Madagascar

So you are lost one day at the whim of a trek, in the heart of the countryside of the central – therefore least coastal – regions of this subcontinent and ask for directions. You will inevitably get an answer of the style “continue heading north and when you get to such-and-such place, bear west…”. Such a natural ease for orientation could only come from distant relatives, men of the sea who had a compass in their head. Their boats? Variants of the elegant and frail dugouts which today take fishermen from Morondava and Nosy Be to the coast. Other versions are still found, both in Sri Lanka and the Tuamotos Archipelago. The outrigger canoe would have been used by the Maoris’ ancestors to get to New Zealand! Their routes stretch out as far as the faraway coats of East Africa, with Madagascar being a port of call for some and a final destination for other.

After the breakup of Gondwana, which the island was part of, it became the fourth largest island in the world, with its 592,000km² of surface area and its 5000km of coastline. In the East, which smells sweetly of spices and tropical fruits, beaches set in luxurious vegetation are lulled by the sea spray off the breaking waves. In the west, the relief slides in successive slopes towards the more serene waters of the Mozambique canal. The north sums up the island with its mountains, fertile basins and its little islands at the end of the world. In the south, crossed by the Tropic of Capricorn less than 12km from Toliara, vast areas of semi-desert and the vegetation of the bush, verging on fictional, are exposed to a sun which reigns supreme all year long. The centre, marked by the work of man and nature, also a historical land, alternates its landscapes and mountainous areas, sometimes bruised by erosion. However, this same erosion can sometimes act as an artist, sculpting wonders known the world over! This is the case for the Tsingy, real limestone forests with sharp ridges, and the boulders of Isalo, where the imagination sees a boot, a window, a lion surveying his territory, or even a real queen, complete with cloak and crown...

Its long geological development and its insularity have enabled Madagascar to develop, as if in a laboratory protected from harm, an exceptional biodiversity characterised by records of endemicity estimated at 80% for the fauna and 90% for the flora. Unfortunately, man is all too often destructive. The vast reddish stain cutting through the blue of the sea, which the passenger, both fascinated and intrigued, observes through his window high above Majunga, is nothing other but the blood of the earth, punctured by a very long tradition of slash-and-burn farming and deforestation, carried to its opening by the Betsiboka river. Today, Madagascar has decided to triple the surface area of its Protected Areas. Apart from being genetic pools for flora and fauna, they play other (perhaps less well-known, but vital) roles, such as water towers, climate regulators and shields against sand encroachment. Or they may even be, via ecotourism and concepts such as community-based tourism, hubs of local or even regional development.

Today, nature tourism represents over 50% of the global market, and is growing faster than seaside tourism. Madagascar offers the best of both worlds, with the “Sea-Discovery” combination with makes it stand out from many other destinations. Commander Cousteau had two of his own personal expressions for describing the Great Island – firstly, the “Land of the Roc Bird” alluding to the mythical bird of the Thousand and One Nights which he associated with the aepyornis whose giant eggs continue to be found intact in the sands of southern Madagascar. Secondly, the “Island of the Spirits”, which makes reference to a sometimes enigmatic culture where the authority of ancestors is omnipresent. Read from right to left, in the direction of going back to origins, Madagasikari means, with one letter’s difference, “following in the footsteps of Adam”...

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