Otherworldly Madagascar

From the lemurs to the landscape, everything about the world's fourth-largest island is surprising.

Many have tried to get at the heart of what makes Madagascar so different from every other place in the world. "May I announce to you that Madagascar is the naturalist's promised land?" the Frenchman Philibert de Commerson wrote in 1771. "Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she has used elsewhere." David Attenborough, who brought his first images of the island to the outside world in the early 1960s, described "a place where antique outmoded forms of life that have long since disappeared from the rest of the world still survive in isolation." To me, the most evocative metaphor comes from Alison Jolly, the doyenne of lemur studies. In her discerning book A World Like Our Own (1980), Jolly says that on Madagascar it is as if "time had once broken its banks and flowed to the present down a different channel."

Down that channel has come a cornucopia of "weird and wonderful things," as a scientist acquaintance put it to me recently. For monkey enthusiasts there are lemurs, the spry, wide-eyed relatives of monkeys. Birders can dull pencils making lists of vangas--birds that rival Darwin's finches for diversity--and of four other families unique to the island. I happen to be partial to the reptiles. Madagascar has more than half the world's chameleons, with their independently swiveling eyes and body-length tongues. And it is the only home of the leaf-tailed gecko, which looks like lichen until disturbed, when it opens a blood-red mouth and screams like a banshee.

Madagascar has landscapes as fanciful as anything conceived from tropical rain forest to a bizarre "spiny desert" that is unique to the island. Even the people are not what you'd expect. Though the island lies off Mozambique, its people hail originally from Indonesia. At times, while passing Malagasy, as the people of Madagascar are called, on the streets of the capital, Antananarivo, you'd swear you were in Jakarta. Spiced with African, Arabian, and French influences, the Malagasy culture is like no other.

Despite its enticements, Madagascar remains off the beaten track, as if the Mozambique Channel, which has isolated the island from Africa for more than 100 million years, had succeeded in keeping away tourists as well. For Madagascar not only is far from where tourists tend to live but also, though boundlessly rich in nature, is one of the world's poorest nations. This has implications for the things that tourists use. You can count Madagascar's topflight hotels on two hands. Making a telephone call to a number within the country would tax the patience of Mother Teresa (though satellite links ease overseas calls). And then there are the roads. In many areas even the national highways seem more like motocross tracks. The roads are inescapable evidence of the fall in the country's fortunes during the seventeen-year socialist era. This ended in 1992 with a democratic presidential election; both the country's name, the Republic of Madagascar, and its leader, President Albert Zafy, are new since then.

But if you plan your route well and roll with the punches that are inevitable in a nation with an annual per capita income of less than $250, you can experience a singular and still very foreign land. And you can stay in fine hotels at very low rates. The exchange rate has lately been highly favorable to American tourists: between my first visit, in 1993, and my second, last March, the Malagasy franc went from 1,900 to 4,000 to the dollar. (The currency's recent behavior has been erratic; at this writing its value is 4,600 to the dollar.)

My more recent trip began at Toliara, a port town on the southwest coast. I joined a group of four other Americans to drive halfway up the island (end to end the island is as long as the distance from New York to Orlando). Our destination was Antananarivo, known simply as Tana, and we planned to spend a day each in three of the country's top nature reserves along the way. One biologist has called Madagascar's thirty-odd reserves a "necklace of pearls"; I think of them as islands in a sea of degradation. Most of the forests that once blanketed Madagascar have been cleared for farming and grazing, and the continuing fast growth of the population, which now stands at 14 million, threatens the rest (Alison Jolly calls it a "tragedy without villains"). If you visit the island's nature reserves, you may be glad to know that your money is helping to protect what the World Wildlife Fund considers to be the world's No. 1 biodiversity hot spot: the park fees you pay are split between the protected-areas authority and local communities.

We were met in Toliara by Bruno, our trim, typically Indonesian-looking guide. Bruno is a member of the Merina, a tribe whose name means "those from the highlands." The Merina have dominated the seventeen other tribes in Madagascar ever since Merina kings unified the country in the eighteenth century and made Tana their capital.

Accompanying Bruno were two drivers, Jocelin and Parson, who commanded the two four-wheel-drive vehicles that would be our transport for the next week. Unlike Bruno, they spoke no English. (Forget about trying to get by in Madagascar with just English at your disposal. Hire a guide who speaks Malagasy, because even French, which is the language of commerce, is rarely spoken outside the cities.) Our bags were piled on top of one car. The roof of the other bore supplies, including two large jerry cans containing water and diesel fuel. In Madagascar there is no such thing as AAA. Between towns you're on your own.

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