The spine of Madagascar arched up before me. Red as river-clay at sunset, the central highlands of the continent broke the blanket of low-lying clouds. I’d been in the air for five hours now—well, 12 if you didn’t count a brief layover at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. With the exception of a heart-shocking view of Mt. Kilimanjaro within minutes of take-off, and the nostalgia of sucking back my first Tusker since 2010, it had been a relatively uneventful flight.
Although I’d spent much of the last decade dreaming of the island, Madagascar, to the rest of the world, is a nation shrouded in mystery.
“What’s there?” Josh asked, despite the fact that he’d grown up just across the Mozambique Channel. Most the other continental African residents I’d reached out to in the lead-up to my trip had a similar response. Much like neighboring Mauritius, Madagascar doesn’t quite fit the African identity. Unlike, Mauritius; however, and it’s too far away for Asia to really care. And so, the Red Island remains a black smudge on most people’s maps. Search #Madagascar on Instagram and you’re more likely to get images from the Dreamworks film than the fourth largest Island in the world (after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo.)
Despite being known to few, Madagascar is a land related to many. Geologically the landmass shattered off the Indian sub-continent 88-million years ago. It’s first settlers, around 350 BC, where Austronesians who crossed the Indian Ocean from Borneo in dugout canoes. These mariners never made it to mainland Africa; 500 years later the Bantu peoples of the Eastern continent came to them from Mozambique. The French colonized the island from 1897 until 1960.
When the French first arrived, Madagascar was known as the Green Island. Its long-term isolation has made it an evolutionary hotspot; 90% of its flora and fauna exist nowhere else in the world. But slash and burn agriculture, poaching, and forestry—mostly to serve other countries, despite being independent for over 50 years—have decimated the nation’s unique ecosystems. It’s estimated that less than 10% of the country’s original forest still stands.
Antananarivo—Madagascar’s elegant-but-has-seen-better-days capital—is equally enigmatic. Shattered avenues spider out from its uptown centre, thumb-printed into the Central Highlands. Bougainvilleas choke red church walls and rice patties break up the urban sprawl. It’s dirty, but the dirt feels out of place.
When I ordered a taxi at the airport, I was told I shouldn’t use my iPhone to show the driver my address. Yet he seemed indifferent when I did just the opposite in the beat-up cab of his Peugeot. Walking around Haute-Ville that afternoon, locals were more nonplussed by my English-Canadian-who-speaks-Quebecois-French accent than the Fuji XT1 dangling from my neck. I celebrated my arrival with fois gras de Zebu—a meal far less expensive than it sounds—beneath the wildfire of jacaranda trees. So far, Tana looked like Africa, felt like South Asia, and tasted like France.
My Couchsurfing hosts were a cobbled-together family of expats. Daphné, who I’d reached out to online, was from L’Île du Reunion. Her three roommates were Mexican, Spanish, and French. They lived on the bottom floor of a hulking brick colonial building. Between the cacti that studded their over-grown courtyard, we sucked bitter coffee and swapped stories in our varying dialects of French.
The predominate narrative surrounding Madagascar isn’t unlike that of many developing Africa nations. The country is so steeply impoverished that the population must deplete its natural resources just to survive. On my second evening, I met with a retired Spanish journalist for dinner at the chic (and cleverly named given Madagascar’s recent political turmoil) Ku De Ta. She’d moved here to write press releases after growing stressed at her previous position as a reporter in Nairobi.
“The problem is a lot less endemic than that,” her soft Cataluñan ‘C’s slipped out between tendrils of cigarette spoke. “This is a country that has rich natural resources: Agriculture, lumber, precious stones. And that’s before we even begin the conversation about potential for tourism—oh my God! The main issue is that Madagascar doesn’t have the means to export any of this on their own. Foreign companies do that for them but leave very little behind. There are plenty of resources. But no jobs.”
