Middle Of The Road
If you are the sort of person who likes to do one thing per day, spending the remainder of the day planning or thinking about that thing, or resting after having done that thing, then Madagascar is, without doubt, the place for you. I, frustratingly, am a person who lives to divide her day into as many slots as possible (sometimes as tight as twelve minutes to get a tooth extracted, twenty six minutes for a workout squeezed between an hour and a half interview on the couch and a nineteen minute lunch with shopping for toiletries thrown in). My happiness is entirely and directly proportionate to the number of ticks I can put in my slotted diary. Sad, I know. Which is why I thought, the magically remote island republic of Madagascar would serve as the perfect antithesis, and shake me out of my idiotically self- important big city rhythm.
Images of surreal sunsets in purple and orange hues, untouched white sand beaches lining edible emerald waters (impossible to access except by sail boat), bleeding volcanic tsingys, exotic insects, choicest chameleons, laughing lemurs, bafflingly big baobabs…had been haunting my dreams from the moment I booked my ticket. It was precisely why I booked my ticket in the first place. Madagascar is a highly photogenic place. Even my own photos of the island are almost nat-geo worthy, though, I don’t quite remember the place looking half as good to the naked eye.
Let me not put you off before I’ve even started. I’ll just say it as it was or as I saw it and then you make your minds up. We arrived in the unpronounceable capital – Antananarivo. A charming French colonial town with cobbled streets, dilapidated mansions with columns, the customary fountains with statues et al and enough exciting third world chaos to give it character. A walk through the main ave de l’independance and the embassy district is enough to give you a fair idea of the city, which feels more like a hill station. As it should – most of it is sprawled over an altitude of 1400m or higher. It’s poor, sure but it’s not too disorganised and is really trying.
Choosing the right hotel in Antananarivo is crucial. We got lucky with ours – Sakamanga Hotel (65 Euros for a double). It’s labyrinth of corridors could easily be mistaken for a mini museum, displaying the most eclectic collection of all things old and nice. As we sipped our cold THBs (the local beer – refreshingly repeatable) in the leafy garden terrace with a cafe-bar-library, we noticed the people around – aid workers, modern missionaries, French writers, Americans looking for the answer, Italian conservationist – all seasoned travellers, in the know. Their attitude had a colonial flavour and you could tell they were pushing their comfort zone by being in this country, but their eyes and manner were calm and unlike us, not full of adventure.
There is a bit of sight seeing you can do around the Rova, which has a palace and a few imposing structures which give you the history of the Merina royal dynasty. The real hidden gem of ‘Tana’, as the city is popularly called, is the sublime French temples of gastronomy. It would be a sin to leave the city without eating in La Varangue, who’s chef, Lalaina Ravelomanana, has just been voted one of the top five chefs in the world. Every morsel created by this kitchen maestro bears testimony to that reputation. We would’ve stayed and eaten in Tana for rest of the trip but the choking fumes of the one-tyre-in-the-grave automobiles drove us out.
So a one hour forty minutes flight north, got us to Diego Suarez. It is on the northern tip with canal de Mozambique on one side and the Indian ocean on the other. Our rented car and driver (like India, can’t get one without the other!) drove us to various bays with satin white sand beaches and sapphire water, with not a soul in sight. We stopped to hug an occasional Baobab (still can’t get my head around the fact that they are, at least, a thousand years old), watched a couple of locals do show off spins while kite surfing (bring your own equipment, we couldn’t find anywhere to hire and we were desperate to), ate a freshly caught fish cooked in local spices with coconut rice at the lazily enticing fishing village of Ramena and walked to the hilltop with the rest of town to wait for the promised purple sunset.
