Madagascar 1 – the Baobab island (2019)

Madagascar 1 – the Baobab island (2019)

This travelogue comes in three parts. Part 1 is on that iconic tree, the baobab, Part 2 on Lemurs and other exotic wildlife of the island and Part 3 on the land and its people

“A Caliban of a tree, grizzled, distorted old goblin with the girth of a giant, the hide of a rhinoceros, twiggy fingers clutching at empty air and the disposition of a guardian angel,” wrote the Australian novelist Ernestine Hill of the giant baobab tree, which has come to symbolise Africa. As you watch the iridescent ochre orb of the sun glide down ever so gracefully between two massive baobabs on the spectacular Avenue of Baobabs, or Baobab Alley, in Madagascar, you realise Ernestine Hill did not do justice to this tree. The baobab is indeed the warp and weft of the fabric of village life, not only in Africa but also in Madagascar, an island off the African coast in the east.

I am in Madagascar, primarily, to catch a glimpse of lemurs, those exotic primates that are found nowhere else on the planet. As a result of tectonic activity a few hundred million years ago, the island floated away from Africa and subsequently from India and evolved to its own rhythm as did the fauna that got stranded on it. But the baobabs vie for my attention, successfully.

My companions on this journey are Srinivas Shenoy, the founder of Beyonder Experiences; Vijeta, his wife; and Vihaan, their young son. Beyonder specialises in offbeat travel, and this is a reconnaissance trip for Shenoy. I had tagged along with him. After all, Madagascar is a huge country, the fourth largest island in the world, and has poor connectivity. Outside of the capital, Antananarivo, and a couple of other cities on the coast, tourist infrastructure is sparse. It is difficult and expensive to travel solo in Madagascar. But Beyonder ensured a comfortable and enjoyable trip and ample sightings of lemurs.

Baobab trees can live for more than a thousand years and are perhaps among the oldest living things on the planet. Tourists come from far and wide to stroll down Baobab Alley and gape at these trees that look more like sculpture than like trees. Antananarivo is on a raised plateau where baobabs do not grow. But as soon as you descend to the plains, you start noticing the stragglers. On the dirt track through the Kirindy forest reserve in western Madagascar, these iconic trees start lining up on both sides of the road as if they are in some ceremonial parade. Their odd shape fascinates me so much that my head twists involuntarily from side to side as if I were a spectator at a tennis match following the trajectory of the ball. Truly, the baobab compels attention.

I ask the driver to slow down a bit or even stop so that I can take a picture, but he drives on, unheeding. In my halting French, I attempt to scold him, but he waves me off, rattling away something in French. After much mulling over, it dawns on me that he does not consider these specimens worthy of photography and that there will be far more stunning ones further on. Reluctantly, I prise my eyes away to look at the rutted sandy road splattered with dappled sunshine and curtained with reeds on both sides. Occasionally, we come across a family of sifakas, black-and-white lemurs, munching away on a twig or hanging upside down.

Baobabs came to Madagascar and Africa from Arabia. The name baobab derives from the Arabic word buhihub, which means tree of many seeds. The tree has a distinctive appearance. All baobabs look like they have been turned upside down, with their roots reaching for the sky. Naturally, there are fables to explain this: God gave each animal on Noah’s ark a sapling to plant when they got off the ark so that a complete forest would grow. The hyena was the last one to disembark and was given a baobab. Piqued at having been denied what in the hyena’s sights were better specimens, it threw the baobab sapling upside down and ran away sulking. From then onwards, all baobabs grow upside down goes the fable. Another legend tells us that for some unknown reason baobabs lorded it over lesser plants. In order to teach them a lesson, the gods uprooted them and thrust their crowns into the ground.

Zimbabweans believe that the baobab was originally occupied by a python that guided the villagers on the appropriate season to sow their crops or where to hunt for good game. When the white man came, he shot the python, and its spirit now haunts the baobab. Villagers believe they can hear hissing sounds in baobabs on still nights, sounds made by the spirit of the python. In Zambia, a certain species of baobab is feared because it is believed to eat maidens.

