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A Paradise In Retreat

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Flying over the 400-mile wide Mozambique Channel that separates Madagascar from the African continent, my heart raced at the prospect of visiting a remote island that separated from the African continent some 165 million years ago.

Imagine an island more than 1,000 miles long in a blue tropical ocean uninhabited for most of its history. Forests cover vast areas, interspersed with swamps where eight-meter-long crocodiles lie in wait to prey on pygmy hippopotamuses. In the rain forests and in dryer parts of the island live some of the strangest primates to have ever existed on earth. Some 110 species of these lemurs live throughout the island and range in size from the world’s smallest primate, weighing about one ounce, to a lemur the size of a gorilla (now extinct).

Peering out of my aircraft window, I watched the stratocumulus clouds tower over the many swollen rivers draining the rainwaters as we descended towards Antananarivo (Tana), the capital of Madagascar located in the cool central highlands. With golden paddy fields blanketed by green clusters of trees, I was descending into what appeared to be a paradise of forests, paddy fields and rolling hills.

At the arrivals area, I was surprised to be greeted by faces that displayed a unique blend of African and Indonesian bloodlines. First populated 1,600 years ago by ancient sailors from Borneo, in today’s Indonesia, its early history is being slowly peeled by anthropologists one excavation at a time.

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Nearly all the species here evolved in isolation since it broke off and drifted away from east Africa many million years ago. What I found here is a lost world of unique animals and plants, unseen by humans until their first arrival.

My planned take-away from this trip included photographing colorful chameleons, trekking the lush rainforests, navigating spiny thorn forests and climbing the spectacular rock formations. At the end of it all, what left me with a deeper sense of this country was its unique people following ancient customs, despite their wanton destruction of a paradise.

My guide in Antasibe, Maurice Ratsesakanana, was instrumental in me tracking down the apex lemur, indri. Its haunting calls are reminiscent of the songs of the humpback whales. Each morning in my bungalow, at the Hotel Fenny Ala at the edge of the rain forest, I woke up to its call. The indri is the largest lemur in existence today and tracking and photographing them in rain was a trophy to be had. Indris have never been successfully bred in captivity and this is the only place on earth that one can see these unusual primates.

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Maurice also exposed me to some of the 600 amphibians and reptiles that inhabit the forest, most of them endemic to Madagascar, meaning found nowhere else on earth. Frogs of every imaginable color and pattern leapt in this wet jungle. Chameleons, some brilliantly colored, and others shades of mottled brown, crept invisibly about. The largest can capture mice and birds, while the smallest, measuring only an inch, feeds on insects.

More than 80% of Madagascar’s 14,883 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. The rain forests had many orchids growing on tree barks and stems. Maurice indicated that three-fourths of Madagascar’s 860 orchid species are endemic, as are six of the world’s eight baobab species. I found orchid nursery’s lining all along the Antasibe road, simply harvested from the rainforest each day.

At the World Heritage rain forest of Ranomafana, Theo Farafidison, my guide, educated me on so many aspects of the fauna there. Theo worked with filmmaker David Attenborough during the shooting of the BBC series there. Almost all the amphibians and reptiles in Madagascar, half the 300 birds and all its 110 species of lemurs are endemic. Theo and I spotted a Parson’s chameleon that was almost two feet long and capable of grabbing birds with its sticky tongue. I could not help but coax it to walk on my arms, a small violation of the park’s rules. The bamboo lemurs are a specialty here, along with seven other species.

The Planet Of The Apes

My personal highlight was that of grabbing a six-foot tree boa at night while we were looking for nocturnal lemurs and chameleons. He was quite docile and surprisingly comfortable in my hold. After studying him in my confines, I gently eased him on to a tree, not realizing that they hunt on the ground. After photographing many species of frogs, scores of geckos, including those that mimic leaves, several chameleon species, five snake species, including a very large Madagascar tree boa, I moved to the drier side of the highlands. The unique animals of this country, especially the tree boa constrictor, are a target for pet suppliers from all over the world.

Some of the amazing landscapes I found in the country’s national parks included spectacular rock massifs, canyons, aquatic environments, savannahs and dry lands. Isalo, Zombitse, Kirindy and Andatringa come to mind as places that cannot be missed. Waterfalls abound, cascading down tall cliffs into rivers and lakes, the central highlands are a mosaic of woodland and savannah, while the eastern regions are covered in dense, humid rainforest.

