The peninsula where Anjajavy Le Lodge is located in Madagascar. David Rogers / Anjajavy Le Lodge
The peninsula where Anjajavy Le Lodge is located in Madagascar. David Rogers / Anjajavy Le Lodge

Madagascar is a world of its own



It’s not often you find yourself being served tea by the descendant of both a saint and a pirate. But Cédric de Foucault is no ordinary maître de maison. One of his ancestors, the Blessed Charles de Foucauld, was beatified by Pope Benedict while another, Robert Surcouf, the so-called “King of the Corsairs”, was a French pirate who terrorised the British merchant fleet in the Indian Ocean and was made a member of the Légion d’honneur by Napoleon.

This heady mixture of a selfless desire to serve combined with a buccaneering spirit of adventure has clearly been handed down in the genes. And the result is Cédric, the man at the helm of Anjajavy Lodge, one of the world’s most distinctive luxury hotels, on the tip of the Anjajavy Peninsula in the far northwest of Madagascar.

Our five nights here were the culmination of our first- ever visit to the island after two years in mainland Africa where my wife, Sarah, and I had been working in safari camps. Cédric recounted his remarkable family history as we sat in a landscaped tropical garden after a day’s snorkelling, swimming and sun worshipping on one of Anjajavy’s 12 private beaches. Amazingly, the entire beach had been reserved especially for us.

The hotel is bordered on one side by the white coral sands and turquoise sea of the Indian Ocean and on the other by a forest that is home to many of the world’s most endangered and exotic animal species, the vast majority of which exist nowhere else in the world. On the previous afternoon we had walked to an underground cave less than half-an-hour away in the forest, where we came face-to-face with the fossilised skull of a species of giant lemur that became extinct more than 400 years ago.

Cédric’s family first came to Madagascar 120 years ago and as well as being a tireless and attentive host, he is clearly also passionate about the island, its people and its wildlife. “Over the last 20 years new species have been discovered in Madagascar at the rate of one per week, some on this very peninsula,” he told us.

“This property was built 12 years ago and the site was very carefully chosen. We are isolated like an island alone with the sea and nature and there is no pollution either from towns or industry for more than a hundred miles on either side. You arrived by small plane because there are no roads and just three surrounding coastal villages which use the sea for transportation. We hire almost all our staff from these neighbouring villages and it is because of them that the hotel is able to thrive. We buy their produce and make a very significant contribution to the local economy which in turn is vital for the conservation of the environment as the villagers know they have a stake in keeping it pristine.”

As if on cue, we were interrupted by a scream of delight coming from one of the honeymoon couples sitting at a nearby table. We looked up to see a sight that Cédric sees nearly every week of his life but which we will probably never see again. A pair of Coquerel’s sifaka lemurs were literally dancing across the lawn between us, bouncing on their back legs with giant leaps, their arms outstretched and their huge black leathery palms wide open as if in an act of worship.

Before we knew it they were ensconced high up in the branches of a nearby tree, gazing down at us with benign curiosity through their bright, circular orange eyes. This particular lemur species, one of more than a hundred in Madagascar, was one of the most striking that we saw during our stay, with dense, white fur and brown “sleeve” markings on their arms and legs. Little did they know that they had set our hearts beating in a way that would have eluded even a Valentino or a Nureyev in their prime.

Madagascar is an evolutionary miracle. Splitting off from mainland Africa around 90 million years ago through the movement of tectonic plates, its flora and fauna evolved independently of everything that was happening on its vast continental neighbour.

In many ways, the process has been like a giant experiment resulting in a surreal animal utopia.

There are no super-predators like the lion in Africa, no snakes that are deadly to man, while many of the creatures that we saw, from bugs to chameleons to the lemurs themselves, seemed touched by the supernatural. Sadly, the only fly in the ointment – and a rather big fly at that – is man himself. Human activities have destroyed around 90 per cent of the original forests and with it the habitat on which the wildlife depends for survival.

