Several years ago, sitting in the dry heat of Namibia sipping a beer, I asked Nick van de Wiel, my partner with Nature's Light, "What about Madagascar?"
I remember him laughing and saying something along the lines of, "Sure! You organize it, we do it”. Not for a second thinking that we would actually manage to put together a photographic trip on the odd land mass floating off the East coast of Africa. That conversation was on the tail end of our now annual Composing The Dunes workshop in Namibia. Typing this, I am sitting on a Airlink Avro plane with the ochre coloured rivers of Madagascar shimmering in the late afternoon sun far below us. Somehow we managed to put it together...
Madagascar is not an easy country to visit. Putting together something like a photographic workshop is even more difficult. To try and sort out the logistics in the French speaking country, we teamed up with the dynamic team at Island Continent Tours. Meeting with them last year at Durban’s Travel Indaba, they were the only tour operators that were prepared to give us the inch of flexibility that is required for the specific needs of photographers. Even then, there are a number of things that need to be adjusted when we return in 2018 (yes, as I write this we are taking inquiries and bookings for next year’s workshop to this mysterious island). In a nutshell, there are virtually no dedicated photography workshops (as opposed to tours), that take in Madagascar save for a few wildlife workshops in the country’s northern regions.
The dearth of dedicated photographic trips is not surprising considering the logistics of getting virtually anywhere in the country. Travel in Madagascar is difficult. Driving in Antananarivo - the country's capital - makes driving in Kenya's Mombasa look like cruising down open highways (if you have ever been in Mombasa's nightmarish traffic you'll appreciate the sarcasm). Driving on the winding potholed roads is exceedingly slow, and that's on the tarred roads. Much of Madagascar relies on narrow sandy tracks. In some places access can only be made on foot. Then there is the spotty electricity, occasional lack of decent accommodation (for anything except the roughest of travellers) and the usual issues of travelling in third world countries.
Yet Madagascar has been one of the most rewarding places that I have ever been to visit. The people were open and friendly, the scenes fascinating, the food utterly phenomenal, and the photography richly rewarding in everything from mountain landscapes, to fascinating faces, to incredible forests and trees, to lonely sweeps of coastline and more besides. Every day brought something new into the viewfinder.
Travelling from Anatananrivo on our first day we made an early start in order to miss the dreaded traffic that is akin to Dante's seven circles of hell. Then we suddenly found ourselves on a sinuous highland road floating above thick pockets of mist that drifted lazily up from the yellow and green patchwork of rice paddies that are the hallmark of Madagascar's agriculture (being something of a reconnaissance trip we didn't spend nearly enough time photographing these scenes — an error that we intend to correct next year). Slowly we made our way down from the highlands to the flat lowlands and their broad rivers and sped (finally), on towards Morondava on the West coast of the island.
Morondava is home to probably the most iconic scene of Madagascar; the 'Allee de Baobab'. I remember looking at the Alley of Baobabs in a National Geographic magazine as a child and thinking how incredible it would be to visit this phenomenal location. Standing in the dark as stars twinkled above the giant trees was something of a lifelong dream. The silence is shattered pretty suddenly though as a village is literally 20 meters from the alley, which we were very much surprised by. Being there before dawn meant that we had a precious few moments to explore the baobabs before village life erupted and other tourists arrived.
From the baobabs we then took the extremely long and bumpy road to Bekopaka and the Big Tsingy. As amazing as the Tsingy was, we may very well not visit again as the travel involved getting there and back literally exhausted our group, to the point that less than half of us went to visit the famous geological feature that is the 'Stone Forest'. More exciting in many ways was the actual effort of getting there…two long ferry rides in rumbling, smoking ferries with their worn and splintered wooden decks and numerous water crossings through thick clinging mud. Getting to the Tsingy was an adventure indeed.
One of the primary reasons for visiting Madagascar as a photographer, a landscape photographer in particular, is the fact that the island is home to six of the nine species of baobab trees found. Nowhere else in the world do you get to see this many baobabs in such close proximity to each other. Even Kubu Island in Botswana with its incredible baobab stand, is positively bare of trees in comparison to the alleys and spinneys of trees that are found throughout Madagascar. The Allee de Baobab is the best known of these groupings, but we came across countless others as we travelled south of Morondova towards Tulear.
