Tuesday 6 December 2011

Madagascar musings

Hello again, or “Salama” as they say in Madagascar. I just got back from two weeks there, on assignment, hiking and canoeing, and it has blown me away, on several levels. I travelled alone – just me and my Malagasy guide and four porters (for the hike), two of whom became our canoeists (for four days) on the Manambolo River. Never heard of it? Not many people have. 

Avenue of Baobabs, Morondava
I certainly didn’t see any other tourists. I felt like Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen – without the gin-swilling Humphrey Bogart and the sweaty romance. Not that it wasn't hot. Oh boy was it hot. And it was the start of the rainy season. Humidity, anyone? Another reason I felt like Ms Hepburn (I had to cover up against the sun).

Western Madagascar, where I was, is wilder than I expected, out of reach of the "modern" world. There aren’t too many places you can go these days where you can take a photo of someone, show it to them on the screen on the back of your camera and get a reaction – there, you do, every time. I wish I'd taken a Polaroid camera (for the record, I've made prints to send to the people I met along the way, via my guide). 

On an eco level, western Madagascar is more deforested than the east. Fire is a part of life here. The Sakalava people who live in this part of the country have no choice but to burn forests to create fields to grow food; when the fields become barren after a couple of years, they move on, burn fresh forest. Consequently the 70-odd species of lemurs in the country are all either threatened or endangered.

Decken's sifaka (type of lemur)
This part of the country doesn’t look anything like Madagascar the animated movie – it’s not lush and filled with wild and strange animals. We did actually see lemurs, chameleons, even Nile crocodiles. We also saw massive erosion and people living back-breakingly hard lives, hazy skies that make the sun burn red when it rises and sets.

But it was beautiful - especially the eerily still and peaceful Avenue of Baobabs at sunset. There were tourists there, but everyone was quiet, waiting for the light to pink the trees. And the baobabs waited too, having outlasted all the other trees around them - they don't burn because their trunks are filled with water, and they're of no use to the local people. Their chief purpose now, it seems, is to just grow, and be beautiful. What more can we ask of any tree?

I'm home now and hoping to blog here more often over the next couple of months; stay tuned. Happy summer.

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