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.
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.
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.
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
IN PICTURES | Along the banks of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile
The Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. Around is an ancient land with life-giving waters.
If one needs to be transported to biblical times, the time machine to do so resides on the banks of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. This ancient land of many cultures and religions has resisted modernity, leaving many of its traditions intact, as I witnessed traveling through the historic Christian circuit of Ethiopia.
The mysterious Nile was long-hidden from Western geographers and explorers. It was not until the expeditions of such great travelers as Bruce, Burton, and Speke in the 18th century that the origins were confirmed: the White Nile originates in East Africa’s Lake Victoria, while the Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana.
It merges with the smaller tributary, the White Nile, at Khartoum, Sudan, to form the mighty Nile River.
The Blue Nile was responsible for the annual floods that contributed to the fertility of the Nile Valley and subsequent rise of the Egyptian civilization. This ended with the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt.
For my exploration, I started in Addis Ababa and flew into Bahir Dar, a clean, safe and well-maintained city (by African standards) and the closest approach to the Blue Nile.
It offers access to more than 20 of the world’s oldest monastic churches that date back to the 14th century, located on the peninsulas and islands of Lake Tana. I hired a boat that regularly plies Lake Tana to visit many of its churches and small villages.
I was quite surprised to see locals operating papyrus boats (tankwas) that have been in use since the 9th century BC, either to fish or transport firewood across the lake. The only other place where I have seen papyrus boats still in use was in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
My biblical adventure took me first to the magnificent 14th century Ura Kidane Mehret church decorated with its astoundingly beautiful murals painted more than 250 years ago.
From a rather humble building, some of Ethiopia’s fabled treasures were revealed to me by a priest of the church: ancient parchment books from the 9th century, jewel-studded crowns of emperors, historic battle implements and the mummified remains of 14 of Ethiopia’s most revered emperors.
I was quite surprised at the poor quality of the storage cabinets and an absolute lack of proper security for such priceless treasures.
It barely took a five-minute drive from the lakeside town of Bahir Dar to reach the spot where the Blue Nile flows out of Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. But driving further downstream for about 40 kilometers, the power of the first cataract of the Blue Nile can be appreciated at Tis-Isat village. The village is a market settlement of the Amhara people who have inhabited this area for over 2,000 years, farming crops like wheat, sorghum and teff (from which injera, the delicious national bread, is made).
The footpath leaving the village meanders first beside fertile open fields, then drops into a deep basaltic rift. After about a 30-minute walk, a stiff climb up a grassy hillside is rewarded by a magnificent view of the falls, breaking the smooth edge of the rolling river into a thundering cataract of foaming white water.
The approach to the falls was surreal with cowherds playing the flute and local women gathering water from the river in ceramic amphoras (ancient jugs) – scenes that were truly biblical. The Tis-Isat falls had been one of Ethiopia’s major tourist attractions until a decade ago.
Little did I realize that what I saw, despite being impressive, was a far cry from its gloried past. Since 2003, a giant hydroelectric power project has reduced the giant half mile wide water curtain to a mere third of its size. Even though there were many gorges nearby to install a power plant, the government decided on this easier location which has unfortunately affected fish farming in Lake Tana and tourism in the area.
Unlike some of the great falls of the world – Niagara, Victoria and Iguaçu – with endless hotels and tourist offerings nearby, the falls of the Blue Nile are located in a pastoral and primal setting that should showcase its natural might, but it’s being slowly being dammed into silence. Many young rural women and some men in the area sport tattoos of traditional designs, which are as diverse as Ethiopian society, usually indicating the bearer’s cultural, religious and ethnic background.
Traditional tattoos have many forms — from rows of blue or black lines from chin to chest, dots on the forehead to crucifixes or crescents on the back of the hand and tattoos designed to darken pinkish gums.
