FROM MY VAN­TAGE POINT

DestinAsian - - FLASHBACK -

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

Clock­wise from

left: A Mala­gasy fish­er­man; a half-built boat at a fish­ing vil­lage south of Moron­dava; rice ter­races out­side An­tana­narivo.

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