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Multi-hued caterpillar, a few centimeters long

“To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

Sandstone cliffs of Isalo
Cliffs of Isalo

Visitors come to Isalo National Park in the south of Madagascar for the grandeur. Somewhat like the US southwest, or Australia’s Northern Territories, Isalo is a spacious landscape of varied, paintbrushed sandstone formations. It kept reminding us of a favorite of ours, Sedona. Like those places, the sandstone of Isalo – deposited eons ago along with fossilized sea creatures by the ocean – has eroded into large mountains, canyons, cliffs, and outcroppings.

Sandstone cliffs, Isalo, sunset

Swaths of gold and orange alternate with mossy greens and dark purplish algae. Ochre cliffs deep in the surprisingly long trickling canyons offset the lush green of trees and reeds. Even the attractive oasis aeems oversized, though fed by the slightest of streams.

Savannah from the bluffs of Isalo

Elsewhere, savannah grasslands sprawl in the flat open spaces. The long trails through the park, at times in torrid sun, at times in windblown shade, snake through all these features, and climb a 1000 meters in altitude.

So the grand vistas, the big displays, the scope bring people here – and deservedly so.


Mountain amid broad savannah grass, Isalo

Even the resident lemurs, accustomed to the crowd at a forested campsite, mostly skitter about in plain sight. And we too were impressed by these things. But we kept finding ourselves seduced by the richness of little things dotting the landscape.

Stick insect with six legs, well hidden

“Do you see any animal in this bush?” our guide asked. “How about a stick insect?” We looked and looked…and looked. Nothing. And then he pointed very carefully at a twig that moved slightly, on all six legs, paused in its leaf munching. Nor could we spot the next two stick insects he found easily, though we discovered the fourth, which was a bit larger and greener.

Multi-hued caterpillar, a few centimeters long

And then there was the few centimeters of fuzzy caterpillar, as brightly colored as the grand sandstone.

Even tinier were the bits of moth larvae that looked like tree fungus…until we saw them moving almost imperceptibly on their branch.



Tiny scorpion under rock, with a bad sting

Even on looming sandstone walls little things attracted our attention, like the tiny leaves of mossy green clinging to the stone. Then there were the diminutive scorpions hiding as usual under rocks that our guide pulled up for us. Too little to kill a person with their poison, they could nonetheless sting very painfully.

Souimanga sunbird

Of course, there were flowerets on the desert plants, aloe and others – small bits of peach and yellow color quite different from the sandstone hues. And birds ranging in size from the strident cuckoo-roller and buzzard to the pocket sized, pale green lovebirds or the multi-colored sunbirds.

Descending into Isalo’s grand canyon

Sadly, the other visitors to the park trudged past most of these little things, seduced by the big picture and the grandeur. Even in the narrow cleft of a bush-filled canyon, several sped past us to get through the cliffsides, ignoring the rarely seen and mainly local forest rock-thrush, a charmer content to linger with us.

Rare, endemic forest rock-thrush

There is a whole world in small things – and now treasure of a different sort as well in this area.

At nearby Ranohira, our car eased through a throng on the RN7 to continue on our way out of Isalo. It’s a small town of tens of thousands, developed pell-mell in just two decades because of the discovery here of another small thing.

Searching for tiny blue sapphires, Ranohira

Mining deep within the local mountains or digging with backbreaking labor the hard packed clay soil, men and women unearth fingerlings of blue sapphire.

Here, visitors – buyers from Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and beyond – ignore the grand, tinted vistas to negotiate their deals along the busy central street for tiny bits of blue.


(Also, for more pictures from Madagascar, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the itinerary page.)

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