Meran Kabede, a young lady in her 20s peered through my car window, as I was taking photos of her tattoos. “I am ashamed of my tattoos. My mother told me that it would beautify me but my friends in Bahir Dar tell me that it’s a sign of backwardness and ignorance,” she said in halting English. While I appreciated the beautiful and unique facial decorations, I could very well see her desire to shed her rural identity for more modern times.
Not much has changed along the river bank over the centuries; donkey carts transport goods inland while papyrus and dugout boats carry people across the different villages lining the river.
One man, carrying an ancient firearm on his shoulder, claimed to be protecting himself from any number of ethnic conflicts that could arise. The Eritrean, Somali, South Sudan and Kenyan border areas have always been areas of unrest. In fact, I was fully escorted by a Kalashnikov-toting soldier for my tour of the highlands near the Eritrean border.
This ancient land with life-giving waters, in an otherwise parched landscape is both a blessing and curse for Ethiopia. The sharing of the Nile waters has become a contentious issue in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia where the population explosion has put pressure on water consumption. It is often said that the world’s next war will be fought over water and there are few places as tense as along the river Nile.
The Rise Of Millionaire Tourism
Private jets, elite lodges, haute cuisine and watching the perfect sunset – luxury safaris and bespoke experiences can cost anything from $20,000 to $350,000.
My greatest experience was standing in the Makgadikgadi salt pan in Botswana, which, as far as you can see in all directions is absolutely flat and white. Then the sun goes down. All of us have seen beautiful sunsets, and then there’s the glow and all of us have seen that. But then, there’s a kind of… grey pause. And then, the real sunset begins. It lasts for 35-40 minutes. The entire sky starts changing color and then the sun is long gone. But the sky lights up with all these fabulous colors that keep shifting all the way around you. We watched it every night,” says Christopher Beach, an American tourist describing a moment on his R3 million ($208,700) tour around southern Africa in May 2018.
This trip – a bucket list-adventure for the group of six friends and partners – was guided by tour company Luxury Africa Destination Management.
A 19-day excursion, this one-of-a-kind experience included private planes, luxury lodges and a full immersion in the sweeping landscapes of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
How is ‘luxury’ defined?
Is it a five-star stay at the Ritz-Carlton in New York, or a meal from a top chef at an elite restaurant?
For many top-tier, elite travelers today, ‘luxury’ isn’t about caviar and diamond-encrusted cutlery.
‘Luxury’ in travel has changed from a garish display of wealth to one about experiences, privacy, and unique memories all bundled into one bespoke package.
As Angama Mara Lodge co-founder, Nicky Fitzgerald, with decades of experience in decadent travel and top-tier lodges in southern Africa, explains: “There are different opinions of luxury. In the end, the stuff is just the stuff, and if you have enough money, anyone can have gold cups or build a beautiful lodge. But experiencing good game is unique, and having a talented guide and caring staff take the experience out of the ordinary. Luxury is bespoke care for each person. Luxury for the super-elite is watching the perfect sunset, and seeing the Milky Way from bed.”
The sunset on the Makgadikgadi salt pan in Botswana was such a luxury experience for Beach.
“It is more than a poetic experience. It’s a life-changing experience,” he says.
A regular traveler, he is the retired President and Artistic Director of the La Jolla Music Society in San Diego. For over 40 years now, he and his partner have traveled annually to Venice. A few years ago, Beach and his sister went on National Geographic’s 24-day ‘Around the World by Private Jet’ trip (costing a minimum of $82,950 per person and including destinations like Easter Island and Marrakesh). “[My partner and I] say to everyone – people know that we’ve spent 40 years traveling and we say to everybody – you have to trust us. [A trip to southern Africa] is the most transcendent travel experience of your life. I went on the National Geographic ‘Around The World By Private Plane’ trip a couple of years ago and it was great and it was first-class and all of that… But going on a safari exceeded anything we’ve ever experienced.”
According to Virtuoso’s annual Luxe Report, a luxury trip advisory service, “the desire for unspoiled natural beauty is continuing to motivate travelers”.
