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Lost world

ISSUE 7
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Isolated from Africa by millions of years of evolution and a couple of hundred miles of ocean, Madagascar is like nowhere on Earth, as Richard Green discovers


I saw my first lemurs in Amber Mountain National Park. There were maybe 10 in the troop, swaying on branches right in front of me. But strangely, it wasn't the thrill I'd expected after travelling 9,000km to the impossibly exotic-sounding island of Madagascar.

 

They looked like toys made from leftovers and they're as timid as squirrels. True, they can peel fruit quickly and they produce a strange shriek a bit like whalesong, but they're not as entertaining as orang-utans, as exciting as chimpanzees, or as humbling as mountain gorillas. Madagascar's star turn is its lemurs (there are 70 different species), but, as with Disney's now-famous animation, perhaps both have obscured an island that has drifted from our consciousness, just as it drifted from the African continent some 165 million years ago. I was amazed how little I actually knew about the country.

 

For starters, in the sprawling capital of Antananarivo – an edgy, crumbling city that's home to two million people – few people look African. My guide, Laliana, explained that most Malagasy people are descended from Indonesians who sailed across the Indian Ocean many hundreds of years ago and the Malagasy language is in the Malayo-Polynesian group.

 

Madagascar got its independence from France, but in the north it was the Portuguese who arrived first, in 1543. I took a two-hour turboprop flight to Antsiranana, which is still known locally as Diego Suarez after the explorer (or more commonly, just 'Diego'). It's a ramshackle town with stout colonial buildings, a lighthouse, a tuna-canning factory, tremendous energy and more than a little charm.

 

Most tourists stay along the giant bay for the kitesurfing, but I was driven 25 km south to Joffreville; a colonial era outpost of houses on a hillside by the Amber Mountain National Park. Strolling the cobbled main street – actually the only street – I heard sweet singing floating from a church, and was greeted with 'Bonjour Monsieur' by lads returning from the fields. In a shack selling eggs, tomatoes and beer, I was asked to dance by an elderly lady. I fear my efforts not to offend made the royal tour gyrations of Prince Charles look hip.

 

unique species

 

The five-room Lichi Tree Hotel tops the town and is owned and run by a pony-tailed Frenchman called Hervé. A former NGO worker, he told me over home-cooked beef stew that it was built in 1902 as a summer residence for the colonial governor, Marshall Joffre. Hervé lives on site and opened his dream project in 2008, with lush gardens, lots of local carvings in the rooms and a Moroccan-themed lounge/bar area off the dining room.

 

It's only four kilometres to the national park's entrance, but the dirt road is in a shocking state. I saw one cattle cart being helped by villagers to escape the worst crater, and even our Land Cruiser was strained.

 

On the humid rainforest walk, leaves drip-drip-dropped with moisture and the air smelt of wet soil. My naturalist guide, Philippe, showed me an adult stump-tailed chameleon the size of a kidney bean; the astonishingly effective camouflage of a leaf-tailed gecko; and a downy Madagascar Scops Owl asleep in a tree.

 

He told me that locals threaten their misbehaving children with night-time kidnapping by lemurs, and that the ones I had seen were Sanford Browns. He also explained that lemurs lived across Africa but then monkeys evolved with bigger brains and more powerful bodies and wiped them out… except on Madagascar, which sailed (slowly) into the safety of the Indian Ocean to preserve many unique species.

 

"Eighty percent of Madagascar's flora and fauna are endemic," said Philippe, who then told me all about his wildlife documentary filming with Martin Clunes ("a very good man, very kind, very generous.").

 

The National Road N6 sounds reassuringly M1-like, but it's not. It took three hours to cover 120km to the Ankarana Special Reserve, as the road hasn't been repaired since it was first laid in 1999, except for villagers who fix the worst potholes with loose stones and beg contributions from passing drivers. The going rate is 500 Ariary - about a penny.  

 

Closer to the reserve, the scenery grew drier, with sweeping plains and brooding hills that resemble South Africa's Highveld grasslands. We turned off onto a dirt track and passed palm-thatched villages where everyone waved enthusiastically and children yelled 'Bonjour Vaza' ('Hello white').

 

Arriving at the delightfully chilled Iharana Bush Camp was a treat. It's a rambling, wood-built lodge beneath a fat thatch, scattered with carvings and large cushions. It looks across a lake to 200m-high cliffs, rock walls that blaze in fiery oranges and reds at sunset, best enjoyed with an icy bottle of THB beer.

 

Next morning we drove to the 'tsingy' cliffs – a high ridge of spiked sandstone pinnacles that were once coral formations on a prehistoric seabed. Guide Arthur took me into a gash in at the base of the rock.

 

real and raw

 

He was perfectly insouciant – wearing a T-shirt with FBI on the front, translated as 'Fabulous Bachelor Inside' on the back, and a flimsy head torch, but frankly, I was nervous. No garishly illuminated stalactites, no classical music or gift shop. In fact there was no lighting or pathway at all, and nobody else. Just me, Arthur, two pathetically underpowered torches and eight kilometres of interconnected darkness.

 

I wound my torch frantically and babbled, following along the sandy floor, gingerly squeezing through clefts, inching along ledges and clambering over boulders. We found stalagmites and stalactites, rock ceilings 35m above us, and cooking pot shards from tribes that hid here during times of fighting 200 years ago.

 

When Arthur said it was too difficult to go back the way we'd come, I stopped babbling and tensed further.

 

Thirty exhilarating minutes later we emerged into a canyon, where orange-whiskered crowned lemurs were performing arboreal acrobatics. Seeing them unexpectedly, they seemed more suited to their otherworldly home.

 

The adventure was real and raw, like everything in Madagascar. There are decent small hotels enough for touring, but out in the countryside it's visceral and at times difficult, all of which makes for cracking, frontier-feeling experiences.

WAY TO GO

Madagascar specialist Rainbow Tours has a 12-day 'Nature and Nurture' holiday from £3,195 per person staying at the Litchi Tree in Diego Suarez and Iharana Bush Camp in Ankarana.
(Tel: 020 7666 1252/ rainbowtours.co.uk).

 

Aardvark Safaris offers a 10-day Hidden Gems Madagascar tour from £3,707 per person.
(Tel: 020 8150 7216 / aardvarksafaris.co.uk)

 

Abercrombie & Kent has a 14-day Classic Madagascar tour looking at lemurs in the wild, learning about the Antandroy tribes and relaxing on Manafiafy Beach, from £4,215 per person.
(Tel: 0845 485 1519 / abercrombiekent.co.uk).

 

Trip Africa Travel also offers tailor-made Madagascar holidays, on an individual or an escorted tour basis. (Tel: 01638 500133 / tripafricatrvel.com).

 

Kenya Airways flies from Heathrow to Antananarivo, via Nairobi; kenya-airways.com.

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