The baobab is frequently referred to as the tree of life, a sacred and mystical tree. In his book The Tree Where Man Was Born, Peter Matthiessen writes: “According to the Nuer [tribe], the tree where man was born… still stood within man’s memory in the… south Sudan, …a great baobab thrust up like an old root of life in those wild grasses that blow forever to the horizons.” Along the Limpopo river, it is believed that when a young boy is washed in water used to soak baobab bark, he will grow into a big man. Women living in kraals where baobabs are plentiful are thought to have more and healthier children. Some people say that there are no young baobab trees, that they spring into being full grown. In Myths of the Sacred Tree, Moyra Caldecott tells of a Bushman legend that says: “The trees fall, fully grown, from heaven, landing upside down.” Perhaps there is a kernel of truth to this observation. During my 12-day travel across Madagascar, I did not spot any small saplings or young trees; all of them seemed venerably old.

Baobabs are called by many names, among them, calabash, cream of tartar, sour gourd, monkey bread tree and elephant fruit tree. Western visitors even called them botanical monster or weird tree since they saw it as a symbol of untamed Africa. Baobabs were first scientifically described by the French botanist Michel Adanson, who gave his name to the species: Adansonia. He recognised the fruits being sold in Cairo’s markets as those of the baobab tree.

Curiously, the fruit develops when the tree is bereft of leaves and hangs from bare branches. The Temre people of Sierra Leone refer to it as anderebai (the chief’s body) on account of its stoutness. They believe that drinking a root decoction of the tree promotes stoutness, a desirable virtue in their culture. In most African nations, the baobab is venerated as a mother or elder.

Madagascar hosts six species of baobabs, the most prolific being Adansonia digitata. The trees are variously distributed through the western and semi-arid and arid zones of the island starting from Diego Suarez in the north to the southern forests of Fort Dauphin. Baobabs thrive on calcareous substrates, even karst limestone forests such as tsingy, and on basalt and laterite soils. Most Malagasy baobabs grow naturally in the lowland as emergent trees in deciduous forests.

Roads in Madagascar are dirt tracks necessitating sturdy four-wheel drives. Our vehicle hurtles at the “breakneck speed” of 10 kilometres an hour, and the occupants are tossed around like pebbles in a rattle. Individual trees are often associated with villages. In fact, as we drive across this vast island, I find that villages are often sited under massive baobabs. A.digitata is confined to the coastal regions. In one village, there was a fenced-in compound hosting a sacred baobab with a sign exhorting you to leave your footwear outside.

It is not easy to determine the age of baobabs since the trunk of the tree is usually hollow. The missionary and explorer David Livingstone was known to have recorded in his journal that “the baobab was no doubt alive before the biblical flood”. Since baobabs produce only faint growth rings, researchers used radiocarbon dating to analyse samples taken from different parts of each tree’s trunk and determined that the oldest (which is now dead) was more than 2,500 years old. But the specimens that line the road to the Kirindy reserve seem slender and relatively young, maybe just a hundred-odd years old. Baobabs are considered among the hardiest of trees because of their ability to thrive in the most arid environments. They have been introduced elsewhere too although they thrive best on this continent. The government museum compound in Egmore, Chennai, boasts a specimen of A.digitata.

As we drive through the Kirindy reserve towards the coastal city of Morondava, the baobabs get bigger and taller. While most of them reach 20 to 30 feet (6.1 to 9 metres) in diameter, there is one in South Africa that is said to have a circumference of 154 ft (46.9 m), so massive that its innards have been hollowed out to fashion a bar that can seat 50 people. Baobabs possess glossy trunks—some brown, some red or grey—and compact crowns that bear leaves only for a month or two in the entire year. I spot just a few trees with leaves although quite a few are laden with fruits as large as musk melons. The trunks are usually smooth and tinged with green owing to the presence of a photosynthetic layer beneath the thin bark.

