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The Warsaw Voice » Society » July 6, 2018
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The Island of Lemurs
July 6, 2018   
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Madagascar, which lies over 8,300 km from Poland, is a true paradise for nature lovers. Over 80 percent of animals inhabiting Madagascan forests are endemic species, not encountered anywhere else. The island also offers tasty cuisine, an interesting history, and the exoticism of a destination which sits outside the mainstream tourist expeditions.

The fourth largest island in the world (the only islands larger are Greenland, Papua New Guinea, and Borneo) covers an area nearly twice as large as Poland. However, it has only slightly more than half of Poland’s population. Most of its inhabitants are young people – the average age on Madagascar is just 19. The family model is usually two parents with four or five children, with families tending to be larger in rural areas; in cities women have the first child at the age of 18 or 19. The life expectancy is around 63 years.

The island is inhabited by 18 different national groups, usually peacefully co-existing. Their origins are sometimes difficult to determine; it is assumed that most migrated to Madagascar from the Malayan territories, which is evidenced for example by the fact that the Malagasy language, according to specialists, is in many aspects similar to a dialect of the Bahasa language popular on Borneo.

Although it is hard to believe, Madagascar and Poland have, from the historic point of view, some common experiences. For an educated Pole the first association would likely be Maurycy August Beniowski (1746-1786), a soldier, explorer, and condottiere-adventurer who entered various political and military alliances and arrived in Madagascar in 1774 as a French envoy, testing the possibility of colonisation of the island. Two and a half years later (he spent that time pacifying the resistance of the local people using rather drastic methods), he was even pronounced (by one of the ethnic groups) the king of Madagascar. However, not much transpired from the colonial idea and, disappointed, Beniowski left. He made another attempt at taking over the island – this time trying to convince the Americans to do so – less than a decade later, but he soon died in a skirmish with the French expedition corps. His legacy is a street of his name in Antananarivo, a monument on the coast of the Indian Ocean, controversial memoirs published in English, and in Poland, the famous poem by Juliusz Słowacki, one of the Polish literary geniuses of the 19th century.

Another famous Pole connected to Madagascar was Arkady Fiedler (1894-1985), an explorer, naturalist, writer, journalist, and the author of the cult book “Squadron 303”, describing the heroism of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain. Fiedler travelled to Madagascar twice (in 1937 and in 1965-66) and he wrote several books that still remain popular to this day, such as “Madagascar: The Hot Village of Ambinanitelo” or “The Island of Loving Lemurs”.

During his first voyage, Fiedler was a member of the crew sent by the then government of the Second Republic of Poland; its task was to investigate the possibility of colonisation of Madagascar by Poland through France which was to hand over part of the control of the island. This was not the only fantasy concept concerning Madagascar at the time – the scenario concerning settlement of European Jews on the island was also considered quite seriously. It was only the outbreak of the Second World War that put an end to these eccentric ideas.

Today, not many people look for traces of Polish presence on Madagascar; tourists from the Vistula and Oder country focus more on taking advantage of the charms of local national parks in which, sometimes from very close up, you can look at mammals and reptiles which could previously be seen only in books or on the Internet. And in the cinema, a hit for young audiences – Madagascar, which has already had two sequels.

Polish travel agencies started offering holidays in Madagascar 3-4 years ago. It is still a niche direction; groups are composed of up to 20 persons, the season is under six months. The chief asset is the price, not much higher than the cost of a holiday in Kenya or Tanzania.

In order to reach the island you have to travel for a minimum of 20 hours: first around two and a half hours to one of the European airports (the most popular one is Paris and the Air France airline which maintains scheduled flights to the former colony), then an 11-hour flight to the Madagascan capital. When you get there, you may be surprised (in comparison with the geographically close and much richer Zanzibar) by the efficiency of the sanitary-visa-baggage clearance; even when your command of English or French is minimal, all the formalities are dealt with quickly and without any problems.

We are welcomed by Dawid, the guide for our 18-strong group, who informs us that “Madagascar is one of the ten poorest countries of the world today; just a few years ago it was one of the six poorest”. He is 32 and a graduate of the tourism faculty of one of the Polish universities, continuing his education among other things in Australia; he has also worked as a rickshaw driver in Copenhagen. For the last few years, as a freelancer, he has been guiding tours for travel agencies. He has worked in Turkey, and for the past four years he has been working in Madagascar, and outside the local tourism season, also in Norway. He has a passion for motorcycles; several years ago he travelled the length and the breadth of the island on an old Suzuki he had bought there. Now he has a new project – Madagascan motorcycle tours for enthusiasts (www.moto600.eu). He is a mine of knowledge about local customs. When he is uncertain about something, he consults 28-year-old Ahmed, a guide in a Madagascan company working with European clients. Between them, they are always able to answer a query, or find a solution to any problem they are presented with.

