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Green Party

by Sarah Shuckburgh

The landscape is varied and spectacular, the flora and fauna unique, but it’s the warm-hearted people of Madagascar that are most captivating, says Sarah Shuckburgh


Our flight reaches Madagascar before dawn, and from the air, the vast island is utterly dark. Even the highland capital, Antananarivo, with its two million inhabitants, is invisible in the inky blackness.

As we drive away from the airport, the narrow bumpy road is already teeming with people walking barefoot on the caked earth, many balancing huge loads on their heads – sacks of charcoal, baskets of fruit, bulging bundles of material.

We pass shacks made of planks and plastic bags, small buildings built of red mud and larger houses of wood and brick, with French-style balconies and shutters. Street stalls are open, hung with fly-strewn carcases and bunches of bananas. Small rusty Citroens and Renaults overtake dilapidated mini-buses, each with a ticket-boy hanging out of the back to cram passengers in. As the sun rises, Tana’s hilltop palaces gleam against an apricot sky.

Skirting the city, we cross deforested wasteland, and then wind through beautiful highland valleys where rice fields gleam in gaudy greens beneath steep-sided forests. Smoke billows from the windows of tiny mud cottages. Our car swerves to avoid carts pulled by hump-backed zebus, packed minibuses with luggage piled on the roof, cyclists with passengers sitting across the handlebars, and more barefoot, ragged pedestrians, many holding floral umbrellas. Women in head-scarves and tattered sarongs carry babies on their backs, and spindly boys struggle under the weight of bananas hanging from poles across their shoulders. Now there are no other cars, but occasional lorries rattle towards us in the middle of the road, belching black exhaust, and braking suddenly to load roadside heaps of bananas, logs or palm-root flowerpots, heading for the capital.

We stop in a small town to buy tiny brown bananas and soft guavas from a vendor with a basket on her head. Barefoot boys run through the dust, lugging brightly painted rickshaws which carry some of the few Malagasies to wear shoes.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world – most of its 15 million inhabitants have no clean water, no electricity and little education. The staple diet is rice, healthcare is rudimentary and the average life expectancy is 55. The population is rising fast and is expected to double again by 2020.

But my husband and I are immediately captivated. Despite their extreme poverty, the people are astonishingly open-hearted and welcoming. The landscape is varied and spectacular. And the Madagascan rainforest is unique, its endemic species as friendly and welcoming as the Malagasies themselves – there are no poisonous snakes, no biting spiders, and no dangerous mammals. Even the scorpions and leeches are gentler than elsewhere.

Looking at an atlas, it is easy to believe that Madagascar only recently parted from Mozambique, just 250 miles away. But the unlikely truth is that this tectonic movement occurred 165 million years ago, at about the same time that South America broke off from Africa. Madagascar was thus isolated for millions of years, its flora and fauna evolving into unique endemic species. There isn’t much primary forest left, but we are heading for one of the remaining fragments, Andasibe national park, which is home to a dozen species of lemur - surely the world’s most engaging animals.

Early the next morning, Luc, our local guide, leads us into the misty rainforest, through a dense, dark tangle of strangling vines, knotted like rope. The sun slants in dramatically, sunbeams like spotlights illuminating solitary tree ferns, fan-like traveller’s trees or quivering clumps of bamboo grass. Tree trunks soar towards the distant sky - some massive, six centuries old but with buttress roots as delicate as folds of silk; other trunks as thin as pencils, sprouting pale, feathery epiphytes or festooned with creepers which dangle like strings of beads. Spiky-leaved Pandanus rear from shady dells like giant pineapples. Fallen trees are coated with mushrooms, moss and lichens. A wood rail, alarmed, struts like a chicken through the undergrowth. A purple heron swoops over a lake of clear green water, strewn with purple and white water lilies, and fluttering with dragonflies and butterflies. Weaver-bird nests hang over the water, from delicate threads.

Luc misses nothing – in the sky, delicate sunbirds and flycatchers; on a leaf, a strange long-necked weevil; and on the tip of a branch a large green chameleon, its strange feet gripping the twig like pliers, its tail coiling and uncoiling, and its eyes swivelling independently - one eye on the past and one on the future. Luc holds up a wriggling fly, and the chameleon flicks out a tongue as long as its body. In the moss at our feet, Luc spots a harmless tree boa, and, nervously, I grasp the cool, writhing body, scaly and glistening like mother of pearl, a crazy paving of iridescent blue, grey and khaki.

Above the shrill rattle of crickets, the squawks of a black parrot and the calls of the hook-billed vanga, we hear shrill two-tone yelps, and a family of indri leap into the treetops above us, the female throwing back her head to give ear-splitting yowls. As charming as black and white teddy bears, these huge lemurs huddle on high branches, their black velvet fingers delicately clasping the bark.

Soon, a group of common brown lemurs swing through the branches below the indri, grunting like pigs. And nearer the ground, we see a pair of smaller, eastern woolly lemurs, facing each other on two saplings, swivelling their heads to follow us with their circular eyes, and posing obligingly for photographs. Later, Luc spots some elusive golden lemurs, beautiful fluffy creatures with black pointed faces and multi-coloured coats. Wide-eyed babies cling to their mother’s backs, as older youngsters chase each other through the canopy, leaping fearlessly on to spindly twigs. Next, two small, red-bellied lemurs appear, teasing the golden lemurs by tweaking their tails as they lounge in the treetops. On our way back, Luc points out three black and white ruffed lemurs, flopping on their stomachs with all four legs and tail dangling from a branch.

