I considered missing the plane: research into Madagascar offered bubonic plague, record-making poverty, environmental havoc and the industrial rape of a former paradise. Then there was “the world’s most dangerous road”, in the BBC’s phrase. An enthusiastic driver who does not enjoy being driven, what joy could I find in spending a week tumbling up Madagascar’s east coast, along an apparent assault course for tanks, even if there were humpback whales and luxury at the end? For the lemurs? Lemurs schmemurs. Reassurance came there none: Alex Edwards of Natural High Safaris, former bush pilot, Africa hand, outstanding fellow, who would be prospecting for a new adventure holiday offer, refused to promise that we would make it back alive.
“But we’re not going to die, are we?” I asked, again.
“We shouldn’t,” he said, “hopefully.”
By driving up the Route Nationale 5, rather than flying north, which is an option, we would experience the Madagascar only the locals knew, Alex said. At the end of the road lies the Masoala peninsula, a surviving fragment of timeless Madagascar, where 80 per cent of the plants have no scientific name; where there are rumoured to be animals, including one black catlike beast, which have not been trapped or catalogued. It all sounded thrilling, if scary.
My fears never evaporated faster. From the first moment in Antananarivo airport car park, where Citroën 2CVs and old Peugeot 205s are taxis, where the police are gendarmes, where the people exude a Cuban kind of colour, swing and vivacity (Malagasys descend from Indonesia, India, Arabia, Africa, France and pirates), I began to fall in love with Madagascar.
We found our transport, a Land Cruiser with monster-truck suspension and “Ironman” written on it, our gentle, organised guide, Andry Falimanantsoa and our driver, a rugged-looking Malagasy, Michel Chan. As Alex counted huge bundles of local currency (about 4,000 ariary to the euro) and we assured Andry that we would definitely be eating the local food — he need not pack a week’s picnic — I found my spirits rising to meet adventure.
First, lemurs. We drove east to Vakona Forest Lodge, a hotel beloved of French package tours that serves the kind of carrot soup and steak frites you only find in their former colonies. In the morning we walked in the Andasibe reserve, quietly under the trees. Our guide, Julien Ramarokoto, came here 26 years ago to play for a football team, and became a ranger. Now he moves silently through the forest, chirruping bird calls and up to 105 different lemur cries.
At first, I brushed away the spider silk that netted my face, but habituation came quickly. We wore webs like invisible eye-masks. I am not sure if Julien bought us to the lemurs or vice versa, but there they were, astonishing beings, upright, immaculately attired in furs and tails, bouncing through the trees like pianists in white tie and knickerbockers. They had no fear of us. They crooned, chattered, ate, carried their babies — and then they called. I jumped. Lemurs can make a shrieking hoot that vibrates through tree trunks. You would think a troop of yeti were coming for you.
Lemurs evolved 55m years ago, at least, the super-continent of Gondwana having calved the island of Madagascar 165m years ago. One species evolved a lemur the size of a gorilla. Now there are nearly 105 species of them. Humans came only 2,000 years ago, and the interaction between lemurs and our tribes is fascinating. The rangers complain about large and growing numbers of Chinese tourists. “They don’t walk quietly, they don’t listen, they talk all the time,” I was told. And on the subject of the French, who ruled Madagascar from 1897 to 1958, many Malagasys are voluble. “They never said thank you for what they took and they never said sorry for what they did,” one man said. “They are rude.” I tried to explain that although France continues to back corrupt and larcenous Malagasy governments, the French are a marvellous people who do not mean to be rude: they merely have a certain manner. But a waiter and a barman took me aside to whisper that an international conglomerate has built a pipeline across hundreds of miles of Madagascar to the coast. “They take everything out secretly. Diamonds, gold, sapphires, nickel, everything.”
In fact, the pipeline does exist, and carries nickel in slurry 220km to the coast. The people have made it a metaphor for their exploitation: their nation’s wealth is being pumped out from under their feet. Madagascar has gas and oil, as well as the commodities above, and yet it is one of the world’s poorest countries. It would be interesting to note how much wealth lemurs have put into the hands of the common people of Madagascar, compared to how much have, say, the governments of Europe. Lemurs effectively defend and maintain the last scraps of forest. From the air most of the country appears stripped red rock. To see what has been saved we continued east to the coast and turned north at the seaport of Toamasina, up the infamous road.
“We will cross 13 rivers,” Andry said. “The people there are rude.” I suspected “rude” meant something particular, but what?
“This is Kenny. He knows the people so they will help us. He knows the way.”
There is only one way, the Route Nationale 5, but you need a Land Cruiser and a man like Kenny Jean Botto. He began as an assistant, the role he would play for us, and became a driver. We passed his vehicle, broken down. “I have done the road about 60 times,” he said. Assistants must know every significant rock on the five-day journey. Kenny jumped out and signalled Michel, telling him where to put the wheels and how much power to apply.
The RN5 runs alongside the Indian Ocean. It passes beaches like wild heavens, places where crystal rivers cut golden sand, flowing into bays where humpbacks spout. The road itself humpbacks often in giant slow pit-potholes, a Land Cruiser long, a Land Cruiser high. There were moments when we cried out at the beauty, and moments when we could say nothing. At first ferries motored us across the rivers. Then they were hauled by rope. Then we drove on to just-about-floating bamboo rafts and men poled us across. We swam one river. It looked like an African river, but Malagasys will all tell you they are not African and nor is Madagascar. There are no crocodiles or hippos in Madagascar: it is a safe sort of place for adventure. Safe-ish.
