Madasca­gar: a wild land for the brave­hearted

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

IWAS com­pletely gob­s­macked by Mada­gas­car when I first ar­rived in 2006, as part of a tele­vised tour around the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s like nowhere else on Earth. The only place I can com­pare it to is the Galá­pa­gos Is­lands, but on a much big­ger scale; it’s the fourth-biggest is­land in the world.

Ev­ery­where you look in An­tana­narivo, or Tana, as it’s known, there is some­thing sur­pris­ing and dif­fer­ent. It’s like a crazy mix of France, Nepal, Viet­nam, Lima … There is an ex­tra­or­di­nary mix of ar­chi­tec­ture: French colo­nial­ism and clay huts; old Re­nault 4s and rick­shaws; paddy fields in­side the city it­self. I love that col­li­sion of cul­tures.

The train from Fia­narantsoa to Manakara, a 101-mile (162km) trip to the coast, is the mad­dest jour­ney I’ve ever been on. The track was built in colo­nial times and thou­sands of work­ers died dur­ing its con­struc­tion; it was a wicked project. But now it helps Mala­gasy farm­ers in the hin­ter­land shift out their crops of cof­fee and fruit. When the rail­way doesn’t run, the farm­ers are forced to slash and burn the land to grow rice. So the trains are now vi­tal for con­ser­va­tion. The route has dozens of tun­nels, viaducts, val­leys, bridges and steep in­clines. It’s to­tally chaotic – health and safety doesn’t ex­ist: We stood on the cow­catcher on the front of the train. There are no proper lights, the toi­lets leak and it takes 12 hours, but it was mag­i­cal.

Go to Ilakaka – but only dur­ing the day. It is a pretty law­less, wild West kind of town. Pink sap­phires were dis­cov­ered there in the late 1990s and there was a gem rush. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary sight: A wooden town has sprung up with filthy min­ers wan­der­ing about, chubby law­men in bars, gem sell­ers and buy­ers, pros­ti­tutes … You need to be pretty tough to go there.

Mada­gas­car has been cut off from the rest of the world for so long – it split from the In­dian penin­sula about 88 mil­lion years ago – that life has evolved in spe­cific and unique ways. It is one of the most bi­o­log­i­cally di­verse coun­tries in the world; about 90pc of the flora and fauna are en­demic.

We’d search the for­est for lemurs, only to re­turn to our lodge and find them play­ing there. Ber­enty, a wildlife re­serve in the south, is home to the is­land’s fa­mous ring­tailed and sifaka lemurs. When hu­mans first set­tled on the is­land, they found lemurs the size of go­ril­las, and also ele­phant birds and jump­ing rats.

Mada­gas­can forests are an ex­tra­or­di­nary mix of thorn trees, oc­to­pus trees and in­cred­i­ble baobab trees. Some baob­abs have caves carved into them for cat­tle herders to stay in. There is a leg­end that the tree looked so haughty, God turned it the wrong way up. There are sev­eral clear ecosys­tems across the is­land: dry sa­vana, plateau, spiny desert, rain­for­est and grass­land.

Blue Ven­tures is a con­ser­va­tion group in the south­west, which was founded by a young Brit. Vol­un­teers can stay there and work with the lo­cals to save the en­vi­ron­ment; you’re re­ally em­bed­ded in a community. The Blue Ven­tures’ Cap­tain Con­dom boat goes up and down the coast, help­ing peo­ple with fam­ily plan­ning. I met the Vezo, a coastal peo­ple, when we went to a crazy lit­tle is­land.

The most mem­o­rable dish I ate was zebu pe­nis soup (zebu are horned cat­tle). It was in a filthy cafe – more of a shack – near a mar­ket in Tana. The pe­nis was mas­sive, a me­tre long, and it looked re­volt­ing, served as pieces of gristly willy in a pretty ran­cid soup – not ex­actly fine cui­sine. But I al­ways en­cour­age peo­ple to eat crazy food; weird in­sect dishes are on the menu in Mada­gas­car, too.

There is a culture of taboos in Mada­gas­car called fady. Cen­turies of iso­la­tion have al­lowed the hu­man imag­i­na­tion to run wild. In some parts, you can’t wear red on a Thurs­day, or pass an egg from hand to hand. Twins are con­sid­ered evil and are of­ten left out in the for­est. When some­one dies, the dead body is left on mat­ting. The juices seep out into a sip­ping cup that is passed around the rel­a­tives. It is the only thing I’ve ever re­fused to drink.

– The Guardian

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