In the markets en route to Morondava, there are heaps of baobab products for sale. The baobab is used as a one-stop medicine for a range of ailments, including anaemia, microbial infections, toothache, fever, dysentery and malaria. The leaves, rich in iron, can be boiled and eaten like spinach. The seeds can be roasted to make a coffee substitute or pressed to make oil for cooking or cosmetics. The fruit pulp is said to have more than six times the vitamin C contained in oranges, making it an important nutritional supplement. Locally, fruit pulp is made into juice or jam or fermented to make beer. The young seedlings have a taproot that can be eaten like carrots. The flowers are also edible. The roots can be used to make red dye and the bark to make ropes and baskets.

A versatile tree like the baobab is an apt candidate for overexploitation. Supported by the Global Trees Campaign, Madagasikara Voakajy, a non-governmental organisation, has been working closely with local communities to secure management rights to key baobab forests. This will allow communities to manage the forests sustainably and avoid overexploitation. In 2013, the organisation managed to secure rights to the local community in Bepeha village in the west covering an area of 6,453 hectares and home to 400 Grandidier’s baobabs (A. grandidieri), the largest of the six Adansonia varieties. The communities will be supported and monitored in the implementation of the plan by the Direction Regionale de l’Environnement et des Forets.

As we near Baobab Alley, the number of the baobabs on both sides of the dirt track increases. At times, there are dozens of trees in clusters. The grand entry into the avenue is marked by a nondescript placard and donkey carts ambling leisurely along the dirt track, a truly iconic sight. Soon the dirt track ends and the paved road begins. It is late afternoon, and slowly more and more people, both local residents and visitors, descend on the alley to catch a glimpse of the magical sunset. Morondava is just 20 km away.

We park our car and stroll through the magnificent avenue, taking photographs and admiring the views. Happily, this is one site where local residents seem to outnumber foreigners. The mood is celebratory. As dusk approaches, shadowy forms shuffle on a bund facing a line of baobabs against the western horizon. There is an expectant hush as all eyes are on the glowing red ball silhouetted by two magnificent baobab trees. It is an exhilarating experience to watch the sun disappear on the horizon while a row of baobabs stand sentinel as if taking part in a timeless ceremony.

(published in Frontline dated 31 Jan 2020)

Part 2 – Lemur Land

Brown Lemur

YOUR introduction to Madagascar’s unique and enchanting wildlife is the haunting and high-pitched call of the indri (Indri indri), the largest lemur on the island. One group begins a song that echoes through the forest for nearly 90 seconds; it is answered by another and yet another until all of them join in a chorus, the pitch rising to a mesmerising crescendo. Once you have heard the call of the indri, it stays with you forever; just like the soulful call of a swinging hoolock gibbon that I heard decades ago in the jungles of the Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh. The calls are dissimilar but equally haunting. Not surprising perhaps, considering both are primates and probably share a gene inherited from a common ancestor several million years ago.

I am in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a dark and deep jungle in eastern Madagascar, east of the capital, Antananarivo, which local residents have shortened to Tana. We arrived at Tana’s Ivato International Airport in the afternoon and chose to drive directly to Andasibe, which our guide claimed was no more than 150 kilometres away. But distances have no meaning in Madagascar, where roads are such that even in a four-wheel drive you will be tossed about like pebbles in a rattle. Add to this the horrendous traffic snarls on Tana’s narrow and winding roads on a Friday afternoon and we reach the national park around midnight.

Next morning, as we sit down in the alfresco dining hall of our resort for a breakfast of baguettes and custard apple juice, we are greeted by the persistent calls of the indri, which local people call babakoto. Intriguingly, we cannot see them, though their calls sound near enough. Had a gurgling brook not separated us from the forest, we would have been tempted to venture into the jungle to locate the raucous indri.

Indris once used to roam all of Madagascar but are now confined to a couple of forests, Andasibe being one of them. Indris are diurnal and arboreal, preferring to inhabit the canopy and rarely coming down to the ground. Monogamous, they live in small family groups and communicate mostly through vocalisation, often to mark territory. Incidentally, indris are probably the original feminists, as indeed all lemur species are. Female indris control almost everything the small family group does; the female not only eats first but even decides how much food the male gets to eat!

