/ 15 June 2006

Mora, mora to relaxation in Madagascar

When the gods created Madagascar, they panned the universe for things weird and wonderful, flung them to the heavens and let them fall willy-nilly to the island below. Anything that couldn’t or wouldn’t fit, it seems, was shoehorned into the capital Antananarivo — a place so obscurely cobbled together it has the appearance of a jigsaw puzzle roughly assembled from random bits. The jumble of influences, from French colonial to island style, create a surreal blend that is strangely familiar yet completely unlike any other place on Earth.

Every inch of the city churns with a chaotic clamour for survival — from snotty children relentlessly palming off their tourist tat to market vendors selling anything from viridescent towers of ground manioc leaves, to slabs of Zebu (domesticated ox), fish, frog or anything vaguely edible. Mangy dogs scrounge the gutters and rats the size of cats skirt between the narrow, lopsided houses. Oddly set among this bustle is the occasional upmarket establishment — the Hilton has a home here, as does a La Coste boutique, there is also a range of snooty jewellery stores and a good cup of Italian coffee is surprisingly easy to find.

Many visitors who come to Madagascar opt to sidestep Antananarivo, possibly because the poverty and pollution are tough to take in, but the capital offers a fascinating look at humanity that makes one acutely aware of how nature’s generosity is being burnt out by humankind’s race to stay alive.

Poverty, a shaky political situation, slash-and-burn agriculture and commercial logging are the fuels behind the rampant deforestation that threatens to raze Madagascar’s extraordinary array of endemic plants, birds, insects and mammals. The island is more than 80% deforested yet it is still possible to walk further than a few metres in any one of its nature reserves without coming across some critter that isn’t found anywhere else in the world.

“The problem is with the politics,” says Francois Ntoehly, an ecotourism guide at Ankarana park, in northern Madagascar: “Everything in Madagascar is mora, mora [nice and slow]. Except for cutting down the trees, that is happening very fast.

“You see there are no jobs. Even people with a certificate can’t find a job.” As he points to a stretch of eroded red earth, he continues: “If people could get a job in a factory it would stop this. It is hard work and very painful to cut down a tree, but people have no choice; they need the hard wood to sell for building and furniture.”

Besides being home to many unique species of birds and animals, including at least 11 species of lemur, Ankarana is made famous by its bizarre rock formation called tsingy, which literally means “to walk on tip-toe”. Mother nature must have had a quirky turn when she sculpted the kilometre upon kilometre of limestone massif into spiky shards reminiscent of JRR Tolkien’s Mountains of Mordor — the phenomenon is made even more curious because this kind of rock formation isn’t found anywhere but in Madagascar.

Another endemic wonder is found in Andasibe Mantadia — a small stretch of park in the east of the country. It is from this primordial forest that one is woken in the morning by the spine-curdling yowl of the indrie indrie — a large, cuddly species of lemur, so rare that it is only found in the 30km radius of this particular park. The poor indrie is a popular tourist attraction and is hounded morning and night by gangs of loud visitors crashing their way through the forest with cameras and binoculars. The fact that there are so many foreigners interested in these mammals is probably their saving grace, but you have to pity a poor creature just trying to score some grub.

Madagascar has many more marvels to offer tourists and hardened travellers alike, from the monolithic baobabs of Morondava in the west of the country to the strange colourful carvings on the Mahafaly tombs in the south. Probably the most commercial attraction is Nosy Be — a small island to the north of the mainland where old men, mostly of the Italian and French variety, plague beautiful young Malagasy women.

Sex tourism is rife in this pocket of the world, where ageing colonials are able to live out their foolish crises in a tropical paradise. With direct flights from Paris and Milan, Nosy Be is Madagascar’s tourism hub. It may sound dreadful, but “commercial” is a relative term in Madagascar, and the near-perfect climate (outside of monsoon season), excellent diving and stretches of white beach make this island a worthwhile stopover for a few days of real relaxation.

Regardless of its awe-inspiring sights, warm hospitality and congenial feel, travel in Madagascar can leave one feeling a tad bleak. Despite enormous international efforts to foster community involvement in ecotourism programmes, the handful of conservationists I met on this trip were sceptical about any real hope for biodiversity in the future. “It is already too late, we are just trying to save what’s left” was the standard response to questions about the environment.

Questions about the political situation are met with a similar despondency. Nosy Be farmer, mineral trader and businessman Roger Vahiny summed things up by saying: “When we had the old president we wished for a new one. Now that we have the new one [Marc Ravalomanana], we wish for the old one back. There are more roads now, that is true, but there are still no jobs.”

Island hopping

Travel in Madagascar can range from ridiculously cheap to surprisingly expensive. The longer you stay, the easier it becomes to sort the bargains from the rip-offs. The island’s tourism infrastructure is in its infancy and anything close to luxury comes at a premium. There are a number of decent mid-range hotels and boarding houses in the more developed areas.

Travel by taxi bousse is uncomfortable and cheap, but taxis and even private drivers aren’t expensive by South African standards. Internal flights through Air Madagascar are reliable and can be changed at a moment’s notice. My return ticket from Antananarivo to Nosy Be cost about R1 800.

Food is generally cheap. Nosy Be is more expensive than elsewhere in Madagascar, but that said, a fantastic fish meal at a good restaurant costs about R40. The most expensive portion of your trip is likely to be your ticket there. It cost me R4 300 for a return ticket on Air Madagascar for the two-hour flight from Johannesburg. However, South African Airlink is strongly marketing its route to Antananarivo and it is worth checking to see if they have any upcoming specials.