Madagascar. The word itself is tinged with excitement. It stirs half formed childhood memories of adventure – jungles, snakes, vast baobabs and curious lemurs. But there is more to the island than a cartoon-like vision of tropical wilderness; it is also becoming a paradise lost.
With estimates suggesting that over ninety per cent of the original rainforests having been chopped down by decades of unsustainable slash and burn farming, Madagascar is an island in peril of becoming little more than a desolate reminder of human interference in the natural world.
Endless brown and red hills poke out above the low-lying mist as we fly into Antananarivo after a crossing from the African mainland. Snake-like rivers- also brown- weave in between the treeless landscape. Only the rising smoke of village fires and dusty roads break the mesmerizing undulation.
Flying over the barren hillsides of the central highlands certainly gives an impression that all may already be lost – that it is too late – and I am a little disappointed before even beginning my journey.
I had been planning to visit Madagascar for the best part of a year, poring over ancient French army maps dating back to 1962 – the only ones available for the expedition of a lifetime.
The plan is simple – to be a part of the world’s first group to walk across the northern part of the island from east to west, entirely on foot, a distance of almost 400 km, in the seemingly impossible timeframe of three weeks. It seems a daunting task. And all this in the company of strangers. The team is introduced in the lush surroundings of the Au Bois Vert Hotel, a luxury oasis of green amid the hustle of chaotic, dusty Antananarivo, the only capital city I have seen with a swamp in the town centre.
Amar, an Australian of Indian descent, shakes his head and chuckles. “You do know this will be the hardest thing you will ever do, don’t you?” I later learn that he is a seasoned adventurer, who, armed with every kind of GPS gadget available to the modern explorer, has conquered mountains on almost every continent.
Each of the other eleven team members have their own stories to tell. Ranging from Helen, the English veterinary surgeon and Kate, a major in the British Army with active service in Iraq under her belt, both formidable women it appeared, to Xavier, a French Canadian financier-cum-carpenter who, although a great skier had certainly never been to the jungle before, and Julia, a businesswoman from Silicon Valley with a taste for Africa. So it is a truly international affair, but accents and experience aside, one thing binds the group of perfect strangers together – a desire to see Madagascar before it changes forever.
Sambava is a small provincial town on the north east coast of the island. Smiling stall vendors sell coconuts and the honking horns of the capital are but a distant memory. Swaying palms line the white-sand beach where a turquoise sea washes giant shells onto the idyllic shore.
Our team, high on adrenaline at the prospect of the upcoming adventure set off along a rough track away from the town. It was beautiful and serene, surrounded by paddy fields, a cultural inheritance of South East Asia, where the Malagasy originally came from 2000 years ago. The wide Bemarivo river meandered from a valley to the west, and beyond the sunburnt hills was what we had come for – the receding rainforest.
Days pass by as we trek west. We camp in rural villages – usually on patchy football fields where, night after night, hundreds of curious children and adults alike surround us, amazed at the presence of a ‘Vaza’, a white ghost – the Malagasy term for westerners. They haven’t seen many before. In fact, in this part of Madagascar, away from the tourist trail in the south, the last foreigners that have entered the foothills of the Tsaratanana were the French army in the late 1940s and occasional mineral prospectors in the 1970s. Testament to this lies in the fact that in one such stilted encampment, a wooden shack is adorned with a hand painted mural of images of white men with Elvis-like haircuts and leather jackets propositioning local women. On another house nearby is a picture of Rambo, aggressively donning a bandolier of ammunition, copied meticulously from a magazine that has somehow made its way from the coast.
As the settlements grow less and less, the Jungle grows closer. A high wall of black vegetation looms ever closer in the shape of an impenetrable mountain range. “It looks like bloody Mordor” says Jim, our cameraman, here to document the expedition for a conservation project. It does indeed. With five AM starts and twelve hour slogs, up and down grassy hillocks, crossing several rivers a day and the only prospect of rest, a forty five minute lunch break where we are fed rice and locally caught eel by our team of hard-as-nails barefoot porters, the trip is beginning to resemble a Tolkien-esque odyssey rather than a walking holiday. And the hardest part is yet to come.
On the seventh day of the trek the rainforest finally surrounds us. It has receded a full twenty kilometers since 1962 – the last time the region was properly mapped, before Google Earth of course. Despite its foreboding appearance it comes as a relief to be amongst the trees. This is what we had come to see, the Madagascar of our childhood – of cartoons and dreamy adventures. There are no people here. The tracks disappear and off we go, hacking and traipsing our way through primary vegetation in this, one of the last remaining pieces of true forest on the island. For the next week the group is entirely encased in green vines, hairy bamboo and wet ferns. Leeches dangle from branches and stand erect on rocks waiting in ambush. We button up and roll down our sleeves in a vain bid to fend off the parasites but they somehow still manage to burrow their way into our armpits and groins. The porters, wearing only Y-fronts clearly have a better idea. Let the leeches come and pull them off as soon as they make their assault.
At exactly the half way point of the journey, after almost two hundred kilometers of uphill slogging, we reach the summit of Maromokotro, Madagascar’s highest mountain. It isn’t technical or even that high by international standards at only 2,876 meters, but its position on a barren plateau, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, is a world away from the claustrophobic confines of the jungle. At the top, a strange ceremony unfolds before our eyes.
Our Malagasy guides, suspicious of the mountain and bound by local tradition, are armed with a beady-eyed white cockerel, apparently to ward off evil spirits. As Amar proudly displays his GPS coordinates, Xavier hands around a hipflask of whisky, Jim films the momentous occasion and I dish out the celebratory cigars. Noah, our smiling interpreter suddenly breaks out into song – the Madagascar national anthem. At the end of the solemn performance he hands me the alarmed chicken and insists I throw it into the air as a sacrifice to the divinities of the hill. The poor cock, unused to such freedom, flaps around in the air for a brief second, before landing softly on someone’s rucksack and then scuttling off into the mist.
“The hawks will have him,” grins Noah, happy that his spiritual duty is fulfilled.
We set off ever westward. “It’s all downhill from here” says Noah wickedly. We shake our heads knowing full well that for every downhill there is an up, and another jungle to hack through before we hit the home run. Another week of trekking is in store; we finally see elusive Lemurs staring curiously down from their canopy hideaways and screeching to each other that intruders are in town. At least Jim has some wildlife footage for his conservation film. Marshes require superhuman leg strength and there are more fast-flowing rivers to swim across, let alone the constant irritation from blood sucking leeches and fist sized spiders.
As the coast comes into view and villages spring out of the cultivated valleys the jungle is at once a hazy memory. All eyes are set on our goal- to reach the port of Ankify and make history. The final day is a true test of endurance: ninety-three kilometres along a dirt track in eighteen hours. The team is pushed harder than we have ever been pushed before, yet despite the agony of swollen feet and immense blisters we reach the west coast at nine pm, eighteen days after we set off. It is already dark and all we can think about is the promise of a bed in a comfy hotel in the beach resort of Nosy Be.
But somewhere behind us lies the jungle, not much of it, but what is left remains in our memory as a dark and wonderful place. I feel an incredible sense of privilege at having been there- the last of the island’s wilderness. I feel a sadness that it is disappearing so quickly, but at the same time there is hope. Noah sums it up well, “Maybe if we can encourage tourism in this magical place there will be less need to destroy what cannot be replaced.”