Night falls quickly in Southern Madagascar so Andreas, my excellent guide from nearby Mandrare River Camp made it clear that we were to be out of the sacred forest before dark.
“Night is the time for spirits” he said emphatically, which explained why so many villages in this region were eerily quiet as early as 7pm with everyone safely tucked up inside. After a short walk across the shallow river from which the camp takes its name, we walked up the sandbank and entered the forest itself. A dramatic spiny forest of cactus like trees some over 30 foot high. Walking through them has been described as walking on the ocean floor looking up at coral moving in the current and with the bright green tendrils seemingly floating against the cloudless blue sky – I could see why.
It was what was hidden amongst this that we had come to see, the forest is a traditional burial ground, considered sacred by the local Antandroy tribe. Elaborately decorated family tombs both ancient and recent can be found here, hidden among the tangle of vines and bushes that seem threaded with silvery webs. The first tomb we saw was a large set of plain stones, some 20 ft square and about 4 ft high, with a few freshly culled zebu horns laid in each corner.”Not a rich man” Andreas said, “it is a plain tomb. Also quite recent, maybe a few weeks, the body is wrapped in white silk inside.”
Moving deeper into the forest, we then came across a similar sized tomb, but with brightly painted murals along the walls showing scenes from everyday life of the deceased, his hobbies and passions, decorated with garlands of flowers. On the tomb walls there were simple drawings of zebu carts and crop planting as well as guns and helicopters. I couldn’t work out if the deceased was a farmer who wanted to be in the army, or a soldier who dream of a quiet life in the country. On seeing a mermaid and a dolphin in there as well I gave up trying to figure it out.
We carried on walking for some time past more tombs and simple structures, weaving our way in and out of the shadows as the sun sank. We reached our final destination and last family tomb, it was neither the largest, nor the most colourful but it was certainly the oldest and easily the most fascinating. Much of the brickwork had cracked over the years, the tomb held together more or less by the surrounding vegetation, much of the writing long faded by the harsh, dry climate.
There were also headstones nearby, long thin pinnacles of rock, with wooden totems of old zebu horns. I noticed numerous animal bones half buried in the earth, these remains of zebu sacrificed long ago were laid next to old rags tied with string – lucky charms used by Ombiashi (local sorcerers) at ancestral ceremonies. I was so deeply fascinated that I hadn’t noticed my guide heading back along the path – at a pretty brisk pace – it was already dusk .
As if on cue I heard the call of an owl and caught up with Andreas to ask what the malagasy name for the creature was, but without breaking his stride he said flatly in English ‘ghost bird’ and seemed to pick up his pace even more. His anxiety had started to affect me too and the forest suddenly seemed that much darker, the path ahead less clear and the vegetation more imposing, much of it now seeming to snag against our clothes and scratch our skin. I turned on my torch, but this then created bizarre shadows and I was sure I could make out faces in the gnarly bark of the baobab trunk we passed on finally leaving the forest.
An hour later, enjoying drinks at camp, Andreas telling (rather tall) ancestral tales, I decided I’d better make my next drink a large vodka tonic to steady the nerves as after all, night is indeed the time for spirits. I presume this was what he meant.