HOW I FLIPPED A COIN AND WENT BACKPACKING IN MADAGASCAR TO SEE THE BREATHTAKING BAOBAB ALLEY AND MUCH MORE.
Like so many other travellers before me, I landed in Madagascar and felt completely in love with the massive island, 4th largest one in the world to be precise.
For me, the best journeys happen when all of my senses are challenged: not to know the language or the geographical size of the land, to be bombarded by the new scents, fauna and flora, weather and flavors. I knew deep under my skin that Madagascar would be one of these special destinations. It all started a while back, when I set a foot on the African soil for the second time in my life. In the early African summer of 2011, I was sent for the purpose of a business project to Botswana that later on turned into regional one. I did fall in love with Africa then and there, with the first sunset that overwhelmed me with its warmth, magic and beauty. It sounds very cliché, but well, it’s true.
On one of my first days in Gaborone, I found in a local store a silver necklace with a baobab tree pendant. From this moment, the childhood dream of a trip to Madagascar was reborn. Then, just before Easter I flipped a coin, torn between flying back to Europe or exploring a new land. The following week, I was on a plane over the Mozambican channel heading to the Mad Land, Eighth Continent or God’s Feet.
The name “Madageiscar” was first used by the 13th-century Venetian explorer Marco POLO, as a corrupted transliteration of Mogadishu, the Somalian port.‘La Grande Île’ is like nowhere else on earth. It went adrift from Africa over 165 million years ago and its animals, including acrobatic lemurs, bizarre chameleons and plants like its bottle-shaped baobabs, have been evolving in isolation ever since. That explains why so many of them can be found only in Madagascar. It is home to 5% of all global plant and animal species, making it one of the greatest eco-tourism destinations in the world.
And yes, island biodiversity may have affinities with Africa, but Madagascan people don’t: They are the descendants of Indo- Malayan traders who settled on the island only 2000 years ago.
At first glance, everything reflects an out of ordinary mixture. The capital, known by the locals as Tana, is an astonishing com- bination of Europe and Asia.
It somehow reminded me of Vietnam, probably because of the similar colonial past, and Paris with the tiny hilly streets of Montmartre.
Very old Renault cars serving as taxis made me wonder if I just took a trip back in time. The island is poor, very poor, I have never seen that many begging kids anywhere in Africa so I would rather compare it with India. Nevertheless, I see smiles all around me.
At least two days are necessary to explore the rich cultural and historical sites of Tana and getting spoiled with its local cuisine.
Madagascar is so big and diverse that to explore the whole is- land, one would need at least 8 weeks. Each corner of the island has something unique to offer; red soil and incredibly green rice paddies in the highlands, deserted beaches and rainforest in the East. My dream is to see Baobab Alley, look at a lemur in the eyes, and immerse myself in the local culture.
Morondava, on the west coast, is a gateway to my Baobabs and is located 650 km away from Tana. In many travel books, it is called ‘The Wild West’. In a modern world, 650km would be a pleasant 6 hours’ road trip. Here, the bus trip can take anything from 12 hours to 2 days while the flight is only 1-hour long. I am ready to do a bit of backpacking. However, I will learn later that sometimes, local buses leave not when they are scheduled but, when they are full. I then decide to take a flight and give myself a chance to admire the majestic Alley at the full moon, at sunrise and at sunset. I remember vividly my first sight of the Baobab Alley, rising up at dawn like a mirage. The dream is no longer a dream, and I am so happy. The Alley is located 18km from Morondava and it has taken me ‘only’ 40 minutes to get there for the sunrise. Of course, by driving in one of the old Renaults. When I get to the location, there is no one around. I can spot little huts in between grand baobabs, but for the first 30 mi- nutes I am by myself. Pure magic. I have my feet on the ground, my heart up in the air and my thoughts somewhere in between. I decide to spend a few more nights at Morondava, enjoying the people, the ocean, the food and my Baobabs at different times of the day, with more people and local kids around.
THE KIRINDY MITEA NATIONAL PARK is further up north from the Baobabs, it contains many endemic animals and plants and claims to have the greatest density of primates in the world including the rare and elusive fosa, white and brown lemurs, and a giant jumping rat, which looks much nicer than it is called. Interacting with lemurs is a joy, as they are highly social, curious and fun to observe in their natural habitat.
BACKPACKING FROM MORONDAVA TO RANOHIRA AND FURTHER SOUTH TO TOLIARA is a real adventure. My backpack is attached with strings to the roof of mini bus and guarded by a live duck sitting to it. Each leg of the journey is long, the car is overflowing with people and goods. Most of the time, I manage to get a front sit next to the driver, which I consider to be first class treatment. Miracle happens in Illakaka (sapphire mining town), where the seat is offered to the wife of the local boss and his daughter. I am told not to ask any questions, but by the time we reach seaside Toliara, I know enough about illegal mining topic and ‘who is who’ in the area. I also get a big hug from Boss Mama.
A stop not to be missed, when exploring the southern part of the island is ISALO NATIONAL PARK, with its sandstone formations, deep canyons, natural swimming pools and even more species of lemurs and unique flora.
Once I saw the baobabs, the lemurs and the chameleons, I went to Ifaty to enjoy some beach life, before heading back home. Do not leave the island without some Madagascan Vanilla, sold all over the world. It comes from the vanilla orchid plan, originating from Mexico, which is transformed after a long process and sold in bundles.
My trip was challenging in many different ways, but if happiness was measured by the amount of time people spend smiling and laughing, Madagascar would be very, very high in statistics. Instead it is seen as the 11th poorest country in the world. There is so much to discover, feel and experience. Madagascar is simply the best holiday destination for any serious traveller, leisure traveller, explorer, botanist, zoologist, photographer.
It really is possible to be continually surprised by all it has to offer. The land of plenty.
CARNET DE ROUTE
Morondava: Hôtel Baobab Café