I was completely gobsmacked by Madagascar when I first arrived in 2006, as part of a televised tour around the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s like nowhere else on Earth. The only place I can compare it to is the Galápagos Islands, but on a much bigger scale; it’s the fourth biggest island in the world.
Everywhere you look in Antananarivo, or Tana, as it’s known, there is something surprising and different. It’s like a crazy mix of France, Nepal, Vietnam, Lima … There is an extraordinary mix of architecture: French colonialism and clay huts; old Renault 4s and rickshaws; paddy fields inside the city itself. I love that collision of cultures.
The train from Fianarantsoa to Manakara, a 101-mile trip to the coast, is the maddest journey I’ve ever been on. The track was built in colonial times and thousands of workers died during its construction; it was a wicked project. But now it helps Malagasy farmers in the hinterland shift out their crops of coffee and fruit. When the railway doesn’t run, the farmers are forced to slash and burn the land to grow rice. So the trains are now vital for conservation. The route has dozens of tunnels, viaducts, valleys, bridges and steep inclines. It’s totally chaotic – health and safety doesn’t exist: we stood on the cowcatcher on the front of the train. There are no proper lights, the toilets leak and it takes 12 hours, but it was magical.
Go to Ilakaka – but only during the day. It is a pretty lawless, wild west kind of town. Pink sapphires were discovered there in the late 1990s and there was a gem rush. It’s an extraordinary sight: a wooden town has sprung up with filthy miners wandering about, chubby lawmen in bars, gem sellers and buyers, prostitutes … You need to be pretty tough to go there.
Madagascar has been cut off from the rest of the world for so long (it split from the Indian peninsula about 88 million years ago) that life has evolved in specific and unique ways. It is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world; about 90% of the flora and fauna are endemic.
We’d search the forest for lemurs, only to return to our lodge and find them playing there. Berenty, a wildlife reserve in the south, is home to the island’s famous ringtailed and sifaka lemurs. When humans first settled on the island, they found lemurs the size of gorillas, and also elephant birds and jumping rats.
Madagascan forests are an extraordinary mix of thorn trees, octopus trees and incredible baobab trees. Some baobabs have caves carved into them for cattle herders to stay in. There is a legend that the tree looked so haughty, God turned it the wrong way up. There are several clear ecosystems across the island: dry savana, plateau, spiny desert, rainforest and grassland.
Blue Ventures is a conservation group in the south-west, which was founded by a young Brit. Volunteers can stay there and work with the locals to save the environment; you’re really embedded in a community. The Blue Ventures’ Captain Condom boat goes up and down the coast, helping people with family planning. I met the Vezo, a coastal people, when we went to a crazy little island.
The most memorable dish I ate was zebu penis soup (zebu are horned cattle). It was in a filthy cafe – more of a shack – near a market in Tana. The penis was massive, a metre long, and it looked revolting, served as pieces of gristly willy in a pretty rancid soup – not exactly fine cuisine. But I always encourage people to eat crazy food; weird insect dishes are on the menu in Madagascar, too.
There is a culture of taboos in Madagascar called fady. Centuries of isolation have allowed the human imagination to run wild. In some parts, you can’t wear red on a Thursday, or pass an egg from hand to hand. Twins are considered evil and are often left out in the forest. When someone dies, the dead body is left on matting. The juices seep out into a sipping cup that is passed around the relatives. It is the only thing I’ve ever refused to drink.