The Madagascan poverty is paradoxically concentrated in the capital and several larger cities. The reason is simple – even when a very poor local has a small piece of land, it is relatively easy to provide sustenance for themselves and their family by growing local crops. In a city all you have left is begging or stealing.

Despite the clearly visible poverty (begging children are a common sight), it is striking in Madagascar that residents try to keep as clean and tidy as possible. There is much less litter than in Kenyan Mombasa, Gambian Banjul or Zanzibar’s Stone Town. This may be a consequence of the rule that nothing can be wasted; during the Madagascan trip we often saw children who asked for empty plastic water or soft-drink bottles and then happily disappeared in the roadside thickets.

The countrywide poverty is, of course, reflected in the conditions of sightseeing. Transport is the Achilles’ heel of Madagascan tourism. The state of local roads is usually catastrophic (this is compounded by regular cyclones ravaging the island), and traffic jams in the capital or larger cities are similar to those in the most crowded cities of the Western world or South-Eastern Asia. During our two-week tour we travelled over 2,500 km, sometimes at the speed of 5-10 km/h. The “Eliakim” cyclone got us stuck for two and a half days in a hotel on the ocean coast. To make matters worse this was the only time reserved for the beach in the tour program. The trip eventually required overcoming water obstacles on a military training ground. The minibus driver’s assistant simply rolled up his trousers and went into puddles to test whether they could be driven through without water getting above the exhaust. We managed – all we had to do is to remove the air filter from the ancient engine.

Today, Antananarivo has a population of over two million inhabitants. Buildings in the city rarely exceed two-three storeys (with the exception of a very small business district). It is therefore easy to imagine the area on which the city is stretched.

The Madagascan capital, almost the only such place on the island, is believed to be potentially dangerous for Western tourists (slightly alarming signals have been received in recent months also from the holiday resort of the Nosy Be island on the north-west coast). “This is a pickpockets’ Mecca”, says Dawid. “There have been cases when women’s earrings have been torn off in the middle of the city”. But you don’t go to Madagascar to show off your jewellery – all you have to do is put your valuables, wallets or expensive electronic gadgets away so they are not seen by strangers and you should not worry at all. It is also better to transfer passports to inside pockets or leave them in the hotel or minibus under the care of local guides. Most hotels, even the lodges in national parks, offer free-of-charge safes in rooms or in the reception.

Outside the capital crime is less common, but tourists travel during the day. This is because dahalo, armed groups of robbers specialising in holding up anyone who might carry something valuable, appear on roads after dark. Their victims are often breeders of zebu – cattle which constitutes the basis of local farmers’ existence. On days when large zebu markets are held, and these are organised regularly in many regions of the country, the police and the supporting army units redouble their vigilance. Dahalo have not attacked tourist groups as of yet, but when the sun has gone down it is likely that in the provinces a minibus will not be let through a gendarmerie check point or the police officers or soldiers will offer an armed escort for the rest of the journey to the next stop, at a steep charge. Dahalo have not been considered bloodthirsty gangs so far, satisfied with their haul and avoiding physical violence against their victims, but where the attackers are holding AK-47 assault rifles it is best to play it safe.

There are no more dangers to report on Madagascar (and we of course, did not have any alarming experiences during our 16-day stay). The rest was a fairy-tale tour with attractions which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Antananarivo does not offer too many architectural attractions to visitors. The few historical monuments are 100-200 years old at most. It is worth visiting two hills: the first one, Rova (Queen’s Hill), located in the city itself, offers great views over the whole area, plus the possibility of visiting small palaces which used to be seats of rulers, prime ministers on the island, or its colonial governors. You can learn the history of European influences in Madagascar, some historically unavoidable, some accidental, the result of unexpected French careers, British travellers being shipwrecked, or adventure seekers tempting local female rulers not only with their knowledge of advanced architectural or military technologies but also their male charms. Unfortunately, fires consumed the original structures and now we can admire only their replicas or ruins.