After breakfast, we trudge to the national park and follow the indris’ calls, craning our necks to spot them. We locate them high up on the canopy: furry creatures that look like teddy bears hugging the tree trunks or swinging upside down. Their ears, neck and face are black and the body is silky white. Their saucer-like eyes regard us warily. As I set up my tripod to capture them in their natural habitat, they leap some 20 feet across to another tall branch, leaving me gaping at their disappearing forms. At about two to three feet in length, indris are the biggest of the surviving lemurs in Madagascar, which once hosted gorilla-sized lemurs. Indris weigh up to 10 kg and subsist on fruit, leaves and flowers.

Lemurs are found nowhere else but in Madagascar and the nearby Comoro Islands, both off the coast of Mozambique in Africa. However, new research seems to suggest that they probably originated in Africa. The American palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson believes that lemurs floated away on natural rafts of tangled vegetation that washed out of major African rivers flowing into the Indian Ocean. Eventually, the animals reached Madagascar where they evolved to their own rhythm distinct from the rest of the primates on the planet. Their habitats range from dry deciduous forests and spiny forests to rainforests, wetlands and mountains.

Madagascar, like the Indian subcontinent, was once part of the supercontinent of Gondwana but separated from it millions of years ago and ended up close to the African continent. Being confined to an island has its downside, especially when the human race is ever-expanding, not only in numbers but also in its needs and wants. With lemur habitats shrinking as land is diverted to provide fuel, timber and food to the growing Malagasy population, lemurs have become a rare sight even in national parks. Andasibe is one of the few national parks where they still roam free.

While the indri is Andasibe’s star attraction, the park has other fascinating lemur species too. Brown lemurs have now become accustomed to visitors and are happy to engage in virtuoso antics for furiously clicking cameras. One particular mother with a small baby regards us with as much curiosity as we do her. Her offspring is almost completely invisible, buried in the furry pit of the mother’s stomach; all we can see of it are two long fingernails clutching the mother’s stomach for security. This national park also hosts rufous mouse lemurs, greater dwarf lemurs and eastern woolly lemurs, all of which are nocturnal.

Ubiquitous are the sifakas, the other black-and-white variety of lemurs, frolicking on the branches of trees. They can be distinguished from the indri by their long tails. In the thick bamboo bushes, tiny bamboo lemurs pause their munching to regard us with soulful eyes. We spot an occasional diademed sifaka or a red-ruffed lemur among the thickets. There are many small creatures such as geckos and chameleons that are usually hidden from prying eyes. It takes an expert guide to spot them. We do spot a leaf-tailed gecko, indistinguishable from the tree trunk to which it seems stuck, and a chameleon and some endemic birds.

However, in Madagascar, the lemurs are surely the show stealers. Their big soulful eyes, slow movements, long digits and pointed faces, all of which go to making lemurs look like ghosts or spirits, have given rise to many beliefs and superstitions about them. Indigenous people believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in lemurs. The name lemur derives from the Latin word lemure, which means ghost or spirit although there is little evidence that this had anything to do with the beliefs of local people.

While lemurs look nothing like other primates, they share many common basal primate traits such as having divergent digits on hands and feet and nails instead of claws. More diverse than monkeys and apes found elsewhere, they formed diverse forms of locomotion and varying levels of social complexity and are uniquely adapted to the local climate, which is dry and harsh for the most part. Many lemur species became extinct after the arrival of humans, who needed land to grow food and hence cleared the forests, and the remaining 100-odd species and subspecies of lemurs are on the brink of extinction today. They have been classified as extremely endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The lemur species that have already become extinct are the ones that had much larger individuals, some weighing as much as 200 kg.

I was eager to feast my eyes on the aye-aye of Gerald Durrell fame, having been captivated by his description of this mythical creature in his book The Aye-Aye and I: “In the gloom it came along the branches towards me, its round, hypnotic eyes blazing, its spoon-like ears turning to and fro independently like radar dishes…. It was Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky come to life…. one of the most incredible creatures I had ever been privileged to meet.” The aye-aye is one of the smallest primate species, a weird and fascinating-looking creature that used to roam the jungles of Madagascar. Unfortunately, today, the aye-aye has disappeared from the forests of Madagascar and subsists only in Manana Island, a conservation area not on our itinerary on this trip. So I have to be content with other wildlife of which, of course, there is plenty.

