Madagascar: A world apart

Madagascar's otherworldly spiny forest is home to natural curios found nowhere else — from lemurs to giraffe weevils. But it's an endangered habitat that needs eco-tourism to take root if it's to survive.

By Emma Gregg
Published 13 Jul 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 13:56 BST
Verreaux's sifaka in the southeastern Androy. Image: Emma Gregg
Verreaux's sifaka in the southeastern Androy. Image: Emma Gregg

The shapes above me belong underwater, I think to myself, gazing up through the trees at the beautiful, blue-and-rose dusk.I'm exploring the spiny forest, an eco-region of startling menace that's unique to southern Madagascar. Tangled thickets of mimosa, alluaudia and octopus trees claw the air, their branches bristling with thorns. Silhouetted against the darkening sky, they're as jagged as a reef.

"Are there really lemurs here?" I ask.

"Plenty," says the forest warden who's leading the way.

"And they've never been hunted?"

"For the Antandroy, my tribe, that's fady — it's taboo," says the warden. "We believe lemurs are living spirits, and if we harm them, the spirits might harm us in return."

The writer Dervla Murphy once called this drought-resistant forest a botanical lunatic asylum, and I can understand why. Madly twisted, it's like nowhere else I've ever been. And things are about to get even stranger. Suddenly, I'm eye to eye with a wild sifaka: a ghost-white lemur with a sooty mask and an inquisitive stare. It pauses, then calmly leaps from one thorny tree to another, landing feet-first with nail-biting precision. It's hard to believe that primates can survive here at all, let alone travel without spiking their feet.

"It's a Verreaux's," whispers Andreas Miha, my guide. "There's another one just over there."

I hold my breath as the sifaka drops to the ground, then watch, entranced, as it bounces to its companion on two legs, its furry arms raised in a teddy bear matador pose.

After a few days in the wilds of Madagascar, I'm beginning to accept strangeness as the norm. Isolated since the age of the dinosaurs, this thousand-mile-long island is so stuffed with oddities that every day reveals a new bizarre sight.

Within its distinctive, walkable landscapes, nature and culture intertwine. But, inevitably, times are changing, and the ancient taboos protecting certain species are beginning to fade. With good agricultural land in ever-decreasing supply, deforestation is rife, and isolated rural communities need strong incentives to keep their native forests intact. And, for a growing number of villagers, sensitively-managed eco-tourism projects are providing exactly that.

My base in the spiny forest is Mandrare River Camp, a remote, eco-friendly set-up in a stately grove of trees, wreathed in folklore and aflutter with birds. Its comfortable tents gaze across the broad Mandrare River to Ifotaka Community Forest, a precious belt of tamarinds, acacias and alluaudias, sacred to the Antandroy. They bury their dead there, investing huge sums in elaborate ceremonies and tombs. Once the feasting is over, it's said the spirits of their ancestors, the tromba, hover peacefully among the trees. Created by British adventure travel enthusiast Edd Tucker Brown, Mandrare River Camp is one of the first places in the country to capture the mood of a classic African safari — think gracious service, lantern-lit evenings and crackling campfires. But, as you'd expect on this idiosyncratic island, there's a twist.

Instead of waking to the distant roaring of lions, my mornings begin with the gentle sound of singing and splashing, as Antandroy women tend their plots on the riverbanks and children giggle in the shallows. And rather than watching wildlife from a rumbling 4WD, I explore the intriguing landscape on foot, padding through forests in the cool of the day and, after sunset, scanning for shining eyes with a torch. For now, few eco-tourists make the long journey to Ifotaka, a quiet, traditional corner of the Androy region, around 650 miles south of the capital, Antananarivo. But the Antandroy's spiritual relationship with nature makes it a fascinating place to be. Strolling appreciatively through their forests, I have time to absorb tiny details, from chameleons wobbling on branches to delicate medicinal plants. And to my delight, besides sifakas, I see other extraordinary primates — sportive, mouse and ring-tailed lemurs. Plenty of them.

Life & death

This unyielding landscape breeds tough individuals. The Antandroy are the tribe that's never been conquered: resilient and self-assured, they carry spears and axes as casually as Londoners might carry umbrellas. They're in high demand as security guards in Antananarivo, but on their home patch, they like to honour tradition. For generations, they've bred zebus, measuring their wealth by the size of their herds. These magnificent, long-horned cattle are rural Madagascar's status symbol; at major cultural events, they're slaughtered by the score. On a hot, still Saturday morning, I head south to Anzamavelo's low-key, weekly market, where livestock sellers take centre stage.

Vehicles are scarce in Androy, making zebus the cart-hauling engines of choice. Since they may be sacrificed to the tromba, looks matter too. A black bull with a powerful physique and a white, star-shaped marking over his eyes, I'm told, has the greatest value of all. Beyond the lowing and bleating animals, the modest general market unfolds. A blaze of cheap, imported textiles, homeware and jaunty hats, it's the social event of the week. Women wearing sarong-like lambas chat in the shade and youths with bleached quiffs (a sign they've come of age) strut about looking cool. Older men, meanwhile, slide off to a secret spot to swig toaka gasy, the local hooch. A cluster of friendly artisans are hard at work — skilled, mobile phone geeks, seamstresses seated neatly at manual sewing machines and a bicycle repair guy spinning wheels as proudly as a mechanic testing a Porsche. Since money is tight here, it pays to get things fixed.

