An African Island in the Indian Ocean. A micro-continent. A mystery. Madagascar is pregnant with rare endemic species of flora and fauna encompassing arboreal mammals such as Lemurs to six types of Baobab trees not found on the African mainland. The great undulations of Madagascar’s topography range from sandy, white beaches to hot tropical forests and from lonely desertscapes to verdant highlands making it a perfect setting for an unforgettable motorcycle adventure.
“Rooooaaaaaaaar!” sounded the engines of the motorbikes as they came to life and we left Tanna embarking on our journey! Entranced by the anticipation of what we would see, we began our journey in the areas surrounding the capital Antananarivo or Tanna as it is fondly called as a short hand. Antananarivo with its royal palaces, ancient burial sites, jacaranda trees and wooden houses is a charming old settlement layered with colonial history. As we rode south through the central highlands, we were welcomed with magnificent views, snaky roads, mountain passes, numerous rivers and lakes. The further one rides through the highlands, one gets exposed to the traditional agricultural practices of rice cultivation. Reminiscent of South East Asia, rice in Madagascar is also planted onto sculpted terraces, carved out on the slopes of the highlands. We made several stops on the way and gazed at the staggering views around us. Below us, in the valleys, the refracted rays of the sunlight reflected the numerous lakes and paddy fields, the gleam flashed in our eyes, like a thousand broken mirrors.
The magnificent scenery and the vibrant rural life along the country roads are riveting to anyone who visits Madagascar for the first time. As you go deeper into the heart of the country, one encounters small markets; roadside fires with barbeques and small improvised street kitchens dotted along the way. At these junctures, local people dressed in clothes with colorful African prints, gather around, taking a break from their inter village commutes or a brief hiatus from field work to lunch communally on the roadside. Groups cluster around next to a few old and rusty local buses, with floats of live chickens and noisy turkeys on the roofs. We experienced only friendliness, hospitality and curiosity from the locals everywhere we paused.
The Merina people populate the highlands and the environs outside the villages are imbued with a sacred aura, pregnant with time, myth and memory. Curving around windy mountainous roads, our motorbikes sped through the light and shadows of the rugged landscape. I recall being spellbound, whizzing pass tall pine trees, terraced rice fields, and ancient tombs.
Winding mountain roads and magnificent views
I trailed slightly behind the others to ensure the rest of the riders were doing well ahead of me. As I drove behind the group, I encountered, a barefooted Merina shepherd herding a group of 30 Zebu, the name for the local cattle, down the road. The noise of the motorcycle disrupted the Zebu causing one of the big bulls to break free and bound across the road. Apologetically, I slowed down, yet, to my astonishment (and delight), the shepherd remained nonchalant as he swiftly maneuvered the bull back into the herd. With ease he lifted his herding stick, skillfully raising it above his head as a gesture to summon the animal. The cattle moved on peacefully as if nothing happened. Everything returned to how it was. I was amazed with how easily things settled down. I switched into second gear, slowly overtook the cattle and saluted the shepherd with my left hand as an expression of my gratitude. The only way I really had of communicating my appreciation for his dexterity in keeping his herd together and facilitating my onward journey.
“Hallo Fassa!” he called after me in a friendly voice while smiling, and reciprocating my salute as he waved his stick into the air. “Fassa” means “white man” in Malagasy, which is the dominant language spoken across the 1100 kilometers of this long Island. I remained moved by my simple exchange with the shepherd. Although, we embodied such divergent temporal and social worlds, we connected on a human level of mutual respect and curiosity. I gradually got back in third gear and caught up with the rest of the crew, happy with the after effects of my encounter.
We continued our trip along the twisting highland roads of central Madagascar, where cow herds, and bullock cars are more common sights than motorized vehicles. In these echelons, the sun luxuriates in a clear blue sky as a crisp and cool breeze refreshes one as one uninterruptedly passes through sleepy villages. Moving ahead, one leaves behind quaint settlements with adobe houses and old churches, betraying the colonial past. Time here is frozen and feels to be standing still for centuries.
From the Amazon to Nevada
As we approached some of the villages, the local children caught sight of our motorcycle caravan and started running towards us. The sound of the machines excited them and the most brave of them reached out their hands hoping to receive a “high five.” We were all mutually fascinated with each other, they with the foreign motorcyclists, who probably looked like aliens, and we, on the other hand, were enthralled with their bright smiles and earnest brown eyes yet most of all with their friendliness and enthusiasm to connect with us. Covered in heavy black riding gear, gloves and silver colored helmets with GoPro cameras attached on the top, we did, indeed, look like spacemen. The vivacious children rewarded an understated salutation such as a subtle hand raise from the motorcyclists with cheering and laughter. Our day was made.
Madagascar is also referred to as the eighth continent due to its diverse geographical features and is divided into three dominant zones: The eastern coast, which, is covered in lush and impenetrable rainforest with year round rainfall and large rivers. The central highland that consist of hills at higher altitudes with cool breezes, here the land is primarily agricultural land. And the western coast, which is hot, desert-like and has a golden landscape where thorny cactuses and colossal Baobab trees grow.
