Where zebus and lemurs roam

From howling Indri indri to stir-fried eel, Martin Symington explores the magnificent menagerie that is Madagascar

You are scarcely off the plane before the Frenchness grabs you. "Passeport, s'il vous plait, M'sieur"; "Bienvenue M'sieur, deux mille francs!; "Taxi, M'sieur?". The RN4 from Antananarivo airport to Centre- Ville is a phalanx of decrepit Renault 4s and Citroen trucks, weaving between handcarts, rickshaws and marauding zebus - Madagascar's imperious- looking, humped, long-horned cattle. Roadside tin shacks selling crusty baguettes and other things are called Boulangerie this and Epicerie that.

My hotel, the Tana Plaza, is on a broad boulevard lined with jacaranda trees and pink colonial buildings with wrought-iron balconies. There is an old town - the haute ville, perched on a hill and crowned by the burnt- out shell of the Queen's palace. The throngs below are beggars, tradesmen, children riding makeshift wooden go-carts and hawkers of coconuts and toys made from old condensed-milk cans. On dirty, untended squares, men play petanque wrapped up in coats against the slight chill of altitude.

Malagasy people are a rich bouillabaisse of races. First, there are the "Merina" - almond-eyed, cafe creme-complexioned descendants of Polynesians who were the island's first inhabitants, from about 2,000 years ago, and are still effectively the ruling tribe. Africans, Indians, Arabs, Chinese and Europeans, including the French who ruled till 1960, arrived later. Most people's appearance suggests a gene or two from each.

From Tana (as the capital is commonly known), we head east into the Central Highlands in a hulking 4X4 with our earnest and knowledgeable guide Jeannicq, a zoology student, and driver Jean-Baptiste, who had learnt just enough English to introduce himself as "John the Baptist". We pass signs warning of locust plagues; and others offering wild honey for sale in recycled Coke and Johnnie Walker bottles.

We snaked through a brilliant, lush landscape of mango and banana plantations and hillsides green as croquet lawns, terraced into jumbled jigsaws of watery paddy bordered by scribbles of red earth. Men and women were knee- deep, ploughing behind zebu or planting seedlings. Others were using hand- held nets in the hope of catching frogs and eels in the drainage canals.

We stopped and bought a pair of eels, each about 2ft long, which a woman was dangling from a stick by the roadside. A little further on, the keeper of a humble hotely (local restaurant) was willing to stir-fry them with onions and ginger for us. The result: a rebarbative concoction of spines and slime. However, Jeannicq lapped up his helping and told us, for good measure, about other rural delicacies. "Have you ever tried zebu bull's penis?" he asked.

At Perinet Reserve we met our first lemurs, the primates which attract naturalists and tourists from around the world. We trudged through a rainforest of palisander trees and tangles of undergrowth smelling of wild coffee behind a local guide playing cassette recordings of bizarre noises. The idea was to locate the Indri indri, one of the rarest and weirdest lemur species, by triggering its territorial warning call.

The reply was a series of long, haunting and uncannily loud wails, like a cross between an ambulance and a muezzin. To me, the noise had intimations of the supernatural. It can be heard from two miles away, according to Jeannicq. We trained binoculars on the treetops where a family of the black-and-white furry creatures with pointed ears, the adults about 4ft long, were sprawled across the branches with their heads back and red mouths open, emitting their howls.

We found carnivorous pitcher- plants which lure their prey into tall, jug-like flowers filled with sticky poison; snake traps built by ant colonies; orange frogs and chameleons with independently swivelling eyes. "One eye sees into the future, the other into the past," the guide explained.

This few square kilometres of forest also turned out to be a walk-in pharmacy for Ombiasas, the traditional medicine men. Our guide plucked berries and leaves which cure toothache, diabetes and lethargy, stripped some bark which staves off malaria, and extracted some sap useful for cauterising wounds.

A good Ombiasa, we learnt from Jeannicq as we journeyed on towards the Indian Ocean, is as adept at righting misfortunes as bodily ills. A fady, or taboo, can be prescribed which may be dietary - such as not to eat goat or pork - but can also take you into the muddy realms where superstition and religion meet cultural practices whose origins are long forgotten.

In some places, for example, it is fady to sing while you are eating, lest your teeth grow into fangs; in others, you should avoid whistling when walking past a particular sacred tree. Among one tribal group, fathers must circumcise their four-year-old sons then load the foreskins into a gun and blast them into the air.

Death and the after-life are an obsession. For example, we chanced on a famadihana - a "turning of the bones" ceremony; about 20 family members in rustic clothes were eating, drinking, singing and dancing by the roadside as they paraded aloft the remains of a 20-years-dead relative, wrapped in a white shroud. The dead are not departed, apparently, and need a good party.

The Frenchness that had struck me on arrival had evaporated the moment we had left Tana.

Jeannicq, who has never left Madagascar, talked candidly about the conflict between his life as a scientist and the belief system which is as commonplace to the world he grew up in as it is strange to ours. No doubt my questions, based on a little knowledge of Madagascar, sounded as extraordinary as some of his to me: "In Scotland, is inter-marriage permitted between different clans?" he asked me at one point. Or, "Is it true that Muslim women may not join the Royal Navy?".

At Tamatave, on the Indian Ocean, we bade farewell to John the Baptist with a little joke about heads on plates being a British fady. We took a short, propeller-plane hop across to a cocktail of tropical-island cliches on Ile Sainte Marie. Coral reefs, dazzling white sand shaded by swaying coconut fronds, palm-thatched holiday bungalows, European tourists lazing in hammocks, and dusky waitresses with flowers in their hair bearing trays of rum punch and fruit.

The island could have been in any sea between Cancer and Capricorn, except that there was a zebu-strangling taking place on a clearing behind my hotel. An islander had returned home after an absence of 20 years. In celebration, a bull would be slaughtered and feasted upon. But first, young men must display their bravado by leaping onto its bucking back and staying there until others immobilised it.

The final leg of my trip was a flight down to Fort Dauphin on the island's raw, wind-harassed south coast. There, fishermen put out to sea in wooden outrigger canoes, despite the beach being strewn with the skeletons of ships wrecked in these treacherous waters.

Children were tobogganing down grassy slopes in an upturned turtle carapace, but there was little entertainment here for tourists. We had come because nearby Berenty reserve is a main stop on the lemur circuit. Sure enough, we saw fluffy white sifakas, and ring-tailed lemurs with black-and-white tails erect like fans waving Newcastle United scarves. In contrast with the Indri indris, these creatures were cuddly toys.

MADAGASCAR

GETTING THERE

The author was a guest of Okavango Tours and Safaris (tel: 0181-343 3283), which can organise itineraries, using Antananarivo-based ground operator Rova Tours. A two-week trip with return flights to Antananarivo, via Paris, transfers, half-board, ground transport with drivers and guides, costs about pounds 2,200 to pounds 2,500, based on two sharing. Air Madagascar (tel: 01293 596665) offers return flights from London, via Paris, from pounds 725 until 14 July.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact Madagascar Honorary Consulate, 16 Lanark Mansions, Pennard Road, London W12 8DT (tel: 0181-746 0133).

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