In my quest for soaking up this paradise I swam in cool pools inside canyons, trekked the Tsaranoro massif, a sheer rock 800 meters tall known for world-class rock climbing, went sapphire prospecting on river banks, walked in wet, dry, semi-humid and spiny forests enjoying everything from insects like the endemic kung fu cricket, which takes on a martial posture when approached by the diverse ethnic groups that populate this island.

One great adventure that will last in my memory was my attempt to reach the spectacular limestone karst formations of Tsingy de Bemahara in the rainy season. It is an impenetrable wilderness of limestone spikes and sharp rocks that dominates the North West. The Tsingy is an ancient 200-mile long coral reef lifted from the ocean and carved over the millennia by wind and water into dagger-edged pinnacles. Crossing rivers on barges and driving through the dirt roads that had become three-feet deep streams during the rainy season, I reached this remote area to be hailed as the first tourist to arrive there that season. A nine-mile trek and climb ensued my visit to this world heritage site from the top looking down since all road access was inundated.

Deforestation has been present on the island since its colonization by humans, approximately 2,000 years ago, with 90% of the original forests lost. With an unprecedented population growth, extreme poverty (one of the highest in the world), and a brewing political crisis, the nature of the island is helpless and besieged by multiple fronts including corruption at the highest level. There is a police stop almost every few miles; they find something wrong with every vehicle in order to squeeze a few arriaris out of innocents and crooks alike. Thankfully, they do not bother tourists. One interesting behavior that I wish to write about is that of the gendarmerie (national police) who offered a full ceremonial salute when all our papers were in order.

In addition to the traditional system of slash and burn deforestation, which allows local people to open forests to cultivate, international players in cahoots with local officials selectively log rosewood tree species and have become the main threat for the biodiversity of the island. Lorries of hardwood leaving forested areas forced me to enquire about its legitimacy to everyone I met. They all shrugged almost helplessly even though their future was being stripped one day at a time.

Other threats include killing lemurs for meat, poaching reptiles and amphibians for the pet trade (the ploughshare tortoise fetches $200,000), habitat alteration and the clearance of forests, primarily for firewood and charcoal production. En route to the rainforests of Antasibe, I could see virgin rainforests burning outside the limits of the park for agriculture and cattle grazing that brought tears to my eyes. At every turn during my trip, my driver Tony Rebetsitonta, reflected on the different forested areas that had disappeared in his 25 years of driving around the country. It is anticipated that all the island’s rainforests, excluding those in protected areas and the steepest eastern mountain slopes, will have been deforested by 2025. As a result, several charismatic species such as chameleons and lemurs that evolved for millions of years here may become extinct by the end of the century.

The urgency to conserve the habitat has long been noticed by western scientists and conservation funding for Madagascar is at its peak. From protecting flora, fauna, habitats and large swathes of remaining forest, organizations are finding new ways to compensate the locals, educate them on sustainable land use and above all deal with a complex system of taboos that hold back progress.

While at Ranofamana National Park, I came to realize that this large virgin rainforest was protected and later converted into a park by none other than Dr. Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University in 1980, while studying bamboo lemurs as a post doctoral research worker there. This is another example of a driven woman scientist challenging government officials, locals and vested interests to create a legacy for mankind.

By the 16th century, the central highlands where the bulk of Madagascar’s population resides had been largely cleared of their original forests. It was small wonder that I saw red top soil getting washed off into the rivers from the air with no roots to hold them down. More recent contributors to the loss of forest cover include the growth in cattle herd size since their introduction around 1,000 years ago.

I met a professor from the University of Pretoria who is studying land grabs and cattle rustling in Madagascar and did not want his name publicized. This is a country where people still keep their wealth in cattle and not cash. He told me that rustling cattle is big business and as a result big groups of heavily-armed men attack villages and run away with the several hundred heads of cattle. I am told that the Malagasy people register their Zebu cattle at birth with the authorities, and not their own children.

