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TRAVEL -- January 1996

Otherworldly Madagascar

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


by Peter Tyson

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."

(Related Articles) 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 by Henri Rousseau, 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.

Route Nationale 7 out of Toliara gave no hint of what was coming. It was paved three years ago by the French, who still provide a significant amount of aid to what was their colony until 1960. But as soon as Parson, who bore a striking resemblance to James Caan, turned his Toyota Land Cruiser onto Route Nationale 10, we got a good, hard feel for how bad Malagasy roads can be. In places the highway resembled a covered-wagon trail in the Old West, with deep ruts dug by cattle carts, still the principal means of transport in rural areas. "Piece of cake," Parson said, using his only English phrase, each time he stomped on the brakes to negotiate a particularly rugged patch of sun-hardened mud.


OUR first stop was Beza-Mahafaly, a lemur reserve. Lemurs come from the same evolutionary stock as we do, and they are arguably the country's biggest draw. Once found worldwide, lemurs, an early model of primate, could not compete with more highly evolved monkeys and apes, and where they had to try, they went extinct. Left alone on Madagascar, lemurs have evolved into more than fifty species and subspecies. (About fifteen other species, some as big as apes, have gone extinct since human beings first set foot on the island, less than 2,000 years ago.)

Because Beza is primarily a research reserve, the few thatched sleeping huts there were set aside for scientists. So we pitched our tents on packed earth beneath oaklike tamarind trees. That evening the drivers, who doubled as cooks, laid out a feast of zebu steak (zebu being a kind of Asiatic ox), rice, leek salad, and sliced pineapple; Bruno did his part by making a tasty White Russian-like cocktail. (If camping is not your thing, Berenty, a private reserve in the southeast that protects a similar coterie of wildlife and habitats, has spacious twin-bedded bungalows with private showers for $64 a night.)

The next morning, after a breakfast of bread, guava jam, bananas, and strong Malagasy coffee, we went in search of lemurs. Our guide was a fiftyish local man named Manzagasy, who wore a red Marlboro hat and red shorts. The trails were overgrown--a sign of how few tourists make it this far south (Beza had only 130 last year). Overhead arched the wide-spreading tamarinds, which provide lemurs with food and lodging--and provide lemur-seekers like us with welcome shade.

After half an hour Manzagasy suddenly put his finger to his lips and pointed. It was hard to see through the dense foliage, but a sudden thrashing of leaves directed us to a pale blob on a high branch. It was a Verreaux's sifaka. Sifakas are a type of lemur that was named for its alarm call ("she- fahk!"); the Verreaux's is an exceptionally beautiful one. It has snow-white fur, a round black face, and a tail as long as its body. We watched as a band of five or six sifakas leaped fifteen-foot gaps in the canopy. When we were ready, Manzagasy moved on. The forest was hot and quiet. Now and then he stopped to point out a nocturnal sportive lemur staring down with amber eyes from its tree-trunk nest. We had hoped to find ringtails, the most gregarious of lemurs; just as we were about to give up on them, we came upon a group right on the trail. As curious about us as we were about them, they let us approach until we were only steps away. With their black-and-white-striped tails and masked faces, they might have been dressed to perform in a circus.

Even though it was the end of the six-month rainy season, it was dry. Because midday temperatures topped 100 degrees in the shade, however, we waited until late afternoon to walk in Beza's spiny desert, which harbors trees that rival Van Gogh's cypresses for expressiveness. We marveled at the comically bulbous baobabs, known as "upside-down trees" for the branches that splay like roots from their crowns, and at the cactuslike octopus trees, whose vertical branches poke at the sky like fingers. Other plants in the desert have gone to great evolutionary lengths to arm themselves against attack. Some sport thorns reminiscent of sharpened pencils; others ooze a milky latex that, if it gets in the eyes, can cause blindness. But we took care and were rewarded with a softly lit landscape straight out of a fairy tale.

