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In the garden of the gods: Madagascar

Isolated from the rest of the world for millenia, Madagascar is home to an astonishing array of wildlife and spectacular landscapes

In the garden of the gods: Madagascar

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This burst of hooting was my signal to hurtle down the muddy hillside, slithering and scrambling until I came face to furry inquisitive face with a family of indris, gazing down from the treetops in Madagascar’s Analamazaotra Forest Reserve.

I’d been fascinated with the island’s most famous attraction before I even set foot in the country — home to around 100 species of lemur, ranging from the tiny mouse family via the famous ring-tailed variety to the biggest, indri indris, with their impressively loud territorial calls and resemblance to a three-year-old in a fuzzy fancy-dress costume.

According to Malagasy legends, the monogamous indris, with their short tails and long limbs, are reincarnated humans. While the Latin tag indri is courtesy of a confused 18th-century naturalist who faithfully wrote down the Malagasy for ‘look up there’, their local name, babakoto, comes from the story of a father who went looking for his missing son, before both were turned into animals.

As indris don’t survive in captivity, the only place you can see them is in forest reserves such as the 2,075-acre Analamazaotra, alongside the acrobatic common brown lemur, with its astonishingly rich golden coat, and the tiny, nocturnal aye-aye.

But when it comes to unique sights, lemurs are just the furry tip of what the former French colony offers. Isolated from the rest of the world for millennia, after breaking off from the landmass of Africa and what was to become India, Madagascar is like nowhere else on earth — left to evolve without humans or other large predators, it’s nicknamed God’s Garden for its unusual flora and fauna.

Home to half the world’s species of chameleon, 70% of the island’s plant and animal life exists nowhere else, while 615 new species were identified here in the past decade alone. And the fact that around two-thirds of the country’s lemurs were found in the past 15 years suggests there’s much still to discover.

Along with national parks and nature reserves, Madagascar is fringed with seductive white sand beaches and kaleidoscopic coral reefs; otherworldly limestone formations; and a culture that’s a mix of African, Asian and French colonial.

In fact, one of the few things the island doesn’t boast is hordes of tourists. Just two years ago, the Foreign Office was advising against all but essential travel, but now the political problems that sparked the warnings are being shed it’s only a matter of time before numbers rise.

As the fourth largest island in the world, it’s impossible to explore every nook of Madagascar in a short trip. So, to cram a flavour of the whole country into a week, I headed north — after my brief indri-spotting detour to the Andasibe-Manatadia National Park, east of the capital, Antananarivo.

Getting around isn’t quick on the country’s bumpy, potholed roads, but the three-hour journey through rice fields and densely wooded hills is worth every bone-shaking rattle and ox-cart dodge. As well as visiting the reserve, there’s the chance to get up close and personal with some rescued lemurs — tamed by regular human contact — on the nearby private reserve at Vakona Forest Lodge.

Turning up with a palm full of banana may have helped the warm welcome, admittedly. Within seconds, I was being watched avidly by several big-eyed bamboo lemurs, while a more confident brown lemur launched himself in one swift, flying leap straight onto my shoulders.

Clinging onto my hair with one soft leathery paw and reaching for the fruit with the other, the lemur contentedly wrapped his tail around my neck before busying himself trying to push my sunglasses off my head. Nearby, a black and white ruffed lemur hung nonchalantly from a branch by one foot as he watched his smaller cousins’ antics, while a Verraux’s sifaka demonstrated why his species is nicknamed the dancing lemur as he pranced elegantly sideways, paws above his head, almost as if he was on the verge of breaking into a pirouette.

Into the melting pot

Probably the only thing that persuaded me to leave was knowing I had to catch my flight north to Diego Suarez.

Named after the two Portuguese sailors who landed at the northern tip in the early 1500s — the first Europeans to set foot on Madagascar — the area was also the supposed home of legendary 17th-century pirate republic Libertalia; if it even existed, that is.