After two days in Tana, I caught a taxi-brousse south to Antsirabe. Packed against the torn upholstery of a twelve-person van, I watched the country undulate wildly between dusty hilltops, patches of new-growth forest, and swaths of future-farmland—burned coal-black. The drive was billed as two and a half hours. In reality, it took four. But glued to the chattering window, I didn’t notice. Unlike my experience crossing similar stretches of countryside while living in Kenya, I saw no wildlife save zebu—the Malagasy people’s sacred cattle. They trotted along the roadside in the absence of herdsmen, kicking up dirt as galaxies of flies circled their waddling humps.
Antsirabe is the calm forehead to Tana’s sweating belly. Perched at 1,500 meters, the temperatures hover between 14 and 20 degrees Celsius (Canadian-comfortable) despite the city’s blue-skied benefit of sitting close to the sun.
The moment I stepped into the ankle-deep trash of the bus stop, I was assaulted by pousse-pousse pullers shouting wildly from the perches of their wooden rickshaws. Downtown was only three kilometers away but my conversation at Ku De Ta was fresh on the mind. I singled out a stone-white smile and climbed into his wooden cart. Once we arrived, Tony said he had a few hours to kill before the next bus entered the sleepy town. I invited him into the guesthouse bar for a beer.
Tony had worked here all his life as a pousse-pousse puller and a tour guide. Like most drivers, he rented his cart from a Pakistani mogul and used it to ferry locals around town or tourists to Lake Tritriva nearby.
“Are there many tourists here?” I asked. It was the perfect season to visit Madagascar—the rains had not yet come but the temperatures had dipped and the lemurs were nursing young. Yet, I’d been able to walk into Lonely Planet’s top ranked accommodation in the city and easily barter down the price of one of the many vacant rooms.
Tony strained to maintain his cheek-splitting smile.
One month later, while researching a story, I’d learn that Madagascar issued only 198, 816 tourists visas in 2013. 2014’s numbers were expected to be lower. France, counted 84.7 million international arrivals, that same year. Madagascar relies on high cost - low volume tourism, but without the PR-machine of the Galapagos or the hype of Myanmar it has always had problems attracting people to its distant shores. This issue was compounded in October 2013 when three Europeans were burned alive on a beach in Nosy Be. At 26 years old, I’d be the youngest foreigner—and one of two native English speakers—I’d meet during my time abroad.
As a seasoned backpacker I’ve always prided myself on my independence. I scarcely take tours, not simply due to the budget limitation of long-term travel but because I appreciate the challenge of accomplishing tasks on my own. My one exception, of course, has been safaris—in Bangladesh’s mangrove forests there’s no replacement for a knowledgeable countryman with a keen set of eyes. But for the most part if it’s on the map, gear can be rented, and my first aid kit stocked, I’ll take it on. I’ve haggled my way across most the countries I’ve visited via public transit. The previous Easter, I marched for three days up to the 4,200-metre base camp of Annapurna alone.
Of course, Tony offered to sell me a tour. I declined him at first—it seemed too damn Graham Greene to sit, reclined in a wooden chariot, while my new friend pulled me, bare foot on cobblestones, around town. But that afternoon, as I sipped Three Horses Beer on a cracked slab of concrete surrounded by ravinala palms, my thoughts began to change. A queue of touts had formed along the curbside. In the 20 minutes it had taken me to find a patio, there’d been attempts to sell me everything from sandals made of recycled tires to rocks.
With its hill-post charm and its honey-thick sun Antsirabe compared to many Mediterranean hotspots, without the price tag. Yet during my walk down the city’s main strip, I felt painfully alone. It wasn’t as if Antsirabe was Madagascar’s best-kept secret either—hotels wrapped the avenue: mostly Chinese, French, or Indian owned. The country’s third largest city was the first stop along its famous Route National 7. I withdrew an oily brick of Ariary from a South African ATM and began the lonely walk home.
Jody MacDonald was one very helpful resource when it came to planning my trip. Check out some of her incredible images of the Vezo peoples of Madagascar's coast in this Maptia Story.
Kevin Perry's another great photograph who opened up to me about his expedition in the country. His Instagram feed might be one of the best out there. It comes just before my departure, October 2014.