Travelling in any new country is exciting and arriving into Madagascar was no exception.
That said, my first observations of the world’s fourth largest island were somewhat confused. In some ways this intriguing country is totally African but in others it is very much Asian. The red earth, the brightly painted shops that line the streets and the flowering flame trees are unmistakably Africa but the terraced paddy fields, the bullock carts, the auto-rickshaws and the people, most of whom are descended from intrepid Malay boatpeople that started to arrive here two thousand years ago, all put you in mind of Asia.
The other thing you notice right away is that you are in a former French colony. Besides the fact that French is widely spoken, the narrow streets of the capital, Antananarivo, are blocked with battered 2CVs, old Renault 4s and Peugeot 504s, often doubling as taxis. These nostalgia-invoking cars fill up at Total petrol stations and are mended at atelier mechanic. And boulangeries, boucheries and coiffeurs all advertise their wares.
Arriving into the country just before Christmas, the streets were alive with shoppers, busy buying food, cloths and plastic Christmas trees for the festive season. We visited the old town, where again remnants of the colonial past can be noticed in the French architecture, and just out of town, the old royal palace.
But to be honest the colonial buildings of the capital are not what one comes to Madagascar for and the following day we travelled northeast to the Andasibé National Park.
Breaking away from the African continent some 65 million years ago, Madagascar – like the Galapagos Islands – has developed its own unique eco system and is home to tens of thousands of endemic species of flora and fauna, the most famous of which is the lemur. With no large predators, over previous millennia this most engaging of primates thrived here and there are now more than 100 species living in the forests of Madagascar. Trekking into the rainforest with a local naturalist, itself a fascinating experience, we spent time searching out and then observing the beautiful golden sifaka, the smaller common brown and the lanky black and white Indri Indri lemur – the largest of the species. On a nocturnal walk some of us also saw the smallest variant, the mouse lemur.
While there are no lions or tigers here – yes, Madagascar was at one time attached to India as well as Africa – there are humans, and that most destructive of predators is encroaching on the lemur’s environment, and as a result lemur numbers are dwindling. It is becoming an increasingly rare privilege to see wildlife in its natural habitat and we were all moved by the experience.
As we were today when we dropped in on a small orphanage on the outskirts of ‘Tana’. Partly sponsored by our partners in Madagascar, we met the children, all of whom were keen to shake our hands, sang songs with them and handed out Christmas presents of footballs, hula hoops and skipping ropes. Seeing the work the nuns do to help these unfortunate youngsters, and the innocent joy they had when playing with their new toys, was a humbling reminder of what life is like for many that live in this part of the world and just how lucky we are.