At night, we take torches into the forest, brushing against fragrant ginger flowers. Luc shines his beam on tiny mouse lemurs and a larger dwarf lemur scurrying up a tree. Chameleons as tiny as fingernails perch on twigs. A pointy-nosed hedgehog tenrec scuttles across the path and into a hole. Two tree frogs with slimy red backs croak noisily and watch us with big white eyes.

As we return to the lodge, the night air feels thick with moisture. Suddenly we are pummelled by rain. Soaked to the skin, we push through a deafening wall of water, slithering through deep puddles to the calm of our verandah, where we sit, breathless, dripping, and exhilarated by the force of the downpour. On the wall above us, another refugee from the rain - a jewel-like green and red gecko - licks its eyes with a broad tongue.

But even more memorable than Madagascar’s animals are her people – cheerful, warm-hearted and beautiful. The island’s first inhabitants were traders from south-east Asia, and to this day Malagasies use Indonesian words and phrases, grow rice in paddy fields and cook south-east Asian rice dishes. Their features are an attractive mix of Indonesian and African.

Leaving Andasibe, we drive along a narrow pot-holed road, past isolated shacks with roofs of grass thatch, and larger hamlets where chickens peck in the dust, and skinny dogs lie in the shade beneath stilted huts. We stop often, in villages with ramshackle stalls selling cooking pots, baskets and clothes. We come across two weekly markets, where crowds of women with baskets on their heads inspect produce laid out on the ground - rounded breadfruit, shiny pink rose-apples, red hairy rambuttans and huge jackfruit. Others are buying bundles of tiny fish and dried, blackened eels. Later, we visit a one-room school, where small, barefoot schoolchildren stare at us excitedly while they chant their lesson. Their mothers are waiting at the gate with food for the children. Everywhere we are greeted with warm smiles.

Madagascar is a vast island – bigger than France - but there are almost no roads. Decades of political mismanagement and corruption have left the infrastructure rundown and chaotic. After four hours’ driving, we reach the steel-grey Lake Ampitabe, and board a small motor-boat for a bumpy ride across the windswept water. The banks are a tangle of exotic and unfamiliar vegetation – trees with wigwam aerial roots and raffia palms with huge fronds. We see few signs of life apart from the occasional sinewy fisherman paddling a dugout pirogue, on his way to check his bamboo fish traps.

The boat drops us at Bush House, a romantic lakeside lodge run by an urbane Frenchman called Clément and his Betsileo Highlander wife, Rolanda. Their baby daughter is called Fitia - Malagasy for ‘love’. Our room is a stilted bungalow right above the white sandy beach, with peaceful views across the rippling, yellowy-blue lake to distant forests, beyond which lies the Indian Ocean. We walk up a hill behind the lodge, between slender saplings of ebony, mahogany, rosewood and ironwood, and past vanilla, cinnamon and wild lemon to a breezy lookout point where a mesmerising vista opens up – an undulating carpet of green, sliced with glittering lakes. Back at the lodge, we swim in the warm, clear water, and then laze in hammocks on our verandah with glasses of spicy rum arrangé. Clément lights a log fire beneath a water butt, and we have hot showers. For supper, Rolanda produces zebu, rice, broth and achard. A rumbling generator provides lights until bedtime. When it stops, the darkness is total, and the only sounds are the lapping waves, the wind in the trees, a ruffed lemur cavorting about under our roof, and, later, torrential rain.

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of banana juice and mofogasy – moist buns made of sugar and rice flour - we take a canoe to visit a forest village. Hordes of tousled-headed children scamper beside us as we walk along a narrow sandy path to their hamlet of wooden shacks – all built facing north-south, and all smaller and flimsier than the sturdy burial-houses across the lake where their revered ancestors lie. Smiling villagers emerge to greet us. Women sit on the ground shredding raffia fronds, or tending blackened pots of rice. A tiny shop, with one flimsy counter, displays a few bananas and some tiny shrivelled fish. The village chief welcomes us cheerfully, grey stubble on his chin, and skinny legs emerging from fraying shorts. Everyone is barefoot.

Families in this village have, on average, seven children, but there is no school. The custom is to look to the past, respecting the wisdom of elders, worshipping and consulting ancestors, and retaining age-old traditions such as ‘tave’ – slash and burn. Perhaps, like chameleons, they now need one eye on the future. Twelve million Malagasies cook on charcoal every day. I feel guilty at wasting logs for my hot shower. The rainforest is all but gone, and soon it will be too late to save it.

We leave Bush House by boat, and chug up the peaceful Pangalanes Canal, a once-commercial waterway built by French colonists at the end of the 19th century, to link a series of lakes. Despite an attempt at dredging in the 1980s, much of the waterway is once again silted up and choked with purple water hyacinths. At one point, we have to get out and walk while our boat is carried over sandbars. Few people live on the densely forested banks, but we pass isolated clusters of wooden shacks. Naked children jump off wobbly wooden jetties into the water while their mothers do the laundry, slapping clothes on the ground and rubbing them with sand. Dark-skinned fishermen paddle pirogues carved from single tree trunks, and others punt bamboo rafts piled high with logs. Rusty metal ferries rattle slowly along, heavily laden with charcoal, dried fish, bicycles, crates and people.

Our homeward flight takes off after dark. As the dim lights of the airport vanish, we stare down at the blackness and imagine families sleeping by smouldering hearths, chameleons clamped to the tips of branches, and nocturnal lemurs leaping through the rainforest - and we can’t wait to return.

Sarah travelled with The Ultimate Travel Company
First published by the Telegraph

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