Boats, Baobabs and Beachcombing: An Off-Road Expedition Through Madagascar

An easy narrative eludes our Digital Editor-in-Chief in an off-grid, off-road expedition along the little-visited south-west coast of Madagascar, where nomadic forest tribes still thwart the hungry reach of tourism.

This article appears in Volume 25: The Pioneer Issue.

I can't tell you a story about Madagascar. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. There tends to be some sort of message in them and a clear trajectory towards uncovering it. But the days I spent on this island nation adrift off the coast of Mozambique cannot be chronicled or distilled. They are a matryoshka doll of tales, a patchwork of encounters.

Most destinations come with a preformed narrative that shapes your expectations - you've read the bumf, seen photographs plastered all over Instagram and your colleague visited last year. However, I had few preconceptions of Madagascar. Unlike Kenya with safaris or Bali with beaches, it has not been neatly pre-packaged for tourists but is instead raw, rough around the edges and unabashedly true to itself. As a result, I find myself clumsily clutching at memories: there is no map on which to plot my coordinates or skeleton on which to hang my words.

Much to the disappointment of family and friends, spotting a lemur was not my raison d'être. I wanted to peer behind the curtain of exotic mysticism that I'd cloaked upon this foot-shaped landmass since childhood, when I'd sat on my bedroom floor and traced its outline on my precious globe. Our trip was curated by Natural World Safaris, which specialises in places that have not yet been manicured for the masses - the last blank spaces, the final frontiers. As such, Mark and I spend a week picking our way along the south-west coast, leaving the luxurious hotels in the north to wildlife tourists and diving fanatics in favour of taking the road less travelled (and often no road at all, such is the embryonic state of the country's infrastructure).

It begins in the capital, Antananarivo (affectionately known as "Tana"), a frenetic and peculiar hotchpotch in which French-colonial houses jostle for space alongside shacks with corrugated-iron roofs. Chalkboard signs inscribed with foie gras, quiche lorraine and beef bourguignon are juxtaposed with glowing cabinets of street food crammed with oily beige parcels. Rickshaws, motorbikes and VW Beetles choke and snort their way along the one stretch of tarmac leading into the centre. It's Friday evening rush hour and the city is chomping at the bit to get home.

We join them, dancing a disjointed hop along a pavement of shattered concrete, ditches and drainage holes that serve as a reminder of the heavy rainfall that baptises this tropical land. We take a side road - it opens onto a serene rice paddy and suddenly we're in Southeast Asia. We take another and the sweet smell of raw meat catches in my throat - we've stumbled into a night market and an impressive display of glistening ruby-red flesh is suspended from hooks before me. I lose Mark in the darkened rows of stalls and feel the effervescent thrill of being alone in a strange place. There are no tourists here. The smell of charcoal clings to the evening air. Goosebumps spring up on my arms. It's only been a matter of hours, but Madagascar has already got under my skin.

A 50-minute flight from east to west reveals a Martian panorama of burnt ochre-red folds, a scorched, earthy plane reminiscent of my bronzer palette. It's a terrain so alien that my mind plays tricks on me - I swear I see plumes of smoke rising off the ground, hissing and spitting in greeting as we swoop down to land. We're in Morondava for the mighty baobab trees, the only real "sight" on our Madagascar hit list, and we race straight to the "Avenue des Baobabs" from the airport, desperate to arrive before sunset. Monstrously elegant, the fabled trees stand at over 30m tall and remind me of a toddler's plump arm topped by tiny, stubby fingers. I wonder who else has gazed upon their transcendent enormity: those first settlers who pitched up in outrigger canoes, pioneers in pirogues, or the pirates who followed in search of vanilla, gold and diamonds. Told that it would bring us good fortune, we place our hands on a handsome trunk as a sun the colour of a neon raspberry kisses the ground goodnight.

Back on the road, this time in a spine-rattling 4x4 that brings us along the coast to Belo sur Mer, a tiny town and commune that is cut off from the mainland for up to five months during rainy season. The sand and rock passageway is looked after by inhabitants of the few villages we pass through and is in such poor condition that 25km takes over an hour. When navigating a particularly large bump I whack my head so hard on the window that the driver emergency stops, thinking we've collided with a boulder. A steely shard of black lacquer darts across our path and back into the undergrowth - a snake trying to escape the midday heat. I feel like I've reached the edge of the earth.