After a while of riding southwest from Tanna, we entered a lush rainforest via winding roads along a large river that turned into a thundering waterfall. We parked our motorcycles not far from the waterfall and went for a walk through the jungle in the hilly terrain of Ranomafana National Park, where we spotted a group of brown lemurs. Lemurs are primates who are endemic only to Madagascar and the neighboring Comoro Islands. They live in the dense jungle and we were lucky to get very close to them. We climbed to the top of the hill and were pleased with what we beheld: an Amazonian vista of dense, green jungle with curving, swollen rivers that stretched as far as the eye could see.
After riding no more than 120 kilometers west, the jungle turned into a dry mountainous landscape with paddy fields, similar to the landscape of the foothills of the Himalayas. We also rode among tea plantations and paid a short visit to an old tea factory where we saw how the tea production took place in Madagascar.
From the winding mountain roads in the highlands and around the tea plantations, we continued on further southwest. Once again, the landscape dramatically changed, as large, sandy plateaus and Prairie like grasslands replaced the paddy fields. The landscape became increasingly dry and several of the riders were reminded of the landscapes of the Nevada desert in the southwest of the United States. The road was wide, paved and broad, which allowed us to increase the speed of the motorcycles and feel the dry wind on us as the terrain was passing us by and the sun shone from a cloudless sky.
Our next stop was at a small forest reserve known as Anja Reserve. In Anja Reserve, one can get the unique opportunity to get very close to a black and white ring tailed species of lemurs who live on this part of the tropical island. On our little hike through the forest we could hear the lemurs calling each other and we spotted about 20 lemurs playing everywhere: on the trunks of trees, on large grey rocks and on the ground. They came very close when we sat absolutely still.
We continued our drive towards the southwest again and spent the night at a hotel near Isalo National Park. We arrived just as the sun was sinking over the mountains; we kicked off our gear and enjoyed cool beers while the sky changed colors. When darkness befell and the motorcycles were safely parked at the hotels, we gave way to our appetites that had been built up over the day and devoured the local cuisine. The local fare is a mixture of Asian, East African and French dishes such as freshly caught fish drizzled with an unusual yet delicious sauce made from fresh vanilla accompanied with lots of fresh locally grown root vegetables. In Madagascar, locally brewed sugar cane rum is the choice of alcohol. The rum is flavored with different spices such as vanilla, cinema, and cardamom or with coconuts, banana and the fruit from the Baobab tree. It is almost always served along with the dessert, so as to ensure that no one leaves the table without being in a good mood!
Where the ancestors live and ancient baobab trees grow
After a visit to Isalo National Park, where we walked through the mountain landscape, swam in cool waterfalls, came close to brown lemurs and ate an outdoor lunch cooked over open fire, we returned to the motorcycles. We rode the last stretch towards the western coast of Madagascar whose shores are washed by the lapping waves of the Mozambique Channel. The roadside again was scattered with burial sites, consisting of tombs decorated with horns of zebu oxen and totemic wooden figures that represented Zebu bulls.
The people that live on the southwestern coast are known as the Vezo. Like many other ethnic groups in Madagascar, the Vezo revere their ancestors and celebrate the dead through a ritual known as the Famadihana. At the time of the Famadihana, which in essence, is a rite of passage, graves are opened, approximately every three years, after a family member has passed away. The ritual is centered on the remains of the dead family members in order to transform and fortify them as ancestors. The bones of the deceased are carried to a river or to the nearest lake where they are washed and cleaned before being returned to the tomb. The process is accompanied with live music and dancing. The dead family member is now immortalised into an ancestor, whose spirit lives among the people of the village, forever watching and guiding them. Ancestors play an integral part in Malagasy spirituality and cosmology and are called “Razana” the living dead as their presence is potently felt in the emotional and cultural lives of the locals. It is fascinating to ponder the similarities between the Famadihana and the death rituals of the Toraja in Sulawesi and to appreciate their historical and anthropological links.
We reached our final destination, Tulear, towards the evening and drove slightly north along the coast to Ifaty. Ifaty is a conservation area and home to a wild thorny forest and large Baobab trees. For someone who has never seen a Baobab tree before, the tree looks surreal: It appears to look like an inversion of itself with the roots on top. Baobabs are characterized by their thick, fat trunks, grey colored barks and with very few spindly branches dotted with tiny green leaves that bear large brown fruits in season. Baobab trees are sacred and can be likened to the old Oaks of Northern Europe, the giant Banyans of Asia and the Sequoia’s, the gigantic pine trees of northern California. The Baobabs in Ifaty loom and contrast with the low thorny shrubs and cacti giving one the feeling that one is lost in a troll forest with an otherworldly atmosphere. The sun set on the Mozambique channel and marked the end of our magical motorcycle voyage across Madagascar, leaving us in the twilight with unforgettable memories.
Text and photo: Villads Kok Mortensen