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Madagascar – Between Two Worlds

Andringitra Mountains

“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.”

Malagasy girl

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.

Tomb in Madagascar

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.”

Tombs in the forest

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.

Cute kid in 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’.

Boys playing table football

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.

Ring-tailed lemur

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.

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.

Andringitra landscape

“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.

Malagasy with painted face

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.

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 valley of exquisite beauty.

Andringitra landscape

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.

“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.

Guide by path in Andringitra

“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.

Misty Andringitra landscape

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What to make of Madagascar

Indri Lemur, Andasibe National Park, Alaotra-Mangoro, Madagascar, Africa (chris)

What to make of Madagascar? A country that is a fascinating mix of Asia and Africa – dazzling green rice paddies, against a backdrop of ancient Baobabs. A language as fascinating and diverse as the people – a mixture of Bantu, Arabic, French and Polynesian. 18 different tribes each with its own strict set of Fady – taboos – by which they must live their lives. These vary from region to region, but sometimes also from village to village, as do the dialects, so you are sure to be kept on your toes!

It is a country where each day of the week is given a colour and the preferred drink is – rhum arrange, local rum infused with everything from ginger, vanilla or coffee.

The natural world is as magical as the people. There are octopus trees, animals that change colour in front of your eyes, over 50 different species of primates found no-where else on the planet. There are wild deserts, mountain rain forests, rocky lunar landscapes and sacred spiny forests full of ghosts and hidden tombs.

There are luxury tropical resorts and beautiful islands, where you can fly in by helicopter and watch whales calve before snorkelling in turquoise waters. In the remote south, there are wild parks and villages untouched by the modern world, only accessible on bone jarring drives of 4 hours over treacherous roads, where you can stay in fantastic bush camps and explore on foot.

It is a country of crumbling 18th century, French town houses and mud huts, a country of fine dining and subsistence living, from delicious steaks and the freshest seafood to cassava and zebu blood.

This is also country where over 80 % of families annual income is spent on the afterlife, elaborate tombs and ceremonies held whenever the dead appear to families in dreams. Others simply burn down the home of the deceased, sell their cattle and dare not mention their name after dark. There are thousands of churches throughout the country, but Ombiashi (traditional sorcerers) are still consulted on all aspects of family life – weddings, funerals, new projects – where sacrifices are made of wild honey, rum and animals (the chickens must always be white).

It is a country that also doesn’t have enough planes to go round, so flights can be delayed and cancelled at a moment’s notice, but you will get to know the handful of cabin crew who do the rounds. It is a country in which I was threatened with death (a traditional greeting I was aware of only after the event) and perhaps most bizarrely a country where I was mistaken for a priest.

It is a confusing, fascinating and sometimes frustrating country but it is also heartfelt and incredibly genuine. You will be charmed by the people and amazed by its natural beauty. It will be quite unlike anywhere you have ever been before.

I cannot wait to go back.

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Andasibe Forest Walk, Madagascar

It was strange hearing whale song in the middle of the rainforest.

Or at least that’s what the haunting call of the Indri – Madagascar’s largest lemur – sounded like as I stood in the early morning mists in Andasibe, Madagascar’s busiest and most accessible rainforest. As my guide John and I left the park office, this strange call became the soundtrack to our time here – a constant reminder of the parks most popular and elusive residents calling to each other in the distance.

No sooner had we entered the park than John was peering into pitcher plants and looking under leaves with great enthusiasm (although I warned him about my desire NOT to see anything with 8 legs up close) and it wasn’t long before we had found our first tiny frog. A vibrant orange golden mandella – sitting on a bright green leaf minding his own business. “These frogs can gather in their hundreds sometimes” said John and the noise I heard from my lodge last night was testament to that as they were calling to each other and potential mates from the pond outside my window.

We then saw the first of our lemurs – a troop of common brown lemurs warming themselves in the sun – a pair of tiny eyes peering at me from the protective embrace of the mother and the quiet squeaks and coughs of reassurance between the group. We then saw the diademed sifakas, their orange legs dangling from the branch and later, tiny mouse lemurs peering at us from the hollow of trees.

We carried on through the well defined paths of the park, thick with vegetation all around whilst butterflies flew in and out of the shards of light coming through the canopy way above. We stopped at a pretty plain looking tree – my guide grinning from ear to ear. I love wildlife, but find it hard to get excited about trees and was preparing myself for a boring monologue about this particular species and how many individual plants are in Andasibe, when John asked – “where is its’ head?” Not sure how to answer this, I stood there looking at the tree with my mouth open until the tiniest movement on the trunk caught my eye and I realised I was looking at a leaf tailed gecko.

As we moved on, the more I looked, the more I saw – a tiny nose-horned chameleon hanging on to a leaf (who fell off when we walked passed so my guide picked him up and put him back), a bright yellow comet moth asleep in the shade and the endemic blue coua calling from the trees.

Just as we were about to leave, John darted off the path into the undergrowth – “quick, but be quiet” – so I waded in, rucksack and me getting tangled in the bushes, whilst he seemed to glide through the forest. “There” he said, pointing up and after extracting myself from the vegetation, I checked around for webs and stepped into the clearing next to him.