Today, there are around 18 different ethnic groups living on the island. These include the Asiatic Merina (who make up over a quarter of the population), the Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Antaimoro and the Bantu Sakalava. The Malagasy language is very similar to the Indonesian language Minaan; spoken only in Borneo, it has accepted some Bantu/Swahili words over time. Their customs especially of burials, land ownership, taboos and professions are very unique for the traveler to see and experience.

The Malagasy burial customs matches closely with cultures from Indonesia where I have traveled extensively to study them. This includes periodic exhumation of the bones and huge celebrations, keeping the corpse at home until it dries before burial or placing them inside rock cairns in hard to reach places, all of which bankrupt families in pursuit of satisfying their forefathers. Their philosophy, much like the ethnic Indonesians of Sulawesi and Borneo, is that life on earth is very ephemeral when compared to the soul’s journey through the universe.

This beautiful land and its people are in a ticking time bomb of land loss, top soil erosion and desertification in a few centuries. While western agencies are doing their best to stem the degradation, it is inevitable that it cannot be reversed. Added to this, poor education, absent healthcare and a corrupt government have kept the people very poor, just living under an annual $500 per capita.

It is a paradise in retreat and all our efforts to decelerate this decline is all I can hope for these wonderful people and its other living denizens. It is a travesty created by man in his effort to conquer nature. – Words and photos by Ramdas Iyer

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Executive travel: Ola Orekunrin’s India

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For Nigeria’s high-flying doctor, Ola Orekunrin, being a part of the booming global air ambulance services industry presents opportunities to save lives as well as visit places she hasn’t seen before.

Orekunrin, a medical doctor and helicopter pilot, is the founder of Flying Doctors, an air ambulance service launched in Lagos to transport patients from areas with low levels of healthcare to those with well-appointed facilities offering better medical aid.

READ MORE: Flying Doctor Shoots For The Stars

Over the years, the demand for her organization’s services has risen due to the healthcare challenges Nigeria faces. And there are many. On top of the list is the burden of infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, followed by non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. The country has a high rate of trauma-related incidents such as accidents and violence.

According to national statistics, Nigeria has the highest number of deaths from road traffic accidents in the world.

For Orekunrin, her business presents an opportunity to fulfil her desire to serve. The motivation for the launch of her company, Flying Doctors, was the loss of her sister, who had tragically died for want of urgent care.

Today, Flying Doctors swiftly moves patients from across the African continent to some of the best healthcare destinations, saving thousands of lives in the process. The job means Orekunrin is constantly on the go.

READ MORE: Magda Wierzycka’s India

With so much time away from home and in the air, Orekunrin has become somewhat of an expert when it comes to the most exciting destinations to visit both for business and leisure on the African continent – and beyond.

“My favorite destination in the world right now is India,” she says.

“It is a place I spend a lot of time because we have a huge Indian diaspora in Nigeria and when they get sick, they usually request to be flown back home. So I have had a lot of experience with India. I think India is in the process of cracking healthcare. For example, they take the best medical students from the whole of India and put them in one hospital. This means the [number] of procedures that get done there are a lot and the advanced medicine that is practised there is equivalent or better than what you get in some first world countries,” she says.

But that is not the only reason Orekunrin is in love with the subcontinent.

“It is such a vast country that moving from state to state, you can find different types of productivity everywhere. In places like Bengaluru, everybody is running a startup and it’s like the Silicon Valley of India. You go to a place like Goa and that is like a beach resort and you go to Kerala and it is completely different like a spa resort with some sort of Indian medicine being practised and infused with conventional medicine. So it is an incredible country where you can find so much variety, culture, language, tribes and so many successful people coexisting together and identifying as Indians. I think that is another lesson that Nigerians can learn.”

Her favorite past-time in the country is getting her eyebrows threaded and going to remote oil and gas exploration sites.

Ola Orekunrin moves from state to state in India exploring cultures and languages. Photo provided.

“The companies there inspire me because I think about their [the companies’] history in terms of growing from a sole proprietorship to eventually growing into the biggest businesses in the world. It makes me think about Nigerian businesses; I run my own business but I also invest in other businesses as well,” says Orekunrin.

Within West Africa, Orekunrin’s favorite destination is Cape Verde. The country is particularly interesting for medical evacuations because it is made up of remote islands and the influx of tourists to that destination means medical logistics are in very high demand.

