“For luck,” says my guide Justin, as he bends down to pick up a pinch of dust by the side of the road. He places it carefully in his pocket. I find out later that such is the Malagasy love of home that whenever they leave, they take a small handful of soil with them to ensure their safe return.

I’m at the start of my journey towards Andringitra National Park in south-eastern Madagascar – beginning with a four-hour drive through a wild, highland countryside. I share the ride with four: Justin, my guide, Patrick, the driver, Charles, a porter, and Grace, a cook. They talk incessantly and laugh easily as we cross crumbling wooden bridges that are more gaps than planks. “Don’t worry,” Grace smiles, “today is maraina tsara – a good day for travelling.” It transpires that some days are more auspicious than others. “The ancestors will look after us.”

View of Andringitra with guide, Andringitra National Park, Madagascar
Andringitra National Park, Madagascar

The ancestors are indeed watching. In between rice paddies and simple thatched villages, the hills through which we drive are dotted with dozens of tombs. Resembling family vaults, they vary in style from simple stone cairns to ornately decorated concrete buildings. The larger ones are brightly painted with images from the life of the deceased – both real and imagined. There are military scenes next to mermaids and truck drivers next to unicorns.

These resting places are what binds people to the land, the ancestors inside lie waiting for the time when they are exhumed, taking the lead role in a joyful celebration known as Farmadihana, ‘the turning of the bones’.

Grace continues as we rattle across appalling roads. “In Madagascar, it is rude to say someone is dead. We say marary mafy – they are ill.”

This obsession with the spiritual world seems at odds with the Malagasy love of life. They are enigmatic, resilient and fun. They have to be. When the head of the family dies – bar a small gift to the wives – all possessions and cattle are sold to pay for elaborate funerals and these tombs. There is no inheritance here. All children must learn to stand on their own two feet.

Sunset, Andringitra National Park, Madagascar
Andringitra National Park, Madagascar

Life is tough enough here, but I am painfully aware of the present-day challenges on both the people and the natural resources. Rampant deforestation is well documented and I feel I am exploring a country where new species are being discovered as fast as others become extinct. Bad politics and military coups means poverty is rife, but people need shelter and food. It is a tragedy without villains. Whilst many Malagasy live a life of hardships I will never know, the most frequently heard greeting on my trip is mamy ny aina, ‘life is sweet’.

We arrive at camp and settle in. A hearty meal and good night’s sleep precede three of the most spectacular days of walking I have ever done. Ever-changing scenery, surreal flora and even a rare sighting of an endemic ring-tailed lemur kept me entranced as my legs ache and my lungs are stretched.

Watching the sun rise over the lunar landscape of Andringitra is a moment I’m instantly aware that I will never forget. Standing in the shadow of the towering granite cliffs behind me, dragonflies hover in the still air. In the distance, the land rises to jagged blue mountains, the peaks aglow in the morning light. The valley below is carpeted with giant ferns and plants found nowhere else on the planet.

Andringitra National Park, Madagascar
Andringitra National Park, Madagascar

A haunting, unfamiliar call echoes around the valley. In a land of dancing primates and three-eyed lizards, it could be anything. I half expect a dinosaur to appear. Then the porters begin to sing in the distance and I am reminded of my conversation with them in camp last night.

“There are strange things out there.” My guide Justin whispered to me as we shared rum and rice around our campfire. I looked through the small doorway of our hut, to the imposing Andringitra Massif beyond, bright under a full moon.

“Such as?” I asked.

He leaned in and uttered, “Spirits.” With this, the other porters fell silent as he stood and poured a small amount of rum into the corner. He muttered a short prayer. “To keep them happy”, he said. Spirits appeased, the singing began in earnest and the rum was once more passed around among the living.

Whilst wildlife grabs the headlines, Malagasy culture, barely two millennia old, is the beating heart of the country. The French historian Jean Pierre Domenichini once called Madagascar, “the most beautiful enigma.” To spend time here is to see a different world.

Ring-tailed lemur, Madagascar
Ring-tailed lemur

All too soon, however, it is my last morning in the park and I head to the Tsaranoro Valley — the end of my trek. Like the rest of Madagascar, it is unexpected and full of surprises. Bridging the crest of the mountain, I look down into a valley of exquisite beauty.

Silvery baobabs stand in dazzling green rice paddies. Herds of zebu cattle wander past, watched over by sinewy warriors dressed in bright lamba cloth. I walk slowly into the village. Women thrash rice for the harvest, children chase chickens and young girls smile from inside colourful wooden doorways. Family tombs and small shrines lie among the grass. Time itself seems suspended between the past and the present, this life and the next.

Palm forest, Andringitra, Madagascar
Andringitra, Madagascar

“Do you want to see Madagascar’s largest chameleon?” asks Justin, breaking my reverie.

“Of course,” I reply, keen to photograph this iconic and much-feared animal.

“Watch out though. It is very strong. And 30-foot long.” He says with a grin. This I must see. Justin points to the far side of the valley. Sure enough, at the top of the aptly named Pic Chameleon, lies a rock formation shaped exactly like a chameleon’s head.

“Don’t tell me, he calls out at night,” I joke.

“No,” says Justin, “Sometimes at sunrise.”

Such is the magic and mystery here, I secretly hope he is right, that the call I heard echo across the valley a few days before was this same stone chameleon. In this bizarre and beautiful country, where people never really die, you can imagine anything is possible.

Thanks for reading

Chris Johnston

Author: Chris Johnston