Madagascar Magic

10 Mile Beach. Manafiafy. Madagascar
Bliss out on an intoxicating island where spiny desert, granite inselbergs and virgin rainforest border on balmy Indian ocean beaches. Jacques Marais tripped into Madagascar and discovered a gentle island where French flair and Polynesian tradition blend with a laidback, African vibe.

Day 1

My first glimpse of Madagascar is at around mid-afternoon when the massive island edges above the horizon to slide into view alongside the minute shadow of our jumbo jet. It is a mammoth landmass, strikingly arid in places, with blood-brown rivers leeching topsoil into the indigo ocean. Slipping through candyfloss clouds, we drone high above a spiny desert landscape dotted with sandstone massifs en route to Antananarivo, the island capital.

Day 2

C'est bon! Heading south into the central highlands by brousse mini-bus in an African taxi actually sticking within load specifications as stipulated by the vehicle manufacturers. We dodge ancient CitroŽn CVs as we sputter up steep, cobbled streets and then along a narrow switchback route winding its way through low hills and granite outcrops.Occasionally we cross narrow bridges precariously spanning muddy rivers, passing trundling zebu carts, pousse-pousse rickshaws and gap-toothed grand-parents on bicycles as we approach Antsirabe. Madagascar's third-largest city is a tree-filled and amiable place, and we decide to lunch at a small hotely where we procure grilled chicken, pom frittes and a few Three Horses beers.

Suitably fortified, we head to a dusty square posing as the Betafo taxi rank (rank being the operative word). Decrepit Peugeots trawl the square, with rag-tag owners cajoling passengers into baking cars idling away in the searing sun. Forty five minutes of bargaining, half an hour of waiting and twelve kilometres of pothole lurching later we finally arrive at Lake Andraikiba, where we decide to camp for a few days.

Day 3

Unzip the tent to face a misty morning after a freezing night in the Madagascan highlands. On the programme today is a substantial tramp to Lac Tritriva, a crater lake situated approximately twelve kilometres from Andraikiba along a dirt road traversing stepped, rice paddies. We meander through picturesque rural villages resplendent with mud-brick villas, beaming grandmothers and overexcited kids announcing our arrival with loud shouts of "vazaha!", or "foreigner!"Local culture fade and immingle effortlessly across Polynesian, Indian, African and European boundaries, with panoramas varying from the hauntingly Latin American or feudally French to scenes straight from a Tibetan coffee table book. Rice paddies and ox carts piled high with straw transport you to rural Vietnam, while the coal-black, braided hair and colourful headscarves of Merina girls could just a easily have been from small-town Mexico.

We eventually reach Lac Tritriva after an endless stream of smiles and greetings, descending towards the deep blue waters of the volcanic lake slumbering within a sloping caldera. Steep ridges, densely forested with serried ranks of pine, rise up towards a wide and cloudless sky mirrored upon the placid surface of the water. Despite a local fady (belief) prohibiting swimming in Tritriva, our local guide gives us the go-ahead to dive in and join a dabchick family drifting on the rippling lake. After a solid seven hours of hiking, sleep comes easily on the shores of Lac Andraikiba that night.

Day 4

Time for torture travel mode as the day kicks off in another scabby dust bowl taxi rank. I know Africa has her own time, but our collective patience is wearing rather thin after seven hours under a severe sun. Fierce and sustained haggling eventually secure us an old and cranky station wagon bound for Miandrivazo, where we spend a hot and humid night on the banks of the Tsiribihina river.

Day 5

The most challenging section of our road trip down south awaits - two hundred and eighty kilometres of truck-chomping potholes, held together by crumbling stretches of hard-pack, connects Miandrivazo to Morondava.

Lady Luck smiles on us however when we meet a saintly old gentleman by the name of Vunzi who has to deliver a luxury 4x4 to the West Coast. He offers us a lift (for a small fee, of course) and our nightmare trip turns into a comfortably ride smoothed by independent suspension and air-conditioning.

About two hours outside Morondava, we encounter our first baobabs; some are short and squat, while others loom like giants about to blast off from rice paddies like weird, botanical spaceships. Vunzi stops for a photo opp at a towering, upside down colossus with stubby branches stabbing into the amber afternoon.

Young Sakalava herd boys, driving their cattle along a narrow dirt track, kick up billowing clouds of naartjie-neon dust bleeding in wafting streaks against the setting sun. With their greetings of Salama! echoing into the solitude, I mainline on Africa at its most basic and its most beautiful.

