As we pulled on to the road to begin a week-long drive across the world’s fourth-largest island, our guide and driver offered up something of a local cliché: “We say that in Madagascar the landscape changes every two hours.” He wasn’t wrong.
Madagascar’s National Road Number 7 extends about 600 miles between the capital Antananarivo (just “Tana,” to locals, in an impressive display of syllable elimination) and Toliara (or Tulear), a small city on the country’s southwestern coast. It passes through the flat and dry coastal region, grassy plains, the edges of strange spiny forests, mountains of varying topographical style, and rainforests. It skirts several national parks, which are hopping with the lemurs and chameleons that have made the country a wildlife-viewing destination. And it bisects human habitations ranging from a tiny collection of thatch huts to relatively large cities. It manages all that over a distance equivalent to a once-and-back trip between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
My wife and I set out from the Toliara end of the road in early July, along with our guide, Tojo (pronounced Too-joo—the letter “O” in Malagasy often defaults to more of a “U” sound). As we headed east, starting near a marker for the Tropic of Capricorn, it quickly became clear that the every-two-hours rule should extend far beyond just landscapes. It seemed like every time we looked up, there was a some new thing happening—each town had its own specialty, its own hustle. The 18 Malagasy tribes have their own styles of house-building, of dress, their own methods of burying the dead. Here is a grazing area for Madagascar’s ubiquitous cattle sub-species the zebu. There they grow bananas and other tropical fruit. And farther on, you’ll see a few of the rice paddies that feed the country. It felt almost insulting to look away for a few minutes—you would miss too much.
When we started out from Toliara, the land was flat and mostly clear, with tendrils of the spiny forest encroaching on the road—and it really was the road, as outside of major cities the few National Roads are the only paved routes around. Every few miles a tiny village would crop up, consisting of huts made from sticks and clay. Cars were relatively scarce, but there were plenty of people walking and biking along the sides of the road, most carrying bundles of sticks down from forests to sell in the city. One Malagasy tribe, the Vezo (VAY-zu), had started out as fishermen, but some had retreated inland to the forests—they thought fishing relied too much on luck, Tojo told us, but the trees were all right there, no luck required.
It does, of course, require that there be trees. Madagascar has lost something like 90 percent of its original forests, affecting the entire island and highlighting its fundamental conflict in recent years: If the country wants to continue a push to modernize, the growing tourism industry likely has to be a big part. Keeping what forests remain, and all the lemurs and chameleons that live there, is considered a huge priority, though it may conflict with some of the traditional ways of life.
A few hours in we started passing large grave sites, easily visible from the road. These were made by the Mahafaly people, we learned. The graves were huge and walled, almost like miniature medieval forts, with plenty of space to paint an impressive variety of pictures along their sides. The Mahafaly decorate their graves with images of the deceased’s life, or—and this is where it gets interesting—images of what the deceased wanted out of life. One memorable grave featured easily recognizable images of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo and a mid-kick Bruce Lee. Tojo suggested the man—Bruno, according to the grave—wanted to be a great fighter, but it seemed just as likely that he wanted to be an actor.
Not long after the graves petered out, we eased into a small town known for its rum. Shirtless teenage boys worked by the side of the road, aggressively crushing sugar cane inside what looked like rusted oil drums. “This town has a big problem,” Tojo told us. “All the old people have gone blind.”
It turns out, for many years the people who lived here have just been casually drinking rum straight from the stills. As they lack any semblance of the gadgetry that might tell them what percentage alcohol is present, they were likely drinking something like 180-proof firewater. That is… not good for you.
A bit later, after stopping to help an Oustalet’s chameleon complete a treacherous road crossing, we approached the town of Sakaraha. Along with a couple of other spots in Madagascar, this had become an area famous for its sapphires and other precious gemstones. In a barren area next to town, miners dig wells down to a depth of 25 meters and grab chunks of the red clay and pull it back up. They bring this to the river nearby—we saw stacks and stacks of bags, filled to bursting with this clay—where they pan for sapphires.
Like much of what we saw, though, this lucrative industry isn’t really lucrative for the Malagasy people standing up to their knees in the river, or leaning over the holes in the baked countryside. A few larger houses lined Sakaraha’s streets—these belonged exclusively to foreigners from various parts of the world, who apparently come in and buy the gems from the miners at basement prices before selling them abroad at closer to market value.