Just before reaching Andravadoaka, as you exit the spiny desert on the coast, we spent some time with an incredible stand of Adansonia rubrostipa, commonly known as the fony baobab. These low and squat bulging trees all had a row of wooden stakes driven into their sides as villagers use these step-ways to collect the baobab fruit annually. As the sun sunk low on the horizon the trees’ skins glowed a vivid orange against the purpling sky above. It’s hard not to feel in awe when you stand next to these strange giants.
This is the thing with Madagascar. Everything was slightly strange to our eyes. It really is as if the island has developed separately from the rest of the world. Looking at the quintessential Madagascan animal, the lemur, seems to be proof enough to the ordinary visitor of Madagascar’s separate identity. Walking along the paths of Anja park near Ambalavao, we were mesmerised by the antics of the famous ring-tales lemur. Here the quixotic animal is considered if not sacred, taboo (or fady), to harm. As a result, despite not being a national park, the lemurs mingle up close to the visitors, only really becoming concerned if you move within hands reach.
Yet, Madagascar is also well known to be a country that is slowly tearing itself apart environmentally. Astronauts on the International Space Station have famously said that from the earth’s orbit the silt laden rivers make the island look as if it is ‘bleeding’ out into the ocean. The obvious signs of environmental degradation are virtually everywhere to be seen. Driving from the Highlands to the West, vast sprawls of grassland, pock-marked with the scars of red erosion, are pointed out as having been heavily forested no more than 50 years ago. Crossing thick ochre and red coloured rivers heavy with minerals washed away by the extraordinarily intensive rice growing agriculture. Standing atop a range of mountains where the only trees visible are all alien, invasive from Australia and South America. Flying over the mountains and seeing the deep gashes of uncontrolled mining. All of these are the worrying signs of a country that is rapidly, rather than slowly, losing it’s environmental wealth. Disturbingly I heave heard from several places, ‘visit Madagascar while you still have the chance’.
Then you look into inquisitive and inquiring face of one of the many children that we came across. Stop the car for more than a minute and you will find yourself surrounded by youngsters that seem to spill out of the surrounding forest or bush in an unabated stream. Admittedly, children the world over exhibit open curiosity towards strangers — particularly those that they hope are bearing sweets — but here adults too would wave and smile, an open welcoming that seems fast to be disappearing from the rest of Africa, if not the rest of the world. We found this to be the case in all but one location which we visited, (a cultural tourist trap where we felt our presence was resented by some and seen as a money-making exercise by the rest).
One of the most striking aspects of the country though, is the seeming halt in the passage of time. Wandering past the red mud plastered walls of the houses typical to the highlands, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you have re-entered a pre-industrial world. An ox cart rattles by as villagers swipe long bushes of rice against an old log to release the grains from the stalks. The dress of the people is more reminiscent of the nineteenth century, let alone the 20th. The incongruousness of it all can be overwhelming as you drive into Antananarivo in the fading light of dusk and see a rice paddy being worked by hand, chewing zebu cattle to one side, while a beautiful woman with the cocoa-butter skin of Polynesian ancestry, dressed as if on the streets of Paris or London, strides past speaking rapid French into the brushed metallic casing of an iPhone.
Before setting out to Madagascar I heard contradictory opinions of the island. As the Bradt travel guide points out; people seem to either love Madagascar, or hate it. It is not the kind of location that hits you in the face with it’s wonders. Namibia, which I visit regularly comes to mind. Rather Madagascar creeps up on you. I personally enjoy finding new scenes to photograph, new places to explore. For photographers who want to try something new, Madagascar is very much brimming with potential. I was astounded looking at the limestone coastline of the Andavadoaka area, mesmerised by the razor-sharp stone spires of the Big Tsingy, in complete awe of the dolomite peaks of Betsileo, completely smitten with the myriad shapes and groups of the majestic baobabs and fell in love with the rolling plateau between Isalo and the Bishop’s Hat, (itself worthy of far more photographic attention). Yet, with all these fascinating locations, Madagascar is actually under-represented photographically. A quick search through 500px pulled up far fewer images than a similar search of Namibia or Iceland - those it did find tended to be of lemurs and chameleons. So there is a wealth of potential for the photographer willing to travel to Africa’s satellite island.
Flying back, as the thrum of the aircraft engine plays like a memory-enhancer, I am already looking forward to revisiting the island continent. The shimmer of the Mozambican Channel is broken below by the shallow waters of the reef-bounded west coast. I think I can make out the estuary system that must be Morondova as it slips from view behind the tail of the aircraft. There is so much more to explore.