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Isolation In A Land Of Scarcity
Madagascar, West Coast

by Sarah Shuckburgh

The west coast of Madagascar is sublime, but poverty is rife, finds Sarah Shuckburgh. Tourism could make a difference.

This is the most exciting flight of my life. I am in the co-pilot’s seat of a 4-seater plane, skimming just yards above the beach along one of the world’s most remote and sparsely-inhabited shores. A dazzling ribbon of white sand unfurls beneath us, a narrow border between the sea and an undulating patchwork of lowland forest and arid savannah – semi-circular vistas of deep blue and khaki which fade into infinity. No roads lead to this stretch of Madagascar’s north-west coast - the only access is by sea or by light aircraft.

The Mozambique Channel is a narrow strait, and we are nearer to Africa here than we are to the island’s capital, Antananarivo. And yet 165 million years have passed since the tectonic shift which separated Madagascar from the African continent.

We fly over clusters of flimsy shacks, shaggily thatched. Villagers emerge, crouching, from low doorways. They look up and wave, and we wave back. Children scamper along the beach, trying to race us. We are flying so near the ground that it is almost like sitting on top of a bus.

Now we reach craggy limestone promontories and pinnacles - spectacular karst outcrops, known locally as tsingy. Birdlike, the plane swoops into fissured canyons and over rugged grey cliffs topped with baobabs. Madagascar has seven species of these strange trees, compared to Africa’s one. Rain rarely falls on the west coast, and the baobabs’ bottle-shaped trunks have evolved to store water.

Out to sea, white and beige-sailed boats with wooden outriggers pitch and toss - dugouts of a design perhaps unchanged since the island was first populated by Indonesians a thousand years ago. Inland, plumes of smoke rise – Malagasies still practise ‘tavy’, the traditional custom of slash and burn which creates short-term grazing for zebu cattle, but destroys vegetation and degrades the soil. The dry deciduous forests of Madagascar’s west coast are especially vulnerable to overgrazing, because trees grow so slowly in the parched rocky soil.

The pilot, Jacky Cauvin, wants me to see his guesthouse – the Lodge des Terres Blanches - and we land on a bumpy airstrip of red earth. A hot wind blows and exotic birds flutter through the trees as we walk towards the forested promontory where he has built eight small bungalows from mangrove roots and rosewood. They are basic but very romantic, and all facing the sparkling sea.

We board Jacky’s speed boat and continue north, bouncing over choppy blue waves, slowing to explore lush mangrove creeks, and whizzing on past sandy coves backed by dense forest. At a horseshoe-shaped bay of knobbly karst outcrops, Jacky stops the engine, and we enjoy the silence. A giant ray swims by, just below the surface. As the boat engine starts up, a rare Madagascan fish-eagle flaps out of a nest on a tsingy outcrop and into a hazy blue sky, smudged with puffy clouds.

As the midday sun reaches its most blistering, we arrive at an incongruous mansion – some would say folly - perched on rocks at the end of a two-mile sweep of sand. Built by a French film producer who discovered this pristine coast on location ten years ago, Marovasa-Be is now a ‘barefoot-luxury’ guesthouse, with huge airy rooms, slatted windows, elegant furniture and cool tiled floors. Outside, an infinity pool is surrounded by tropical gardens. The owner, Charles Gassot, welcomes us with a lunch of lobster in a shady gazebo above the lapping waves.

The poverty in Madagascar is extreme, and statistics suggest that it is amongst the poorest countries in the world. Only one in three have drinking water. Literacy levels are below 40%. Infant mortality rates are high, and life expectancy is 65 for women and 55 for men. The average family size is seven children, and more than half the population is under 20 years old.

Half a million acres of forest are burnt each year to make charcoal for cooking, and more is burnt to graze zebus – the humpbacked cattle which, as emblems of status and prosperity, are rarely eaten or sold. Facing destitution because of deforestation and the subsequent degraded soil and drought, rural families throng to Antananarivo - the highland ‘town of 1000’ which now has two million residents and at least half a million more, living on the streets. Barefoot children in tattered clothes beg with babies on their hips, before curling up for the night in cardboard boxes; toothless women and pregnant girls try to sell vanilla pods or painted cards; ragged boys offer single cigarettes. Sex tourism is rife.

The gap between rich and poor is startling. I stayed in a lovely hotel in a cobbled street of French colonial houses, next to a chateau that was once the presidential palace. Built around a pretty courtyard, La Varangue has high-ceilinged rooms packed with antiques. Shiny new 4x4s filled the car park, and the restaurant, with its dinner-jacketed maitre d’, was full of well-heeled Malagasies. The contrast with the beggars outside the gate was stark.

When Gassot first arrived at Marovasa, local families lived on the beach in ramshackle hovels made of grass and palm. Women carried water from a distant stagnant pond, and there were no schools, books, electricity or sanitation. Gassot has set up an NGO which aims to sustain rural life and prevent the drift towards urban poverty. Ecoles du Monde has already provided 42 wells and 18 water towers, 12 wind machines, 14 sanitary blocks with lavatories, showers and washrooms, a library, six medical centres, and ten schools powered by solar energy.

Early the next morning, I stroll along the beach. The sand is littered with twists of bleached coral, pastel-coloured cowries and other shells. Crabs of various sizes, each as pale as the sand, drag seaweed into their holes. I watch as fishermen set out to sea in their dugout canoes, leaving their children, black-skinned and African-looking, paddling in the shallows.

Back at the house, tiny scarlet fodies dart between the fruit trees. A cloud of dragonflies bursts into the air. A lizard basks on a sunny stone. In a tree, exotic parrots call. Marovasa-Be can apparently be translated as ‘lots of black parrots’ or as ‘many white strangers’ – and both definitions apply.

After breakfast, Charles shows me the new village houses, which, unlike the traditional shacks, are sturdy and tall enough to stand in. Women are filling buckets from a wind-pump to water their new vegetable plots, orchards and flower gardens. Hundreds of yellow butterflies hover over a puddle. At the school, chanting children fill the two classrooms, and next door, their older sisters are learning to use old-fashioned sewing machines.

Charles Gassot is a feudal lord, a benevolent paternalist, a responsible neo-colonialist - but it is hard to know what locals make of him. At the guesthouse, he enforces exacting standards of service which the staff must find bewildering – for instance, the Spode china is to be used only at breakfast. Like many Malagasy tribes, the Sakalava look to their ancestors for wisdom and are wary of change. As subsistence farmers, it is not their way to plan ahead, plant trees or vegetables, or grow surplus crops to sell.

Later, we bump inland in a 4x4, past lakes where crocodiles lurk. Kingfishers swoop over the still water, and a flock of ducks takes off in alarm as we pass. I clamber into a limestone karst cave, avoided by locals who believe ancestral stories of evil monsters. Beyond is an impenetrable tangle of evergreen shrubs and saplings beneath gigantic deciduous trees, which shed their leaves to conserve energy during the long dry season. Wildlife is hard to spot, but we glimpse some enchanting-looking brown lemurs and later a chameleon on a twig. All Madagascar’s mammals are endemic, as are nearly all plants and reptiles and - despite the proximity of Africa - half of all birds.

But even here in the sparsely-populated west of Madagascar, the wildlife is endangered and most of the forest has been destroyed. Charles Gassot’s plan is that visitors to Marovasa will help to alleviate the island’s poverty and to preserve the endangered ecosystem.

I am mulling this over - and sipping a rum arrangé - when I hear a distant putter and Jacky swoops overhead. Charles drives me through the scrub to his landing strip, and I board for another thrilling flight along one of the world’s emptiest coasts.

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

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