Africa can be a dangerous place. Unless you are in Madagascar.
Free from lions, buffalo, life-threatening cats, and venomous snakes, this island is not so much adrenaline adventure as it is mirror funhouse or theatre production.
The stage is set with a deep canopy through which vines merrily rappel over, under and around gurning tree trunks. Palms shoot like fronded fireworks from the secrets of a carpet of foliage that crawls over the red earth.
From the invisible orchestra pit comes the constant percussion of insects going about their business. When a creature does reveal itself, the drama truly unfolds and the laws of evolution are strangely contorted. The mouse lemur can fit into the palm of a child’s hand but the giant Comet moth extends its proboscis like a selfie stick.
You travel to Nosy Mangabe to view an endangered aye-aye that you must under no circumstances look at in daylight (this, the Malagasy consider MOST inauspicious) and risk certain death if the creature points a withered finger at you (another superstition, making the people who poach these creatures most brave—or not: you never really die in Madagascar. The dead are referred to in the present tense and every seven years the bodies of the dead are dressed and invited to tea).
At the same time, it is recognizably African. The beaches and swamps and the iconic Baobabs. And even though the faces of the Malagasy have a touch of the Polynesian and their voices speak Malagasy and French, their joy and hospitality are inimitably African.
Then, just as you relax into the familiar, the chaos of the tsingy erupt into the air (a nice theatrical touch). Bizarre rock formations in a palette of red, white and grey…
Unfortunately, in Madagascar, there has been no escape from the political and economical strife that dogs the Dark Continent. People are very poor, living on less than US$2 per day. A result of French colonization followed by socialist economic isolation and various coups and dictators.
Within this environment, tourism gives rise for optimism and growth.
\Consider that close to 95% of the 450 adults living on Nosy Ankao are employed in the exciting new Miavana hotel project.
How did Madagascar turn into a parallel paradigm?
It splintered from Gondwana 165 million years ago, creating a perfectly preserved petri dish for evolutionary freakery. Science has not conquered this island. New species, both alive and extinct, are still being discovered. The 10-foot tall flightless elephant bird that has been extinct for a thousand years (which is a pity as one of its eggs could make 50 omelets) or the bones of the dwarf hippopotamus. And there are more secrets alive in these jungles. A cure for leukemia has been coached from Madagascan periwinkle and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur is the only mammal known to hibernate… its brain holding the secrets to a seven-month sleep.
The culture of the Malagasy is at least as fascinating as the creatures on the island. Christianity and animism live cheek by jowl. You may not touch sacred trees and the people will tell you that earthquakes are caused by whales bathing their babies.
The Galápagos comes to mind… but what makes Madagascar intriguing is the lack of crowds of visitors here. Because when it comes to this elaborate stage show – you may have the entire theatre to yourself.
Images by: Reptile Pod, 2Photo Pots, Ban Yido, Michelle Phillips, Stephen Hocking, Amy Reed, Benjamin Wong, Yann Arthus Bertrand