Madagascar, the island that evolution forgot to tame

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 on my palm. This is the second cut I have got; the first is still bleeding. I glance with trepidation at the levels I have to climb in order to reach a rickety platform thrown haphazardly across the rocky spires crowding the horizon. That platform and the fantastic photo opportunities it would give me are the reward for braving this dangerous climb. It seems forbidding and remote, but then, climbing down to go back is riskier and even scarier. I seem to be stuck in a seemingly impossible, or should I say impassable, Trishanku state.

This is somewhere in the wildernesses of Madagascar. Called Tsingy, it is a primordial stone forest that 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 where one cannot walk barefoot, a gross understatement. The limestone that makes up this forest is brittle, which is why many flutes have giant nails driven into them to keep 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 acrobatics, we reach the makeshift platform at the top. The rickety platform is secured with coir ropes and sways with the combined weight of the 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 willpower and total concentration supplemented by good luck.

The Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park and Reserve shelters exotic wildlife and flora. Despite its forbidding Jurassic era geology, or precisely because of it, Tsingy is a refuge for all kinds of creatures wild and wonderful, a bio fortress 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 discovered every so often in its caves and crevices. Minuscule lemurs, bats and frogs and a long-legged lemur named after the 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 team from National Geographic exploring this forest found fruit bats, dark vasa parrots and an army of insects resistant to the desiccating temperatures. The canyons support massive beehives too. At the bottom lurk giant snails, fist-sized insects, large chameleons, emerald green snakes and red rats. Fossas also patrol the canyons, but we spot only ring-tailed mongooses on the forest floor and brown lemurs hopping across the sharp rocks. Furry white sifakas leap across the razor-sharp columns with the grace of ballerinas.

Getting to Tsingy was almost as gruelling as climbing the stone forest. It entailed a day-long drive to Miandrivazo, two and a half days on the Tsiribihina river in a rickety boat, landfall at Belo Tsiribihina and a half-day drive to a village called Bekopaka, the springboard, as it were, to Tsingy. The drive to Miandrivazo from the capital, Antananarivo, or Tana as it is called, was memorable for the spectacular sunset views it offered. As we travelled to Miandrivazo through a primeval volcanic landmass cut through 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 and 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 diesel fumes and eardrum-shattering engine noise. On the deck, a reluctant marquee, brief as a bikini, conspires with the sun to bake you purple. The boat has neither a 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 pushing and shoving to loosen it and send it back on its way. We spent two and a half days on the boat and were wined and dined by an excellent chef who prided himself on his ability to produce the most delectable vegetarian fare I have sampled anywhere during my entire stay in Madagascar.

En route, we stopped at a village called Begidro, which is completely cut off from the world but for these occasional boats calling during the tourist season. We spent a couple of hours strolling through the village gawking at beautiful local girls with their exquisite coiffures that could give fashionistas in Paris or Milan a complex. Many girls paint their faces with ground bark to keep their skin cool and soft. We stopped to watch a young girl engaged in making an elaborate coiffure for her friend. 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 drinking water needs as well. It was as if we had stepped back in time by a couple of centuries.

The highlight of the Tsiribihina boat trip was the two nights we spent camping on the riverbank. The crew had carried tents, which they pitched on the sandy bank, and 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, with no ambient light pollution to mar the view. I have 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 on their outrigger canoes probably some 2,300 years ago, mostly from Kalimantan and the Malay archipelago. People from India, Arabia and Africa too landed on different parts of its lengthy coastline, and 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’s creatures out of existence and the rest into a few remaining forests. The magnificent 10-foot-high 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 scattered settlements on the island coalesced into kingdoms: Sakalava, Merina and Betsimisaraka. They 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 a pirate colony called Libertatia was even established on one of its islands. Predictably, the Malagasy language is 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, coups, instability and economic stagnation. A significant proportion of its population of 25 million has to deal with extreme and unpredictable weather conditions, frequent cyclones and drought. The country is vulnerable to climate change, which could not only affect its people but also drive its weird and wonderful wildlife to extinction.

As you travel into the interior of Madagascar, you notice the stark difference between the elegant capital with its bistros, cafes and profusion of French wine and cheese and the rustic simplicity of rural Madagascar. My trip took me through the central and western parts of the country, past isolated villages without electricity or sanitation and water facilities; 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 up by our car’s headlamps, the whole scene acquired a dreamy sepia tone, offering us a glimpse of pre-modern life.

Vanilla and tourism

Madagascar’s economy is one of the poorest on the planet. More than four-fifths of its population lives on around $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 the vanilla consumed in the world comes from this island nation. Vanilla originally came from Mexico and was introduced to Madagascar by its French colonisers. It is largely grown in family plots and is hand-pollinated. But its prices fluctuate as do the fortunes of those who grow and trade in it. 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 only a pickaxe and a 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 areas, 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 120 species of lemurs, 238 bird species and over 8,000 plant species, all found nowhere else on the planet, Madagascar is truly the ultimate destination for those in search of exotic fauna and flora.

From Tsingy, we travel through the gorgeous Baobab Alley to Morondava, a town on the west coast. 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 the town 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.

Morondava’s population is more African than Asian, with a generous sprinkling of Arab influence. 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 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, totting up unconscionable food miles in the process. In Morondava’s 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 in Tana, I spy a long queue at the main market. I find out that it is for a 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 had worked for three years until his work permit expired and was not renewed