Action Man goes to Madagascar: My time in ‘Tana
When my boss Mark Gardner, AKA ‘The Barista’, asked about my availability to go on a familiarisation trip to Madagascar, I tried but struggled to contain my excitement. For this trip, I would need to pack a scrum hat alongside a Boonie hat for the Rainforest, as the objective was to develop our rugby tours to Madagascar and examine facilities, infrastructures, lodgings and all things rugby with a fine-tooth comb.
Madagascar has been my wanderlust destination for a while, with the lure of fantastic flora and fauna both on and just off this far-flung island. The fourth biggest in the world, is referred to by many as ‘Treasure Island’. With an abundance of secluded coves and an absence of European powers for centuries, Madagascar was a safe haven for pirates to take shelter when they weren’t looting booty. With my satchel packed, I set off in search of treasure. To coin a phrase from the much-loved pirate; Captain Jack Sparrow: ‘Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.’
City of the 1000
For most of my trip, I was to be stationed in the bustling capital city of Antananarivo; known as ‘Tana’ to the locals and anyone looking to be efficient with syllables. The literal translation of ‘City of the 1000’ is owed to King Andrianjaka, who garrisoned his newly built Palace, or ‘Rova’, with 1000 soldiers in early 1600s. The city is split into three metaphorical towns: The upper town is the most affluent, the middle is where Ministers go about their daily lives and where the business district resides, and the lower town consists of local markets and the lower-income neighbourhoods.
Prior to arriving in the capital, there was a new experience for me at Ivato International arrivals, when one by one, everyone’s temple was scanned with a handheld barcode reader before exiting the runway. Apparently, the rationale is to check for high temperatures/fevers, but after watching various Sci-Fi films in transit, my thoughts sparked to a futuristic check-in procedure. Once through the regular customs and immigration process, I was warmly welcomed by Aina, who was to be my host/guide throughout my stay. No doubt a cool dude, with a smile as great as his English (fortunate, as my French vocabulary is limited to food dishes), Aina chaperoned me to the waiting taxi. With a late arrival time and a full day to follow, I saved my food ordering abilities for another time and beelined to the hotel.
The following day we hopped over to Ivato International Conference Centre for ITM 2019, where anyone who is anyone in Malagasy Tourism was there. The impressive and largest conference centre in the country boasts an amphitheatre, several conference rooms, lounges and for this occasion; a marquee village too. The day was invaluable, meeting and greeting as many relevant people as I could during a round robin routine and perusing through the makeshift village. A late lunch was well earnt, consisting of a BBQ – Malagasy style!
The definition of romance
The evening itinerary commenced with a bang; a sunset meal at Lokanga Boutique Hotel courtesy of the fabulous Fabiola inviting us to dine at her spectacular venue. Situated within a slingshot of the Queen’s Palace, the hotel sits high above Tana and boasts spectacular views of the heart-shaped Lake Anosy, National Stadium and the rest of the old city centre below. The story goes that this manmade lake was a romantic gift from a French admirer to Queen Ranavalona I, a gesture that sets the bar as a sign of affection and that men everywhere hope their significant others don’t hear about and thus elevate their expectations. From my vantage point high above 3 million people, I watched the sun bleach the sky pinky orange whilst slowly being swallowed by the distant hillside. The memory is a treasure I will carry with me onwards.
Post dusk and dinner, with happy tummies, we ventured into the night. In transit, Aina confirmed my suspicions that the animated adventure film that shares the country’s name, was responsible for an uplift in tourism since 2005. Sadly, he explained that it has also resulted in numerous disappointed youngsters at the lack of Lions, Hippos, Zebras and Giraffes around. However, if you are old enough there is one type of Giraffe on show here. It is the affectionate name the locals have given to the long-necked, table top beer dispenser units that can be seen in bars across the capital. A fun and social way to share a frosty one with friends new and old, thoroughly recommended!
The remaining two days in Tana consisted of jam-packed schedules to investigate hotels, stadiums and excursions that are sure to wow MSG rugby tour goers and #DeliverTheUnexpected. First stop was the 35,000 capacity National Stadium, Mahamasina, literally translated as ‘makes things sacred’. King Radama 1st, wishing to set out a parade ground for his troops, filled in the rice fields that covered the area. He laid down a sacred stone or ‘vato masina’ and that spot became the site where all future Kings and Queens have been crowned. The restoration of Malagasy sovereignty and the return to independence in 1960 were also announced from this spot. These days it is the home stadium of Malagasy National Teams and COSFA (Military Rugby Team), who always play in front of a large and energetic following.
The Malacam Stadium was next up. Although the smaller sibling of the two stadiums, it packs quite a punch. I visited on a Thursday, which became apparent very quickly, is a market day at the stadium’s perimeter. I felt like I was trying to keep up with Aladdin in Agrabah’s Marketplace weaving through the labyrinth of stalls after my host. After sliding through the maze exit, and into the Malacam grounds, I was warmly welcomed by the Grounds Manager Guilbert and the imposing, 140kg, 3rd generation Maki National Team player; Rakotoson. Apparently, he is swift-footed with it, but he didn’t fancy a race to prove it. After touring the facilities, it was heartwarming to hear (albeit through via my host) that Rako has high hopes for his son to make it 4/4 generations representing their country. It was a lovely thought to round off my time in Tana with, and a stark reminder that the rationale for doing this is to grow and promote the beautiful game of Rugby. See you soon Tana…