Day 6

Morondava, a sprawling and untamed town with a pagan frontier feel, embraces the warm Indian ocean washing up against Madagascar's west coast. With limited time in this heartland of the majestic Saklava tribe, we commandeer a rickety old Renault and negotiate the potholed route north to the famed Avenue of Baobabs. Despite it being the dry season, the road is completely flooded in places, forcing us to surge trough metre-deep pools of mud.

After some pushing and swearing at the car, we stutter to a standstill in the shadows of the soaring trees half an hour before sunset. It is a dramatically surreal sight, with a hundred-odd bloated baobabs etching their gnarled silhouettes against a burnt orange sky fading into a midnight-blue horizon.A passing parade of zebus and Saklava herdsmen lope along the dirt track, kicking up knee-high dust devils as we slowly soak up the harsh and beautiful scenery.

Day 7

I decide to explore the fishing village and pirogue harbour to the south of Morondava's sprawl, wandering along the beach where lithe, chestnut children splash in the surf amongst women in bright lamba sarongs who smile shyly at our greetings. About an hour and a half before sunset, flotillas of square-sailed pirogues and dug-out canoes swarm in from the ocean to glide into the safety of the river mouth.

Others beach just beyond the reach of the waves and lean sailors hop onto the shimmering sands to unload a cargo of silvery scaled reef fish. Their catch consists mostly of tuna (with some excellent specimens weighing in at at least 30kg), plus a smattering of small sharks and bonefish. We dine on catch of the day at Village Touristique Les Bouganvilliers that evening, basking in the warm rays as the sun sets on our last day in Morondava.

Day 8

We avoid the rigours of the road today, instead opting for two internal flights with Air Madagascar via Tana to Toliara. Herds of pale eclipse-chasers are arriving in their droves at Tana airport, fervently waving about eclipse glasses and scrunching their faces at the sun. Excitement reaches fever pitch at Toliara where we have to retrieve our baggage by shoulder-charging into a seething crowd before yelling loudly and brandishing tickets at four extremely stressed porters marooned on a mountain of suitcases. We make our escape with the help of a rickety taxi bound for the Bamboo Club to explore the coastal area to the south of the city.

Day 9

Wake up at dawn for a leisurely beach run before booking into Chez Suzie's, a laid-back and authentic little B&B in the village of Ifaty. Madame Suzie, a petite and immaculately turned out Malagasy lady, runs her establishment with a firm but amiable decorum - the small, reed-roofed bungalows are spotless and the neat ablutions, courtyard and garden make it the pick of a bunch of hotels along these balmy beaches.

Lunch at the nearby Mora-Mora takes forever to arrive, but I suppose when you frequent a restaurant with the name "Hang Loose", it should be expected. A few Rhum Coco cocktails and a long soak in the balmy waters of the Mozambique channel make for a lazy afternoon which eventually stretches into an evening filled with more beers than I care to remember.

Day 10

Our growing entourage ventures out onto the distant reefs in search of tropical fish aboard two sturdy pirogues. Beyond the reefs, huge breakers unfurl in feathery white plumes along the pink morning skyline, rumbling menacingly as we skim across the azure bay with our skipper nonchalantly perched on one of the pirogue's narrow beams.

An extensive coral reef system, although bleached by uncommonly high water temperature a few years ago, boasts an incredible variety of technicolour sea creatures. Impossibly thin pipefish, parrot fish painted in bright Gaugin strokes and sparkling angelfish abound, fluttering on the current like abundant swarms of underwater butterflies.

Soft sea anemones and impossibly iridescent clownfish dot this aqua wonderland where schools of brilliant darters scatter and converge around your bubble stream. A skate slowly flaps past Ugene like a gigantic, aquatic bat on a mission from the murky indigo netherworld stretching away beyond the Mozambique Strait.

Day 11

Dawn becomes a dusky magenta line while I jog along the shoreline. A lone pirogue rides the breeze out on the bay, anchored below a flock of giant egrets drifting like scattered confetti on the high winds. After a slow breakfast and a leisurely morning, we hike to the Reniala Arboretum situated a few kilometres from the village.

This small botanical reserve offers visitors an hour-long guided tour through a wonderfully weird floral kingdom where pachypodiums, euphorbias, baobabs and didiereacea plants make for a surreal plant world. The end product borders on a landscape out of a Tim Burton movie or Dali painting; spiky didieracea trollii spidering up against bottle-trunked euphorbia; podgy pachypodiums dwarfed by their bigger baobab brothers and an endless sprawl of spiky, spiny, mean-thorned desert plants.

