata which was probably robbed by a wild cat.
A medicinal plant used by the locals to treat measles.
fossils of shells Uccello elefante
The promontory ends with a huge beach where there are fossils of shells (picture on the left) and a egg of an elephant bird . The latter, a species now extinct, was so great to be able to contain as many as eight liters of water. Some eggs were reconstructed piece by piece and are preserved in museums or private collections.
Large bushes of Opuntia among the sandy dunes of the beach.

I visit a cave on one side of the cliff.
The large rock in the center is considered sacred by the local and after the birth the umbilical cord is given to that entity, as a sign of returning something that belongs to the Earth.
Beach Beach in Madagascar

The large beach of Cap Saint Marie and the curious terraced formations at the base of the cliffs.
A beautiful lizard.

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English translation by Lorena Anzani.