Madagascar… magical vanilla island

By Stef Terblanche

Perhaps I imagined it, or perhaps it was real…in Madagascar you never can tell the difference.

But the first time I stepped off a plane into the humid and fragrant air of Antananarivo, I smelled it everywhere. Vanilla. Intoxicating and alluring. In the crowded open-air markets, on the bustling streets full of French cars from the 1960s, inside dark colonial government buildings, on tropical beaches under palm trees, beneath the ancient ceiling fans of old-worldly restaurants, in the coolness of shuttered private homes, in the flowing black hair of beautiful women, on the porches where old men played dominoes. Yes, everywhere.  

I fell in love with the smell of vanilla, with the island, with its people…and with the paradoxes of its beauty and its destruction, its tranquillity and its tensions, its pastel hazes and its boisterous colours. Since then this love affair has taken me back to Madagascar half a dozen times. And I will go back tomorrow if I can. Since my first visit much of the tensions have been tamed and some of the destruction has ended. And yet, even that remains part of its charm in some or other strange way.

Explorer’s paradise

If you are more the package-tour type or are looking to relax and be pampered in luxury in a tropical setting, you should perhaps stick to the north-western part of Madagascar on and around the island of Nosy Be with its upscale hotels and resorts. You won’t be disappointed, and there’s plenty to do when you grow tired of sipping cocktails by the pool.

But if you are more of an intrepid kind of traveller – inquisitive, energetic, looking for new experiences, or seeking to explore the soul of the place – the rest of Madagascar will be your forever paradise. And when I say “rest of Madagascar”, don’t think small island, think very big and very varied. In fact, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and the second largest island-country. From its northern tip at Andranovondronina to its southern tip at Faux Cap, Madagascar is almost 1,600km long as the crow flies, and at its widest is about 570km across, giving it a land mass of 592,800 square kilometres. To give you a better idea, its length is 100km short of the full length of South Africa between Cape Town and Beit Bridge.


Rich cultural mix and tradition

Situated about 400km off the African mainland coast across from Mozambique in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is where Africa meets Asia, the Malay Archipelago and all of Oceana. This confluence shows in its people and their cultures and traditions. The first people to have arrived on this piece of paradise were crazy people of Polynesian descent who paddled there all the way from Borneo, itself the world’s third largest island. They ventured 6,700km across the stormy southern Indian Ocean in the most elementary of open outrigger canoes sometime between 350 BC and AD 550. Anyone who’s ever been in that part of the ocean even on a big ship will know what a mind-boggling feat that was. Many of them must surely have perished during that hazardous crossing.

Soon Africans crossed the Mozambique Channel and joined them, with more people following from China, India, the Arab Peninsula and Europe. In the 17th and early 18th centuries even pirates came to make the island with its many small coves, bays and islands their hideaway home. Today all of these influences are evident with each making lasting contributions to Malagasy cultural life. Some 18 sub-groups make up today’s Malagasy people, the biggest of which are the Merina of the central highlands around the capital Antananarivo.

Upon landing here at Antananarivo’s international airport the first time, I immediately came to know and appreciate the warm hospitality of the Malagasy people. Waiting to meet me with a beaming smile as if he had known me all my life but whom I had never before met, was my host Georges Ernould and his entourage that filled three large SUVs. Not only would George, his family and friends show me their beautiful country, but they also introduced me to its wonderful cuisine, customs and cultural delights and opened their homes to me.

From them I learned to play dominoes the Malagasy way, play the round board of solitaire and share a drink with invisible ancestors long dead. By my second visit to the island I no longer stayed in a hotel but was invited to stay with George and his family in one of his two houses in Antananarivo and the southwestern city of  Toliara (also known as Tulear), which is where I have stayed during all my subsequent visits.

Antananarivo & the central highlands

From the airport we drove across rice paddies with rice laid out to dry on the busy road leaving a single lane free for cars, and into the busy outer suburbs of the city. Antananarivo, or Tana as the locals call it, is the political and financial heart of the country and has a population of around 4 million.

The original city was built on top and in the valleys of a series of hills, and later spread out across the floodplains and flat land surrounding it. The highest hill of Tana is dominated by the structure of the rova; a fortified royal complex built by the ruling Andriana dynasty of the Merina, whose reign was ended in the late 19th century when the French colonized the island. After a fire destroyed much of the royal complex in 1995, it was rebuilt and is now open to the public as a museum.

Tana is a feast of narrow cobble streets and shuttered colonial buildings around a central lake with an island. The architectural mixture reflects traditional Malagasy culture and French colonial influence as well as the erstwhile Malagasy system of social classes. The higher you were socially, the higher up the hill and closer to the royal palace you lived, something that is still reflected today in the fact that the haute ville neighbourhood around the palace is considered the most upmarket and expensive residential area with its beautiful examples of renovated trano gasy homes.

The city offers everything you can think of. From the historic zoma market with its tile-roofed pavilions and white parasols, historical buildings and museums, modern and old hotels, eateries and pubs, to a zoo with indigenous species and the skeleton of a now extinct elephant bird, nightclubs and cinemas, gardens and parks, a street dedicated to silver and gold smiths, and beautiful surrounding countryside.

