22.06.2017 - 25.08.2017
Greetings from wonderful, beautiful Praslin in the Seychelles. Home to the world's sexiest fruit (the Coco de mer) and several potential entrants in internet lists of 'the best beaches in the world', it really is a veritable slice of paradise and a truly perfect place to end any trip. 2 months earlier we began our journey of 13 islands spread over 4 countries via 11 flights and 11 boat trips, so after such a complicated trip it felt invigorating to end the trip in such a glorious location.
After an epically bad flight (we turned up 24 hours late via Johannesburg) we finally got to start the trip in Mauritius, the world's first openly gay country. Mark Twain claimed heaven was based on Mauritius and it's not difficult to see why. Aside from the perfect white sand and turquoise waters the lush green landscape is a bit of a wonderland of volcanic fecundity with fruits and vegetables growing everywhere and the island able to support one of the highest population densities in the world.
As with the Seychelles later on, Britain and France traded the island according to whom was in the ascendancy in the Indian Ocean at the time and it's left an interesting melange of people and cultures. The French brought African slaves to the island and the British later brought Indians over as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations so it's not unusual to see churches, mosques and Hindu temples within a single village. In many ways it reminded me of Guyana or Suriname in the make up of the population but Mauritius is doing far better as a country. Due to a long running focus on education and shrewd political decisions on where to focus investment in the economy (from agriculture to clothing manufacturing to IT and finance) the country is very much a Middle Income country and consequently there are far fewer social problems like crime of racial disharmony meaning it's a very safe and easy place to live.
That's not to say it's perfect; as in many similar countries lots of the best beaches have been bought up by resort chains or property developers and public areas do feel slightly second class but overall it's undoubtedly one of the more successful ex colonies.
After 10 days of relaxing and enjoying the ease of Mauritius it felt like we needed more of a challenge in Madagascar and we certainly got that.
Madagascar is not really like what most people would expect; although for such a big country it doesn't really get a lot of press generally. Informed largely by the Dreamworks films, most people probably think that Madagascar is made up impenetrable jungle with few people and unusual animals everywhere but that's not the case at all.
After arriving and spending a couple of days in the polluted and chaotic capital city Antananarivo (or Tana for short) we were pleased to leave it behind and get out into the countryside. Our first adventure was a pirogue trip on the Manambolo river down to the West coast for 4 days. In many ways it was amazing as we saw virtually nobody but our boatmen and heard no noises except river birds and the lazy river slowly winding it's way downstream. We camped every night on river islands and whilst it was supremely relaxing the landscape was surprisingly monotonous and at times quite sad to look at.
As with so many LICs, Madagascar has undergone appalling deforestation in recent decades for hardwoods, firewood and in particular slash and burn agriculture. Whilst it's not Haiti in terms of damage done, in the dry season this has created a landscape of rolling empty yellow grass hills with few trees and surprisingly little to see in much of the country.
When we arrived at the coast we were greeted by the spectacular Tsingy national park; a stunning collection of limestone pinnacles and caves that they've created an excellent harnessed climbing route through. It took all day but was utterly exhilarating climbing through the formations and it was nice to get some physical exercise after so long on the pirogue.
After finishing in the Tsingy we then had to start travelling by road and as with so many African countries, getting around quickly proved to be a harrowing experience in Madagascar. Despite being the size of France the country only has around 2000km of paved roads and many of the national highways are little more than dirt tracks that are closed for several months a year during the rainy season. Journeys are done by taxi brousses (converted mini busses) and they really are an ordeal to get through. Your fellow passengers don't really have the same hygiene considerations as you would in a Western country and will hawk and spit on the floor or fart without a second thought. Malagasies also have a lot of kids (who go free) and on one particular journey there were 18 adults and 17 children on 18 seats. Being thrown around so much by the journey, the kids predictably started throwing up everywhere and mixed up with the phlegm of the others the bus quickly became truly disgusting to sit in. Many of the vehicles are in shocking condition and whilst extremely cheap, progress is often glacially slow and most tourists end up either renting a private vehicle with driver or simply fly between the destinations.
