A taste of Madagascar continued . . .

by Hilary Bradt, author of Madagascar (now in its 9th edition)

Madagascar is unique: the animals, the plants, the landscape and the people are different from anywhere else in the world. The differences are low-key, however. Here there are no colourful natives performing tribal dances, no garish temples, no snow-capped mountains, no lions or tigers. Madagascar is a dish for a travel gourmet not a gourmand.

New arrivals probably reached the island via rafts of vegetation drifting across the Mozambique Channel. The forefathers of Madagascar’s famous lemurs probably used this impromptu transport, along with some small carnivores. The big predators of Africa stayed behind. Man also stayed behind, only arriving some 2000 years ago. Not, as you might imagine, from Africa, but across the wide Indian Ocean from Indonesia.

This is why Madagascar is so different. The wildlife evolved gently, without the pressure from large predators. From the few mammal families that established a foothold on the island, countless species developed to fit every ecological niche and to utilise every available food-source. The ancestral primate which arrived in Madagascar proliferated into some 50 varieties of lemur, from the thumb-sized pygmy mouse lemur, to the hefty indri which is the size of a baboon. There were no woodpeckers on the island, so the aye-aye evolved a probing middle finger, shaped like a slim articulated beak, to winkle grubs out from under the bark of trees; a weasel-like carnivore, the fosa, developed heavy jaws and retractile claws and became a fearsome tree-climbing hunter; one family of insectivores, the tenrec, evolved into 21 species, some resembling hedgehogs, some more like shrews or rabbits, and one which took to the water, becoming aquatic.

When the first humans arrived in their outrigger canoes they must have thought they'd found paradise: no hostile populations, no fierce beasts. Here the trusting animals were easy to kill so they had meat in abundance (nearly two dozen vertebrates became extinct within the next 500 years) and they set about clearing the forest to grow rice – a process which continues relentlessly to this day. When the Europeans first arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries they commented on the superior qualities of these gentle people "whose simplicity hath herein made them more happy than our too dear bought knowledge hath advantaged us." (W. Hamond, 1640). This "simplicity" is an enduring feature of the people of Madagascar (the Malagasy). Those that are untouched by the modern world - and in an island the size of California there are plenty who have escaped the passage of time - retain a generosity of spirit and a courtesy that imprints itself on the visitor's memory, blotting out the get-rich-quick products of the towns and tourist resorts.

Not that life here is simple. The culture, as befits its Indonesian roots, is centred around the veneration of ancestors. Taking care of the needs of the dead is the primary preoccupation of the traditional Malagasy and a sub-conscious force even in educated city-dwellers. In the highlands they practise exhumation, or famadihana, where the bones of an ancestor are taken out of the tomb, lovingly wrapped in a new silk shroud, given a whopping great party, and tucked up again snug and happy and ready to bestow benefits on the descendants who performed this familial act.

In the south the people put their energies into creating a permanent memorial to the dead family member. Like a visual obituary, tombs are decorated with scenes from the life of the deceased, either painted or in the form of carved stele known as aloalo. Thus a rare trip in an aeroplane may be commemorated by a carved wooden plane, complete with a revolving propeller. A talent for wrestling might be shown in vivid paintings on the concrete side of the tomb. And the wealth of the family will be displayed for all to see: on the flat surface of the tomb will be the horns of the zebu cattle slaughtered for the funeral, and the cost of the celebration may well be noted as well. The dead in Madagascar are never forgotten by their grateful descendants.

Even without the extraordinary people and wildlife, Madagascar’s mountains and forests would be enough to draw admirers and users of fine landscapes. The central highlands are dominated by granite mountains which have only been discovered in recent years by hikers, rock-climbers and para-gliders. The highlands have been denuded of their trees, but the island is fringed with forest: wet rainforest in the east and dry deciduous forest in the west. The eastern rainforest covers the foothills of the craggy peaks, their tops swirled by clouds, their sides cut deep by ravines through which hurtle numerous rivers and streams. This is one of the richest habitats on earth in terms of biodiversity, and is home to most of Madagascar’s endemic flora and fauna. The west may have fewer species, but the dry weather and flatter terrain provide a less strenuous visit, and the specialist animals, such as the giant jumping rat, the fosa (Madagascar’s largest carnivore, although only the size of a large cat) and some exceptionally beautiful lemurs, makes it particularly rewarding. Here, too, is one of the most splendid trees in the world, Grandidier’s baobab.