Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot like no other. It has been so blessed with biodiversity such that it is possible to find, in a small area, the number of species found in entire continents. Madagascar’s splendour astounds the visitor at every turn with life that is both colourful and unique. From the green rainforests where the lemur lurk, to the blue waters where giant whales carve the oceans and coral reefs remain largely unexplored.
I came to Madagascar to discover the blue of remote islands, where only few travellers go; to experience the green of highland rainforests, and see the astonishing diversity that emerges from that chaos, and to see the lemur in the wild.
Seeing lemurs is not difficult in Madagascar. Near Mantadia Lodge, where I’m staying in Andasibe, 200km west of the capital Antananarivo, there are two habituated conspiracies where visitors can go and admire them, just a few minutes from the breakfast table. The lodge sits in a secondary forest park and a conservation sanctuary. Seeing lemurs in that way is an interesting experience, and habituated primates make research easier for conservationists. However, I had to see them in the wild, in their full context… and that meant venturing into the primary rainforest, which requires a longer journey by 4x4. Very few visitors seem to bother with this undertaking.
By the eaves of Mantadia National Park, the difference between the primary and secondary forest is stark. Exotic trees —that is, exotic to Madagascar— such as the eucalyptus and the Chinese pine have supplanted the native flora in many areas. The trees in the secondary forest grow in regular intervals and possess an unnatural order. “Green deserts”, biologists call them. On the other hand, the primary forest is a feast of life, an explosion of diversity, where every square metre is imbued with a complexity that is mind-boggling: from the giant trees to the topsoil bacteria and the miracle of photosynthesis, all harmoniously brought together in symbiosis.
I hired a guide, Gisèle, who is a Park Ranger in Mantadia National Park. We are riding on dirt roads, first surrounding the rainforest and then slowly passing across its borders. The roads become bumpier and her 4x4 jumps from one side to another, shaking me to the core. The road becomes narrower and more intractable until we reach a clearing and the rattling suddenly stops.
“We hike from here,” Gisèle says.
Suddenly finding myself in the primary rainforest of Madagascar, I experience a sensation of entering a sanctum, one that belongs to another world. Gisèle beckons me to follow her, deeper into the forest, through the leech-infested trails in search of life’s mysteries. The ground is slippery and the thick vegetation of the understory hampers our pace. With our eyes trained on the canopy we stumble with the vines and the undergrowth. The layers of the rainforest begin to reveal themselves, slowly, playfully, with the composed calm of a symphony that celebrates the many ages of the World. For millions of years, the species in Madagascar evolved in a tangent, in a parallel universe.
This is the experience of nature I love: wild and full of wonder.
As I teenager I loved the French impressionist painter Claude Monet because of his transitory light effects, the focus on emotions over form, his mundane subjects, his radicalism in breaking with morals and painting traditions. I am not alone. Long queues are a common feature at every museum exhibit of Impressionist art. Over the years, and after many escapades in the wilderness, my appreciation of Monet began to shift. One painting symbolises my disillusion with impressionism: the Poppy Field near Argenteuil, painted in 1873. A pair of mother and child in the foreground and another in the background are walking through a field of vibrant red poppies. The mother is wearing a long dress à-la-mode, paired to a fine hat and a Japanese paper umbrella. The dramatic relationship with nature of the romantic poets has become a pleasurable Sunday stroll through the tamed and gentle countryside. Nature is in Monet but a pretty background, like the Water Lily Pond, a mere decoration to set up in one's garden, or to hang a poster of it on the wall.
Today, I am fond of a different painting that expresses my longing for experiences in nature: Carl Spitzweg’s Butterfly Hunter. In the 1840 painting, a naturalist is exploring a lush jungle trail. Net in hand, he is stopped in his tracks when he stumbles upon two gigantic, blue butterflies. His mouth agape, his expression is of utter astonishment and surprise. The colourful insects are too big for his net, so he stands no chance of collecting the specimens. It is a representation of a moment of wonderment in nature that cannot be captured, one we experience but carry with us only in memory.
In wildernesses, like this Malagasy rainforest, Monet loses his power. I’d much rather be Spitzweg’s explorer than Monet’s bourgeois promeneur.