At precisely 8:00 A.M. the next day--Bruno was a man for strict timetables--we drove back to Route Nationale 7 and bore east. We were headed for our second destination, Isalo National Park, the site of Madagascar's answer to the Grand Canyon. Long before we reached Isalo, we could see part of the massif after which the park is named: a wall of Jurassic sandstone rising from the plain like battlements. After an hour clambering around La Fenêtre, a natural rock window affording a panoramic view west over the plain we had just crossed, we drove a few minutes farther on to the three-star Relais de la Reine, our hotel for the next two nights.

Built three years ago by the French entrepreneur Gilbert Colombier, the hotel would, I think, have pleased Frank Lloyd Wright. It blended into the landscape so well that I didn't see it until we pulled up in front. The rooms ($64 per person for a double, with meals) are decorated in a tastefully rustic style, with furniture and beams carved from local wood. After eight dusty hours on the road and a night sleeping on the ground, we were ready for the plush beds and the large private bathrooms.

That evening, after meeting in the bar over bottles of Three Horses, the national beer, we followed a white-jacketed waiter into the high-ceilinged dining room, which looked out onto sunlit canyon walls. Monsieur Colombier changes his menu each night. The first night I dined on onion soup, kidneys in mustard sauce, and apple tart, washing the meal down with domestic Betsileo wine; the second night I enjoyed a succulent roast zebu in mushroom sauce, with pommes frites and vegetable quiche, and a dessert of mocha cake.

Like Beza, Isalo has an arid climate, but there the similarities end. The local people are Bara, Madagascar's most African-looking tribe and reputedly its fiercest warriors. Isalo has plant species found only there, such as the peculiar elephant's foot, which looks like a gourd with arms. Most distinctive is the landscape. Its wildly eroded bluffs and hidden valleys cry out for exploration. Of Isalo, Lonely Planet's thorough guidebook says, "If you have time for only one wilderness foray in Madagascar, this should be it." The Irish writer Dervla Murphy concurs in her wry travel book Muddling Through in Madagascar, calling Isalo "an hallucinatory place."

Like America's great canyons, Isalo needs several days--or weeks--to be seen properly. We had only a day, and carried a picnic lunch into the high-walled Canyon des Singes ("Canyon of the Monkeys"), probably named for its resident white sifakas. With five or six days you could trek roundtrip through rarely trod canyons to the Grotte des Portugais, a deep cavern with signs of ancient habitation. Some historians hold that Portuguese sailors who were shipwrecked on the west coast in 1527 sheltered in the cave. But local Bara legend has it that the occupants were the Vazimba, an aboriginal people who are believed to have inhabited the island long before the Malagasy arrived in their outrigger canoes.


BRUNO had us up early the next day, for the long drive to the third reserve on our itinerary, the rain-forest park of Ranomafana. After several hours of driving across a high, treeless plain, we dropped down to Ihosy, the capital of the Baras. Malagasy place-names often have wonderful pronunciations, like something out of Dr. Seuss. Ihosy ("ee -oosh") was a lovely little market town. Tall, handsome Bara men in straw homburgs and brightly colored lambas drifted wraithlike through the streets. Low-hanging clouds and a strange quiet lent an otherworldly atmosphere. I would have liked to pause longer in Ihosy, but after provisioning ourselves for a picnic lunch, we drove on.

We had planned to camp in the rain forest that night, but soon after we entered Ranomafana, the road overruled that idea. In the dark and drizzle we passed a sign bearing a red skull and crossbones and the warning DANGER DE MORT! Just ahead a landslide had taken out a big chunk of the road. "Not a piece of cake," Parson said, looking despairingly into the cap. Fortunately, not only had a private coach already been sent from Tana to take us the rest of the way but, because our route involved a bit of backtracking, the coach was on our side of the slide. It was late, and the nearest good hotel was two hours back down the road, so the group decided to sleep across the coach's seats. The best news was that the remainder of the route was paved.