Our journey began in the east of the island, a four-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo, where we visited Vakona Forest Lodge to explore the montane and coastal rainforest in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Here we morphed into chameleons of the heart, as we fell head over heels in love with each new species that we saw.

First there was the giraffe weevil with its massive articulated neck and metallic red body like a miniature construction crane; then there were the chameleons with their stereoscopic, individually mobile eyes and catapult tongues as long as their bodies; the painted frogs with Jackson Pollock markings; not forgetting that giant canary-yellow comet moth with a 10-inch wingspan that landed on a branch as we walked by. Even the massive squeeze-the-life-out-you boa constrictor that nearly stopped our hearts as it slithered across our path during a night forest walk had us clutching each other as much out of excitement as fear.

As wildlife junkies who have travelled all over southern Africa in our quest for the exotic and the bizarre, the creatures that that we didn’t see also left us yearning for more. The fossa, for example, Madagascar’s largest carnivorous mammal, looks like something between a cat and a mongoose while, tragically, the aye-aye, a nocturnal lemur with a fleshless middle finger and ghostly features that is thought to be a harbinger of evil, is in danger of becoming extinct.

But as well as the phenomenal diversity of the wildlife, we will remember the Malagasay people with equal affection. Despite the subsistence-level poverty of much of the island, there is a warmth and an absence of materialist values, particularly in the rural areas, that is in marked contrast to much of mainland Africa.

We experienced this innate cheerfulness most dramatically during our visit to Mandrare River Camp and Manafiafy Lodge in the southeast near the port of Fort Dauphin. Both camps are very comfortable, spacious and well-managed and run on sound environmental principles. But the special ingredient that makes them so unique is their locations, overlooking a river and a bay respectively, and their links with the local people.

The Ifotaka Community Forest adjacent to the Mandrare River is as remote as it is wild and covers a huge expanse of gallery (deciduous) and spiny (desert) forest protected for generations by the local Antandroy tribe. Driving from camp through the local villages to the river, we gazed out from beneath a giant banyan tree on an almost biblical scene.

At the time of our visit, in May, the river was at its lowest level and much of the riverbed was exposed, wooden carts pulled by donkeys making their way between seasonal crops of yams as the women washed clothes in the sections of the river that were still running.

On the far bank we visited the ancient burial grounds in the forests that are sacred to the ancestors. “The people here spend about three-quarters of their income on rituals to do with the dead,” Andreas, our guide, told us. “For the Antandroy people, keeping the ancestors happy is the only way they can find happiness themselves.”

Exploring these sacred areas, we were careful to observe the strict rules of “fady”, the Malagasy system of taboo forms of behaviour, enshrined in the Three Ps: “No pointing, no picking up and no peeing!” As a way of protecting the environment it is hard to beat and the forests were alive with huge numbers of rare species of lemurs and chameleons.

Our penultimate stop was Constance Tsarabanjina in the Indian Ocean, 65 kilometres off the coast of Nosy Be in the far north, where we indulged in the pure untouched pleasures of an island resort that has won many prizes for the standard of its service and accommodation. The island is uninhabited apart from the lodge and its two white-sand beaches exceeded all the usual expectations of a tropical island paradise.

We filled our days swimming, eating, snorkelling and kayaking and on one afternoon, headed out with the resort’s dive instructor, Ricardo, for a dive on the Tétons, a labyrinth of multi-coloured coral reefs. Beneath the water, the locals were almost as extraordinary as those above, and we saw huge shoals of jack, crocodile and scorpion fish as well as a balloon fish in fully inflated party mode.

No visitor leaves Madagascar untouched. Its contradictions, its poverty and its historical environmental catastrophes seem effortlessly cast aside by its resilient people, its unique cultural heritage and, of course, the evolutionary miracle of the huge number of rare and quite breathtaking species that still survive. You never know what the future holds, so go now.

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