One morning, at the crack of dawn, we found ourselves on the most stunning, rustic sail boat, making our way to the emerald sea. The yellowing canvas sail, heavy with excitement for the day that was unfolding, fluttered and flirted with us. The captain was straight out of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ – eccentric, potbellied and loud. All of it felt like a movie, picture perfect sky with cotton candy clouds, water in every imaginable shade of blue, turning shallow in the middle of the ocean and creeky wooden planks clumsily stuck together masquerading as a boat. Any moment, I was sure, I’d hear the director call cut! But instead we anchored our little boat on a deserted island, snorkelled for rest of the day (the coral is all dead or dying and the marine life is unimpressive) and then had a huge lunch of BBQ crab and fish (our captain’s catch) and drank more caipirinha than is wise under the burning sun.
The next day, it started raining and there was nothing to do but drive 2 hours bumpty- bump on a dirt track to see ruby red Tsingy – jagged, volcanic limestone pinnacles, formed over centuries by movement of wind and water. The sun refused to come back. It was time to leave for the jungle to Montagne d’ambre, near Jofferville. In retrospect, we should’ve just parked our hectic backsides in Diego and not ventured out.
The brilliant cartoon Madagascar, my niece and nephew are addicted to, must be blamed for my wildlife expectations. The island does NOT have apes, monkeys, elephants, zebras, giraffes, lions, hyenas, rhinos, antelopes, buffalo, or camels that you might expect to find in Africa, but it does have lemurs, tenrecs, boa constrictors, iguanas, and other (yawn) creatures. You see one lemur and you’ve seen them all. Give me a big cat or a round bottomed zebra any day.
There’s no animals – wild or party, and there’s nothing but a nature reserve that you revolve your day around. Did I mention, in Madagascar, you live by sunlight as there is only electricity between 6pm to 10pm, of course, limited to big cities. The rainforest we trekked in every day, for as long as we were permitted, (our one thing to do) admittedly, has psychedelic trees of all shapes and sizes, spine chilling bat caves, tsingys, a couple of small waterfalls you can see from a great distance and the annoying aye aye lemurs. A guide is mandatory and the timings strict. For the few hours we were allowed in the forest it was magic, I was Alice in wonderland and anything could happen. Happily, we discovered, we had adapted the ‘mora mora’ pace of Malagasy life, meaning slowly, slowly.
Nature Lodge, where we ended up staying was luminescent green gecko infested, lined with litchi trees in full bloom and spectacular. The setting again, was out of a picture book but the food was just about edible and the saggy foam bed had seen better days (or at least I hope it had). The thing about Madagascar is that it’s middle of the road – the accommodation is never rough and wild like camping in the jungle or on tree tops, nor is it über luxurious, not even when you land on a private island resort with only 8 rooms, that you are paying through your nose for.
Charter flights from France and Italy filled with package tourists greeted us, as we stepped out of our speedboat onto Mandirokely beach in Nosy Be. Hardly the reception we were expecting when booking this supposed haven on a private island! The pillows were hard, the wine was vinegar and the unwanted company was crass. We swam (ocean is invitingly warm, blue and clear), we snorkelled (the reef has been largely destroyed), we dived (marine life is mediocre), we fished, we picnicked and we jet skied into the setting sun sipping our cold beers.
It was decision time – do we fly south and explore more or do we take that painfully long hop, skip and jump flight back home. My idea had been that we get in our 4×4 and get our driver to go south along the coast line, but (broadly speaking) there are no roads, only dirt tracks that are so slow, that mora mora it would take six months to cover a few 100 miles. Madagascar is huge (4th largest island) and it had taken us 12 days just to see a very small but diverse part of it. The rest of the country has much more to offer and the next time we do this, it’ll be on a yacht, cruising and stopping at leisure all along the coast.
Frankly, I was missing my slots. I had caught up on all my reading and then some, played more scrabble than I can handle, especially when it’s a mixture of English, French and lies and drunk enough expensive undrinkable wine. It was time to say Adieu.
Getting there : flights 3 times a week from Mumbai to Antananarivo via Mauritius or Nairobi
Language : French and Malagasy (although locals are very friendly, no one speaks English)
Currency : Malagasy Ariary
Trivia : Most Malagasy women wait to marry European men, regardless of love or the man’s age. They are pushy and openly flirt, flaunting their assets in front of the white man in hope of a better life, much to the enragement of the local boys, who are earnest and cute.