Their 2018 forecast listed Africa as one of the top five must-take trips. They said in the report: “From culturally-rich South Africa, which is also 2018’s top adventure destination, to the wilds of Botswana and Kenya, and to the souks of Morocco, Africa is one of the world’s most diverse continents. Virtuoso’s advisors say a safari is an integral part of the African experience, particularly with wildlife preservation a priority for today’s sustainably-savvy travelers.”
Though Beach doesn’t consider himself ‘rich’, his trip on the continent was certainly in the upper echelons of tourist budgets pouring into the continent.
As the Southern and East African Tourism Update website writes: “Millionaire tourism in Africa has been on the rise for several years. In 2016, a study by a Johannesburg-based research institution found that in a period of 12 months, around 43,000 individuals with net assets of $10 million or more visited the continent for a holiday.”
Stats SA backs up the importance of all tourism in South Africa: “The tourism sector directly contributed 2.9% to South African gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016.”
The lure of the bush and a chance to experience a complete immersion in landscapes unseen in the West, not to mention close encounters with animals, are hugely appealing to international visitors. Says founder of Famba Famba Tour Design Specialists, and winner of Gauteng’s Lilizela tourism award, Valentino Meirroti: “The tourism industry is growing. There is a growing market for luxury travel as air travel becomes cheaper worldwide. The super-wealthy are spending less money on material things and more on unique experiences.”
The private villas, the haute cuisine, the sundowners, and the private jets aren’t the draw cards for the super-elite traveler, Meirroti explains. The biggest appeal for these luxury tourists is the chance to experience the raw beauty and these special moments in relative privacy.
Angama Mara Lodge, a 30-sleeper villa is perched on a hill overlooking Kenya’s Maasai Mara, with these needs in mind. In peak season, during one of the world’s most phenomenal sightings – the Great Migration – guests will pay $1,650 per night per person. The lodge’s co-founder Fitzgerald, describes: “We have a heart-stopping view from our position over the valley. We’re absolutely packed in high season. We’re very, very high-end and visitors find that visiting us on a safari tour and witnessing the Great Migration at such close quarters is a huge highlight.”
Beach describes it as well: “This is like being on earth millions of years ago in the garden of Eden. You are invisible in your jeep. The animals ignore you. They are acclimatized to you. You’re not a threat, you’re not something to eat.”
Patrick Siebel, founder of Luxury Africa Destination Management, has a whole business built around creating bespoke, luxury tours.
Most people using his services spend a minimum of R300,000 ($20,877) for two weeks, but on his most opulent trip, six people spent R5 million ($348,000) on a 15-day trip. He says he has serviced, amongst others, Russian oligarchs, American businessmen and CEOs, and super-wealthy families.
Says Siebel: “Last year, I had a guy, he wasn’t even planning to visit South Africa I guess. But he had a super yacht with the tallest mast in the world. While he was here having their main sail fitted on, he ended up going up to Johannesburg and bought a whole safari camp. Fascinating people.”
This type of travel is also falling into the enlarging wellness travel industry.
This billion-dollar section of luxury travel feeds another, equally important part of the luxury traveler’s needs – relaxation and enrichment.
Skift quotes Joss Kent, CEO of andBeyond: “Health and wellness are an increasingly larger part of travel, but these can mean different things to different people. We’re seeing that guests are traveling, not to escape their daily lives, but to enrich them.”
Fitzgerald agrees: “It seems outrageous but people who like luxury travel have more of an issue with time than money. Some guests have no clue what they paid for their accommodation. There is so much money for people to do beautiful travel.”
Meirroti adds: “Our guests appreciate exclusivity, and a combination of complete relaxation while having a unique experience. People are happy to spend money for a bespoke experience that is well-organized and guided by knowledgeable guides.”
Perhaps Beach says it best: “When I travel to Africa, I want a place that is private, private, private, and you walk out in the morning and you are the only person in the world looking out over a vast horizon. It feels like you’re in Discovery Channel. And though African safari costs are some of the most expensive trips I take over the world, they are life-changing.”
- Samantha Steele
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