“It is four hours away from Nigeria and is a fusion of a lot of cultures; from South America, to Africa and European cultures all in one. I visit it frequently most of the time for work. I also really love the different food. I was born and brought up in England but always had a craving for Africa. My connection to Cape Verde is the closeness to Nigeria but also some of the similarities we share in terms of the food and the culture and the music and that is a strong connection.”

In the next few years, Orekunrin is hoping to grow her medical business into a pan-African player. She continues to look forward to the travel it will entail. For Orekunrin, the air ambulance business is all about saving lives. And being at the right place at the right time – for sick patients in need.

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Entrepreneurs

Living Like Mandela

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Tourists in Soweto, the township southwest of Johannesburg in South Africa, now have more options for staying in the same neighbourhood that was once home to two Nobel laureates, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Here, through accommodation app Airbnb, locals are increasingly turning entrepreneurs throwing open their homes for visitors wanting to savor Kasi life. As many as 20 Soweto homes are listed hosts on the Airbnb search engine – and the list is growing.

Take Nelson Tiko Mashele, a 33-year-old born and bred in Soweto, who founded Vilakazi Backpackers on the famous Orlando West street with his father, and which is located five minutes from the homes of Mandela and Tutu, and 10 minutes from the Hector Pieterson memorial.

Mashele is one of the youngest Airbnb hosts in Soweto, and his establishment one of the newest in the area. He says 70% of his guests are locals, the rest international, and business is looking good.

READ MORE: The Sharing Economy: 400,000 Guests At Home

The day we visit, we are ushered into his spotless living room. A coffee table in the middle of the foyer is laden with sightseeing pamphlets. Hip hop music is playing in the background. The seven-bedroom house is well-appointed and Mashele charges R299 ($25) a night.

A room at the Vilakazi Backpackers costs R299 ($25) a night. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

That’s not a bad bargain for the local life that his guests, who he says are mostly from America, Germany, Brazil and France, want to experience.

According to Airbnb, most guests choose to live like locals. Mashele says they would rather walk to tourist destinations and buy local food from the outlets on the famous Vilakazi Street.

One of Mashele’s partners is Soweto Outdoor Adventures run by Kgomotso Pooe, also his long-time friend. Their collaborations offer his guests quad-bike tours, paddling and boating rides, trips to Orlando Towers and indulging in local cuisine such as magwenyas (deep-fried dough balls) with atchar and white liver and kota (half loaf of bread filled with curry), ending the day with a shisanyama (meat cooked over an open fire).

On the opposite side, in Orlando East, is a bed-and-breakfast in operation for over 16 years. TDJ’s BnB is a home-owned business catering for local and international visitors. Their aim this year is to start using the Airbnb services to help increase their profits.

“We are looking forward to getting new guests from all over the world,” says TDJ’s manager Nomthandazo Ntshingila.

READ MORE: Staying In Hotels

She says joining Airbnb will give her an edge moving her numbers higher than the average 30 visitors she receives per month. Currently, a room at TDJ’s costs R454 ($38) a night.

For a more authentic experience, tourists can taste African beer brewed at the guest house. Another hotspot guests can visit is Sakhumzi, a Sowetan shisanyama restaurant and bar.

A key difference between Mashele’s and Ntshingila’s businesses is that the former has Wi-Fi on site allowing him to stay active on social media.

“One of the requirements to host with Airbnb was to offer Wi-Fi services to potential clients. We then got Wi-Fi before listing on the app,” says Ntshingila.

Hosts need to be constantly connected to an online platform and keep the most updated information on their availability and business.

The accommodation hosting platform tells FORBES AFRICA they are working on refining their offerings and making “regular updates to ensure people get exactly what they are looking for”. It’s clear that for the app to take off in townships like Soweto, homeowners need to be empowered with technology.

Airbnb says it’s planning to invest $1 million from 2018 to 2020 to promote and support community-led tourism projects in Africa. The project aims to support training in hospitality and technology for township residents.

Indeed, such investments will also help upskill those living in less-developed areas within Soweto such as Kliptown and Pimville, and as a result, reduce the barriers for entrepreneurs wishing to rent out their homes and bring in precious tourism dollars, much-needed in today’s difficult times.

