Lost animal kingdom

For two hours we had trampled over rocks and tree-roots, our torches cocked upwards like air-raid lights, tracking a target we could hear but not see.

Suddenly, the forest’s haunting wail was interrupted by a snapped twig. “Quickly,” our guide, Maurice, beckoned, bounding ahead. “Male indri indri lemur.” Maurice’s beam fixed on to a hanging branch, where a panda-coloured teddy bear with butter-scotch eyes seemed to be practising his scales. It was a wondrous moment; one you wish could be frozen in time. But the lemur wasn’t having any of it. Within seconds he was off, expertly jumping through the trees.

Such experiences were legion during our stay in Madagascar — and not just in the thickets and forests. Everywhere you go, senses dulled by the daily workaday drudge are reinvigorated — by the morning-fresh mangoes so juicy they drip down your chin; by the coral reefs that house psychedelic fish and fauna; by the beaches and the people.

We immediately headed for the island’s top trump: the most varied wildlife in the world. It sounds like brochure bait — and it is, but the facts support such grandiose claims. A staggering nine out of every 10 species living on the island (and there are more than 200 000 of them) cannot be found anywhere else.

Such ecological opulence is down to the island’s divorce from Africa 165-million years ago, leaving it free to follow its own evolutionary path.

Humankind’s arrival 2 000 years ago spoiled some of it, of course — species such as elephant birds, pygmy hippos and giant lemurs are now extinct — but an incredible amount remains.

Just how much became apparent as we trekked around the Andasibe- Mantadia National Park, one of the island’s few remaining primary forests. Luminous birds and fluorescent frogs were spotted by the score; while every half-hour or so our guide seemed to conjure up another wonderful animal.

Three, in particular, stood out — the Parson’s chameleons, with their triceratops heads and squid-like bodies; the feisty tenrecs, with their Sonic the Hedgehog spikes; and center-pods, which somehow curl themselves into mini hand-grenades as a defence mechanism. And then there are the lemurs. Big and small, fierce and friendly — in 51 different varieties.

All told, it feels like something from a lost world — Jurassic Park minus the danger (in Madagascar the snakes aren’t even poisonous).

Sadly, this environmental treasure-trove might not be around much longer — slash-and-burn deforestation is rife, despite being made illegal by the government, and just 10% of the forest remains. One conservationist I spoke to predicted that in 20 years, it would all be gone. We both hoped he would be proved wrong.

Eventually, as we headed back towards Antananarivo (Tana for short), the rainforests gave way to different views: ramshackle houses of corrugated iron, zebu carts rumbling along rural roads and primary-school kids knee-deep in paddy fields. This is the 11th-poorest country in the world, according to a United Nations report — and it shows.

Tana is a sprawling metropolis of two million people. With no guidebook sights to tick off, we meandered for a few days, perusing the downtown and trendy Haute-Ville (upper town) areas, where traditional craft sellers flourish.

It is interesting, but nowhere near as eye-catching as the shantytown that corkscrews deep along the main railtrack. Even if you’re not a card-carrying socialist, your blood will simmer at such a sorry sight.

Still, at least some micro-level efforts at improving the situation are being made. On the outskirts of Tana, we visited Akany Avoko, a charity that takes in orphaned or abandoned children and offers them a shot at life.

Despite spartan surroundings and no government funding for two years, it has survived by ingenious means, including by turning tin cans into tin cars and making Christmas cards from recycled paper donated by the British embassy.

Its methods clearly work: all of its charges get a basic education — both formal and about Malagasy culture.

Another place worth investigating is the intriguingly named Antshow, a multifarious complex in downtown Tana that is part hotel, part restaurant and part an arts and music training centre. We were lucky enough to turn up when its owner, Hanitra Rasoanaivo, the singer in Madagascar’s most famous band, Tariko, was in residence and spent a fine night chatting and eating.

We had been warned to be wary of the crime in Tana, especially at night, but we suffered no problems — except when we went to a bar recommended by our guide, which turned out to be a pick-up joint. By this stage of our trip, we were beginning to flag. Fortunately, it was time to change pace.

Madagascar has a litter of tiny islands, each being the perfect place to wind down. A two-hour flight later, we were in Nosy Be, where the temperature was in the range of 32ÞC, ylang-ylang leaves were in bloom and a turquoise sea awaited us. After a lunch of fresh fish and fruit, we dived into the Mozambique channel. We swam in the warmest waters any of us had ever experienced before heading out to snorkel around a shocking-pink-coloured coral reef.

After a bumpy tour of the island the following morning, we stopped at the aptly named Hell Ville to visit the main market.

It has a good reputation, but all I remember are the thousands of flies and a cavalcade of third-generation Citroen C4s belching out sickly diesel as they passed by. If poverty has a smell, this must be it.

Fortunately we were soon on the move again, this time to Nosy Iranja. On the boat ride over, I chatted to our guide, Lalaina, about Madagascar’s future.

Hard times lay ahead, he agreed, adding that the price of rice has recently doubled and some Malagasians are still earning less than about R11 a day. Still, he remained optimistic that the government’s plans to triple the rate of tourism by 2007 would succeed. Certainly, Madagascar has every chance.

With its 25 luxury huts just metres from the beach, five-star food and climate, and the chance to swim with wild turtles, you’ll be dropping lines like “perfect tropical paradise” and other clichés before you realise it. — Â

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