Our next stop is the Peyrieras Reptile Reserve, which has a collection of exotic and colourful chameleons, albeit in a managed setting. The enclosures are alive with rainbow-hued chameleons, some chasing each other, others placidly snoozing and yet others agitated and displaying their resplendent colours, which are the brightest when the creature is stressed. A male Parson’s chameleon, the largest of its kind, regards us with baleful eyes even as its mate uses the opportunity to escape its amorous attentions. Striped panther chameleons are calm, unperturbed by clicking cameras.

Madagascar has more than 150 species of chameleons not to mention geckos, newts, garden lizards and their relatives. I spot a very large skink outside one of the enclosures, its smooth body glinting in the sun. The reserve also has frogs, bats and snakes. Chameleons not only change colour but have protruding eyes that are mobile, long tongues that extrude, prehensile tails that can be shed at will and colourful crests to frighten intruders. Some of them have serrated backs. Geckos have fused eyelids, vertical narrow pupils, flattened bodies and short necks. Geckos can lay eggs or give birth to live babies.

Madagascar has no venomous snakes. Our guide tells us that snakes migrated to this island long before they developed venom and remained so since they did not face any threat to their existence here.

A couple of days later, we find ourselves in the Kirindy reserve, a privately managed forest close to the city of Morondava on the west coast. Kirindy sprawls over a hundred kilometres, is dry and deciduous and hosts some unique and exotic wildlife, not to mention several baobabs (see “Tree of Life”, Frontline, January 17, 2020). This is the only forest where one can sight the endangered giant jumping rat and the elegant fossa, the only predator on this island. The resort where we stay has lovely thatch-and-bamboo huts, but both water and electricity are rationed to just a couple of hours a day.

Our guide informs us that it is extremely difficult to spot the fossa, which looks much like a cross-breed of a cat and a dog and sends terror waves among lemurs. In Kirindy, they have also attacked humans, prompting the reserve to put up cautionary boards warning us to keep a safe distance. This forest is reported to have more than a thousand fossa though sightings are rare.

In the morning, I hear a commotion outside my cottage and go to investigate. A fossa has been sighted, and already half a dozen lodgers have assembled, stalking the animal with their extended lenses. I join the gathering. The fossa has come to forage in the trash bins of the resort. Unfortunately, this is what tourism does to wildlife. An occasional chicken bone thrown into a bin is an irresistible invitation to a wild carnivore. Finding nothing in the bin, the fossa jumps out, stretches languidly, takes a few steps and settles under a tree. Cameras click furiously. Unimpressed, our fossa closes its eyes, boredom writ large on its face, much like a house cat.

The fossa is a member of the mongoose family although that classification is disputed. It has partially retractable claws and feeds mostly on lemurs although it also samples lizards and smaller prey. It hunts both during the day and at night and is a huge threat to the remaining lemur population.

Kirindy has a huge variety of other animals as well: Madame Berthe’s mouse lemurs, red-tailed sportive lemurs, pygmy mouse lemurs, grey mouse lemurs, fork-marked lemurs, Coquerel’s giant mouse lemurs, Verreaux’s sifakas, among others, most of which are nocturnal. So we go on a night safari, armed with powerful spotlights, and walk through the forest, crunching dry leaves underfoot and tripping on buttress roots. Mouse lemurs let out shrill cries and leap from trunk to trunk, clutching the bark with their sharp nails and blinking in the flashlight that we shine on them.

