Vehicles arriving from the north plunge down the road to AMBALAVAO, with the valley spread out beyond and the peaks of the Massif d’Iandrambaky poking up dramatically on the horizon. The town makes a good base from which to stock up if you’re heading into the Parc National d’Andringitra. Otherwise, you don’t need to stop here for long, but the town’s crafts workshops are accessible and worthwhile, and its famous old Betsileo houses, with their ornate verandas known as lavarangana, are very photogenic. Ambalavao grew as a mixed Merina and Betsileo centre of trading and crafts, powering the Merina empire’s economy with zebus, silk and of course rice – and then under French colonial rule with tea and wine.
The normally sluggish Mananatanana River, a meandering headwater of the great Mangoky that flows west into the Mozambique Channel, occasionally bursts its banks in the rainy season, and the bridge 5km west of Ambalavao is sometimes damaged or even destroyed, leaving hundreds of vehicles stranded on both banks, and Madagascar effectively cut in half: there is no practical way round.