Our Malagasy guides point out a variety of birds, including the Madagascar bul-bul, crested hoopoo, Madagascar fody and crested coua, but the highlight is when we discover a juvenile nightjar camouflaged in a scrubby patch, trusting completely in the protection afforded by its plumage.

Day 12

A fond farewell in erratic French to Suzie sees us onto the dawn taxi-brousse back to St. Augustine's Bay where we book into the delightfully offbeat Hotel Melody Beach. Set on the mangrove flood plains of the west coast, the area offers a peaceful escape from the more touristy Ifaty.

We settle into our sea view lodgings and, after feasting on fresh capitainť fish and crispy chips, set off on a walk into the spiky and arid hills crouching along the coast. Exploring the spiny desert remains an exciting journey and, despite its proximity of Ifaty, we see a whole host of new birds and plants, including a running coua and the contorted shape of the elephant's foot pachypodium.

Day 13

Total eclipse day dawns with conditions sunny, very warm and with a definite sense of anticipation. Most of the Malagasy locals do not seem to share in our expectancy though - in fact, they seem to view the event with trepidation bordering on fearful superstition and all our attempts to negotiate a dhow to Sarodrano caves prove futile.

Pirogue captains shake their heads vehemently, casting a wary eye towards the sun while concocting excuses ranging from winds and tides to having to do soup deliveries to an ageing aunt. The end result is that we set off on foot, determined to reach this fresh-water cave system. It is a punishing walk and, when we eventually reach the entrance, it is in temperature peaking well into the high thirties.

The cave pool is a veritable oasis in the desert and well worth the tramp. Within a matter of seconds we don our snorkels and slip into the cyan depths of Sarodrano's cool waters, following silvery fish into the far corners of the cave. I surrender myself to the cool tendril stroke of the cave's current, hanging quietly on the surface while various fish fin through the fairyland below.

Apparently the cave system, which connects to the other side of the mountain via an underground river, was once a pirate hideout, but the natural treasures protected within its placid pools today far outweigh any buccaneer's spoils.

Back at Hotel Melody we settle down in the company of a few frosties while awaiting the long-awaited solar event. As the moon gradually slide across the face of the harsh Madagascar sun, a strange light looms grey and metallic, suffusing the surrounding landscape. At 16h28, the eclipse reaches its peak with 99% of the sun obscured. We don't see the corona, but it is probably a worthwhile trade-off against having to share this event with the hordes tourists expected along the central eclipse band.

After two weeks on this huge red island, we had barely scratched the surface along the central highlands, the western region and parts of the south coast. The dry, deciduous forests along Taolanaro on the south coast, some of the planet's most expansive rainforests in the Ranomafana National Park, the mythical underground caves and rivers of Ankarana Special Reserve and the tropical beaches of Ste Marie island ... so many places left to explore. Which gives you all the more reason to return to Madagascar and surrender to a mad island fling.

Tour and Travel Contacts:

Get these guys to tailor-make your holiday if you are not keen on the DIY thing:

  • 180 Degree Adventures: MTB trips through Madagascar - Tel (+27-82) 553 2054
  • Air MAdagascar: Best flight option; major discounts on internal flights - Tel (+27-11) 289 8222
  • Animal Tracks: Also IslandVentures; offers Reunion options too - Tel (+27-11) 454 0543
  • Falcon Africa Safaris: Will design your unforgettable adventure - Tel (+27-11) 886 1981
  • Kayak Africa: SA Operator running kayak safaris in the Masoala peninsula - Tel (+27-21) 689 8123
  • Madagaskar Adventures: Tailor-made itineraries to suit individuals - Tel (+27-11) 728 7384
  • OrTour: Local Operator in Tana - speak to Michel Rakotoasimbola - Tel (032) 07 704 64
  • Unusual Destinations: Madagascar plus a whole lot more - Tel (+27-11) 706 1991

Important Information:

  • Crime: A refreshing lack of violent crime - pickpocketing is probably a worst-case scenario
  • Exchange Rate: Constantly varies, work on approximately 900 Malagasy Franc to the Rand
  • Health requirements: Yellow fever and cholera vaccinations might be required
  • Language: Malagasy is the official language, but most people speak French
  • Malagasy Consulate: Contact them on (011) 442 3322
  • Place Names: Many Malagasy towns and cities have both French and local names - may be confusing
  • Transport: Air Madagascar serves an excellent network of 40 destinations with daily, affordable flights

Copyright © 2002 Jacques Marais. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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