The second hill, Ambohimanga, which since 2001 has been on the UNESCO's World Heritage List, is located a little under an hour’s drive from the centre of Antananarivo. It is referred to as the "spiritual capital" of Madagascar. For around 500 years it has constituted the most important symbol of the cultural identity of the Malagasy community. It bears testimony both to the pre-colonial period and later history of the island. You can see residencies and burial sites of kings and queens, their rooms, presents that they received from European royalties, including Queen Victoria, and you can delight in unique views of the surrounding hills. For someone arriving from Europe, it is the size of furniture, particularly beds, that are a surprise; it is difficult not to wonder when the guide tells you that Malagasy rulers, both women and men, were on average about 5 foot tall. Indeed, to this day the Malagasy people are not tall, which is often surprising for tourists; someone who from a distance looks like a child turns out to be a grown-up only after you have seen their face.

In the old days the right to enter the royal palace through the main gate was vested in the current ruler and – zebu. This animal bred on the island is something far greater than ordinary domestic cattle, even if it provides subsistence to people. The image of a zebu head may be found on an obelisk in Antsirabe, together with the symbols of 18 tribes populating Madagascar today. For centuries, zebu has been a sacrificial animal; the ritual killing ceremony is today a national celebration. It is also significant in the local customs – when a young man is seeking the approval of his chosen one’s father, the traditional way of convincing the future father-in-law that his future son-in-law has the desired virtues – is the theft of zebu.

Unfortunately, globalisation has reached Madagascar – the zebu trade business is taken over more and more by companies from China which are building large zebu buying centres on the island.

An other must-see point in the Madagascan capital is the bazaar with hand-crafted products where you can buy various objects made from rosewood, eucalyptus and other local types of wood, as well as the former railway station which can be found next door, turned into a shopping mall. It is worth having lunch at the Cafe de la Gare, a nice restaurant with a unique (and clean) toilet located in a railway carriage.

After the stay in Antananarivo, the main part of the Madagascan tour starts. We travel to visit several national parks in order to have a close look at species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The travel is quite exhausting but worth the effort – several hours in the rainforest, climbing hills, swimming in an African lake or a natural mountain pool, and night escapades to find rare species provide us with unforgettable experiences.

We head to the south of the island, passing local centres manufacturing wooden handicraft (Madagascar has been famous for it for many decades) or aluminium products (under the already mentioned “recycling” of anything that could be still useful). Viewpoints are breathtaking – rice fields are almost just as beautiful as in Indochina, mountains stretching far to the horizon. After nearly 11 hours we reach a lodge from which next day we will start the “hunt” in the Ranomafana Park established in 1986, and from 2007 under UNESCO patronage. Here we can see three species of lemurs: the common brown lemur, red-bellied lemur, and bamboo lemur. Next day, at the crack of dawn, we are faced with a mountain trek in the Isalo reserve during which we encounter ring-tailed lemurs, the most famous ones, associated with King Julian from the blockbuster cartoon. Several days later, in another part of the island, we also meet fossa, a carnivorous mammal looking very much like a large cat (but belonging to a different species), the main “villain” of Madagascar. Unfortunately, we will see only one in an enclosure – it is very difficult to encounter the fossa in the wild as the animals are nocturnal.

During the return journey towards the capital, we visit Antsirabe, a city known for its thermal springs by which the Thermal Hotel, the first equivalent of today’s spa centre in this part of the world, was built in the 19th century. At one time, the king of Morocco, exiled from his country, resided there for a while; his son, the current monarch, is a frequent visitor to the city. The hotel, significantly run-down today, is waiting for an investor. We travel in rickshaws around the city – the ride in them is quite an interesting experience, but also rather tiring due to the souvenir or spice salesmen who continuously besiege tourists.

From Antananarivo we set out to the west this time, towards the coast. The first stop is the Peyreras reserve in which we have the opportunity to get acquainted with white sifakas, very friendly lemurs. We also visit the reptile zoo in which we see chameleons whose shapes resemble those from science-fiction movies, tree boas, or ubiquitous geckos.

In the evening we looked forward towards an exciting night walk in the Zombitse reserve in search of the smallest lemurs, the grey mouse lemur and the hairy-eared dwarf lemur. We were lucky – we managed to see both species, which according to Dawid only one group per season manages to do.

Early in the morning we were awoken by extraordinary sounds coming from the forest surrounding the lodge. These are indri, the largest lemurs living today, weighing up to 12 kg, calling to one another. Their “song” can be heard within a several-kilometre radius. In order to meet them we go to Parc National Antasibe Mantadia, where we also had the opportunity to see a six-strong group of the diademed sifaka, a variant of a species met earlier.