Looking up I instantly heard the Indri calling – from some distance away at first – before the one sitting about 10 feet above me replied. This close, the call of the Indri is less haunting, more harrowing, loud enough to be heard from over 3km away but to hear it is to be amazed and I have never heard a sound like it. After enjoying this conversation in the trees, we made our way back to the main path and I left the park as I had begun, with the Indri’s calls ringing in my ears.

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Sacred Tombs in Spiny Forest

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.

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Malagasy markets

My first visit to a local Malagasy market was not initially as I’d imagined. “These are no good, they are Chinese and too small, you need something bigger.”

Not sure how to take this, my long suffering guide and I continued our search for some new underwear for me, having been short on time and common sense when packing in the UK. Markets are always great fun to explore and the one I found myself in at Morondava, a sleepy laid back beach town in western Madagascar, set in a huge colonial wooden building. After tracking down my own essential items, we headed deeper into the market to see what else was on offer.

Passed the clothes and colourful lamba cloths, were large sacks of rice (essential to any Malagasy meal) and bags of dried beans and sitting in the middle was the brightly dressed stall owner, weighing and measuring out orders with spoons and cups as if she were mixing cocktails. Then came the fresh fruit and vegetables, beautifully arranged and a mouth-watering mix of custard apples, vanilla and mango along with sweet potato and cassava leaves plus the fiery sakay chillies that are mixed with ginger and garlic to make a delicious but eye-watering hot sauce.

Equally as fascinating, but somewhat less aromatic were the fresh fish and meat stalls, where small rays, huge eels and octopus lay next to mountains of dried fish giving way to hanging cuts of meats of all description – it seems every part of the zebu is edible. After this, came the fresh snacks – samosas, grilled meat kebabs (masikita) and sweet kobas-a mixture of ground peanuts, pistachios and sugar water wrapped in banana leaves and baked. This is of course all washed down with a shot of toaka gasy – moonshine – also bottled up and ready to go on the stall beside.

As we left the market and drifted back to the street, we passed an older man who had clearly fallen on hard times (since the coup in 2009 jobs are harder to come by) and approaching me, he quietly asked for Mbaa (money). This was the only time it happened on my entire trip, but conscious not to encourage begging, I shrugged my shoulders apologetically and showed him the only thing I had on me – 3 pairs of fake Calvin Klein boxer shorts.

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Avenue of Baobabs

On my way to the famous Avenue of Baobabs, I was chatting to my guide about the numerous taxi-brousse that were buzzing around the town of Morondava on the west coast of Madagascar, ferrying people around all hours of the day and night and a lifeline for many.

Always one for an adventure, I asked my guide if I could try one for a short tour. “Not so good idea” he said and then told me how his last journey ended up with the taxi-brousse he was in smashing into a mango tree. I asked what happened and he just said “the brakes were not so good.”

I decided against this and carried on with my excellent driver called Man (a shortened version of his full name Herman which amused my guide no end as he declared loudly “he’s the Man!” every time the driver performed a nifty manoeuvre avoiding chickens in the road.)

On arrival at the Avenue of Baobabs itself, I was suitably impressed with the towering, alien plants looming above us and was lucky enough to get some great shots at sunset. Despite the popularity of the place, seeing those iconic trees for the first time is fantastic and makes you realise how exotic Madagascar really is. Combine this with the endless, bright green rice paddies in the surrounding fields and you have an intoxicating mix of Asia and Africa that makes the country so unique.

As the sun set and the cluster of tourists thinned, I had the place pretty much to myself so my guide and I slowly walked the length of the avenue, watching the small village nearby settle down for the night. Fires were lit; straggling goats were herded back home and people returned from the fields for food. Dusk changed to night and as the stars came out, the baobabs looked even more impressive against the night sky. I heard an approaching taxi-brousse, and with my guide’s story still fresh in my mind, I stepped gingerly out of the way before the baobabs disappeared in a cloud of dust and we headed back to the car.

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Wise words from Madagascar

“This is the sacred courtyard where they slaughter the animal and then spray the blood around for good luck.” My guide Jocelyne explained “but it can also be used for family picnics.”

And so I find myself on my first day in Madagascar at Ambohimanga, a UNESCO heritage site on the outskirts of the capital, Antananarivo, considered central to the cultural identity of the dominant Merina tribe. Home to the former king and now a popular tourist site with both vazaha (non Malagasy) and locals alike, the latter who gather here to pay respect to the deceased. Looking out across the beautiful gardens and the spectacular views of rice paddies and small villages to the capital I can see why the royals chose this spot.

So important was it to the Malagasy that it was off limits to Europeans until recently and is still revered as a site where offerings are made. The minister of culture comes here each New Year to slaughter a zebu bull and a smaller area of stones at the back of the palace show signs of more personal offerings – candle wax, honey and rum.

Conscious that there are numerous fadys – local taboos – associated with visiting such places I asked what I should avoid doing at the site so as not to cause offence to the ancestors. “There are 3 important things” Jocelyne said, “Firstly, never point directly at something, use a crooked finger. Secondly always enter a room here with your right foot forward.” “And the third?” I asked innocently. “Definitely no pissing on the offerings.”

Seemed like sound advice, so with that we headed back to the car, passing groups of people enjoying time with their family, both alive and long gone and leaving me slightly bewildered as to what surprises Madagascar has in store for me.

Watch this space for more blogs about Chris’ travels to Madagascar or for our Madagascar experts advice on planning your own tailor made holiday to Madagascar please call the team on 01285 880 980.