FROM MY VANTAGE POINT
in a small field beside the Avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar’s iconic trees appear almost cartoonish in the late-afternoon sun, with bulbous trunks and crowns of root-like branches that look like they were drawn by Dr. Seuss. Children race up and down the packed-dirt road that cuts through the grove, laughing as they kick up plumes of red dust in their wake. I share their glee. But mostly what I feel is a sense of wonder. Ten years, after all, is a long time to wait to see a tree.
I first learned about these baobabs a decade ago while watching an episode of BBC’s Planet Earth. I was transfixed. The world’s largest succulents, baobabs can be found in mainland Africa and Australia, but most species are endemic to Madagascar, whose flora and fauna have evolved in almost uninterrupted isolation since the island broke away from what became the Indian subcontinent 85 million years ago. More than 100 species of lemur are among the indigenous fauna, as are the panther chameleon, the tomato frog, the catlike fossa, the elusive nocturnal aye-aye, and the marvelously named satanic leaf-tailed gecko. And that’s just the tip of the island’s biological iceberg—more than 600 new species have been discovered here since the turn of the millennium, mostly plants but also fish, amphibians, insects, reptiles, and mammals.
And then there are the trees at the Avenue of the Baobabs. These are Adansonia grandidieri, or giant baobabs, the largest of them all, rising as tall as 30 meters above the ground. After 10 years of imagining what it would be like to actually lay eyes on them, they do not disappoint. Nor does my guide Herilala fail to mark the occasion with a story.
“Every Malagasy child learns the legend of the baobab,” he says. “When the world was young and covered by forest there were many big trees, and one of these trees was the mighty baobab. The baobab trees were very proud of their size, and in their pride they tried to challenge God. God was not happy with their arrogance, and as a punishment he decided to pull them up from the ground, turn them upside down, and plant their heads back in the earth. That is why we call them the Roots of the Sky.”
I’ll never look at them the same way again. A New York–based photographer, I have come to Madagascar to capture images of its wild west coast with luxury trip planner
Cox & Kings, The Americas. My first day is spent acclimatizing in Antananarivo, the capital. Situated amid agricultural plains on the island’s central plateau, Tana (as the locals call it) is a sprawling tapestry of red-brick buildings, pastel-hued stucco homes, rust-stained tin roofs, and some crumbling piles built during the French colonial period (1896 to 1960). Without much in the way of monuments or museums, there’s little to hold the visitor for long, though Tana still manages to exert a certain appeal. Perhaps that’s because it is unlike any other city I’ve visited. At the peak of every hill—and there are many of them in Tana—a church steeple pokes out above its neighbors. Down below, traffic-clogged streets present a motley parade of oxcarts, pedicabs, old Renaults and Citroëns, and taxi-brousse minibuses. There are fancy French restaurants in the better part of town, and baguettes sold by the roadside everywhere else. And should you tire of the urban sprawl, glimmering rice paddies right on the city’s perimeter provide oases of green, complete with straw-hatted farmers and families of fluffy ducks.
The next morning, an hour-long flight on an aging Air Madagascar turboprop brings me to Morondava, a mellow seaside town overlooking the Mozambique Channel. Herilala
left: A Malagasy fisherman; a half-built boat at a fishing village south of Morondava; rice terraces outside Antananarivo.