Our lodgings are the enchanting beachfront Hôtel Entremer, run by retired French novelist Laurence and her husband Alain. The six thatched cottages dotted among the palm trees and bougainvillea are all dark wood, four-poster beds and fluttering white canopies, with furniture for "sitting, reading, writing or dreaming" scattered with ephemera collected on the couple's travels, such as nautical maps and a mammoth malachite ashtray picked up in the Congo. Water is heated in glass bottles left to simmer in the sunshine while the bottles that line the bar are filled with homemade rum infused with every flavour - baobab, mandarin, raisin and, of course, vanilla. I want to taste them all, but we tear ourselves away to the sea.

We walk for several hours, stopping to skim a stone, watch fishermen deftly removing squid ink from creatures with tentacles longer than my arm, and shake the hands of the scores of children who scamper down the beach to greet us. I devote a lot of time to crowd control while Mark tries to take photographs. People are kind and curious and no one tries to peddle us a pair of knock-off sunglasses - that sort of thing doesn't happen here, yet. Over a supper of crab salad and pineapple tarte tatin I learn that there are few jobs in Madagascar. There are a small number of eye-wateringly wealthy people, mainly in vanilla exportation (Madagascar is responsible for 80 per cent of the world's produce), but most live sustainably by fishing or working the land and sex work is not uncommon. The few who do put themselves through university often find themselves returning to live traditionally due to a lack of opportunities. Tourism would be a golden ticket for many, and I feel guilty for wanting Madagascar to stay just as it is.

Another day and this time we're on a boat. Our arrival couldn't have been less clandestine - we're met by an ever-expanding throng of children screeching with inquisitive mirth as they skip along the beach. I feel like some sort of reticent dignitary disembarking from a maiden voyage. Mark and I exchange sheepish looks. "Salama, salama!" ("I'm fine, I'm fine!") they cry out to us - the efficient Malagasy greeting that reflects an attitude of just getting on with things.

I've read that Morombe is a ghost town, a shell of a port abandoned by its inhabitants due to a lack of work; dilapidated, godforsaken, ruled by stray dogs and mosquitoes. I'm not convinced the author ever visited. The sky is the pink of sugared almonds, the sea flat and shimmering like the scales of a fish. Beautiful hand-carved, hand-painted pirogues with stitched-together sails that remind me of Battenberg cake are returning with the catch of the day and women with colourful baskets on their heads saunter down to meet them, faces daubed in mustard-hued paint (a natural sunscreen). A child is having a tantrum, lying on the sand face down while beating his clenched fists and refusing to move. I smile at the familiarity of this scene in such a foreign place and wander over to a group of men sitting cross-legged on the sand, laughing and puffing away while threading a mammoth fishing net. In garbled French I exchange pleasantries with Etienne, a jovial figure who claims to be 150 years old. His gnarled fingers are surprisingly nimble and he tells me with a wink that he'll complete the net in a matter of days. There's a real sense of industry here, as if everybody is toiling away and playing a part in sustaining their kingdom.

Omelette stuffed into soft bread rolls and thick, black coffee sweetened with local honey are our deckside fuel as we kiss goodbye to Morombe, flying fish dancing around our boat. We're only travelling 100km south, though our trip takes almost five hours due to our repeated requests to stop so we can swim in the warm, duck-egg-blue waters. We could be in the Maldives and I can't believe the long stretches of completely empty coastline - not a hotel in sight - punctuated only by pop-up nomadic villages teetering on the periphery of civilisation. I watch as the landscape changes once again, becoming a pale chalky shade with trees the colour of jade - now we're in the Aegean. We make a pit stop to visit mangroves and try our hand at sailing a pirogue. I pick up some old fishing twine on the beach and wonder what Etienne is doing, then find a swirly mauve and mother-of-pearl shell and thread it on to make a bracelet. Mark and I have become competitive beachcombers, gawping at sea anemones the size of dessert plates, giant electric-red starfish that look like they've been plucked out of Finding Nemo and, most astonishingly, a gargantuan, shield-like turtle shell that comes up to my waist and is so pristine it looks like its inhabitant has simply swum out of it.

