The problem with photographic bucket list locations is that they are often on other people’s bucket lists as well. This of course means that when you do finally get to go to said bucket list location, that imagined idyll of you and your camera and the perfect landscape sans hordes of other photographers is anything but. Any visitor to Iceland or other much instagrammed photographic locations (Antelope Canyon anyone?) knows the frustration of dozens of other photographers blocking the view to some extraordinary scene.
For this reason I, and certainly the rest of the Nature’s Light team, try very hard to find epic locations away from the maddening crowd. Madagascar is most definitely one of these. Of course before I begin to wax lyrical about the empty vistas of this incredible island, I have to admit up front that it also happens to possess one of the world’s most famous instagram magnets: the iconic Allee de Baobab. Arrive at the sunset and you will be greeted by a horde of tourists, both local and international, all flocking to capture that perfect sunset instagram post. That’s about it though. Thereafter you will have scene after scene all to yourself.
Part of the reason at the moment is of course due to the delayed ramp up in travel to Madagascar. The island was one of the last countries to open up to international travel after the COVID pandemic, only fully opening it’s borders in the latter half of 2022 - long after most of the rest of the world were allowing tourists in again. A diplomatic tête-à-tête with South Africa over some confiscated smuggled gold (confiscated by South African authorities at Johannesburg International Airport) also meant that all flights originating in South Africa were banned from landing in Madagascar. This put paid to the affordable routes from Southern Africa into the island.
Tourism still hasn’t exactly exploded in Madagascar and on our recent ‘Exploring The Island Continent’ workshop was regularly that we were some of the first travellers that locals had seen in a while. Despite that, the Allee de Baobab, was chockablock with self-stick wielding tourists at sunset.
So it’s with a sense of relief that you arrive at the Allee, the following morning, in the pitch dark and you are completely on your own. No other photographers, no other tourists. The Milky Way spins overhead and the only sounds you hear are the occasional dog barking in the nearby village, and the sound of mosquitoes whining in the air.
It doesn’t last necessarily since the Allee is on the major road north to Belo Tsiribihina. If you are traveling north, this is the road you will take. So as the sun rises, the activity increases and the momentarily still scene is a bustle of trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, carts and of course tourists.
But that’s only one location. We soon leave the tar road out of Morondova and dive south towards the Spiny Desert and the vast Kirindi Forest, home to semi-nomadic villagers who live either off the sea, or as hunter-gatherers. Although wherever you are in Madagascar you are never far from a village or a local herdsman or farmer, you suddenly lose sight of other tourists. Tracks that shift every year with the floods dart across sandy plains and through tall stands of Madagascar ocotillo (the Octopus plant) - a tall spiny succulent cactus like plant that is endemic to the Madagascan south. Then you find yourself traveling down a tunnel of dry forest trees. It comes almost as a shock when you realise that those same trees are hiding the fact that you are in the middle of the most enormous forest of baobab trees that make the famous Allee de Baobab look more like a pitiful and solitary stand compared to the spread out forest of tall Grandidier's baobabs (the biggest and most famous of Madagascar’s six species of baobabs).
After the tunnel of forest, there are open plains, salt marshes and yet more baobabs that line the horizon. Traveling down the dirt tracks, seeing cattle drawn carts (the local cattle are called zebu), and the farmers working in fields; cassava turning to rice as we slowly exit the spiny desert, feels almost like being transported to a different century, let along a different country. At the end of this road are idyllic white sand beaches, limestone outcrops and colourful pirogues swiftly running the in-reef length of the coastline.
Then as a photographer you find yourself staring at the outrageously bright Milky Way descending again, this time over Fony Baobabs; short squat and winkled compared to the tall Grandidier Baobabs of the famous Allee. Here a salt pan, still filled with water forms a mirror like reflection of the stars, ushering in the extraordinary experience of silence filled with stars, the photographers standing still just taking in the vastness.
That’s just the coastline of course. Rejoining a tar road near Toliara we are suddenly confronted once more with a veritable sea of humanity. The Spiny desert is hard to eke out an existence in, so the Malagasy throng to the areas where water and soil fertility squeeze together villages. Life is lived visibly in the open; the sound of humanity fills the air as we slowly drive past hundreds, thousands of bicycle taxis, tuk-tuks, traders selling their wares. The markets are an explosion of sound, colour and smell. Still filled with smiles and curiosity. This is not a country that sees many tourists, particularly after the last few years, so we are greeted with curiosity and often warmth. You are still a mark for a quick sale, as in any country in the developing world, but there is a sense that people are happy to see you, and you are often sent onwards with cries of ‘thank you for coming’.
From otherworldly trees to an explosion on the senses in the cities, Madagascar leaves any visiting photographer almost breathless with it’s intensity. Wealth and poverty, like so many other third world countries, lives cheek to jowl. Extraordinary beauty juxtaposes squalor. A vast natural wealth, yet at the same time obvious degradation of that same natural world. If you are looking for a photographic adventure, something different, off the beaten path. Madagascar is it. From the moment you see the patchwork of rice fields and the sprawl of Antananarivo from the air, to the moment you sink your toes into the warm wet sands of the western coast, Madagascar leads you on a sensory overload. Despite literally stepping off the plane less than a week ago, I already am looking forward to heading back.
Nature’s Light will be putting out new dates for 2024/2025 in the next few weeks. If you are interested in joining next year’s workshop to Madagascar, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to be included in the pre-list.