Not everything is designed to exploit, though. We soon came to our first protected area, the forests of Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park. At all of the country’s parks, which are the main draw for the burgeoning tourism industry, it is required to hire a local guide to take you through. Next to a tiny ranger’s hut a group of seven or eight young people sat and talked, and one of these—along with his younger sister—took us into the park. Our first experience of Madagascar wildlife did not disappoint; the siblings whistled back and forth through the trees to each other and to the animals, drawing out responses from various confused treetops. A few chameleons, two species of sleepy nocturnal lemurs, an up-close look at the absurd baobab trees, and a troop of sifaka later, we headed back on to National Road Number 7.
This was all on the first day.
Madagascar is a country of 26 million people, placing it around 50th on a world ranking of population, but it sits below 150th on the UN’s Human Development Index. It suffers from a relatively low literacy rate, corruption is apparently rampant, and the nation exists in a semi-continuous state of political upheaval, with a presidential election looming this December. It is home to an exceptionally young population: with a median age of under 20 years old, it ranks near the bottom of that particular list (the U.S., with its median age of 38 years, is 60th). It relies heavily on agriculture, with 80 percent of all people employed in that sector.
As one heads east across the island, Madagascar’s climate gets wetter, revealing more of that agricultural output. But even before we started seeing the endless rice paddies, terraced into hillsides and spread out across flat plains, there were the zebu. So, so many zebu. They were grazing near villages, or out in fields with no visible structures for miles. They were on the roads, helping carry wood and other goods or being shepherded along from 1,000 miles south on the way to markets in the larger cities.
Zebu meat was on every menu, and every bit of cultural explanation Tojo offered seemed to involve zebu trading, selling, herding, sacrificing, eating. At one point, as we approached the beautiful, Utah-like landscapes of Isalo National Park, we saw smoke in the distance, and eventually drove past a massive brush fire burning all the way up to the road. As we passed, we flinched back from the windows, surprised by the heat. Dozens of large birds—yellow-billed kites, as it turned out—swirled around the edges of the flames, dive-bombing the rodents and snakes that were fleeing the fire. A fire that was set, intentionally, so the dried out, dead grass could quickly grow back fresh and green—grass for the zebu to eat. Tojo called the people that did this “crazy,” and the next day on a long hike we saw why: a few months earlier, one fire had careened out of control and burned a chunk of the nearby national park.
As National Road Number 7 swings north on its way to Tana, the gravity of the capital becomes increasingly apparent. Houses gain in sturdiness and in size; villages become towns become small cities. Large trucks start dominating the road, which is often just wide enough to sneak past without falling off the shoulder.
We stopped in Fianarantsoa, a city of a few hundred thousand people, and wandered through a weekly market in the drizzling rain. We even bought some Malagasy wine to try with dinner that night (verdict: they do import South African wine here!), which we ate in the rainforest town of Ranomafana after a visit to a decidedly luke-warm “hot spring” frequented by the locals.
The town is a gateway to another national park, where we saw golden bamboo lemurs, red-fronted brown lemurs, multiple species of leaf-tailed geckos, and multi-colored chameleons so plentiful on a night walk it seemed as though they were falling off the trees. At a small shelter on top of a hill that acts as a lookout point, I glanced up at the tin roof and spotted the largest spider I have ever seen that wasn’t behind glass at a zoo.
Back on the road the next day, we drove along a high plateau, where at some point in the past non-native eucalyptus trees were introduced. Their red-tinged leaves now dominate hillsides that otherwise would be barren, unable to replace the old-growth forests that humans saw fit to decimate.
The “famous for X” towns kept coming as we continued, now heading more directly north. In this town it’s honey, in this one it is rope made from a certain plant’s leaves. Here, the Zafimaniry people sell their famous wood carvings. On the last day and the last stretch of the trip, between the large city of Antsirabe and the larger capital, children as young as five or six sold kindling by the side of the road, fog drifted over rice-paddy-covered valleys, and, bizarrely enough, one area seemed to specialize in toy wooden trucks for sale, decorated with corporate logos like Coca-Cola.
The last shift in landscape we saw was the slow crawl across Tana itself, a bustling, crowded place that has apparently added cars far faster than it has added drivable roads. We passed men eating lunch as coffee beans roasted on a table next to them, and markets filled with bananas and bags of charcoal. There are reasonably modern buildings and houses adjacent to swamp-like sectors dotted with bare-bones huts, the country’s shifting landscapes squeezed into the frame of a single photograph.
As we flew up and out of Tana, I stared from the window, but clouds quickly obscured the view. Seeing the rest of those two-hour landscapes would have to wait, I thought; there are plenty of other National Roads left to explore.