Mikea. As with every new place we arrive at, Mark and I head straight out along the beach, aiming for a settlement we've seen from the water. After about 45 minutes we arrive in a village that's all mud and wattle houses, gently smoking fires, goats scampering along with children and boats galore. Of course, yet again there's zero hope of going incognito and we're immediately mobbed by children with whom we spend an hour or so, placating them with photographs and candy-covered peanuts before finally taking exhausted refuge in a building labelled "La Discotheque". But being underage in a club isn't a thing in this not-so-sleepy fishing village and we're thwarted when the children pour in behind us, immediately slipping into a synchronised dance routine, air guitars out in force.

The chiselled proprietor, Robert, throws us an apologetic smile and plonks two beers before us. Then it's vanilla-laced rum with warm Fanta. Sweet inebriation engulfs me - barefoot and salty-skinned in this dreamlike pocket of the world, nothing has ever tasted so good. Robert looks on, inquisitive, bemused, protective. He's never had tourists in his bar. Despite repeated assurances that we're fine, he persuades his sister to cook for us and an hour or so later leads us to one of the rush dwellings I've been longing to be "organically" invited into. We're ushered behind a curtain, where an immaculately set table has been laid with fish in rich tomato sauce, a mountain of fluffy white rice and a singular flower. Robert bows and leaves us to it - we scoff the lot off chipped enamel plates, gulping down hot rice water (a staple of Malagasy meals) before staggering home in a cloud of contentment where we are berated by the hotel staff, who are about to send out a search party.

Comeuppance for our indulgence comes in the form of the next day's transport, a seatbelt-less buggy which I drive exactly how you'd imagine someone who wrote off a car in her second lesson to. We're off to meet the Mikea people, a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers who are widely regarded as mythical Vazimba, the very first inhabitants of Madagascar (though there is no evidence to support this). So cut off from the outside world are they that many Malagasy people don't believe they actually exist. I'm dubious and imagine some forced re-enactment including a "traditional" tribal dance before being coerced into purchasing gaudy souvenirs that I won't know what to do with when I get home. Scepticism has always been my friend and foe.

After enduring three kilometres of being facially chastised by branches as we weave through the trees we become foot soldiers and thrash our way through deciduous thicket. Naya, our guide, pauses to listen every so often - I feel like we're tracking a wild animal and it makes me somewhat uneasy, but he assures me that he has been gradually fostering a relationship with the Mikea for years and they will be happy to meet us. Just as I begin to join those who doubt the existence of these fabled nomads - I can't believe anyone could survive in this parched wilderness - we stumble across a fire, embers still slightly smouldering. We press on for another ten minutes and then I hear a soft cough somewhere to my right. Naya holds up his hand for us to stop - there is somebody there. He goes to investigate, then beckons us forward.

Sitting on the forest floor in a small clearing is a family of four who look like they've been plucked straight from the pages of an illustrated school book about ancient mankind. A loincloth-clad mother and father and their two bright-eyed, cherubic daughters, who can be no more than one and three, stare wide-eyed back at us. The father acknowledges our presence with a genteel nod. Naya speaks softly to him in a Malagasy dialect. He wants to know where we're from but our attempts to explain England and the plane that flew us here are futile: "It's like a large bird that carries people through the sky" is met with blank looks and a bemused "We have never seen one."

The Mikea have no concept of life beyond this forest. They haven't even been to the sea, which is a mere five kilometres away. I imagine not knowing about Brexit and global warming and rush hour, but also not knowing about a really good book, the smell of fresh laundry, summer holidays. This level of disconnect is an entirely different playing field to the villagers we met the previous night - these people are some of the most secluded in the world. I wonder what thoughts enter their mind when they wake up, what they're looking forward to, if they're happy. Then I ask the same of myself.

In an era of "over tourism" I spend a great deal of time searching for "authentic" travel experiences - the word causes alarm bells to ring as it usually implies anything but. Madagascar wore away at my calcified shell of scepticism in a way that I could never have foreseen, proving that it is still possible to experience the "untouched" - but I wonder how long it will be before the Mikea know the deafening roar of aeroplanes all too well.

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