The next morning, after clambering across the washed-out hillside, we crossed a bamboo bridge over the rain-swollen Namorona River and hiked up a steep trail into the forest. Some of Madagascar's thousand-odd species of orchids clung to trees rising through the canopy like Jack's beanstalk. On the ground, mosses and ferns sparkling with tiny droplets festooned fallen logs. While my companions scanned the canopy for lemurs, I kept my focus lower down, searching for some of the park's lesser-known residents: chameleons, with their eerie eyes; bright-green day geckos; and the freakish giraffe-necked weevil. Alas, I had to settle for a single frog that we found in a stream.

The day was overcast and humid, and we were soon winded and sweaty. But we did not have long to wait before Claude, the teenage guide we had hired to show us Ranomafana, tracked down four of the reserve's twelve lemur species, including a handsome black cousin of the sifakas we had seen at Beza. As at Isalo, we had only a day at Ranomafana, which is almost three times the size of Acadia National Park and has much to offer the curious. With enough time, you could hire one of the park's many English-speaking guides and try your luck at finding some of the rain forest's more rarely seen mammals, such as the golden bamboo lemur and the fossa (pronounced foosh). Like a cross between a mongoose and a mountain lion, the fossa fills the niche left unclaimed by Africa's lions and other large predators, which evolved too late to set foot on Madagascar.

On the final leg to Tana we stopped for souvenirs in the wood-carving center of Ambositra and in Antsirabe, known for gems. Tana itself, draped over a dozen hills at an invigorating altitude of 4,200 feet, is an enchanting place. Its drawbacks--crime after dark, cars without catalytic converters, traffic jams--are more than made up for by the inherent good nature of the Malagasy and the anachronistic, almost medieval quality of the city.

The sights can be seen in a day. In the morning you could visit some of the city's impressive churches and pick up souvenirs and a feel for Malagasy life in the Zoma ("Friday") market--a misnomer in that this raucous daily street fair in the center of town is held daily. In the afternoon you could take a taxi to the Tsimbazaza zoo. A good compendium of what there is to see in the reserves, the zoo showcases aye-ayes--the most bizarre of lemurs, made famous in Gerald Durrell's book The Aye-aye and I--and a wide selection of other creatures. There you can also see skeletons of some of Madagascar's long-extinct species, including the pygmy hippo and the flightless elephant bird, the largest bird that ever lived. My favorite sight was the city itself, with its narrow, hilly streets between the French-style brick houses of the Merina, who make up the bulk of the population of close to two million. With their red-tiled roofs and carved wooden balconies, the houses lend an Old World charm to this very Third World city.

By mid-afternoon we were ensconced in Tana's comfortable Hôtel Colbert. Located in the heart of Haute-Ville ("Upper Town"), the Colbert offers carpeted, air-conditioned rooms with TV, full bath, and a good view for rates that start at about $100 a night. The Colbert's La Taverne restaurant is a favorite eating spot among Tana's well-to-do. The night I was there it appeared to be filled with expatriate French businessmen. Specialties include tripe in apple-brandy sauce and frog's legs, though I can vouch only for the zebu steak, which was delicious. The Colbert also has a casino, a pâtisserie, and several high-priced gift shops.

Package tours to Madagascar from the United States are scarce, but a growing number of companies in Great Britain offer trips (see the Lonely Planet guide Madagascar and Comoros for details). For customized travel, the California-based company Cortez Travel (800-854-1029), which ran the trip I was on, comes highly recommended by Lonely Planet and by Alison Jolly. A third approach: through my employer, Earthwatch (800-776-0188), researchers welcome paying volunteers to help them study lemur behavior at two sites on the island.

Whatever means you choose, if you are intrigued, go soon, because Madagascar is on the verge of being discovered. Who knows? By the time you get there, the road from Toliara may be paved all the way to Tana.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Otherworldly Madagascar; Volume 277, No. 1; pages 42-48.

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