Obviously this jacks up the cost of travelling considerably and removes you from ordinary people and actually experiencing the country rather than just being on a guided tour. Therefore I found the balance between 'adventure' and 'comfort' was very difficult to get right and ultimately at the end of travelling through Madagascar I had the unusual feeling that the parts of the trip were 'greater than the sum'. Whilst we saw and did some amazing things, the actual practical difficulties of travelling meant the trip as a whole didn't feel that easy but that's what you get when you go to more unusual places.
The denuded landscape has left the country with 3 distinct climate zones, the East coast where there is still some rapidly shrinking rainforest, the temperate central highlands (where most of the population people live) and the desert or spiny forest in the West.
Whilst generally not the most interesting landscape, the spiny forest did have some real highlights to see with the beautiful Baobab trees springing up sporadically as well as some good national parks where we got to see some lemurs.
Madagascar is of course very famous for its wildlife as it's isolated location causes it to be something of an '8th continent' with over 11,000 species of animal and countless plants species endemic to the country. The reality is a far cry from wildlife watching in Kenya or Tanzania though as the wildlife simply isn't easy to spot as most of them are simply small (lemurs are as big as they get) shy and their habitat has often been cut down. Therefore wildlife watching is slow and you have to be patient; alternatively you can go to created lemur parks or areas where humans leave rubbish like campsites and they'll come and find you, but it's not quite the same.
After some lovely snorkelling and whale watching on the reef in the South West we headed back to the capital and it's 'view of a thousand hills' (not really). After reading about Harry Flashman's adventures with Ravalona I (the Maddest Queen of them all) a few years ago, I was expecting the country to be quite wild and colourful but the culture was less distinctive than I was expecting and certainly nowhere near as memorable as somewhere like Ethiopia in terms of food, clothing, music etc. One thing that is quite unique about the population and which struck me immediately on arrival was just how odd the people look. Madagascar does not have an indigenous population but it's 25m people have come in waves from different parts of the Indian ocean. Therefore the people can look as though they're Indonesian, Arabic, African or from the Indian subcontinent. Whilst they split into 18 major tribal areas over the last 500 years there has been enough intermixing (particularly in the capital region) that they look often look like a mixture of all those ethnic groups and so trying to describe what a Malagasy looks like is nigh on impossible.
Before visiting the North of Madagascar we took a 9 day detour to the Comoros, where the people are definitely African, definitely Muslim and definitely not gay .
A liberal Muslim island archipelago to the East of Mozambique it is a former French colony composed and would rank as one of the world's most obscure countries. It turned out to be a really nice contrast to Madagascar in that the country is covered in tropical rainforest but is relatively easy to get to and explore (and get lost in). Getting between the 2 main islands of Grand Comore and Anjouan would have to rank as one of the toughest sea crossings I've ever done. In a part of the world where safety precautions are limited to put it mildly, setting off in a Chinese built ferry quickly felt very unsafe. The Indian the ocean is meant to be calm but almost immediately after leaving port the sea was up to swells of 5-8m and it felt like riding the pirate ship at a theme park as you climbed and dropped over the wave crests. I'd estimate 60% of the passengers threw up over the 6 hour journey and I just felt so sorry for the poor crew whose job on the crossing was largely composed of going inside and carrying bags of sick out and then throwing them overboard. After our motor broke down in the middle of the ocean just as the sun was setting, I did start to worry as to how we could be rescued but thankfully after 45 stomach churning minutes the crew got it going again and we thankfully made it to Anjouan.
As often happens though the next day we immediately had another reckless adventure on the island's highest mountain, Mt Ntringui.
After climbing up to a beautiful crater lake we continued pushing on up to the 1500m summit on the thickly forested mountain. Unfortunately we then got very lost trying to find a way down to the city. After losing the path we continued getting nowhere trying to descend through forest so thick you needed a machete to clear a path. After getting far too close to a near vertical drop, despite having been hiking all day we had to take the decision to exhaustedly reascend the mountain back to where we could safely camp. We then made an heroic effort to firstly climb back up to the summit in the twilight and then getting up and descending the way we'd come at 3am the next morning to make our boat on time. Every single muscle in our bodies ached but the sense of relief in being back to safety when you have been in genuine trouble is an incredible feeling.