On the way back, I pass hamlets of windowless shacks made from alluaudia wood. Little larger than garden sheds, the contrast between these and the stone tombs in the forest, which take several months to build, seems bizarre. "In Malagasy tradition, death is the most important part of life," says Andreas. "A tomb is for ever, while a house — it's just for now." Back at the camp, I ask Jacques Vorster, the South African manager, how guests tend to feel among people who, although proud, appear to have so little. "Some ask why we aren't doing more," he says. "But the Antandroy have a complex culture and it's not our place to impose change. If the elders say they need a school building, or a better water system, we see whether we can help them achieve it. Our wardens grew up in the forest, but now, instead of letting livestock graze there, they earn a wage by caring for the trees."

Park life

It's fair to say national airline Air Madagascar's timekeeping would try the patience of a saint. But avoiding confrontation is so fundamental to the Malagasy that they'd rather wilt in a four-hour queue for a 75-minute flight than cause a fuss. In a country where distances are long, good roads scarce and domestic airfares unaffordable to all but the elite, a seat on Air Mad says you've arrived. Each time I brave the network, I encounter a similar crowd: sharply dressed, quietly resigned. The dapper gentleman with twinkling eyes on my flight to the far north turns out to be Jaojoby, Madagascar's answer to Tom Jones. Delayed by a couple of days, he's as relieved as me to be on board. When I land at the Analanjirofo town of Maroantsetra, tropical sunshine greets me like a hug. "You made it!" laughs my effervescent Masoala guide, Felix, who, like many rural Malagasy, doesn't use a surname. At last, the knots of stress melt away.

Adjacent to Madagascar's largest conservation area, Masoala National Park, and Antongil Bay — the notch at the top of the map — Maroantsetra is a likeable, laid-back place. On its outskirts, a bouquet of drying cloves waft over compound walls. Women with baskets of mangoes or lychees on their heads smile as they pad the sandy streets, or gossip outside split-bamboo shacks thatched with palm. "So much better than corrugated iron," says Felix. "If only everyone would plant more trees." Even Madagascar's famous traveller's tree, the ravenala palm, is getting scarcer and scarcer, he says. Fish stocks have been dwindling, too, but it's hoped that a new scheme will turn things around. In 2015, Antongil Bay became Madagascar's first community-managed 'shark park', banning foreign fishing fleets and protecting 19 species of shark. Humpback whales also stand to benefit. From July to September, the bay is their mating ground; according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, around 7,000 gather here each year.

In the centre of town, local travellers are preparing for a journey on the notoriously derelict Route Nationale 5, piling enormous bundles onto the roof of a weary-looking Toyota, then squeezing themselves into the back. Beside the taxi-brousse station, market vendors gather fish into bundles or pop fritters into sizzling pans of oil.

I board a boat that speeds across the bay to Masoala Forest Lodge, an off-grid hideaway for kayakers, nature-lovers and romantics, tucked into a sandy cove. With just a sprinkling of vanilla-scented cabins and a dreamy, faraway feel, it's a very special place to be. A vast, fern-draped, lowland rainforest enwraps it, tumbling right down to the shore. Like much of the east coast, the Masoala Peninsula is the traditional home of the Betsimisaraka, Madagascar's second largest ethnic group. Their legends tell of ghosts, mermaids and the Kalamoro — little men of the woods with wild, flowing hair.

Masoala National Park was created in 1997, and the adjustment hasn't been totally smooth. While some locals appreciate the benefits of protecting the lowland rainforest, others feel the park keeps them poor, since its rules prevent them from harvesting trees like their grandparents did. In the climate of corruption which grew out of Madagascar's political crisis in 2009, timber poachers enlisted embittered locals as collaborators and illegal hardwood logging spread like a disease. "Rosewood is Madagascar's rhino horn," says Pierre Bester, a South African who co-owns Masoala Forest Lodge with his German wife, Maria. "As long as wealthy Asians will pay $200,000 (£138,787) for a rosewood dresser, criminals will keep hacking down ancient trees." Instead of giving in to despair, enlightened lodge-owners like the Besters concentrate on building constructive partnerships, buying organic produce from local growers, supporting fishermen and providing work for craftsmen, housekeepers and cooks. Elsewhere in Madagascar, sharp-eyed youngsters bag lemurs and leaf-tailed geckos for the illegal pet trade. But here they're encouraged to train as guides instead.