Vakona, the Lemur Island which we got to by crossing a narrow channel in kayaks, is the most recommended item on the agenda. No wonder; the group of lemurs residing on the island is completely tame, they cheekily demand treats and are happy to pose for photographs if there is a banana involved. The same complex contains a crocodile farm; many years ago crocodiles constituted a serious threat to local residents, however their numbers have dwindled so much that they are no longer a problem. Anyway, apart from one rare species of scorpion, there are no venomous animals or any that would be dangerous for human beings.

The last unusual specimen that we saw in the Palmarium reserve located on several islands on Lake Ampitabe was the famous aye-aye, a quite large nocturnal lemur. Thanks to an encouragement in the form of a coconut as well as special type of lighting provided by guides we could see it in its natural habitat as if we were in a zoo.
In all of the national parks we visited, we could not fail to notice the professionalism of our guides who were able to find animals using a small torch, or just spy them out in the thicket. This is a true art, for example if you are looking for a two-centimetre chameleon or a not much larger Madagascan giraffe weevil – a fabulously colourful beetle. Guides also provide comprehensive knowledge about their charges. Our group was fortunate – one of our members was 28-year-old Daria, an employee of the Zoological Garden in Gdańsk-Oliwa. On a daily basis she looks after primates, mainly the 18-strong group of mandrills, one of the largest in Europe. Her professional knowledge about animal behaviour was invaluable to us.

Although local fauna and flora are the main attractions of Madagascar, food enthusiasts can also find a lot of pleasure here. The Malagasy cuisine, contrary to popular opinions, is not dominated by hot or distinctive spices. On the contrary, most dishes need a little bit more seasoning, which means that people with delicate stomachs may feel more comfortable. Zebu reigns supreme in the lunch or dinner menu, in all possible forms and shapes – from steaks, through shashliks, or stews served with rice or pasta. Rice, the basic component of the Malagasy diet, is also served with a variety of soups, in vegetarian versions or with the addition of meat – i.e. zebu. It is worth trying romazava, an original broth with vegetables and cassava leaves. The universal dish for any time of day are miso noodles, served either with meat or vegetarian (with egg). Desserts include mainly fruit, flavoured with the omnipresent vanilla.

The influence of French colonizers is easily noticed also on restaurant tables; a cheese board with the addition of local fruit is sometimes suggested as a dessert, more ambitious chefs serve soufflés or fondants. In a small restaurant next to the Ranomafana Park I had the best frog legs in my life, phenomenally seasoned.

The best drink to have with your meals in the tropical climate is the local beer THB, Three Horses Beer – pale, mild, excellently thirst-quenching without going to your head. In the evening, there is no competition – local rum Dzama in about a dozen different variants entices you not only with its pleasant, slight or strong vanilla flavour, but also the price which is absurd from the European point of view: PLN 9-12 per a 0.7 litre bottle.

Poles, besides tourists, are present today on the Red Island as Madagascar is sometimes referred to, mainly through their charitable activity. Kasia and Patrycja, two Polish girls previously working as volunteers in one of the local orphanages, run the “Dzieci Madagaskaru” foundation (“Children of Madagascar”, in Malagasy, “Ankizy Gasy”) in Antananarivo, the aim of which is to help the poorest children from the island survive and acquire an education.

The girls operate the “Remote adoption” program which provides sponsoring the education of a specific child (this costs around EUR 150 per year – details at www.dziecimadagaskaru.pl ). They organise fundraising to acquire funds to build and refurbish schools and purchase classroom equipment. Thanks to their volunteering program, students, teachers and trainers from European countries conduct language courses, sports, dancing, art classes and more, for Malagasy children. The foundation participates in the battle against hunger, financing the purchase of rice for school canteens, conducting the campaign to provide extra meals for children at the Ambatomasina rural school as well as meals for the poor in the Tsinjohasina diner run by Missionary Sisters.

Two weeks of the strenuous tour (after having travelled over 2,500 km) end much too quickly – the panorama of Antananarivo, the Indian Ocean coast, Lake Ampitabe, the landscape of rice fields, the touch of a sifaka’s paw, the sound of an indri song, the sight of an aye-aye eating its night-time meal, or a grey mouse lemur will remain in our memory for a long time.

Story: Witold Żygulski
Photos: Kinga Multańska
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