The next day, as I was lounging around the reception area of the forest, I spot blue flashes through the dense foliage. I move stealthily towards the target so as not to disturb it. It turns out to be the beautiful giant cuoa, a largish cousin of the cuckoo family sporting electric blue mascara around its big eyes. Cuoas are omnivores, and this forest is home to many of them. During our walks through this beautiful forest, we spot numerous other birds: Oriental white-eyes, paradise flycatchers, hoopoes, Madagascan fish eagle, Coquerel’s cuoas, rollers, cuckooshrikes, magpie-robins, sunbirds, crested drongos, vasa parrots and many others, some of them endemic to Madagascar. The giant elephant birds that used to roam this forest until recently are now extinct.

Madagascar’s unique ecosystem supports a variety of landscapes—lush rainforests, tropical dry forests, plateaus and deserts—each of which has sustained its own wildlife species.

But it is being destroyed by slash-and-burn cultivation, timber harvesting and the introduction of crops such as vanilla and coffee that cater to the export market. The country’s rich wildlife has attracted not only naturalists like Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough but a procession of scientists hoping to unlock the mysteries of evolution. While the human footprint on this island is relatively recent and the tourist inflow is limited by poor infrastructure, the island’s colonial history and the rapid pace at which the Malagasy people are adapting to modern life and its trappings do not augur well for the future of Madagascar’s singular and precious wildlife.

(published in Frontline dated January 31, 2020)

Madagascar 3 – An Enigmatic Paradise

As I hold on to the razor-edge of a jagged limestone rock jutting skyward like a giant pencil so as to heave myself up to the next level, it breaks off in a huge chunk, leaving a bleeding gash in my palm. This is the second, the first is still bleeding. I glance with trepidation at the levels I have to climb in order to reach that rickety platform thrown haphazardly across the rocky spires crowding the horizon.  That platform is the reward for braving this dangerous climb, one that would give me fantastic photo-ops.  But it seems so forbidding and remote.  But then, climbing down to go back is riskier and even more scary. I seem to be stuck in seemingly impossible, or should I say impassable, Trishanku.

This is somewhere in the wildernesses of Madagascar. Called Tsingy, it is a primordial stone forest evolution forgot to tame. It resembles a bed of needles scattered on the pipes of a giant Organ, except that it produces no music, but draws blood.  Tsingy in Malagasy means a place one cannot walk barefoot, a gross understatement.  Limestone which makes up this forest, is brittle which is why many flutes have giant nails driven into them to hold them in place. 

Haja, my porter-cum-guide bandages my palm with a handkerchief. He, like the other Malagasy porters, is a gravity-defying wonder,  balancing on a tiny ledge in rubber sandals, my camera slung around his neck and my tripod dangling from his shoulder. He goes first, nimble as a mountain goat and heaves me up by my arm. Slowly and gradually, after three hours of this acrobatics, we reach the makeshift platform at the top. The rickety raft secured with coir ropes sways with the combined weight of half a dozen climbers crowding on it.

The view from the platform is impressive, no doubt. Wherever I turn, I see serrated grey rock pinnacles resembling a well-worn venerable Gothic cathedral minus the gargoyles. Patches of green and twiggy thorns relieve the grey. A turquoise sky frames the setting. But my mind is already on the descent. How I am going to negotiate these sharp-edged columns waiting to lacerate flesh?  A misstep would mean a slow and painful death impaled on those jagged edges. No fancy rappelling gear here, just your will power and total concentration supplemented by good luck.

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park and Reserve shelters exotic wildlife and flora.  Despite its forbidding Jurassic geology or precisely because of it, Tsingy is a refuge for all kinds of creatures wild and wonderful, a biofortress as one scientist described it, all thriving in this seemingly hostile landscape.  Its hot and humid microclimate has saved certain species from extinction. Lizards and geckos unknown to science are being discovered ever so often in its caves and crevices. Miniscule lemurs, bats and frogs and a long-legged lemur named after the late British comedian John Cleese are Tsingy inhabitants.

Tsingy’s inhospitable terrain has provided a multitude of creatures, the isolation to evolve undisturbed. A decade ago, a National Geographic team exploring this forest found fruit bats, dark vasa parrots and an army of insects resistant to dessicating temperatures.  The canyons support massive beehives too. At the bottom, giant snails and fist-size insects, large chameleons, emerald green snakes and red rats lurk.  Fossa also patrol the canyons, but we spot only ring-tail mongooses on the forest floor and brown lemurs hopping across sharp rocks. Furry white sifakas leap across the razor columns with the grace of a ballerina.