My fellow guests, US biologists, are in wildlife-watching heaven, enthusing about rare frogs and chameleons as they swipe through their photos each day. I rarely encounter other tourists during my stay in Masoala, and the sense of immersion in nature is sublime; the air around the lodge is rich with wild ginger and cinnamon bark, mixed with the tang of the sea; red-ruffed lemurs (endemic to Masoala) cackle from the trees. But while the steep, leaf-strewn tracks feel like paths through paradise, smoke from distant fires, set by farmers, reminds me how vulnerable this forest remains. "If we keep burning, where will the lemurs find food?" asks Felix. "And without lemurs to spread seeds, how will the trees survive? No trees, no lemurs. No lemurs, no trees."

Wake-up call

At Saha Forest Camp, I wake to a sensation that I'm underwater once again. From the distance comes a high-pitched howling, pure and long as the song of a Masoala humpback whale. I've travelled south to the Anjozorobe-Angavo Forest Corridor, one of the last fragments of primary montane rainforest in the central highlands surrounding Antananarivo. Of the nine species of lemur that dwell in this otherworldly place, only one makes this plaintive call. It's the indri, which the Malagasy call the babakoto ('old man'). "Some say they're crying for a long-lost brother," says Harry Rakotosalama, my Merina guide and interpreter, over breakfast. "You can hear them three kilometres away."

Saha means 'garden' or 'meadow', and its views are a dazzle of green. Below its spacious, stylish terrace is a field of rice, backed by a curtain of trees. To the rural community that owns this remarkable lodge, the montane rainforest is a lifeline, providing them with water, natural remedies and spices to sell. Skilled artisan farmers and foragers, they supply the likes of Costco, Häagen-Dazs and Chanel with organic vanilla, wild ginger and ravintsara, an essential oil with a warm, exotic scent.

Thanks to Saha Forest Camp, the rainforest delivers eco-tourists, too. Launched in 2008 with World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) funds and assistance from Fanamby — a Malagasy association that helps disadvantaged people develop sustainable, eco-friendly businesses — this community-owned lodge is a model of its type. Its friendly local staff offer simple rooms, superb walks and serve a delicious vary sy laoka (a rice dish with chicken and peas).

When I meet Fanamby's founder, conservationist and lemur expert Serge Rajaobelina, he's celebrating a new achievement. Madagascar, the second country after South Africa to join the Fair Trade Tourism network, has been encouraging its eco-lodges to apply for certification, and Saha is among the first to be granted it.

"Tourists already know that Madagascar has outstanding biodiversity, but they also want assurance that their money is going into the right pockets," he says. "By developing a Fair Trade circuit, we're hoping to prove we're doing things right."

Serge reckons that local people, with adequate training, make the best forest guides. "When it comes to reading the environment, they're incredible," he says. "They know every leaf, and the bark of every tree."

I head out for a walk with Toussaint Raharimanana, a village elder in his 60s, and his apprentice Sesen Andriasifaliana, aged 21. In the rice fields below us, a trio of farmers are singing folk songs, their voices floating over the indris' distant calls. As soon as we dive into the trees, Toussaint and Sesen are in their element, pointing out oddities such as giraffe weevils with ease.

We pause at a hilltop doany (shrine), marked by a zebu skull in a dragon tree. It's here, explains Toussaint, that the elders hold sacred rituals to celebrate Alahamady Be, the Merina New Year. I ask whether his generation, too, believe the rainforest is a sacred place. "I think things are changing," he says. "Many people, like me, were brought up as Protestants, and the old rituals aren't really part of our lives. But I believe the forest is very special. To me, it's a source of life."


Getting there

Flight options from London to Antananarivo include

Air France

via Paris and

Kenya Airways

via Nairobi.

Average flight time: 15h.

Getting around
Air Madagascar's domestic flight network from Antananarivo serves Fort Dauphin and Maroantsetra.
Ifotaka is 3.5 hours from Fort Dauphin by road; private air transfers can be booked via Mandrare River Camp.
Masoala Forest Lodge offers boat transfers from Maroantsetra to Masoala National Park (around 2 hours) with an optional stop at Nosy Mangabe.
Anjozorobe is around 2.5 hours north east of Antananarivo by road; Zà-Tours, in Antananarivo, offers guided transfers.

When to go
It's best to visit in the dry season (April-November in the south and central highlands, September-December in Masoala). Temperatures average around 20-25C. Whale-watching in Masoala is July-September. There's a risk of cyclones from January-March.

Need to know
Visas: Available on arrival for UK citizens.
Currency: Malagasy Ariary (MGA). £1 = MGA4500.
Health: Consult your GP about vaccinations and anti-malarials well in advance.
International dial code: 00 261.
Time: GMT +3.

More info
. RRP: £17.99 (Bradt Travel Guides)
The Rough Guide to Madagascar. RRP: £4.99
Life Amongst the Thorns, by Louise Jasper and Charlie Gardner. RRP: £35 (John Beaufoy)

How to do it
Rainbow Tours can create a 14-day bespoke itinerary in the centre and north, including full-board at Masoala Forest Lodge and half-board at Saha Forest Camp from £3,170 per person sharing. Includes all activities, transfers, guides and internal flights.

Natural World Safaris has a 12-day bespoke safari in the centre and south, including Andasibe National Park, Ifotaka Community Forest and Manafiafy Beach from £2,710 per person, excluding international flights.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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