It’s hard to think of another country with as much boundless adventure, as far off the beaten track, as Madagascar. The island nation is often referred to as the eighth continent for good reason — over 90 percent of the species that call it home are found nowhere else in the world. Combine that with the lack of tourist infrastructure, incredible scenery, and the welcoming embrace of a people who see less than 300,000 tourists a year, and you’re guaranteed to have some incredible journeys.
I’ve desperately wanted to visit Madagascar since it blipped onto my radar 10 years ago during a “Planet Earth” special. Given the cost of a flight and the need to hire transportation and a driver on the ground, I never thought I would make it there. However, in late 2015 I was commissioned by Islands Magazine to write a story and capture images of the western forests and central plains of the country. With the help of Cox & Kings, The Americas, and their local guides, I started on an adventure I haven’t forgotten.
I experienced my first taste of the country when I landed in Antananarivo, or “Tana,” as the locals call it, a sprawling city where cars, zebus (African cattle), and pushcarts compete for space along the valleys and rolling hills. While a few modern buildings could be seen here and there, most were brick and tin roof structures with wood and stone church steeples poking out at regular intervals. It was chaotic and vibrant, but completely charming. Two days were enough to get a feel for the city before heading into the countryside.
After a short — albeit slightly terrifying — plane ride from Tana, I arrived in the western coastal town of Morondava. Rickshaws peddled back and forth down the one main road as hawkers held up lines of dried and fresh fish for sale. The market was a labyrinth of tents, tarps, and concrete buildings strung together in a random, but seemingly organized, way. Butchers cut meat in one pavilion while a group of young women sold mangrove crabs and vegetables in another, and further still was a line of picnic tables where people ate lunch from steaming pots.
Later that afternoon, my guide, Herilala, drove me an hour away to the place I’ve been waiting to see for the last 10 years — Madagascar’s fabled Avenue of the Baobabs. A stunning grove of 25 to 30 ancient baobab trees, split down the middle by a dirt road leading north. The fan of thick, short branches at the top of each giant tree have earned the nickname, “the roots of the sky.” In fact, they’re the largest succulents on Earth. The perfect sunset — a golden orb dropping in the sky and silhouetting the grove — was well worth the wait.
The next morning we began a two-day journey to Bekopaka and Tsingy de Bemaraha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s no real infrastructure on the western coast, and the single dirt road normally washed out during each rainy season, as was evident by construction crew clearing and flattening a wide section on our way up. After six or seven hours on the beaten and bumpy red road, we made a stop in the Kirindy National Forest at Kirindy Lodge. It was only a sparse collection of wooden bungalows and cots, but I was more than happy to throw my bag down and scramble outside to see what was passing by. Herilala motioned me around to the side of one of the bungalows where a fossa was napping. Fossas are the largest predators on Madagascar, and look like miniature cougars with long, sleek tails. I was nearly close enough to touch it before it casually opened one eye and let out a mewling sound.
That night we ventured into the dry forest. During the day day, Verreux’s sifaka and red-fronted brown lemurs leapt between the trees, but at night a whole new group of nocturnal animals reigned. Our flash lights cut like beams through the darkness. It felt like an elaborate game of flashlight tag, and I anticipated each time the beam illuminated another animal. We caught sight of tiny pigmy chameleons and the elusive red-tailed sportive lemur.
The next morning we trekked into the forest for one more sighting of sifaka before starting the drive to Bekopaka. It was going to be a full day on the red dirt roads, including two massive river crossings. There were no bridges, so to make it across the rivers we drove our SUV onto a makeshift barge. The ferry was planks of reinforced wood strapped down between two long boats. I’d never been on anything like it. Despite the strong current, we enjoyed a peaceful barge ride across the river under the glaring sun, and arrived in Bekopaka later that day.
It was immediately obvious why the Tsingy de Bemaraha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Split into petite and grand tsingy, the sharp limestone “forests” climbed higher and higher into the canopy, appearing to reach for the light. We devoted a morning to both the petite and grand, hiring a local guide who knew the path, and strapped on harnesses for a few precarious climbs. The tsingy were carved by erosion over millions of years and are layered in a myriad of intricate ways. In the grand tsingy, my fear of heights was tested as I climbed across a suspended cable bridge over a chasm of razor sharp rocks below. It felt like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. By mid-day the heat was staggering and we had to retreat back to our hotel for a few refreshing beers at the bar/restaurant/general store in Bekopaka.
Two days later, completely exhausted from continued tsingy and wildlife treks, we began the journey back to Morondava.
Madagascar is an adventurer’s paradise. The unique flora and fauna make it a destination unlike anywhere else in the world. I have a far greater appreciation of the diversity of life and landscape around the world from this trip. It makes me happy to say I know Madagascar a bit better after this adventure.
Matt traveled to Madagascar in November 2015 with Cox & Kings, The Americas and their on-ground team of guides and specialists. To find out more about them and their tours around the world visit their website.