Getting to Tsingy was almost as gruelling as climbing the stone forest.  It entailed a day-long drive to Miandrivazo, two and half days on the Tsiribihina river in a rickety boat, landfall at Belo sur Tsiribihina and a half-day drive to a village called Bekopaka, the spring board, as it were, to Tsingy. Driving to Miandrivazo from Tana took up the entire day, but the drive was memorable for the spectacular sunsets it offered.  As we reached Miandrizavo through a primeval volcanic landmass spliced by winding macadam, in village after village, we saw zebu (humped cattle) returning home at sunset, their shadows lengthening behind them. Dust mites danced in the shafts of light scattered by the setting sun, silhouetting the villages en route, endowing them with an ethereal beauty.

We stayed the night at Miandrivazo which reminded me of Kutch. The next morning, we drove to the boat jetty to begin our boat ride. These are repurposed cargo boats that scoff at comfort. Long benches in the lower deck offer shelter from a blistering sun, but you have to put up with ear-drum shattering engine noise and diesel fumes. On the deck, a reluctant marquee, brief as a bikini, conspires with the sun to bake you purple. The boat has neither toilet nor a washroom, but will pull up along the bank when you need one. The river is full of sandbanks including at Miandrivazo and from time to time, the boat needs manual pushing and shoving to loosen it and send its way gliding. We spent two and a half days on the boat, were wined and dined by an excellent chef who prided himself on his ability to produce the most delectable vegetarian fare I sampled anywhere during my entire stay in Madagascar.

En route, we stopped at a village called Begidro, completely cut off from the world, but for these occasional tourist boats calling during the tourist season. We spent a couple of hours strolling through the village, gawking at beautiful local girls with exquisitely coiffured hair that could give a complex to fashionistas in Paris or Milan. Many girls painted their faces with ground bark to keep their skin cool and soft.  We stopped to watch a young girl engaged in elaborately coiffuring her friend’s hair. We sampled some local breakfast made of fermented rice.  This village had a school, but there were no students or teachers to be seen anywhere. Women were washing clothes and kitchen utensils in the river which serves their cleaning as well as drinking needs. It was like stepping into a time machine that rolled backwards by a couple of centuries.

The highlight of the Tsiribihina boat trip were the two nights we spent camping on the river bank. The crew had carried tents which they pitched on the sandy bank, even set up a toilet and a makeshift bath. The river beach was clean. We danced to Malagasy songs around a roaring campfire after a delectable dinner. After that, I carried my sleeping bag out of the tent and slept under a gloriously star-studded sky, the Milky Way streaking across a firmament of nebula. No ambient light pollution to mar the view. I had seen a similar starry sky only twice before, once when I camped in the Serengeti’s Seronera camp and the other somewhere in the Himalayan heights where the stars lit up the entire Annapurna range on a clear moonless night.

The first humans arrived in Madagascar probably some 2300 years ago, mostly from Kalimantan and the Malay archipelago, floating in their outrigger canoes. Joined by immigrants from India, Arabia and Africa who landed on different parts of its lengthy coastline, this island got colonised in patches. The new settlers’ constant quest for timber and land to grow food steadily eroded the forests and destroyed habitats, driving most of the island creatures out of existence and others into a few remaining forests. The magnificent ten feet high giant elephant bird that once strode this land vanished with the advent of humans, its erstwhile existence confirmed by fragments of a fossilised egg found here.

Somewhere around the Middle Ages the scatted settlements on the island coalesced into kingdoms – Sakalava, Merina and Betsimisaraka. The kingdoms exchanged goods with Arabs and Europeans. Malagasy slaves were exchanged for European firearms.  Around the 16th century, Madagascar became a favourite hunting ground of pirates and even a pirate colony called Libertatia was established on one of its islands.  Predictably, the Malagasy language became as eclectic as the people themselves. Malagasy is influenced by Austronesian, Bantu, Malay, Arabic, French and English. Initially it used a script related to Arabic, but today, it is entirely Latin.

