Madness And Magic
In Madagascar, everything is unusual. From the quirky lemurs to giant chameleons, neon-coloured frogs and the eerie spiny forest, the island seems to be lost in time and entirely separate from the known world. By Keri Harvey
Image By: Darling Lama Productions
“Wake up, they’re dancing. Three of them together,” alerted our guide Dodi. Through early morning eyes we saw them, sidestepping in the red dust. Then they would turn to face the opposite direction and carry on their sideways dance, arms held high and legs crisscrossing in mid-air with each strange leap. All the time they would stare straight ahead as if in a trance, their black faces mimicking the expression of startled teddy bears. These are the sifakas of Berenty – the dancing lemurs of southern Madagascar. They alone are worth the trip.
Berenty Reserve in the south is home to these strangely human sifakas and the cat-like ring-tailed lemurs. Ringtails walk on all fours, have the swagger of a bandy-legged cowboy and the audacious attitude of a monkey. With their tails held up straight, swaying like reeds in the wind, the ringtails filter through the reserve on morning and evening sorties and will pilfer whatever they can, meowing like cats as they go.
Also in Berenty is the spiny forest, which resembles a prehistoric scene; tall spires of thorn-covered woody forest tower into the air and appear quite surreal – especially at night. This is where the nocturnal lemurs live, identified by the reflective colour of their eyes in the torch beam. “All day these lemurs are tucked up in tree holes like bugs in a rug,’ muses Dodi, ‘their day only starts at night.”
Madagascar has 50 species of lemur, and at least 15 species have already gone extinct since the arrival of man on the island. The lemurs range in size from the pygmy mouse lemur, which can sit in an eggcup, to the piebald teddy-bear-like indri – weighing in at about seven kilograms.
Indris live in the montane rainforest of Perinet Reserve in central Madagascar, and share the rainforest with giant Parson’s chameleons – up to two feet long – and an assortment of brightly coloured frogs, birds and boa constrictors. These elusive lemurs spend their lives high up in the forest canopy, and only descend to the ground to lick soil for minerals.
Indris don’t ‘dance’; rather, they ‘sing’. Because their territories are huge, they defend them with song, rather than scent. Their ‘singing’ is reminiscent of whale song, interspersed with occasional shrill siren sounds, and is most often heard just before dawn. The indris provide a haunting start to the day, and leave a lasting memory of Perinet – along with tree ferns, travellers’ palms, wild trumpet lilies and roses, and a tangle of forest that is the indris’ private sanctuary.
Back in the bustle of Antananarivo, you’d be excused for believing you’d arrived in an enormous playground. Multi-coloured, multi-storeyed houses cling desperately to the hillsides and have the appearance of Lego constructions. In-between on lower, more level areas are rice paddies, resembling patchwork throws in shades of green. And scattered between wherever space allows, is washing, carefully arranged on the grass to dry and crisp in the sun.
The capital is home to two million of the country’s 14 million people, and is rated by many travellers as one of the most charming Third World cities. The colours are vibrant and the atmosphere is buzzing. Old Renaults and Citroens swarm through the city’s narrow streets in a mesh of traffic chaos, and with no robots the traffic jams are nothing less than impressive. Drivers simply switch off their engines and socialise in the streets until there’s a sign of vehicle movement. The jams provide constant entertainment for roadside residents, who press their faces to their windows in wonder. Filtering between the vehicles too, are throngs of street children, who appear as filthy fairies begging at car windows.
In Madagascar, poverty is extreme and 80 percent of the population is considered poor. In many parts of the country, zebu cattle are still the equivalent of a bank account and are a yardstick of wealth. The rickety-looking cattle, with long horns and loose skins for heat dispersal, graze lazily between the rice fields and are the pride and joy of their owners. Zebus are sacrificed for certain important occasions, act as mules to draw carts and wagons, and decorate the tombs of the dead to indicate the importance of the deceased to the ancestors. At the market, zebu horn is crafted into spoons for sale, along with other traditional work in raffia and leather, real fossil shells and handmade paper.
Still, you don’t visit Madagascar for the crafts or city life. You go there for the vibrancy that is both French and African, a people with broad smiles and colourful lives, and to see a country that exists completely apart from the world, both East and West. Madagascar is an island alone, which is why it’s home to some of the most unique and eccentric fauna and flora to be found on Earth. Dancing sifakas, teddy-bear indris, lush rainforests, eerie spiny forests; neon-coloured frogs, huge chameleons, carnivorous pitcher plants and an array of animals that consider camouflage an art – these are all fair reasons to visit Madagascar.
Yet, through the mirage of heat and tropical lethargy, staggering poverty and extreme natural beauty, is a country and people that are difficult to define. Madagascar exudes magic and mystery, roughness and realness that you both love and loathe at various times. Though poor to the bone, the Malagasy have made time and space to conserve their endangered, endearing and often-comical wildlife in small well-tended reserves.
It may be taboo in certain places to hand an egg directly to a person, without first putting it on the ground, or to work in the rice paddies on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In certain villages, it is even taboo to talk about crocodiles or whistle on certain beaches beach, as this is seen as disrespectful to the ancestors. “But,” as Dodi states with unusual seriousness, “it’s the worst taboo to kill a lemur.” The ancestors would not be pleased with such practice, and keeping them happy is paramount. After all it’s their mad and magical island. The rest of us are just passing through.