Magical mystery of Madagascar
Madagascar: Ring tailed lemurs at Anja National Park, near Ambalavao.

If we could look west over the Indian Ocean's horizon, and ignored the pimple of Mauritius, the first thing we would see is Madagascar - the world's oldest and fourth-biggest island, isolated for 65 million years and teeming with 200,000 species, more than 80 per cent of them found nowhere else.

Yet, though it is nearly 1600km long - bigger than France and between us and Africa - one of our most obvious neighbours has been just about invisible to us.

More exotic islands to inspire:
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I have been eyeing Madagascar for a decade, weighing up whether it was ready to be suggested as a destination. Keeping it on the boil in my mind. It's interesting, intriguing, exciting, though there have been bumps along the way. There was a coup in January 2009, but things have settled; dodgy but improving infrastructure; tourism in its infancy.

And Tony Evans, the experienced principal of innovative Leederville touring company Travel Directors and a specialist in Africa, has been doing the same.

It came up some time ago when we were chatting. Then, last year Tony did the groundwork, travelling the island, inspecting hotels, talking to operators, weighing it up. And, on the last leg of Travel Directors' ingenious 29-day Three Ms tour of Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar, here we are exploring part of this island over 13 extraordinary days.

Five years ago, Mr Evans agrees, this simply couldn't have happened. Madagascar wasn't ready. "Roads, hotels, infrastructure ..." But now we're in Madagascar. It's a genuinely "new", regional and relevant destination for us.

I'm excited.

I have avoided watching David Attenborough's documentary series on Madagascar because I wanted to see it through my eyes before seeing it through his.

I ignored the shows on TV and have resisted the urge to slip the DVD I have in my bag into the slot in my laptop. I guess the programs will be terrific and show how amazing this place is. But I am in Madagascar. What could be better than that?

How to keep some open-minded naivety to us, and to our travel? How to keep a little wide-eyed, childlike surprise and confusion? Confusion? Yes - the edgy pleasure of not totally knowing what is going on all the time. Having to work it out. I like that. I like arriving in a place like a child in a sweetshop. Spinning around, looking for traction. I like to wonder what this and that is - what a gesture means. Finding out where I am, not where I'm going.

I like to arrive impressionable, credulous, questioning, innocent but not naive - and there have been few places better for that than Madagascar.


GONDWANA

Some million years ago it was a landlocked plateau at the centre of the biggest continent the Earth has ever seen: Gondwana. What is now Africa was part of it, and so was Australia.

Flowering plants began to blossom, primitive mammals and birds established niches alongside the dinosaurs that roamed.

But the movement of geological plates, and the rise in sea levels, broke Gondwana apart. Madagascar, attached to India, drifted away from Africa. And then, 65 million years ago, it broke free, setting in play one of the planet's great experiments in evolution.

Eight whole plant families and almost 1000 orchid species are found only here. Madagascar is the unique and endemic home to at least 350 species of frog, 370 kinds of reptiles, five families of birds and almost 200 different mammals, including 72 species of lemur, which evolved separately. An entire branch of the primate family tree.

We have been here a few days, in Antananarivo, Madagascar's surprisingly interesting capital, and have now driven through rice paddies, terraced agricultural lands and highland landscapes to the town of Antsirabe, and on to Ranomafana, an area with rainforest, chameleons and lemurs.

But it is not the day scrambling through the rainforest successfully spotting them that I want to tell you about, it is the next day...

We set out on a damp, misty morning so wet and saturating that I think I might never get dry. We are leaving Ranomafana - a dense rainforest with plunging valleys that fall into whitewater streams and rivers - heading for Isalo.

By lunchtime we are among big, domed granite hills, set against a cornflower-blue sky and pure-white cottonwool ball clouds.

And by late afternoon we have crossed the high, dry-aired savannah of Plateau de l'Horombe, grassed and barely a tree in sight, and are among dramatic sandstone formations of the Isalo area. These formations, reminiscent of WA's Bungle Bungle, are painted rich colours as the sun begins to set. The air is dry enough to make your nose bleed.


CHANGING LANDSCAPE

In Madagascar, the jump from one microclimate to another and the shift in landscape is dramatic. Just today we have travelled from dense rainforest to the so-called spiny desert dotted with cacti, to baobab trees.

The island is revealing itself in a complexity of landscape and people. For, just as the landform changes, so does the human and social landscape - and just as quickly and dramatically.

There are 18 distinctive tribes in Madagascar and the Betsileo people are known for wearing their jackets all year round. Many of the men also wear trilby-like hats. In Ambalavao, there are many men wrapped in blankets, in a particular way to form a deep collar across their front, the two tails flicked behind. Women often wear dresses with gathered skirts. On the coast, it is more likely to be wrapped skirt and top.


THE CRISIS

One tribe I barely see is Westerners. The coup two years ago - what the Malagasy people call "the crisis" - has left an interim government and a need for an election, they say. Security is under control and I never once feel nervous for myself or my fellow travellers.

But tourism, which is in its infancy, was dealt a blow from which it is only slowly recovering. Before the coup, Madagascar had had its best year in tourism, with half-a- million visitors, but the National Office of Tourism says 162,000 tourists visited in 2009, there were around 200,000 last year and it is looking at that increasing by 30 per cent this year.

Locals greet fishing craft at Mangily fishing village, near Ifaty and an hour from Toliara. Picture: Stephen Scourfield, The West Australian
Being selfish, of course, it makes it a good time to visit, if you don't like feeling part of a big tourist scrum. During 13 days there, we pass through villages of wide-eyed children where white faces are a rarity and something to be giggled at in astonishment. We walk through big open produce markets where there seem to be no other white faces.

And everywhere we go, the terrific Malagasy local guides share their stories, their place - a little of their lives - with warmth. It feels personal. It feels like we're discovering the place.

It feels exciting. Different. Like really, well, travelling.

Madagascar has not struck me for its poverty, though I know that only perhaps 30 per cent of its population has access to safe drinking water, 50 per cent to electricity. In two weeks, I didn't see a child cry. I know that some 70 per cent of its roads are unsealed and rough.

The bush taxis that travel them are rugged trucks with bench seats, packed full of locals, piled high with luggage and goods, lurching down the disastrously rough tracks. But the sealed roads (driven by a careful and experienced local) get you from A to B quickly enough.

They take you on a journey through landscape and culture, belief and custom, histories both geological and human.

It has struck me more for its comforts - for we have stayed in a string of very good and unusual hotels (as you will read in following weeks).

But my journey has ended where most journeys do these days - in an airport, waiting for my connection back to Perth.

And I open my laptop, slip in a DVD and settle back to indulge and engorge. I want to see just what Sir David made of Madagascar.

Inside a room. Le Jardin du Roy, at Relais da la Reine, accommodation near Isalo, having come from Ranomafana. Picture: Stephen Scourfield, The West Australian

FACT FILE

• Madagascar is the final leg of Travel Directors' Three Ms tour, which starts in Malawi and continues to Mozambique and Madagascar. Visit Travel Directors in Cambridge Street, Leederville, phone 9242 4200 or see traveldirectors.com for details of this and their other holidays. The Leederville company specialises in interesting and comfortable small-group tours and has many other itineraries, including the Trans-Siberian railway and South America.
• South African Airways flies to Antananarivo, Madagascar, via Johannesburg. See travel agents and flysaa.com.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Travel Directors and South African Airways.

The West Australian

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