Much easier was the spectacular Karthala volcano which dominates the main island Grand Comore in a similar way to Etna on Sicily. A huge volcano that has erupted 3 times in the 21st century, there are lava fields all over the island and wherever you are the volcano stands imposingly and ominously above you. The relatively straightforward climb up was rewarded by views out towards the other islands and in to the spectacular 12km caldera which is so big it has several craters smoking inside it. It takes a couple of hours just to walk around it all and when the cloud clears it's an incredible vista and definite highlight of the country.
Unfortunately we finished our time in the Comoros in the capital Moroni but as with many other areas of the country it was ruined by a terrible litter problem. Across the country you see abandoned cars and disgusting beaches covered in rubbish and it creates a really negative impression of the place as it's such an easy problem to fix. On the final day in Moroni at the market I saw a huge rat run directly in front of a cat who didn't even bother to chase it and unfortunately this would be one of the defining images of our time in the Comoros. Whilst Mauritius and the Seychelles have world famous tourist industries (and a decent standard of living) I couldn't help but think the Comoros could join them if they cleaned the country up a bit.
On returning to Madagascar we took a flight North and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of life. The French ran the country from the North the cities of Hellville and Diego Suarez were clean, orderly and had some lovely colonial architecture.
In many ways it was a nice area to finish the country in but the French owned hotels and bars was not really representative of the poverty elsewhere in the country.
Partly due to it's isolated location and lack of involvement in the global economy or geopolitics, Madagascar is almost completely ignored by rest of the world. One of the poorest countries in the world at a GDP of just $400 per person, it's the sort of place where 90%+ of the population could be described as poor (1/3 of the population still practice open defecation) but yet receives little to no aid, investment or even interest beyond its wildlife. There is a strong feeling of economic inertia here as unemployment (and underemployment) plus a high birth rate leave so many people just 'hanging around' for most of the day, most days. I do find it frustrating that a country like Madagascar which desperately needs help to develop its infrastructure and agricultural productivity but generates no problems is essentially ignored whilst basket case countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan have tens of billions of dollars wastefully pumped into them every year. It's not a fair world.
Whilst travelling through Madagascar I found it difficult to get away from the poverty and it can be a very humbling place to travel in. On our last night we took a taxi back to our hotel but the 40-50 year old Citroen we got into was way past the point of safe or reliable usage. Despite the poor driver never leaving first gear it was giving off awful fumes and broke down several times in just a few km. He'd briefly get it going again using push starts but the car had quite simply gone, however he clearly had no other asset in the world to help him earn a living and so had no choice but to persist with it. After it broke down one last time we got out and walked the last km and as we walked away I felt so, so lucky to be able to get on a flight the next day...
And so we finished our trip in the glorious, also gay Seychelles. Whilst not cheap, it is a place where you can 'live the dream' as perfect white beaches are flanked by huge granite boulders and palm trees. Half the tourists there seemed to be on honeymoon although ironically Seychelles has one of the lowest marriage rates in the world and 3/4 of the population are born out of wedlock!
As with the likes of the Maldives they have firmly put their eggs in the luxury tourism industry and it's worked as Seychelles has the highest GDP per capita in Africa and few problems of any note. In truth it doesn't really feel like an African country and in many ways is much more similar in culture and atmosphere to some of the Caribbean islands as most people work in tourism and large parts of the coastline have been parceled off into different resorts.
Getting around however is easy and after structuring the trip to be something of a sandwich i.e. easy Mauritius then more challenging Madagascar and Comoros in the middle, we were delighted to have such a relaxing end to the trip. We hiked, cycled, snorkelled, played with giant tortoises and otherwise kicked back in these paradisical islands for a week.
Logistically this wasn't the easiest trip to plan and at times it was quite difficult but I finished the trip pleased to have got through it safely but also delighted to have had the opportunity to experience this part of the world.