Africa journey II: Madagascar—It’s a mad place

When Madagascar Airline first started up, it called itself Air Mad—until it got sick of all the jokes about how the name accurately reflected its erratic schedule and incompetent management. Still today, however, tourists and locals alike routinely shorten the name of the airline as well as the country to its first syllable. It is indeed, in more ways the one, a mad place.

Madagascar is a big island, the fourth largest on the planet, but it seems even bigger than it appears on the map. The truest test of distance is not miles but how long it takes to cross it. It takes three days to drive the 2,700 miles across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific (I’ve done it). It takes 10 days to drive the 1,000-mile length of Madagascar from south to north. The distances are large, but the awful roads are the real obstacle. It requires several days to drive 100 miles along the east or west coast on what is officially designated as a national highway.

Unlike almost all the rest of Africa, Madagascar was a coherent nation, with a national language and a united, disciplined national government before first the English and then the French decided to colonize the island. 

Over recent decades, however, the country has spent more time moving backward than forward. The nadir was a military coup in 2009 that installed an unpopular and corrupt government led by Andry Rajoelina. The coup provokedmost foreign governments and private aid organizations to abandon the island. The 44-year-old millionaire just became president again as the result of an election in which there were 36 candidates but only 48 percent of the registered voters bothered to participate.

During a canoe trip through sparsely inhabited western Madagascar, we stopped in a remote village to buy chickens for dinner. The impoverished village had none for sale, but almost everyone was wearing an orange Rajoelina T-shirt. It was reported that he campaigned by flying around the country in his private helicopter giving away T-shirts and bags of rice. Of course, his principal opponent did the same thing. 

My sister-in-law and I make our way, gingerly, on a hanging bridge in a unique geological formation called a tsingy.

Madagascar started floating away from the African continent 160 million years ago. Today, isolated in the Indian Ocean 250 miles east of Africa, it resembles the continent it left back when the Earth was a far different place. The result is that 80 percent of all the plants and animals on Madagascar exist nowhere else on the planet. 

It also has some unique geological features, most notably a wilderness of dense, sharply pointed stone towers known as a tsingy. Clambering on, under and through these razor-edged rock towers required us to wear halters strapped onto cables screwed into the rock face. Typical of Madagascar, although the tsingy is the country’s top tourist attraction, it is difficult to get to. During the four or five months of the monsoon season, the tsingy is entirely unreachable. During the rest of the year, it requires a multi-day, multifaceted campaign.

We spent three days in a canoe and a day in a 4-wheel-drive on an awful sand track just to start seeing this odd place. Our drive was supposed to be part of a caravan escorted by armed soldiers, but we missed our hookup with the caravan and made the trip alone, at top speed. The caravans and soldiers had been instituted after brigands ambushed tourists a couple of years earlier.

The three-day canoe trip to get to the tsingy was an adventure in itself. I’ll never forget the wide-eyed, panic-stricken face of our cook grasping the side of our canoe while sinking beneath a storm-shoved wave. He held on and helped push our three canoes together for stability. We waded ashore, ran to a hut and shared it with an uncomplaining Malagasy family. 

Unusually early that afternoon, we stopped for the day. Perhaps the crew had a premonition of what was to come.

Soon a second storm smashed into us. It lasted longer than the first. We hid in leaky, hastily raised tents, where we shivered cold and wet in the wind-driven rain. 

Villagers, many wearing the orange T-shirts of the victorious presidential candidate, gather after a storm on Tsiribihina River to search for the body of a man who drowned.

The storm finally subsided. Then somehow, miraculously, the crew made dinner and brought it to us in our tents. We all survived and slept and arose before dawn the next morning to continue our river safari. 

The wind in our faces, boatmen worked hard. One of them beat out a chant and others began singing in rhythm. It helped with the hard labor. 

Heat gathered. Inertia took over, as if we had been stunned. Movement demanded too much. We just sat and waited for the heat to pass, as it usually did. 

We passed villages, always welcomed by a mob of kids splashing in the river, swimming out to us, wanting us to play with them.

An entire village, 200 men and women and kids, gathered searching for the body of a man with epilepsy who got caught in the river during the storm. Unlike us, she had not survived.