Ever since I watched the movie I had wanted to go!
So why wait and wish any longer? At least that was my thinking when I made a rash decision to book a flight to Madagascar. Two days later and I had landed in Antananarivo, capital of the Land of Lemurs. To say that this trip was unplanned or un-researched would be a complete understatement. I literally grabbed the travel book off the shelves, charged my camera and stuffed a backpack.
The goal: To cheaply travel around Madagascar for 17 nights trying to see as many Lemurs, Baobabs, birds and chameleons as possible. To explore a different culture!
I arrived in Antananarivo; known affectionately as Tana, with absolutely no clue what direction I was going to head in let alone where I would lay my head to rest. And so began an adventure that will go down as one of the more crazy that I have ever embarked on.
At times I loved the country and at times I hated it. Travelling solo as an English speaking tourist in a very French Madagascar is a very difficult thing to do. I very quickly learnt that the few tourists who do brave the ‘political instability’ of Madagascar, do so from the comfort of a rented air conditioned 4 x 4 car, driven by a bilingual driver/guide who knows the backroads and places to visit, who knows the prices to be paid to street vendors and which areas are to be avoided. I, on the other hand could not speak a word of French and had no guide or car…I used the non-existent public transport system to journey around the southern parts of the island…alone!
The island is huge and I decided to try concentrate my efforts on the regions supposedly more rich in the crazy biodiversity that I had ogled at over the years on the Discovery Channel. I knew that most tourists went north to Nosy Be and so decided to avoid that area trying to get a true taste of Malagasy life. One might say that I got a little too much…I hardy saw any tourists and heard my first English accent on Day 8! I walked long stretches of the route, hitch hiked and even travelled by boat to speed up my movements. Countless hours were spent waiting for the notorious taxi-brousses to find enough passengers to fill their mini-busses and begin the slow trip to wherever.
The route I took meant that I ventured through rainforests, rice paddies, mountain ranges, gorges, granite domes, baobab avenues, spiny forests and white-sanded beaches. It meant I saw 14 different Lemur species and 80 different birds (60% of which are endemic). I had pictures taken of chameleons the size of my forearm and saw beetles with necks 10 times as long as their body. I listened to the eerie yet gorgeous call of the Indri. I saw the rare Long-tailed Ground Roller and watched the full moon rise from a piroque in the Mozambique Channel. I walked in canyons as grand as any and held frogs that looked like jewels. I ate rice and bread three meals a day, everyday!
There are many who describe Madagascar as a half-finished world. That is a very accurate description of the strange, weird and wonderful landscapes, creatures and plants that call this land their home. Nearly everything you see here is found nowhere else in the world! The scenery is spectacular. The biodiversity, exceptional!
Unfortunately one is continually reminded of an ever-growing hungry, poor developing population putting massive pressures on nature. Deforestation is rife…massive tracts of forests are being felled and used for charcoal. Any suitable land is carved into picturesque rice paddies with tons of silt flooding into the catchment areas. The rivers carry silt to the sea bleeding life out of the land!
Wildlife is being forced to survive in fragments that are called reserves: islands in a patchwork of subsistence agriculture. It is sad to visit a country like Madagascar as a conservationist, to see a magical spot, a spot so special and unique being slowly depleted and destroyed by people. To witness first hand that we as a species are to blame for the demise of one of the true wonders of the natural world. Political instability has meant that aid has dried up to a country that even by African standards must be considered very poor! And where people are struggling to get money, what hope does a leaf-tailed gecko have!
To say the trip was easy would be a lie. The transport was tough. A 350 km drive would take 14 hours and involve countless breakdowns and corrupt roadblocks. My record was 45 people in one car…in this car we also had half a cow and an alive octopus in a plastic bucket. Chickens stirred on laps whilst goats bleated on the roof rack above. And everyone is out to make an extra buck!
To say the trip was magical would be the complete truth. ‘Doing’ Madagascar the way I did it, the unconventional way, meant that I saw the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, of what it means to live here. The people are very friendly and accommodating. The country is safe and they appear to be looking after the natural areas that have been demarcated as ‘protected’. I achieved my goal of exploring a new area and saw lemurs, baobabs, birds and chameleons. I also met some fascinating characters along the way, even if I did not understand a world they said, and managed to get some powerful images on film. Hours spent alone also meant that I had time to reflect and think about my priorities and self. It enabled me to be a little selfish for a change spending time the way I wanted. It gave me huge appreciation and pride of how my home country, South Africa, and how it has handled many similar problems.
I urge you to travel to Madagascar; the country needs tourists! I did not notice any political unrest and felt safer here than anywhere else I have travelled. You will see things here that will blow your mind. Not only will see the most beautiful wildlife but you will change as a person…you perspective on life will change! My one suggestion however is to either speak French or do it as a group! Enjoy, you wont regret it!
My Top 5 things to do in southern Madagascar
Hiking in I’Ilsalo National Park
Listening to the Indri calling at Andasibe National Park
Sunrise walk through the Spiny Forest near Ifaty staring at the strange Baobabs
Bird watching and Lemur watching in the rainforest at Ramanofana National Park
Eating Chocolate Ice Cream in Fianarantsoa
Written and photographed by Adam Bannister