Known today as Antsiranana, or simply as Diego, the town is a sleepy colonial gem where convoys of little yellow Renault 4 taxis speed past rickshaws amid the town’s old French colonial buildings. Sitting on the world’s third largest natural bay, gazing out towards the Indian Ocean and bright turquoise Emerald Sea beyond that, it’s the best starting point to explore the north-west’s forest reserves.

Most of Diego Suarez’ population is descended from the Indo-Malaysians who settled Madagascar 2,000 years ago. Others originate from mainland Africa, while more recent settlers include a large contingent of Chinese, Reunionese Creole and Pakistanis. A series of hand-drawn portraits decorating the walls of main street Rue Colbert are a vivid testament to this ethnic diversity.

Three of Madagascar’s seven species of baobab tree — six of which are unique to the country — are also found in the area in and around Diego Suarez, while in the undergrowth vivid green and red chameleons swivel baleful eyes at anyone attempting a closer look.

Driving along the coast road east of Diego, towards the windswept Baie des Sakalava, I passed clumps of baobabs; some leafy, others with the typical straight-as-a-ruler trunks and stumpy root-like branches, looking almost as if they’d been planted upside down.

The only signs the area was ever less than tranquil are the remains of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements at Cap de Mine, relics of World War II battles between the British and French. Today the dilapidated fortifications overlook

Baie des Dunes and Baie des Pigeons — bays that could easily be the archetype of the white sand, palm-fringed tropical paradise. Both located within a military base, a small admission fee deters most visitors but once you’ve passed the soldiers at the entrance you can expect to have the beach to yourself, with the exception of clusters of women selling vanilla pods, one of the country’s
biggest exports.

But even relaxing on the sands can’t compete with the unusual natural attraction a few hours from the city in the Ankarana Reserve: strange limestone formations known as Tsingy.

The odd name, our guide Goulam explained, is taken from the Malagasy verb mitsingy, to walk on tip-toe. Once you’ve seen them, it’s easy to understand why. The sea of sharp rocky points, menacingly towering above ground, would have to be negotiated with extreme care by anyone exploring them on foot.

Once the bed of a prehistoric ocean, Tsingy’s striking design is the result of 150 million years of tidal erosion, tectonic shifts and climate changes, and although it may seem like a barren environment, a number of species have adapted to life here among the stones.

It’s only as you approach the grey formations that you see the labyrinth of passageways running between the clumps of rock. Further into the 15,000-acre reserve, are sacred caves hidden in the Tsingy where the local Antakarana tribe’s royal family were buried for centuries.

As the sun started to set, the alarm cries of crowned lemurs chased us out through the surrounding forests. Although the animals were already invisible in the failing dusk light, at least 50 cries echoed above us, passing from tree to tree in an eerie relay.

Back at camp we cracked open a bottle of local THB lager, aka Three Horses Beer, under a sky filled with more stars than I’ve ever seen. And while the bungalows at Goulam Lodge, on the border of the reserve, are fairly basic, there was nothing meagre about dinner, made from provisions we’d picked up along the way: lusciously big avocados straight from the tree, far sweeter than the UK versions, followed by barracuda and coconut rice. To say rice is a staple in Madagascar would be an understatement. Emerald-green rice paddies line the roads throughout the country, and eating 400g a day is far from unusual — although younger people are increasingly favouring baguettes and pain au chocolat (a French legacy) for breakfast instead of rice.

The road to Hellville

The next day, it was time to move on again, this time to the Ankify peninsula, to catch a speedboat to the Nosy Be archipelago. On the way, the landscape changed into dry plains that could have come straight from the heart of Africa — apart from the lack of elephants — before transforming back to lush green vegetation closer to the coast, where the rich soil is used for cocoa and black pepper, as well as oranges and bananas.

