The first large town south of Tana, AMBATOLAMPY was a traditional Merina iron-smelting and forging town and is still associated with metalwork and crafts – and nowadays souvenirs. For much of the way north and south of the town, clusters of crafts sellers gather every few hundred metres along the roadside, with each metier concentrated along a particular stretch: basketry and raffia-ware, brightly painted metal toys, even statues of the Virgin Mary. The stalls of musical instruments are particularly appealing (more so if you’re about to fly home), with nicely made local violins, banjos and other instruments on offer for around 20,000–40,000ar.
South of Ambatolampy, the twisting RN7 highway follows the meandering Onive (“In the Middle”) River, showing off picturesque rural scenes in every direction: verdant lime-green, jade and emerald-tinted rice paddies at every stage of growth; steep, hard, red hillsides brimming with iron oxide; and rows of neat, multi-hued houses, their upper-floor window frames blackened by wood smoke from years of kitchen fires. On the highway, as well as the usual mix of heavy trucks and crammed taxis brousses, children and whole families push laden trolleys (varamba) and ride them helter-skelter downhill. Up to the west, you can see the looming mountains of the Massif de l’Ankaratra, an ancient volcanic range whose peaks occasionally get snow, and which still bubble with a little activity in Antsirabe’s hot springs.