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Magda Wierzycka’s India

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Magda Wierzycka

Magda Wierzycka, CEO of Sygnia Asset Management, is known for her leadership style, her controversial Twitter feed and her no-nonsense take on politics and business.

She also loves to travel.

For over a decade, she and her husband bundled their two sons up four times a year and whisked them away: to the steamy Amazon, over rocky seas to Antarctica (“the glaciers are the most amazing things one could ever see in a lifetime”) and even the last refuge of the strange and wonderful; the Galapagos Islands (“I’d go back in a flash”).

They’ve visited over 80 countries together, including Wierzycka’s birthplace, Poland, which she describes brusquely as “not a mainstream tourist destination”. Compared to the descriptions of her other trips, it’s clear Poland is not a country of happy memories for her; in 1981, her family escaped the communist regime and found refuge in South Africa.

Many of the moments Wierzycka plans for her children are a foil to the experiences she had growing up. Their trips are also crucial parent-child bonding time, especially with Wierzycka working demanding hours as a CEO.

She says in a telephonic interview with FORBES AFRICA: “When you’re traveling with kids and then taking them to exotic locations, it means they are very reliant on you. If you go to a beach they couldn’t care less. They’re on their iPads or phones most of the time. But if you travel, they have nowhere to go except where you’re going. So they have to have every meal with you, they have to interact, there are a lot of things to discover: you hike, you canoe; which means you spend a lot of time together.”

The family’s five-week trek across India was one of their more significant and meaningful trips, with the bulk of their adventure taking place across The Golden Triangle, comprising New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur; the most visited tourist spots in northern India.

It’s named ‘golden’ for the cultural and historical richness of each city. The Wierzycka family started their 2013 trip in New Delhi with their then 13- and 15-year-old sons.

“The first time we were thrown into India, and the very first thing we did which petrified the living daylights out of us – you couldn’t have had greater exposure to anything – we did a bicycle tour of New Delhi… There were monkeys and there were cows and the four of us on bicycles. I just remember being petrified of absolutely everything about it,” she laughs at the memory.

“It was kind of the most bizarre thing we’ve ever done and in hindsight, a very dangerous thing, because you were thrown into chaos, absolute chaos.”

But it wasn’t the chaos that made India memorable for Wierzycka. It was traveling from temple to temple, and consciously demystifying religion for her children.

“I was brought up very strict Roman Catholic, and I had only had my kind of ‘aha!’ moment when I learned the truth at the age of 12 or 13, when suddenly instead of thinking of Jesus Christ as a God, I read a book which portrayed him as a man, and prophet, and I just thought I don’t want my kids to grow up to the age of 12 to realize [only then] that there is more than one religion. I never wanted them to have that moment I had,” she explains.

Magda Wierzycka with her sons in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India (Photo supplied)

After this experience in her teens, shaking away institutionalized thinking was a pressing priority for her as a mother; the one way she had done that, years before, was by taking her children to Vietnam to see the other side of the famous war.

“If you’ve ever been to India, you learn that there is a religion about everything. [India] is effectively a way of learning where religion originates from, and it’s kind of demystifying religion for everybody.

“[I noticed that] all religions started in the same way: it might have been thousands of years ago, but it always started with someone who had a particular vision or theory and then created a following around a particular concept. [My sons] have a deep understanding of different cultures and different religions, and a very high level of religious tolerance. The only thing we don’t tolerate in my house is intolerance! You don’t have this kind of religious intolerance.

“Because coming back from Poland, growing up in Poland, there was only one religion – and that was Roman Catholic. There was no such concept as not believing – we had to go to church every Sunday, we had to go to confession, and God was always looking over you…

“And so… giving [my children] diversity was essential to me. First of all, that they grow up in a completely tolerant household that stretches across every boundary…”

Wierzycka’s disillusionment with the indoctrination of her youth drives much of her excursion planning.

“I think all of our trips have been a way to show them the reason ‘why’. All our trips have had that built into them, whether that is looking at museums, or going to Cambodia and looking at the Khmer Rouge regime and looking at the atrocities committed. I want my children to learn not to take things at face value. Analyze things.”

Now, with one child in Columbia University and the other hopefully headed to Harvard, family trips are going to be harder to coordinate, but they’re not going to stop. Their next destination? Alaska.

READ MORE: Cosmas Maduka’s Japan

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