“I have seen Land Cruisers turn over. They fall through bridges. They can get stuck in the sea,” Kenny said. You must be Zen to be a driver, especially in the rainy season.
The frightening bits were the bridges and the sea. On one plank-and-bamboo bridge the vehicle was nearly across when there was a crack and the front wheels went down, and the back broke through too. Kenny howled, Michel stared wildly, hammered the accelerator, and the machine leapt to safety as if we had willed it to fly. Where the road ran into the sea Kenny charged ahead, plotting the path through the currents, calling Michel’s moment to dash between the waves. It was moving and wonderful to see the teamwork, the hundred daily victories.
We travelled seven to the vehicle, having rescued two Dutch travellers who had had enough of public transport. Public transport is 22 people to a Land Cruiser, plus about five hanging off the sides. When we reach the road’s rocky near-vertical sections and 10-foot ruts, we all walk, including the vehicles, which bounce from wheel to wheel, waddling up. Supported walking is a much better way to picture the trip. I have never strolled through such beauty. You could not forget the ice-cream light, the limpid air, the scent of vanilla and cloves in the villages. The light and gush of the ocean are forever just there.
Vanilla is $300 a kilo and more, so the fastest vehicles on the RN5 are scrambling bikes driven by young men with backpacks. The feeling of a subsistence society with a seam of cash running through it is peculiar, as if the villages form a long frontier town.
The people, not so much rude as quietly ebullient, say they are happy with the day and furious with the era. “I do not think we will have good government for 20 years,” one young man said, “20 or 40”. I told him some Brits feel the same way. But you wonder how many billions of euros-worth of resources will leave the land in that time. I have rarely been anywhere so bare of authority, so bereft of a state: the odd group of scary policemen in soft shoes; a scattering of soldiers. Here and there are schools, and colleges, but Madagascar and its treasures are defenceless, there for the taking, if you were ruthless.
The hotels are caravanserai, where the Land Cruisers in the morning are drawn up, watered, loaded and lashed, the resting beat of their engines like boats. The villages are named after their rivers, such as Mananara and Manambolosy. One hotel, Tany Marina, run by Madame Celine Grondi, who cooked the best piece of pork I have ever eaten, is the sort of quiet paradise I would have liked to move into permanently. Another, less classy place had no loo but the food, beef brochettes, was excellent. You needed your own mosquito net. In the morning a little girl laughed, hand over her mouth in amazement, to see whites — “Vazhas!” — at her mother’s stall.
Kenny bought and cooked something from the swordfish family at one crossing, where we waited in paradise most of the day for the tide; with bonnets open and air filters held aloft the vehicles pretty well swim, steaming.
We went aye-aye watching one night. We saw one of the long-fingered creatures toying with coconuts high in the canopy, lit up by the torch beams of guides. Alex was not happy. “This is like having a tiger and feeding it fish and chips,” he growled. Tourism in Madagascar has wonderfully and woefully far to go.
At the end of our road is the port and airport town of Maroantsetra where a boat carried us across the bay to Masoala peninsula, where primary rainforest remains. We met the red ruffed lemurs here. You have to scramble like Indiana Jones over rock and jungle and then make a noise like “Urroo?” with your mouth closed. Down they come, interested to know who or what uttered that sound.
I saw four lodges: one a money-laundering operation, two simple and one the award-winning Masoala Forest Lodge where we stayed. It is the creation of Pierre Bester, a South African sea kayaker, last in an ancient line of mariner explorers to find this coast. As well as the Lodge, Pierre and his intrepid wife, Maria Bester, have also started a village school that their little children attend, returning in the evening to mingle with their parents’ interesting guests. (These included German sleep specialists and a former adviser to the Australian government, when we were there.)
The humpback whales that give birth here left on September 17, as they are supposed to do. We were crossing the Antongil Bay, out to the peninsula, and we came quite close to them. A pod of calves was a sea-monster passing an islet. A parent slapped the water with the top of her tail while lying on her back, flipped over and slapped again, her flukes a whacking kraken hand. Now she began to jump. On the fourth and fifth breach the entire whale left the water and twisted in the air. I wept, beaming it all the love I could and adding the love of my mother, who would have loved to have been there.
Madagascar changes you. It made me an evangelist for the country — for the necessity of foreign understanding and support for this vulnerable and still extraordinary place. In a hotel in Antananarivo, gold dealers, representatives of the Aga Khan Foundation, lovers and NGO workers took breakfast. It was like a deleted scene from Casablanca. Obviously, I intend to go back. Alex thought that only certain brave souls among his clients would enjoy the adventure up the RN5. Lucky them.
Horatio Clare was a guest of Natural High and Ethiopian Airlines. Natural High offers an 11-night tailor-made safari to eastern Madagascar for £4,700 per person, including seven nights driving up the east coast on the RN5 with a private 4x4 and guide and four nights in the Masoala peninsula. For those who prefer not to drive the RN5, a seven-night trip (four nights in Masoala and three nights in Andasibe) costs from £3,525 per person. Ethiopian Airlines flies four times per week from Heathrow to Antananarivo via Addis Ababa from £501 return, and from £2,167 in business class
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