There’s ylang ylang too, alerting you to the fact you’re approaching Nosy Be, where plantations of the same trees have seen it dubbed Madagascar’s perfume island — although the fishing village of Ankify isn’t quite so fragrant, with ferries and smaller boats lined up along the shore, and people bustling to and fro as they’re herded onto their benches.

On the half-hour crossing to Nosy Be’s main town, Hellville, I could see a string of islands with forested peaks overlooking deserted coves as we scudded across a clear blue sea dotted with sailing ships and traditional pirogue canoes.

Rarely has a description been quite as far from the truth. Named for the French explorer Admiral de Hell rather than a comment on its wickedness, Hellville offers a real taste of Africa — busy, buzzing and brightly coloured.

In contrast, the original settlement of Marodoka, where Arab sailors made landfall in the ninth century before building a village in around 1100, is far sleepier than its eventful past suggests.

Once the heart of the slave trade to Zanzibar and Mozambique, captured subjects of the various Malagasy tribal kings were shipped from here onwards to Brazil, before the village was settled by an influx of Indian immigrants from Bombay in the 19th century. Their intricately decorated stepped tombs and Hindi engravings still stand amid the undergrowth.

Today, the only visitors to the cemetery are the very occasional tourist and swarms of insects. The descendants of the Victorian settlers have long moved on to Hellville and local superstition that Marodoka is a sanctuary for witches helps ward off the curious. Not that I spotted anyone practising black magic as we wandered along — only a couple of boys clutching small fish they’d caught in the river, a girl pounding rice for the family’s meal and the inevitable lemurs rustling in the trees.

But the village does have one other little-known group practising regularly. The 60 women and four men in the Marodoka Ravinala Association are trying to preserve the village’s varied dance and musical traditions, and unlike many performances designed chiefly to part tourists from their cash, it’s a genuine insight into the mix of cultural influences that have shaped the village. Here you’ll find Swahili is widely spoken and everyone is Muslim — in contrast to the rest of the country, where the religious group is in a minority.

Dressed in matching patterned wraps, the women paint their faces with elaborate designs. Originating in the nearby Islamic Comoros islands, the practice protects the women’s skin from the sun and mosquitoes.

With its harmonies, repetitive beats and simple accompaniment of wooden sticks clacked together, the music could be straight from Africa, although some of the equally enthusiastic dancing — “focusing on the buttocks”, as our guide Jean-Pierre pointed out — is traditional Malagasy, inspired by frogs, crocodiles and, inevitably, lemurs.

Crocodiles are to be found further inland, in a series of lakes among the hills in the north, a safe distance away from the southern beach resorts. So we set off to spot a few on a mini jeep expedition from the Explora Village hotel, led by Italian-born Marco, who left Chernobyl in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster for a new life on Nosy Be’s west coast.

The slopes are filled with acres of imported ylang ylang, pruned into weird and wonderful shapes so their flowers can be picked more easily, while further off the beaten track, twined around tree trunks, we found wild vanilla, as well as other orchids and the devastatingly poisonous devil’s seed, one of the few things to avoid in the country. The bright red berry, dotted with a single black eye, is so lethal that just half a gram can kill a person within three hours, by thickening their blood to the consistency of a gel.

But as our jeep drew up to a small collection of houses, we discovered the island has something even more unusual hidden in the woods — the self-taught inventor Bertrand. Collecting unwanted odds and ends, scrap metal and assorted hunks of junk, his Womble-style foraging has resulted in an eccentric workshop.

Along with a bicycle-powered buzz saw, he’d used leftovers to create a metal bucket-turned-speaker — for a solar-powered radio — and hand-wound mobile phone charger, which is more efficient than most electrical models.

Not that most people are in a hurry. In the archipelago, the pace of life is even more relaxed than on Madagascar itself, and nowhere lives up to the mora mora (slowly, slowly) attitude more than the protected island reserve of Nosy Tanihely, a short boat trip from Nosy Be.

