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

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

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 4×4 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

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

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

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