The streets are filled with people, animals, bicycle taxis, rickshaws, taxi-bres (minibus taxis), bicycles and scooters, ox-drawn carts, old 1950s and 1960s French-made buses and taxi cabs, to modern SUVs. When the railway line between the eastern port city of Toamasina and Tana is operational you can catch the ancient Tananarive–Côte Est train or one of those peculiar Micheline railcars trundling into town to the beautifully renovated Soarano train station at the end of L’Avenue de l’Indépendance.

Going south

Although a number of roads have been rehabilitated or upgraded in recent years, travelling by road can be a slow affair depending on the time of the year, weather conditions, state of the roads at any given time, and vehicle breakdowns and other obstacles blocking the traffic. It’s best done by 4X4 or one of the daily flights between Tana and the rest of the island.

Whichever mode of travel you choose, if you’re going south you may never want to come back. The south-eastern parts are dotted with many national parks and a never-ending coastline where you’ll find beaches that look like no humans have been there before. Here you will also come upon the  Pangalanes Canal, which crosses the whole eastern and south-eastern part of the island. In the heart of the southeast lies Ambositra, or the City of Roses as this centre of art, culture and crafts is also known. It is the capital of the Zafimaniry territory.

Here you will also find the Andringitra National Park which is home to the second highest mountain peak in Madagascar and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The region offers magnificent landscapes and picturesque traditional villages and colonial towns. The highlands town of Fianarantsoa boasts many fine examples of traditional houses, has many churches dating back to early colonial times, and is home to the country’s wine-making culture. Going further south, you’ll reach Fort Dauphin, a pretty little harbour town on a unique peninsula, surrounded by mangroves, lagoons, forests and pristine beaches. The village and surrounds offer excellent accommodation from hotels to lodges and backpackers facilities. A unique feature is the hulks of stranded and abandoned ships lining the bay.

In this region there are several national parks where unique Madagascan fauna and flora are being preserved and that are home to the 100 or so species of lemurs unique to the island. Of course no trip to Madagascar is complete without seeing the lemurs, those cute little big-eyed creatures that scatter up and down the trees like monkeys but aren’t monkeys. Other attractions around here include the Avenue of Baobabs with its giant trees, night walks in the rain forests, or exploring mountains with their jagged, limestone pinnacles. Fishing, snorkelling or kayaking can also be done here.

West coast

Travelling southwest you’ll get to Toliara, also known as Tulear, the capital of this region and an old French administrative and harbour centre with a strong colonial character. The city has many good hotels, many of them right on the seafront where at low tide, the sea withdraws to give way to a vast beach. Inland is a desert area not unlike parts of Namibia.

Here Georges took us to a traditional restaurant – little more than a desert shack with some rickety tables and two ancient primus stoves for cooking. But the hospitality was out of this world and the food even better. The menu was simple: trondro, osilahy or orakoho – fish, goat or chicken, plus the locally produced Lazan ‘I Betsilio wine to wash it down with.

Well into the clear starry night, after a truly delicious meal and several bottles of Lazan ‘I Betsilio later, we suddenly heard the sound of guitar music and singing drifting in our direction from within a small grove nearby. Curious, we went to inspect and found a merry group of dancing and singing girls and boys playing on crude home-made guitars as they emerged from the bush. Soon we were dancing and singing and stamping our feet along with them deep into the night.

Travelling from Tulear up the west coast, we passed through several traditional villages where time stood still. Women returned from the sea carrying huge fish on their heads, while men were hollowing out tree trunks to make traditional dugout canoes or were busy making charcoal. Friendly villagers invited us into their traditional Malagasy homes built of wood and grass. Every couple of kilometres along the coast we came upon rustic little lodges right on the beach under the palms, mostly owned by French expats who had been here for years with no intention of ever returning to the rat race of Europe.

And all the rest…

There is simply so much to do and see around Madagascar it could keep you busy and in awe for years. You can watch the “turning of the bones”, an annual ritual where families visit the burial tombs of the deceased, wash the dead bodies, turn them around to make them comfortable and drape them in fresh cloths. Or see how the locals go into the mountains to mine and polish the most beautiful semi-precious gemstones, made for the traditional French solitaire boards, one of which you will find in every Malagasy home.

There are many fantastic hikes, reefs to snorkel, lagoons ands rivers to row or sail on, little islands to visit, mountains to explore, bustling markets to browse around in, and amazing fauna and flora to discover, found only on this island in its rainforests, jungles, mountains and on the vast plains. Join in one of the carnivals or watch the national dominoes championship. Dance with traditional musicians making their music that is unique to Madagascar. Or explore the many other fascinating cities like Morondava on the west coast, Mahajanga further north, Antisiranana on the northern tip of the island, Toamasina on the east coast, and Antsirabe and Fianarantsoa in the central parts.

And know this: wherever you go, you’ll smell the vanilla. After all, Madagascar produces some 97% of this fragrant spice for the world, a spice that is these days as valuable as silver.