The lemur-song fills the air and the vaults of the canopy echo with this strange music. It’s an eerie sound that enhances the sense of magic and wonderment of this place. A ruffling of leaves guides Gisèle towards the lemurs. We have to leave the trails and penetrate the forbidding undergrowth. The going is more difficult and we make progress slowly, trying to be as quiet as possible. The new pace allows me to notice the marvellous array of plants and creatures that compose this primordial ecosystem.
Following her gut, Gisèle makes sense of the cacophony of the rainforest. She points to a trunk just above us. An indri is staring at us with small greenish eyes, its black-and-white fur reminds me of yin and yang in the Taoist's taijitu diagram, a symbol of the balance of nature.
Lemurs encapsulate the special circumstances of Madagascar’s natural history, like the Jaguar in the Amazon, the Orangutan in Borneo, or the Mountain Gorilla in Central Africa. Through these charismatic protagonists we can begin to grasp the importance and the fragility of these sacred places, and perhaps preserve the lot. Lemurs have flourished in Madagascar because of the absence of predators, yet they have become under threat because of encroaching villages and being hunted for food —or superstition— by locals.
Many places of wonder are in danger of disappearing. Madagascar has suffered intense deforestation, which puts enormous pressure on many species. Logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and the cultivation of exotic trees, are all activities that endanger the primary ecosystem. Some figures estimate that up to 80% of all the island’s forests are gone. It is hard to remain optimistic when confronted with such figures. Ecology and Armageddon seem to go hand in hand these days. But not everything is doom and gloom. New discoveries and developments in nanotechnology, energy, agriculture and even technophilantrophy might help us to avoid disaster. No matter what the future holds, we cannot lose the wilderness, because with it we would also lose our own humanity. The wild is an integral part of who we are: the wilderness within. We came into life wild and free: the child lives in the moment. As we grow, we seek social engagements, we crave to satisfy ever more sophisticated physical and emotional needs. We start to cut out the forests within us, to kill the lions. Wildness and authenticity are problematic, they don't work well in the community.
The instincts of tameness and wildness pull us in opposite directions: the craving to stay authentic to who we are is set against compliance with societal norms, which carry the risk of having lived a life to serve someone else’s agenda. Tameness taking over our wildness is a likely scenario. But remaining wild means not losing our sense of self.
The primary rainforest of Madagascar sparks our imagination and fosters our renewal. From time to time, my cultivated self must leave Sunday strolls and venture into the realm of nature, it is the way to shed prejudices, and break my limitations. Rachel Carson, the American marine biologist, whose 1962 book Silent Spring inspired the birth of the global environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote:
I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.
Being alone in this forest heals my mind from the troubles of the modern world, it brings tranquillity to my soul and puts things into the right perspective. I love the surprises that lurk around the corner, and I am grateful that these places remain.
There is a profound resonance between that which we call “Nature” and that which we intimately believe to be our own selves. Separation is only artificial — and temporary — and that is the reason we must leave our daily lives from time to time to re-enter realms of strangeness and beauty where our imagination thrives. The essence of travel, of looking for a blue flower, is very alive in Madagascar, for it is the gateway to another world.
GO ON AN AMAZING HOLIDAY
How to get there:
There are no direct flights to Antananarivo from Hong Kong, so it is a good idea to connect your visit to Madagascar with a larger experience in Kenya or Ethiopia. Getting to the eastern rainforests and parks is easy enough from the capital.
Where to stay:
Mantadia Lodge is conveniently situated on the eaves on Andabise-Mantadia National Park. Though I strongly recommend hiring a local guide to go into the primary forest. If you are planning on visiting the north, then there is no question about it, stay at Miavana
What to do there:
Visiting national parks is more than enough to fill a couple of day excursions. If you are staying at Miavana, then you'll be spoiled for choice: windsurfing, fishing, heli-safaris, kayaking, diving... you name it!
The Traveller Extraordinaire’s Take:
Madagascar is simply wonderful to explore and bask in the splendour. The catch is that some nature areas are either crowded or too remote. If you stay at Miavana, you can simply hop on a helicopter and travel to some very interesting national parks, including the Tsingy.