Maybe you feel like going to a really wild place. You know, great horizons, strange creatures, intriguing mountains, and a brilliant but absolutely baffling culture.
Well, that describes Madagascar perfectly. I should know. I spent three months there, researching a new book, The Gardens of Mars.
Each day was unforgettable, perhaps with a shipwreck, a women’s wrestling tournament, or a party for the dead (who appeared naked to the bone and wrapped in silk).
A busy market in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. The locals refer to the city as ‘Tana’
With much of Africa on the travel ‘red list’, with mandatory (and exorbitantly expensive) hotel quarantines required when you return, how about we give Madagascar a shot?
Unlike many other African countries, it is currently amber in color and will be opened to tourists in the coming months, and should join the former green list countries when the two-tier travel rules announced last week take effect. October 4.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and almost impenetrable. Spread across Europe and the Mediterranean, it would stretch from London to Algiers, but its road network is no larger than Jamaica’s.
It is also remote and you are not on your way anywhere else. It was only in 1895 that it was colonized, becoming superficially French for the next 65 years.
But what I had not appreciated is the great diversity of landscapes. While the southwest has no water, the east can be soggy (with up to 15 inches of rain per hour). Between the two there is everything, from the savannah to the rice fields. On a typical 12-hour road trip, you traversed jungle and mountains, and then what seemed like Tuscany, Borneo, the world of Hieronymus Bosch, and Middle-earth.
If I fell asleep, I would wake up thinking I was on another continent, never quite sure which one.
A sifaka lemur, which John Gimlette says ‘hops around in what looks like brown velvet gloves and cream pajamas’
The island is home to half of the 150 species of chameleons in the world.
Of course, I knew something about wildlife, but I had no idea how strange it is. More than 90% is endemic. Of the 170 species of mammals, only bats are found elsewhere. The result is a carnival of misfits and throwbacks, like the multi-nippled tenrec, which is a kind of over-reproducing hedgehog. Or there is the fossa, which looks like a cross between a pit bull terrier and a mongoose. Steal and bite, and nobody likes it (except maybe me).
The island is home to half of the 150 species of chameleons in the world. But the strangest of all are the lemurs. They were once found all over the world, but now they thrive only here. You would find them in every corner of Madagascar and could watch them for hours. The smallest species can fit in a teacup, while the largest are the size of young children.
One, the indri, defends his territory with walls of deafening song, while another, the sifaka, leaps in what looks like maroon velvet gloves and cream-colored pajamas.
But the human inhabitants of Madagascar will not be left behind when it comes to exuberance. I was always amazed at his capacity for joy. I began to realize that almost all the Malagasy I knew were, deep down, inexplicably happy. They are puzzled by the sadness of the foreigners, with all their introspection and their pills.
For water adventures it is worth taking a boat trip down the ‘beautiful’ Tsiribihina River (pictured above)
Juan was amazed by the ‘capacity for joy’ of the natives
Of course, it helps that, for many, this life is simply an interlude, with the Real to come. Few other countries are so spiritually connected, or put on such a poetry show (even bigger than soccer). Outsiders are often left to wallow in the statistics and remind everyone that it is now one of the poorest nations on Earth.
All of this provides his travels with a rich cast of characters. During my time on the road, I ran into a novelist named ‘Madame Ink’, some energetic lepers (now cured and living in a convent), many poets and seekers, a leather-clad archdeacon, a couple of sorcerers and descendants. of English pirates of the 18th century. But perhaps the most theatrical of all were the militiamen.
You will meet them on your boat trip on the beautiful Tsiribihina River. Dressed in soccer jerseys, villagers use them to track down thieves. Besides spears, they carry shotguns painted as modern art.
To get around, it is not necessary to take taxis-brousses (or minibuses), as I used to do. Air Madagascar flies all over the island.
Flying also gives you an important perspective. When Arab merchants first arrived on these shores around the 8th century, they called Madagascar “the Island of the Moon.” However, when looking at the red earth from above, it looks more like the gardens of Mars.
Beach Beauty – Visit the golden shores of the ‘luxurious little’ island of Tsarabanjina, pictured
John reveals that the Pangalanes Canal, pictured above, is an enchanting world of herons and sand dunes
If it’s beaches you’re after, head to the islands (Nosy Be, Ile Sainte-Marie, and luxurious little Tsarabanjina). For aquatic adventures, cruise the Tsiribihina or the Pangalanes Canal, an enchanting world of herons and sand dunes.
But if it’s hustle and bustle, rugby, or some fabulous shabby palaces you’re after, look no further than Antananarivo, the capital. I love Tana (as they call her). Deep down it feels French, with its narrow streets all cobbled and shuttered. Each day begins with baguettes and a torrent of Citroën 2CVs running through the hills.
But from a distance, Tana is more Asian: a Shangri-La, jutting out of the rice. Although it is home to more than two million people, it has all the arrogance of a village, or perhaps hundreds of compacted villages.
Home to two million people, Antananarivo, pictured above, has just 22 embassies and more than 5,000 churches.
The Isalo massif is an “absolutely fascinating place”, according to John. The photo shows the rock formation ‘La Fenetre’ of the park.
On track for a fantastic trip: John recommends riding the Fianarantsoa-Cote Est railway in Madagascar, which runs through 48 tunnels and more than 67 bridges.
Houses often look like farms and roads look like rivers. There are only 22 embassies and more than 5,000 churches. Few cities have such a magnificent panorama and such a seedy foreground.
Three great excursions stand out, starting with the Isalo massif. Like a large cake of orange sandstone, it is over 60 miles wide. Once the bed of an inland sea, it solidified and jumped as the Earth’s plates flexed, millions of years ago.
All kinds of creatures live here, from troglodyte lemurs to a lobster so toxic that it has become the novichok of the natural world. It is an absolutely fascinating place.
My second recommendation is the road to Majunga, built by the French army as they marched inland: a large desert covered in golden savanna grass and tamarinds. As for Majunga, it is still a port of ancient schooners, with rough walkways and barefoot stevedores dusted with spices.
My final suggestion is a railway, the Fianarantsoa-Cote Est, or FCE. Completed in 1936, it is a work of mind-boggling complexity, falling more than 3,000 feet down the Eastern Escarpment while traversing no fewer than 48 tunnels and 67 bridges.
So there it is. Go as soon as you can and regain your sanity. Everything will seem normal after Madagascar.