A colony of endangered flying foxes live in the forest around the hilltop lighthouse, hanging like tiny leathery vampires from the branches, and occasionally waking to unfurl their incredible 4ft-plus wingspans — five times as long as their body.

But it’s the incredibly clear, calm, shallow seas which draw most visitors. The world’s second largest marine biomass after Indonesia, the reserve’s monitoring centre has found 101 fish species and 106 types of coral in these waters.

Only a few minutes off the beachfront, the reefs teem with shoals of fish — clouds of little neons, angel fish, zebra fish, spotted and frilled ones, blues, pinks, silver and yellows — so bright they look surreal, all zipping between the reef of brain and branched coral, electric blue patterned varieties and others whose tendrils float in the current.

Anywhere else you’d have to share the underwater world with snorkelling tourists enjoying the technicolour array of fish, while avoiding the sea urchins. But until Madagascar appears on the tourist radar, you’ll almost always have it all to yourself, apart from the occasional sea turtle nibbling the vegetation.

ESSENTIALS Madagascar

Getting there

Air France flies from Heathrow to Antananarivo via Paris, while Air Madagascar flies direct from Paris to Antananarivo and Nosy Be. www.airfrance.com
www.airmadagascar.com
Average flight time: 10h.

Getting around

The combination of long distances and potholed roads means internal flights from Antananarivo to Diego Suarez with Air Madagascar are the best option. The journeys from Antananarivo
to Andasibe, from Diego to Ankarana, and from Ankarana to Ankify all take around three hours by car. Regular speedboats from Ankify to Nosy Be take 30 minutes and cost 10,000MGA (£3). Taxi-brousse, usually minibuses, are the main public transport between cities but are often cramped and uncomfortable. Fare rates are fixed, so you should pay the same as locals. Within towns, taxi-ville charge fees based on distance or you can negotiate if you’re travelling further afield. There are no train lines in the north.

When to go

May to October is the dry season in the north, with temperatures usually between 20-30C. The hill climate of Antananarivo and Andasibe are cooler, sometimes dropping to 10C at night.

Need to know

Visas: 30-day visas are currently free on arrival at Antananarivo’s Ivato airport to UK citizens. You’ll need a full, clear page in your passport and will be expected to show a return ticket.
Currency: Malagasy Ariary (MGA).
£1 = 3,250MGA.
Health: Several vaccinations are recommended, including typhoid and hepatitis A. Malaria is also present throughout the country.
International dial code: 261.
Time difference: GMT +3.

Places to stay

Vakona Forest Lodge bungalows cost from around £55 a night. www.hotelvakona.com
Hôtel Emeraude, in Diego Suarez, has air con, friendly staff but not much atmosphere, from £35 per night. Alternatively, the Grand Hotel is more luxurious, from around £90 a night. www.hotelemeraude-diego.com www.grand-hotel-diego.com
For overnight stays at Goulam Lodge, Ankarana and guiding services around Diego, E: goulamguide_ds@yahoo.fr
Doubles at the Royal Beach Hotel in Madirokely, Nosy Be, start at around £74. www.royalbeach.mg
Explora Village half-day tours cost around £26 a person. www.exploravillage.com
Ravinala Marodoka Association. E: ravinala.marodoka@yahoo.fr

More info

Madagascar National Tourism Board. www.madagascar-tourisme.com
Nosy Be Tourism. www.nosybe-tourisme.mg
Lonely Planet Madagascar & Comoros. RRP: £15.99.

How to do it

Reef and Rainforest offers eight-day trips from £2,645 a person, based on two sharing, including international and domestic flights, transfers, guides, accommodation, most meals, tours and excursions. This includes a night at Vakona Forest Lodge, Diego Suarez, Ankarana and Nosy Be. www.reefandrainforest.co.uk
Responsible Travel offers a 19-day trip visiting Ranomafana National Park, Andasibe Reserve, and the Anjajavy Nature Reserve from £4,150 per person, excluding flights. www.responsibletravel.com

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Read the rest of this feature in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)