Madagascar came under French rule in 1896. Fifty years later, it became an overseas territory of France. Since its independence from French rule in 1960, Madagascar has had a chequered political history replete with unrest, coup, instability and economic stagnation.  A significant proportion of its 25 million population has to deal with extreme and unpredictable weather conditions, frequent cyclones and draughts. The country is most vulnerable to climate change which could not only affect its people, but also its unique wildlife, driving those weird and wonderful creatures to extinction.

As you travel into the interiors of Madagascar, you notice the stark difference between the elegant capital Tana with its bistros, cafes and profusion of French wine and cheese and the rustic simplicity of rural Madagascar. My trip takes me through central and western parts of the country, past isolated villages without electricity, sanitation or water supply; the most primitive of markets spilled on to the streets with meagre produce gathered in handwoven baskets. At dusk, shadowy forms of men, women and children crowded onto the streets; they seemed to prefer public spaces to the dark interiors of their flimsy thatched dwellings which they use only for sleeping.  Quivering in the shafts of light thrown by our car’s headlamps, the whole scene acquired a dreamy sepia tone, offering a precious glimpse of pre-modern life.

Madagascar’s economy is one of the poorest on the planet. More than four fifths of its population lives on around US dollar 1.25 a day. The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid. In recent years, Vanilla and tourism have brought some relief. In fact, 80 per cent of all vanilla consumed on our planet comes from this island nation.  Vanilla originally came from Mexico and was first introduced by the French who colonised Madagascar. It is grown largely in family plots and hand-pollinated. But its prices fluctuate and so are the fortunes of those who grow and trade in vanilla.

Some years ago, sapphire mining promised untold wealth. Thousands of Malagasy men in search of quick fortunes plunged barefoot into the entrails of the earth with a mere pickaxe and gunny sack and brought up loads of mud and a few pieces from the precious blue vein, which they sold for a pittance to middlemen and international gem traders. Sapphire is all but gone now.

Tourism, the only other industry, is hampered by roads potholed like gruyere cheese. Resorts, though expensive, are made of frond and thatch and in the interior, tourists have to make do with a couple of hours of electricity and water supply. Madagascar attracts only the hardiest wildlife enthusiasts and divers in search of underwater exotica. Of course, with over a hundred and twenty species of lemurs, 238 bird species and over 8000 plant species, all found nowhere else on the planet, Madagascar is truly the ultimate destination for those in search of exotic wildlife and flora.

From Tsingy we travel through the gorgeous Baobab Alley to Morandava, a coastal town across the Mozambique Channel. We stay at a sprawling resort on the seashore, owned by an Indian origin Malagasy. The resort is dazzlingly luxurious, a stark contrast to the rest of Morandava with its tacky thatch tenements, primitive markets and poor infrastructure, differences that would vindicate Thomas Piketty’s thesis that the capitalist system privileges the rich disproportionately.

Morandava’s population is more African than Asian, with a generous sprinkling of Arab influence too. We have just half a day in this town which we spend walking barefoot on its beaches, wetting our feet on this side of the Indian Ocean. The local market in Morandava is a delight to the jaded city eye used to supermarket shelves bursting with a profusion of preserved and packaged stuff that has travelled from far and wide, toting up unconscionable food miles in the process. In Morandava markets, everything is exclusively local, unprocessed and unpackaged but without fussy boutique tags such as organic, natural, single origin or fair trade.  I use up a chunk of my Ariary, the local currency, to pick up some authentic local groceries and vanilla.

Back at the capital Tana, I spy a long queue in the main market. On enquiry I find out that it is for job interview. That a vast island replete with resources and wildlife should remain so poor is difficult to fathom. Like elsewhere, migration to Tana from the hinterland seems inevitable. Those who can, also migrate to neighbouring Mauritius. Javier, our driver who speaks only French, tells me how he longed to go back to Mauritius where he worked for three years until his work permit expired and was not renewed. 

(Published in Frontline dated March 13, 2020)